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Why Ordinary Americans Reject Architectural Ideologues

Many elites reflexively disparage traditional design while celebrating iconoclasts.

In The Architecture of Community, 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.” 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 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 of evidence 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 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, 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: 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.)

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—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. The building’s explanatory text reads, in part:

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 and buildings that can’t manage to keep the rain out—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 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 to dismantling the comfort of the people who would have to live and work in their buildings.

Spirit of America / Shutterstock

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 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 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.

Equally preposterous is the argument that we demolished all the ugly old buildings, so it’s not a fair comparison. Every Georgian terraced house 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 and the glass blob 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 beauty over ideology, the truly public-spirited 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.

Read More:

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

David Brussat, “Occupy Le Corbusier