“Why Do People Hate Modern Architecture?” is a ten-minute video by Betty Chen, who posts from ARTiculations.com, an art supply shop in Toronto. Chen comes across as favorable to modern art and architecture. Indeed, the next video of hers on YouTube is “The Case for Brutalist Architecture.” That should be interesting. But give her some credit: she wants to explore why modern architecture is so widely disliked, and she seems to have an open mind. She has a fetching, self-deprecating style to her presentation of self on video, though in this video her voice seems somewhat less self-confident than in some of her others. I think I know why.
The defense of modern architecture often seems to involve self-criticism. I have a virtual shelf groaning under the weight of such “defenses.” Chen’s video will go on that shelf. Maybe that’s why she seems more tentative here. She may be saying things she does not really like to admit. Good for her.
She starts out asking why it is called “modern” architecture, a topic of several recent posts of my own. “Makes it kind of confusing,” she says, adding, “I didn’t come up with these terms.” Following a brief and somewhat dodgy history of modern architecture – after two world wars the need for a new architecture was “understandable”? Not so! – she brings in Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to explain, via Learning from Las Vegas, the broad reaction against it and the way forward. “It’s important to recall,” says Chen, “that Scott Brown and Venturi were not calling for a revival of historic styles. Their actual position was that sometimes it’s necessary to look backward at history and tradition in order to go forward.”
But isn’t that precisely what we do when we revive historical styles? Isn’t that how architecture evolved for centuries until the rise of modernism?
Of course it is. If Scott Brown and Venturi had written a book explaining the obvious, they would be hated by the architectural establishment and their books would go unread today. No student in architecture school would ever have heard of them. But they would have been right. And maybe the design elites might have been moved an iota or two by a more sensible scholarly outlook erupting from the Brutalist battlements of Yale, and eventually, someday, won over. The world would be a much happier place, or at least much more beautiful. Oh well.
Of course, in the end, ignoring her own indictment of modern architecture, Chen comes out against any sort of classical revival, and puts her money on compromise – more flexibility, please! – which is sure to make nobody happy.
I actually prefer the clarity of Chen’s many commenters. Though her video was published on YouTube as recently as Jan. 3 of this year, there already are 2,262 comments, almost entirely critical of modernism, to judge by the first hundred or so. Here’s one I like. Morrissey Kuc writes: “Currently live in a European city and i grew up in a modern city in Australia. No contest. modern cities are uglier.” Warms my heart.
Watch the video. Read the comments. Have a blast. It’s modernism versus modernism. Pass the popcorn! A house divided against itself cannot stand, said Lincoln. Maybe not, but some things take way too long to fall.