The stupidest profession

Occasionally I run across a post of mine from long ago that bears reprinting. This one from July 31, 2018,  fits that description, it seems to me, even though I have edited it to fix some badly written parts that eluded me four years ago:

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The stupidest profession

Localism calls to mind various “slow” movements such as slow food. There should be a slow architecture movement. The topic of localism was taken up recently by the New York Times columnist David Brooks in “The Localist Revolution: Sometimes it Pays to Sweat the Small Stuff.” He describes localism as flipping the power structure. He writes:

[U]nder localism, the crucial power center is at the tip of the shovel, where the actual work is being done. … Change in a localist world often looks like a renewal of old forms, which were often more intimate and personalistic than the technocratic structures of the past 50 years.

Modern architecture is the epitome of centralized industry. For the most part, it is not shovel-ready. Worse, it is a cult – modernist architects never get out and see how people live in their “machines for living.” More often than not, modernists are unwilling to live in the kind of house or building they are paid to erect for clients. Because they control the architectural media, they understand that nobody will point a spotlight at their hypocrisy.

Classical and traditional architects, on the other hand, mostly work at the tip of the shovel because they have no choice. Modernists have ejected them from the establishment, and use it to tilt the playing field toward their modernist colleagues and keep big jobs out of the hands of traditional architects. So traditionalists’ remaining stronghold is in housing for the wealthy, people who can afford to choose the style of home they prefer, and who hire architects to build it for them. (A board of artist-wannabe suits chooses the architect for most major projects based on reputations burnished by the official critical apparat.)

Moreover, while modern architecture likes to imagine that it reflects science, traditional architecture reflects nature, whose principles science describes. These principles are not understood by modernists. Modern architecture is unnatural, unscientific, and primarily ideological. For example, modernists think fractals are jagged bits that make up the exterior walls of an edgy building. Whereas modernist education and practice is abstract and averse to history and precedent, tradition in architecture is intuitive, handed down generation to generation by practitioners whose understanding of best practices starts at the tip of the shovel.

Brooks naturally did not mention architecture in his column. Architecture has ousted itself from the concern of most people – even educated people – because modernism has created a world so maladroit that ignoring it has become an effective defense mechanism.. Most people can tell an ugly building from a pretty one, but they lack the confidence to assign blame. Few attend municipal design and permitting sessions in anything like the number who attend meetings devoted to other local issues. It no longer occurs to people to point fingers at a building for causing headaches, ennui or lack of happiness, even though the damned things press on us every hour, even in our dreams.

Brooks, speaking much more generally, adds:

Expertise is not in the think tanks but among those who have local knowledge, those with a feel for how things work in a specific place and an awareness of who gets stuff done.

Exactly. “Experts” in architecture are the best example of people who lack local knowledge and whose activities are so obviously contrary to happiness, or even usefulness, that their industry has developed a cult mentality that lets them tune out criticism. Eventually, they have no firm idea that people hate their ridiculous designs, and to the extent that they do have some idea, they treat it as a feather in their cap. Modern architecture is the occupation most extreme in its lack of self-awareness.

All organized human endeavors fit onto a spectrum. Those fields that tilt toward architecture’s end of that spectrum, with the most unhinged lusts, contribute more than their share to the dysfunction of society. As the baby boomers have marched through the bureaucracies, they have carried with them theories of societal development, often ingested through a bong, that prioritize thinking that spurns language and traditions that give structure and meaning to the organizations they now dominate. They never lost their adolescent impulse to tear down.

“Success is not measured by how big you can scale, but by how deeply you can connect,” Brooks says. Political analyst Richard Fernandez of The Belmont Club, a PJMedia website, also read Brooks’s column. In his essay “Ripping it all up,” he suggests that the “‘politicians in Washington’ whom he decries as ‘hurling ideological abstractions at one another’ may be unintended outcomes of a polarizing, reductionist narrative that tore up the fabric that actually made things work.”

I think Fernandez may be on to something, but it strikes me as bad news for architecture and the world’s built environment.

For all of its pretensions, architecture, in its current configuration, may be the stupidest profession on Earth, with its head stuck farthest down into a deep hole in the ground. What that means is that it may be harder to reform architecture than any other field. And that may be true even though – with an abundance of models like Paris and Rome and smaller examples of beauty in remaining historical tracts around the globe – reforming architecture may be the easiest task in the history of the world. Easiest – and, alas, with its head stuck halfway to China, least likely.

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 The stupidest profession

  1. Of course. Unfortunately, no one understands anything, on either side of any ideological line anymore. Where to start?

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  2. John the First says:

    Democracy (as we know it) shares the same features as architectural modernism, it is also unnatural in the sense that its egalitarianism (equality) is unnatural, it allows for incompetence and incapacity to float to the top and attain power, it corrupts science (the scientific establishments of our days are heavily corrupt), it is averse to history (obsessed with progress and change), it produces the rise of sophism, it is a tradition-destruction cult society, constantly moving from one hype to another, producing a long series of hypes of progress. The democracy also produces centralization in the sense of hyper-large, hyper-control, statist governments, the democracy also stifles local life and kills the soul as it produces ‘industrialization’ by means of its vast and intense bureaucratic control over millions of lives. It produces technocracy, which is actually nothing but statism, socialism, liberalism (liberalism being the Anglo-Saxon name of the former) and Keynesian centralized economic control.
    Modernist architecture is an expression of modern democracies all the way.

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    • John the First says:

      It is probably due to the convenient dogma and battle cry that ‘the public at large prefers traditional architecture’, that modernists can be depicted as a sort of aliens who happened to fall out of the sky, and at large contextually unrelated to the features of the system and its culture, they magically took control, featuring anomalies.

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  3. LazyReader says:

    All architecture is defiance of nature…..All organized human endeavors are defy nature…less its environmental restoration. Architecture….is no different…. I dont begrudge classic vs. modern. I delight in watching the war going on….

    Technology plays a critical role in the inherent differences between classical and modern approaches. While most classic buildings utilize materials that were readily available such as brick and timber, modern structures tend to use industrialized materials such as glass, steel, and metal.

    The classicists had 3000 years to “perfect”their technology and never changed it. Modernists are always experimenting. You may not like modernism tough titties.
    I believe in Property rights…you wanna build a log cabin out of carbon fiber logs, be my guest.
    If you want a neoclassical house in Montana ranch country…its tacky but go ahead.

    Architects from both sides arent stupid, but despicable because they’ve applied their trade to Planning…which requires force of law and imposition to adopt.

    A Fusion Of Classical and Modern: Controversial, But Worth Taking Risk If Done Right
    They must get along instead of trying to oust one another.

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  4. That phrase “Success is not measured by how big you can scale, but by how deeply you can connect.”… so accurate. Completely agree with you. Gonna read that column by David Brooks

    Like

    • John the First says:

      Accurateness is a bore, and to completely agree is to entertain no thoughts of ones own, its bad for diversity. This is totally modernist language, too naked and straight lined, and If ‘deep’ connection would often be about accurate description producing complete agreement, deep large scale uniformity would be the result.

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