New Urbs

The Fury of the Modernists

TAC Illustration by Michael Hogue

In every art form there has been a “battle of styles,” as the old idioms became tired and repetitious, and new idioms searched for space in the creative mêlée. For the most part the battle has been good humored, with new solutions steadily gathering approval from the art-loving public. The passage of The Rite of Spring from an act of outrageous defiance to a classic of the symphony-hall repertoire is a case in point, as is the rise of T.S. Eliot from the purveyor of arcane mysteries to the unofficial poet laureate of the modern world. Art lovers have mostly taken an open-minded attitude in this battle. They have recognized that what seems like anti-human defiance may often be a deeper form of acceptance, so that apparent ugliness might turn out to be real beauty in the long run.

There is one exception to this ecumenical approach to modern art, and that is architecture—an exception that goes to the heart of architecture’s status as an art. From its beginnings in the Bauhaus, architectural modernism has been less an aesthetic experiment than a moral crusade, typified by the polemics issuing from the Centre Internationale de l’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) in the 1920s. Those who advanced the “international” style were animated as much by revulsion towards the existing fabric of our cities as by enthusiasm for the new materials and the large-scale projects that they facilitated. They referred constantly to the benighted quality of their opponents, who were not simply competitors in the realm of style but wicked reactionaries, withholding the benefits of progress from the mass of humankind.

The modernists belonged, on the whole, to the revolutionary wing of contemporary socialism, with Hannes Meyer, as director of the Bauhaus, explicitly pledging allegiance to the Leninist vision, while others, like the endearing Karel Teige in Prague, advocating a romantic and poetic communism designed to liberate the common people without controlling them. Le Corbusier attempted to join this revolutionary movement at a certain stage but, finding a more congenial sponsor in the Vichy Government of war-time France, he moved right-wards, without, however, losing the totalitarian mentality that united him to Gropius and Meyer.

This totalitarian mentality should be seen in its historical context. Modernism came to the fore in the wake of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, when massive displacements of populations into cities ill-adapted to receive them suggested that only large-scale planning could prevent disaster. The first duty of government was to take control, and to provide for the basic social needs of people on the verge of starvation. The great housing projects of the post-war period began from that thought, and the new materials, which made it possible to build without the constraints contained in the dying tradition of post and beam construction, offered what was seen at the time as the only possible solution to a growing social problem.

This solution was the estate of high-rise apartment blocks set in a green space, which involved building on a scale that had previously been impossible, and building according to a top-down plan, rather than according to the tastes of individual house-owners. The international modernist aesthetic was, to a great extent, an effect of that way of building, rather than a cause of it. But it was presented as an aesthetic innovation, and the inspiration for the new building types. People who didn’t like it—and then as now they were the majority—were held to be committing the same kind of aesthetic crime as those who banished Manet from the salons, or those who rioted at the first performance of The Rite of Spring.

In due course an element of realism entered the contest, though not before “slum clearance” had removed much of the genial fabric of our city streets, and the high-rise estate had risen from the ruins. High-rise buildings do not, on the whole, last much longer than the illusion that people want to live in them. Within thirty years the dilapidated towers, standing in a sea of garbage, ravaged by vandalism and criminal gangs, and with many of their residents suffering from mental health problems and living in a permanent state of anxiety, are usually blown up, and their population re-housed in the next generation of mistakes, this time comparatively low-rise buildings of concrete trays, stacked beside streets on which their backs are turned: a idiom that can be encountered in its most brutal form in London’s Elephant and Castle estate, the work of the Smithsons.

At the same time, the message that the modernist idioms are uniquely suited to our age is still shouted at the top of the voice in the schools of architecture. We may have moved on from the great socialist projects; but we have not moved on from the architecture to which they gave rise. Curtain wall structures along existing streets offer a lucrative way to exploit the infrastructure of our cities, so that the financial interest in defending this style against all-comers has become one of the most important causes in the architecture journals. The schools no longer teach facades or streets or skylines, but only “envelopes.” The resulting soap-bubble architecture is disliked by almost everyone, and the architects themselves are seldom observed to live in the vicinity of what they build, preferring elegant Georgian terraces along old-fashioned streets.

Nevertheless, there remains in the background of the modernist movement a kind of fury, an indignant assault on all alternatives, and a readiness to accuse opponents of every kind of moral, political, and intellectual failing, and in particular of the “historicism” effectively criticised by Teige and others, and subsequently confused with any sincere attempt to treat architecture, as it should be treated, as an art of composition. In a recent book, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, the distinguished architectural historian James Stevens Curl goes to the root of the “international style” championed by the early modernists, and documents its long-term psychological effects, in ways that leave no doubt that the whole thing has been a mistake—a mistake motivated at first by ideology, subsequently by greed. Curl’s book is well worth reading; but so too is the response to it by the architectural establishment, with reviewers crowding each other out in the competition to cast spells against this intruder from the realm of aesthetic reaction.

The fury vented against Curl was far out-done by that vented against me, when the British Government announced that I would be chairing a commission established to review the need for beauty in new building. It was assumed that I would side with my own personal preferences against all rival styles, since after all that is what leftists do—namely, close all questions in their own favor by allowing no opposing voice.

Just about every name in the book of political correctness has been flung at me—Islamophobia, racism, homophobia, even anti-Semitism—in order to dissuade the government from my appointment. So far the campaign hasn’t worked. But it has awoken me to the fact that the fury of the modernists is no passing agitation, but part of what they are. The hatred of which I have found myself to be the target is exactly the attitude that is embodied in those featureless high-rise blocks in which the working classes were to be imprisoned. It is present too—dare I say it—in those polished aquariums where the superrich blow bubbles against the glass for a year or two like exotic fish, before suing the architect who designed their costly prison. Both templates are deeply hostile to what matters in human life, which is the ability to live side by side in privacy, to enjoy the benefits of family love, and to cooperate with one’s neighbors in creating a place that belongs to us all.

Roger Scruton is The American Conservative’New Urbanism Fellow

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25 Responses to The Fury of the Modernists

  1. jp melville says:

    I am looking for the physical structure, home, space, and workspace that turns food, soil, water, sunlight… hands, sweat, tears, nurture, and sustenance… into the ideal building model… where the designed model for living / working results in an addition to the photosynthetic stuff of life… be that oil, lumber, grain, meat, air….

    I expect that there is no municipal, local government zoning policy that demands a positive return to carbon by design.

    We will only get there if ordinary folks (and all the other critters) are foundation to the plan.

  2. Diogenes says:

    I’m not surprised there are no comments on this article. In its universality, it avoids entering into contemporary flashpoints picked over by our so-called ‘culture’ and as such provides little opportunity for readers to purge those pent up emotions of resentment and disgust that stem from their inability to be heard, either in the mainstream media or by our useless politicians.

    At the same time, in its concrete simplicity, it strikes at the very heart of many of the problems that envelop our lives and make each day seem like a tasteless joke whose target is our own dignity, joy and sense of purpose. Therefore there is little that needs to be said at the conclusion of Scruton’s characteristically astute and auspicious argument.

    Of course, we have the profound need to “live side by side in privacy, to enjoy the benefits of family love, and to cooperate with our neighbours in creating a place that belongs to us all.” But it is fascinating to see this humanist point being made here, in the American Conservative.

    All the social, political and economic changes that made these comforts a relic of the past are rooted, not in some left-wing, wishy-washy, progressivist agenda (though admittedly purveyors of such values today may, in their mutilated form, hold to such beliefs reflexively). Their origin is rather the unrelenting assault against the public good and the leisure, wealth and self-understanding of the common man as it has been waged over centuries by the capitalist class.

    The ideology of supply-side economics is responsible for these despicable high-rise towers, which everybody hates: nobody knows who Hannes Meyer or Le Corbusier are, and nobody cares. Private corporations have an interest in acquiring cheap land and expanding on it by building vertically, even as they suppress wages and agitate for laws that disrupt co-operative syndicalism and union organising among whose lives and joy should, by the will of the Lord God, fill our towns.

    The only solution is the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al., not a boogeyman created in the minds of brainwashed right-wingers but the consistent, fair, proportional implementation of the values of opportunity for all and entitling all those who put in a hard day’s work to a decent day’s pay.

    Scruton writes, of the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and First World War: “The first duty of government was to take control, and to provide for the basic social needs of people on the verge of starvation.” This is flatly wrong. The *first* duty was to provide for the basic social needs of people on the verge of starvation, and only out of this dire need came the second-order necessity of “taking control” temporarily, for the greater good. Such arch-conservative pathologising of basic socio-economic realities to make loquacious aesthetico-political libertarian arguments is tiresome and unhelpful. I suspect it appeals only to the fundamentally asocial petit bourgeoise who of course will have stopped reading this comment shortly after I mentioned the “capitalist class”.

    In short: end the senseless capitalist race to the bottom (in terms of wages and living conditions) and we will no longer be piled one on top of the other in these towers of inhuman misery.

  3. Iddo Wernick says:

    Mr. Scruton

    I constantly benefit from you insight. I particularly liked your closing sentence today and it reminded me of a biblical reference. Numbers 24:5 “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwellings, O Israel!” which is understood to mean that Bilaam was praising that the openings of the tents all faced in the same direction, thus allowing for privacy in the encampment.

    Good luck with the commission on beauty

    Iddo Wernick

  4. polistra says:

    Wonderful picture. The artist, intentionally or not, adds an important point to Scruton’s discussion. The blown-up houses are clearly worker’s cottages, common in the factory towns of the ’10s and ’20s. (eg Ambridge or Ponca.)

    Those houses, though mass-produced, allowed people to ‘live side by side in privacy’. Postwar highrises fail that standard.

  5. Brian M says:

    Diogenes: Excellent response to Mr. Scruton, who is exactly what you describe. Note that neither you nor I used the dismissive anti-virtue signaling boogiemen terms Mr. Scruton used to explain why some find him…distasteful.

    Nonetheless, in the narrow context of International Style architecture, I think Mr. Scruton does make some good points. 🙂

  6. C. L. H. Daniels says:

    In short: end the senseless capitalist race to the bottom (in terms of wages and living conditions) and we will no longer be piled one on top of the other in these towers of inhuman misery.

    I rather disagree with you, despite being less libertarian than you probably suspect.

    Architectural modernism of the sort Scruton is talking about derives from a fundamentally technocratic approach to society. High rise buildings and mass scale housing complexes are first and foremost efficient, and that is their entire purpose. They house a lot of people in a small footprint. Yes, the idea of efficiency as such is certainly an aspect of market capitalism, but the paradigm of socialism is fundamentally the same in that respect – it is a rationalist and utilitarian approach to the collective good that is first and foremost technocratic. There is no reason to believe that a socialist approach to architecture and design would yield results that are any better, as Soviet era Russian apartment complexes can attest to.

    What is required here is not another ideology, but rather the absence of one. The solution is simple – let us design and build structures and neighborhoods and communities that people actually want to live in. Let aesthetics and the needs of people and families drive urban design instead of technocratic notions of “efficiency”.

  7. Nick Stuart says:

    Developments like the Elephant And Castle estate (which put me in mind of Cabrini-Green here in Chicago) are the cheapest way to warehouse the proles, especially if there are land use restrictions. Just “stack ’em up.”

    “elegant Georgian terraces along old-fashioned streets” are for the Alpha Plus nomenclatura and their apparatchiks.

  8. John S says:

    “We may have moved on from the great socialist projects; but we have not moved on from the architecture to which they gave rise.”

    I would argue that it is not socialism which gives rise to Modernism but rather materialist pragmatism. The architecture which Mr. Scruton, and I, love was born in a world in which the account of the universe, our Logos, transcended the material. Man was composed of body and soul; life was breathed into the lifeless mud of the universe by some mysterious force above; man’s intellect was capable of grasping some truths which transcended the mere physical properties of things; etc. The architecture of that world symbolizes the Logos by giving dead structure a soul, breathing life into it. With the advent of the Enlightenment, that Logos slowly crumbled, and the foundations of traditional architecture crumbled with it. In its place: a new materialist, pragmatist Logos which says that there is no such thing as the soul, only metabolic processes; no mysterious force above, the universe is a self-perpetuating machine; and man’s intellect is limited to knowing the properties of physical things and its own emotional life. This is the Logos of pragmatism. And its architecture employs the symbols of the machine and industry: exposed steel, machined glass, exposed concrete, etc.

  9. Diogenes says:

    Brian M: Thank you for your considered response.

    As you’ll have seen, I agreed with Mr Scruton’s perspective on architecture. But of course he didn’t restrict himself to one narrow context in his argument; thus, neither did I.

    My concern remains the same. I do hope Scrutinism is not the thin edge of a very fat wedge.

    Yours with alacrity,
    Diogenes of Sinope, MBA

  10. Rick Steven D. says:

    Terrific, Roger, uh, I mean, Mr. Scruton (Sorry, almost forgot that I’m reading Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans right now, and our use of Christian names is one of the MANY sins she lists, along with spitting. And revival meetings).

    At the time of the 2011 London riots, a connection was made between the Brutalist design of the estates and the violent conflagration in the street. This may or may not support the criticism you are making here, but here is some analysis:

  11. Jim Crabbe says:

    I love my glass box built in 1955. Granted it is more NW regional style than European. There are certain aesthetic features that are unimpeachable. I have privacy and a nice view even with neighbors on all sides. The lack of privacy, especially with teenagers is a problem though! The flat roof in the NW is also a problem. But I think one can distinguish between the European high rises of the mid 20th century from some of the nature-inspired advances made by Wright and other mid-century American architects. I wouldn’t give up my house for anything, and since when does the “gentleman” farmer Roger Scruton have to worry about neighbors anyway?

  12. Rick Steven D. says:


    Thank you for clarifying something for me. In some of the great British TV director Alan Clarke’s films, like Road, or even in the kitchen-sink-realism photos that adorn a few Morissey album covers, I’ve away been puzzled by something. While the subject matter of these works is a bleak, Northern-Industrial-working-class despair, what always seemed incongruous to me were the actual homes these people lived in: sturdy, homey, even beautiful brick houses, the type that might cost a fortune in this country. Didn’t know they were called worker’s cottages. Thanks again.

  13. Donald Trump’s election was a temporary interruption of the modernist juggernaut.


  14. Lance Dom says:

    Please acquaint yourself with the work of Christopher Alexander, who eschews the politically driven identifications with the brutalisitic totalitarian ethic and all the ideologically driven, manifesto supported architectural fashions no matter what their conclusions nor how convincing their presentation. Instead he aims to reclaim the means of building and the capacity to discriminate good form and true beauty and give it back to everyday people. The thought, the tools, and consequently the language of architecture have devolved enormously on account of their being held by so few hands. We have allowed the gene pool of those who guide the destiny of the built environment to shrink to such an extent that it is on the point of total collapse. Architecture is not about politics, money, academics, or polemic.

  15. JonW says:

    One should not forget the visual arts movement of the times: Constructivism in Russia and Futurism in Italy. The former tried to define art in terms of a post-Capitalist culture anticipating the emergence of commercial art under Capitalism. The latter tried to define art in terns of a marriage between labor and capital under the omnipresent and omnipotent national state. And what emerged also was that of Precisionism and Abstract Expressionism.

    One can bypass a painting even ignore it when walking down the museum aisle. After all, it is contained within a frame upon a two dimensional service. But one cannot ignore architecture. One is trapped by it either living inside of it or by being surrounded by it. The dehumanizing quality that this essay so aptly illustrates of modern architect is the point. How can one avoid its impact as a dweller within a municipality?

  16. I Don’t Matter says:

    “Nonetheless, in the narrow context of International Style architecture, I think Mr. Scruton does make some good points.”

    No he doesn’t. He keeps writing the same exact pointless thing: “modern buildings bad”. He can’t even fathom the simple proposition that some people just like modern architecture. They like its vast windows into the outside, its welcoming sunlight entrances, its climate control, its beautiful public spaces.
    He’s hopeless.

  17. Egypt Steve says:

    All I ask of a large public building is that when I walk into it for the first time, I can intuitively walk straight to the men’s room if necessary. If I can, I call that good, traditional design. If I can’t, it’s modernist anarchy!

  18. johnhenry says:

    Dear readers: if you wish to accord the writer the respect to which he is entitled after a long life fighting in the trenches for civilization, please do refer to him or address him as Sir, not Mr.

  19. Suds says:

    What a bunch of hogwash, there is beauty in all architectural styles, especially when designed with forethought for the end use, all of which can come from some famous architect or from a decently talented intern, and there are many representative examples of this in modern architecture as well as the other styles of design throughout history. The common layperson is usually just seeking comfortable spaces and can be easily influenced, which is where the previously noted business influence in architectural design comes out. The style of mass produced housing complexes have more to do with what is the newest shiniest concept pushed in the media than with any one style of architecture. To blame all of societies problems on one style (or political persuasion) is pure idiocy, and shows a shortsightedness and hipocrisy that both parties like to blame on the other. It has been my experience that most problems are of a more complex issue with factors right and wrong on both sides of any argument. Reading this article all I hear is the pot calling the kettle black, and falling prey to their own prejudices rather than truly searching for solutions.

  20. JB says:

    “The only solution is the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al.,”

    1) Sanders and Cortez campaigned on Social Democratic policies, although they may be socialists behind closed doors.

    2) The only solution? There’s an absolute. Where is democratic socialism producing “consistent, fair, proportional implementation of the values of opportunity”? This is as much a fairy tale as the brained wash right-wingers believing in a boogey man.

    3) “Democratic” is not a synonym for “good”, and using “bourgeoise” does not make you persuasive.

  21. To Diogenes: it is actually not necessary to erect tall structures, to “extract rent” from the proles. There is very little difference in density at the top end of the scale in recorded history, between developed built-“up” cities, and under-developed overcrowded-low-rise ones. Dhaka and Lagos are of very similar density to Hong Kong, and most cities in the world in Victorian times were of similar density to what HK is now, in spite of crowding at low-rise levels substituting for tall-building floor space. There is a lot of excellent data on this, in Shlomo Angel et al’s volume on Urban Expansion.

    Economic rent extracted under either scenario is similar. It is the density of humanity that counts, not the tallness of the buildings. Tall buildings are actually a competitor to “sprawl” for the provision of floor space. But what the tall buildings do, in part, is perpetuate the economic rent in land that sprawl actually dilutes. The crucial factor is actually the sprawl. If sprawl is disallowed by means of growth boundaries and prescriptive planning, economic rent will remain concentrated. The UK’s cities have been thus concentrated since the 1950’s, by the Town and Country Planning system, and their densities have remained considerably higher than European equivalents (on average), let alone US ones. But this density is more to do with crowding than it is with building “up”.

    In fact the ability to extract rent from crowded populations, is a disincentive to build “up”. Why should investors bother, when they can extract the same rent from the same tenants, crowded into less floor space in low-rise structures? Rents for a crawl space in UK cities now, are similar to the rent for a modest house in most US cities of comparable size and prosperity.

    It is also worth noting that the impressive building “up” that has occurred in some major developed-world cities, such as New York, occurred simultaneously with rampant sprawl which was disciplining urban land prices. An absolute pre-condition for building “up” to compete with sprawl for occupants, is the right type of central-urban economy to be evolving, where large numbers of workers are still needed to be concentrated. This type of central cluster is actually somewhat unique; dispersion of employment and the evolution of new types of industrial cluster at multiple dispersed locations, is the norm.

    Note that Houston now, after decades of some of the most rapid low-density sprawl in the world, is evolving a cluster of economic activity at its centre that justifies the building of apartment blocks, and these apartment blocks are of sufficient quality and value for money, to compete with the option of suburban living and commuting. Generally, for investors to be incentivized to provide tall buildings in the efficient, central locations, it is necessary for urban land prices to be disciplined by sprawl, and honest profits to be made in providing actual floor space where demand is evolving for larger numbers of locally-living employees. In the absence of disciplined land prices, all that the owners of sites need to do to profit, is “hold” the site and crowd tenants on it. But the capital gains are always the main thing, not the rental income.

    Ironically, I suspect that Mr Scruton (as a lover of the Green and Pleasant Land) is an implacable opponent of the sprawl that is the free-market means of democratization of ownership of decent housing for all. His distaste for suburbs is possibly as great as his distaste for brutal architecture. I doubt he is criticizing building “up” per se, in this article, or withholding the proles preferred housing options of separate family homes on what is currently precious Green space – he is criticizing ugly architecture and this point is well made.

    You seem to pass over the point that much of this brutal apartment-block architecture has been government initiatives for “public” housing. Rapacious private-sector capitalists will generally do one of two things. Either “hold” sites in which the absence of disciplined land prices is guaranteeing them capital gains regardless of what they do; or if there are sprawl-disciplined land prices and there is potential demand for apartments as an option to competitive-value “suburban housing and commuting”, they will build attractive apartment blocks with good-value apartments.

    The bad outcomes of all kinds in all scenarios, are the result of government interference, but of course crony capitalism bears a lot of guilt. There are plenty of Green / left activists who support exactly the kind of planning that rigs urban property markets in favour of incumbent site owners, and these Green / left activists are not economically literate enough to understand what, and whose, useful idiots they are. Even the fact that the global 0.1% are liberal donors to “conservation” activism, leads them to believe that those donors are genuine humanitarians, rather than cold, cynical profiteers.

  22. JS says:

    “I Don’t Matter says:
    December 16, 2018 at 1:00 pm
    He can’t even fathom the simple proposition that some people just like modern architecture. They like its vast windows into the outside, its welcoming sunlight entrances, its climate control, its beautiful public spaces.”

    I suspect that the people who like living in modern architecture are a tiny minority of the people who have little choice but to live in it.
    It’s noticeable that people who can easily afford to live wherever they like predominantly choose not to live in modernist buildings. Even those wealthy who do, tend to live in modernist buildings which bear little or no resemblance to the tower blocks built to house the relatively poor.

    I don’t know where you live and maybe that makes a difference but Scruton is mainly talking about the UK where the description of a modernist building as one which is characterized by “vast windows into the outside, its welcoming sunlight entrances, its climate control, its beautiful public spaces” would be seen as hilarious, at best, by the inhabitants of British tower blocks. Larger windows might well be a bonus if they weren’t often affording a view of similar high-rise slums, but otherwise…
    The tower blocks of the UK have traditionally offered such effective climate control that damp and mould are perennial problems. The leaking flat rooves are a terrible choice for a wet climate as is the often bare concrete which stains, flakes and crumbles under the onslaught of a changeable climate as the metal reinforcement rusts, swells and blows off chunks of cladding.
    The open spaces are generally bleak, wind-swept and occupied by disaffected youths, the lifts are makeshift toilets and corners occupied by junkies.

    In short, Scruton’s description of the UK experience of modernism would be recognized as pretty mild by virtually everyone who lives here and especially anyone in or near modernist mass housing.

  23. Theo says:

    This was preceded and followed by such hackneyed phrasing that I assume it is satire: “The only solution is the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders, Noam Chomsky, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, et al., not a boogeyman created in the minds of brainwashed right-wingers but the consistent, fair, proportional implementation of the values of opportunity for all and entitling all those who put in a hard day’s work to a decent day’s pay.”
    I seriously doubt any of the three mentioned could design a breakfast.

  24. Ed says:

    This is obviously still a major problem in developing societies which are trying to provide large and inexpensive housing and commercial structures for their growing populations. In the developed world it seems like many of those massive modernist complexes are being torn down and replaced with whimsical postmodernist or deconstructivist buildings.

    The question now isn’t so much what modernists were saying a century ago. It’s whether the new buildings still reflect the modernist ethos or if they really do offer a newer – or older – alternative. Are today’s buildings only superficially different from modernist projects or have architects and planners really advanced from the modernist ideas of their grandparents?

    It’s also curious that today the brutalism of the 1960s and 1970s has become a period style that some consider worthy of preservation for historical reasons. This is not so different from the rediscovery of the virtues of ugly Victorian architecture by John Betjeman and others in the 1950s. That is another topic – filled with implications and ironies – that Mr. Scruton might also address.

  25. D. Laslo says:

    The most populated section of Krakow is almost always avoided by tourists. Nowa Huta.

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