October 5, 2005


The Life And Death Of England's Cities (Ed Driscoll, August 07, 2005)

[Theodore] Dalrymple places much of the wreckage done in the name of modern architecture firmly at the feet of Le Corbusier, the Swiss born, but thoroughly French modern architect, who spent his entire life--first symbolically, and then eventually literally--dynamiting the street, something he saw as all too messy, with its smells of cooking, corner merchants, kids running and bicycling, parents conversing on stoops, etc.

Like most of Europe's modernist architects, Corbusier came to prominence in the 1920s, when he built a series of remarkable--and remarkably handsome--expensive, airy white flat-roofed homes for the wealthy patrons of Paris's art community (Michael Stein was one of Corbu's early patrons--the home he built for Stein in Garches, France would eventually become hugely influential in its form. The brother of Gertrude, both were American expatriates living abroad.)

In many respects, these folks were the predecessors to the social class that David Brooks wrote about so memorably about a few years ago. Rather than today's Bobos In Paradise, these were proto-bobos in Paris, and they had the money and inclination to fund not just modern art, but modern architecture, and found the perfect avant garde architect in "Corbu".

Corbu's architecture worked splendidly when he was building private homes for wealthy patrons who desired to live in their austere modernism, and maintain the enormous upkeep they required with their pure white walls and flat roofs.

But Corbu also saw himself as a social planner desiring to work on an enormous scale. As Dalrymple wrote in another, more recent, essay on modern architecture:

Le Corbusier (the French-Swiss architect) once said, a house is a machine for living in. By the same token, a school is a machine for being taught in, and a hospital for being cured in. Unfortunately, if you spend you entire life living in machines, you are likely to end up by feeling like a machine part.

Le Corbusier wanted to raze Paris to the ground and start again. Its irregularity, its nooks and crannies, its accretions of ornament, its grandeur, its illogicality and lack of overall plan, irritated him. He thought he could do better: pull the whole lot down – Sainte Chapelle, the Louvre, Notre Dame, everything – and replace it with militarised ranks of buildings like the UN Headquarters, separated by open spaces in which rapists might safely rape for lack of anyone else in them. Cars would speed down the multi-lane highways between the ranks of the buildings, as people (those irritating flies in the ointment) rushed from one machine to do something in to another,

Well, his dream – everyone else’s nightmare, of course – has come true, at least in small part. All over the world, people have been decanted into dwellings that provide them with cubic space and the bare amenities but little else. When I say people, I mean principally the poor, of course, those with little choice of where to live; the architects and planners who do the decanting them prefer to live in bijou cottages or, where available, Georgian mansions. Not for them the self-denying ordinance of frugal functionality: it is the ornament of others they hate and despise, not their own. Hell for them is not just other people, it is other people’s taste.

What is so obvious about the Corbusian vision, and that of so many of its followers, is its complete lack of tenderness, its deliberate, full-frontal brutalism, as if the only thing that protects is from the sentimentality of kitsch is a complete and conscious rejection of anything approaching ornament, of anything that could imply a fondness for the world. In other worlds, the Corbusian vision is but a gestalt-switch away from kitsch, upon the existence of which its own existence is parasitic.

Perhaps it is not altogether surprising that people who live in a brutal or brutalised architectural world should themselves so often turn out brutal or brutalised. My argument does not require, of course, that bad architecture should be the only or even the main cause of human brutality; it would be obviously absurd to argue that human brutality first entered the world with Le Corbusier. But it is not surprising if people who are herded into machines for living in, and are educated in machines for learning in, and cured when they are ill in machines for being cured in, should not have a very tender attitude to their surroundings or even their fellow machine-inhabitants.

Brother Driscoll not only offers his own cogent thoughts but mixes in Theodore Dalrymple, Jane Jacobs, and Tom Wolfe.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2005 8:07 AM

Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!
It isn't fit for humans now,
There isn't grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!

Come, bombs and blow to smithereens
Those air -conditioned, bright canteens,
Tinned fruit, tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned beans,
Tinned minds, tinned breath.

Mess up the mess they call a town-
A house for ninety-seven down
And once a week a half a crown
For twenty years.

And get that man with double chin
Who'll always cheat and always win,
Who washes his repulsive skin
In women's tears:

And smash his desk of polished oak
And smash his hands so used to stroke
And stop his boring dirty joke
And make him yell.

But spare the bald young clerks who add
The profits of the stinking cad;
It's not their fault that they are mad,
They've tasted Hell.

It's not their fault they do not know
The birdsong from the radio,
It's not their fault they often go
To Maidenhead

And talk of sport and makes of cars
In various bogus-Tudor bars
And daren't look up and see the stars
But belch instead.

In labour-saving homes, with care
Their wives frizz out peroxide hair
And dry it in synthetic air
And paint their nails.

Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough
To get it ready for the plough.
The cabbages are coming now;
The earth exhales.

John Betjeman - 'Slough'

Posted by: Brit at October 5, 2005 9:29 AM

Corbu's architecture worked splendidly when he was building private homes for wealthy patrons who desired to live in their austere modernism, and maintain the enormous upkeep they required with their pure white walls and flat roofs.

Enormous upkeep? What does he mean? The less stuff hanging from the walls, the less you have to dust. That is one benefit of minimalist living, the lessening of upkeep.

But Corbu also saw himself as a social planner desiring to work on an enormous scale.

All artists see thmselves this way, that is why we need to ignore their social/political visions and treat them as mere artisans/craftsmen selling wares. More death and destruction has been caused by aesthetic prejudices than just about any other kind. Hitler was an artist, and the world was his bloody canvas.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at October 5, 2005 9:58 AM

If after reading Br. Driscoll's essay you crave more, try "Degenerate Moderns" by E. Michael Jones. Ugly goes all the way down.

Posted by: Luciferous at October 5, 2005 11:37 AM

Some of the rationality was a good idea - but not at the expense of destroying neighborhoods. They build community.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 5, 2005 12:02 PM

Enormous upkeep resulting from leaky flat roofs.

Houses that lack eaves and gutters also get dirty fast. The exterior walls need to be cleaned and painted more often.

Posted by: Mark at October 5, 2005 12:28 PM

Brother Driscoll, that essay rocks!

Posted by: Mike Morley at October 5, 2005 12:31 PM

Great stuff, Ed. If you try and talk to modern architects about this, you stand a good chance of being treated to a lecture about how fetid, dark and unhealthy old-style housing was and how modern architecture has given everyone light and air, etc. If you press them on some of the social consequences Ed has detailed so artfully, they go into libertarian mode and attribute it to education, bad choices, etc.--anything but the architecture. They can be a bit nostalgic for the gables and stonework, perhaps, but nothing that would give them serious pause. They simply can't get their heads around the tensions between the material and the social/spiritual.

Posted by: Peter B at October 5, 2005 12:54 PM

Supposedly, Disraeli was touring a new building and said something to the effect that it was a pity that no architect was shot like Admiral Byng to encourage the others.

Posted by: Bob at October 5, 2005 1:33 PM

Thanks guys--and thanks Orrin for linking to it.

Part of my writing that post was coming to terms with what happened to modern architecture over the course of the 20th century, something whose early aesthetics I enjoyed. (Go easy on me here guys--I used to spend hours at New York's Museum of Modern Art in the late '80s and early '90s. The Kool-Aid takes a while to wear off...)

Reading the language of its pioneers, there was an anti-humanism built into it right from the start. But that's not as immediately apparent, when you're building expensive homes, custom drafted for wealthy clients like Michael Stein in France, or Mies's early patrons, the Tugendhats of Czechoslovakia.

Dalrymple and Jacobs do an incredible job of showing the sad outcome when the modernists accomplished their socialist dreams of actually building on a mass scale for the poor and working class.

Posted by: Ed Driscoll at October 5, 2005 1:57 PM

I'm a middle of the roader when it comes to the minimalist-ornamentalist spectrum. Too much ornamentation can overwhelm and dwarf the human dimension as well. I grew up in old houses from the 19th and early 20th centuries, so the newer, cleaner styles from the 40's and 50's held a certain appeal for me, especially during the glory days of the space program.

You can't chalk up the minimalist mindset entirely to secular materialism, it has its parallels in earlier religious movements such as Puritanism and various ascetisms of the past. When I read or hear religious tirades extolling purity and denouncing idols and graven images, I am reminded of the Bauhaus modernists.

It is interesting to contemplate the psychological underpinnings of such aesthetic motivations. I think it is safe to say that women are by nature more attracted to ornamentation than men. It wouldn't shock me to discover that there is probably a great deal of anti-feminine feeling underpinning many of these purification movements. The modern architecture movement came on the heels of the Victorian era, where ornamentation and feminine influence in art and design were at a high point.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at October 5, 2005 3:17 PM

Brasilia is just such a city.

Posted by: Jorge Curioso at October 5, 2005 5:39 PM