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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Architecture and The Unlamented End of ‘Modernism’

Image: Town Hall Seattle

There is an important new book by a leading authority on architecture, which traces the unlikely, unloved rise of modernism in architecture. The book is titled, “Making Dystopia,” by he highly respected British scholar, James Steven Curl. It traces the dire effects of modernist architecture, how it was imposed by a small group of architects, how poorly it responds to basic emotional needs, and how the cult of modernism glossed over the many structural problems it created.

One illustration of this dystopia is the overwhelming preference by tourists for historic structures, such as Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. These buildings express local values and guide the eye to reassuring details.

Here’s a precis of the book’s themes,quoted from the review:

  • Demonstrate that contemporary architectural culture, with ideological origins in the 1920s, has created a dystopian environment for users.
  • Explain how a tiny group was able to impose on the world an architecture of abstraction that is, as Curl sees it, devoid of sense.
  • Show that three key figures—Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—insisted upon the global homogenization of architecture and ignored local conditions of climate, culture, and evolved traditions.
  • Document how biological aspects of architecture necessary for healing environments, such as ornamentation, the human scale, a sense of enclosure, positive tactile qualities, and complex color harmonies, were expunged.
  • Examine the historical, political, and psychological reasons why people have accepted shaping our environment in this manner.

As it happens, I had a recent demonstration of these points when taken on a tour of the remodeled Town Hall Seattle. The $35-million remodel, lead by executive director Wier Harman, chose to retain the stained-glass windows, the dramatic amphitheatre-style seating in the old sanctuary, the restrained neo-classical detailing of the exterior and the Great Hall. All the systems are upgraded, including HVAC and seismic, but in a concealed way that does not draw attention to modern materials. It remains a lovely set of humanely scaled spaces that lift the spirits, evoke history, and resound with civic values. It is a model of how to do historic preservation.

More broadly, “Making Dystopia” makes me wonder if Modernism — the word itself is a marvel of marketing — may be about to fade from favor and be “deconstructed” like so many other imposed-from-above cultural values. In a sense, the highly reductive vocabulary of the International Style is another example of simplification; just as its spread through all cultures is an example of elite imposition. It is hard to see how these grand theories can survive in an age of complex and multi-cultural values. The book has already touched off a passionate debate, as well it should.

Including in Seattle, whose downtown is Exhibit A of bland and monotonous Modernism.

David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

1 COMMENT

  1. And then there is Rem Koolhaas. Totally unorthodox, but I like it!

    Happy new year, David. You are up early. Must be your 2020 vision. . .

    Carolyn Staley

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