Bayley on Curl’s “Dystopia”

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Out of Balance: From the jacket art for Making Dystopia. (Drawn by J.S. Curl after A.W.N. Pugin)

Stephen Bayley, critic for The (U.K.) Spectator, has written “Modernist architecture is not barbarous – but the blinkered rejection of it is,” the second review (that I’ve seen so far) of James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism. The first was not serious. Jonathan Glancey praised its vigor and prose style in the Telegraph (behind its paywall), but his critique was in the line of “Oh well, nothing new here, architecture has been criticized for centuries.”

Another review, Richard Morrison’s in the London Times, opens with a joke: “I wish James Stevens Curl would stop sitting on the fence.” The subhead of his article reads, “This furious blast at modern architecture comes rather too late for our skylines.” Too true! But the rest of the review was behind a paywall as well.

More serious is Bayley’s attack on the book, published by Oxford University Press. He too argues that many have criticized architecture (modernist, that is) in the past. He quotes an author from the 1930s decrying it as a “godless conspiracy of foreigners, Jews and Bolsheviks.” But in the four chapters I’ve read, Stevens Curl seems not to be outlining a conspiracy but rather a deadly virus of gargantuan stupidity. Bayley disagrees:

The “moderns” were not a coherent gang of unlettered anarchists, bent on destroying history. They did not represent a “sundering, a cultural catastrophe, based on dissolution and unreason.” They were a very broad church. And his Manichean distinctions between modernists and traditionalists were not at all clear cut.

Bayley is free to voice that opinion, but it ill suits logic to then denounce the “nearly 40 pages of preface and acknowledgments, 58 of dense endnotes and 42 of bibliography” used by Stevens Curl to substantiate his case. The author shows the modernist program was meant to split architectural history’s past from its future. Its rationale for so doing is based on unreason, and obviously so. And perhaps modern architecture was “a very broad church”: excluding nothing at all except for all architecture before modernism. The value of Making Dystopia is that Stevens Curl backs up his case with damnation by quotation of the modernists themselves. They were not a “coherent gang” but an incoherent gang, or gangs, of rival cults and compounds. Whether they were anarchists or not, they were hell-bent on destroying history. At least they had that in common. And they have come close to succeeding.

I am just on Chapter 4, “Modernism in Germany After the 1914-18 War,” but what I’ve read so far is masterful in its compilation and arrangement (maybe arraignment would be a better word) of facts and texts. Modern architecture and its advocates are toast, or ought to be. “For example,” Bayley complains, “Nikolaus Pevsner, routinely damned as the modernists’ calculating Mephis-topheles, actually established architectural history as a proper academic discipline.” Yeah? But he did so by creating a false history that omitted work by architects who didn’t fit the narrative and twisted work by others so as to fit them in where they did not fit. Many complained at being anointed as “pioneers” of a style they could not abide. Stevens Curl has Pevsner nailed, adducing truckloads of examples, including Pevsner’s own words noting the traditional roots of buildings that he elsewhere claims have no such roots – such as the Glasgow School of Art by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. What remains of the historian in Pevsner undercuts his own scholarship.

Morrison, in the Times, describes Stevens Curl’s writing as “entertainingly apoplectic,” and I agree that it “reads like an outpouring of pent-up anger, contempt, revulsion and despair accumulated over decades.” Bayley seems to think there’s something wrong with that. No. Stevens Curl has every reason to be angry at the modernists – as does everyone in the world. Bayley writes:

Aiming his trembling arquebus at some sitting targets, Curl calls contemporary architecture “psychotic” and “deranged.” I have seen Louis Kahn’s India Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, the Farnsworth House in Illinois, Tadao Ando’s Naoshima, Foster’s Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, the Guggenheim in New York and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and do not find these psychotic or deranged at all. On the contrary, I find them fine, elegant and elevated expressions of the human spirit, at least the equal of the Parthenon or Chartres.

Huh? “At least the equal of the Parthenon or Chartres”?

And then:

[Stevens Curl] admires, quite correctly, the great achievements of Islamic, Gothic and south German rococo. These, he says, “express everything modernists hated and outlawed.” But that is nonsense.

Which is, of course, nonsense.

I’m sorry I misspoke at the beginning of this post. Bayley’s review is not serious. It is a string of inanities, non-sequiturs and, as Mencken would put it, the obviously not true. Bayley doth protest too much, and in so doing has confirmed the high qualities of James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia.

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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5 Responses to Bayley on Curl’s “Dystopia”

  1. Anonymous says:

    David,

    There is so much to comment upon here… Lies, propaganda, and agressive coverups flying all over the place, trying to defend the indefensible. I’m not in the least surprised, because it’s just what I expected as people are reacting with panic to James Stevens Curl’s new book. Everybody was basking complacently, and then it hit them like a pie in the face from the Three Stooges’ short films.

    But to compare Chartres and the Parthenon to a Miesian glass shed, that takes the cake! (Unfortunately not in the face.) The Bacardi Rum Factory was designed for Santiago de Cuba (unbuilt), later realized as the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Just a trivial change in function for a paradigmatically functionalist piece of architecture. The only question I had is what they did with the loading docks where trucks pulled up with the sugar cane.

    Cheers,
    Nikos

    Like

    • I think you are right. The modernist community has been taken aback. And without thinking they have begun to attack James when their most effective (and usual) response is merely to ignore any dissenting voice from outside of the modernist community. That’s what I thought they’d do. Hmm.

      Like

  2. Milton W. Grenfell says:

    David, your defense of Curl, and critique of his Modernist apologists with the elegant and eloquent use of latinate words (i.e. adduce, non sequitur) brought to mind a Latin phrase that succinctly sums up the arguments against Modernist architecture and planning : Res ipsa loquitur.

    Thanks,

    Milton

    Like

  3. Ethan Anthony says:

    Thank you David. I have ordered my own copy.

    Like

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