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Why Ordinary Americans Reject Architectural Ideologues

In The Architecture of Community [1], a brilliant, baffling book that contains equal parts text and the architectural equivalent of political cartoons, traditionalist architect Leon Krier opens with a simple proposition. Imagine that you had to choose between eliminating every building built before 1945 or every building built after 1945. Which would you choose? The total built volume of both periods is about the same—so which act of destruction would feel like the greater loss?

This proposition is fascinating because it should be a hard question, but it isn’t. Our guts immediately tell us that a world full of postwar buildings would be alienating and hollow, utile but sterile. We lean on our pre-war buildings for far more—for meaning, for beauty, for a sense of place, for the stuff that makes life not merely livable, but worth living. This is Krier’s point. Modern architecture attempted to make a clean break with the past and “start from zero [2].” But for most ordinary people, the result has been the opposite—an unprecedented dependence on our architectural heritage as a refuge from our architectural present.

Whenever anyone bothers to ask the American people about what kinds of buildings they prefer, they speak with a clear voice: They prefer traditional ones. In 2006, the American Institute of Architects decided to survey the general public for their view on the question, producing a ranked list [3] of “America’s Favorite Architecture.” The list is remarkable: Of the 50 most favored buildings, a mere seven were built in postwar styles. Of those seven, two are monuments (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Gateway Arch) and another, the World Trade Center, no longer exists. The other four are Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the Rose Center for Earth and Space, Chicago’s Willis Tower, and, inexplicably, Las Vegas’ Bellagio casino. The remaining 43 most favored buildings all hale from the prewar period. Perhaps the public will eventually come around to the new stuff, but it’s been 70 years.

Various other types [4] of evidence [5] corroborate the clear public preference for traditional architecture. And what it all reveals is a stark disconnect between what ordinary people like and what actually gets built. When famous architects build today, their intended audience is not really the general public, or even the client. It’s other architects. It’s the people who award the Pritzker Prize. It’s the academics, theoreticians, and highly-credentialed practitioners who dwell in the impregnable temple [6] of architectural criticism.

These temples exist in every artistic discipline, and they presently elevate one precept above all others: disruption. From their vantage point, the traditionalist is a bourgeois dolt, but the iconoclast willing to deconstruct, make new, and render his audience uncomfortable is to be praised. The public seems amenable to disruption in visual art—the Picassos, Pollocks, Warhols, and Dalis of the world are authentically liked [7], far more beloved than architects Gropius, Mies, and Le Corbusier. (The alternative to disruption in painting would be something like America’s Most Wanted Painting—which is a real painting produced by surveying the American public on their preferences as to color, setting, subject, etc., and combining the winning qualities into a single composition. It looks like this [8]: a perfectly inoffensive if kitschy landscape featuring George Washington, deer, and a hearty dose of the color blue. Yet clearly, America’s Most Wanted Painting isn’t all the American public wants, because they keep smashing attendance records at New York’s contemporary exhibitions at the MoMA.)

[9]

Frank Gehry’s Museum of Pop Culture, Seattle (Wikimedia Commons)

Why does disruption in architecture get a distinctly colder public reception than disruption in visual art? Perhaps because people have a far harder time opting out of architecture than other kinds of art. Architecture inserts itself into our daily lives. We can’t avoid it. If we work in a bleak monolith that inspires existential dread every morning we meet it, there is simply no recourse. The architectural equivalent of taking the painting down, or asking our neighbor to turn down the music, or avoiding the trendy gallery, simply does not exist. And this is why America’s Most Wanted Building should be far more important a lodestar than it currently is.

The refusal of the architectural-criticism temple to regard the preferences of ordinary people is curious, given that they do quite a lot of posturing about the need to democratize the discipline and “deconstruct power relationships” that supposedly poison relations between architects and the public. After all, within the temple, one is not supposed to be a stuffy elitist. The au courant stance is omnivorousness [10]—one is expected to be a cultural democrat. So what explains the active hostility toward the actual aesthetic preferences of ordinary people?

I recently had a conversation with a thoughtful, talented architect who argued that the traditional Western architectural idiom was invented to entrench the power of the elite class above the marginalized. Greek marble and columns were the products of enslaved builders. What the public might think is a conventionally “nice” house in fact uses a visual language derived from the palazzos of oppressive nobles and the plantations of slaveowners. It is thus the job of the architect to render these power relationships unstable. His own work seeks to do just that – and looks like this [11]. The building’s explanatory text reads, in part:

change_me

This proposal subverts the architect’s dedication to formalism. It rejects the conception of objects as already existing. Here, the organizing grid and the tectonic frame that dictate the formal games of modernism and postmodernism are inflated and aggregated to absurdity. At a point of critical mass, the jumbled frame can only be read as relief.

This statement is bold, but its most distinctive feature may be that it requires academic training to decipher. If comprehending the ideas within this statement are necessary to understand the building they reference, it means that we’ve ended up with an architecture that is far more elitist than what it replaced. In the process, we learn an important lesson: Attempts to dismantle hierarchies only end up creating new ones. The question is not whether power will be held, but rather who will hold it. And by laying siege to traditionalism, we get an answer: Power will no longer be held by the public, but by the expensively trained priests of the architectural-criticism temple.

Defenders of the contemporary order will protest that it’s the moneymen who have the real power, and ordinary people were no more in charge when the aforementioned oppressive nobles determined what the built environment would look like. In one sense, this critique doesn’t matter, insofar as the revealed preferences of ordinary people indicate that they like what the oppressive nobles produced, and no one has any right to tell them they’re mistaken.

But it’s also inaccurate as a descriptive matter. When patrons had power—even fantastically wealthy and oppressive ones—it still ended up elevating the tastes of the layperson. Describing the state of affairs as it existed in the late 19th century, Tom Wolfe writes in From Bauhaus to Our House:

In New York, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt told George Browne Post to design her a French chateau on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street, and he copied the Chateau de Blois for her down to the chasework on the brass lock rods on the casement windows. Not to be outdone, Alva Vanderbilt hired the most famous American architect of the day, Richard Morris Hunt, to design her a replica of the Petit Trianon as a summer house in Newport, and he did it, with relish. He was quite ready to satisfy that or any other fantasy of the Vanderbilts. ‘If they want a house with a chimney on the bottom,’ he said, ‘I’ll give them one.’”

Vanderbilt Mansion, Midtown Manhattan, ca. 1883-ca.1895, demolished 1927. (Cornell College of Architecture, Art & Planning)

Leading architects of the day were taking orders from their clients, and they produced the kinds of buildings that would rank highly in America’s Favorite Architecture. (Indeed, Hunt’s Biltmore Estate, built for a different Vanderbilt, clocks in at number eight.) The ironic result was that the architecture of plutocracy was more democratic in appearance than the architecture of radical progressivism.

But the reign of the laypeople was not to last. By 1932, then-MoMA director Alfred Barr was protesting that “We are asked to take seriously the taste of real estate speculators.” Modernism sought to take power out of the bourgeois patron’s hands and place it squarely with the architect, and it succeeded. Today, clients hiring avant garde “starchitects” do not pay for the ability to tell Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava what to do—they pay for these men to do whatever they want. The results are not merely ruinous budget overruns [12] and buildings that can’t manage to keep the rain out [13]—they also displace middle class aesthetic tastes in favor of elite ones.

In this way, contemporary architecture reflects the migration of art away from craft and toward ideology. The practitioners of craft are called artisans—they seek to implement the commands of the patron to the highest standard possible. When Richard Morris Hunt professed his willingness to give the Vanderbilts a house with a chimney on the bottom if they asked for it, he was evincing the value system of the artisan. But the 20th century transformed artisans into idealogues. Architects began doing things like writing manifestos [14] and taking university appointments. Building stopped being a craft, and became a medium for the individual expression of the architect. Suddenly, our built environment was ruled by theoreticians, consumed by abstraction and intellectually committed [15] to dismantling the comfort of the people who would have to live and work in their buildings.

The results are bizarre. For thousands of years, we built beautiful things. It is close to impossible to find a pre-20th century building capable of conjuring strong negative feelings—the worst they can evoke is indifference. But with the architect-theoreticians at the helm, we have succeeded for the first time at producing buildings that make people feel things like confusion, dread, anomie, and helplessness. Some argue that traditional buildings were just as controversial and confusion-inspiring in their own time. The architecture critic Aaron Betsky writes [17] that “the few pieces of architecture that we still treasure today, from the Pantheon to Palladio’s churches and villas to Chicago’s skyscrapers, were as startling, alien to their environment, and initially unpopular as most new monuments today.” Not a shred of evidence for this equivalency exists, and the architect Lance Hosey notes [18] that 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio, a lodestar for the traditionally inclined, was in fact deeply popular in his time. There has, in fact, never been a sharper break with the past than modernism, a fact that made its prophets quite proud [19].

Equally preposterous is the argument that we demolished all the ugly old buildings, so it’s not a fair comparison. Every Georgian terraced house [20] essentially looks like every other one—because traditional architecture is vernacular architecture, and vernacular architecture comes from time-tested custom, not individual expression. The time-testing was performed, of course, by the people living in the buildings. Not so the individual expression.

Perhaps the greatest canard of all is that today’s architectural postmodernism—with its less strict emphasis on functionalism and allowance for some ornament—addresses and solves the problems created by architectural modernism. Temple denizens love to note that laypeople conflate the two styles, forgetting that modernism’s austere uniformity has been replaced by a supposedly more approachable postmodern whimsy. But of course laypeople conflate the styles precisely because they experience them as equally jarring. The distinctions only matter to the theoreticians whose careers depend on them. Back in reality, where the buildings do ultimately dwell, the glass box [21] and the glass blob [22] are allies in the war both have declared on their surroundings.

The great fin-de-siecle essayist Karl Kraus once wrote, “Spare me the picturesque moil on the rind of an old Gorgonzola! Give me the dependable monotony of cream cheese!” Architecture must give us less Gorgonzola and more cream cheese—less over-intellectualized adventures intended to be “challenging” and more uncomplicated, time-tested pleasure.

Power is rarely given up voluntarily, but if people continue demanding [4] beauty over ideology, the truly public-spirited [23]among architects will respond, and the temple that has ruled over us will begin to be dismantled—one glass panel at a time.

Nicholas Phillips is president of the NYU School of Law Federalist Society.

Follow @czar_nicholas_. [24] Follow @NewUrbs [25]

Read More:

Roger Scruton, “Today’s Skyscrapers Assault the Skyline and the Street [26]

David Brussat, “Occupy Le Corbusier [27]

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Why Ordinary Americans Reject Architectural Ideologues"

#1 Comment By polistra On April 27, 2018 @ 4:12 am

Nature takes revenge on the modernists. Their supposedly anti-slavery forms require far more cheap labor to maintain than the experimentally formed vernacular houses.

Cape Cods and Bungalows developed through experience to provide comfort and security with minimum maintenance in specific climates. The steep warm roof of the Cod sheds snow automatically. The wide overhang and deep porches of the Bungalow keep the interior cool automatically.

A brutalist rectangle with all of its innards exposed will collapse under snow unless constantly maintained, and requires far more energy and effort to keep it comfortable.

#2 Comment By Lyra On April 27, 2018 @ 7:27 am

Great article.
Here’s what I don’t get: How can modern and post-modern architecture challenge “power structures” when they’re the styles most popular with the global capitalist class?!

#3 Comment By Liam On April 27, 2018 @ 12:13 pm

Of course, the glory of the New York State Education Building in Albany is not its Neoclassical facade, but Guastavino’s tiled Catalan sail vaults in the interior – a very modern adaptation of a medieval architectural art:

[28]

The public *loves* this modern architecture when it’s been conserved properly so it can be enjoyed. But Guastavino’s purposes were about innovation in substantive rather than service of actual people rather than ideological genuflection to The People as a rationalization for artistic self-gratification. So we shouldn’t be surprised.

#4 Comment By Roger Chylla On April 27, 2018 @ 2:37 pm

I think traditional building architectures are avoided because of economics much more than aesthetics. It’s simply too expensive to build brick and stone structures in an age where manual labor is so expensive. Let’s face it, beautiful structures are built on the backs of very cheap labor. I LOVE the capitol of my state (WI) but no building could ever be built that way again.

#5 Comment By LouB On April 27, 2018 @ 3:04 pm

What, you don’t feel warm and fuzzy in one of Mies van der Rohe’s geometric concoctions?
And what followed was “progressively” more and more bizarre. These monuments to Marxist intent of sweeping all that went before into the memory hole are so far from the taste of the unwashed masses they might as well have been from a completely alien civilization, which come to think of it, they are.

#6 Comment By Uncle Vanya On April 27, 2018 @ 9:07 pm

Note that one of the claimed post-war structures on the list, Fallingwater, is actually a pre-war building, as it was designed in 1934 and 1935, and was built between 1935 and 1939.

#7 Comment By Miguel On April 28, 2018 @ 1:20 am

Glass blob!! I am unfamiliar with the last word´s meaning, but that deserves to become an idiom. Looks like a giant model of a bacteria! I am so happy I am misofobic (irratioanl fear of germs and microbies).

Now, in a more serious note, it was natural form the masses to follow the elites, since the elites had much better live’s standars; and that form obviously, the “stablished taste”. Now it makes some sense to conclude that, in order to liberate from the oppressive elements those political and social froms had, it is necessary to deny aswell the physical aspects they developed, as in architecture. But there is a problem with that:

I am a westerner. As far as I know, Hinduism -before the influence of Chistianism- was unable to develop the concept of person, or to grant to it any positive value. That is even more true for Bhuddism and Taosim. Nevertheless, in spite of how little I feel attracted to the values and concepts those visions of the world entails, I must admit there is a lot of beauty and, in a way, “power” in many of their tradicional buildings.

I can not make sense of me living or feeling identified with a pagoda. But I have no problem recognizing that the building it self makes sense! Not for me, but it does. Why? I think because it is conceived with… well, a conception.

Most of the “modern”, and all the “postmodern” thing is to fly from concepts, specially clear concepts. But then, what are you left with? Absurdity. And no normal human being can bear or suffer absurdity: we need meaning.

From that point of view, I dare to claim that the actual possible, viable variations are quite limited, and nothing lacking sense, or the capability to hold/make sense, will be capable to survive within culture.

#8 Comment By Jon On April 28, 2018 @ 11:12 am

Well written blog. Unfortunately the public has long since acquiesced in accepting modern art and the ensuing debasement of music. Rather than being discarded by the builders, society’s bottom rung has become our chief corner stone. Picasso and Matisse are still worshiped.

The debasement of the fine arts is not only eulogized but replicated ad nauseum and had sunk in the 1940s to the level of Abstract Expressionsism which served as a protest against socialist totalitarianism through its abrogation of meaning. But the fine arts have sunk even lower to the depths of pop art and now to art brut.

So, why not continue to build cold edifices hostile to the human spirit? After all, they can house these paintings, sculptures and installations. And so we plunge ever downward from the times inn which we celebrated the the glory of heaven in our cathedrals and then honored the creative genius of man to the great leveling of society in its quest to equalize all aesthetic value in the name of utilitarianism and equality. And now the human spirit has been reduced to an instinct-ridden hedonism in an empty individualism that grovels for detritus blowing into the sewers of our grimy streets. This is what has become of our great civilization. Barbarians have long since seized the gates and have overtaken us. How then can we ever turn the clock back?

#9 Comment By TedC On April 28, 2018 @ 11:48 am

The article is premised on a basic misunderstanding of architecture. Architecture concerns the full sensory experience of people within space. People say that they prefer traditional forms, but in fact they strongly prefer modern space. Every suburban house today has open rooms that flow between spaces and then out through large windows into the landscape. That’s modern space. Traditional touches are comfort food. Please don’t criticize people as elites for appreciating architecture.

#10 Comment By cka2nd On April 28, 2018 @ 1:47 pm

“Modernism sought to take power out of the bourgeois patron’s hands and place it squarely with the architect, and it succeeded. Today, clients hiring avant garde “starchitects” do not pay for the ability to tell Frank Gehry or Santiago Calatrava what to do—they pay for these men to do whatever they want.”

This is the world of Howard Roark, the uncompromising architect from Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” I’ve only ever seen the movie a bunch of times – I’ve never seen a more beautiful woman than Patricia Neal in that film, and it is also a very well made film that takes its ideas seriously – but the state of affairs described by the author is what Roark demanded, that like-minded clients hire him to design their buildings and then get out of his way. There is one major difference though, Roark still respected craftsmanship, so I doubt any of his buildings had leaky roofs, although he did love his horizontal lines and flat roofs. And I couldn’t see a single window in his factory. Hmm?

If anyone else remembers the opening scenes of the movie, Roark is riding in an ambulance with his mentor, a broken man in ill health, and played by the marvelous Henry Hull, and they pass by and comment on two buildings. One is a perfectly lovely pre-war building that they both disdain, and the other is one of “Henry Cameron’s” creations, built so its form conforms to its function. To this New Yorker’s eyes, it is one of those thoroughly pedestrian red brick apartment buildings built, I suppose, in the 30’s or 40’s, with about as much style and beauty as an orthopedic shoe, the close cousin of the white brick apartment building, similarly devoid of decoration and anything that one might describe as pretty or lovely.

#11 Comment By cka2nd On April 28, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

Given how artistic freedom in general, and modern art in particular, were wielded by the CIA and the rest of the U.S. government’s propaganda machine as weapons during the Cold War, especially in the 50’s and 60’s, I wonder if the modern states of architecture and contemporary art don’t owe more to their Cold War roots than to the “progressive” ideas of the modernists themselves.

“See our artists and architects, they are free to create their art THEIR way, and are not beholden to the dictates of their almighty, totalitarian and philistine masters, who think a painting of a tractor and two rosy cheeked peasants is the height of art.”

Combine good old fashioned American individualism with it’s modern “We’re all special and unique!” variant, mix them in a bowl with formal artistic freedom and peer-driven and peer-judged systems for determining what art is displayed or prized, and we get Gehry’s jaw-droppingly ugly Museum of Pop Culture (if ever a building deserved a review by New York Magazine’s former theater critic, John Simon, at his most poisonous, this is the one). Perhaps Late Capitalism is getting just the art, the architecture and the cultural decay that it deserves.

#12 Comment By Steve Mouzon On April 28, 2018 @ 5:53 pm

Roger, that’s a common Modernist trope, but it’s demonstrably false now. Forty years ago, the idea of building as well as has ever been done was just an aspiration, but today there is built evidence to back up that hope. Now, there’s even a movement to rebuild Penn Station, the demolition of which was the heinous event that set in motion the modern preservation movement. Today there’s a lot of bluster around the idea of rebuilding, but no sensible person says it can’t be done; it’s just a question of whether it should be done. In my view, any reconstruction of that great building would be superior by orders of magnitude the obscenity sitting on that site today.

#13 Comment By Peter S On April 28, 2018 @ 10:19 pm

An interesting battle for the State capital of Alaska in 2005. Marianne Cusato’s beautiful counterpoint to Thom Mayne’s inspiration from “the Blob” was shot down, of course, but there should be many more traditionalists presenting alternatives to the press outside the rigged architectural competitions as Marianne did [29]

#14 Comment By Egypt Steve On April 29, 2018 @ 10:36 am

Indiana University has some very attractive modern buildings. Here’s one, the School of Global and International Studies.

[30]

It’s not as beautiful as the old Collegiate Gothic buildings from the great days of 1900 to the 1920s, or the Art Deco buildings of the 1930s, but it’s a major improvement over most of what was built on campus from the 1960s thru the 1990s (including the Soviet-style Ballantine Hall). It’s got a nice Indiana limestone facade, lots of light, and very functional public areas and classrooms. My only complaint is the tiny faculty offices …

#15 Comment By TJ Martin On April 30, 2018 @ 9:56 am

I find this article to be blatantly over generalized , utterly hysterical , ludicrous and completely devoid of historical/intellectual context and FACT ;

1) Architectural History 101 – Every present generation has its luddites that condemns the new while lauding the praises of the old more often than not out of xenophobia and a misinformed perspective of the past as well as an inability to adapt to the present

2) As with older architecture there is an entire range of modern architecture from the sublime to the absurd , from the functional to barely usable etc

3) What constitutes ‘ ordinary’ in the authors obviously very limited and insular perspective ? Fact is most ‘ ordinary ‘ Americans I know appreciate and understand the majority of contemporary architecture criticizing only that which does not work or goes way beyond cost projections for no purpose other than promoting the architects career

In closing I offer a little perspective that comes from age , wisdom , experience , education but primarily from the long lost art of discernment ;

Everything Old is NOT good . Nor is everything New necessarily better . Discernment being the key to defining what is good and bad … not the age of the object in question

#16 Comment By Wanderer On April 30, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

This article “proves” that Americans only like old buildings from a list of great ones. But the fact that modernist residences are quickly purchased in many cities somehow doesn’t demonstrate that buyers like new ones. The article (in modernist fashion!) doesn’t consider regional tastes. The attitude towards austere modernist buildings seems to be much more positive in Chicago than in other cities. There are good and awful modernist buildings, but this piece is way too simple minded (and ideological).

#17 Comment By Nicholas Phillips On April 30, 2018 @ 2:06 pm

TedC: if the popularity of open floor plans is your best evidence that people prefer modernity over tradition, I’m feeling pretty good! Read this: [31]

#18 Comment By Tyro On May 1, 2018 @ 1:39 pm

Presumably it is hard to require that someone train for many many years honing his expertise in a very difficult and competitive field and then expect him to be a “craftsman who takes orders.”

In every other profession, we sympathize with the doctor or the employer who companies he must buckle to the demands of fickle and ignorant customers and government bureaucrats, when we all know that what is best is if the professional can make his own best judgments. By contrast, we expect the architect to be a craftsman for populist demands and in fact get indignant that the architect considers this an unreasonable burden.

#19 Comment By Brian M On May 1, 2018 @ 4:18 pm

My skepticism towards this article is the assumption that the architecture of “the academy” dominates modern American landscapes. This is manifestly not true. Modern American suburbia is a low cost, cheapened version of traditional design in all except a few urban enclaves. See the “colonials” and “Mediteranean” houses and vaguely traditional big box stores in every suburb in the country.

I agree that modern floor plans are just that modern, and I agree that people have wholeheartedly accepted modern space planning.

I find the palaces of the aristocracy somewhat…grotesque. But then, as a non-conservative, I am not interested in promoting aristocracy as the political-economic ideal for our country.

#20 Comment By Nicholas Phillips On May 2, 2018 @ 2:55 am

Wanderer: purchaser data shows that homebuyers prefer traditional homes. [31]

#21 Comment By Bennett On May 3, 2018 @ 3:23 pm

Falling Water was designed and built in the 1930’s