Sunday, November 17, 2013

Under the Strange Ideological Radicalism of Modernism

By contrast, think of enduring historical areas in London, Paris, or Rome, for example. There, two-millennia-old architecture has been repeatedly revived very successfully, and then endured over centuries: Romanesque, Renaissance, Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian. These buildings, most already lasting usefully for over a century or more, are much loved and still used today — indeed, they comprise some of the most expensive and sought-after real estate in the world.
But under the strange ideological radicalism of Modernism, we must never, ever, build such places again! Instead we are condemned to live in a world bereft of pattern, shorn of history and humanity, left only with cold industrial objects. We are promised that someone with sufficient skill (the genius architect) has somehow made them compositionally handsome, but that hope is not enough.

Methods of architectural design — especially those that revive or re-incorporate any motifs and geometric characteristics that might have been used before about 1920 — are regularly attacked as illegitimate, inauthentic, “pastiche” or worse. Students who transgress are regularly flunked out of architecture school; professors who dare embrace heterodoxy are regularly fired. National and international regulatory codes such as the Venice Charter, and the US Secretary of State’s Standards, are interpreted to exclude new contextual designs in historic districts, and to require contrasting modernist completions, as the exclusively “authentic” representatives of their present age.

The pervasive dominance of this regime today, and its outright suppression of other, competing approaches, is nothing less than extraordinary. Peter Blake relates in Form Follows Fiasco how manufacturers of industrial materials threatened to close down a prominent architecture magazine that dared to criticize one of their products, by collectively withdrawing their advertizing. In effect, corporate sponsors tightly control architectural information.

As a growing body of research literature documents, this state of affairs does exert a toll on human wellbeing. Loos was dismissive of the love that children have to ornament every available surface — perhaps a reflection of the stern parenting theories of Austria in his era, or even a reflection of Loos’ own childless life. But we now know that this hands-on experience of ornamentation forms an essential part of a child’s cognitive development. - Nikos A. Salingaros

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