Comments on the style wars

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“Damn contemporary bullshit architecture!” (by Buck Brown)

My last post “Modern architecture as spin” drew a reply from architect Daniel Morales that, paired with my reply, deserves to be front and center on this blog, rather than stuck in the comment section. Dan and I have gone round and round on this issue of how to approach our mutual opposition to modern architecture. Although we disagree, his argument has considerable merit and, I imagine, widespread support among traditionalist and classicist participants in the style wars that engage the field of architecture.

So here is our exchange as it has progressed so far. First his reply, triggered mostly, I believe, by this passage in my post: “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.” Dan wrote:

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?

My reply:

Not all idiots, Dan, but fools.

A commenter, “Anonymous,” pokes at me for dodging Dan’s comment:

Thanks for the clarification.

To which I replied at some length, as Dan’s comment deserved:

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, “Lessons 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.

Of course, Dan or anyone else should feel free to continue this discussion.

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 Comments on the style wars

  1. Morales says:

    It’s interesting you should reference the market place of ideas, because that’s exactly my point. How does one get a well functioning market place but with certain rules of decorum. Having fought tooth and nail with modernists from my days in school, I’ve come to the realization that you are more likely to convince someone if you refrain from attacking them personally.

    If you believed in the free market of ideas, you’d let the strength of your arguments carry the day rather than blistering at those conniving modernists and their dastardly schemes. Most people prefer traditional over modernist styles, so what do you think would happen if we leveled the playing field in academia? I know your frustration, but as someone who’s been on the front lines of this fight, you’re more likely to motivate people to do good than to fight a war, especially if that war benefits modernists more than us. Plus, who doesn’t like a little variety now and then?

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    • Dan, I’m really not concerned here with the marketplace of ideas. I’m talking about the more quotidian but in this case more vital marketplace for building commissions. I think tradition has already won in the marketplace of ideas. The process of commissioning major work in the architectural market is where the modernists’ thumb on the scale damages life for the average person, by depriving him of the fruits of beauty, which are much more important than most people assume, certainly in architecture and in the broader built environment.

      The playing field in academia should be leveled, but that won’t happen until the market for commissions is leveled, which won’t happen until the people’s voice is heard in the design review committee and, thence, the politicians who influence the developers who hire the architects.

      I do not direct my barbs at individuals. I do not expect to convince individuals that they are wrong. I hope to convince individuals who are oppressed by the decisions of modernists to band together to oppose those who are wrong.

      Yes, there are individuals who are implicated in the charges I press, but that cannot be helped. That is true in every arena of disagreement over policy. If individuals are in the wrong, as modernists are more clearly than in most other arenas of policy disagreement, then they deserve to feel oppressed by charges of wrongdoing. Or else why expect any change for the better to occur at all?

      I do try to speak truth to power on these issues. I don’t think politeness will move the needle, either in the commission market or in academia. It has not so far. Nobody with the sort of power the modernists have gives it up unless forced to do so. Maybe if we were willing to wait hundreds of years, politeness might work, but I am not so sure, or so patient. I want to get people angry about how we’ve all been rooked, and get them to take their pitchforks to the design review commission. Rattle the modernist cages. Then maybe we’ll have some progress.

      But by all means let those who want to politely wag their fingers at the modernists do so. A little variety among the voices that oppose modern architecture can only help.

      Like

  2. John says:

    “Will it provide room for all types of thinking or will it be an absolutist system demanding fealty to tradition?”

    A political spin. The neo-liberal elites(post WWII liberalism) have, by means of decades of propaganda, collectively inculcated brain associations, so that everything they do not like, in whatever sphere or branch, can be, and is associated with brutal historical regimes (‘absolutist system’ is the keyphrase). Additionally they have forged things in such a way that they are the owner of diversity.
    Repetition and deeply inculcated associative patterns in the mind. Consequently, no matter how intelligent people are, subconsciously or consciously, intended or not intended, directly politically motivated or not, they will automatically distribute such framing, and so maintain the desired framings.

    Like

    • John says:

      To add to the above, people are hardly aware that a great deal of the associations in their mind are created by others, they will also hardly admit it. Even when aware, these associations, like traumas, are very hard to get rid of, they will impose themselves constantly. So people unknowingly reason within the associations and framings created by propagandists.

      Hence, absolutism (reminiscent of totalitarianism) versus diversity, regardless of whether the danger of absolutism and uniformism is even real on the side of those who rail against modernist and neo-modernist architecture. And so one has to go through the motion of defending oneself against political framing, again.., again, and again. While uniformism and absolutism is really the problem of modernism and neo-modernism.
      Sigh..

      Like

  3. LazyReader says:

    We as Americans are often very skeptical of ideas that are rooted in Collectivism. Thing about modern architecture it’s Replicatable anywhere………thus no distinguishing features persist to differentiate French modernism from American Modernism. A glass box, is a glass box.
    The way America tried nearly a century ago was with Art Deco, we redefined our attempts by incorporating, Patriotic, automotive, Indigenous art decors and fonts and machines and materials.

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