Dalrymple: Curl’s ‘Dystopia’

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The modern skyline of London. (elba-1.org.uk)

Theodore Dalrymple, the British prison doctor, psychiatrist and social critic, has written several reviews of James Stevens Curl’s book Making Dystopia, the most detailed and penetrating history of modern architecture written thus far. Each of Dalrymple’s several reviews seems intended to outdo its predecessors in their damnation of modern architecture. With “Crimes in Concrete,” published in the journal First Things, Dalrymple succeeds so well that he must now, it seems, cease and desist. Modern architecture cannot, it would seem, be pummeled more severely, even by the good doctor; yet, at the risk of stoking pity for the modernist dystopians, readers familiar with modernism’s terrible legacy see only justice in Dalrymple’s running up the score, and can only long for his next onslaught.

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(Oxford University Press)

I will do nothing more here but to quote some passages to encourage reading the entire essay. First, in describing the drive from France’s Charles de Gaulle Airport into Paris, Dalrymple debunks one of the central myths of modern architecture – that it’s less expensive.

Nor is this visual hell the consequence of the need to build cheaply. Where money is no object, contemporary architects, like the sleep of reason in Goya’s etching, bring forth monsters. The Tour Montparnasse (said to be the most hated building in Paris), the Centre Pompidou, the Opéra Bastille, the Musée du quai Branly, the new Philharmonie, do not owe their preternatural ugliness to lack of funds, but rather to the incapacity, one might say the ferocious unwillingness, of architects to build anything beautiful, and to their determination to leave their mark on the city as a dog leaves its mark on a tree

Just so. Next, Dalrymple praises the book in terms of condemning its subject:

Professor Curl’s magnum opus is both scholarly and polemical. He has been observing the onward march of modernism and its effects for sixty years and is justifiably outraged by it. British architects have managed to reverse the terms of the anarchist Bakunin’s dictum that the urge to destroy is also a creative urge: Their urge to create is also a destructive urge. I could give many concrete examples (no pun intended).

How did modern architecture overcome its obvious weaknesses? Well, Dystopia‘s subtitle is “The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism”:

Making Dystopia is not just a cri de coeur, however. It is a detailed account of the origins, rise, effect, and hegemony of architectural modernism and its successors, and of how architecture became (to a large extent) a hermetic cult that seals itself off from the criticism of hoi polloiamong whom is included Prince Charles—and established its dominance by a mixture of ­bureaucratic intrigue, intellectual terrorism, and appeal to raw ­political and financial interest.

Dalrymple returns to the cultishness of modern architecture later in his review, quoting a list of criteria for cults that Stevens Curl attributes in his book to Nikos Salingaros, an architectural theorist and professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who has worked closely with the theorist Christopher Alexander.

But Dalrymple’s just getting started. Central to Dystopia is Stevens Curl’s exposure of modern architecture’s totalitarian roots that have been hidden for decades by its most dedicated acolytes. Even supporters of new traditional architecture often cringe when this subject is broached – stirring up ancient history only creates rancor in the architectural discourse, right? And yet it must be done, I believe, because modernism is contributing to the human desensitization required to bring forth the authoritarian future for America and the world sought by some. Fighting against modern architecture is key to civilization’s fight against forces that would curtail our freedom and, with it, our quality of life going forward.

So what follows is a string of such edgy quotations from Dalrymple. The faint of heart should stop reading now.

After describing Stevens Curl on the goofy “new age” social practices within the Bauhaus (which is a century old this year), Dalrymple continues:

Far more important, however, was their early and inherent attraction to totalitarianism. As the author points out, Gropius and Miës van der Rohe had no objection to Nazism other than that the ­Nazis failed to commission work from them. Gropius was an opportunistic anti-Semitic snob who espoused communism until it was no longer convenient for his career. Miës sucked up to the Nazis as much as he was able. The fact that both of them emigrated from Germany has done much to obscure their accommodation with the Nazis and even allowed the modernists to pose as anti-Nazi—though the most important proponent of modernism in America, Philip Johnson, had for some years been a rank Nazi in more than merely nominal terms. Moreover, as Professor Curl points out, the Nazi aesthetic, like the communist, had much in common with modernism.

Dalrymple then describes Le Corbusier’s 1941 proposal to deport many thousands of Parisians to the countryside, made 16 years after his proposal, mentioned in the following passage, to destroy central Paris and replace it with skyscrapers in a park laced with highways:

To what kind of man could such a thought [the 1941 proposal] even have occurred, much less at such a time? Le Corbusier had the sensibility of a totalitarian dictator, as is evidenced by his Plan Voisin, by which he planned to turn much of Paris into a kind of Novosibirsk-­sur-Seine. He loathed streets and street life, because for him they represented disorder and spontaneity instead of discipline, strict hierarchy, and what he considered, in his highly limited and autistic way, rationality. Personally, I do not see how anybody could fail to detect his essential ­authoritarianism just by looking at his designs, even without knowing that he aspired to lay down the law for the architecture of the whole world—which, to a horrible extent, he managed to do.

It is at this point in his review that, to answer his own question, Dalrymple cites Curl’s/Salingaros’s thinking on the nature of the modernist cult. One of the characteristics of a cult is its refusal to brook criticism – a key aspect of the broader future dystopia that may be seen as an outgrowth of the culture of modern architecture. Here, noting the fury of the British architectural establishment at the publication of Dystopia, Dalrymple describes the effort by Britain’s version of the American Institute of Architects to browbeat its author into silence:

 The editor of the Royal Institute of British Architects Journal, Hugh Pearman, wrote a scathing but inaccurate review, whose very subtitle was a flagrant misrepresentation: If it’s not trad, he ain’t glad. In fact, in criticizing modernism and its successor movements, Curl is promoting no particular type of architecture, any more than if I criticize McDonald’s hamburgers I am saying that all cuisine should be French or Italian or anything else. Of course, Mr. Pearman has a right to his private opinion of the book, but as editor of the Institute’s Journal he must have known that he was, in effect, speaking ex cathedra for the British profession as a whole. This impression was reinforced when he printed no criticism of his own review but tweeted instead,

I’m getting loads of letters (mostly written on paper from elderly men with no email address) supporting the deranged recent writings of James Stevens Curl . . .

The fury against Curl, I suspect, was an implicit admission that he was right.

No room for doubt exists.

For those who read the whole essay, when you are done, if you are so moved, please read Dalrymple’s pathbreaking essay in a 2001 issue of City Journal entitled “The Uses of Corruption.” I link to it from my own post from January of 2018, “The uses of preservation.” Dalrymple compares British society to Italian society, explaining brilliantly, along the way, why architectural beauty and its preservation have been so important to the quality of life.

That essay will explain why I have bookended this extended quotation of passages from Dalrymple’s review of Making Dystopia with photographs of the current skylines of Rome and London. Here, in deference to the theme of Professor Curl’s excellent book, I have placed London first and Rome last.

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The modern skyline of Rome. (nh-hotels.net)

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics 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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5 Responses to Dalrymple: Curl’s ‘Dystopia’

  1. dccarletonjr says:

    I agree with much of your modernism critique, but I think you’re pushing the connection with totalitarianism too far. Both Hitler and Stalin embraced “traditional” architectural idioms realized megalomaniacally–Speer’s uber-monumental, “stripped” classicism and Stalin’s “wedding cake” neo-neo classicism. So I don’t think you can use the clearly reprehensible political leanings of people like Johnson, Corbu et al (who like all too many 1930s intellectuals got drawn into totalitarianism Utopianisms of various forms) to claim that modern architecture is irredeemably fascist or communist. It’s just not that simple.

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    • It is understandable, D.C., that people today have a hard time grasping the link between modern architecture and totalitarianism. It is not a “simple” connection but a very complicated and comprehensive connection that is difficult to deny when grasped in full.

      Let me try to give a brief summary of a few of the links, in reply to your own comment.

      First, Hitler and the Nazis did not choose “tradition” over “modernism” in any real sense. Tradition, in its many varieties, had been the default design motif for major architecture across Europe for hundreds of years. Modernism was an experimental niche style that had not caught on in Europe, not even in Germany. To frame that as Hitler “choosing” between two equally plausible alternatives is to misunderstand the situation.

      Mies van der Rohe while head of the Bauhaus, tried, with assistance from Goebbels, to get Hitler to embrace modernism as the design motif for the Third Reich. Hitler refused, but it says much that is damning about modernism that one of its founding theorists believed that it was a natural fit for the Nazis.

      Mies, Gropius and other modernists came to the U.S. in the late ’30s, but they were not driven out, as most believe, unless they were Jewish, which the founders were not. Modernism was okay under the Nazis for factories and utilitarian buildings, but the modernists wanted a bigger role, and thought they could get it in the U.S.

      They eventually took over architectural education here, and purged the schools of education in classical and traditional curricula. How they managed to do that, and to take over the establishment of the profession itself is a very complicated story that for the first time is told by Curl in his book. It involves G.M., the CIA, other centers of elite society in America, and several strands of the U.S. government’s strategy in the Cold War of trying to convince Europeans after WWII that the U.S. was (literally) more hip than the Soviets. This also had to do with buying into a machine-age design paradigm that had little or nothing to do with industrial efficiency, but rather the “look” of the future.

      I am concerned less about modern architecture’s ability to use totalitarian methods of propaganda learned under Hitler’s regime than I am concerned about its tendency, via the sterile and inhuman nature of the machine aesthetic, to push societies toward a numbed mindset that paves the way to authoritarian rule in a totalitarian society. We are already headed in that direction, though the future remains unforeseeable. (It may be that motion picture directors of futurist films such as “Star Wars” grasp this phenomenon best, whether directly or intuitively.)

      Very few modernist architects are aware of all this – for decades most have been as snookered as the rest of us about the founding principles of modern architecture. Still, they remain blinkered by the propaganda that remains – old vs. new, expensive vs. cheap, copying vs. creativity, and other tropes. But when architects today design a modernist building, it has the same dehumanizing affect on places and the humans that use them as it would if these modernist designers were fully aware of the founding principles. The principles are embodied by and baked into the range of modernist styles, so it is not required to know the principles in order to put them into practice.

      I hope this has been helpful. I agree that it is a complicated issue – but it is complicated mainly because so many people, both professionals and lay, are unaware of the basic history. Curl’s book and the reaction it has stirred, including the vitriol from modernists, will help educate many people. And then perhaps a reform of the architectural profession will, I hope, become more likely.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. leveveg says:

    Reblogged this on LeveVeg and commented:
    Hva skal man si. Annet enn at det er godt man har slike mennesker blant seg.

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  3. LazyReader says:

    Modern architecture isn’t a cult, worse it’s a sedative. The purpose of deconstructivism is to break down the established set or ignore the physical realities present in the nature/situation. Dull peoples perception of reality and they’ll accept anything you plop in front of them. Case in point, WTC 1 or the freedom tower, payed for out of nearly 3 billion in Federally insured dollars. A stretched chinese food container with a wire brush top.

    I wouldn’t call modern arch a cult yet since it’s popularity is more media saturated than ever. Inevitably cults implode, they are by their nature self-sabotaging, self-destruction of one kind or another, staff turnover is too high and the most prevalent the group is usually brought down by a former member that left the group.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps, Lazy R, modern architecture is a sedative in that so much of it is so boring that it puts you to sleep. But it is also a cult, for the many reasons Salingaros and Curl describe, and so far this one has lasted a century. The two phenomena are not mutually exclusive.

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