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The Intellectual Roots of Architectural Decay

The ideas of the Modern architectural movement are as ugly as the cities they created.

Eastern City Gate of Belgrade
(Posnov/Getty Images)

The mythologies peddled by Modernist apologists include a rickety, extremely bogus, allegedly seamless "history" that 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 rupture with everything that had made cities attractive in terms of culture, aesthetics, religion, work, commerce, exchange, industry, entertainment, leisure, and agreeable human activities.

In doing so, they rejected not only coherent historical architectural languages, especially the infinitely adaptable 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 gave himself the pseudonym Le Corbusier), in his ranting, sloganizing, violent, simplistic, humorless, puritanical, ill-educated writings (taken as a whole the built-environment equivalent of Mein Kampf), made it clear that the city as Europe had known it for millennia would be destroyed. The street, which he particularly hated, in all its untidy, humane, mixed-use, wonderful variety—he was obsessed with hygiene and tidiness—would be replaced by massive tower-blocks set in windswept, intimidating, featureless open spaces.


The Modern Movement promised bogus "streets," the destruction of the façade, the abolition of "style," land given over to motorways, high-level living in minimalist boxes, and a supposedly light-filled, clean, featureless built environment devoid of all ornament, all mixed uses, all variety, and all beauty. A new, unimaginably ghastly world of catatonic boredom, intended to permanently numb those unfortunate enough to inhabit it, was to be deliberately created. In short, every single aspect, rule, artifact, or phenomenon 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-thought-out, rigidly zoned, ugly, unscientific, irrational, and, as it turned out, hated by the unfortunates unlucky enough to be forced to try to inhabit the brave new world, who turned on it with savagery, vandalized it, covered it with graffiti, and very obviously rejected it.

A vast number of Modernist developments erected from the 1960s onward have failed in every respect, not least structurally, and have had to be demolished. In short, the Modern Movement, as is clear from a reading of the tedious texts and half-baked babblings of its partisans, was determined to wreck the entire social order that all old cities symbolized in their rich mix of possibilities and activities, their hierarchical structure, their work-and living-places, their open spaces for public events, their places of worship and education, their opera-houses, concert-halls, and meeting-places, their galleries and museums, their restaurants, cafés, and public-houses. Most of all, their possibilities for spontaneity, fun, relaxation, and amusement in surroundings not clinically stripped bare of anything diverting, were to be denied them.

What Modernists hated most of all was the manifestation of a rewarding bourgeois city, a living, breathing organism, that catered for humanity, in all its complexity, a complexity not allowed by Modernists at all. It was that hierarchical order that was in their sights, and they did their utmost to bring it crashing down.

Such mind-blowing social agenda, however, were largely hidden in oceans of verbiage, with absurd claims that the architectural Modern Movement was the natural descendant of the arts-and-crafts designers; indeed Modernist demands for mass-produced factory-made components, the abolition of all ornament, and the elimination of craftsmanship were the antitheses of everything the arts-and-crafts architects stood for, and underscore how preposterous were the false connections attempted to be made by Nikolaus Pevsner and others. In short, Modernists pretended that their aims were logical, objective, scientific, and rational, when what they were really aiming for was the destruction of the social order, and the tidying up of untidy humanity by confiscating all its pleasures and dissipations, and bottling it up in hygienic tower-blocks.

What the clear-eyed observer of all this sees is a deliberate, concerted attempt to impose a compulsory system of social control. Of course real humanity was never asked if it wanted this terrifying intervention at all: It was assumed by Modernists that the solutions were now set in aspic. Le Corbusier, for example, trumpeted that “we must create the mass-production spirit…the spirit of living in mass-production houses,” and, together with commitments to “progress” and totalitarian centralized planning, heralded devastating things to come. 

Many of Modernism’s most effective apologists, like Pevsner, were themselves obliged to leave their homelands because of  totalitarian political Modernism, but instead of leaving behind the vile, censorious thought-processes of the regimes that had caused them to move, brought those 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. 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 to be iterated 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 far more ideologically allied with National Socialism than their critics ever were.

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 one was Sigfried Giedion, who, in his Space, Time and Architecture, weaselly 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, which, by no stretch of fantastic imaginings, could be connected with the long and honorable history of European urbanism. The offspring of lectures he gave at Harvard University in 1938-1939, the book was unaccountably influential, widely read in all schools of architecture, where its “fundamental axis of development” from the Renaissance to the present seems to have been uncritically lapped up by its readers to an astonishing degree. His analysis of Modern architecture and its comparison with that of the past is manifestly unsound. Larded with portentous statements about that hoary old Germanic concept, the Zeitgeist, Giedion’s book also spouts nonsense about space, time, and relativism.

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. Yet those useful idiots never seemed to grasp that Modernism has nothing to do with progress or improving the lot of the socially disadvantaged; on the contrary, there were certain developers, working with corrupt local authorities, who bamboozled the politicians, gullible journalists, and a cowed public with Modernist rhetoric in order to realize their hideous, aesthetically indefensible megastructures, destroying historic urban fabric and living communities in order to do so. Modernist architects facilitated the creation of the brutal, deformed, frightening public face of private and corporate greed. Enormous vested interests are now at stake when it comes to architecture, and those vested interests are entirely financial, yet pretend to be working for the public good.