[Review by David Brussat of Making Dystopia, by James Stevens Curl. Oxford University Press. 592 pages. U.S. publication date Oct. 23, 2018.]
Modern architecture has hoaxed the world for well over half a century. Charlatans bred the founding modernist frauds in Europe and exported the virus to America by framing a false narrative of flight from the Nazis. High society here swallowed the story hook, line and sinker, and handed to the “refugees” top academic posts at Harvard, etc., where, with the connivance of industrialists, they applied their propaganda, learned from the left and the right in prewar Europe, to effect an entirely unnecessary and unwarranted capture of American architecture and city planning. They used monopoly power to squelch dissent and to inflict a catastrophic urbanism on helpless populations, first in the West and then around the globe.
In Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, architectural historian James Stevens Curl exposes this tragedy and the immoral theories and practices of its proponents. He reveals damning facts about the founding modernists and their proclivities. He drags the truth from hidey-holes maintained by generations of design clerisy quite aware of how bad it would look if their secrets ever saw the light of day.
Dystopia is their worst nightmare. Stevens Curl’s book lets a thousand cats out of a thousand bags.
Published by the Oxford University Press, this volume should inspire a major rethink, a revaluation of values, a revival of old home truths whose outcome, if successful, will rank right up with the transformation of defeated Axis powers into peaceful democracies after World War II, the return to normalcy of post-communist societies in Eastern Europe and (far from complete) Russia, and the awakening of populations around the world to the fragility of the natural environment.
The fragility of the built environment is only just dawning on human societies. Centuries of architectural evolution addressed the shifting needs of cities with the latest practices and technologies that never required shoving beauty aside. Then, after World War I, it was determined by a surprisingly small coterie of disgruntled architects that comprehensive change in how to build cities was necessary. In the years after World War II, the agents of change captured architecture’s establishment. But modern architecture failed to perform as its founders predicted. In democracies, at least, the public’s deep dislike from the beginning for modernist design should have served as a natural restraint on societies’ embrace of what Stevens Curl properly calls “totalitarian dystopia.”
Yet what does it matter, it might be asked, when enormous numbers of people seem oblivious to their surroundings? They simply do not notice, and anyway are too absorbed with their mobile phones to bother with urban scenery. Their reality exists somewhere else. I think it does matter: ugliness, incessant noise, inhumane surroundings cut off from contact with Nature, a disagreeable and dangerous habitat, and a throwaway society based on advertising and spectacle are inimical to the human spirit, devaluing life and blunting sensibilities.
Unlike many critics of modern architecture, Stevens Curl attempts to recall what has been lost in the headlong rush into a nihilistic recalibration of human habitation. Don’t think merely of the fabric demolished by modern architecture’s rude interruption of the profession’s progress. Think, too, of how practice, benefiting from generations of energy and creativity wasted by modernism, could have achieved higher and higher levels of virtuosity in the arts and techniques of city building. The only losers would have been the tourism councils of cities like Paris that have spent decades feeding off the world’s shrinking supply of beauty. Though no longer monopolies of beauty, they would have grown more lovely alongside every other city and town. Assuming that beauty has net positive rather than negative influences on life and the spirit of place, citizens the world over might have experienced a more healthy culture, one in which peace, comity, and the quest to solve societies’ longstanding problems might very well have been more readily achieved. Instead of fostering an instinctive defense mechanism to tune out our built environment, humane placemaking could have brought more happiness to all citizens.
This is a plausible summary of the magnitude of the opportunity cost of the history that has in fact beset the world, as described by Stevens Curl’s book, and of the importance of trying to recapture what has been lost.
The author begins with a concise and yet comprehensive critique of the soundness of the ideas at the foundation of modern architecture. Among its many other flaws, he exposes the fundamental contradiction between Bauhaus director Walter Gropius’s commandment that modernism “start from zero” and architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner’s discovery of “pioneers” or “precursors” to modernist design among the great architects of the 19th century. Either it’s a break with the past or it’s not.
Stevens Curl shows how the influential Pevsner purposely misinterpreted the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau, labeling as pioneers architects such as C.F.A. Voysey who disputed the historian’s analyses of their buildings; tracing modernism back to details of work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and others he appears to have imagined outright; and ousting from the historical record the work of well-known architects that did not fit in his narrative. Stevens Curl quotes Pevsner’s passage applauding the “world of science and technique, of speed and danger, of hard struggle and no personal security, that is glorified in Gropius’s architecture.” Stevens Curl adds that “Pevsner seems to have been mesmerized by Gropius’s personality and physical presence.” Tom Wolfe’s moniker for Gropius, in From Bauhaus to Our House, was “The Silver Fox.”
Stevens Curl cites Pevsner as having “had the grace to admit in print that Voysey was ‘cross’ with him for ‘having discussed his work as pioneer work of the twentieth century style’ which he ‘disliked.’ ” The author takes Pevsner apart quote by damning quote, yet without seeming altogether angry at him. Indeed, later on, Stevens Curl seems to treat such movement icons as Erich Mendelsohn and Philip Johnson with kid gloves because both were apostates. The lines of Mendelsohn buildings were too curvy for modernist hard-liners. Johnson seemed, later in his career, to make a sport of rejecting successive modernist fashions. But they were modernists after all. Mendelsohn was also treated poorly by some modernists for being Jewish. Johnson, to whom Stevens Curl attributes the leading role in pushing modern architecture in the United States, was close to the Nazis in Germany and fascist groups in America during the late ’30s. He accompanied Hitler’s troops into Poland, seeming, according to correspondent William L. Shirer, more a minder than a reporter. Stevens Curl darkly notes Johnson’s “National Socialist sympathies” and “anti-Semitic tendencies.” Johnson was “titillated by the aesthetics and sexuality” of the Nazis, an obituary quoted by Stevens Curl points out. On the other hand, the relationships of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier with the Nazis and Vichy collaborators get the full brunt of Stevens Curl’s disdain, as does the hand-in-glove relationship of the Bauhaus school and early modernism with Marxist-Leninism.
Among the great contributions of Dystopia is its exposure of modern architecture’s relationship with the Nazis. This has been purposely hidden from the public and scholars. Lately, however, the stonewall has sprung leaks. Stevens Curl makes good use of the pathbreaking Le Corbusier: The Dishonest Architect (2017), by Malcolm Millais, a pair of 2015 exposés, in French, of Corbusier, and Elaine Hochman’s brilliant exposure, two decades earlier, of Mies’s relationship with the Hitler regime in Architects of Fortune (1990). Mies’s attempt to persuade Hitler, through Goebbels, to accept modernism as the stylistic template of the Third Reich says a whole lot more about modernism than does its predictable rejection by Hitler. Anyhow, Stevens Curl makes much of the extensive use by the Nazis of modernist design for utilitarian buildings, a fact implicitly denied by generations of apologists for modern architecture.
To this day, the public remains cowed by convenient and longstanding myths about the founders’ relationships with the Nazis, such as the closing of the Bauhaus, or the supposedly exculpatory need of architects living in the Third Reich to seek employment from whatever clients were available. Stevens Curl sums up part of his indictment:
The National-Socialist Government did not close down the Bauhaus (in fact, it was prepared to let it continue provided certain conditions were met): the decision was that of Mies and his colleagues.
Nor did Mies either encourage emigration or himself leave Germany: on the contrary, he and many other Bauhausler sought accommodation with National Socialism. Modernists like Mies hoped their “progressive” ideas would be eagerly accepted by the revolutionary New Order … .
Although some traditional architects cringe when the Nazi subject is raised, it is vital to slay the Big Lie enabled by these myths, and in particular the notion that Hitler’s embrace of classical architecture means that all who hate Hitler must hate classical architecture and oppose its design and construction in today’s world. That idea, simple but wrong, has colored the thinking of many architects. This particular attitude exemplifies the deconstructivist ideas that have infected modernism, planting doubts that delegitimize the language and institutions of Western culture and society. Most modernists are unfamiliar with these ideas, but merely by erecting a modernist building they have unwittingly helped to undermine Western culture and alienate populations from their cities and nations.
As Stevens Curl points out, tradition continued to dominate architecture in every nation through the 1920s and ’30s. H.L. Mencken wrote in 1931 that “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.” Even Hitler did not really face a “choice” between classicism and modernism; the latter was a newly birthed, experimental niche style, whereas classicism had been the default style for all major civic design in European nations for centuries. Modern architecture was not even officially introduced in America until the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibit on the International Style. The exhibit was put on in 1932 by the aforementioned Johnson, then curator of architecture at MoMA, joined by its first director, Alfred Barr, and architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock.
The natural and appropriate attitudes of Allied governments and publics toward the defeated Nazis were manipulated in a highly successful Cold War effort by the U.S. government of the late ’40s and ’50s to use architecture as a foil against the Soviets. A most riveting chapter in Making Dystopia treats the convolutions of this manipulation. The association of modernism with communism and the left was flipped, using the Big Lie that demonized traditional architecture as fascistic. The goal, in Stevens Curl’s meticulous telling, was to use modernism to illustrate the superior liberalism of American capitalism. In the process, the reputation of traditional architecture attained a bad odor among the American elite. Johnson, MoMA and the CIA were involved in this switcheroo, which sought to paint America as more progressive and creative than the Soviet Union in the fight for the hearts and minds of Europe during the Cold War.
Thomas W. Braden had been MoMA’s executive secretary (1948-49) before joining the CIA in 1950 to supervise its cultural activities, and was a key figure in the important role played by MoMA in the Cold War. Modernism was promoted as the “perfect contrast” to the “regimented, traditional and narrow” nature of Socialist Realism, and when cultural propaganda played its part during the Cold War, the functions of both the CIA’s “cultural apparatus” and MoMA’s international programs were “similar, and, in fact, mutually supportive.”
As for MoMA’s Barr, he is described as “the éminence gris behind Johnson the impresario, the publicist, the advocate, the showman” of modernism:
Barr denounced the art and architecture of National-Socialist Germany and of the Soviet Union, arguing that totalitarianism and realism were bedfellows, but that abstract art was feared and prohibited by such regimes, ergo the Modern Movement was on the side of democracy. This curiously warped notion proved very useful in the promotion of Modernism and its advocates. Intelligent Cold Warriors such as Braden realized that “dissenting intellectuals” who believed themselves to be acting freely could become useful stooges in the international propaganda war.
As this propaganda war was being waged on the international scene, its major tenets, including modernism, machine worship and technocracy were being pushed on the U.S. domestic scene. “Without the massive clout of commerce,” Stevens Curl says, “it is doubtful if Modernism would have been so universally acceptable in the West … By the late 1920s huge American industrial concerns, such as General Motors, had grasped that planned obsolescence would be necessary to sustain mass-production.”
Cheap to build, swift to deteriorate – modern architecture clearly fits the bill. In the ’40s and ’50s General Motors built traveling exhibits to convince Americans that a better and more exciting future, with cars speeding down roads lined with buildings rebuilt with glass, steel and concrete, could replace the humdrum present. The author continues:
[I]ndustrial-strength propaganda was brought into play to represent housing, clothing, food and cars (the “fourth American necessity”) as essentials, and, as the director of research for General Motors, C.F. Kettering, observed, to make people dissatisfied with what they had. Architectural historians have tended to over-emphasize the roles of architectural theorists and historians, architects, critics, and government planners in making Modernism the orthodoxy in architecture and planning: tradition was purged from the practice of design, town planning and architectural/planning education; and artists and craftsmen were put out of business.
A review cannot but scratch the surface of the excellence of a great book. Its publication by the Oxford University Press imparts a credibility that cannot be gainsaid. Given its exhaustive scholarship in support of its thesis, it was originally expected by the author that reaction to the book from the usual establishment critics would be silence. And in a sense he was correct: no reviewer has addressed that thesis except by harrumphing or by resort to belittling the author’s prose. One critic found it “windy, overwritten, under-edited, repetitive and full of clichés.” Absurd. (I have decades of experience proofreading and I found zero typos in its 592 pages.) In fact, there are passages with too many lists of architects – often necessary in scholarly writing. Still, Stevens Curl’s occasionally complex sentence structure is well calculated to ease the difficulty of unraveling the convolutions of modernist thinking and the devious maneuvers to put modern architecture across in spite of what he proves are its manifest shortcomings. These maneuvers and their perpetrators, cloaked in dissimulation to mask their character, have been uncovered and effectively explained by Stevens Curl.
The modernist fraud failed with the public but succeeded with the elites. The public did not need to debunk the ridiculous case for modern architecture; it just used its eyes and saw it was ugly. To paraphrase many writers, it takes an expert to believe something as stupid as modern architecture. Well, they did, and the result is a global catastrophe.
So the other big objection of the critical establishment’s herd of independent minds is the author’s undisguised anger at this turn of events. Stevens Curl wields a “trembling arquebus,” writes one critic (admittedly, a great image). The author of Dystopia may be angry but he is not a machine. To show no emotional response to the global cataclysm of modern architecture would be to reveal a lack of judicial temperament. If anything, he is not angry enough. Given his subject, his tirades are almost in the vein of diplomacy. They are entertaining, and glow with the vitality of truth.
He has reason to be angered by what has happened but perhaps he is too skeptical of the possibilities for a revival of classicism amid a resumption, in a wider social context, of common sense. In fact, at the end of his book he offers a set of extraordinarily sensible reforms directed at architectural education, which is a mess. To propose such reforms is to express at least some degree of optimism. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, schools of architecture will not change until they are forced to change, and only renewed public interest in the local development process, and pressure applied to local developers and politicians – who have good reason to listen to the public – seems the least bit likely to rebalance the tilted playing field for major design commissions, and end classicism’s overreliance on the pocketbooks of rich people. What might bring that about is another matter entirely.
Stevens Curl’s book may be said to unpack some of these issues, but at a much higher level. Against his own pessimism he suggests that “a reaction may come sooner than some predict, and it may not be containable.” Making Dystopia mentions in passing the good work of a growing coterie of classical and traditional architects, including Robert A.M. Stern here and Robert Adam in Britain, and how the craft of building is being renewed by historic preservationists and craft-oriented schools. It is a beachhead, but that is vital. He ought to have written more about why the centuries-ensconced classical establishment, so innocent of modernism’s charges against it, barely lifted a finger in response to the modernist challenge that toppled its authority. To bring about a return of its influence, a broader decline in human affairs will probably need to be reversed:
What is missing from much debate about architecture today is empathy, respect for culture in the widest sense, understanding of history (including religion), recognition of the imperative of Nature as part of humankind’s habitat, and understanding the importance of expressions of gravity and stability in building design to induce calm and ease in those who have to live with the realized works of an architecture that denies gravity, that deliberately sets out to disturb, and that only respects itself.
The world cannot continue long amid a thought system that misunderstands, disregards and attacks the history of human society and culture as it has unfolded over at least two millennia. There are two kinds of architecture – that which respects nature and its regenerative principles, mimicking biological selection, bringing change that reflects best practices handed down from one generation to another, evolving by trial and error; and that which springs anew (at least in theory) from an unnatural lust for novelty that pays little heed to the knowledge gleaned from experimentation and still less to the needs of humans or humanity, a hubristic genuflection before a fake machine ethos that delivered only a bland metaphor for the efficiency it promised – a sort of GMO architecture. A once honorable profession must get back to basics, back to beauty, back to honesty so it can move forward into the future with a healthy boost from the past.
Among the choicest of many choice quotations in the book is Edmund Burke’s advice, from Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia may be the book that finally focuses a long overdue attention upon that sage advice.
[The following week I posted “More on ‘Making Dystopia.”]
https://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm?frm=189422&sec_id=189422 – Theodore Dalrymple
http://www.archnet-ijar.net/index.php/IJAR/article/view/1828/pdf – Nikos Salingaros