Medical Tuesday Blog
Crimes in Concrete by Theodore Dalrymple June 2019
In a recent debate in Prospect magazine on the question of whether modern architecture has ruined British towns and cities, Professor James Stevens Curl, one of Britain’s most distinguished architectural historians, wrote as his opening salvo:
Visitors to these islands who have eyes to see will observe that there is hardly a town or city that has not had its streets—and skyline—wrecked by insensitive, crude, post-1945 additions which ignore established geometries, urban grain, scale, materials, and emphases.
This is so self-evidently true that I find it hard to understand how anyone could deny it, but modern architects and hangers-on such as architectural journalists do deny it, like war criminals who, for obvious reasons, continue to deny their crimes in the face of overwhelming evidence.
This is true not only of Britain but of many, perhaps most, other countries that have or had any towns or cities to ruin. Anyone who rides into the center of Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport, for example, will be appalled at the modernist visual hell that scours his eyes as he goes.
Nor is this visual hell the consequence of the need to build cheaply. Where money is no object, contemporary architects, like the sleep of reason in Goya’s etching, bring forth monsters. The Tour Montparnasse (said to be the most hated building in Paris), the Centre Pompidou, the Opéra Bastille, the Musée du quai Branly, the new Philharmonie, do not owe their preternatural ugliness to lack of funds, but rather to the incapacity, one might say the ferocious unwillingness, of architects to build anything beautiful, and to their determination to leave their mark on the city as a dog leaves its mark on a tree.
Professor Curl’s magnum opus is both scholarly and polemical. He has been observing the onward march of modernism and its effects for sixty years and is justifiably outraged by it. British architects have managed to reverse the terms of the anarchist Bakunin’s dictum that the urge to destroy is also a creative urge: Their urge to create is also a destructive urge. I could give many concrete examples (no pun intended).
Making Dystopia is not just a cri de coeur, however. It is a detailed account of the origins, rise, effect, and hegemony of architectural modernism and its successors, and of how architecture became (to a large extent) a hermetic cult that seals itself off from the criticism of hoi polloi—among whom is included Prince Charles—and established its dominance by a mixture of bureaucratic intrigue, intellectual terrorism, and appeal to raw political and financial interest. If success is measured by power and hold over a profession rather than by intrinsic worth, then the modernist movement in architecture has been an almost unparalleled success. Only relatively recently has resistance begun to form, and often all too late:
Many ingenious lovely things are gone That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude.
Professor Curl’s book is particularly strong on the historiographical lies peddled by the apologists for modernism, and on the intellectual weakness of the arguments for the necessity of modernism. For example, architectural historians and theoreticians such as Sigfried Giedion, Arthur Korn, and Nikolaus Pevsner claimed to see in modernism the logical continuation of the European architectural tradition, and Pevsner even recruited such figures as William Morris and C. F. A. Voysey as progenitors of the movement. Pevsner was so enamored of Gropius and the Modernists that he wanted to claim a noble descent for them, as humble but ambitious people were once inclined to find a distant aristocratic forebear. Yet Voysey could hardly have been more hostile to the movement that co-opted him. The Modern Movement, he said, was pitifully full of such faults as proportions that were vulgarly aggressive, mountebank eccentricities in detail, and windows built lying down on their sides. . . . This was false originality; the true originality having been for all time the spiritual something given to the development of traditional forms by the individual artist.
Pevsner (to whom, incidentally, Curl pays tribute for his past generosity to young scholars, including himself), with all the academic and moral prestige and authority that attached to his name, was able to incorporate Voysey—unable to speak for himself or protest after his death—into the direct ancestry of modernism, even though the merest glance at his work, or at that of William Morris, should have been sufficient to warn anyone that Pevsner’s historiography made a bed of Procrustes seem positively made to measure.
One of the Holy Trinity of architectural modernism, Le Corbusier, often presented himself in his writings as being in apostolic succession to the great architects of the past, and he littered his texts with little worthless sketches of the Parthenon and other great buildings to prove it. He accused those who did not accept the connection as being unable to see—as a mathematical physicist might say of a layman that he did not understand quantum theory—thereby beginning a campaign of intellectual terrorization of the laity that has lasted to this day. . .
The most startling instance of the modernists’ elective affinity with totalitarianism is of course Le Corbusier. To call him a fascist is not to hurl all-purpose abuse at him, but to state a literal truth. But, as Curl wryly remarks, you won’t hear any of this in a British architectural school—let alone a French one, despite the fact that in 1941, only a year after the Exode (the flight of eight million Frenchmen before the advancing Germans), Le Corbusier wrote a booklet, Destin de Paris, proposing to deport a large proportion of the population of Paris to the countryside, since in his elevated opinion they had no business living there in the first place.
To what kind of man could such a thought even have occurred, much less at such a time? Le Corbusier had the sensibility of a totalitarian dictator, as is evidenced by his Plan Voisin, by which he planned to turn much of Paris into a kind of Novosibirsk-sur-Seine. He loathed streets and street life, because for him they represented disorder and spontaneity instead of discipline, strict hierarchy, and what he considered, in his highly limited and autistic way, rationality. Personally, I do not see how anybody could fail to detect his essential authoritarianism just by looking at his designs, even without knowing that he aspired to lay down the law for the architecture of the whole world—which, to a horrible extent, he managed to do.
Although Le Corbusier’s fascist sympathies, outlook, and sensibility had been a matter of indisputable public record for years, they were forgotten as soon as the war was over, and it came as something of a shock when they were revealed (yet again) in two books published in France in 2015. The shock passed, of course, and he is still regarded in architectural circles as the architectural knight sans peur et sans reproche. To utter criticism of Le Corbusier in architecture school is apparently like criticizing the character of Muhammad in Mecca. The French architect Marc Perelman ruined his own academic career in 1986 by publishing Urbs ex machina: Le Corbusier: le courant froid de l’architecture.
What accounts for the survival of this cold current of architecture that has done so much to disenchant the urban world—the original modernism having been succeeded by different styles, but all of them just as lizard-eyed? According to Curl, the profession of architecture has become a cult. It is worth quoting him in extenso:
A dangerous cult may be defined as a kind of false religion, adoption of a system of belief based on mere assertions with no factual foundations, or as excessive, almost idolatrous, admiration for a person, persons, an idea, or even a fad. The adulation accorded to Le Corbusier, accorded almost the status of a deity in architectural circles, is just one example. It has certain characteristics which may be summarized as follows: it is destructive; it isolates its believers; it claims superior knowledge and morality; it demands subservience, conformity, and obedience; it is adept at brainwashing; it imposes its own assertions as dogma, and will not countenance any dissent; it is self-referential; and it invents its own arcane language, incomprehensible to outsiders. . .
Making Dystopia is much more than a very detailed critique of a building or two here or there. It is an angry criticism of an entire worldview—the worldview of the type of person who much prefers his worldview to the world, and in so doing causes untold ruination. The editor of the Royal Institute of British Architects Journal, Hugh Pearman, wrote a scathing but inaccurate review, whose very subtitle was a flagrant misrepresentation: If it’s not trad, he ain’t glad. In fact, in criticizing modernism and its successor movements, Curl is promoting no particular type of architecture, any more than if I criticize McDonald’s hamburgers. I am saying that all cuisine should be French or Italian or anything else. Of course, Mr. Pearman has a right to his private opinion of the book, but as editor of the Institute’s Journal he must have known that he was, in effect, speaking ex cathedra for the British profession as a whole. This impression was reinforced when he printed no criticism of his own review but tweeted instead,
I’m getting loads of letters (mostly written on paper from elderly men with no email address) supporting the deranged recent writings of James Stevens Curl . . .
The fury against Curl, I suspect, was an implicit admission that he was right. A review by Stephen Bayley in the Spectator, titled Modernist architecture isn’t barbarous – but the blinkered rejection of it is, claimed that Curl’s own views are dystopian (unlike, presumably, Le Corbusier’s plans for Paris, Algiers, Stockholm, Moscow, Antwerp, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro). Bayley wrote:
Yes, modernist principles, misunderstood by unimaginative planners, often led to atrocious results. Le Corbusier’s ‘vertical garden cities’ became vertical slums. And there is only a sliver of difference between Walter Gropius’s lofty Bauhaus ideals and a crap council estate. . .
Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Grief and Other Stories.
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