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.
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.