Urbanities

Roger Scruton
After Modernism
Spring 2000

Architectural modernism rejected the principles that had guided those who built the great cities of Europe. It rejected all attempts to adapt the language of the past, whether Greek, Roman, or Gothic: it rejected the classical orders, columns, architraves, and moldings; it rejected the street as the primary public space and the facade as the public aspect of a building. Modernism rejected all this not because it had any well-thought-out alternative but because it was intent on overthrowing the social order that these things represented—the order of the bourgeois city as a place of commerce, domesticity, ambition, and the common pursuit of style.

Modernism in architecture was more a social than an aesthetic project. Le Corbusier, the Russian constructivists, and Hannes Meyer when director of the Bauhaus claimed to be architectural thinkers: but the paltriness of what they said about architecture (compared with what had been said by the Gothic and classical revivalists, for example) reveals this claim to be empty. They were social and political activists who wished to squeeze the disorderly human material that constitutes a city into a socialist straitjacket. Architecture, for them, was one part of a new and all-comprehending system of control.

Of course, they didn't call it control: socialists never do. Le Corbusier's project to demolish all of Paris north of the Seine and replace it with high-rise towers of glass was supposed to be an emancipation, a liberation from the old constraints of urban living. Those dirty, promiscuous streets were to give way to grass and trees—open spaces where the New Socialist Man, released from the hygienic glass bottle where he was stored by night, could walk in the sunshine and be alone with himself. Le Corbusier never asked himself whether people wanted to live like this, nor did he care what method would transport them to their new utopia. History (as understood by the modernist project) required them to be there, and that was that.

Classical and Gothic buildings spoke of another age, in which glory, honor, and authority stood proudly and without self-mockery in the street.

We could no longer use their styles and materials sincerely, the modernists argued, since nobody believed in those old ideals. The modern age was an age without heroes, without glory, without public tribute to anything higher or more dignified than the common man.

It needed an architecture that would reflect its moral vision of an equal and classless society from which hierarchies had disappeared. Hence it needed an architecture without ornament or any other pretense to a grandeur that no living human being could emulate, an architecture that used modern materials to create a modern world. The key words of this new architecture were "honesty" and "function." By being honest, modern architects implied, buildings could help us to become so. The new city of glass, concrete, and parkland would be a city without social pretense, where people would live in exemplary uniformity and be rewarded with equal respect.

This social agenda meant that architectural modernism was not an experiment but a crusade. It regarded those opposed to it as enemies, members of a priesthood of pretense to be removed as soon as possible from positions of influence and power. When the German art historian Niklaus Pevsner and the Russian constructivist architect Berthold Lubetkin brought the crusade to London, they set up shop as legislators, condemning everything that was not conceived as a radical break with the past. Both were traveling as refugees from modernism of the political variety—Nazism in Pevsner's case, communism in Lubetkin's—creeds that, like modernism in architecture, preferred elites to people and social control to spontaneous order. These two brought with them the censorious dreariness of the regimes they fled. Nothing was more loathsome in their eyes than the would-be enchantment of a Victorian Gothic bank or a neoclassical school. To Pevsner, Arthur Street's great Gothic law courts—the centerpiece of London's legal quarter and a fitting symbol of common-law justice and its daily work of reconciliation—were mediocre buildings of no consequence, whose fairy-tale pinnacles and marble columns were neither uplifting nor cheerful but merely insincere. By contrast, the Underground station at Arnos Grove, with its plain wrapped brickwork and its grim metal-frame windows, was a portent of a better future world, in which modern life would be honestly portrayed and openly accepted.

For many people, the best thing about modernist music is that you don't have to listen to it, just as you don't have to read modernist literature or go to exhibitions of modernist painting. Architecture, however, is unavoidable. It is not a transaction between consenting adults in private, but a public display. The modernists nevertheless conceived design in terms appropriate to the intimate arts of music, literature, and painting. Their buildings were to be individual creative acts, which would challenge the old order of architecture and defy the tired imperatives of worn-out styles. Modernism's egalitarian mission could be accomplished only by a daring elite, who built without respect for the tradition of popular taste—indeed, without respect for anything save their own redeeming genius. The paradox here is exactly that of revolutionary politics: human equality is to be achieved by an elite to whom all is permitted, including the coercion of the rest of us.

Most users of a building are not clients of the architect. They are passersby, neighbors: those whose horizon is invaded and whose sense of home is affected by this new intrusion. The failure of modernism lies not in the fact that it produced no great or beautiful buildings—Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp and the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright prove the opposite. It lies in the absence of any reliable patterns or types that can harmonize spontaneously with the existing urban decor, retaining the essence of the street as a common home.

The degradation of our cities is the result of a "modernist vernacular," whose principal device is the stack of horizontal layers, with jutting and obtrusive corners, built without consideration for the street, without a coherent facade, and without intelligible relation to its neighbors. Although this vernacular has repeatable components, they are not conceived as parts of a grammar, each part answerable to each and subject to the overarching discipline of the townscape. The components are items in a brochure rather than words in a dictionary.

The old architectural pattern books did not offer gadgets and structures. They offered matching shapes, moldings, and ornaments: forms that had pleased and harmonized, and that could be relied upon not to spoil or degrade the streets in which they were placed. New York used them to great effect, and even now they could be used to restore the civility of damaged neighborhoods. The only obstacle is the vast machine of patronage that puts architects, rather than the public, at the head of every building scheme.

Although history can show great architectural projects and great architects who have succeeded in them, both are exceptions. We build because we need to, and for a purpose. Most builders have no special talent and no high artistic ideals. Aesthetic values are important to them not because they have something special or entrancing to communicate but because they need to fit their buildings into a preexisting fabric. Hence modesty, repeatability, and rule-guidedness are vital architectural resources. Style ought to be defined so that anyone, however uninspired, can make good use of it and add thereby to the public dwelling space that is our common possession. That is why the most successful period of urban architecture—the period that envisaged and developed real and lasting towns of great size—was the period of the classical vernacular, when pattern books guided people who had not fallen prey to the illusion of their own genius. Routine styles and standardized parts perpetuate the gestures that have won general approval and help us to employ them again without offense.

In American cities, we can still witness the effect of the pattern books (such as that published by Asher Benjamin in Boston around 1800). Whole areas of agreeable and unpretentious dwellings, whose architects are no longer remembered and perhaps no longer even identifiable, have escaped demolition on grounds of the charm imparted by their syntax: Beacon Hill and the Back Bay area of Boston, Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side, much of Brooklyn, and the terraced streets of Harlem are well-known examples. Pattern-book housing of this kind bears the mark of civilization, even when it has degenerated into a slum. It needs only private ownership and the prospect of social and economic security for the population to respond to the call of their surroundings and once again to take pride in them. Hence these neighborhoods can rise again, like the fragments of London's East End and docklands that were not demolished after the war and are now islands of civility in a sea of arrogance. The modernist housing project, built on the model recommended by Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus, never rises from its inevitable decline. When the high-rises and their barren surroundings become areas of "social deprivation"—and it usually happens within 20 years—there is no solution to the problem except dynamite.

This is not to argue that creativity and imagination have no place in architecture. On the contrary. Pattern-book architecture is possible only because of the intellectual and artistic labor that made the patterns. Some of this labor was collective—a far-reaching activity of trial and error, leading to easily managed designs. But just as important as this collective labor has been the individual inspiration that conjures up new and living details, transforming our perception of form. Stylistic breakthroughs create a vocabulary of dignifying details: Gothic moldings, the classical orders, Palladian windows, Vignola-esque cornices. These great artistic triumphs become types and patterns for the ordinary builder, and the vernacular architecture of New York displays all of them. Our best bet in architecture is that the artistic geniuses should invest their energy, as Palladio did, in patterns that can be reproduced at will by the rest of us. For the fact remains that most of the architecture that surrounds us is bound to be second-rate, uninspired, and unspiring, and that its most important virtue will be that of good manners.

That this is wholly unlike the situation in the other arts should be obvious. In music, literature, and painting, there are works of lasting value and others of merely mundane appeal. The mundane examples quickly disappear from the canon and remain interesting only to the scholars. In architecture, however, everything stays where it is, troubling our perception and obstructing our view until something else replaces it. In making innovation and experiment into the norm, while waging war against ornament, detail, and the old vernaculars, modernism led to a spectacular loss of knowledge among ordinary builders and to a pretension to originality in a sphere where originality, except in the rare hands of genius, is a serious threat to the surrounding order.

Because architecture is a practice dominated by talentless people, manifestos and theories of the kind the modernists proliferated are especially dangerous, for they excite people to be bold and radical in circumstances where they should be modest and discreet. The modernists discarded millennia of slowly accumulating common sense for the sake of shallow prescriptions and totalitarian schemes. When architects began to dislike the result, they ceased to be modernists and called themselves postmodernists instead. But there is no evidence that they drew the right conclusion from the collapse of modernism—namely, that modernism was a mistake. Postmodernism is not an attempt to avoid mistakes, but an attempt to build in such a way that the very concept of a mistake has no application.

Modernism was severe—it had to be, since it was taking a stand against popular taste, hunting down kitsch and cliché in their fetid lairs and dousing them with the cultural equivalent of carbolic acid. Postmodernism announces itself as a liberation; its aim is not to take the side of high culture against kitsch but to play with both of them. Postmodernist art is nonjudgmental: at home with affluence, advertising, and mass production, as tolerant of popular taste as of the modernist contempt for it. We are living beyond judgment, beyond value, beyond objectivity—so the postmodernist movement tells us. We are not in the business of forbidding things but rather of permitting them.

It turns out, however, that everything is permitted except the thing we most need: a return to the centuries-old conception of architecture as a practice bound by publicly accepted rules. The postmodernists ruled this out of court as much as their censorious modernist predecessors did. Any return to the values of the classical vernacular, with its emphasis on the street and the facade, is branded a betrayal of history, a retreat into "nostalgia," and in any case no better than pastiche.

That argument, more or less diluted by fashionable relativism, is the reigning orthodoxy of the schools of architecture and the machine of public patronage. Hence the way to win commissions is not to propose a building that will fit into its place as though it had always stood there and be as unnoticeable as good manners require but rather to invent something outrageous, insolent, and unignorable.

Following the stern cast-concrete forms of modernism, therefore, has appeared a new kind of flamboyant building: brightly colored girders exposed to view, tubes and wires rioting over the surface, ornaments stuck anyhow onto surfaces of transparent Lucite or shimmering tiles. The effect shows a freedom from constraint that reminds you why constraints are a good idea. At its most aggressive—and it is usually aggressive—it may involve the deliberate "deconstruction" of the forms and values of the classical tradition, in the manner of Bernard Tschumi's student center at Columbia or of the monstrous yet culpably vague designs by Peter Eisenman for the redevelopment of the West Side of New York. If a justification is required, then the project will be backed up with pretentious gobbledygook in the style of Eisenman, offering concepts and theories and abstract ideas in the place of visual logic.

Britain's reigning postmodernist panjandrum is Richard Rogers (now Lord Rogers)—the architect who, together with the modernist Norman Foster (now Lord Foster), receives all the important commissions and sits on all the important committees. Rogers belongs to the generation of postwar architects trained in modernist rhetoric, who were taught very little about style and everything about public relations. Recognizing the public hostility to modernism, many of these architects have hastened to declare modernism officially dead and to welcome the new era of freedom of which they are the champions.

Rogers made his reputation in partnership with Renzo Piano at the Centre Beaubourg in Paris. This cultural center and exhibition hall is like a demented child's model of a spaceship, dumped inexplicably in the city. True to the postmodernist spirit, it is decorated with functionless tubes and scaffolding, whose decorative effect depends upon being perceived as functional, like the chrome-plated exhaust of a racing car. Its colors are not those of the materials used to build it but of the paints that disguise them. Its joints and load-bearing parts are concealed, and nothing is really visible that is not surface. It is a slap in the face to the modernist principles of honesty, truth to materials, and functional transparency. In this respect, you might very well be taken in by Rogers's claim that modernism is a thing of the past.

In fact, however, the Centre Beaubourg is the first real triumph in Paris of the modernist idea. It is a step toward achieving Le Corbusier's goal of razing the city to the ground. The Centre Beaubourg required the demolition of a vast and beautiful tract of stone-built classical vernacular and the imposition of a recreational purpose on what had previously been a living quartier of the city. The project was guided by a social vision—namely, to exchange the quiet, self-sustaining life of bourgeois Paris for a fast-moving, multimedia "happening" that would be maximally offensive to bourgeois values. Its loud colors and in-your-face externals, its shape, size, and materials—above all, its windowless and doorless sides, which warn you away with metallic imperviousness—all these are signs of a profoundly motivated effrontery, a desire to uproot and disenchant the domestic life of one of the world's greatest cities and to replace both work and home with an undisciplined playground.

This is not the socialist project, and we are in one sense a long way from the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier. The modernist program focused on work, discipline, and the regimented life of the new proletariat: Le Corbusier's definition of a house as a "machine for living" says more about his conception of life than his ideal of architecture. Life, for the modernists, was all work and no play, with just an occasional stroll outside for hygienic reasons. The Centre Beaubourg is a celebration of play, randomness, and indiscipline. It is a machine for playing, and the machinery is part of the joke.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which we are in the same aesthetic territory as the modernists. For this architectural enterprise has no meaning apart from the social experiment of which it is the vehicle. The assumption of originality is the perfect and ready-made excuse for an insolence that is socially and politically motivated. Although Le Corbusier could have designed his fantasy city for some green-field site, he expressly insisted on Paris. Revolutionary projects aim at the destruction of existing things, and the future "alternative" is always as vague as a drawing by Peter Eisenman. Likewise, the Centre Beaubourg could have been built anywhere, but in that case it would have lost its point. The real goal was to wipe away the history of the city and to plant in the midst of bourgeois Paris the seeds of the anti-bourgeois revolution. The Centre was President Pompidou's idea, and he conceived it as a way of announcing to the world that he was, in the last analysis, on the side of history and a friend of the anti-culture of 1968. This was the message that motivated him in choosing the outrageous designs of Piano and Rogers.

The postmodernist project has also visited London with the same effect. Perhaps the most impressive symbol of the old city of London and its institutions was the insurance company of Lloyd's. This began life in 1668, among the club of merchants who were in the habit of meeting at the Edward Lloyd Coffee House and who decided to establish an institution with which to protect one another from bankruptcy. English commercial enterprise relied upon bonds of honor that fell critically short of intimacy and could therefore be extended far and wide through the world of strangers. Hence institutions like Lloyd's could appeal for capital from outside the community of city traders. The "names" who provided this capital to the underwriters were people of wealth and standing, who implicitly trusted this institution run by gentlemen, and who thought nothing of placing their entire possessions in the hands of a discreet and well-spoken stranger.

The underwriters treated the solid, well-furnished building of Lloyd's as a clubhouse; they shrouded its routines in mystery like the rituals of a church; and the old bell of the frigate Lutine, captured from the French in 1793, sounded eerily through its hallway to announce the loss or arrival of a strategic merchant vessel. It was the very image of the safety that the English associated with their homeland, and its well-bred investors somnolently assumed that such an institution would last forever, an unsinkable rock amid the tides of misfortune that afflicted lesser men. When a new board of directors decided to demolish the Victorian clubhouse and erect a grotesque piece of postmodernist kitsch by Rogers in its place, the "names" continued to dream in their country houses, unaware that the bottom had fallen out of their world and that the proof of this was standing now on top of it.

One glance at Rogers's building, constructed at vast expense and functioning so badly that it is the subject of continuous, expensive repair, ought to have awakened the "names" to what had happened. This tower, ridiculous as architecture, is manifestly part of a social project: it is an affront to the old conception of the city and a harbinger of the new world of corporate finance—a vertical playground, with the childish metalwork and intergalactic shapes familiar from the Centre Beaubourg and transparent external elevators carrying the new breed of whiz kids high above the streets of old London. It is a sign that seriousness and probity are things of the past; from now on, everything is fun. And part of the fun will be to deprive those trusting old gentlemen of their family fortunes.

Shortly after the erection of this building, Lloyd's collapsed, the English squirearchy—heavily invested in Lloyd's—faced ruin, and the city institutions joined the Church of England and the Tory Party as things of the past. Richard Rogers, meanwhile, was knighted and subsequently raised to the peerage by a Labour Party grateful for his assaults on the old establishment and eager for his support in Parliament. In this spirit, Prime Minister Blair's first attempt to confront the problem of the inner cities, devastated by centrifugal development and modernist housing schemes, was to appoint a commission on urban renewal, with Lord Rogers at the head of it.

Perhaps the culminating postmodernist project has been the Millennium Dome, the Babylonian temple to Nothingness that Rogers built down the river from London in Greenwich—again, nugatory as architecture and eloquent as the expression of a social idea. Until very recently, great public projects were designed to last. In the nineteenth century, for instance, promoters of exhibition architecture, such as the Grand Palais and Petit Palais in Paris, gave their buildings ceremonial and permanent exteriors and conceived of them as celebrations of the city and its achievements and contributions to the public life that would be lived in their shadow. By contrast, the Millennium Dome's promoters conceived of it from the beginning as temporary—a vast tent whose purpose would expire when sufficient numbers had bought their tickets and wandered in baffled lines around its exhibits. Void of all architectural signifiers, impressive, if at all, only as a work of engineering, this fleeting visitor from another planet is part of the same broad social program as the Centre Beaubourg—the program of disestablishing the old culture of our cities and putting a fun-filled playground in its place.

Hence its very temporariness is integral to its effect. Nothing endures, it tells us; nothing has meaning beyond the moment. The exhibits match the architecture: the past of the country, its institutions, monarchy, and religion, its imperial triumphs, its achievements in war, and its leading role in the spread of law and democracy—these are either reduced to insignificance or ignored. All is fun—but fun with a vengeance. Visitors wander through a video arcade, as buskers and steel bands try to whip up an excitement the exhibits could never inspire on their own, glimpsing the very same images that they could obtain by twirling the knobs on their televisions. Even the crowning exhibit—the body zone, in which two humanoid creatures tower to the roof—finds nothing meaningful to say about the human figure. All you are given is a lesson in pop physiology, with a tour through the inner organs of a faceless ape, entering through the nether regions, past pubic hair infested with lice.

The prime minister often refers to the Dome as if he had ways of making us enjoy it; he has dismissed its critics as lacking in patriotism, and he has piled more and more public money into servicing the debt of a project that has so far attracted little attention. Nor should we mistake the social agenda. The politically correct exhibits have one overriding purpose: to flatten out the landscape of our national culture and to put a bland, "inclusive" multiculture in its place. The project's greatest box-office success to date was "Domosexual Day," when the dome was packed with London's homosexuals, flooded with pink light from outside, and filled with giggles within. In order to revive its flagging fortunes, the Dome company has employed Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, former executive of Disneyland Paris, to draw in the crowds. What was to have been a celebration of Britain and its people for the millennium is now a Franco-American fun palace, complete with ushers disguised as Coggsley and Sprinx—comic-strip characters in supermarket colors—professional lowerers of the tone, who will perform the function of Goofy and Donald Duck in Disneyland.

In the temple of the Dome, we encounter what Joyce would call God's funferall. Many Englishmen view the sight with revulsion. They recognize that cities are built, and civilizations sustained, from the human need for permanence. The postmodernist project is an attempt to deny that need—to deny it collectively, like the dance of the Israelites around the Golden Calf. The frivolity of postmodernist architecture is of a piece with its spiritual idolatry—its worship of the moment and its refusal to be bound by any law. In the face of this, it seems not only that modernism was a mistake but that postmodernism compounds the mistake, by removing the one thing that might rectify it: the desire for permanence.

You could undo the work of modernism tomorrow by a simple expedient: by abolishing all architects, equipping builders with the pattern books that created Beacon Hill or Lower Manhattan, and laying down regulations governing heights, depths, and street lines—in other words, by returning to what was once standard practice. In this respect, the message of the postmodernists is the old one: that we must always be new. If modernism has failed, then the answer is not to retrace our steps, like architects Quinlan Terry or Léon Krier, but to press on still further into the anti-architecture of Eisenman or Tschumi or the kitsch monumentality of Rogers.

It is one of the marvels of the modern world that human beings, having proceeded along a path that leads manifestly to error, can yet not turn back but must always exhort themselves to go further in the same direction. It is with modern architecture as it has been with socialism, sexual liberation, and a thousand other modern fads: those who defend them draw no other lesson from their failure than the thought that they have not yet gone far enough. Our present need is not for the uncoordinated and dislocated architecture that the postmodernists would wish on us but for an architectural grammar that would permit talentless people once again to build inoffensively. That is what the classical pattern books taught, and that is why there was such a thing, before modernism came on the scene, as a serious architectural education that could prepare ordinary human beings for the enormous responsibilities involved in building the environment of strangers.

What is needed, in short, is not a postmodernist but a premodernist architecture. And here and there this architecture is beginning to emerge: Allan Greenberg's neoclassical court building in Manchester, Connecticut (converted from a derelict modernist supermarket); Greenberg's proposed new addition to the Decoration and Design Building on Manhattan's Third Avenue; the Harold Washington Library in Chicago by Hammond, Beeby and Babka; Robert Stern's Brooklyn Law School tower, which revives the cheerfulness of the vernacular skyscraper—these and many other attempts point us in the right direction, not forward but backward, to what had been lost.

Moreover, architects and critics are now finding the words, and the confidence, to express the once-forbidden thought that you can be modern without being modernist—that there can be an architecture for our time that derives from permanent values rather than ephemeral social projects, that gives new life to the grammar, and the search for harmony and decorum, of the architecture of the past. Modernism is dead; but classicism survived, as it has always survived. Last month there took place in Bologna, sponsored by the city, the latest in a series of traveling conferences devoted to classical architecture, showcasing modern but premodernist buildings and allowing their architects to explain them to the world. The purpose was to show that modernism was a mere ideology, as dead as the totalitarian political projects whose inspiration it shared. And first among the concerns of the architects who explained their work was to show how we might undo the work of the modernists, encasing their buildings in classical shells as Greenberg has done, veneering them with facades in the same spirit as we veneer ourselves with politeness.

Maybe these are small beginnings. But small beginnings are much to be preferred to enormous dead ends.

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