Mumford’s words of warning

“The Bridge,” etching, 1976, by the Czech artist Jan Souček (1941-2008)

Here is a passage from Lewis Mumford’s essay “The Case Against ‘Modern Architecture'” in the April 1962 issue of Architectural Record:

In so far as modern architecture has succeeded in expressing modern life, it has done better in calling attention to its lapses, its rigidities, its failures, than in bringing out, with the aid of the architect’s creative imagination, its immense latent potentialities. The modern architect has yet to come to grips with the multidimensional realities of the actual world. He has made himself at home with mechanical processes, which favor rapid commercial exploitation, and with anonymous repetitive bureaucratic forms, like the high-rise apartment or office building, which lend themselves with mathematical simplicity to financial manipulation. But he has no philosophy that does justice to organic functions or human purposes, and that attempts to build a more comprehensive order in which the machine, instead of dominating our life and demanding ever heavier sacrifices in the present fashion, will become a supple instrument for humane design, to be used, modified, or on occasion rejected at will.

Lewish Mumford. (nndb.com)

Lewish Mumford. (nndb.com)

The critic Charles Jencks called this “the first shot of Post-Modernism in the style wars.” He said that coming from the venerable Mumford and “being comprehensive … it ruffled a few significant feathers.” But Mumford supported modern architecture in the end, and looked down his nose at attempts to recapture architecture’s past greatness. He may have been the first of many subsequent writers on architecture to notice modernism’s flaws only to ignore them and cry out for more modern architecture.

Here’s some more from “The Case Against.”:

Unfortunately, this interpretation of the new mechanical possibilities was in itself dominated by a superficial aesthetic, which sought to make the new buildings look as if they respected the machine, no matter what the material or methods of construction; and it was this superficial aesthetic, openly proclaiming its indifference to actual mechanical and biological functions or human purposes … that was formally put forward … as the International Style.

Mumford had nothing if not a comprehensive mind. As the writer of many books on architecture, culture and history, as the writer of “The Sky Line” column for more than 30 years in The New Yorker, Mumford had clout. He may be forgiven for looking down at us from the clouds. He may not, perhaps, be forgiven for ignoring his own warnings.

James Howard Kunstler’s excellent new essay, “Bang, You’re Dead,” on the connection between our society’s angst, its built environment and the recent shootings in Oregon, lays out the wider problem facing the nation:

The physical setting of American life composed of a failing suburban sprawl pattern for daily living — the perfect set-up for making community impossible — obliterates the secondary layer of socialization beyond the family. This is life in the strip-mall wilderness of our country, which has gotten to be mostly of where people live.

I would add, and I’m sure Kunstler would agree, that modern architecture’s blankness and sterility, from its suburban housing pods to its downtown corporate towers, represents the sensibility that is the problem in Kunstler’s broad social scenario – the powers that be, the establishment, cares not a hoot for the rest of us, and has little capacity to think about let alone to address the nation’s problems.

Recently I sought to engage the governor’s office in Rhode Island to turn away from the cult of the machine and toward architecture people love. The Ocean State’s “brand” is its beauty, after all. And Little Rhody is little. A small voice can make a difference. Right? Wrong. The governor’s people were uninterested. Kunstler, despairing that anyone in Washington can even conceive of what’s wrong in this country, put it this way:

President Obama and whatever else passes for authority in America these days won’t even talk about that. They don’t have a vocabulary for it. They don’t understand how it works and what it’s doing to the nation.

If only America had listened to Mumford. If only Mumford had listened to Mumford.

[The top image, showing the traditional world and the modernist world separated by a “bridge” that connects neither. It illustrates an essay, “The Case Against the Modernist Regime in Design Education,” by Jan Michl, of Norway.]

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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One Response to Mumford’s words of warning

  1. Pingback: “Architect, bury your mistake” | Architecture Here and There

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