Brutalists are people, too

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This bridge at Thamesmead in London did not make it into my last post, on bridges. (m@)

Just very bad people.

How bad is detailed in an entertaining, if depressing, article on the Londonist website entitled “How Brutalism Scarred London.” The closest I can come to ripping off the veil of anonymity donned by the article’s author, who styles himself The Londonist, is that Will Noble is its features editor and Daniel Shore is its managing director. The Londonist website is the first global expansion of The Gothamist concept of websites about specific cities produced with wit. The Gothamist is about New York City.

In stating that the article is about “seven obscure men in suits [who] did more damage to London than the Luftwaffe,” The Londonist plagiarizes Prince Charles with the sincerest form of flattery. (In this case, the accusation of plagiarism as a form of imitation is an honorific.)

I expected to hear from The Londonist that Brutalists tended to live in nice old houses or apartment buildings. I did, but that’s widely known. And of course that they hold the occupants of their Brutalist buildings – many of whom are not there by choice – in contempt. That is true of almost all modern architects, of whom Brutalists are merely a subset.

I did not know that the British government gave Network Rail permission to tear down Euston Station, designed by Richard Seifert, in 2014. It has not happened yet, but we all know the wheels of justice grind slowly. I had not known that Seifert had “cynically littered London with over 600 low-spec variations on a shoebox.” Cynical may not be the best description of Seifert. The Londonist is being gentle. Worse words could be easily found. London is gigantic, so 600 concrete shoeboxes may not have wrecked the place single-handedly, but the deed may well entitle The Londonist to call him “the biggest offender of the seven” featured Brutalists. And that includes Ernö Goldfinger, who was so bad that Ian Fleming used his name for one of his most evil arch-villains in the James Bond novels and movies.

There’s plenty of bad to be spread around here, probably way further than the seven Brutalists in The Londonist’s bombsight. But for a start, readers will enjoy his tart descriptions.

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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7 Responses to Brutalists are people, too

  1. Pingback: Graffartists are not people | Architecture Here and There

  2. Nikos Salingaros says:

    David,

    These are basic questions that need to be answered — finally, after decades of silence. The delay is not only due to fear of talking about these matters, but because clinical data are only now becoming available.

    1. Building inhuman buildings is the fault of architectural culture. Clients follow what architectural culture dictates. While Peter is right, it is extremely difficult for an individual client to go against architectural culture.

    2. We have known for some time now that inhuman architectural expressions intuitively try to mimic human pathologies like brain and eye injuries. I talk about this in Chapter 4 of my book “A Theory of Architecture”.

    3. Ann Sussman presents hard evidence that the pioneers of modernist design suffered from pathologies, which influenced their designs. The parallel between deconstruction and schizophrenia is mentioned in my book “Anti-architecture and Deconstruction”.

    Therefore, while I greatly respect my friend Steven, I believe that the problem indeed goes as deep as human pathology. What was too frightening to contemplate up until now is that psychological conditioning can change the brain of normal students through neural plasticity, to make them think in an inhuman manner. Steven’s own personal experience seems to be consistent with the thesis.

    Kind regards,
    Nikos

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    • Between you, Nikos, and Steven, I am at a loss to choose, not that there are not connecting threads between the two sides on the issue of whether modern architecture’s problems are pathological. Just as there are threads of commonality connecting different “periods” in architectural history that architectural historians try to isolate by choosing to recognize what is different about buildings over what they have in common.

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  3. Steven Semes says:

    There have been attempts to link modernist architecture to human pathology before and it’s an easy argument to make (the recent biographies of Le Corbusier, for example), but I doubt it would be possible to give it any scientific or medical basis. Anecdotally, in my more-than- forty-year career in architecture, I would have to say that while many of the traditionalist (or just not-modernist) architects I know personally are a bit eccentric, even odd, I don’t know any who exhibit the meanness and contemptuousness of several prominent modernists of my acquaintance. I blame modernist architectural education which, in addition to drumming out of students any notion of common sense in design or relation between creativity and ethical obligation, also seems to promote personal qualities of self-promotion, naked ambition, egocentrism, narcissism, contempt for non-peers, and general nastiness. The academic experience carries over into the professional life. Naturally, there are exceptions on both sides and I do not for a moment mean to demean anyone, but this has been my personal experience.

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    • No, Steve, probably not possible to link modernist architecture to human pathology. Your perceptions gathered over decades nevertheless seem valid and on-point. I think it is probably modern architecture itself that either exposes the human failings that seem to characterize so many modernists, or the problematic qualities of modern architecture that attract people of dubious character to its practice. At its barest essential, modern architecture is all about rejecting the beautiful and humane qualities of traditional architecture that evolved naturally for hundreds and thousands of years. Weak, troubled individuals tend to embrace modern architecture, and then feed off the power of being associated with an exclusionary establishment to enhance their own otherwise negligible power and self-esteem. I know that’s armchair psychiatry, but it sounds right to me.

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  4. You are right, of course, Peter. The clients deserve the blame. But the architects deserve some of the blame for choosing to work in a modernist style. If they all worked in a beautiful style that people liked and that made it easier to create a more beautiful world, then the clients, big and small, would have no alternative but to make the world a better place – cheaply or expensively, a better place.

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  5. Both you and James Howard Kunstler put all the blame on the architects. You leave out the clients. The best architecture comes from the cooperation of the architect and client, and if a client wants cheap shit with a dressing of elegant verbiage to justify it, s/he can always find an architect to design it.

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