Andrew Sullivan points to this blog entry arguing that horrible, soul-killing postwar Brutalist architecture, the dream buildings of utopian socialists, added to the anger, despair, and nihilism behind this summer’s English riots. Excerpt from that piece:
Opposition to post-war architecture tends to focus on aesthetic concerns. And, certainly, much of it is appalling ugly, almost to the point that merely looking at it fills you with despair. But its mostly deeply pernicious effect is surely the way in which it has affected people’s behaviour, by forcing them to live in an environment which is cold, desolate and practically inhuman. Naturally, I am not suggesting that post-war architecturecaused the riots. But the idea that it was a contributory factor certainly has the ring of truth about it.
The Prince of Wales, who has certainly made the right enemies in his crusade for traditional architecture and urban planning, has this to say, in his excellent book Harmony, a volume I highly recommend to you. One of the arguments he puts forward in the book is that we in the modern world have cut ourselves off from architectural tradition, which is not at all what many people think it is, but is rather “a living presence [that] looks to the future as much as it does to the past because it is focussed on the non-material as well as our material needs of the day, neither of which have changed, despite our many advances and supposed progress away from all those ‘old-fashioned superstitious beliefs.’ We are still human after all.”
With architecture and urban planning, Charles contends that there are organic patterns to design that recur across civilizations, and that emerge out of deep and long human experience. These patterns aren’t merely an expression of what people happen to like, or are told to like by the ruling class. Rather, they are related in some mysterious way to our innate sense of ourselves as embodied creatures. Writes Charles, “Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, we are still bonded to this essential organic pattern.” He said the ancient Egyptians were onto something profound in their belief that if the grammar of harmony was broken, it would unleash chaos.
I cannot possibly begin to do justice to his chapter on the mathematics and symmetry of these patterns recurring both in nature and in the built environment, in virtually all cultures, and across all eras, except for the radical discontinuity brought about by Modernism, in which hubristic Western mankind decided that existence precedes essence, and that we could make all these things up ourselves. (If you want to explore more, check out Jonathan Hale’s “The Old Way of Seeing,” or, at a higher level, Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language,” which is
expensive and hard to find not expensive and actually easy to find, says a commenter, who provides a link — funny, I must have misread Amazon). Anyway, Charles writes:
As the Buddha says, ‘with our thoughts we make the world.’ This is why understanding the patterning of Nature seems to me to be so important. It is not just a loose or random collection fo patterns. Patterns that are not connected to not make a system. What matters is the quality and nature of the connections between the patterns, because these determine whether the collection produces a language or justa confusing babble. In other words, the relationship that all things have with each other is paramount. This is the mistake I believe was made by the avant-garde architects of the Modernist movement and their more recent offspring, who still put their faith in the construction of buildings that deliberately abandon the grammar of harmony.
Charles writes of meeting with a group of teenagers once in a depressed part of the city of Bradford. They showed him the results of a project they had done in which they’d gone around their town photographing the buildings they liked, and the ones they didn’t like. The buildings the kids hated were those built in the 1960s and 1970s. The ones they liked were older ones. They couldn’t explain why. Charles says he believes they were responding as human beings always do instinctively: natural, organic patterns pleased them because it resonated with inner harmony that is part of our biological make-up.
The kind of modern architecture they disliked and that I have been so exercised about is the kind that clashes hideously with this patterning that lies within us. In the most extreme cases — the buildings, for instance, designed by those architects who were even proud to call themselves ‘Brutalists’ — such edifices seem deliberately to summon up chaos rather than conjure harmony. They actively deconstruct this patterning and this seriously affects our psychological equilibrium. If these buildings were not so disturbing their architects might choose to live in them themselves, but what has always intrigued me is that so few of them do! You will find that many architects prefer to live — and often work — in attractive old buildings, very often situated in the few remaining conservation areas that have somehow survived in our towns and cities.
“We make our buildings,” said Winston Churchill, “and afterwards, they make us.” House the poor in buildings that concretize spiritual chaos, buildings that are impossible to love, and you shouldn’t be surprised that what emerges from human beings formed by such inhuman structures is … chaos. What an irony that the poor of Britain would have been far better off had the Prince of Wales been around to direct the design of their housing than the socialists who actually did the job!