Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Today, however, a detached elite shapes our buildings, and only then do they shape us—mostly to our detriment.
So why isn’t architecture of interest to politicians of either party here and now, as it was to Churchill? The natural environment has its champions in American politics, but the built environment, where most of us live and work, does not. That can—and should—change.
Buildings shape the setting for civil society and influence our quality of life. As the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has written, “insofar as architecture has any role to play in supporting the social life of those who live with it, the street of congenial facades must inevitably offer more basic nourishment than the block of dead corridors.”
Traditional architecture—derived ultimately from the columns, pediments, arches, and other features of ancient Greece and Rome—evolved by trial and error, teaching best practices to builders and architects generation by generation. The centuries forged a classical language that fostered architecture sensitive to the public’s desire for “congenial facades.” But in the mid-20th century, new ideas took over, and the public has ever since been subjected to endless experimentation and vanity projects.
In most cities and towns, the way new buildings look is not influenced by public taste, which is generally traditional. Instead, it is the purview of municipal and institutional facilities committees, design-review panels, the developers who hire architects who cater to the tastes of officialdom, and the local circle of professionals, academics, and journalists who may be relied upon to cluck at any deviation from the elite fashion in the design of new buildings.
Maybe we should be glad that voters are not faced with yet another set of reasons to shout at each other, as building design stays absent from public debates. But it is far from clear that traditional architecture and urban design, if they became a political issue, would be as divisive as immigration, abortion, or gun control. In fact, such an agenda would likely prove appealing across ideological divides—so the first party to politicize architecture could steal a march on its rival.
Architecture is not intrinsically conservative or liberal, let alone Democratic or Republican. Yet a quiet consensus favors traditional styles in architecture. It seems an awful lot like a “silent majority.”
Perhaps Americans were not always so quiet on the subject. H.L. Mencken, in an editorial from the February 1931 issue of the American Mercury, wrote: “The New Architecture seems to be making little progress in the United States. … A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier, would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration.” (Le Corbusier was one of modern architecture’s founders. He proposed in 1925 to eliminate the beauty of central Paris and replace it with 60-story towers in a vast park crisscrossed by highways.)
Resistance was soon vanquished, however, as the strength of popular dissatisfaction was systematically subverted by architectural ideologues capturing the professional institutions. Within a decade or two, the styles most people disliked had taken over the industry, and as of today modern architecture’s advocates have controlled the establishment for well over half a century.
“Tower in the park” urbanism is now used across America to warehouse the poor. And thanks to Corbusier, the more refined glass-and-steel versions of public-housing towers increasingly house the 1 percent and their corporate headquarters, transforming our downtowns into oppressive zones of aesthetic sterility.
Civic design remains in the hands of a very small minority whose tastes are diametrically opposed to those of the public. But if architecture became a recognized matter of public concern, Scruton’s “disenfranchised users of architecture”—who like a house that looks like a house, a church that looks like a church, a bank that looks like a bank, and an office tower that looks like it is not about to fall down—might find it easier than we imagine to topple the architectural establishment.
Most Americans tune out when it comes to architecture and the design of the buildings going up around us, except when it comes to our own houses. New housing is one segment of the design and construction industry in which tradition dominates the market. Our existing neighborhoods are also close to our hearts, which is why a popular movement arose over the past half-century to protect them from modernism.
Historic preservation had long been a concern of antiquarians interested in saving the houses where our presidents were born or slept. Only when our own houses came to be threatened by modern architecture did historic preservation turn almost overnight into a mass movement capable of blocking unpopular projects. The famed clash between volunteer urbanist Jane Jacobs and New York City master planner Robert Moses in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, saved Greenwich Village from being demolished to make way for a highway.
But because all the levers of new neighborhood development are still controlled by partisans of modern ugliness, older structures have become rare offerings of beauty in much of the urban marketplace. “A historic district is merely a typical neighborhood built before World War II,” says Andres Duany, founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism. He argues that if current building codes did not make old residential patterns illegal in so much of the country, nice places to live would not be such a scarce commodity, and housing costs in historic districts would fall within reach of more families.
Build attractive neighborhoods elsewhere, and those older districts would not be so unaffordable—because there would be more places just as nice. The knowledge of how to build such pleasing buildings is not a lost art but an art held prisoner to regulation biased toward cold modernist approaches.
A new movement dedicated to traditional architecture could take control of local development just as quickly as the modernists seized power. The infrastructure to enable such a shift is already in place. Simply by attending public hearings of boards and commissions that perform design review and grant building permits to developers, traditionalists can begin to make their voices heard. (And waiting to meet their demands is a large and growing cadre of architects who design in traditional styles.)
The art of public demonstration can be revived to intimidate stodgy design-review hearings and architects who usually expect little or no protest against their plans. Traditionalists have raised just such an unexpected controversy in objecting to and obstructing a horrible modernist proposal for President Eisenhower’s memorial in Washington, D.C. It can be done. Mayors and governors could be made to shudder at how design might influence voters.
There is a broad base of support to be built by pointing out that it is neither conservative nor liberal to resist modern architecture but rather an expression of common civic concern. Purveyors of slow food, locavores saving the family farm, preservationists saving old neighborhoods, and New Urbanists creating walkable settlements all find liberal as well as conservative advocates for traditional causes. A loose coalition already exists and can become politically powerful once it recognizes its own strength.
Anyone concerned about the natural environment might also fit within this coalition for a restored architecture. A century ago, modernists decided that the Machine Age required a Machine Architecture, but all we got was the machine metaphor without its promised efficiency. Now modern architecture sponsors endless conferences and symposia on sustainable building practices, even as it spurns an architecture that maintained cities for centuries before oil. Abandoning this combination of stupidity and ugliness is a cause that should appeal to citizens of all stripes.
A resistance to modern architecture can be politically effective without becoming yet another partisan issue—because bringing a sense of traditional community back into the human habitat is also a cause whose logic runs deeper than any political categories.
David Brussat, a former architecture critic for The Providence Journal, blogs at Architecturehereandthere.com. This article was supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.