Making Dystopia is an important and necessary book.1 It is an examination, by the eminent architectural historian Professor James Stevens Curl, of “the strange rise and survival of architectural barbarism” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. There have been demolitions before of the bogus philosophical, sociological, aesthetic, and moral underpinnings of the modern movement and its disastrous legacy for housing, urbanism, and the built environment generally (notably David Watkin’s Morality and Architecture, first published in 1977), but Making Dystopia is the first encyclopedic historical account that is also genuinely critical. Until now, weighty histories of equivalent scope—such as William Curtis’s Modern Architecture Since 1900 and Kenneth Frampton’s Modern Architecture: A Critical History—have all been by modernist enthusiasts, such has the movement’s stranglehold been on the architectural academy and the press for the past seventy years.
The essence of this eloquent account will already be familiar to those with an unblinkered interest in architecture, or to those who have had personal cause to rue the consequences of the peculiar hero-worship of 1930s modernists like Le Corbusier, Gropius, et al. Commenting on the demise of the “Corbusian” Pruitt–Igoe housing complex in St. Louis (dynamited in 1972), Curl writes:
[T]he people who inhabited the development felt no connection with the Corbusian open spaces and did not “interact” positively with each other in the increasingly grim public areas. Very soon the development suffered from appalling vandalism, defacement, arson, and violent crime on a terrifying scale. The lifts designed to explore fads such as only stopping on the fourth, seventh, and tenth floors, soon became urine-soaked pissoirs that were admirably suited to aid muggings, criminal squalor, and general violence.
Professor Curl has dug behind and chiseled away at the details of a history veneered over by decades of received modernist mythmaking. The picture he exposes is, by turns, fascinating and depressing. It reveals, for example, how the nearest thing to a sane manifesto for urbanism was the 1950 “Sixteen Principles of Urban Design” of the ddr; how Bauhaus philosophy under Gropius retreated from its initial emphasis on knowledge of building craftsmanship to an emphasis on social engineering in the training of architects; how Erich Mendelsohn, arguably modernism’s best practitioner, was largely erased from its grand narrative by a combination of Soviet-style ideological “purging” and covert anti-Semitism; how in 1965 a proposal “for the redevelopment of Whitehall, London, involving the demolition of almost every building south of Downing Street . . . . an appallingly destructive and insensitive scheme,” was “only dropped in 1970” due (mercifully) to government inertia.
To the list of horrific anecdotes, Curl adds the story of how in 1960s Britain, “tens of thousands of perfectly sound houses were compulsorily acquired, stripped of their roof coverings (to deter squatters), boarded up and left to rot, yet the ‘developments’ never happened.” I had personal experience of just this in the 1970s in my own neighborhood. The three-story Victorian terraced houses, eventually demolished (after ten years of local authority inaction), would now be worth around £500,000 each.
Making Dystopia is also unique for its wealth of quotations from that great number of wiser souls who saw through the dangerous folly of modernist theory and practice right from its beginnings after World War I, voices that were largely drowned out at the time by the emerging groupthink of the intelligentsia and that have been ignored ever since. If I had to select just one from the book’s vast treasure trove, it would be this by Sir Reginald Blomfield in 1934:
Literature and the written word established a disastrous domination in arts not their own, and all sorts of strange ideals were introduced and pursued with an enthusiasm which constantly missed the mark, because most of its aims were irrelevant to the art of architecture.
This, I believe, is the root of the whole sorry saga of the utopian, iconoclastic, originality-obsessed posturing in twentieth- and twenty-first-century architecture. Blomfield’s jeremiad also touches on the parallel story of the degradation of the visual arts. (Attacking the “genius” of Picasso in bien-pensant circles puts you on a level with a flat earther.) Curl’s first chapter, “Origins of a Catastrophe,” explores in depth how revered nineteenth-century figures like Pugin and Ruskin unwittingly laid the foundations for the “disastrous domination . . . of the written word” in the twentieth century by introducing verbose and alien notions about honesty, morality, and truth into the essentially artistic discipline of architecture.
This is, however, no crudely polemical work; the appraisal of Mies van der Rohe, Mendelsohn, Philip Johnson, and Nikolaus Pevsner—to name a few—is always nuanced and always thorough, if tart. And even as Curl makes his excoriating attack on Le Corbusier, he accords his architectural opponents more intellectual substance than they actually have: “A careful, clear-headed reading of what he himself wrote should be enough to convince any reasonable person of Le Corbusier’s unsuitability as a mentor whose programmes should be emulated.” This is taking understatement too far. My own assessment is harsher: reading any two sentences is enough to make it blindingly obvious that Le Corbusier was nothing more than an egomaniac with unmistakable personality problems. Le Corbusier’s pronouncements are a honeypot of (unintended) black comedy; Curl quotes this (third-person) stunner:
Le Corbusier creates architecture recklessly. He pursues disinterested ideas; he does not wish to compromise himself in betrayals, in compromises. It is an entity free of the burdens of carnality. He must . . . never disappoint.
We are taken, in exhaustive detail, through the long, dispiriting catalogue of verbose twentieth-century proselytizing from so many Bauhaus-influenced, self-appointed radicals with their arrogant ‘‘we must this or that,” “needs of the masses,” “machine for living” rhetoric. It raises the question: how, of all of them, was it Le Corbusier in particular that came to be deified by the architectural cognoscenti? I suspect that, in the case of Le Corbusier, it is partly that the English-speaking intelligentsia has always (still does) pander to anything “French.” There is a great irony in the fact that, to assemble this historical record of twentieth-century architectural folly, Professor Curl has had to devote so many pages to the examination of a vast accretion of pseudo-intellectual theorizing that in itself is (and always was) almost entirely worthless.
How, of all of them, was it Le Corbusier in particular that came to be deified by the architectural cognoscenti?
Curl is good on more recent architecture, too. His description of the deconstructivist “icons” of vain, attention-seeking “star” architects as “Californian-[type] roadside attractions” designed for “cultural tourism” is devastatingly on the mark. Their “blobs, crumples, clashing curves, folds, twistings, and scattered, unrelated, apparently random shapes” are created “at huge expense” in a “quest for immediate impact, [which,] given the gestation period, already looks old fashioned.” We read too of the art gallery whose architect “demands that no ‘art’ should be hung” on its out-of-plumb walls and the house “which featured a door too narrow to be entered without turning sideways . . . and a staircase that could not be climbed.”
I do think Curl might—as a counterweight to these shouty abominations—have made more of the success stories of recent architecture, for instance the delicate glass-and-steel interventions designed precisely so as not to overwhelm the adjoining historic fabric. Recent spec housing estates (in Britain at least) are considerably less awful now than at any time in the last fifty years. And then there are the special cases of places such as downtown Manhattan. Surely this is a marvel of “modern” urbanism. And Frank Lloyd Wright barely gets a mention, a glaring omission for a work of this scope.
But the most interesting aspect of “the strange survival of architectural barbarism” is, for me, why “Corb” hero-worship remains ubiquitous to this day in our schools of architecture and in the architectural press, while the influence of his ideas on countless town centers and residential neighborhoods has been entirely discredited, in the wider public perception, from the 1970s on.
I myself enrolled at a British school of architecture in the 1980s. I was already in my late thirties, leaving behind a previous career as a lecturer in English, and so, in addition to more positive motives, I had hoped to escape the suffocating political correctness that was then (and of course still is) the intellectual straitjacket at all levels of the education profession. In this respect, I was in for a big disappointment. It became clear the first week of the autumn term that a central tenet of the course was that we should all be eternally grateful to the great “Corb” for showing us the way in architecture. I was already aware of Le Corbusier and knew him to have been a man entirely undeserving of his heroic status—a man whose every utterance betrayed both a limited intelligence and a tendency to megalomania. I also quickly realized, however, that to have proffered this opinion out loud would effectively have meant dropping the course.
As it happens, the architectural history lecturer on my course was Professor Curl. His weekly lectures were an island of clarity and substance in a sea of arcane abstraction (one recalls again Blomfield’s observation about the written word coming to dominate the visual arts). It would be ungracious to fail to discriminate between the best and the worst of the other lecturers; the best of them were passionate and energetic (if wrong-headed) in their teaching; the worst were shockingly clapped-out automata; but from Professor Curl I learned to differentiate the beautiful, the picturesque, and the sublime. I came to understand that my own design projects should strive for “firmness, commodity, and delight.” From some of the others I learned nothing at all except that once you have a sinecure in a British university you can be as lazy-minded as you like without fear of being sacked—something of which I already had a sense. For Professor Curl to have endured this intellectual climate must have taken much fortitude.
My design tutors were diligent and dedicated people in their own way. If you came up with a tradition-inspired design, they would not be angry with you; they would work with you to try and rethink your design so as to be something more akin to an Abstract Expressionist sculpture. Before you presented it for critical review, they would help you to come up with a quick post hoc rationale about how your design had emerged from a profound intellectual journey and analysis of the project-design brief. This brief would require your design to be “inclusive,” “thought-provoking,” “democratic,” and/or “fun.”
When I recall my fellow students—some of them very talented draftsmen—it is not wrong-headed undergraduate intellectual posturing that springs to mind. Rather, it is their absence of intellectuality of any stamp, which perhaps goes a long way to account for how modernist groupthink among school staff remains unchallenged decade after decade. To the typical student, the philosophical or social engineering underpinning their design projects was a kind of mental second fix, akin to bringing in the decorators.
To the typical student, the philosophical or social engineering underpinning their design projects was a kind of mental second fix, akin to bringing in the decorators.
I had cherished the hope that things had improved since my time till I came across a diploma course prospectus on “Meta-Elements and Integrated Morphologies” from the United Kingdom’s most prestigious school of architecture (the Architectural Association), a brief snippet of which reads as follows:
We will conflate several scales and levels of work on new models for “dis-continuity and coherence,” tackling urban “meta-elements” as architectural diagrams and morphologies. Building upon our previous cities of multiplied utopias and artefacts, ruptured transfers, systems and frameworks and, ultimately, conceptual and spatial playgrounds in space-time . . . . Our search will go beyond straightforward augmentation—of Hyper-Buildings, Super-Blocks and Meta-Streets—as we try to circumscribe and categorise architectural segments of the city. And we will also question previous shortcuts in scale and complexity—from containing diffused fields of architectural particles within mega-frameworks or variations on Arks, Babels and Arcologies, to enforcing and indexing systemic models of accumulation and growth—seeking internally coherent objects-devices that can also tackle fraught issues of monumentality and identity, agency and resilience.
How then, given the abundant evidence—of town centers ripped apart by highway engineers with wastelands of sloap (space left over after planning) and nightmare utopian social-housing developments demolished—can this sort of pretentious pseudo-intellectual twaddle still fester in our schools of architecture? It’s even worse when one knows of the previous architectural disasters that were spawned from very similar kinds of abstract pseudo-theorizing: “Architectural education for far too long has been hermetically sealed from reality, a form of navel-gazing, irrelevant to the real world outside,” Curl writes.
Professor Curl relates how, from the esoteric, perverse, and ominous—but largely unrealized—theorizing of the 1930s, architecture in the Western world experienced a step-change from 1945 on, an explosion in the scale and quantity of actual modernist construction and a concomitant disfigurement of towns and destruction of neighborhoods. He places much emphasis (and no doubt rightly) on the complicity of political and commercial interests in this unfolding tragedy. But there is, in my view, another major factor, namely the huge post-war expansion both of academia and of the television media and the consequent ever-growing power of an academia–media intelligentsia nexus to spread a pervasive intellectual groupthink on all but the most unbiddable minds.
The inevitable focus in a scholarly work like Making Dystopia on the folly of famous and powerful individuals and cultural institutions tends to underplay the responsibility of countless fellow travelers—academics, journalists, “educated” graduate professionals, and assorted members of the chattering classes—in the “strange survival of this architectural barbarism.” The kind of minds that have been swept along by modernism or deconstructivism or parametricism are the same kind swept along by an assortment of other intellectual fads; their discourse will be peppered with all sorts of virtue-signaling cant. As I write, I can guarantee that, in some school of architecture somewhere, students are being presented with a project brief stressing that their design must include measures to meet the “needs” of the “transgender community”—an issue that just a few years ago would never have aroused a moment’s thought.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 75
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