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Modernist Mistakes

The degradation of our cities and towns is entirely due to the Modern Movement.

(Photo by: Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

One mythology peddled by Modernist apologists is an allegedly seamless “history,” which attempts to link the Modern Movement in architecture and planning with millennia of historical developments that had produced the great European cities of the past. What Modernists actually achieved was a complete and absolute rupture with everything that had made cities attractive in terms of culture, aesthetics, religion, commerce, entertainment, and more.

In doing so, they rejected not only coherent historical architectural languages, especially the Classicism handed down from Greco-Roman antiquity, but everything that makes old urban fabric pleasant to visit and inhabit. In particular, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (who, like other 20th century bullies, gave himself a pseudonym, “Le Corbusier”), in his writings made it clear that the city as Europe had known it for millennia would be destroyed and that the street (which he particularly hated, in all its untidy, wonderful variety) would be replaced by massive tower-blocks set in windswept, intimidating, featureless open spaces.


The Modern Movement promised bogus “streets” (actually gangways suspended over unusable space), the destruction of the façade, the abolition of “style,” land given over to motorways, high-level living in minimalist boxes accessible by lifts, and a supposedly light-filled, clean (even antiseptic), built environment devoid of all ornament. A new, unimaginably ghastly world of catatonic boredom, intended to permanently numb those unfortunate enough to inhabit it, was to be created. In short, every single aspect, rule, or artifact that had contributed to the making of the historic city was to be prohibited: Modernists were determined to destroy traditional historic cities even though what they proposed to put in their place was ill-conceived and, as it turned out, hated by the unfortunates unlucky enough to be forced to try to inhabit the Brave New World. 

Many Modernist developments erected from the 1960s onwards have failed in every respect, not least structurally, and have had to be demolished. The Modern Movement was determined to wreck the entire social order that old cities symbolized in their rich mix of possibilities and activities, hierarchical structures, work- and living-places, and open spaces for public events. Most of all, Modernists despised historic cities for their possibilities for spontaneity, relaxation, and amusement in surroundings not stripped bare of diversion.

Modernists hated that the bourgeois city was a living, breathing organism that catered to humanity, in all its complexity, a complexity of which Modernists did not admit. It was the cities’ hierarchical order in the Modernists’ sights, and they did their utmost to bring it crashing down, in far too many cases with success.

Their agenda were shrouded in verbiage. They claimed the Modern Movement was the natural descendant of the Arts & Crafts designers, whom Modernist scribblers claimed were the “pioneers” of Modernism, something surviving Arts and Crafts masters such as C.F.A. Voysey indignantly rejected. Indeed, Modernist demands for mass-produced factory-made components, the abolition of all ornament, and the elimination of craftsmanship were the antithesis of everything the Arts and Crafts architects stood for. Modernists pretended their aims were the logical successors of earlier forms, when what they were really aiming for was the destruction of urban and architectural order, and the tidying up of untidy humanity, bottled up in hygienic tower-blocks. 

The clear-eyed observer must see all this as the deliberate, concerted attempt to impose a compulsory system of social control. Of course humanity itself was never asked if it wanted this terrifying, presumptuous, arrogant intervention: It was assumed by Modernists that their solutions would be applied, whether they were wished for or not. Le Corbusier, for example, trumpeted that “we must create the mass-production spirit … the spirit of living in mass-production houses.” 


It is revealing that Hubert de Cronin Hastings, Modernist proprietor of the Architectural Press, which published the influential monthly Architectural Review and weekly Architects’ Journal, insisted that he and his team knew what should be done about housing in Britain in the 1960s, and would not tolerate dissent. But the solutions and the schemes they championed have been disasters. The imposition of inhumane, minimalist, mass-produced architecture was resisted by the very people forced to live in it. The masses did not welcome having their cozy traditional homes “compulsorily purchased” from them at a fraction of their true value so they could be re-housed where they did not want to be.

Relativism was at the heart of the architectural Modern Movement. All absolute values, all faith, all exemplary aspects of high culture were discarded, and a classless society with no hierarchies, where a cowed populace would live in uniform surroundings imposed from above, not asked for by those condemned to inhabit or work in them, would be insisted upon. It cast its opponents as reactionaries, fascists, conservatives, and, perhaps worst of all, bourgeois. 

Yet many of Modernism’s most effective apologists, such as Nikolaus Pevsner, were themselves obliged to leave their homelands because of totalitarian political Modernism. But instead of leaving behind the ideologies of the regimes that had caused them to move, they brought them along with them. Pevsner admitted at one time to “National Socialist feelings,” which reveal themselves in many of his remarks about German art, influenced strongly by his erstwhile teacher Wilhelm Pinder, a notable Hitler fan. The odious Miës van der Rohe had declared in 1924 that the individual was losing significance, and that an individual’s destiny was no longer of any interest. Such opinions were reiterated by Joseph Goebbels a decade later, and there can be no doubt that they were central to the beliefs of architectural Modernists, who, contrary to received opinion and Modernist whitewashing, were themselves more ideologically allied with National Socialism than their critics. 

As we have seen, Pevsner constructed fanciful links with great architects of the past he dubbed “pioneers” of the Modern Movement, but he was by no means the only propagandist at work on this project. Another highly effective example was Sigfried Giedion, who, in his Space, Time and Architecture, subtitled The Growth of a New Tradition, was also selective in his attempts to associate accounts of historical architecture and town planning with Modernist-Corbusian dystopian notions. 

The offspring of lectures he gave at Harvard University in 1938-9, Space, Time, and Architecture was influential and widely read in all schools of architecture, where its “fundamental axis of development” from the Renaissance to the present was uncritically lapped up by its readers. Giedion’s analysis of Modern architecture and comparison with that of the past is manifestly unsound. Larded with portentous statements about that hoary old Germanic concept, the zeitgeist, Giedion’s terrible book also spouts nonsense about space, time, relativism, and much else. And the airy claims by Walter Gropius that the architecture of the Modern Movement embraced the Modernist aesthetic in literature, music, and painting was merely hot air; aesthetics had been ostentatiously dumped by architects, while in writing, practitioners such as T.S. Eliot were conscious of the need to respect tradition, not discard it, as the architects and planners were doing to noisy fanfares. 

And here the specter of coercion cannot be avoided: Modernist architects increasingly saw themselves as an all-knowing powerful elite, above the mundane concerns of what the public wanted or liked, producing vast schemes that owed nothing to tradition, history, or public taste.

The Modern Movement legitimized widespread destruction, the degradation of the urban environment, and the creation of a dystopian, alien nightmare with no redeeming visual, environmental, or moral features. The degradation of our cities and towns is entirely due to that movement. It should be stopped immediately, and reversed.


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