They cut the feedback loop.
Nobody has done a better job of explaining the persistence of modern architecture than does Roger Scruton in his review of James Stevens Curl’s new book, Making Dystopia. In his review, Scruton sums up with precision what Stevens Curl describes at length and in stunning detail in his book, subtitled “The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism.”
Here is Sir Roger’s explanation:
When people make mistakes and are distressed at the result, they will as a rule retrace their steps, discover where they went wrong, and try to correct the matter. That is what it means to be rational, and rationality is an evolutionary advantage, enabling our hypotheses to die in our stead, as Karl Popper famously put it. However, when decisions are made for others, by people who do not pay the cost when things go wrong, error has a tendency to become programmed into the system, since nobody has the incentive to rectify it. This is what happened with the rise of totalitarian government in the 20th century. And as James Stevens Curl shows, in this powerfully argued polemic, it is what happened when a handful of egotistical charlatans imposed modernist architecture on the rest of us, accompanying their cold-hearted and alienating forms on the people, whom they despised, with loud fanfares of self-applause.
Although modernist architecture has been hated by the mass of mankind from its first inception in the brains of Le Corbusier, Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and the rest of the gang, nobody has been able to put a stop to it, or to act on the obvious conclusion that we had better retrace our steps. A critical orthodoxy has arisen, animated by the very people who most need to be criticized, according to which the modern movement in architecture was historically necessary, uniquely functional, uniquely honest, and in any case morally correct. With a zealotry equal to that of the 17th century Puritans, the modernists took over the schools of architecture, the architectural press and the channels of critical communications, shouting their messages to the heavens, and condemning as ignorant and reactionary all those who showed the slightest hesitation in accepting it.
Scruton goes on to describe how the founding modernists were in bed with the communists and the Nazis:
What is interesting, and what comes out very clearly from this thoroughly researched account of the history and ideology of the modernist movement, is that the modernist pioneers were involved to a man (there were no women) in the communist and fascist ideologies of the day.
The modernists have tried to keep their totalitarian connection hidden. But it has come out, slowly but surely. Making Dystopia not only does a totally thorough job describing the phenomenon and its history, but has no qualms about calling modern architecture evil. Its founders learned propaganda from the master propagandists of the 20th century. The Bauhaus school was unabashedly communist under its founder, Walter Gropius. Goebbels helped Mies try to get Hitler to accept modernism as the style template for the Third Reich. During WWII, Le Corbusier was a planner for the Nazi collaborators in Vichy France. In its young adulthood, modern architecture’s guru was American architect Philip Johnson, who went to Germany in the 1930s as an acolyte of Hitler. And when he came back he supported Huey Long and Father Coughlin, the main U.S. proponents of authoritarianism. This all occurred after he curated the International Style exhibition at MoMA. The Nazi regime was more a cult than a government: modern architecture is more a cult than a profession. So the resemblance between fascist and modernist propaganda has been relentlessly pooh-poohed by modernism’s acolytes. Move along, please! There’s nothing to see here!
The book’s treatment in Britain is a good example of the intentionally broken feedback loop described in Scruton’s review. The architectural establishment attempted to ignore Making Dystopia at first, but the instant credibility provided by its publisher, Oxford University Press, has made that difficult, so reviewers for the major British newspapers, journals and architectural media have deployed falsehood and fake outrage as their chief critical tools. Anything to avoid addressing the book’s indictment forthrightly.
Stevens Curl has been a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects for six decades, but that has not prevented its leadership circles from trying to erase the author from RIBA’s version of the Kremlin balcony, including an über-petty review in the RIBA Journal. They crib from the text of Nikolaus Pevsner, fabricator of modernism’s false narrative: down the memory hole with any 19th century architect whose work casts doubt on modernism’s fictitious “evolution”! As for any 21st century skeptic, censorship’s the ticket. Whether through evasion or deceit, modern architecture’s leadership has ensured that, as Sir Roger puts it, “error has been programmed into the system.”
That’s why something so widely disliked since its inception a century ago has managed not just to maintain its grip on societies worldwide but to leap from summit to summit in its attempt to degrade life on Earth by killing the idea of beauty in architecture, the queen of arts. Which is why the subhead of James Stevens Curl’s riveting book, “The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism,” may truly be described as hyper-accurate.
Albert Stone was President of Swan Point Cemetery from 1896-1908 and designed the trolley shelter. William and Thomas Gilbane (my great grandfathers) worked with Stone, Carpenter and Wilson building many of their designs including the trolly shel
The Gilbanes built two identical homes at the corner of Hope and Doyle which they lived in for many years. Not sure who designed their homes.
I think, Bob, you once before referred to these two houses in an email or in a comment, but I thought you were referring to a pair of excellent brick houses on Olney just off Hope. Or do you refer now to different pair of houses on Doyle?
Perhaps an interesting short read, for the philosophically minded:
“Morality and architecture: evaluation of contemporary architectural practice
within the scope of the ontological hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer”.
Click to access 32.Helen-Tatla.pdf
For once I agree with at least part of what Scruton has to say. However it is not clear to me if you are dissing the RIBA building [which I like inside and out] as well as the institution, of which at least four of my family were members in C20
CSB – I am not dissing the building, which I kind of like, but pointing out its balcony and suggesting, perhaps, that RIBA does not seem to follow the advice of its own headquarters building, which has some nice ornament. I think RIBA has obviously declined over the past half century, since it has preferred modern architecture over traditional architecture rather than taking an even hand as such an organization ought to do. (The AIA here is no better.)
David – As you know I’m on Curl’s, Scruton’s and your side here but lest we overstate the case, three or four bullies and a couple of infamous dictators couldn’t have been the whole story. Modernism took over in almost all fields in the early 20th century. In architecture it was debated hotly for over a generation and many well trained classicists were worn down and eventually won over. Something much deeper and more complex must be going on here that will need to be brought to light in the coming years to account for modernism’s cult-like status. Issues of the rise of industrial capital and the trauma of WWI will also, in my opinion, need to be part of the story.
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Steve, I do not think I overstate but, if anything, understate the case. Three or four bullies and a couple of dictators were not the whole story, but they were a very, very large chunk of the story – which includes how and why, in the aftermath of WWI amid a terrible housing shortage, cities and nations chose to embark on a highly costly and unproven policy experiment to reconceptualize the field of architecture when building traditional would have been far less expensive. That is how architects knew how to build, after all. Retraining must have been very, very expensive. And no, most fields were not taken over by modernism. Art was. Advertising was. What others? Physics was – but was that really “modernism” or was it building on precedent as progress was defined in most fields – with an assist from an unusually febrile and hyper-rational mind (Einstein)?
Yes, many changes occurred after WWI, some rational and some irrational, and I think focusing on some crackpots and what they learned from some dictators as one of the more influential of the irrational changes makes explanatory sense – reaffirmed by the degree to which modernists have tried so hard to cover up so much of their backstory rather than celebrating it.
I agree!! PTSD – shell shock from WW1 – that’s been underreported. We now can diagnose Mies + Gropius (spent 4 years in trench at Western Front) with it; as well as 20+% of WW1 survivors acc’g to Yale Prof Jay Winter. (see link at bottom)
That’s what made Modern Architecture so different from thousands of years of building traditions before – it was put together by brains damaged from the 1st-industrialized-war the world had ever seen. After all, how could our brains handle it – they’d never seen anything like it before? We now also know that PTSD relationally compromises the brain – people with PTSD fragment + lose empathetic ability that’s abetted human survival for millennia.
You can read about how PTSD compromised relational + empathetic ability here – it’s one of the key reasons modern architecture feels ‘cold’ and unrelate-able; it was conceived by people who couldn’t relate. You can read about the science of PTSD relational impairment here:
And the article that details the brain disorders that gave us modern architecture – should we rename it – ‘mental architecture’ perhaps? is here:
LMK if you have ?s…happy to collaborate on further research as well, of course.