I’ve just finished reading a curious and compelling book called Living Machines: Modern Architecture and the Rationalization of Sexual Misbehavior, by E. Michael Jones. It makes a strong case for what has become a notable cliché: that modern architecture symbolizes the degeneracy of its founders and subsequent practitioners – and today represents our degenerate popular and (I would add) scholarly culture.
Here is a spicy quote from this spicy book, from a section on the movement to shift ecclesiastical architecture away from its traditions to the deconstructivist strain of modern architecture. The author believes that modern architecture has by this point died, to be replaced by later strains, including deconstructivism; I think these strains are merely the continuation and evolution of the boring glass-box modern architecture, which was originally anti-traditional to its core and remains so today, only worse. But my definition is neither here nor there as far as Jones’s book and the following quote are concerned:
Peter Eisenman organized a series of dinners at the Century Club in New York City, to which the architectural elite (as defined by Eisenman) were invited. Philip Johnson always held the seat of honor at these gatherings. One can imagine Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry and Philip Johnson with tears of laughter rolling down their cheeks regaling each other with the latest monstrosity which some church just commissioned from them. One can imagine a standing contest at the Century Club architectural dinners – Gehry, Johnson, and Eisenman vying with each other to see who could be the most outrageous in ridiculing the beliefs of religious clients and still get the commission.
Jones goes on to list some of them, such as Johnson’s cartoon chapel in Houston, Gehry’s plywood chapel at Loyola in Los Angeles, and Eisenman’s (unbuilt) Millennium Church in Rome. However different they may look, they are alike in their contempt for religion. Jones goes on to declare that “just as postmodernism is Jewish, the postmodern classical revival is Catholic. The breakdown is hardly coincidental, no matter how much Catholics like [Notre Dame Prof. Philip] Bess want to ignore it.” (Jones quotes throughout from Bess’s 2006 book Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism and the Sacred.)
Jones’s book is mostly a delight, but it is marred by a large chapter that seems to have been written by someone else and parachuted into Living Machines, or written by Jones for some esoteric journal and then shoehorned awkwardly into his book. At 48 pages, “Aut Vitruvius Aut Nihil: The Logos of Architecture and its Opponents” is four times the length of the book’s next-longest chapter. Throughout, Jones uses Phil Bess as whipping boy in what seems to be an effort to show that Jones can out-overintellectualize even Eisenman. Browbeaten, and with no opportunity to respond to Jones’s attack, Bess nevertheless is revealed as by far the more sensible thinker.
So, is modern architecture, and especially what emerged after modernism beat off the challenge of postmodernism, really “Jewish”? Of course not. Jones attempts to demonstrate that after the Holocaust everything changed, and that architecture splits into modern or traditional according to how it addresses what he labels “Logos” – or Jesus, or the Word of God, as Jones defines it. The ancient philosophers defined Logos as order and knowledge, a meaning that doesn’t quite help with Jones’s theory.
As if to prove the contrary of what Jones asserts, modernist ecclesiastical architecture in North America includes churches of diverse denomination, and not just synagogues. This may explain Jones’s reluctance to broaden his thoughts on Catholicism to include Christianity as a whole. Christianity’s willingness to dabble in modern architecture does not fit easily into the idea of modern architecture as Jewish. For that matter, Catholicism has itself dabbled all too extensively in modernism in the post-Vatican II era, only lately seeming to ponder a return to tradition.
(Although I am a Jew, I eagerly and hopefully await the pope’s upcoming encyclical riffing off Donald Trump’s draft executive order encouraging classical architecture for new federal buildings in Washington, D.C.)
I have no capacity to untangle Jones’s argument, except to note that whether classical architecture reflects the Word of God or not, it does reflect order and knowledge in architecture. The thinking behind modern architecture is certainly anti-traditional, not to mention disordered and ignorant. Still, whatever modernists may think as they inflict their work on the rest of the world, the divisions of architecture cannot be summed up as neatly as Jones suggests, however complex he makes it sound.
Notwithstanding this major caveat, which the reader can easily moot by skipping over the chapter, by describing the lives and hypocrisies of its founders and later advocates, the book adds considerable detail (much of it titillating) and much useful, engaging analysis to the indictment of modern architecture as a paragon of perversity.