explaining the crisis in architecture

Tyler Cowen recently posed the “mystifying question: Why has our advanced, modern and wealthy world ceased building beautiful neighborhoods?” He notes that the “modern world has produced striking individual buildings, such as Guggenheim Bilbao or the Seattle Public Library, among many others.” But “modern residential neighborhoods are not very aesthetically appealing.” He adds, “This is not a purely subjective judgment (though it is my personal subjective judgment).” Instead, it is a fact that people “pay money to see … older neighborhoods, dating as far back as medieval times but pretty much never after 1940. Tysons Corner just isn’t as charming as Old Town Alexandria.”

As in the good old days of the blogosphere, his article has generated in-depth replies, e.g., from Scott Alexander and Scott Sumner. You can find some disagreement about Cowen’s premise, plus a range of explanations, especially economic ones.

I would offer a different type of explanation. For a millennium, European architecture unfolded as a series of styles: romanesque, gothic, renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, rococo. During transitional periods, more than one style could be found in a given place, but usually a single style prevailed.

This situation had three major advantages. First, everyone from stonemasons to famous architects acquired complementary training and experience. If a certain kind of ornament was part of the style, architects knew how to sketch it; masons knew how to carve it. Second, architects could work from templates and models: they didn’t face a blank sheet of paper. They weren’t expected to be creative geniuses. Third, each style had a powerful justification. It was loaded with cultural significance. Just for example, renaissance architecture was a deliberate movement to restore the ethos of late-Roman Christianity, seen as the best era in history. It is inspiring to use an architectural repertoire if you are convinced that it is the best possible one.

Beginning in the late 1700s, Europeans learned much more about–and became more appreciative of–the history of culture and the many styles that has unfolded over time. Simultaneously, they became more conscious and somewhat more respectful of styles from the Middle East and Asia. They began to see cultures as plural and styles as aesthetic choices. “All artistic styles [are] bound in place and time,” wrote Nietzsche.

That recognition ended the procession of period styles. In the 1800s, almost all architecture by Europeans and European settlers on other continents was revivalist. Buildings were self-consciously gothic, or renaissance, or “Moorish” or “Mogul.” I have learned to appreciate this work, especially when it merges new technologies and social needs with revived styles. A 20-story cast-iron gothic building is an impressive innovation. Nevertheless, few 19th-century buildings meet Cowen’s test of drawing tourists for their architecture, as older buildings do. Certainly, people travel to see the neo-gothic Big Ben or the neo-classical US Capitol Building, but not specifically for their architecture.

Modernists decried revivalism as fake and bourgeois. They proposed an alternative: functionalism or minimalism. Modernists argued that architecture could transcend style permanently by expressing a building’s true function. Gropius wrote:

We have had enough and to spare of the arbitrary reproduction of historical styles … The modern building should derive its architectural significance solely from the vigour and consequence of its own organic proportions. It must be true to itself … A breach has been made with the past. … The morphology of dead styles has been destroyed; we are returning to honesty of thought and feeling.

Modernism produced many masterpieces and even whole impressive neighborhoods of ordinary buildings, as in Miami or Tel Aviv. But soon it was obvious that modernism, too, was a style. In theory, you can do all sorts of things with basic elements like flat walls and windows. In practice, a modernist building looked a certain way. Postmodernism then emerged as a critique of modernism’s pretense to have escaped style. A perfect example is Philip Johnson AT&S Building, a minimalist box with a “Chippendale” baroque roof tacked on the top.

The resulting crisis explains why everyday architecture is not as good as it was until ca. 1800. We still see new works of architectural genius–often buildings that work like original sculptures and that take full advantage of technology. In the absence of a prevailing style, a great artist can invent something personal and original. But that solution cannot work for whole neighborhoods.

We also have plenty of revivalism, with imitations of mid-century modernism now joining neo-Palladian and even neo-Gothic homes. I think it is a fair generalization that most of this is worse than the revivalism of the 19th century, partly for economic reasons (like the Baumol effect), and partly because we instinctively share the modernists’ resistance to imitating past styles. New styles also pop up periodically, like the one I tried to describe here and that others have amusingly named “Simcityism,” “McUrbanism,” “blandmarks,” “LoMo”, or “Spongebuild Squareparts.” Vernaculars like this one don’t last or spread widely, because they quickly look dated.

Quotations from Levine, Nietzsche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities (pp. 138-9). See also: architecture of the 2010s;  love what you see: Kogonada’s Columbus (2017); a way forward for high culture; what is cultural appropriation?; Notre-Dame is eminently restorable; Basilica of Notre-Dame, Montreal; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.