December 18, 2018

ROGER SCRUTON ON THE FURY OF THE MODERNISTS, yet another tempest unleashed by World War I:

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, [to the right of Communism perhaps, but Corbusier was not a National Review subscriber after the war, IYKWIMAITYD – Ed] 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 Smythsons.

As Theodore Dalrymple once wrote, “Until quite recently, I had assumed that the extreme ugliness of the city in which I live was attributable to the Luftwaffe. I imagined that the cheap and charmless high rise buildings which so disfigure the city-scape had been erected of necessity in great gaping holes left by Heinkel bombers… ‘A great shame about the war,’ I said to the store assistant, who was of an age to remember the old days. ‘Look at the city now.’ ‘The war?’ she said. ‘The war had nothing to do with it. It was the council.’ The City Council—the people’s elected representatives it transpired, had done far more damage to the fabric of the city in the 1950s and 1960s than had Goering’s air force. Indeed, they had managed to turn it into a terrible visual ordeal for anyone with the most minimal visual sensibility.”

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