Old mods hard-wired to ugly

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These two buildings reflect typical attributes of traditional and modern architecture. (Sussman)

The two buildings above say all that needs to be said, really, about why traditional architecture is superior to modern architecture. Still, it is crucial to understand why modern architecture emerged in the first half of the last century, and why, despite its manifest flaws, it has been so tenacious in resisting a return to a more sensible architecture.

The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture,” by architect and biometric researcher Ann Sussman with recent Boston College grad Katie Chen, on the website Common/Edge, offers one very compelling explanation – that the leading founders of modern architecture had damaged brains whose incapacities were reflected in their new type of building design. I commend Common/Edge for running this explosive essay.

Sussman and Chen describe extensively the effect of autism on Le Corbusier and of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Both disorders involved damaged brains’ subconscious efforts to order the disorder of their minds. Both conditions cause sufferers to avoid human contact, and eye contact in particular. All three modernist icons liked the simplest wall surfaces (undecorated) and in particular avoided aspects of architecture in which certain arrangements of windows and doors resemble the human face – which, according to eye-tracking research, lures the attention of healthy brains above every other possible stimulus.

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How eyes focus on building in normal brains (left) versus autistic brains. (Sussman)

A person blind in his left eye might want the travel direction on two-way roads to be reversed to driver-on-left, but he would use a broader theory to argue his case in public. Likewise, Corbu, Grope, and Mies would probably not argue for eliminating ornament on buildings because blank walls make them feel more relaxed. They might not have been conscious of that. And if they were, doing so would be totally selfish. They would instead say that European colonialism and the World War I call for a new architecture to replace the old architecture in which (as they did say) a cupola on a gabled roof represents the crown on the head of a monarch. Modernism, they argue, is the summit of architectural history. No further evolution is required.

Naturally. But that doesn’t make their argument sensible. It was never plausible to blame the tragedies of European politics and global war on the design of buildings in general, not even of buildings where terrible decisions were made. A third grader could tell you that from the get-go. He might have a harder time rebutting the argument that buildings should be utilitarian rather than decorative. But by fourth grade he could certainly do it.

It remains unclear how highly sophisticated European and American societies fell for this insanity, kicking out centuries of established tradition and embarking on the entire reconfiguration of cities and towns the length and breadth of (at first) two continents – a very expensive proposition. But it certainly fills in a lot of blanks in architectural history to know that the three founding modernists all had brain disorders whose characteristic effects had driven them toward certain architectural “solutions.”

Of course, architecture based on aesthetics that diverge from the way the brain normally processes visual stimuli must be, in some way, irksome to the vast majority of people in the world. Most people still take the traditional form of buildings for granted, and feel cheated, in some degree, by buildings that contradict their expectations. I hope that understanding the illness-centered bias against tradition will help societies redirect architecture and urbanism toward a more healthy design of the built environment.

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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4 Responses to Old mods hard-wired to ugly

  1. David,

    I believe this article could be a game-changer (“paradigm shift” for us older readers), and hope it will connect the dots even for many Corbusier worshippers. I published my own puzzlement at Corbusier’s documented response to built complexity, which is totally opposite to that of normal people, and to the underlying mathematics. Now all of this is beginning to make sense.

    Cheers,
    Nikos

    Like

  2. Wow ! Perfectly written.

    Liked by 1 person

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