During the 1920s, between two of history’s most destructive wars, Europeans and Americans found that the machine was a powerful a metaphor for the rapid changes occurring in Western society. Reyner Banham wrote an influential book called Theory and Design in the First Machine Age that remains one of the best treatments of the birth of the Modern Movement in architecture. Since then, historians have more or less canonized the early 20th century as the apogee of the machine age that began during the the late 18th century in Britain. If that era had a zeitgeist, or guiding spirit, few would dispute that man’s romance with the machine was a part of it. Charlie Chaplin caught it in “City Lights,” and Igor Stravinsky reluctantly accepted its shadow over “The Rite of Spring.”

A few prescient futurists then predicted that machine technology would dominate intellectual, scientific and even artistic production for the remainder of the century, but all would underestimate the scope and universality of its force. No thinker, not even Freud, would recognize the dark undercurrents of technological futurism in the years before the explosion of the first A-bomb. And, after the mini-computer became a necessary tool in the first information age, technology crept into human consciousness like a virus invading the body’s tissues. It disappeared beneath layers of false hope for a future made perfect by the machine, only to be replaced in 2001 by ambivalence and fear. It was no coincidence that the Unabomber and Al Qaeda emerged just prior to the millennium to confront technological imperialism with a new kind of terrorism.

One of the reasons that technological determinism, and thus Modernism, should have little influence on 21st century ideas of progress is that they reflect humanity’s Faustian bargain with perfectibility and positivism. Virtually all of science has come to question kind of certainty that once appeared inevitable in the empiricism of the late Enlightenment in Europe. Karl Popper attacked the Vienna school during the first half of the last century and was proven correct in the second half. The latest theories about the origins of the universe are grounded in the murkiest corners of Quantum mechanics, a muddle even to the smartest young minds. But the most startling and important discovery of the 21st century was the sequencing of the human genome–recognition that no machine could be as powerful or interesting as a human being.

A second powerful indictment of industrial progress came in the form of a small book published by Rachel Carson in the 1960s. To recognize that the entire earth was being systematically destroyed by chemicals and other environmental toxins that were by-products of technology caused nearly every progressive thinker in the world to re-evaluate his/her values. Yes, there are those who continue to believe that humans will win the race to save the earth via new technology alone, but most of us are looking elsewhere for solutions to the largest crisis of our generation.

But if it is not enough that scientists and philosophers have abandoned the zeitgeist of machine marvels, look at the most creative artistic minds of the 21st century and you will find only a few (mainly architects) who look favorably on Modernism as an ideology for making art. Since I am a classically trained singer as well as an architect, I follow music assiduously and believe that we are in one of the richest periods in history for classical composition and performance. A recent article in The New Yorker by John Adams, who many believe to be America’s next truly great composer, demonstrates that an artist educated in one of the hotbeds of Modernist avant-garde music, Harvard University, could renounce his teachers and embrace tonality and traditional world music in his mature work. Adams, the composer of Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic, is in touch with the most provocative and salient ideas in today’s music, and professes no allegiance to Modernism whatsoever. Indeed, he believes that his entire artistic persona was formed by rejecting the empty, ugly abstractions of the avant-garde.

The concert halls and opera houses of the world are overflowing with enthusiastic audiences after decades of disgruntled subscribers complained about the effrontery of atonal works by the lions of academic Modernist composition–Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen and Pierre Boulez among others. Tan Dun of China is but one of a new group of composers who use folk idioms, serial techniques, western diatonic harmonies and virtually any sound available in their compositions. Critics such as Alex Ross of the New Yorker refuse to continue the old debate about the zeitgeist in music, instead looking at the work’s intrinsic craft and emotional appeal. Novelists have embraced narrative forms and realism anew, to the praise of readers and critic alike. Poets employ complex rhyme and meter, as in the work of Paul Muldoon of Princeton. Many painters have abandoned abstraction altogether in pursuit of more complex emotional and intellectual expression that is only possible through traditional realism.

If architecture is “frozen music,” why must it resist the cultural forces that have taken the other arts toward the spirit of this new age of environmentalism, organic analogies, and open systems of design and information? Romancing the machine as architects continue to do only removes them from the most pressing human issues of the day–the disease and degradation that are destroying the world’s organisms at an unparalleled rate. Why not embrace the totality of solutions devised by designers of the past and present, without prejudice? Strip away the ideology of a long-dead world view and look at the planet as a giant organism, not a giant machine, and we may yet discover the path to survival.

Among the most beautiful cities in the world, places that attract tourists and art lovers, not one was planned or constructed by exponents of Modernist ideas. Brazilia, Chandigarh and Milton Keynes are heroic failures that will never develop into places that people love as they do Paris, Rome, New Orleans, or New York.

As Aldo Rossi explained in his book, The Architecture of the City, the special cities that we value as works of art in themselves were the product of the minds of designers who looked at urbanism as a form of cultural expression, not those who reduced planning to formulas for traffic management, maximum density, or housing built for the lowest possible price . His critique of Modernist ideas about the city helped to sink the ideas of functional city planning and zoning that had driven planning during the mid-20th century.

Since the 1980s, much of the world has abandoned the idea that it is possible to construct a beautiful city. Once the urbanistic formulas of the Modernists were discredited, planning itself entered a period of decline in influence. Despite the excellent studies of successful traditional urbanism written by Jane Jacobs, Oscar Newman, Christopher Alexander, and Kevin Lynch among other mid-century critics of Modernism, city governments largely ignored the new research, instead opting to abolish their planning departments or put them into the hands of so-called policy analysts. This happened in New York following the Lindsay administration, when the city’s fiscal crisis became an excuse to dismantle one of the most creative and vibrant urban design departments in America. Since then, “planning” in New York has been the province of back room deals between developers and the mayor.

The wasteland of Modernist urbanism has been depicted in numerous films and novels, from Jacques Tati’s Msr. Hulot satires of the late 1950s and 1960s to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in the 1980s. Its effects have been studied by sociologists and historians since the late 1940s, when “urban renewal” began to transform the dense cores of many large cities into versions of LeCorbusier’s famous “Ville Radieuse” or Radiant City. For decades the alienation engendered by “towers in the park” was ignored because its effects were felt mainly by the dispossessed and poor, people of color condemned to life in “the projects.” Only in recent decades have psychologists begun to recognize its symptoms in the middle and upper class residents of “garden suburbs” whose alienation stemmed from similar conditions.

Episodes of the Jetson’s television series made the dream of city life in the future into a lark–talking to friends via TV links, whizzing from market to work in floating cars, and spending days alone with robot companions seemed romantic and fun. But when that dream became a reality a decade ago, people noticed that they were lonely, depressed and psychologically damaged. The massive separation that technologies of transportation, communication and building have provided has its dark side–the loss of community.

That loss was obvious to many critics of Modernism long before it became the subject of books and the popular media. In the 1970s a group of Yale-trained architects influenced by Vincent Scully and Denise Scott Brown designed the Florida town of Seaside as if it were an old-fashioned pedestrian-friendly American village. Liz Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany subsequently joined with like-minded urbanists on the West Coast to form the Congress for the New Urbanism, which now has tens of thousands of members. Their research showed that many of the cardinal tenets of Modernist planning led to abject failures in the areas that they were intended to ameliorate–traffic, land use, hygiene, air quality, environmental conservation. Indeed, nothing promulgated by Modernist architects has been as destructive as their vision of the new city. Throughout the globe, in Beijing, Jakarta, Mexico City, Singapore and Johannesburg the same sterile, vacuous, scale-less wasteland is replicated amidst ribbons of highways and traffic jams.

Unfortunately, the New Urbanism came too late to change the policies that created zoning, building and planning ordinances in use throughout the United States and most of the developed world. Since the early 1990s the CNU has offered new solutions to zoning, transportation planning, and housing, sponsoring design conferences and charrettes in troubled places such as post-Katrina Mississippi. But resistance to common sense solutions to restoring community has been stubborn, especially among academic architects and planners. Their defense rests mainly on the claim that governments and developers fail to create the “creative” Modernist urbanism that exists in their drawings and virtual computer models. The users and patrons are at fault.

The world is aware of the failure of Modernism as an ideology driving urban planning and community building. Even many architects who design abstract, high tech buildings are critical of existing strategies for laying out streets, squares and public spaces in the city. The recent Sundance TV series, “Architecture School” makes this clear. In the film, Tulane University professors accept the existing urban fabric of New Orleans as right for regular folks. The community comes before architecture, and students learn a lot about the social basis for their discipline as they try to design a house in a traditional neighborhood. Unfortunately, when a resident asks why all of their proposed buildings are “ugly” they have nothing to say. The double standard applies here as in most situations–the professors can accept the old city as a viable pattern for development, but the architecture must be new, radical, innovative, and Modernist. So New Orleans, one of the most beautiful and unique cities in the world, will get a few more alienating icons. It has endured hurricanes, poverty, war, and the ravages of a mighty river for centuries. A couple more ugly houses won’t even be noticed.

Food analogies seem to register with Americans, who besides being obsessed with their bodies are likely to tune into at least one cooking show a week on TV. So let me suggest that the global built environment has begun to resemble one huge fast food franchise–a vast MacDonald’s that has spread to the farthest corners of the planet. What Modernists dreamed of–a world of functional, flat-roofed machines for living and working undifferentiated by place or culture–has come to pass. Unfortunately for those of us who like a varied diet and appreciate local cuisine, the architectural monoculture has obliterated local building traditions in the same way that global fast food and big box stores have destroyed local color in food and retail goods. James Howard Kunstler, the author of the Geography of Nowhere, saw this trend two decades ago, and continues to rail against its effects in his recent books.

One of the things that disappointed me most about the Olympic icons built in Beijing was how little they seemed to acknowledge the rich history of Chinese art and architecture, particularly a reverence for landscape. When in the past architects designed for a place, they tended to bow to the cultural milieu in choosing forms and materials of local significance. The Chinese are a conservative and tradition-bound culture when it comes to eating, and every visitor is enchanted by local cuisines throughout the huge country. They entertained the world with their distinctive cuisine. But when it came to building, they bowed to the monoculture of Modernism. Beijing looks like any other large city–it’s just bigger.

Though most of the world’s esteemed architects pay lip service to giving their buildings a place-specific tone, very few actually employ local building materials or traditional crafts in their work at any scale. They explain that modern building technology has moved beyond such niceties. Sometimes when a local material is employed, it is treated “critically” or given a shocking, new context so that people will recognize its position of alienation. It’s a cynical nod to the locals.

Indeed, the gatekeepers of high culture around the world–patrons who hire the handful of name-brand architects–are not interested in maintaining provincial flavor in their new museums, theatres, concert halls and academic campuses. They purchase one-of-a-kind buildings distinguished mainly by the name of the genius who created the design. There is an international franchise in high-fashion building design that closely resembles haute couture clothing.

The rest of the buildings that are springing up in fast-growing areas like China, India, the Nevada desert, Dubai, and resort areas around the world do not benefit from the touch of genius. They are part of the international development business that generates high rise buildings, shopping malls, townhouse developments, office parks, country clubs and all the other shelter required for capitalism no matter what the climate or terrain. And all of this architecture looks the same, wherever it is constructed. It’s cold, alienating, scaleless, and it helps sell international brands like Coca Cola, Exxon and Michelin. But the world is changing its attitude toward the environment, and sustainability is leading us back to local and regional ways of doing things.

The Italians, for whom food and wine are sacred, have resisted the monoculture better than most countries. Their answer to the numbing sameness that pervades the media as well as the environment is the slow food movement. With the increasing desire for revival of local agriculture and organic food, this movement has begun to influence the rest of the world, even the United States. Instead of eating efficiently, ingesting food produced thousands of miles away by Big Ag, people  who care about the earth are starting to care about where the food comes from, and how it was grown. Locavores are raising their voices for maintaining traditional agriculture. Where are the proponents of local building traditions? Can we have a slow building movement?

The answer is yes. Traditional building groups like INTBAU in Europe and the Institute for Traditional Architecture in the U.S. are growing in influence. The Prince of Wales Institute in the UK has been sponsoring educational programs and projects for two decades, building the town of Poundsbury according to local planning and building traditions. New schools are training the next generation of masters in the Building Arts–blacksmithing, timber framing, wood carving and joinery, masonry, metal casting– just as Pierre de Coubertin’s Les Compagnons du Devoir has done for the youth of France since the early 20th century. To be sure, much of this renaissance in old world craft has served the building preservation industry, but some has begun to spread to construction in new buildings.

Public reaction against the alienating monoculture that surrounds us in the media and the environment is mounting throughout the world. Only when the public demands more from architects, developers and institutional patrons will the numbing sameness of Modernist design begin to give way to a more humanistic way of sustaining the built environment.

In 2004, Stanley Fish, America’s gadfly literature scholar and cultural theorist, sheepishly admitted that all the fuss over “critical theory” had been something of a scam. David Lodge, the English satirist, was convinced that it had entered a period of decadence, and, like all fashions, had run its course. Terry Eagleton, Britain’s most respected scholar in the field, wrote a book about its demise. By 2008, Wired Magazine led with a story on the irrelevance of scientific theories in an age of massive information analysis. Only architects, it seems, failed to get the memo: prescriptive, rigid schemas for how to make art, science and literature are no longer de rigeur.

Architects, the most practical of artists, are paradoxically drawn to the most arcane and obscure cultural movements, among them “critical theory.” As I wrote in my last blog, their interest can cynically be attributed to a desire to bamboozle the public about the true insignificance of their buildings. However, the real reasons that the design professions cannot jettison outmoded intellectual fashions has to do with the ideology of Modernism, the 20th century movement that refuses to die a natural death. While the style and technology of modern buildings continue to provide valid and compelling solutions for contemporary building, the ideology of Modernism outlasted its usefulness decades ago. Moreover, since few architects really understand the history of this ideology, many continue to follow its most destructive and ridiculous theoretical tenets uncritically.

The ideology of Modernism may be summarized in a few essential points, though many (tiresome, repetitive) books have been written about the subject.

  • Architecture is a revolutionary art that maintains its authority by a perpetuation of the avant-garde, which antagonizes and undermines the status quo during each succeeding generation.
  • The only logical schema governing architectural design, and the form of buildings, is “the authority of the program.” Thus the Seattle Public Library, a recent building by “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas, is a diagram of the program devised by its chief librarian, and therefore deserves to be called a masterpiece.
  • Beauty is replaced as an aesthetic standard by various theoretical constructs including “shock value,” and “metaphor” as means of judging the worth of building designs.
  • Technology and function are the two most often cited stand-ins for aesthetic distinction: hence the maxim, “commodity plus firmness equals delight.”
  • The paradigms, styles, types and elements that have sustained traditional architecture for thousands of years are suspect and must be surpassed by “original” solutions devised without recourse to the study of the past.
  • All architecture, including vernacular design, that displays the trappings of “historical” styles (except the Modernist style) is by nature “nostalgic” and “backward-looking,” and therefore should be judged aesthetically vacuous and even immoral.

This rigid and destructive ideology continues to infect the schools of architecture and drives most criticism when it can be found in literature on buildings. And while many writers have added significant ideas to the “theory” of contemporary architecture that contradict the ideology of Modernism, most literature on design during the past decade and a half has cited allegiance to “Modernism” as the gold standard by which good architecture is judged. Indeed, the Architectural Record publishes article after article in which the building and its architects are praised for hewing close to the credo of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius. Try doing a Google search or word count on a single issue of the magazine and one word will stand out–Modernism. It’s a totem.

I’ll discuss why the scaffolding of Modernist ideology above has little claim to intellectual credibility today in future posts. The question that begs to be asked before doing so is, why do architects who benefit from the marvelous building advances of 20th century modern architecture continue to believe the “theory” that gave rise to such buildings nearly a century ago? In the other arts, music foremost, the most creative and successful practitioners have combined the best of 20th century compositional advances with those of previous composers without swallowing the ideology that gave rise to past styles.

Moreover, many artists have questioned the late 20th century fascination with “conceptualism” as a means of creating works of real beauty and significance. For if the disciplines, media, and traditions laid down by past masters are thrown away in favor of pure ideas, the arts suffer from the death of practice. Better the waning of theoretical hegemony than the loss of an entire culture of artistic production in any field.  Is theory really dead? Perhaps the rush of the information age will cause many artists, scientists and philosophers to rethink the nature of discourse in their chosen disciplines, as E.O. Wilson has suggested in his book, Consilience. Architecture can only benefit from a more open forum than the choked, academic morass that we’ve been enduring for a decade.

The internet has provided an open forum in which “content” of virtually any kind can be shared with any user who has access to Cyberspace. Wired magazine and other information-age “zines” tout the virtues of open access, and Google has revolutionized the ease with which information can be shared. This should be good news to everyone. Of course, those who wish to maintain control of various communities, domains, intellectual properties, or political agendas have found ways to limit the flow of information or manipulate the “discourse” through language. Microsoft Corporation, Fox News and the Chinese government have mastered the art of language and information control in order to protect their power and influence. So has the academic establishment in contemporary architecture.

Protecting territories through discourse has become the most common means of insuring the perpetuation of political ideologies in the information age. The ideology of Modernism was systematically criticized and dismantled during the 1960s and 1970s by some of the proponents of “Post-Modernism.” After a short period of open debate during that time, Modernism began to reassert its ideological hegemony among critics and in schools of architecture in Europe and the U.S. At this time the language of architectural criticism began to adopt the arcane, obsequious language of “post-structuralist” literary theory. Architects, who tend to borrow things from other disciplines with little understanding of their true significance, found a clever means of preventing the public from grasping the “meaning” of their work. Peter Eisenman, the chameleon of architectural theory, stopped quoting Noam Chomsky and took up the torch of Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man. Thus began one of the most successful obfuscation campaigns in the history of architectural discourse. John Silber, a professor of philosophy and former president of Boston University, calls the new language “Theoryspeak.” Though he has written books about Kant’s philosophy, he does not understand this Orwellian twist on Vitruvius, the first writer on architecture, and considers it absurd.

Of course, if the layperson cannot grasp the rationale behind most of what passes as “progressive” architectural design, and the academic establishment protects its territory with ever increasing zealousness, public discussion of buildings will wane. Indeed, since the early 1980s the number of publications on architecture serving a non-professional audience has dropped precipitously. In the U.S., half a dozen trade magazines competed vigorously for subscribers during the mid-20th century (a fraction of the number published during the period from 1890 to 1940), including Architectural Forum, Progressive Architecture, Architectural Record, Architectural Design, and Architectural Review (UK). Today there is only one professional magazine with significant readership, and it is subsidized by the American Institute of Architects.

The reasons for this are clear–public support for architectural gobbledygook is gone, and architects are content to operate within their own “community” of theorists and academic researchers. Many schools of architecture now distinguish between faculty who merely write, and those who design buildings. The former are professors, the latter, “practice” professors. For whom do the professors write? They scribble their ideas and lecture largely to other faculty in architecture schools, and of course influence students, some of whom will go on to practice architecture, only to find that their clients cannot understand what they are saying.

The trickle of actual critical debate on contemporary architecture should concern anyone who cares about the quality of the built environment. As newspapers and other print media struggle to cope with the expansion of information and the delivery of news and opinion, another factor has influenced the dissemination of informed discourse on architecture. The publishers and editors of leading newspapers and news magazines have been hard-pressed to find the means to pay for art, music, literature and design criticism as their budgets are cut to the bone each year. Only a handful of print publications have full-time architectural critics, and their number is diminishing each year.

In the information age, an epoch in which more and more unfiltered, uncritical data is released to a bewildered public every second, informed discourse on the environment (both natural and human-made) is a necessary area of knowledge that should be available to everyone. An architectural “community” that endeavors to limit this information or shutter it by translating language into Theoryspeak, does not belong to the community of concerned global citizens who wish to find common ground in solving the profound problems confronting future generations.

If we are going to adapt new a new way of using energy on this planet, we are going to have to make better and more comprehensive use of the existing infrastructure of buildings and other human-made artifacts. In his wonderful book, How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand explains how traditional buildings morph over time to conform to their inhabitants changing “stuff” and life styles. His examples are rather unassuming and modest, things like Quonsett huts, Butler buildings and sheds. As he says, “Most building adaptation is, like most building evolution, vernacular.”

I am a historic preservation architect, so this way of thinking has always made sense to me. Luminaries like John Ruskin and William Morris, not to mention conservationists of the environment, have been goading us for decades to be more sensible about taking care of our existing buildings and landscape. Modernists, however, have always viewed adaptive reuse with skepticism, and sometimes with contempt. That is because Modernism is positivistic and historicist in philosophical outlook. Old things are worth studying perhaps, but are otherwise not very useful.

Positivism, as we know, assumes that all human endeavor advances toward greater and greater perfection, and that knowledge and wisdom in the present surpass all past intellectual activity. Historicism, as a philosophical construct devised by Hegel, slices all epochs into discreet cultural moments that ebb and flow according to the dialectical struggle of opposing historical forces. Each succeeding epoch surpasses the last, rendering the preceding era’s artifacts quaint and obsolete, fit to be gawked at in museums but hardly worth using over again.

It’s surprising that architects continue to believe in these epistomological dead ends, because nearly everybody in the world of philosophy has moved on. Moreover, anthropologists, biologists, and ethnographers continue to underline the critical importance of the interconnected web of humans, animals and plants that interact in time and space on our planet. Evolution in the brain and body of organisms is a temporal process, not merely a formal one, and every current form embodies thousands of years of previous development. Brand, a biologist, understands this profoundly, and his impatience with Modernist architects is grounded in this knowledge.

Since avant-garde buildings continuosly re-invent architecture, and are designed to fulfill a specific program on a specific site at a specific time, they are by nature one-of-a-kind artifacts. As such, Modernist buildings are singularly difficult to adapt to new uses. Change is an anathema to the heroic gesture that most architects cultivate. Take, for instance, Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of Art in Manhattan. Now a landmark, this concrete art-box worked well for displaying 20th century art, but quickly became obsolete as an all purpose art museum. Efforts to change it, including at least four separate designs for enlargement by famous design luminaries such as Michael Graves and Renzo Piano, failed miserably not only as adaptations but as bold new statements about architecture. C. Montomery Meigs’s Pension Building in Washington, D.C., was designed to house war records in the 19th century, but found not one but two new uses during the 20th, and now serves beautifully as the National Building Museum. It’s a fine, adaptable, traditional work of architecture that will be around well beyond the 21st century.

As Brand makes clear in his book, “Magazine architecture,” the kind that wins critical acclaim for starchitects, is almost pitiable when it comes to adaptation and change. Because it makes a fashion statement, a gesture toward contemporary art, an avant-garde building becomes frozen in its cultural moment. With each passing month, year, decade, it may stand for its architect’s ego, a momentary idea, an outdated movement, but it resists standing for anything else. Vernacular architecture, the un-self-conscious product of a culture, ages well because it strives to do none of these things.

In the historic preservation movement, there is a simple maxim that underpins every effort: “the greenest building is the one that’s already built.” That is because the “embodied energy” in the existing structure makes it essentially irreplaceable in the energy-starved world we live in.

Ian McHarg understood this over 40 years ago when he wrote his masterpiece, Design With Nature. Every human-made intervention in the natural world involves the expenditure of energy. Energy is the real cost of building virtually any structure, from an outhouse to a bridge.

The true obscenity of Modernist building is its inherently wasteful use of energy. Many of iconic buildings of the past 20 years–Norman Foster’s Hong Kong Bank, Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim, Richard Rogers’ Lloyd’s building in the City of London–were proudly touted as among the most expensive structures ever built. The expense of their construction was not simply a matter of cost per square foot (thousands of dollars in every case) but of the energy consumed in producing their “high tech” materials and building systems. Low-e glass in thicknesses that could resist high winds, titanium skin, high strength steel cables, carbon composite structural components–these are only a few of the thousands of high cost-elements used in these buildings. Moreover, the “experimental” structural and HVAC systems in these buildings–part of their allure for critics–stretched the conventional systems for manufacturing and fabricating components to their limits, expending extraordinary amounts of human capital as well as energy. The favored materials in contemporary architecture–metals, glass and concrete–consume more energy in production than any old world materials. They are renewable, but at enormous expense. And these experimental surfaces are unlikely to withstand the weathering that traditional buildings handle with ease, making them costly to maintain and perhaps even obsolete within a generation.

Proponents of experimental “green” buildings, such as skyscrapers with hanging gardens, million square foot convention centers with puny passive ventilation systems and other such oxymoronic follies, argue that technology is necessary to solve the “problems” of building sustainable structures in the global marketplace. There is faulty logic in their arguments. Despite the proven maxim that any energy efficient building skin should be no more than 40% glass, Modernist architects insist that all glass curtain walls are the lightest and most environmentally responsible buildings one can erect. Despite the inherent danger in erecting buildings higher than 50 stories, risking loss of life similar to that of 9/11, Modernist architects continue to dream of mile-high skyscrapers with  complex “green” technology that will reduce their gluttonous energy use by small percentages. Few of these “cutting-edge” designers discuss low-tech or traditional building solutions, such as timber, brick, rammed earth, stone or adobe buildings. Why? Because the ideology of Modernism rejects such “nostalgic” nods to the past.

The “engineer’s aesthetic” of the 1920s has morphed into a romance with building technology that is unprecedented in world history. It seems that anything is possible in building science, and indeed larger and lighter structures can be built today than 50 years ago. But the cost of such wizardry, in currency, resources and energy, most often exceeds any benefits achieved. Critics seldom question the wisdom of using these resources, because novelty is still prized above all else in the design professions. Pursuit of “new form” and “new structure” supersedes rational balancing of energy resources.

Like gas-guzzling SUV’s and super-sized McMansions, the monumental buildings of today’s “starchitects” nearly always push the boundaries of scale, technology, and form–they are large net consumers of energy. Yet few questions are asked about the social and capital costs of these experiments, as they are often foisted upon the public by insecure public officials anxious to see an increase in cultural capital for their institutions. And because there is no balancing point of view among architectural critics today, virtually every high profile public building emerges as a public relations “success” regardless of its intrinsic merit.

Contemporary society now faces one of the most alarming crises in human history–global climate change amidst crushing energy shortages. Buildings protect us from harsh climate, but use a disproportionate amount of energy in construction, and produce more waste than any other human activity during their first years of operation. Modernistically-inclined architects have for decades ignored the challenge of designing smaller, more efficient, and less-technologically complex buildings in favor of Buck Rogers like dreams of future spaceships for human habitation. The current fascination with Buckminster Fuller shows how little we remember of the folly of such faith in technology–nearly every invention from the mind of this eccentric futurist ended in failure.

In the next post I will explore the second reason why Modernist architecture, like the Dymaxion house, belongs to the past rather than the future of spaceship earth.

History shows us that during periods of cultural upheaval such as ours, art movements often wane while experiencing their most vehement, almost nostalgic, moments of hegemony. The current fascination with heroic Modernism, a movement that achieved its apotheosis during first half of the last century, is proving this lesson all over again. It’s remarkable how few critics have noticed this phenomenon–but that’s simply another telltale of our culture’s myopic ignorance of history.

As an architect with no investment in the academic status quo, and a historian who has studied modern architecture for 30 years, I have an objective point of view that can provide a critique of the current design culture that is present no where else. The foregoing is part 1 of a series of posts on the state of architectural criticism that may be refreshing to a general audience concerned about the built environment.

As the 21st century completes its first decade, it has become clear that modernist architecture and urbanism have failed to provide successful models for sustainable development throughout the globe. There are at least seven persuasive reasons why this is the case. Why isn’t Modernism the answer to contemporary architectural challenges anymore?

1. It costs too much–while most of the world struggles to build low-tech, energy efficient buildings, Modernist buildings consume more energy and materials than ever before.

2. It’s not adaptable–as Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth catalogue, has proven, Modernist buildings are singularly resistant to “learning” and changing over time.

3. It’s self-referential, not open–in a world where “open systems” pervade the Internet and much of the rest of culture, Modernism continues to operate in a suffocatingly insular community of critics and academic designers who guard their turf ever more zealously.

4. “Theory is dead” and the avant-garde cannot persist–Wired magazine’s July issue said it best: the new model for the information age has no use for the kind of rigid ideology that sustained the avant-garde.

5. Cultural homogeneity (International Style design) has created a crisis of identity throughout the globe–the success of international Modernism has become its curse, resulting in social and psychological alienation and a loss of authentic cultural identity.

6. It has created an urban wasteland of dense, tall buildings and threatening, auto-choked highways–the New Urbanism and other critical movements have proven that sprawl, suburban “edge cities” and other bi-products of modernism are unsustainable models for future settlements.

7. It’s not the Zeitgeist anymore–serialist (12-tone) music has been replaced in concert halls with rich, pluralistic forms that audiences love; while Modernism has been discredited in all of the other arts, architects cling to a movement that is philosophically and culturally bankrupt.

In the next post, I will follow these seven arguments in detail, beginning with the capital and environmental costs of building with ‘high tech’ systems and materials.

Bombast in Beijing

August 6, 2008

Architecture in China is the new focus of every critic and publication in the field. The New York Times has published a dozen or more stories on Beijing’s buildings in just the past month alone. Has anyone stopped to look critically at these monstrous, egotistical displays of conspicuous wealth, albeit made with Asian capital and vast consumption of the earth’s resources? I have yet to read a measured, truly thought-provoking piece in any publication, professional or popular, that even attempts to grapple with the consequences of this kind of building.

Most newly wealthy and powerful cultures choose to display their prowess with new buildings, so it’s no surprise that the Chinese stepped up with characteristic bravado and hired just about every “starchitect” in Europe and America to provide a monument in the capital city, each rushed to completion in time for the big moment in August 2008. The buildings now go by popular nicknames–not necessarily flattering ones–such as “the egg,” the “bird’s nest,” and the “mobius strip.” One thing you can say about all of them is that they were obscenely expensive to build, used vast energy resources, and stretched the limits of current technology. Many architecture critics believe that these are salutary characteristics; I don’t share their enthusiasm.

Though the new airport by Norman Foster and the Olympic Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron are undoubtedly fine monumental buildings, deserving of some of the praise doled out in such publications as the New Yorker, nothing built in Beijing during the recent boom has merited the awestruck admiration that characterizes most of the writing in the American and European press. Like the ill-conceived and now pilloried “Grand Projets” of Francois Mitterand in Paris, the new icons of Beijing will become rusting eyesores in the smog before the next decade is upon us. Indeed, most of the writing on these buildings has been biased toward praising Chinese economic power and technology, with little comment on the formal, social and cultural values embodied by such gargantuan construction projects. Do Westerners really cower under the bombastic gestures of the new Asia?

What is more disturbing  about the architectural coverage of the new Beijing is the awestruck acceptance of Chinese style urban “planning” as the new standard for how to build cities. The architects of Beijing, trained in modernist anti-urban strategies, have created a city modeled on Houston, Los Angeles or Dubai–but executed at an unprecedented scale. We are told by observers of this phenomenon–notably Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times–that we must accept this scary new megalopolis as a guide to what our cities will look like in the future. Why? The Times critic argues that China has seized the moment to experiment with new building types and technology, admitting that its urbanistic paradigms are borrowed from the 1920s (read the Ville Radieuse, the Bauhaus, and other avant gardes). As America and Europe contemplate downsizing for a newly energy-efficient and sustainable world, he encourages us to look to Chinese adventurousness as a way out of our doldrums.

Can we afford to think seriously about building at such a scale and such a cost with oil at $140 a barrel and the earth’s oceans rising under the threat of global warming? The Chinese have predictably flexed their cultural muscles with these pretentious and wasteful buildings at a time when media-obsessed western countries are all too willing to fawn over such posturing. As observers have noted about athletic training programs, the host country generally sees gold medal performances as roughly equivalent to cultural capital in other arenas–architecture, film, music, art. In this respect the 2008 Olympics are little different from the politically-charged games of the 20th century, and the regimes that supported them. Perhaps these new Olympic monuments will some day remind us of the folly of designing merely to proclaim economic and political prowess, just as the buildings of other regimes–Stalin’s USSR, Hitler’s Third Reich, Mussolini’s Rome–now stand as testaments to the hollow ideologies of their patrons. China is a world power with aspirations no less grand than other 20th century totalitarian regimes, albeit underpinned by capitalist free markets. Why should we expect more from a 21st century power?

One reason is that the earth is now in greater peril than at any time in the last century. As China spends its resources on new buildings and infrastructure, it necessarily sends a signal to the rest of the world about its attitudes toward sustaining the earth. In the limelight during the summer of 2008, China’s signals have been disquieting at best. Outside of the architectural press, probing journalists have begun to look beneath the hype. Isn’t it time for a harder look at the ideas that produced cities with a hundred square miles of 50-story towers and asphalt expressways, cultural centers surrounded by moats in a climate that evaporates water faster than the Mohave desert, and mixed-use residential projects that hoist swimming pools 30 stories in the air?


August 6, 2008

The introductory photo on this blog is from my book, The Architect and the American Country House (Yale ,1991). Look for posts in the future related to architecture, preservation, and American culture.