Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Modernist Architecture: The Spirit of the Age as Rebellion Against God

This an incredibly interesting article linking 20th century modernist architecture to the will to power. It is by Nikos Salingaros and James Kalb and is at the Witherspoon Institute's Public Discourse blog. It entitled: "Against the Architects of Empire: Contemporary Architecture is Profoundly Anti-Natural." Here is the first section:

Architecture is the setting for how we live and the expression of how we think. It reflects our shaping of the world in order to inhabit it, and the geometry of what we build is far from neutral. The built environment, like the biological and other natural systems that it engages, needs to function reliably in complex and adaptive ways on many different levels. Such adaptive and sustainable systems have similar characteristics that, despite distinct origins, develop in a broadly similar manner.

The need to provide shelter from the elements and serve everyday needs led to the construction of roofs and walls that defined spaces adapted to human use. Traditional buildings and cities were assemblies of such basic components, put together in ways that had been found to promote particular and overall functioning. The New York row house, the New England village green, and the Mediterranean arcade and plaza all suit the setting and way of life in which they grew up.

More importantly, going beyond mere function, those structures combined ornament and other details that somehow seemed necessary. Even when structures were designed as a whole, their form and organization followed the evolved principles that had led to successful construction in the past. The results included the great historical styles of architecture, and the most-loved and most functional buildings and cities East and West.

Times change, and not always for the better. The advent of architectural modernism in the first decades of the twentieth century suppressed traditional styles and complex evolved forms in favor of simple concepts and striking images. The result was an approach to the built environment that lent itself to public relations and propaganda—it played well in manifestos and glossy architecture magazines—but was less functional, less adaptive, and less human and engaging.

What happened, why did it happen, and why do people stick with an approach to building and design that evidently does not work to engage our complex faculties? The answer goes to the nature of science and of freedom: whether they have to do with understanding reality and living in accordance with it, or with the imposition of arbitrary will.

Modernity is about imposing human will on nature in such a way that nature is regarded as mere "raw material" for the human will instead of being understood as reality and respected as our home, the world in which we play a part. The imposed utopian vision that characterized American Progressivism as much as European Fascism and Communism was essential to modernity.

Modernist architects just drew forms on paper that looked like machines and those in power built them.

The motivation was essentially political and oriented toward domination. The revolutionary movements that followed World War I wanted a break with the past, and especially the look of the past. The world revolution would rebuild humanity through industrialization, so these movements embraced buildings that looked like the machines of the time: sleek, white, and metallic. States, both on the left and on the right, loved this depersonalized approach to building, where the individual no longer matters and everything is sacrificed to an imposed utopian vision. Aspects of architectural modernism are prominent in Nazi and Soviet architecture, and the capitalist state also turned the machine into an icon. When Le Corbusier died both Lyndon Johnson and the Soviets expressed their sense of profound loss.

For years I have been calling the ugly, imposing, anti-human Robarts Research Library on the campus of the University of Toronto a good example of "Stalinist architecture." This article justifies and explains the truth of that judgment.

This modernism is not only anti-natural, it is also anti-God.

The outcome of these developments is something resembling a totalitarian system that unites immense financial and industrial interests with a pseudo-religious fanaticism. There are governments and corporations that wish to flaunt their power through monstrous and arrogant building schemes, industries that produce very expensive high-tech materials, developers who want to make their money work but have no moral constraints, and architects who are willing to do anything to obtain a commission. Politicians get pulled into supporting the ideology by the chance to gain media coverage and campaign contributions. And the gullible public naively believes all it reads in the conformist media.

There is something profoundly anti-natural about the results. By contradicting traditional evolved geometries, modernist and contemporary architecture and urban planning go against the natural order of things. When an architect or planner ignores the need for adaptation and imposes his or her will, the result is an absurd form—an act of defiance toward any higher sense of natural order. There is no room for God in totalitarian design. What religious believer is helped to greater devotion by a modernist Church? Who can love materials hostile to our touch and sight, surfaces and oppressive spaces that sometimes suggest violation and death? Architectural modernism implies a sort of cosmic rebellion against order and life.

It is anti-nature, anti-human and anti-God. To fight geometry is to fight God. If there is a class of professionals in the contemporary world whose work causes them to rank lower than lawyers, it must be architects. But what does it say about the spirituality of a society that would accept these ugly monstrosities? What does it say about the morality of such a society? What does it say about the politics of our society?

Whatever it says, it is shameful.

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