TB blog: “Making Dystopia”

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“Dystopia” (evil.wikia.com)

Here is my Traditional Building blog post from last month, shortly after I received a review copy of Making Dystopia.


I’ve only just received a review copy of Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, by James Stevens Curl. His title does not mince words. His publisher, Oxford University Press, offers instant credibility. The book will not just rattle the cage of modern architecture, it will shake modern architecture to its foundation, and speed the collapse of a cult that has the world by the throat.

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Making Dystopia, Oxford University Press

Or it should. Great condemnations of modern architecture, literary attempts to help common sense regain its superiority over folly, have tried and failed before.

This is not a review because I have not yet finished the book. I am only beginning Chapter 1, “Origins of a Catastrophe,” but here is a pungent passage from the preface regarding the “yawning chasm between architectural criticism and the facts of architectural history.” For example:

Whole generations have been informed that works by distinguished Arts-and-Crafts architects were “pioneering” designs of the Modern Movement, which is simply untrue, as anyone who really looks clear-sightedly at buildings by C.R. Mackintosh, C.F.A. Voysey, and others would immediately be able to understand. It is a curious problem, but it suggests that those who uncritically accepted such assertions are unable to use their eyes, and can only believe what they are told: indeed, they are not looking at all, but are superimposing the opinions of others, overlaying what they could see with what others wish them to see. In other words, they look with their ears.

Skinny-dipping in Dystopia’s great cleansing bath of debunkation suggests to me that no previous exposé of modern architecture has been more thorough in its examination of the cult’s bogus historical narrative. Apparently, even as they plotted the rejection of all previous architectural history, modernists were making up a history of their own that painted a distinct evolution from “sources” in the past. Architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner was the fictioneer-in-chief. Stevens Curl puts the lie to all his hogwash.

Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement, he writes, was highly selective to the point of distortion, and included individuals who themselves objected to being seen as “pioneers” of a movement they regarded as an abomination. … Numerous hagiographies of the so-called “pioneers” Pevnsner canonized have been published [and] largely observed “through Pevsner-approved Bauhaus-tinted spectacles,” as the late Roderick Gradidge sagely observed.

Stevens Curl puts all of this under a stern microscope. “Making Dystopia,” writes the late architectural historian David Watkin, of Cambridge, is “the most gripping and complete account of how architecture and urban planning were corrupted in the twentieth and twenty-first century, leading to a catastrophic deterioration of the built environment.”

The author, a scholar at Oxford and elsewhere with 40 volumes of architectural history under his belt, including the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture (2016), is far from the first to notice that modern architecture does not add up – its founding ideas are ridiculous; its history makes no sense; its buildings do not behave more efficiently, as claimed, than those of the past; and only those with personal or career interests in the fields of architecture, art and design claim to find them attractive.

Among the first to point out the obvious was Henry Hope Reed’s The Golden City (1959), which juxtaposed modernist buildings in New York City against the classical buildings razed to make way for them. No words necessary. (Not that Reed failed to provide them.) He eventually founded the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (originally Classical America) to fight back against modernism.

Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House (1982) was the first attack upon modern architecture directed at a mass audience. Wolfe described in his inimitable fashion the cuckoo clocks who founded modern architecture. His descriptions of the intellectual competition among various “compounds” of modernists leading up to and beyond World War II described them accurately, effectively ridiculing them with their own words and designs. Bauhaus became a bestseller, and remains widely read, but modern architecture has failed to go out of print.

Steven Semes, a leading architectural theorist at Notre Dame’s classically based school of architecture, wrote The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation (2009). It remains the most comprehensive effort to describe straightforwardly why modern architecture has failed to create a humane built environment, and what to do about it. But it has not become a bestseller, and modern architecture marches on.

These are merely my three favorite critiques of modern architecture. Many other books have played important roles in exposing the myths of modern architecture. One of them, Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture (2011), by Malcolm Millais, is a bible of mine. Boom! Boom! Boom! Gone? Not. Or his recently published Le Corbusier: The Dishonest Architect. Oh, yes, anything by University of Texas mathematician Nikos Salingaros. And there are so many more. Yet modern architecture continues to survive its embarrassment, in part because modern architecture simply is not listening. Or seeing. It is blind, deaf and dumb. And we all know it. Yet it leaps from peak to peak in its destruction of our world. Why?

However important ideas and the books that spread them must be to a revival of good sense in our built environment, I fear that only through politics will the job be accomplished. But politicians do not seem the least bit interested in the livability of cities as an issue. There must be a vital missing link between ideas and a jumpstarting of change and reform that can refloat the ship of architecture. I hope to find it in Making Dystopia so that we can unmake dystopia. First, I must read the book.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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8 Responses to TB blog: “Making Dystopia”

  1. Doc says:

    It is truly quite simple.. Modernism is a product of lifeless Communism.. Further, it is defended in the same manner that communism is defended.


  2. To Robert Kwolek,

    I mentioned the incongruity of even those critics/reviewers who are sympathetic to Curl’s book, yet don’t wish to challenge the hegemony of modernist thought in our society. See David’s previous essay “Aslet on classicism’s future”, 4 September 2018. Things just don’t add up logically.

    Hostile reviewers, by contrast, are totally consistent with a destructive, totalitarian view of the world. No need to mention names, since there is a wide uniformity of (negative) expression. You only need to look up their previous writings to find ecstatic praise for dead architectural forms.



    • I think I will discuss the proper response to the modernists when I post, soon, an excellent review of Stern’s two Yale colleges by Mark Alan Hewitt on Common/Edge. Is it better to gently criticize in the hope of seeking to moderate the modernists’ hatred of tradition, or is it better to criticize strenuously under the assumption that the modernists aren’t listening anyway, and you are trying to persuade the rest of the world? Good question! In fact, critiques of every sort are inevitable, so if you disagree with one strategy, be sure that someone else will be pursuing the other.


  3. steve bass says:

    Just a slight word of correction – Henry Reed and Arthur Ross founded Classical America, I believe back in the 60’s, in part as a reaction to the demo of Penn station, but the ICAA was founded separately in 1991 by Don Rattner and Richard Cameron, and later merged with CA, with HHR’s approval.
    Looking forward to your review of Curl’s book – beyond the savage critique of Modernism it raises all kinds of interesting questions about the future of architectural aesthetics.


    • Steve, you are not the only one who found my abbreviation of that history (of which I am very well aware) too abbreviated! No less a personage than Henry Reed’s nephew, Andrew Reed, kindly reminded me of the same history.


  4. There was a hack job review of the book in the Spectator a while back: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2018/08/modernist-architecture-isnt-barbarous-but-the-blinkered-rejection-of-it-is/
    The modernists will never give up, they’re intent on destroying all that is still good on this earth.


    • Erik Bootsma says:

      I wonder if Bayley actually read the book, since every one of his substantive charges is refuted in the text. As for the unsubstantiated ones they’re just plain trash.

      I note that Bayley appears to live in a Georgian house himself, yet constantly tells us how great it is to live in glass.


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