Modernism Revisited

We ought to reflect on the architectural symbols of Western civilization if we actually love it and are determined to preserve it for posterity. There is no reason to assume that we are at the end of history, as it were, so that the survival of civilization is a foregone conclusion. On the contrary, we must be ready to fight for it around the clock, since it has its declared and secret enemies all over the globe, both domestic and foreign—the fuss over former president Donald Trump’s Executive Order on Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture was far from accidental; it revealed that he had touched on something central in the ongoing culture war.

Modernist architecture is neither beautiful nor ugly. It is nothing. Nothing. However, insofar as it takes up space, it stands in the way of beauty. Apparently, the driving force in present-day design studios limits itself to the desire for (1) fame in collegial circles, or (2) quick money. By the same game of chance, which immortalizes some artists while pushing others into oblivion, some architects achieve the former by testing “bolder” designs than other suppliers on the market, pretending to expand the boundaries of aesthetics; it depends heavily on PR, powerful connections, etc. However, all suppliers of architectural services may achieve the latter by eloquently seducing their uncultured customers, whether they are elected decision-makers or private entrepreneurs (developers). To present something beautiful to humanity is a rare concern nowadays—a self-absorbed urge for narcissistic gratification, sharply contrasting with declarations of progressive intentions, has won out over the altruistic principles of the past (cf. the lifework of English architect Henry Roberts, 1803-76).

Since the interwar rebellion against traditionalism, marked by symbol-stripped, puritanical constructions, architects have produced “machines” intended to serve strictly technical purposes, with or without sparingly dispensed specimens of contemporary “art” — affixed like framed paintings on a bare wall.

The forerunners of modernism were a mixture of eccentrics and revolutionaries. They agreed on the break with tradition — and the abominated institutions of the bourgeoisie, including classical architecture. Regrettably, several of the rebellious architects were also willing to renounce their integrity and enter the service of the totalitarians.

As soon as the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, the revolutionary laboratory of Europe, architects and artists, without distinction, acquiesced to the sole purpose of glorifying the cult of revolution — or rather: those in charge. This meant that modernist whims in any form were suppressed in favor of a stylized, totalitarian idiom. So-called “constructivist” gave way to “Stalinist” (or “wedding-cake”) architecture. Unlike the products of modernism, which have nothing to express aesthetically, the “palaces of culture” from the Stalin era are exemplary of architectural ugliness.

Not until after the death of the tyrant, the International Style, more specifically variations on “brutalist architecture,” made its entry into the Soviet empire. It seemed, in fact, to be perfectly adjusted to a view of ordinary people as breeding animals in the collectivist utopia. The bare concrete blocks bathed in the smoke of heavy industry epitomized to a unique degree the unfree, joyless life under communism.

Why has modernism won its way in the West? Here, at bottom, we have had the freedom to choose between the beautiful and the alienating. Perhaps the explanation is ultimately a matter for neuropsychiatric research. It begins with the realization of neurodiversity. For some of us, beauty might represent a perceptual dimension that is simply inaccessible — and irreducible, strictly speaking. We know that the accessibility of external stimuli to the senses varies from species to species. Unlike humans, for instance, some insects perceive ultraviolet light. By analogy, the processing of sensory stimuli (i.e. perception) also seems to vary from person to person. Normal appreciation of beauty, which must reflect higher-level integration of sensory stimuli, goes well beyond mechanistic reproduction of those stimuli, as guided by the sense of sight or hearing, however accurate (e.g. the brush strokes of a painter or the notes of an opera tenor, respectively).

For ordinary people, beauty is essential for the experience of meaning in life. Some of us, however, travel everywhere in the world as eternal strangers, socially maladapted and isolated. Trying to socialize and mimic the tacit-rule behavior of others in detail, they are on overtime. When analyzing human activities, e.g. religion and politics, as if they were anthropologists from outer space, they show signs of exceptional (disproportional) intensity (Joan of Arc and Greta Thunberg, respectively) because they overcompensate for the lack of intuitive communion with the rest of us. This is not to say that they are incapable of originality and creativity, of course. Characterized by an undisturbed focus on details that escape the attention of ordinary people, they may have excellent, if not unique, skills of obvious importance to science and art.

As it turns out on closer inspection, the progress of humanity, to a surprising extent, is driven by people who, with the psychiatric diagnostics of today, would be labeled as “autistic”. Apparently, people like Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Niels Bohr were autistic. The same applies to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk. They have all contributed inestimably to the progress of humanity. Although significant to the human community, they are also detached from it.

If you look at the house drawings and town plans that were left behind by Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), a mastermind of cold-hearted experimentation with the human habitat, you may easily be gripped by anxiety. As used in contemporary architectural proposals, humans are reduced to well-behaved ants in his dystopian, disproportionate townscapes. How could it ever occur to anybody to trust the fate of an urban wonder like Paris with somebody like him — without any visible recognition of human dignity (cf. the 1925 planned redevelopment known as “Plan Voisin”); a person, what is more, insensitive to the emotional needs of so-called “neurotypicals”? He, who famously referred to a house as “a machine for living in”, would be at a loss to know what tradition means to ordinary people in terms of organic recognizability and cultural domesticity? What could he possibly think of emotionality and sociability as unmistakably human aspects of our adaptation to the environment?

Compared to the unprincipled, haut monde opportunists of the architectural profession, who lack a higher goal in life than to excel in the eyes of their colleagues (and dear old “mommy”, according to Belgian architect Léon Krier), as if it were all about first place in a sports club, and serving the masters willing to pay them here and now, the autistics tend to be uncompromising, rigid, and extreme. Although their working style is undisturbed immersion rather than expediency, they pose an imminent danger to the urban environments of the West.

The human approach to the world is characterized by emotional distraction and intellectual imperfection. However, this is also our strength and the basis for our success as a species throughout the ages. We recognize and socialize in parallel. Normal neurointegration provides behavioral flexibility in changing environments. Our complex perception involves dimensions whose aesthetic-ethical objects (i.e. the thing about a thing that is intuitively deemed “beautiful” or “fair”, respectively) are not captured by geometric or other technical calculations, deductible from tables etc. After all, this is what makes us human.

To oppose the alienating idiom of modernism, which partly derives from a different approach to the world than that of ordinary people, is to insist on (1) integration of organic motifs into architecture, (2) reverence for handed-down symbols, and (3) cultivation of (genuine) beauty in our surroundings. It is ultimately about the survival of civilization. About who we are and how we define ourselves as humans.

Image: ThomasLendt, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons, unaltered.

If you experience technical problems, please write to