Modern architecture is crazy

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Le Corbusier, born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, was a pioneer of modern architecture. (AP)

Among the most recent revelations of science in the service of architecture is that three of the most eminent founders of modern architecture suffered from mental illness. Le Corbusier was on the autism spectrum while Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Architect/researcher Ann Sussman, who has done much of the heavy lifting in this narrow field, argues that illness made them, as she says, “literally unable to process visual stimuli normally.” This affected their architecture, and, to the extent that their architecture led architecture’s departure from tradition, it helped shape the nature of that departure – which came to dominate the field in the 1950s and still does today, despite widespread skepticism among the public toward the result.

Sussman’s theory has not shattered the world of modern architecture, any more than has Malcolm Millais’s latest book, Le Corbusier, the Dishonest Architect. Revelations of this magnitude about a field’s fundamental narrative would have triggered a big rethink in any normal industry. But unlike every other field of human endeavor, architecture has developed a filter, cult-like in its rigor, to shield practitioners from alternative thinking.

So the architectural establishment has merely ignored and most architects have not even heard the bad news about their field’s most revered founders.

The first major response that I’m aware of to Sussman’s revelations comes from the website CityLab, associated with Atlantic magazine. “The Perils of Diagnosing Modernism,” by Darran Anderson, the author of Imaginary Cities, attempts to rebut “The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture,” an article on the Common\Edge website by Sussman and co-author Katie Chen. “Their questions and tools are useful,” writes Anderson, “but there’s danger in mistaking one piece of a puzzle for its entirety.”

This is a powerful rebuttal of Sussman’s headline but a weak rebuttal of her theory, which does concede that mental illness is just one factor in the development of modern architecture. In the first paragraph, she states:

History holds that modernism was the idealistic impulse that emerged out of the physical, moral and spiritual wreckage of the First World War. While there were other factors at work as well, this explanation, though undoubtedly true, tells an incomplete picture.

I believe that Sussman gives the factors of idealism and war’s wreckage too much credit for the rise of modern architecture, but she certainly has not tried to replace those factors with that of mental illness. After conceding the plausibility of Sussman’s theory, Anderson proceeds to argue that even if they do exist, the manifestations of mental illness she identifies are countered by other aspects of the founders’ work and writings. He goes on to argue that modern architecture predated Le Corbusier. He concludes with a ringing defense of the ideals of modern architecture.

The following examples focus on Corbusier rather than Gropius (Anderson does not mention Mies). “Le Corbusier,” he admits, “was emotionally remote and aesthetically austere.”

Yet this distance was always balanced with a desire to connect, having once said, “I felt [on a visit to Italy] an authentic human aspiration was gratified here; silence, solitude, but also daily contact with mortals.” Most comfortable being guarded, he nevertheless repeatedly placed the utmost importance on “enjoying the life-giving force of love and friendship.”

Not exactly a party-hearty kinda guy, to be sure, and yet a reading of Millais’s book on Corbusier would raise doubts about the balance Anderson claims to see. Millais writes that Corbusier’s record as a husband and friend was one of disloyalty, and his attitude toward intellectual and professional partners and his treatment of clients was one of betrayal and dishonesty. Deeds are usually stronger evidence than words.

Anderson then continues his defense of Corbusier’s architecture against the charges of austerity and remoteness, two major autistic indicators.

He lived an ascetic life and admired the lifestyle of the monks of Mount Athos—there is certainly something of the monastic cell to some of Le Corbusier’s designs. Yet these weren’t stark prisons so much as attempts to create sanctuaries amidst the clamor and chaos of modern life. “Where order reigns,” Le Corbusier wrote in Towards a New Architecture (1923), “well-being follows.”

It is fair to suggest that those used to traditional houses and apartments might consider Corbusier’s versions to indeed be akin to monastic cells and even prison cells. Certainly a reconceptualization of traditional habitations was not required to give people the ability to avoid the “clamor and chaos of modern life.” Next, Anderson chides Corbusier’s critics for taking his austere “machine for living” quote out of context.

When it is [read in context], it reveals a more humanistic side, “A house is a machine for living in. Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion. An armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on.”

C’mon now! As if contemporaneous traditional houses did not feature such qualities. Leaping from a line in Corbu’s writing to the idea that his dwellings are humanistic, or at least more so than typical houses, is an exercise in self- deception. Actually, the “machine for living” quote out of context reflects the truth of Corbu’s sensibility better than the quote in context, which amounts to a lie. Another Corbusier quote from Anderson’s piece states that

“To be able to think, or meditate, after the day’s work is essential. But in order to become a center of creative thought, the home must take on an absolutely new character.”

Why does creative thought require a house of “an absolutely new character”? The fact is that it does not. Corbusier merely asserts with consummate dash and absurdity that it does, and that’s enough for Anderson (and countless other acolytes) to swill the Kool-Aid without an ounce of critical analysis.

Anderson’s defense is peppered with such assertions, which will sway most architects, readers of CityLab and others familiar with the Corbusier myth. The many thousands of books and articles about Corbusier ignore or slide by his flaws. But most historians and scholars of the modernist movement are aware of the blemishes of his record and character; however, it is professional suicide to refer to them publicly. A few books have been published in recent years about Le Corbusier’s Nazi sympathies. They are ignored by the popular and architectural press. Corbusier remains spotless to most architects and the reading public, and continues as architecture’s most treasured icon.

Likewise, consider Anderson’s assertion that modern architecture was being developed before Corbusier and Gropius arrived on the scene.

In Europe, the transition towards minimal architecture had been going on for so long there had already been generational schisms, backlashes, and synthesises. There were already architectural masterpieces in this spirit including Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple (1896-99), Josef Hoffmann’s Sanatorium Purkersdorf (1904-5) and Stoclet Palace (begun in 1905), and Adolf Loos’s Steiner House (1910).

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But his examples can be used to make the opposite case. For example, the Maison du Peuple (1899) by Victor Horta, is not minimalist or orderly. It has large windows. Indeed, it could be used to argue that modern architecture takes liberties with history by arguing that it was first to make use of large windows. The Maison du Peuple is a good example of a common practice among modernist historians. Take a traditional building with a feature that eventually figured in modern architecture and claim it as a precursor of modernism when in fact it is merely a traditional building that has evolved to include large windows. Part of this process is to ignore great swaths of traditional architecture that does not fit into the modernist narrative. The modernists like to pretend not to notice historical evidence that traditional architecture has always evolved with advancements in technology.

Other examples adduced by Anderson of pre-Corbu modernism can arouse the same sort of skepticism. So no, modern architecture did not spring fully formed from the heads of Corbusier or the other founders. But Corbusier, Gropius and Mies did pull together into a movement the largely inchoate set of trends toward greater simplicity, more glass and less ornament. Gropius and Mies led the Bauhaus school (Mies even tried to get Hitler to embrace modernism as the design template for the Third Reich). And whatever may be said of his architecture, Corbusier’s flair for self-promotion surely helped to sell the movement for over four decades. And all of what they did was influenced by the psychology of their minds, including the extent to which they were mentally ill.

Adolf Loos certainly preceded Corbu et al. Anderson did not fail to yoke him into his rebuttal of Sussman and of traditional architecture.

In Ornament and Crime (1910), [Loos] announced, “Soon the streets of the town will glisten like white walls. Like Zion, the holy city, the metropolis of heaven. Then we shall have fulfillment.” There was a logic to his messianic proclamations; he recognized that times were changing fast and architecture needed to adapt. It made little sense to spend time and effort carving details into stone on buildings whose function would soon change.

Arguably the function of buildings would change, but that does not mean they needed to change. To argue from result to cause is poor logic and, in this case, the most circular of reasoning. And it is debatable that the function of buildings actually changed. Architecture’s role as protective enclosure for human activity remains essentially the same. Yes, late in the history of architecture, the need for train stations, airports and some other types of building arose, but as early versions of the former demonstrate, they did not need to be designed in a modernist style. Think Penn Station!

(Has there ever been a traditional or even a classical airport?)

And yet even in this piece by Anderson the perfervid attack on decoration – one might say on beauty itself – plows on and on.

World War I had a colossal impact on architecture, as it did every aspect of Western life. We may now view the prewar imperial societies with a nostalgic, pastel Wes Anderson filter, but there was little enthusiasm or money to begin building palaces or carving heraldic symbols for regimes that had sent millions of young men to be mutilated in the trenches.

Again, architecture if not necessarily its function did change – not after World War I so much as after World War II. Modern architecture was a novelty throughout the 1920s. Traditional architecture continued to flourish. Architects embraced embellishment for decades after Western societies had (rightly) decided to blame themselves and their political systems, and not their architecture, for the mass slaughter of the conflict. Most people and most societies were happy to stick to the traditional reverence for beauty.

Anderson may not be aware that even broader scientific research, led by mathematician and theorist Nikos Salingaros at the University of Texas in San Antonio, has found a neurobiological explanation for the public’s preference for traditionally styled buildings. The pleasure we get from ornamental detail is hardwired into our brain by evolutionary changes that stretch back to early man’s need for detailed environmental cognition to stay alive. Modernism’s ban on decoration flies directly in the face of our intuitive requirement for more, not less, information.

As late as 1931, in the The American Mercury, H.L. Mencken wrote,

The New Architecture seems to be making little progress in the United States. … A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier, would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration.

Alas! How sadly wrong was the Sage of Baltimore!

Again, architecture did change, but there’s no evidence that it had to change. What happened was that bad architecture, founded on shaky principles, pushed its way into an established industry because niche elements of society in several Western countries embraced the fallacy that change – a rejection of hundreds of years of successful practice – was necessary in architecture. There is no evidence for this, let alone proof.

Were Corbu, Grope and Mies mentally ill? It would be difficult to prove. Given the very dubious quality of modern architecture’s founding ideas, it would be equally difficult to disprove. Sussman’s theory does not necessarily prove that the leading men of modern architecture were mentally ill, but she did not need to prove that modern architecture is crazy.

Just look around you.

For all its erudition, Darran Anderson’s critique of Ann Sussman’s theory fails to pass a smell test that everyone can see.

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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6 Responses to Modern architecture is crazy

  1. Pingback: Talk about talk about buildings | Architecture Here and There

  2. petervanerp says:

    I visited La Tourette in 1980. The monk who lead us around said that he felt like a fish in water in Corbu’s austere concrete. So there, at least, there was a coherence between architect and client, unlike at the Villa Savoye. Perhaps, by then, he also learned how to keep the water out.

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  3. Bill Dennis says:

    Many traditional air terminals in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Often in Deco or Streamline Moderne style. Many early California terminals were Spanish Revival – see Santa Barbara Airport. Croydon Airport was a very Classical Building. And then there variations like Albuquerque in Pueblo Revival (including the new terminal done in the 1970’s).

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    • petervanerp says:

      The original Hillsgrove Terminal at what is now T.F. Green Airport was also built in a simple Moderne style. It was still there, the last time I drove by.

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  4. Daniel Morales says:

    Nice take down of Anderson’s sophistry. I wouldn’t have equated autism with mental illness, I see Corb and his ilk more like Trump, simply taking advantage of an opening they saw in the marketplace to position themselves, but there is surely something misanthropic about their work. Take a look at Mies and Corbu’s early work. Very mediocre traditional work in the vein of national romanticism. Their abrupt change was clearly a very successful marketing exercise.

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    • Opportunism, yes. They took advantage of opportunities inherent in disrupted societies to foist modernism on the world by blaming the buildings for WWI. Stupid to be sure – also crazy? I assume that autism is a form of mental disorder, or illness, or abnormality, whatever – I’m not a doctor.

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