November 2, 2019

OLD WHITE GODS, NOT YET DEAD: Why Architectural Elites Love Ugly Buildings.

In large parts of post-World War II Europe, the bombs of war were followed by a three-decade-long blitz of dogmatic Modernist social engineering and megalomaniac town planning, most of it taking inspiration from the then hugely fashionable theories of the Swiss architect who called himself Le Corbusier. The most forgiving thing one can say of it all was that the trauma of the war had given rise to a widespread mood of alienation from all things past. But the consequences of this alienation from the past and an intelligentsia intoxicated with utopian dogma were a tragedy, and one that unfolded on a vast scale.

Great swathes of eminently salvageable traditional urban fabric fell victim to so-called “slum clearance,” to be replaced by a utopian landscape of impersonal and often windswept “public” open space that quickly became a joy only to the thug and criminal. These barren landscapes were dotted with high-rise blocks, concrete beehives that could fulfill the utopian fantasies of their creators if their mainly working-class residents had somehow been mentally reprogrammed. Meanwhile, mature town centers, with their urban fabric comprising a complex tapestry of building types, were casually violated and desiccated, their history now counting for nothing. A “libido for the ugly” was in full flux.

At least it’s over now? Well, yes and no. Certainly the arrogant certainties of utopian collectivism mercifully crumbled in the 1970s. Almost everyone now understands that to let architects and town planners decide what society’s “needs” are—and then dream up megalomaniac schemes for the wholesale satisfaction of these needs—is akin to kitting your small child out with power tools and a bag of cement, and setting him loose to decide what your home needs. Everyone, that is, except in the ivory towers of architectural academe; its luminary authors of revered set texts and in the more high brow professional journals.

Almost everyone now understands that the Corbusian legacy was entirely malign, even if they have never heard of the man himself. And the question is often asked how his grim concrete megalomania ever came to hold such sway in the first place. Step inside a Western school of architecture to pose this question, and you might get a shock. You are likely to find that the so-called “fathers” of the International Style in general, and Le Corbusier in particular (he of the tabula rasa concept of urban renewal in which everywhere “must” be “totally rebuilt” using only concrete), are still revered as the philosopher kings of architecture.

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(Classical allusion in headline.)

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