The Problem of Architecture

I want to address architecture, and I’m going to take a fairly narrow view. First, some history as I understand it.

The early twentieth century saw the birth of modern architecture, with its epicenter at the Bauhaus school in Germany. It was popularized by figures such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. The central idea was to wash away all the historical accretions that had burdened architecture for centuries and represented a world of religion, hierarchy, and colonialism. To this end its practitioners believed, like every Enlightenment movement, they could tease out the essential nature of architecture and fashion it anew based on rational principles. They could create a new architecture with no homeland and no problematic historical associations using their best reasoning skills. The form this took was highly abstract and geometric, with the motto “Form follows function” used as a sort of cleansing watchword that could guide the modern architect. “Less is more.”

It’s not hard to see modern architecture’s parallels with modernist urban planning. The latter discipline thought it could similarly cleanse city building of its inefficiencies and historical baggage (such as mixed use neighborhoods and narrow streets) for the sake of redoing the city from the ground up on a more rational, technological plan. Modern architecture then formed the perfect complement to modernist city planning, and the two went merrily about bulldozing vast swathes of our cities and erecting glass and steel boxes upon the ruins. We even thought we could fix poverty by tearing down “slums” (i.e., walkable, human-scaled mixed use districts) and building siloed street-shunning concrete highrises instead. As Charles Jencks commented, however, that vision died in St. Louis, Missouri, on July 15, 1972, at 3:32 p.m., when the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex was dynamited. In its time, the towering monoliths had deteriorated into crime-ridden, dysfunctional concrete prisons. Whatever life had been like in the “slums,” the short-lived experiment of Pruitt-Igoe suggests it was worse within its steel-reinforced walls.

What came afterward, though? As postmodernism permeated our culture beginning in the 1960s, we saw two developments: one, planners began to realize that modernism had created more problems than it had solved. This is what allowed movements like the New Urbanism and New Traditionalism to grow and blossom. Two, architects entered a period of civil war in which figures like Jencks, Robert Venturi, Charles Moore, and Frank Gehry broke with modernist orthodoxy and reintroduced ornament and “superfluousness” into their projects, drawing the ire of much of the establishment. The postmodernists used historical reference, symbolism, irony, and the play of meaning to code their buildings. Postmodern movements in planning allowed themselves the same freedom, introducing mixed usage, town centers, and faux main streets into master plans and form-based code books.

Where do we find ourselves now? According to many, we’ve entered the metamodern era, which is characterized by an oscillation between postmodernism and modernism. This is an era of self-conscious sincerity. We have witnessed the collapse of the grand narratives and scientific hubris of modernism, but we have also become dissatisfied with the agnosticism and irony of postmodernism. Therefore, while acknowledging our limitedness and the impossibility of ever discerning the whole truth (postmodernism), we dare to make affirmations and nevertheless believe that we can live in a way that is somehow true (modernism).

This is reflected in what you see getting built these days. Come to a booming city like Nashville and you will see both traditional neighborhood design being implemented everywhere, combined with modernist cube-like buildings. Even politically, people seem to be embracing both diversity (intersectionality, for instance, which seeks to level and erase former hierarchies) and also what are seen as functionally necessary grand narratives (like the need to combat climate change).

I’m of mixed opinion about all this. I readily welcome planning’s return to traditional development patterns. However, I don’t believe modernist architecture is conducive to human psychological health. Go read Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment, by Ann Sussman and Justin Hollander. Humans like visual clutter and ornamentation: it reminds us of the complex wooded environments we evolved in. We also like balance and symmetry: it reminds us of the organic balance and symmetry we see in faces, for instance.

Postmodern architecture attempted to get back to this, but it largely failed. The attempt to be un-serious led basically to goofiness. Some buildings are at least interesting, and some have found enduring popularity, like the Batman building in Nashville. But one look across the suburban strip mall hellscape will fill your eyeballs with enough Play-Doh-looking EIFS parapet gables and giant-sized cornices to make you beg for mercy. Corporate postmodern architecture is abominable. But again, the solution is not to do away with ornament all together and go back to sleek, clean modernism, which is what most builders seem to be doing with their urban residential options.

The solution is to train our architects in traditional architecture again. Whatever you think about its associations, the principles it used: proportion, balance, symmetry, weight, massing–all the “rules” that one needs to follow to design something biologically pleasing to the human species–need to see a revival.

Architects: end your experiment! It may be boring to you to have to follow rules (those are for engineers, right?), but it would make our environments less stress-inducing. Humble yourselves. In the wake of the failure of the modernist project, we’ve all had to.

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