F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
August 27, 2000
When Architects Became Anarchists

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

"For many people, the best thing about modernist music is that you don't have to listen to it. . . . Architecture, however, is unavoidable."

"Architectural modernism rejected the principles that had guided those who built the great cities of Europe," observes British philosopher Roger Scruton. "It rejected all attempts to adapt the language of the past, whether Greek, Roman, or Gothic; it rejected the classical orders, columns, architraves, and moldings; it rejected the street as the primary public space and the facade as the public aspect of a building. Modernism rejected all this," Scruton charges, "not because it had any well-thought-out alternative but because it was intent on overthrowing the social order that these things represented -- the order of the bourgeois city as a place of commerce, domesticity, ambition, and the common pursuit of style."

In a recent issue of City Journal, a quarterly publication of the Manhattan Institute, Scruton argues that the architects of modernism were "social and political activists who wished to squeeze the disorderly human material that constitutes a city into a socialist straitjacket. Architecture, for them, was one part of a new and all-comprehending system of control," he contends. "Classical and Gothic buildings spoke of another age, in which glory, honor, and authority stood proudly and without self-mockery in the street," Scruton recalls. "We could no longer use their styles and materials sincerely, the modernists argued, since nobody believed in those old ideals. The modern age was an age without heroes, without glory, without public tribute to anything higher or more dignified than the common man. It needed an architecture that would reflect its moral vision of an equal and classless society from which hierarchies had disappeared," he explains. "Hence it needed an architecture without ornament or any other pretense to a grandeur. . . ."

Scruton decries modern architecture's "jutting and obtrusive corners, built without consideration for the street, without a coherent facade, and without intelligible relations to its neighbors." He recalls how pre-modern architecture "offered matching shapes, moldings, and ornaments: forms that had pleased and harmonized, and that could be relied upon not to spoil or degrade the streets in which they were placed." Scruton believes these forms "could be used to restore the civility of damaged neighborhoods. The only obstacle," he notes, "is the vast machine of patronage that puts architects, rather than the public, at the head of every building scheme."

Scruton argues that "the most successful period of urban architecture -- the period that envisaged and developed real and lasting towns of great size was the period of the classical vernacular, when pattern books guided people who had not fallen prey to the illusion of their own genius. Routine styles and standardized parts perpetuate the gestures that have won general approval and help us to employ them again without offense," he explains. "In making innovation and experiment into the norm, while waging war against ornament, detail, and the old vernaculars, modernism led to a spectacular loss of knowledge among ordinary builders and to a pretension to originality in a sphere where originality, except in the rare hands of genius, is a serious threat to the surrounding order."

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