Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.
Few are immune to the architectural charms of Eastern Europe. Prague’s winding streets and medieval towers are a testament to the city’s enduring commercial vitality. The gothic imprint of German settlement can be seen as far east as Romania, where a distinctly Teutonic cathedral looms over the Brasov town square. The architectural signature of the Habsburgs—pastel colors and baroque ornamentation—remains from Krakow and Lviv in the north, to the Adriatic port of Trieste, to Budapest and Bratislava, even as languages change and national borders interpose themselves. In Sarajevo, the baroque style gives way to the minarets and narrow streets of the Islamic old town, reminding visitors that Bosnia was once part of the Ottoman Turkish heartland.
Not all of the region’s architecture is charming. Belgrade and Warsaw were flattened during the Second World War. Ugly apartment blocks and squat concrete buildings are grim reminders of the Soviet era. Newer glass-and-steel hotels jostle uneasily with older structures. Lacking in resources, many historic buildings have gone from charmingly ramshackle to completely run-down.
Still, the variegated architecture of Eastern Europe puts lie to the notion that in matters of taste, anything goes. Residents and tourists alike flock to old squares and charming historic districts. Newer buildings are functional but unloved. In the wake of the tragic Notre Dame de Paris fire, debates about design in the public square have re-emerged along political fault lines. Instead of turning architecture into another front in the culture war, we should ask ourselves a simple question: Where have all the beautiful buildings gone?
In the United States, the major flashpoint is brutalism, a post-war style that marries imposing concrete-and-steel design with stripped-down functionalism. Left-wingers darkly warn of the alt-right “infiltrating” architecture twitter under the guise of criticizing brutalist buildings. Others defend brutalism as a symbol of our lapsed commitment to public housing and economic justice.
Though brutalism is defended on both aesthetic and political grounds, the two arguments are difficult to reconcile. To a certain type of critic, brutalism represents “heroic architecture,” the realization of an individual designer’s vision in concrete and steel. Mid-century pioneers of brutalism like Le Corbusier and Ernő Goldfinger were minor celebrities. Le Corbusier’s architectural vision was uncompromisingly individualistic, unmoored from tradition or conventional ideas about form and beauty. It is no accident that Howard Roark, the fictional protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, was also an iconoclastic architect. (Roark’s aesthetic sensibilities were closer to Frank Lloyd Wright than Le Corbusier, and the Swiss architect probably would have bridled at Roark’s politics, but the parallels between the two are unmissable.)
To a few intellectuals, brutalist buildings are heroic achievements, but the public has never warmed to them. When Naples’ notorious Gomorrah housing project was recently torn down, the loudest naysayers were professional architects. Actual residents had long complained about the buildings’ conditions. But if you’re not willing to defend the aesthetics of brutalism, ideology will suffice. So says today’s leftist journal Jacobin, trumpeting “Save Our Brutalism,” and lauding the great mid-century brutalist buildings as potent symbols of our now-forgotten commitment to equality.
Defending brutalist buildings on ideological grounds only highlights the divide between design and the lived experience of a building’s residents. As James C. Scott points out in Seeing Like a State, there is a profound gulf between the God’s-eye view of architects and policy-makers and the ground-level view of actual inhabitants, who have to live with brutalism’s unforgiving sterility. From the air or from a distance, Oscar Niemeyer’s vision of Brasilia is a striking achievement. To the city’s inhabitants, however, the Le Corbusier-inspired design is artificial and alienating. Brutalism proposed to strip buildings down to their barest functions, yet it fails at the basic task of providing a welcoming, visually-appealing space for residents and passers-by.
Ascribing a single ideological message to a diffuse architectural movement is also mistaken. Perhaps Jacobin subscribers equate brutalism with public housing, but the meaning is more sinister in Eastern Europe. The tiered design of the Gomorrah housing projects bears a marked resemblance to the resorts built for Communist apparatchiks on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Your average Latvian is more likely to associate these buildings with Soviet-era repression and mismanagement than left-wing nostrums about equality. Enver Hoxha’s Albania produced some striking examples of brutalist architecture. Hoxha, not coincidentally, was a notorious tyrant.
Design fads come and go and political sensibilities change, but the technocratic, top-down worldview that undergirds brutalism persists. In 2011, the Dutch celebrity architect Rem Koolhass was quite open about his preference for “the generic city” over architecture rooted in local culture or history:
The traditional city is very much occupied by rules and codes of behavior. But the generic city is free of established patterns and expectations. These are cities that make no demands and, consequently, create freedom. Some 80 percent of the population of a city like Dubai consists of immigrants, while in Amsterdam it is 40 percent. I believe that it’s easier for these demographic groups to walk through Dubai, Singapore or HafenCity than through beautiful medieval city centers. For these people, (the latter) exude nothing but exclusion and rejection. In an age of mass immigration, a mass similarity of cities might just be inevitable. These cities function like airports in which the same shops are always in the same places. Everything is defined by function, and nothing by history. This can also be liberating.
Technocrats once spoke the language of socialism and central planning; Koolhass and his ilk are more likely invoke markets, openness, and globalization. But the underlying impulse is the same: Society can be cataloged, organized, and ultimately shaped from the top down through the design of its cities and buildings. Beauty, tradition, and culture are secondary considerations.
Even if we dismiss brutalism as a fad perpetrated by blinkered technocrats and egotistical architects, ugly buildings expose ugly truths. Pervasive ugliness seems to impose an unconscious psychic tax on the great mass of people, even if most have no interest in the finer points of architecture or design. So why have we lost the ability to construct beautiful buildings? There are no easy ideological answers. Socialism may have birthed brutalism, but capitalism has given us barren strip malls, cookie-cutter exurbs, and Koolhaas’s “generic city.”
By contrast, Notre Dame de Paris was a communal undertaking, built by generations of craftsmen and artisans. The names of several of its earliest architects are lost to history. Crude historical revivalism is also unsatisfying. Warsaw’s ersatz Old Town, rebuilt in the wake of World War II, is an impressive testament to Polish national will, but it lacks the authentic charm of Krakow’s beautifully-preserved historic district. Budapest’s Fisherman’s Bastion, a restored medieval structure, pales in comparison to the city’s old baroque neighborhoods. And Huawei’s “European” campus, plopped down in the middle of Southern China, is the architectural equivalent of the uncanny valley: The closer it hews to historic European buildings, the faker it looks and feels.
Blackened and diminished by fire, Notre Dame de Paris still inspires awe. Even among non-Catholics, the cathedral’s beauty resonates because it can be appreciated by everyone, from tourists to locals to architects. Despite decades of calamity and neglect, many of Eastern Europe’s old buildings evoke similar feeling. Such structures have always been rare, but we seem to have lost the ability, or the ambition, to even attempt them. Brutalist architecture is a historical footnote. The disappearance of beauty in our public spaces will be with us for far longer.