Modernist fundamentalism

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Florence, one of many world historic cities that grew organically. (wimdu.ca)

Soon after I posted “General Motors’ America” yesterday, I yearned for a deeper understanding of the reason why GM so avidly embraced modernist concepts of design and planning. So it was good to receive from architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros a copy of an essay, “A Vision for Architecture as More Than the Sum of its Parts,” that he and urbanologist Michael Mehaffy wrote back in 2013. They posit that modern architecture is based on what they call “geometrical fundamentalism,” which they describe this way:

“Geometrical fundamentalism” is, we argued, a fervent ideological belief in the urgent necessity to denude the human environment of all but abstract, putatively “rational” forms, composed into one-off works of art — lines, planes, cubes, and the like — in the misguided belief that these are actually more advanced and “modern” — hence “Modernism”. (But as we will discuss, they are not more advanced, but in fact are dangerously primitive.) In that essay we only briefly referred to the origins of this peculiar but pervasive kind of fundamentalism, and its profound impact on today’s human and natural environment.

They continue:

In particular, a perennially dominant school of “modernist” architects, energized by a heady mix of economic power and quixotic idealism, became essentially co-opted by industrial interests. Their role in the new economic-industrial regime was to serve as fervent boosters of this denuding practice, by peddling a bogus marketing image of a utopian industrial future. Despite cycles of criticism and disavowal, their legacy continues unabated today, in the many “rococo” variants of modernist design.

Here is where General Motors and its “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York come in:

[T]he rapacious industrialization of the environment came packaged in a marketing campaign aimed squarely at consumers’ deepest Freudian desires and fears. Perhaps the most seductive marketing concept of all, on display to such powerful effect at the General Motors diorama at the 1939 World’s Fair, was the allure of an exciting new technological future. This intoxicating “futurism” was a concept pioneered by Le Corbusier and other early modernist architects. Industrial behemoths like General Motors readily understood the seductive appeal of this exciting technological novelty — New! Improved!

But a related concept, no less attractive to General Motors, was that anything older — like old streetcar lines, or the streets and street-friendly buildings on which they ran — were intolerably old-fashioned. The streetcar lines must be bought up and demolished; the inner-city neighborhoods, with their tight walkable streets, must be abandoned.

This legacy, they say, continues today. Not all is lost, however. Mankind still has choices and makes them – can barely avoid making them, consciously, or not. They write:

We conclude on a hopeful assertion: that real choice does in fact exist for a more bottom-up, evolutionary approach to planning and design, one that offers the basis of a new era of ecological humanism in architecture, at a time when such a reform is desperately needed.

The article by Salingaros and Mehaffy goes into considerable detail about the nature of geometrical fundamentalism, its history, and how it unfolds in almost every aspect of our daily lives. Reading the whole article admirably places yesterday’s post about General Motors and the Federal Highway System into a scientific context, one that should help those interested in reversing past mistakes in the built environment.

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Houston, a city that has grown inorganically. (houstonagentmagazine.com)

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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2 Responses to Modernist fundamentalism

  1. Pingback: The challenges from the World – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

  2. Bin Jiang says:

    Thanks David for the blog!
    It reminds me of the classic “A City Is not a Tree” by Christopher Alexander. A similar statement can be said – A Building Is not a Box. Instead, both cities and buildings are living structures, demonstrating scaling hierarchy of far more small things than large ones. In this paper, I illustrated that a city (Avignon), as well as a building complex (Alhambra), is a complex network – a typical living structure: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/282272777_A_City_Is_a_Complex_Network

    Like

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