More on ‘Making Dystopia’

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Model of 1925 Plan Voisin by Le Corbusier to replace the Marais district of Paris. (Daily Beast)

A book whose vile subjects have grown used to shucking off well-framed attacks for decades, and yet whose stranglehold on establishment thinking has loosened in recent years, is naturally offended by what could be their coup de grâce. So it is natural that modernist architects shellacked by James Stevens Curl in his Making Dystopia (published by Oxford University Press) are fighting back, and fighting, as is their habit, dirty.

I mentioned in my review of the book last Friday that the usual suspects have pretty much ignored the book’s argument and argued instead against its prose style. Perhaps the most egregious was Stephen Bayley’s review in The (U.K.) Spectator, “Modernist architecture is not barbarous – but the blinkered rejection of it is.” Bayley writes:

It has a ‘Prolegomenon’ (yes, really), abundant Latin quotations, nearly 40 pages of preface and acknowledgments, 58 of dense endnotes and 42 of bibliography. Plus a prolix ‘Further Thoughts’ and a turgid epilogue. It is windy, overwritten, under-edited, repetitive and full of clichés. It is a book where ‘much ink has been spilled’.

How can Bayley possibly criticize the extensive documentation of extensive research? To give him credit, he is one of the few to deign to address the book’s theme. But his dismissal of the book’s prose amounts to fraud and is the reverse of what it deserves. Stevens Curl’s prose is engagingly rococo at times, well calculated to engage the reader’s mind with the convolutions of the modernist thinking he describes, the product of which he rightly (and diplomatically) calls “psychotic and “deranged.” 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.

At least the equal?! Psychotic and deranged are words that deeply understate the folly of Bayley’s article, not to mention the villainies of modern architecture.

Anthony Daniels has reviewed Dystopia, “Authoritarianism in cement and steel,” in the Australian journal Quadrant, and he takes particular aim at Bayley, who committed the debating error of conceding modernism’s appalling mistakes. Daniels quotes him, then cuts off his head:

Yes [writes Bayley], modernist principles, misunderstood by unimaginative planners, often led to atrocious results. [The founding modernist] Le Corbusier’s “vertical garden cities” became vertical slums. And there is only a sliver of difference between Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus ideals and a crap council estate.

Even overlooking the vulgarity of expression that seems now to be almost de rigueur in British journalism, this is a very curious passage, for again in essence it admits that Curl is right, although the author does not appear to realise it. Atrocious results, vertical slums, crap council estates: that is the legacy of Le Corbusier and Gropius on a huge scale.

Modern architecture is not merely unimaginative work by architects who misunderstand its principles. The work, from its best on down, is offensive to humanity, and intentionally so. To Corbusier, who is still a god to modernist practitioners, people were just ants, cogs in a machine-age future controlled by the master race – oops, the master builder. Daniels reminds readers of what the modernist clerisy has winked at for decades, that Corbusier had seriously proposed demolishing a swath of Paris, much of the Marais district, to make way for sterile concrete towers. Stevens Curl describes the Plan Voisin, which Corbusier unveiled in 1925 at the international exposition in Paris most famous for its introduction of Art Deco. Corbusier presented

a white box containing a model of the so-called Plan Voisin for Paris, an architectural and town-planning “time-bomb,” proposing the complete destruction of part of Paris east of the Louvre, and between Montmartre and the Seine, and its replacement with eighteen gigantic skyscrapers.

Daniels belabors what you might think is the obvious: “Intellectual, moral and aesthetic blindness can go no further”:

The ideals of the modernists? Totalitarianism and the view of Man as a termite or even bacterium was implicit in everything that they said and every­thing that they did: and again, I do not see how anybody could fail to see a totalitarian sensibility in their architecture. Le Corbusier detested the street because it escaped the supposedly “rational” control of the bureaucratic planner.

Modern architecture is so obviously wrong. While our elites embrace it, our popular culture often seems to reject it. Dystopian films always feature modern architecture, with the technocrat/oppressors inhabiting sterile towers and the oppressed scurrying underfoot amid the rubble of crumbling vernacular habitation. But from Orwell’s 1984 to the Star Wars series, this cinematic insight of movie directors is probably subconscious and unwitting.

Today, if any practitioner in any field, let alone an entire profession, had associated with the regimes and villains that modern architecture has, using totalitarian practices in their professional conduct, normalizing the dystopias inflicted upon society, their career would be over yesterday. Internal revolt would swiftly put a stop to the profession’s methods. Daniels concludes with a bolus of deserved contempt for the modernist absurdity and its fanboys such as Bayley:

Mr Bayley’s review ends, “At least the modernists … believed in life, in optimism, in making new.” That is the kind of thing that apologists for Bolshevism and Nazism said. But one has only to compare intramuros with extramuros Paris, the former with its multisecular glories and the latter with its Gropian, Miesian and Corbusian horrors, to grasp the scale of the modernist disaster.

It can be fun to administer justice to reprobates of this magnitude, as Stevens Curl has done, and it can be uplifting to be bastinadoed by the usual suspects for doing so. In actuality, however, Making Dystopia has been lauded by plenty of critics. One example is from Patricia Craig in the Times Literary Supplement of Oct. 12, which concludes, “This great book, in showing categorically, and cogently, what went wrong, makes an unarguable case.”

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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3 Responses to More on ‘Making Dystopia’

  1. leveveg says:

    Reblogged this on LeveVeg and commented:
    Arkitektstanden er vitterlig av de hovedansvarlige for at vi har blitt et narsissistisk samfunn og på god veg til å bli et narsopatisk. De har en absolutt nedlatende holdning til sine undersåtter, og er i ferd med å underlegge seg enhver topp og ås i vårt fedreland, og de blir rabiate psykopatiske bøller straks noen våger å tråkke dem litt på tærne. Godt vi har David Brussat, som tar til motmæle mot disse ignorantene på slikt brilliant vis!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Review: ‘Making Dystopia’ | Architecture Here and There

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