by Matthew Omolesky
When President Donald Trump described the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as “terrible” and “one of the ugliest buildings in the city,” as he reportedly did in the mid-summer of 2018, one could be forgiven for thinking that he had merely been giving voice to a commonly-held truism. After all, the J. Edgar Hoover Building that looms over Pennsylvania Avenue has routinely been excoriated in architectural circles, with Wolf Von Eckardt aptly describing it as “a drab factory” altogether “alien to the spirit of the capital,” owing mainly to its “overly dramatic and utterly miscarried play of forms.” Paul Goldberger deemed it “an arrogant, overbearing concrete form that dares the visitor to come close,” while Arthur Cotton Moore found that “given its elephantine size and harshness, it creates a black hole. Its concrete wall, with no windows or life to it, is an urban sin.”
The FBI headquarters may be the epitome of “federal drab,” as its critics have persuasively argued, but its problems run deeper still, given its structural unsoundness. It is quite literally crumbling in places, with netting occasionally suspended on the Ninth Street facade to ensure the safety of pedestrians below. The building has proven harmful to its environs in an even broader sense, as evidenced by the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts’ joint declaration that “the FBI’s security requirements have prevented street-level public uses around the entire block of the J. Edgar Hoover Building between 9th and 10th Streets. The building’s fortress-like presence is exacerbated by security installations, the moat that surrounds three sides of the building, the scale of its architectural features, and the absence of street-level activity.” The adjective “terrible,” it turns out, may not go nearly far enough.
Yet the response to the president’s reported comments from members of the architectural and media establishment proved decidedly contrarian. Henry Grabar insisted that the building was being unfairly maligned, and that “in a world wrapped in glass that masks where weight really falls, a big chunk of concrete sometimes just feels honest,” while maintaining that “for liberals, buildings like Marcel Breuer’s headquarters for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington are period pieces that represent an idealistic vision of what government can and should take responsibility for.” Mark Pasnik and Chris Grimley similarly defended the merits of Brutalism, on the grounds that the movement “celebrates the realities of construction and the noble roughness of concrete, with a sense of weighty monumentality and an almost Puritan aversion to applied ornament.” Structures like the J. Edgar Hoover Building, they continued,
were meant to express a socially conscious government and ideals of collective democracy that underpinned the Great Society and other political movements of the decade. Monumental architectural forms distinguished government facilities from the common commercial architecture around them, much like a classical building might have in its time. They were forward-looking visions, embracing a belief in the future, rather than miming a whitewashed past glory.
Whether a sinister-looking, commerce-stifling Brutalist low-rise, erected at unprecedented expense only to come apart at the seams after a mere four decades in service, ought to serve as the architectural embodiment of the Great Society is a matter perhaps best left to Messrs. Pasnik and Grimley.
A rather different image comes to mind, in the form of Jean-Antoine Alavoine’s infamous plaster Elephant of the Bastille, which stood in the French capital from 1814 until its unceremonious disposal in 1846. Originally a wellspring of revolutionary inspiration, the sculpture, like the revolution that inspired it, took a turn for the worse, moldering before the eyes of the increasingly discomfited Parisian populace. Victor Hugo observed that “every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it,” and “there it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade,” increasingly “unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.” The selfsame process has been taking its toll on the J. Edgar Hoover Building — a similarly elephantine, hulking, and now decaying edifice — and whatever cause for self-congratulation it once inspired, whatever sense of a “forward-looking vision” it may have stimulated, all that surely must be exhausted by now, and the same can be said for Brutalism in general. However persistently those like Nikil Saval may assert that “it’s a solace to look back to an era of muscular, public-minded development,” and that the impulse “to shove your face in cement” is “refreshing,” it is hard to avoid the conclusion, when looking at ignoble piles like the increasingly dilapidated J. Edgar Hoover Building, that atrophy has long since set in.
“Forward-looking,” “socially-conscious,” “collective democracy,” &c. — it is apparent from such phraseology that Brutalists were and continue to be wholly caught up in political, as opposed to merely aesthetic, considerations. This should not be surprising, given that, as Donald Olsen put it in his 1986 treatise The City as a Work of Art, “architecture is a deliberate artistic creation intended not merely to give pleasure, but to contain ideas, inculcate values, and serve as tangible expressions of systems of thought.” Those ideas, values, and systems become all the more consequential in the case of modern architecture, which ignores the alleged fripperies of pleasure, ornamentation, and often even basic comfort. Modernism is revolutionary at its core, based as it is on the rejection of ornamentation and tradition, and on the intention to reengineer and thereby improve public and private life, so to stand against the Modernist program must be, it is alleged, to stand against progress itself.
It was in 1930, in the aftermath of the Werkbund Exhibition in Paris, that the Revue de l’art ancien et moderne announced that
The only really modern nation is that which, clearly understanding future conditions and necessities, has already purged its spirit of all that antiquated hotchpotch known as decorative art. This nation, as is well known, is Germany. A politics of intimidation, of a massive affirmation, the authoritative tone of which commands authority. There is therefore a drive, an economic and political agenda, at the basis of “modern[ist] aesthetic researches.”
Such a perverse agenda would ultimately serve Germany — among other nations — very poorly indeed, but it nevertheless attracted a veritable host of architects in search of a new way of living. Five years later Anthony Bertram, in his unsentimental and vaguely sinister book The House: A Machine for Living In, grumbled that “the man who builds a bogus Tudoresque villa or castellates his suburban home is committing a crime against truth and tradition: he is denying the history of progress, denying his own age and insulting the very thing he pretends to imitate.” Never mind that Tudor is, in the words of the late, lamented architectural historian Gavin Stamp, England’s “only real national style,” an “expression of nationalism in architecture — our own national Romanticism — that precedes any equivalents in continental Europe.” On to the refuse heap it goes, for to do otherwise would be a crime against truth and (somehow) tradition, at least according to Bertram his fellow members of the Modern Movement.
When the architect Ernest Gimson proved “more responsive to English tradition, and did not despise the forms invented in the past,” he was dismissed by the ideologue Nikolaus Pevsner as an “unrevolutionary spirit.” Likewise did Pevsner attack Sir Albert Richardson’s monumental work at Nos. 25-35 Grosvenor Place in Belgravia as “almost grotesquely reactionary,” while even Dykes Bower’s amiable red-brick Church of the Good Shepherd in Cambridge came in for similar criticism, being dismissed as “embarrassing” and “reactionary to a degree almost unbelievable in 1957-8.” The brilliant, lyrical Sir Edwin Lutyens, for the crime of (in his own words) hewing to the rule “that the measure of man’s architecture was man, and that the rhythm of a building should correspond to the rhythms familiar in human life,” was intentionally and unforgivably written out of Pevsner’s 1943 An Outline of European Architecture. Hence Sir Herbert Baker’s reasonable conclusion, voiced the following year, that the “young modernist, heedless that ‘modernity’ is not quality, is inclined to throw over the good as well as what there may be of bad in his heritage, and goes to excess, like all revolutionaries, in his desire at all costs to express himself.”
For the zealots of Modernism, any adherence to architectural traditions necessarily threatened the dialectical and historical materialism undergirding much of their theory, and needed to be done away with straightaway. Adolf Loos, in his 1913 diatribe Ornament and Crime, compared architectural decoration to the “immoral” and “degenerate” tattoos of the Papuans — a racist conceit if there ever was one — while equating ornamentation to the scribbling on the walls of latrines. One struggles to imagine even one person of good faith and compos mentis who, upon viewing Sainte-Chapelle, or the drawing room at Arbury Hall, or the Alhambra, or the Ninomaru Palace, or the Khajuraho monuments, or Papuan centipede, frigate-bird, or lakatoi motifs for that matter, would experience such a puerile reaction to the mere existence of ornamentation. But Loos nonetheless concluded that “no ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level,” and therefore “freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength.” Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, dit Le Corbusier, sought out that same so-called strength, and it was in the grip of revolutionary foment that he declared “a great epoch” to have begun, one powered by “a new spirit,” a “mass production spirit,” with his fellow architects leading the way. Hannes Meyer, another Swiss architect, was prepared to go even further, proclaiming that all tradition was mere Historicism, and that “building is not an aesthetic process” but a “social enterprise,” the “collective affair of the nation.” The Soviets would go on to call this dystopian approach sotsyalny zakaz, or “social procurement,” an experiment which led, in the artist Józef Czapski’s summation, to “the total suppression of any attempt at personal expression of your own experience in your own way,” which in turn “destroyed everything in fine art that did not belong to the official aesthetic canon, or that was not wholly subordinate to the objective of politics.” The type of suppression and destruction Czapski described was not, however, limited to the Soviet sphere, but rather occurred most anywhere the Modern Movement took hold.
These Modernist theoreticians, idealistic and misanthropic in equal measure, may have sown the wind, but the architectural whirlwind would only be reaped after the Second World War, and the bud would indeed yield precious little meal, particularly in Great Britain, which became a kind of laboratory for Brutalist architects. It was on April 24, 1942, less than a month after British Royal Air Force incendiary bombs had reduced the German port city of Lübeck, known for its distinctive half-timbered medieval buildings, to smoldering rubble, that the Nazi Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm declared that “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.” Between April and June, the German Luftwaffe conducted its infamous “Baedeker raids” against Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York, and Canterbury, destroying some 50,000 buildings, while keeping up its more practical campaign against strategic locales like London, Southampton, Birmingham and Coventry. For William George Hoskins, an Exeter-born historian, there “could not be a more powerful illustration of the utter folly of war, of the fact that as any war goes on the barbarians always get the upper hand and the voice of reason and magnanimity is gradually shouted down by those warped beings who have the lust to destroy” than these symbolic tit-for-tat bombings.
But Julian Huxley, the self-styled humanist internationalist, was inclined to look on the situation optimistically. “The blitz has been a planner’s windfall,” he declared, for “not only did it do a certain amount of much-needed demolition for us, but — more important — it made people of all walks of life realize that reconstruction was necessary, and what it might mean if it were properly planned. After long negative years of frustration, the whole temper of Britain has become positive and forward-looking.” The post-war reconstruction of British society would be achieved largely through the creation of a welfare state, via the Family Allowances Act of 1945, the National Insurance Act of 1946, and the National Health Act of 1948, but it would also be achieved through measures including the sweeping Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. The post-war property boom of the 1950s, enabled by cooperation between municipal authorities and private developers, would quickly transform British inner cities. Damaged buildings would not be repaired, and even intact heritage sites would be swept away in favor of cheap Modernist and largely repulsive Brutalist developments.
Lionel Brett, 4th Viscount Esher, an architect and town planner, advocated on behalf of the new ideal city, with its “inner relief road feeding multi-story car parks, a pedestrian shopping mall and lettable office slabs that paid for it all.” The downside, he acknowledged, was that such plans might “wreck a cathedral city like Worcester,” but the planners were not to be stopped. The “city of tomorrow” envisioned by the Le Corbusier, purged of the vestiges of the past, was at last within reach, and what Gavin Stamp called a “visceral and blinkered rejection of the dark but substantial legacy of the Victorians — fuelled in part by a crude Socialist vision — that… amount[ed] to little more than civic self-hatred” was given free rein. Soon Bauhaus-inspired architects like Sir Basil Spence, Richard Seifert, John Bancroft, Sir Frederick Gibberd, and Ernö Goldfinger were vomiting up monstrosities like the Knightsbridge Barracks. Though described in Country Life as “dramatically modern and uncompromising” — not necessarily a good thing — those infamous Barracks were more accurately captured by the words of A.A. Gil, who wrote that the architect Spence had “managed to construct vertical bomb damage out of horizontal bomb damage,” and that is the truly baleful legacy of Brutalism in Britain as elsewhere.
It is unsurprising that architecture quickly became a topic of roiling public controversy, another front in the new culture war. As early as 1951, Winston Churchill was castigating the Modernist Festival of Britain site on London’s South Bank as “three-dimensional socialist propaganda,” but the restyling of Britain’s built environment only picked up speed. Colin Amery and Dan Cruickshank, in their 1975 The Rape of Britain, would lament the “officially-sponsored competition to see how much of Britain’s architectural heritage could be destroyed in thirty years,” an argument that appealed to the Prince of Wales, who later described a proposed addition to the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a well-loved friend.” Such sores would come to pockmark modern British cities, and the consequences were not merely aesthetic in nature. The year The Rape of Britain was published, J.G. Ballard likewise produced his novel High Rise, with its memorable depiction of that “huge machine designed to serve, not the collective body of tenants, but the individual resident in isolation,” a machine which soon breaks down, leading to “rival clans,” deserted concourses, and an architect obliged to sick Alsatians on his “rebellious tenants.” Within a decade Alice Coleman, in her magisterial Utopia on Trial, would breathe further life into the debate over post-war architecture with her account of the disastrous, and entirely non-fictitious, social consequences of post-war social housing developments.
These traditionalist arguments were by no means novel. The Countess of Pomfret, back in 1740, wrote that she was
always glad to hear of any remains of the old English grandeur; and am both amazed and provoked when I hear of people destroying those magnificent structures (made to last for ages) in order to erect some trifling edifice, whose chief merit consists in the vast expence, which often renders the builder unable to inhabit it when he has done; — whereas to repair an abbey or castle in the same way as it was first built, is a worthy monument both of the owner’s piety to his ancestors, and care to his posterity. But these are worn-out virtues, and hardly live in memory.
(Naturally, the countess’s own Pomfret Castle, an extraordinary townhouse built in London’s Arlington Street in 1760, and designed by the wonderfully-named Stiff Leadbetter, was torn down in 1934 to make way for a block of flats done up in an unremarkable mock-Monte Carlo style.) But even a pessimist like the Countess of Pomfret could never have foreseen the end result of decades of “ruthless arrogance and blinkered ignorance,” to again cite Gavin Stamp, of “naïve utopianism fuelled by a mixture of self-interest and self-hatred,” which was an urban environment prone to decay, featuring a diversity of inarticulate, incoherent, and incongruous architectural idioms, each one more underwhelming than the last. For Peter Hitchens, British architecture, “which once was full of messages of authority and faith, is now lumpish and un-historical. If it embodies the worship of anything, it is the worship of money, power and technology, even of ugliness itself. Compare the Victorian Houses of Parliament to the curious birdcages, rhomboids and garages proposed for the new toy parliaments of Wales and Scotland.”
It is easy to forget just how close London came to almost complete ruination at the hands of those post-war planners. Recall how in 1965 the Greater London Council’s development consortium decided to pulverize Covent Garden in toto, and there was, in the words of Alan Powers, “no doubt among the planners and designers that a dense tangle of walkways between megastructure-like blocks of housing and offices, with urban motorways running at intervals, was the only alternative to the existing built fabric.” Although the GLC failed to rip out the beating heart of the great metropolis, the planners did succeed in destroying such landmarks as the Philip Hardwick-designed Doric propylaeum that once graced Euston Station, an act of vandalism dubbed the “Euston Murder,” and one very nearly repeated when British Railways sought to demolish St. Pancras and King’s Cross, before being thwarted by the impassioned advocacy of Sir John Betjeman and the Victorian Society. One is reminded of Victor Hugo’s advice, upon being asked to support the razing of a medieval structure in favor of a modern development: “Demolish the tower? No. Demolish the architect? Yes.”
Perhaps we are making some progress of that front. In late 2016 the UK Minister of State for Transport John Hayes announced a plan for the rebuilding of the Euston arch, on the grounds that “the overwhelming majority of public architecture built during my lifetime is aesthetically worthless, simply because it is ugly,” and that Brutalist structures “cling to a tired desire to shock, a sad addiction to the newness of things.” The resuscitation of the arch might then represent, according to Hayes, “the vanguard of a renaissance” in architecture. The fact that such a move is even being considered is in large part thanks to the unceasing work of Roger Scruton, the English philosopher who has so eloquently described the West’s “flight from beauty,” indeed the “desire to spoil beauty, in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm,” in a world “mired in kitsch and desecration.” It was Scruton who, in November of 2018, was appointed to head the UK Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful commission, as part of a much-needed Tory effort to “promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets” while avoiding the “style-less vernacular, typified by the glass curtain-wall and the ferroconcrete cube,” that “purely functional idiom [that] gave rise to buildings that are no sooner built than they are on the way to dereliction.”
Just as forceful an advocate has been James Stevens Curl, whose treatise Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, published in late 2018, has done much to puncture Modernism’s “fabricated narratives that were swallowed whole by the gullible.” Curl’s exhaustive account was inspired in part by a classroom encounter, well worth quoting in its entirety:
I recall reading essays by students, all of which claimed that the Glasgow School of Art contained nothing derived from period styles, something I knew was untrue. When I questioned the students it was clear they had all lifted this uncritically from Pevsner’s Pioneers, so I asked them each in turn if they had ever seen the building, or bothered to study pictures of it. One had “seen” the building, and a few admitted to having glanced at the photograph in Pevsner’s book, but none had actually studied it and tested the evidence of what could be viewed in the image against what Pevsner had claimed for the architecture. When I showed them good, comprehensive, clear photographs of the building, picking out details, comparing them with images of Art-Nouveau details and canted bay-windows from English vernacular buildings, and then displayed a photograph of Lutyens’s house known as Le Bois des Moutiers, they were profoundly shaken, but it taught them a salutary lesson: to check statements made against what could actually be seen, and not to take printed opinions by polemicists as truths without testing them. Many thanked me later for what to them at the time was a shocking revelation.
Curl wonders whether this abject state of affairs has resulted from “having a word-based culture rather than a visual one,” or perhaps it is “intellectual idleness or mere cowardice in being unable to see facts for what they are,” or even “the result of brainwashing and indoctrination,” or some combination of all of these. The same factors are very much in evidence in other academic fields, and in most every other walk of life to boot, but it is all the more distressing in the case of architecture, given that we are obliged to look at, live with, or even live within the ghastly consequences.
Rather than grapple in any meaningful way with the arguments being advanced by Stamp, Scruton, Curl, and other past or contemporary critics of Modernism, defenders of the architectural status quo seem to have settled for a particularly clumsy application of reductio ad Hitlerum. “The far right,” Henry Grabar informs us, “appears to be leading a broader backlash against architecture self-evidently built with 20th-century technology. Such structures, in addition to their perceived deviance from the ‘Western traditions’ venerated by American fascists, represent the tastes and lifestyles of America’s treacherous urban elite.” Hettie O’Brien, meanwhile, contends that the “laconic celebration of Anglo-European heritage descends into something more troubling – the protection of a nativist social order,” and that the notion of “beauty” is “is infused with connotations of blood, soil and a Volk.” It hardly needs to be stated that any search through Stamp’s Anti-Ugly: Excursions in English Architecture and Design, or Curl’s Making Dystopia, or Scruton’s The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism, will produce absolutely no mention of Blut und Boden. Lumping preeminent figures like Betjeman, Stamp, Scruton, and Curl together with negligible fringe like Identity Evropa is a particularly egregious sleight of hand, and bad faith disputation of this type rather puts one in mind of the proverbial hit dog hollering.
It should not even need to be stated that there is nothing remotely fascistic about lamenting the aesthetic shortcomings of London’s 30 St Mary Axe (dubbed “The Gherkin), or Kraków’s hideous Unity Tower (much derided as “Szkieletor,” or “Skeletor”), or Barcelona’s Torre Glòries (better known as “El Supositori”). There is nothing fascistic about finding the humor, as Tom Wolfe did in his brilliant From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), in a Long Island summer home that has “so many pipe railings, ramps, hob-tread metal spiral stairways, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes” that it “looks like an insecticide refinery,” or that our children attend schools that distinctly resemble a “duplicating-machine replacement-parts wholesale distribution warehouse.” And there is nothing remotely fascistic in bemoaning the failure of experiments like St. Louis’ Pruitt–Igoehousing project (which had to be demolished in the mid-1970s), or the Espaces d’Abraxas, in Noisy-le-Grand (which was completed in 1983 and promptly, and appropriately, used as a shooting location for Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film Brazil). How much more humane is the approach of Roger Scruton, who suggested in the pages of the Spectator (UK) in February of 2019 that
Our need for belonging is part of what we are and it is the true foundation of aesthetic judgment. Lose sight of it and we risk building an environment in which function triumphs over all other values, the aesthetic included. It is not that there is a war of styles — any style can prove acceptable if it generates a real settlement, and the point is recognised by a great range of contemporary architects, and not only by those committed to some traditional grammar. The issue is no longer about style wars but about a growing recognition of the deep truth that we build in order to belong.
It is an absolute calumny to brand such a laudable, beneficent, and open-minded initiative as “fascistic,” or “far-right,” or even as mere snobbish Nimby sentimentalism, and when one looks out at the various Mietskasernen, the “rental barracks” or “cemeteries for the living” thrown up over the course of the last century, one can also see just how counterproductive such a venomous response is.
Yet bad faith may only account for one motivation for such insufferable argumentation. A guilty conscience is likely at work as well. We have already seen how Modernists saw the potential of the “politics of intimidation” and the “authoritative tone of which commands authority,” as well as the totalitarian tendencies of Le Corbusier, Meyer, and company. As Curl has demonstrated, Le Corbusier in particular had fascistic inclinations, and in his inaptly-titled book La Ville Radieuse (1935), “included a picture of a Fascist rally in Venice captioned ‘little by little the world approaches its destiny’. In ‘Moscow, in Berlin, in Rome…the masses gather around a strong idea’, the ‘strong idea’ being kow-towing to an authoritarian régime.” Even Pevsner was not immune to this impulse, having written of the Modern Movement that “because it is a genuine style as opposed to a passing fashion, [it is] totalitarian,” the latter word tellingly altered in a posthumous 2005 edition of his work to the more palatable “universal.”
We know that fascist Italy wholeheartedly embraced Modernism, and the Italian Rationalists embraced Mussolini just as ardently; in fact, as Emily Zsarko has noted, “fascist architecture is reflectively modern,” and “of all branching styles of modern architecture, fascist architecture is most reminiscent of brutalism.” F.A. Gutheim, in his 1933 article “Architecture and the Nazis,” even saw evidence of Nazi architects shifting away from sentimentalism and fingerspitzengefühl, given that “the Bauhaus has been a great and steadily growing educational influence.” Taking it one step further, Léon Krier has argued that the “barbaric crimes” of the Nazis “were not committed in a monumental environment but in demeaning industrial barracks and camps,” with the lesson being that “industrial civilization is unable… to create meaningful and beautiful places. It erects suburbs, zones, transportation systems… and concentration camps. It is always concerned with mass housing… mass transport… and mass extermination. Auschwitz-Birkenau and Los Angeles have the same parents.” It is simply not possible to maintain, against all evidence, the facile position that Traditionalism : Fascism :: Modernism: Liberalism, or some such analogy.
Never forget that it was Philip Cortelyou Johnson, the distinguished Modernist architect and curator of MoMA, who was notorious for having embraced fascism earlier in life, writing in his disgraceful essay “A Dying People” that “the philosophy of individualism and materialism is eugenically bad,” for “it leads us only to the satisfying of the immediate physical desires of each individual, not to the satisfying of the imperatives of racial maintenance.” Horrifically, Johnson would find the bombing of Warsaw and Modlin as “a stirring spectacle,” and then later in life describe the inspiration for his renowned Glass House as “a burnt wooden village I saw once where nothing was left but foundations and chimneys of brick.” Once again, vertical bomb damage was resulting from the horizontal variety, but this did not stop Johnson from becoming, in his biographer Mark Lamster’s words, the “urbane public face of the American architecture Establishment,” just as Le Corbusier, who lauded totalitarianism and desperately courted the Vichy régime, became the face of the Congrès internationaux d’architecture moderne, along the way advancing the cause of “architecture as a social art” in the most pernicious way possible. We are now being told in all seriousness that it is refreshing to have our faces shoved in cement, or that there is nobility in the roughness of raw concrete, but it is clear that Brutalism in particular is the architectural manifestation of Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face — forever,” albeit in concrete and gabion instead of canvas and rubber. And yet somehow a profile of Roger Scruton’s role on the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission will invariably include paragraph after paragraph of waffle about fascism.
Aside from bad faith and guilty conscience, such strident if unconvincing defenses of Modernism generally, and Brutalism specifically, may stem from a gnawing awareness that the decline of architecture, alongside the decline of the plastic arts and more besides, strongly implies that the “Arc of History” does not always bend towards beauty. As Victor Hugo — so helpful a guide in these matters — rightly held, “le progrès est le moteur de la science; l’idéal est le générateur de l’art.” Increasingly in thrall to kitsch and iconoclasm, we have thrown up dystopian structures all around us, many of which are barely fit for purpose. We have filled art museums with installations that, as Jonathan Meades put it in his 2018 documentary On Jargon, “have nothing to say” and are as “challenging as a poached egg,” but which “sell for millions” thanks to the patronage of the “international establishment,” that “super-haute bourgeoisie which is rich enough, gormless enough, and boastful enough” to do so. Across the board we have embraced what Milan Kundera called the progressive “uglification of our world.” Pointing out this devolution, however distressing its implications, does not make one a totalitarian. But forcing someone to reside in a dismal Mietskasernen, in a “machine for living in,” or G-d forbid in Pruitt–Igoe, all the while informing them just how delicious a concrete punch to the face can be — that actually does.
There are some faint glimmers of hope in this regard. Curl notes in Making Dystopia how the 2017 Grenfell tower-block catastrophe in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was brought about by the use of béton brut covered in a kind of dangerous cladding used to “hide stained, ugly concrete,” and how the Lord Palumbo, otherwise a friend of Modernism, afterwards admitted that the “deficiencies” of such structures “go far beyond the problem of cladding,” and that the planners and architects of these estate, whatever their intentions, have led us “to a hell of atomized communities and crime-ridden dystopias.” Roger Scruton, during a debate held at Central Saint Martins on January 24, 2019, put it rather more succinctly: “If it [Grenfell] hadn’t been so ugly to begin with, the whole problem would never have happened.”
So perhaps the scales are indeed falling from at least some of our eyes, though it must be stressed that we have been here before. On May 16, 1968 the Ronan Point tower-block in East London, which had been shoddily thrown together out of pre-fabricated, pre-cast concrete, partially collapsed a mere two months after its completion, when a gas explosion took out a number of load-bearing flank walls. The event led to the Griffiths inquiry and the 1972 publication of the Department of Environment consultation report, “How do you want to live?” Here we arrive at the only question worth asking, and one wonders whether the collective answer truly was that we prefer to live and work in and amidst structures marked by “an almost Puritan aversion to applied ornament,” forever subject to the strict requirements of “social procurement” and “social enterprise,” which in a more sensible age would have been dismissed as “ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.”
The 19th-century architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who did so much to restore the landmarks of medieval France, once pondered whether art was barbarous in its youth or in its decrepitude, a question still worth asking given the subtitle of James Stevens Curl’s recent book. Individuals and nations, Viollet-le-Duc determined, may exhibit barbarian tendencies in their youth, but are likely to “fall back into barbarism when those springs are worn out which, while they serve to unite these bodies, establish harmony and an equal balance between their different parts; just as the old man, whose organs cease to perform their functions with regularity, falls into a second childhood and no longer enjoys the full use of his faculties.” As this civilizational dementia becomes more and more in evidence — a collective sinking giggling or scowling into the sea, as the case may be — at least there remain those like Curl, who rightly urge a “complete change of direction in architectural education” and architectural awareness, and those like John Hayes, who sees the restoration of Philip Hardwick’s Doric propylaeum as the beginning of an architectural renaissance.
Dum vita est, spes est, and perhaps the best place to start would be a return to the source of the so-called “heroic age of conservation,” namely the manifesto of the Anti-Ugly Action, which was promulgated by students at the Royal College of Art in October of 1958. The famous clarion call of the Anti-Uglies, which demanded the “erection of lively modern architecture,” “the preservation of anything worthwhile, from the countryside to individual buildings,” and the “petitioning [of] councils etc. who erect rubbish,” is as reasonable and relevant today as it was three generations ago, though admittedly much has been lost and much inflicted in the meantime. If architecture is, as Robert Arthur Morton Stern has asserted, “a meditation of the present on the past but also a speculation of the present on the future,” then we have a great deal to be concerned about, but a great deal more upon which to draw. And if the choice that faces us is one between a world of ornament and a world of béton brut — the former in all its sublimity and fecundity, the latter with its structures so loathsome and dystopian that tongue, ink, and pixel can hardly suffice — then we should acknowledge what is at stake and strive all the more to organize our built world accordingly.
Post-script: It should be mentioned that on April 10, between the completion and publication of the above essay, Roger Scruton was removed from his honorary role on the British “Building Better, Building Beautiful” commission. The move came after Scruton was accused by the journalist George Eaton of having engaged in anti-Semitism and Sinophobia. Scruton had referred in a speech on nationalism to the “extensive networks around the Soros empire,” allegedly some sort of dog-whistle (though criticism of, say, Sheldon Adelson evidently remains well within the bounds of public discourse). It did not seem to matter that Scruton had gone on to say, in the very next sentence, that “people in these networks include many who are rightly suspicious of nationalism, regard nationalism as the major cause of the tragedy of Central Europe in the 20th century, and do not distinguish nationalism from the kind of national loyalty that I have defended in this talk,” hardly the sentiments of a bigot. Scruton’s statement that “each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one and that is a very frightening thing,” was likewise taken out of context, referring as he was to the standpoint of the Chinese Communist Party, as evidenced by its various social engineering efforts. None of these bad faith smears had anything to do with architecture, of course, but Housing Minister James Brokenshire relieved Scruton of his duties all the same. Peter Hitchens has perhaps put it best, writing that “Sir Roger is unworldly and sometimes obscure, but the idea that he is an Anti-Semite or any other kind of racial bigot is absurd,” and that in the end Scruton was “foolish to accept even an unpaid post from a Tory government that only wanted to use him as window-dressing.” And so the process of sinking giggling into the sea proceeds apace.
spectator.org · by Matthew Omolesky