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Fred Siegel
Subtraction by Subtraction
Modernist architecture has failed American cities.
13 April 2007

From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City, by Nathan Glazer (Princeton University Press, 300 pp., $24.95)

Nathan Glazer, East Harlem native and now professor emeritus of sociology and education at Harvard, has written brilliantly about cities for more than half a century. He became famous with his pathbreaking 1961 study of ethnicity, Beyond the Melting Pot, coauthored with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But there’s much more. Writing in Commentary in the 1950s and 60s, Glazer was the first to warn that the intersection of entrenched interest groups and an unaccountable bureaucracy was making New York City “ungovernable.” In the 1970s and 80s, Glazer, both as a thinker and as the coeditor of The Public Interest, played a key role in explaining why the Great Society’s social programs for the urban poor had backfired. In the 1990s, writing in City Journal, he explained how New York’s tripling of public expenditures since the 1960s, during a period when its population was stable, was leading it to ruin.

Many know Glazer from these and other writings on immigration and social policy, but there remains yet another facet to this polymath. His new book, From a Cause to a Style: Modernist Architecture’s Encounter with the American City, collects his intriguing—and accessible—essays on urban architecture and public space, some of which originally appeared in City Journal and The Public Interest.

Aesthetic and social causes, seemingly reinforcing one another, animated modernist architecture as it developed in the 1920s and 30s. Victorian architecture was rich in expensive ornamentation; its public buildings arose as imitations of Greek and Roman structures. Aesthetically, architectural modernism, like modernism more generally, was a revolt against Victorian forms and their art-deco successors. The “symbols, icons and forms of that world,” modernists argued, had lost their meaning with the decline of religious belief; it was the modernists’ job to “make it new.” In an effort both to break with the past and to provide the working classes with better living conditions, Glazer explains, the modernists insisted that buildings should be relentlessly functional and rational, accommodating specific needs. Architects should make no concessions to public taste—the public would need to learn what to like.

Modernism was a kind of architectural Protestantism that sought to cleanse its version of sacred space from the encrustations of tradition. Buildings should be monuments to the genius of the modernist architect rather than to the glory of Greece, Rome, or God. Modernist slogans straightforwardly expressed this rationalist turn of mind: “Ornament is a crime,” “Less is more,” “Form follows function,” and so on.

Simpler design would lower the costs of housing, the modernists believed. Apartment towers, or “machines for living” as Le Corbusier described them, could be built in factories with new materials like reinforced concrete, instead of incurring the expense of hand craftsmen. A leading Dutch modernist called for “material and labor economy” in the name of “social equality.”

If this book has a fault, it’s that Glazer takes the modernists at their word on their good intentions. Like the Fabians, who represented a political version of modernism, modernist architects in the early twentieth century acted as much out of disdain as empathy for the lives of the middle-class people meant to crowd into the “machines for living.” Three of the most prominent modernists—Mies van der Rohe, Phillip Johnson, and Le Corbusier—flirted with fascism. Modernism appealed to bureaucrats of all stripes. In the 1950s, East New York housing projects bore a striking resemblance to those of East London and East Berlin, not to mention Moscow.

Whatever its intentions, modernism’s record is mostly one of failure. The public has resisted reeducation. Modernist homes, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, still draw wide admiration, but virtually all American private homes come in one decorative style or another. “Nearly all our suburbs—tracts of Georgian revivals, Cape Cod bungalows, faux adobes—evoke the past rather than the Modernists’ future,” writes Glazer. And modernists have been notoriously unable to build civic spaces that can win public admiration, the Vietnam memorial being a partial exception. Boston’s soulless slab of a city hall, hailed in the early 1960s as a modernist masterpiece, draws only scorn from the people who work in it and from the citizens of Boston. Coldly uninhabitable, its concrete exterior cracked and crumbling, the building will soon face the wrecking ball, most Bostonians hope. Former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, a devotee of modern art, gave his state the Albany Mall, a wasteland so unwelcoming that few wander its desolate paths, even in good weather. Many State University of New York branches come in a similarly brutalist style, which has resulted in campuses defined by walls of chipped concrete that exude a forbidding chill.

Glazer compares the lively street life of the East Harlem of his childhood with the desolation of what eventually followed: streetscape-less towers in a park. In the 1960s, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, told of federal plans to build vertical hives, protested that people of all races preferred to live in two- and three-story walk-ups of the sort he’d grown up in. But he found himself overruled. Only the towers, he was told, were economically efficient. The upshot was the massive Robert Taylor Homes, which became a synonym for social breakdown. All across the country, public housing towers, cut off from the ordinary street life of city neighborhoods, came to symbolize modernism’s failure.

For many, the demolition of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in 1972 heralded modernism’s fall from grace. But despite public rejection, the style survives—and even thrives in some settings. Thirty-five years later, virtually all new office buildings arise in a modernist style. The future for urban architecture looks less than promising.

True, there is better and worse in modernism. Chicago’s Loop, for example, is far more architecturally interesting than midtown Manhattan. But the grim gray steel and glass office buildings that define many downtowns have not, for the most part, been replaced. The reason, Glazer explains, goes beyond the modernist monopoly in our schools of architecture. It’s in large measure a matter of cost. The vast scale of modern buildings, he writes, “means that the attention to detail . . . must go by the board.” The immense size of the contemporary office building means that the design must be “determined by structural engineers, air conditioning and heating engineers, experts in . . . electronic communication facilities,” and he might have added, the pressure to build “green.”

In recent years, modernism has come under sustained assault from preservationists and “new urbanists,” who recognize the need for an architecture that reflects the public’s sense of beauty. Their efforts to return grace and vitality to urban life have borne considerable fruit in Providence and Portland, among other cities that have preserved old office buildings. But unless architects working in these new styles get broad-scale commissions, the way modernists have and do, we can expect to inhabit cities whose architecture repels at least as much as it attracts.

Fred Siegel is the editor of the Manhattan Institute’s www.citiesonahill.org and a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.

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More by Fred Siegel:
The Poverty of Benevolence
The Collapse of American Pluralism
A Glimpse into the Political Future
More . . .
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