Architecture’s Three Stooges

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Le Corbusier’s Unite d’habitation (1952), in Marseille, France. (mimoa.eu)

Theodore Dalrymple, a British physician, psychiatrist and theorist of society, culture and design, has written a review of James Stevens Curl’s new book Making Dystopia for the New English Review. Dalrymple calls the book “essential, uncompromising, learned,” and especially devastating in its comprehensive critique of modern architecture’s founding lunatics – oops, I mean theorists: the Swiss/French Le Corbusier, and the Germans Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.

In like fashion, as [Dystopia] makes beautifully clear, the modernists were adept at claiming both that their architecture was a logical development of and aesthetic successor to classical Greek architecture and utterly new and unprecedented. The latter, of course, was nearer the mark: they created buildings that, not only in theory but in actual practice, were incompatible with all that had gone before, and intentionally so. Any single one of their buildings could, and often did, lay waste a townscape, with devastating consequences. What had previously been a source of pride for inhabitants became a source of impotent despair. Corbusier’s books are littered with references to the Parthenon and other great monuments of architectural genius: but how anybody can see anything in common between the Parthenon and the Unité d’habitation …, other than that both are the product of human labor, defeats me.

But of course nothing will come of nothing: architectural modernism has a pre-history just as it has its baleful successors. Professor Curl traces both with panache and erudition and shows that the almost universally accepted history of modernism is actually assiduous propaganda rather than history, resulting not merely in untruth but the opposite of truth. Thus both William Morris and C.F.A. Voysey were claimed by apologists for modernism as progenitors of it, though this is fantastically unlikely to anyone with eyes to see, and Voysey explicitly detested modernism, among other things saying that it was pitifully full of faults and vulgarly aggressive. Nevertheless, [Nikolaus] Pevsner, the great architectural historian, who once called for architecture to be called totalitarian, insisted that Voysey was a precursor of modernism, thus implying that he knew better what Voysey was about than Voysey himself knew.

The widely accepted narrative of modernism a la Gropius is that it was some kind of logical or ineluctable development from the Arts and Crafts movement. This seems to be utterly fantastic: it is like saying that Mickey Spillane is a logical or ineluctable outgrowth of Montesquieu. … Moreover, claiming respectable ancestors is somewhat at variance with equal claims to be starting from zero (as Gropius put it), but such a contradiction is hardly noticed by the grand narrative history of modernism that Professor Curl attacks and destroys.

(Both the professor and his reviewer are far too kind to the modernists. I have taken the liberty of referring to modern architecture’s three leading founders as its Three Stooges. I could not resist, though arguably the Stooges were far more intelligent, would have designed far better buildings, and certainly wrecked far less havoc on the world. I make no apology for using the word lunatics to refer to the three founding modernists.)

Making Dystopia will be available in the U.S. on Oct. 23, though it may be purchased elsewhere, including online through its British publisher, Oxford University Press.

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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others 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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6 Responses to Architecture’s Three Stooges

  1. To add to my reply below to Duo Dickinson’s dislike of my calling the modernists names, I would add that the only reason it is “hard to get anything built” is that everyone, including the developers, knows in their hearts that what is being built is horrific, so the indifference of the public only adds to the difficulty represented by the indifference of the developers themselves. Between the two, and even though the developers stand to make money, a sluggishness overtakes every aspect of the design and development processes and the political process required to push it through.

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  2. Milton W. Grenfell says:

    At long last the Mods are being called out for what they really are. It’s as if architecture is having its own “MeToo” moment. Take no prisoners.

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    • Your wish, Milton, is my command. I would add to my reply to Duo below that my calling out the modernists via ridicule diminishes my argument against modernism only if name-calling is my only debating strategy. My case, along with Curl and others, is not against some segment of society at large that happens to like (or has become accustomed to) modern architecture. It is against an embedded establishment, an establishment that itself oppresses and excludes “the different” and “the other” – that is, the people who disagree with it – and by means far harsher than name calling.

      I hope you are right that, with Professor Curl’s book leading the charge, architecture is having its MeToo moment. I vow to take no prisoners.

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  3. Name calling of the different undermines your beliefs. The impact of any movement only happens when enough folk are compelled to support those at the front of the movement: in this way the unending reruns of The Three Stooges reflect a viable TV audience, and the unending popularity of High Modern architecture is simply because some love it. The beliefs of others can be confronted with your beliefs, but ascribing farcical caricatures upon those who do not believe what you do trivializes your commentary. I could not design as those you call “stooges” do, but I know how hard it is to get anything built, no “stooge” could get it done: so the intended humor fails to be humorous…

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    • Moe says:

      Why I oughta…!

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    • I don’t imagine, Duo, that my calling the three founding modernists the Three Stooges will either strengthen or undermine my case against them, but it may lighten a moment for those who have been brutalized by modern architecture for more than half a century. I do not believe High Modernism is popular, let alone unendingly so. Some love it; some who profess to love it do so for careerist or social reasons; most hate it, and with extraordinarily good reason. I reiterate my statement that the Stooges could have built architecture superior to Corbu, Gropius and Mies. It is not only true but obviously true. I will concede that I owe the Stooges an apology for comparing them, however sarcastically, to three people who are undeniably monsters for what they have intentionally inflicted on the world.

      I think Moe has the last and best word!

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