Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Modernist Catch Phrases

My forthcoming book, The Humanists versus the Reactionary Avant Garde, is very close to publication.  Here is one last preview of the book before it is published:

Anyone who cares about architecture constantly runs into catch phrases that are used to dismiss traditional architecture. Any architecture that learns from earlier styles is “nostalgic,” it looks like it belongs in a “theme park,” and it is not “of our time.”
These catch phrases get in the way of developing architecture that responds to the real needs of our time, so we should make it clear that they catch phrases are hollow.


Before 1920, the word “nostalgia” referred to a medical condition found in soldiers who were so traumatized by battle that they had a pathological desire to return to home. The word was first used in 1920 in its current sense, to mean a generalized longing for the past. The current sense became popular because the modernist movement of that time needed the word.
If you look at the writing of that time, you will see that modernists were willing to use wildly utopian models of the future, but they criticized people who used any models from the past. The best-known futuristic model is the communist ideal of an industrial workers’ utopia, a favorite of intellectuals of the early and mid twentieth century. Architects. We have seen that city planners used equally extreme futuristic models, such as Le Corbusier’s radiant city.
In reality, it is obviously best to choose on a case-by-case basis whether to use models from the past or from the future, thinking in each case about which model does the most to enhance our well-being—rather than automatically rejecting the past in favor of progress or automatically rejecting the future in favor of tradition. We should not let an empty catch phrase like “nostalgia” stop us from thinking about which model is best in any given case.
For example, New Urbanists have designed neighborhoods laid out like the old streetcar suburbs because they think it is better to live where you can walk to shopping and other services, rather than living in a sprawl suburb where you have to drive every time you leave home. But New Urbanist developments also use up-to-date heating, air-conditioning, and kitchen equipment, unlike the original streetcar suburbs, which used coal for cooking and heating and had no air conditioning.
They are not nostalgic for the days when the streetcar suburbs were built, when coal was the main fuel and when women did not have the right to vote. But they do see that we can learn some things from those days, if we think about them in enough detail to avoid what was bad but learn from what was good about them. They see that they can get the best result by learn how to build walkable neighborhoods from past models, and by using the most advanced technologies when they are appropriate.

Theme Park Architecture

Avant gardists often say that traditional architecture looks like a “theme park.” They are right that today’s traditional architecture sometimes looks artificial, when the architects are using traditional styles decoratively without really believing in them, but they do not notice that their own avant-gardist architecture also looks artificial, because they use futuristic styles decoratively without really believing in them.
They forget that the original Disneyland included “Tomorrowland” as well as “Main Street, USA.”
The modernists chortled when Disney Corporation built Celebration, Florida—a New Urbanist town was built by our most famous theme park-developer. But a few years later, we also got Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, a Frank Gehry building that looks like a shiny avant-gardist sculpture.
Which of these two is more like a theme park? By definition, a theme park is built to lure tourists with experiences that they cannot get elsewhere.
Celebration was designed as a Victorian town because that is the sort of place where its residents want to live. Its architecture is sentimental, but it was not designed to attract tourists like a theme park.
There is one architect today who is famous for his ability to attract tourists. When he built the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, its bizarre design attracted so many gaping tourists that it revitalized the city’s economy. After that success, cities all over the world wanted similar buildings to stimulate their economies by attracting tourists—and Los Angeles got him to design Walt Disney Concert Hall to revitalize its downtown by attracting those gaping tourists. There is no doubt that Frank Gehry is our most successful designer of theme park architecture—but many other avant gardists are trying hard to imitate him. 

Sometimes our neo-traditional architecture looks something like a theme park, but our avant-gardist architecture looks even more like a theme park. Most of our traditional neighborhood developments are “historically themed,” while most of our museums and cultural centers are “themed” in the avant-gardist style.
By contrast, some buildings inspired by classical styles do not seem to be “themed,” because the classical vocabulary is so central to the history of western architecture, and because the architects believe in what they are doing. For example, the projects by Quinlan Terry and David Mayernik mentioned earlier do not look like theme park architecture. They simply look like they belong in London and in Italy. Likewise David Schwartz’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville does not look “themed”: classicism is so engrained in our history that it simply looks like a civic building should look.

Architecture of Our Time

As another common catch phrase, avant gardists claim that only modernist architecture is “of our time.” But this architecture does not respond to the needs of our time: the last thing we need in our time is to ignore human values and to adopt every flashy technology purely for the sake of being new and different.
The modernism of the early and mid-twentieth century really was of its time. This architecture was appropriate to a scarcity economy that needed new technology to bring prosperity. It was the appropriate architecture for a culture that wanted to throw away any limits to progress and to build its way out of every problem.
Since the 1970s, though, there has been a change in sensibility as our culture has moved beyond this sort of technophilia.
This change in sensibility has occurred in our attitude toward food. Imagine people saying that they eat mass produced white bread and McDonalds hamburgers because they are “of our time,” while artisanal bread and food made from locally grown ingredients are just examples of “nostalgia” about how food used to be made. Everyone would see that they are wrong to think that we should decide what to eat based on which foods are modern, rather than on which foods are the healthy and tasty. And everyone would see that they are even more wrong to think this modernist approach to food is “of our time”: it actually was common during the mid-twentieth century, but we have moved beyond it since the 1960s and 1970s.
This change of sensibility has occurred in city planning. Imagine people saying that they support building new freeways that slice through urban neighborhoods, because freeways are the transportation “of our time,” while people who want walkable neighborhoods are just “nostalgic” for the way people used to get around. Everyone would see that were wrong to decide what sort of cities to live in based on what is modern, rather than on what sort of neighborhood is most livable, convenient, healthy, and sustainable. And everyone would see that they were even more wrong to think that this modernist approach is “of our time”: it actually was common during the mid-twentieth century, but we have moved beyond it since the 1960s and 1970s.
This change of sensibility has happened across the culture, but the architectural establishment has missed it. The change began to occur among serious postmodernist architects, but the reactionary avant garde rejected it. As in other fields, everyone should see that the architectural establishment is wrong to think we should decide how to design our buildings based on what is modern, rather than on how livable and how attractive the buildings are. And everyone should see that they are even more wrong that this modernist approach is “of our time,” when it is actually a step backwards to the 1950s and beyond.