Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture

October 22, 2009

Architecture is the most politicised of professions. The process began after the First World War when Georg Walter Adolf Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and others associated with the Bauhaus movement evolved an anti-crafts and anti-historical ethos, rejected everything of the past, and determined to establish a tabula rasa. The results are manifest throughout the world: cities and towns have been wrecked by the intrusion of buildings that do not respect the environment in any way, perform badly, and are hated by those whose sensibilities have not been blunted beyond redemption.

Swaths of destruction have been carried out in the name of "Modernism": a world of uninhabitable cities, incessant noise, violent and pornographic "entertainment", a dangerous, selfish population, and all other attendant horrors is rapidly becoming the accepted norm. Even the buildings are distorted, misshapen and menacing, but, more importantly, owe nothing to historical geometries or references. We hear about "iconic" (a word which, like "fantastic", should be given a long rest) buildings, as architectural critics have become adept at wordplay that may sound impressive to the uneducated, but is really empty jargon, a meaningless pseudo-language, for cults invent their own liturgies and fraudulent posturings.

There grew around the Modern movement a new class of critics that promoted and promotes the outrageous and unintelligible: this class surrounds itself with others of similar bent in an orgy of back-scratching and self-promotion. The great hero of Modernism was a totalitarian, the Swiss-born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris. Like Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov ("Lenin") and Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili ("Stalin", or "Man of Steel"), he reinvented himself, in his case as "Le Corbusier". By means of simplistic slogans, tireless self-advertisement and a "rationality" that was nothing of the sort, he became the arch-priest of Modernism.

This book accurately points out that the success of Modernism lies in the fact that it is actually a religion, and one cannot use rational argument when discussing the irrational. "Ornament is a crime", "God is in the detail", "form follows function", architecture "hangs on the concept of honesty", and other slogans designed to appeal to the simple-minded still inform schools of architecture in which rigour is unknown: such places are more like playgroups in the Kindergarten, except students are initiated into an arcane cult, the central beliefs of which are that Gropius, Mies, Le Corbusier and other monsters are great masters. All three brown-nosed extremely nasty political regimes, and one Bauhausler (1928-31 vintage) designed a large part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau murder camp. His colleagues and teachers have done their best to create a hellish environment everywhere else: of the Modernist, one can say with confidence si monumentum requiris, circumspice, for his works are all around us.

Friedensreich Hundertwasser (born Friedrich Stowasser) wrote that "in architectural ... schools soulless dogma is ... taught; against reason, beauty, nature and man ... Young architects ... get their dreams taken away from them by force, or else they do not receive their diploma. Thus, only architects who have been brought into line ... have the right to build." Quite so: furthermore, these dreadful clones misuse language, especially scientific language (in doing so they wholly reject science), and get engineers to do the donkey-work of realising their fatuous schemes.

Millais has attempted to describe the scale and origins of a cultural catastrophe: his work is full of insights, but is spoiled by appalling grammar, inconsistency in the spelling of names, and far too many exclamation marks. He thanks Chris Fagg for "meticulous" editing: meticulous it is not, and the pictures are often not up to scratch either. More care and less sloppiness would have helped his case.

Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture

By Malcolm Millais. Frances Lincoln, 296pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780711229747. Published 2 July 2009

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