“We stand for the preservation and exaltation of higher culture in Britain. We reject utterly ‘modernist’ and ‘post-modernist’ public works, including but not limited to housing, public offices, courts and service stations. We would tear down or replace many of the eyesores currently littering Britain’s scenic and charming towns, cities and countryside. [. . .] We believe architects have a responsibility to preserve our cultural heritage and traditions.”
It is in no small terms a tragedy that the architecture of the European peoples has been reduced so far as to be a laughing stock of the world. Anything we create must be so void of beauty that one may suspect that is its only goal. It must be so plain and vacuous in terms of tradition, spirit, love and warmth, that one would think the architects of today intentionally wish to inflict pain upon the public.
Now, the Modernist and Post-Modernist movements have been going strong in many ways since shortly after World War 2, but for the purpose of this article, I will focus on the more modern broad strokes. In 1982, a debate took place at Harvard University between Christopher Alexander and the Jewish architect Peter Eisenman. The topic was “Contrasting Concepts of Harmony in Architecture”. Alexander argued for beauty, tradition, harmony in the natural sense, and beauty as objective. Eisenman argued for honesty, progress, proportion, harmony in the structural sense, and beauty as subjective.
He was only the most famous of the subversive and hate-filled class of people (read: redbrick architects) who want to instil discomfort and anomie upon society because that would be more “honest”. An interesting study by David Halpern in 1987 found that trained architects react in the exact inverse of the general population when ranking buildings in order of beauty.
These are the complaints that arise when architecture is discussed in reasonable circles:
- Space requirements and cost
- The subjective nature of beauty
Let me take them in turn:
- Space requirements and cost—if one will start with pragmatism, let’s go down this road: it is a trite libertarian observation that the government knocks down more individual dwelling units than they create—and at a significant cost—when they destroy a few streets of working class houses to construct a block of flats, this was most recently noted during the replacement of Georgian houses recently.
- The subjective nature of beauty—even granting that beauty is some far away, indefinable concept that no one can ever agree on, it is a simple fact that people prefer good-looking buildings. No one but a small number of architects and autistic Chinese visit the Gherkin or the Tate Modern, as opposed to cathedrals and stately houses. Idealism is finding beauty for the social good, & therefore finding agreeable beauty. The Sunday Times recently found that the top twenty places to live in Britain—as voted by happiness—are all places with an abundance of traditional architecture: it is just as important as green spaces are to mental health, a University of Warwick study found.
- Progress—the horrific spectre of “progress for progress’ sake” haunts architecture perhaps more invasively than in any other walk of life. Firstly, this comes from an irrational hatred of decorative elements and tradition, Bauhaus, Brutalism, Modernism—all fully imbibed the Soviet ideals of ugly simplicity, just as much as they poisoned themselves on the Capitalist cult of the Almighty Dollar. Secondly, the focus here is on the building itself, not on the people it is being built for—if the British people prefer tradition and beauty, that should be what is produced.
- Craftsmanship—this is probably the most common, & the most insulting. If this was the problem, we would have taught more craftsmen, or we would now use 3D printers and CNC machines.
Architecture should absolutely not reflect its time, but should reflect the best of humanity. We now live in a postmodern simulation post-scarcity late-stage Capitalist society, and technology has improved exponentially and always continues to do so, but to conflate that improvement with human experience is, in our estimation, ridiculous.
Roger Scruton puts it thus:
“If you consider only utility, the things you build will soon be useless.”
And a certain Twitter user summed it up perfectly:
Create places your ancestors would recognise and your descendants will be proud of.
Indeed, we argue that the aesthetic qualities within the public space are integral to our spirit, & we must ensure our people strive to push for the demolition of ugly buildings, and the construction of beautiful ones.
2 thoughts on “Concrete jungles”
I read about this argument for purposefully ugly architecture being ‘honest’ not too long ago. It is supposed to be an honesty about the process and materials of construction – like a ressentiment for having to engage in the process of creation rather than a pride in shaping the world.
The argument made for progress by these architects is of utmost imbecility. Progress is not made by wiping away the past but by learning from the best which our ancestors endeavoured to master. That is what is meany by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ which great minds knew in the past but people have determined to forget in striving for collective amnesia.
I have wanted to tackle this notion of the subjective nature of beauty for so long. I wrote a very brief post about it, but there is definitely much more to go into. I have looked into the studies of aesthetics by Tatarkiewicz which outlines and excerpts past masters and there was definitely a very concrete notion of what constituted beauty as well defined methodologies for acheiving it.
It is really the economism of our time that I struggle with the most, as its dogmas threaten to destroy anything which is not amenable to the logic of the marketplace.
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Thanks for reading and commenting. This, in particular the “standing on the shoulders of giants,” was on my mind earlier today. I’m writing an article on riding the tiger and conflating modern thought with Enlightenment thought, as far as Kant goes, where each individual person’s knowledge is more important, or should be viewed as something greater, than the communal.
I would say it is almost certainly ressentiment, perhaps once driven by secularism, but now driven by the turning wheel of modernity itself. I have you followed so I’m sure I’ll see it, but let me know if you manage the article. Shall look into Tatarkiewicz. As a young boy I remember reading an old encyclopædia and reading that there were standards of beauty that were societally accepted, it seemed so foreign to me; the reason and logic, not only of the marketplace — though that might be pre-eminent as far as architecture goes — but of how we experience the world is so thoroughly subjectivised.
Pride in shaping the world: that’s the right attitude. If there’s ever an argument for “going back” rather than “overcoming,” it’s in this sphere.
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