The trenches of modernism

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The Harvard Graduate Center (1949), by Walter Gropius. (

Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school, died fifty years ago today. A new biography is out, Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus, by Fiona MacCarthy. Two major houses published it simultaneously, Faber & Faber in the U.K. and the Harvard University Press in the U.S. In this, the centennial year of the Bauhaus, the book could only be a hagiography. Its conclusion: “Everyone wants to think of him as one of the world’s great architects; he wasn’t. He was one of the world’s great philosophers.”

Everyone?! Hey, don’t put me in that basket of deplorables.

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Walter Gropius

Nor Ann Sussman, the architect, writer and researcher who has explained how the three most notable founding modernist architects’ work was a direct expression of their mental illness – Le Corbusier of autism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe of PTSD, and Walter Gropius also of PTSD, post-traumatic-stress disorder, acquired in both cases from terrible combat experience in World War I.

MacCarthy’s book exhaustively recounts the history of Gropius’s wartime experiences (in which he won an Iron Cross), the history of his role in the founding of the Bauhaus and the “reform” of architectural education in America, and the history of his, shall we say, complex personal relationships (including his marriage to the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler). But the author fails to recognize or acknowledge the intimate connection, which she herself has described in horrifying detail, between his trauma and his architecture.

To oversimplify, sufferers of PTSD, their brains frozen in fear, seek relief from trauma’s confusions in simplicity, and simplification is the chief characteristic of modern versus traditional architecture – whose rejection was the purpose of the Bauhaus.

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Gropius House in Lincoln, Mass. (Wiki)

That the three modernists were psychologically abnormal is a long-accepted fact of their biographies. Sussman’s contribution has been to track scientifically the influence of these striking abnormalities upon their architectural sensibilities – and hence to show how illness is baked into the philosophy of their architecture. Her research tracking the human visual response to the blanknesses of modern architecture has strengthened the argument that human neurobiology causes the widespread preference for traditional architecture over modern architecture.

After her lectures, Sussman is often asked whether she is saying that all modernist architects are crazy. No, she responds, but they have all embraced crazy ideas. Today’s modernist architects are mostly ignorant of the original basis for those ideas, but the buildings they design reflect them all the same. The recent celebrations of the Bauhaus in magazines and museums reflect the cult status of modern architecture, as explicated by Nikos Salingaros, perhaps science’s foremost delineator of how neurobiology, not personal taste (as in “it’s just a matter of …”), determines architectural preferences.

Salingaros’s work may be the most trenchant, so to speak, explanation for how this great gap in MacCarthy’s book escaped detection by the editors at Harvard and Faber. This is what editors are paid for – to vet not just the grammar of a manuscript but its basic connection to reality (in the case of nonfiction). Shame on them. Why did they let this pass? Because modernism is a cult – it refuses to brook dissent. It is totalitarian. Even editors at major publishing houses are afraid to cross swords with modernism.

That Gropius wasn’t a great architect may be the understatement of the decade. The building atop this post, the Harvard Graduate Center (or the Gropius Complex – truly le mot juste!) completed in 1949, was the first major modernist university building in America. The Gropius House, completed in 1938, is the house he built for himself and his family. That says it all, does it not? At bottom is the Bauhaus school, built in 1925, whose alleged design by Gropius is challenged in James Stevens Curl’s pathbreaking new history of modern architecture, Making Dystopia (Oxford University Press, no less!).

By the way, Professor Curl reviewed the book for Jackdaw here.

Grope was a far greater architect than he was a philosopher. MacCarthy’s book pays no attention at all to the fact that Walter Gropius’s only legacy is the creation of modern dystopias that bleed happiness from human hearts around the world. No thinking person could or would accomplish that. In other words, to call her book a hagiography is an example of praise by faint damnation: In its essence, in its broad defense of a career dedicated to a Bauhaus legacy that is indefensible, it is disconnected from reality.

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The Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany. (landlopers.com)

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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21 Responses to The trenches of modernism

  1. Pingback: The trenches of modernism — Architecture Here and There | countrymeadowsdesigns

  2. John says:

    From the work Anti-architecture of Salingaros:

    “One has to ask: what are the generative processes that produced this form, and are they relevant to architecture?”

    This is a brilliant line which not only applies to architecture, but to all areas of life where currently the ‘generative processes’ are dominated by computer technology, by quantifying processes, by statistics which is quantitative measuring, by means of the power of quantitative processing, The area of aesthetics and other areas of human life has become and continues to become dominated by this model and its machinery.

    While Salingaros engages in critique, quite intelligent critique, from the quotes below it appears that he still engages in the belief of going down this path, the difference being to study complexity which is missed out on so far, so as it appears he merely or mostly engages in critique on simplicity, or even a lack of a proper basis.

    “A few of us, following the lead of Alexander, are discovering those rules, and we
    eventually hope to program them.”

    Program them in order to study? or program to study and apply, to become the new computer-tech based ‘generative process’?
    The question then becomes, what about the human factor, this factor of what might be un-charmingly termed ‘necessary creative irregularity’ (formerly having to do with soul and heart)?

    The questions, ‘what are the generative processes that produced this form’, and ‘ are they relevant to human life’ can be asked in the greater context of the purpose of aesthetics in human life (architecture being only one discipline).

    A quote from one of the lectures of Oscar Wilde, ‘Art and the Handicraftsman’:

    “Do you think, for instance, that we object to machinery? I tell you we reverence it; we reverence it when it does its proper work, when it relieves man from ignoble and soulless labour, not when it seeks to do that which is valuable only when wrought by the hands and hearts of men. Let us have no machine-made ornament at all; it is all bad and worthless and ugly. And let us not mistake the means of civilisation for the end of civilisation;”

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  3. Michael Behrendt says:

    Hi David, Thanks for this article.  PTSD is a new way of looking at Gropius and modernism for me.  I just read an excellent long compendium about the history of the Bauhaus published by Taschen.  Of course, there is no psychological analysis of Gropius like this.  It seems that he was a superb manager, at least in the days that he ran the Bauhaus, one who could accommodate and encourage different viewpoints and styles and disciplines while dealing with the challenging outside politics.  He seemed to appreciate the value of the flux of ideas, again, at least in the early years, much like the New Urbanists pride themselves on doing.  I guess the authoritarian impulses evolved over time. Michael Behrendt

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    • I think, Michael, that the association of the founding modernists to illnesses such as autism and PTSD is a relatively new phenomenon, largely attributable to Ann Sussman. I don’t think it has been widely accepted yet, certainly not by the modernist establishment, and since it has more control over its industry’s reigning concepts than most other industrial leaderships, maybe never. It seems to me, however, that the authoritarian impulses, which may not have been related to the various men’s illnesses, were there almost from the beginning – maybe because that was the gathering Zeitgeist in Germany then. Surely, though, they learned well under the later influences of the Nazi party.

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  4. John says:

    As of this tendency of turning to psychology (the tendency of psycho-analyzing historical figures is not limited to architects) is way out of line. The area of psychology is another discipline which in itself is quite young, and also controlled by a specific clique.. and changing every so years when the new bible of psychology the DSM-[XX] is published.. Architecture, of residential, institutional or public buildings is also about demonstration of power and status, about affecting people, of universal human striving, of good and bad. And this concerns as a whole the mentality and ideology of individuals and groups, this cannot be explained by psycho-analysis, and there are inherent dangers to that approach. People, also the opposition, should not be reduced to such labels, degraded into a collection of indicators by means of contemporary fashionable views, and also, they should not be reduced so that as a whole, as being human with all that comes with it, they can be held accountable, instead of granting them to be the victim of some alleged mental aberrations, deviations and limitations.

    The article below also goes on the road of reducing architects to some set of indicators. Not only is it unscientific, the false attempt will come back into the face of the opposition some day.
    https://permaculturenews.org/2013/11/15/architect-clothes/

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    • Nikos Angelos Salingaros says:

      Hey, this is a reference to my article with Michael Mehaffy! A rather insightful article, if I say so myself.

      Cheers,
      Nikos

      Like

      • John says:

        Nikos,

        It is insightful indeed in some respects.
        I have been reading your other articles too, and the work Anti-Architecture and Deconstruction, good work, much appreciated.

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    • Hi John,
      The best literature on how PTSD changes the brain is fairly new; Check out The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van der Kolk, MD (2015), a NYT best-seller explaining not only why war veterans, such as Gropius, would suffer from recurrent nightmares and sleeplessness decades after a war’s end but also the neuroscience behind how PTSD-brains ‘see’ differently, finding it easier to take in designs w blankness and less detail. Essentially, the Bauhaus could only have happened after the trauma of the Great War; it’s yet another manifestation of the enormous psychological dislocation of the ‘lost generation’.

      A Poster on how “Modern Architecture is a Direct Expression of Trauma of WWI Trench” is here: https://imgur.com/521AcVm; I was invited to present it at the 30th Annual International Trauma Conference in Boston in May.https://traumacenter.net/trauma-conference.html.

      We live in game-changing times. It’s taken a century to figure out how modern architecture happened and finally, we have!

      best,

      ann
      annsussman.com
      geneticsofdesign.com

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      • John says:

        Ann,

        Psychology is not science, it is theory, neurology on the other hand consists of a mapping of the human brain by means of modern electronic devices. Constructing a reality from such maps, reducing reality to such maps.
        These are areas which are about reduction and distortion of what is extremely complex, squeezing phenomenon into theories by sets of indicators, in the case of neurology, using reality reducing (and or distorting) translation devices of a certain type (electronic). At the basis here is even the big question which runs like a dividing thread through it, the question whether we are dealing with beings (humans) which are ‘composed’ of a purely physical matter, so that causes can be reduced to physical chemistry, or whether there are (a complex set of) metaphysical causes which cannot yet be determined. A philosophical and spiritual question, with major implications.

        Altogether, this area of traumas or mental deviations is surely not an area where reproduction of the results, as required in ‘hard science’, is possible. Additionally, just like in the area of the criticized architecture, there is also a major industry involved, and major interests are involved, with all implications of that… Another issue is that we live in a time period of hypes, of short lived theories… as observed by Oscar Wilde already over a century ago, nothing is more old-fashioned than modernity, which applies about ten times as much today.

        As much a I sympathize with this oppositional movement (oppositional to modernist, neo-modernist and ‘deconstructionist’ views and the forms they create, their mentality and aesthetics). When architects and scientists start using contemporary hypes, or at minimum, borrowing theories from other disciplines to make their case, if not explicitly using extreme care by indicating that the theories which they forge are hypothetical, they are crossing a boundary. There is an absence of critical philosophy here, a riding on the waves of contemporary trends, at least those which appear to fit into the picture conveniently.

        In the case of the theories based on the geometry of nature, which is the basis of the works of Nikos Angelos Salingaros, I find these as far as I can judge to be potentially solid enough, a convincing candidate to bridge the gap between the nineteenth century aesthetic movement (including also the pre-work done in the foregoing century by philosophers like Goethe, Schiller and etc.) and the 21th century, the 20th century being the gap… in this respect, a black hole.
        Considering that a human is both rooted in nature, subjugated to, a child of nature, and on the other hand, always attempting and forced to rise above nature, artificially improving on nature. In the twentieth century, it appears he went artificially astray to degrees which find no historical precedent. The causes of this to be of mixed origin, of what is well known to be human, the lust of power mongering, vanity, greed, credulity, worship (cult forming), converging of interests, this coupled with a more specific zeitgeist based technology driven statistics-analytic-quantity based crudeness of our times (producing certain ‘mindsets’), and a destruction of the old which appears to be cyclic, making it possible to derail to such an extent.

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      • John says:

        “Essentially, the Bauhaus could only have happened after the trauma of the Great War;”

        I rest my case with an additional quote from the work Anti-architecture of Nikos Angelos Salingaros.

        “Complex systems are irreducible, in the sense that they represent much more
        than the sum of their components.”

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      • John says:

        This movement of opposition towards modern architecture is also in dire need of a wider engagement from critical philosophers and people who engage in cultural critique, people with a memory which extends far beyond contemporary times, and which extends beyond the area of architecture, people who are not deeply embedded in and determined by modern jargon.

        I quote here, a quotation from the work Anti-architecture:

        “More than just replacing a theory, a paradigm shift means an entirely new way of looking at the world (Kuhn, 1970).”

        These lines, ‘paradigm shift’, ‘entirely new way of looking’ are by now a hundred percent meaningless slogan, signifying nothing. Someone should analyse statistically how often such phrases are used in the twentieth century in various areas all throughout modern Western society. These are the pretty lines which are by now parroted in all circuits to the point where the qualification ‘over-saturation’ is a euphemism. Phrases and words which are consumed uncritically as if all are a least to some extent drunk on the zeitgeist of change.

        No questions are asked concerning in how far new ways of looking are really possible, no questions asked whether they are new, or old wine in new bottles, or mixed wine, whether there is really something new under the sun. Owing to specialization, academics are often very narrowly educated, in the case of architecture, the oldest (secular) works they seem to know is that of ‘Vitruvius’.
        It appears that centuries ago, all the West talked Christian language, and Christian theology, and we are now talking a secular theology, leading to a torrent of secular slogans.
        The geometry and mathematics of nature approach will probably be of long lasting value, the rest is contemporary babble.

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  5. John says:

    Some words of encouragement (I hope):

    “But, perhaps, you will tell me that the external beauty of the world has almost entirely passed away from us, that the artist dwells no longer in the midst of the lovely surroundings which, in ages past, were the natural inheritance of every one, and that art is very difficult in this unlovely town of ours, where, as you go to your work in the morning, or return from it at eventide, you have to pass through street after street of the most foolish and stupid architecture that the world has ever seen; architecture, where every lovely Greek form is desecrated and defiled, and every lovely Gothic form defiled and desecrated, reducing three-fourths of the London houses to being, merely, like square boxes of the vilest proportions, as gaunt as they are grimy, and as poor as they are pretentious – the hall door always of the wrong colour, and the windows of the wrong size, and where, even when wearied of the houses you turn to contemplate the street itself, you have nothing to look at but chimney-pot hats, men with sandwich boards, vermilion letter-boxes, and do that even at the risk of being run over by an emerald-green omnibus.

    Is not art difficult, you will say to me, in such surroundings as these? Of course it is difficult, but then art was never easy; you yourselves would not wish it to be easy; and, besides, nothing is worth doing except what the world says is impossible.” ~ Oscar Wilde (Lecture to Art Students)

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    • Yes, John, very much so. It reminds me that time passes and the disagreements that once animated our forbears seem like nothing to us. I always turn green with envy at the disputes between the classicists and the gothicists – none of whom had any idea at the horrors that we shrink from today, which make the differences between Gothicism and Neo-Classicism seem so diminishingly small!

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  6. So, am I nutz? http://www.duodickinson.com (Canons offer sanity to believers and distress to those who are not Canonical)

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  7. nycal99 says:

    I love your blog…but I never understand this argument.  In particular there have ALWAYS been a lot of architects in general who have suffered from all sorts of psychological problems including, of course, meglomania and mania. Stanford White, H.H. Richardson, and Michaelangelo are great architects despite their psychological problems and whatever “illness is baked into” their work.

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    • Thank you for your question, NYcal. The answer is that traditional architecture evolved over centuries starting in ancient times from many unknown sources. Modern architecture started as the idea of several men in recent times who can be identified specifically, and who had certain mental illnesses that evidently influenced their design ideas. The classical orders were baked into the design sensibilities of traditional architecture, not the illnesses of specific founders as in modern architecture. You are asking the same question that Ann Sussman gets all the time. Mental illness may have influenced the work of individual architects traditional or modernist, but only the latter had mental illness baked into the ideas on which they based their designs.

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  8. And the warnings about the future or architecture, leave warnings also for the future of art. And what we value.

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    • Yes, Nancy, art suffers from some of the same tendencies (has for very long time). Note the Journal’s idiotic review a few days ago of the Art Club’s new peered exhibit, in which Channing Gray says of a finely detailed painting of Venice, “been there, done that” or something, and criticizes a still life by saying the Dutch masters already did that, what’s the point? This is submoronic. Maybe there are good reasons to criticize both, but not because the technique has been used before. True creativity in art (and architecture) is not in doing something in a way that it has never been done before but in using subtle advances in technique that improve the virtuosity of painting.

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  9. leveveg says:

    Reblogged this on LeveVeg and commented:
    Dette må nok inhalers i detalj litt seinere, reposter derfor på min blogg LeveVeg til framtidig nytelse. Trist er det allikevel at et av verdens mektigste kulturlandskap i aksen Østhøgda-Furnesfjorden skulle få et modernistisk kultsymbol i hver sin ende, med nye Rausteinshytta på Østhøgda og Mjøstårnet ved Furnesfjorden. To skampletter for Mjøslandet!

    Like

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