Modern architecture as spin

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Inside the Millennium Dome. “Is this the arse or the elbow?” (Guardian)

An article in the Guardian on the rise and fall of London’s Millennium Dome sums up much of what ails modern architecture. “20 years on, revisiting a very British fiasco,” by Rowan Moore, describes the pitfalls of treating architecture not as a place but as an idea:

[T]his spectacular container of not very much made an easy emblem of the government’s preference for style over content, its attachment to vacuous statements of modernity, its use of messaging and focus groups to deliver meaningless platitudes, its tokenistic approach to regeneration.

Here is one passage describing the attempt to formulate a spin during the period before the Dome (designed by Sir Richard Rogers) opened on Dec. 31, 1999, supposedly the last day of the old millennium:

From now on, as [critic Simon] Jenkins puts it, [the Dome] would be “a showcase for New Labour, for Cool Britannia.” [Prime Minister Tony] Blair had publicly aligned himself with a vision of Britain as a creative, dynamic country: food and furniture by Terence Conran, buildings by Richard Rogers, art by Damien Hirst, music by Oasis. The dome and its contents would be its expression. Major corporations would sponsor different elements – a process that had started under [former deputy P.M. Michael] Heseltine. This would show, as Jenkins puts it, “that New Labour was friendly to capitalism, that business was part of one big national family.”

I have nothing to say about whether the Dome epitomized the Labour Party or the leadership of Prime Minister Tony Blair. However you slice it, putting style over substance is to lead with one’s chin. It is certainly apparent that a place must have a function, but if the function is merely to express an idea, it is likely to fail, perhaps a lot faster than did the Millennium Dome.

To be more precise about the millennial “idea” behind the Dome, the new millennium started a year later, on Jan. 1, 2001, not at Greenwich, where the Dome was built but at Caroline Island in the Kiribati chain, just east of the International Dateline, on the other side of the world.

Moore describes the fiasco:

The contents were panned. They were described as underwhelming, compromised, communicating nothing in particular. The long queues to get into the star exhibits made front-page news. “Is this the arse or the elbow?” went a Private Eye speech bubble, coming from a visitor trying to enter an opening in the arm of a giant figure that was in a “zone” based on the human body.

I suppose this article must be placed on my long groaning shelf of analytical pieces by advocates of modern architecture that, in admitting the flaws of one undeniably regrettable work of modern architecture, describe the flaws of all modern architecture. There never has been a modernist building that does not put style over substance. Insofar as the style rarely if ever rises to the level of beauty, the substance must indeed be flawed. All modernism – not just in architecture but in art, in music, in philosophy – is spin. It is not all stupid, but it is all fatuous.

That may be one reason why the world, with all its scientific discoveries, its widespread economic advancement, its endless victories over disease, its profound technological achievements and its relentlessly idiotic architecture, remains such an unhappy place.

Traditional architecture is simple, modest, functional and yet almost effortlessly beautiful. Has the world become such a thoroughgoing idiocracy that nobody can see the necessity of ADVOCATING these values? Even if only in the realm of architecture and the built environment, where they would be so easy to implement? So sad.

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The Millennium Dome, in Greenwich, London, UK. (Dreamstime.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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8 Responses to Modern architecture as spin

  1. John says:

    “sums up much of what ails modern architecture”

    This is not so much what just ails modern architecture, as ‘ailing’ society at large. Spectacle and spin has for instance taken over the scene of environmentalism and humanist idealism too, where now for some time a celebrity glamour culture has become the voice of environmentalism and humanist idealism, with the inevitable corruption, hypocrisy and fakeness which comes along with the celebrity world of the George Clooneys, Bono’s, Madonna’s and etc. The human caused climate change spectacle for instance represents the final takeover of the environmental scene, representing a mass spectacle and theatre, a spin of global proportions.

    The primitive bling bling style of the contemporary establishments in the area of neo-modernist glamour architecture, the brutalist style, the exhibitionist style, the fakery in the area of the arts, the celebrity culture, mass media, it all hangs together.

    Spectacle and spin is not so much an ailing perhaps as a cycle of civilizational primitivism made possible to achieve a certain character due to technology, mass glamour and idols of and for the worshipping masses, but not only the masses, also primitive establishments which in times of democracy have emerged from the masses into positions of power. Dissolving and degeneration of aristocracies is another factor in the overall emerging and growing primitivism, which marked the whole of the twentieth century. It appears that the twentieth century establishments have failed to prevent to mitigate the cyclic decline, due to a lack of spine, due to the usual corruption in terms of selfish interests, and due to overall ideological democratic blindness, undermining the power of traditional elites, keepers of tradition and higher values, to the extent that mass primitivism and new establishment primitivism can flourish and overrun society at large in many areas.

    The ‘post truth era’? No, regardless of politics, the twenty-first century, due to the internet and the gigantic spreading of screens (media,entertainment and news) everywhere is going to be, as it looks, the century of mass theatre and mass spectacle, of mass glamour, primitivism empowered by technology, with historically unprecedented possibilities for the mass amassing of money and power by the new establishments, due to the failings of the twentieth century establishments.

    The US, home of the locality called Providence, is the basis of all this primitivism, spreading it world wide. If a change and resistance could be expected, it is not from the US and the EU, not from any of the Anglo-Saxon areas, and neither from China, but hopefully from Russia or the South American countries, perhaps in cooperation with some Muslim countries, perhaps in cooperation, but not from what is called the Western world, which appears to much steeped into materialist and primitivist glamour, and where the interests to keep the bubbles going are gigantic.

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  3. Daniel Morales says:

    Do you really think all Modernism is ‘silly and pointless’? I’m hardly a defender of modernism, but it doesn’t seem rhetorically useful to insult with such a broad brush. Most of those who work within its precepts are not idiots, just like classicists or traditionalists. Imagine what the world of architecture might look like once this style war ends. Will it provide room for all types of thinking or will it be an absolutist system demanding fealty to tradition?

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    • Not all idiots, Dan, but fools.

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      • Anonymous says:

        Thanks for the clarification.

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        • You are right, Anon., Dan and I have been going back and forth on this for ages. Of course not all modernists are idiots, which I admitted in my post. But what Dan seeks, whether he recognizes it or not, is surrender. There will never be a blissful time when a thousand flowers bloom. The modernists will never permit it. Dan does not seem to understand that it is the mods, not the trads, who are propagating the style wars, and have from the beginning. It is they who rig the process so that major commissions, just about all except middle-class housing projects and mansions for the wealthy, go almost exclusively to modernists.

          Modernists know that very few people actually like their work, and they know that there was almost no sound intellectual basis for having instituted modern architecture a century ago, and that its capture of the establishment in the 40s and 50s, and since then the defense of its power and authority have been unfairly and unjustly manipulative. They know that design and construction practices they’ve promoted bake mediocrity into the system in ways that are now virtually impossible to evade or dislodge. They know that their place in the industry would collapse if the public had any say in the market for buildings, as would be appropriate in a democracy. So, no, I do not favor the “absolutist system” Dan seems to think I am calling for. I merely want the market for architecture to operate as it ought to in a free market political economy, reflecting democracy. Is that too much to ask? It would promote beauty and happiness among far more people than is the case today.

          Yes, I do insult with a broad brush. Dan has the right to put it that way. But, compared to the flaws inherent in every other aspect of humanity and its fields of endeavor, the flaws of modern architecture are far and away more deleterious in their impact on the human condition than that of any other industry, profession or art group. Dan may call that an insult, but I call it the truth, based on the obvious facts of our built environment that are clear to all but those who refuse (as well they might!) to look or see.

          Although obviously rather unpleasant, I think tradition should fight back against modernism. That is what I have tried to do by avoiding the “Can’t we all just get along” approach in my rhetoric. And, as I suggested in a recent post on the fall of the Berlin Wall, I believe that mobilizing the public to agitate for what they want (and deserve) could have results far sooner than anyone might imagine.

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          • John says:

            It is all rather sloganesque.

            “will it be an absolutist system demanding fealty to tradition”

            Typical reference to upcoming Nazism or Fascism, this is meant to scare the children, there are possibly Nazis or Fascists under the bed. Same tactics as used in politics. Repetition is the power of propaganda. It doesn’t matter whether there is any real danger.

            “Will it provide room for all types of thinking ”
            Typical variation on diversity slogans, related to the above.

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  4. LazyReader says:

    The sculpture stands as a question of “Is it finished yet”
    Like the Dome itself, it resembles stalled or incomplete construction. That’s the new phase of modern architecture and deconstructivism. Is it still under construction or resemble buildings left in the post war rubble of allied bombing.

    In the 18th century; A “Folly” was in a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose, especially a tower or mock-Gothic ruin built in a large garden or park. Constructed primarily for decoration and to employ local poor, but suggesting through its appearance some other purpose, or of such extravagant appearance it instills civic pride.

    That’s what stadiums and civic centers are today. Folly’s. Monuments to waste and government ineptitude. And the peasants often get stuck with the bill

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