In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Another Technical Note
  2. La Ligne Maginot
  3. Actress Notes
  4. Technical Day
  5. Peripheral Explanation
  6. More Immigration Links
  7. Another Graphic Detournement
  8. Peripheral Artists (5): Mikhail Vrubel
  9. Illegal Update

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« The Long View: Aristocracies Then and Now | Main | Sam Vaknin on Narcissism »

March 15, 2005

Aurbach on Krier

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

How vicious can the architectural establishment be?

A telling test case is the Luxembourg-born architect and theorist Leon Krier. Krier's thing is the greatness of the traditional European neighborhood, which to him represents the poetic pinnacle of Western civ. What makes these places so special? What can we learn about pleasure and beauty from them?

To an outsider, it might seem that such a passion -- and such a line of inquiry -- is a harmless, interesting and helpful thing. After all, tons of people love the towns and cities Krier extolls: neighborhoods in Paris continue to charm, small towns in Italy and Spain still attract and enchant. In our own country, such places as Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Williamsburg, and Santa Barbara lure and delight scads of visitors. Many Americans love visiting these places on vacation; they love retiring to places like them too. It seems fair to conclude that many Americans would love it if where they live and work on a daily basis had some of the qualities of these special places. Krier's thinking about what makes such places so special -- and what we might learn from them -- is the most enlightening writing on these topics that I know of.

But the architectural establishment is deeply invested in modernism, and has been for 50 years. Make that not just "deeply" but "maniacally." Absurd though it may seem, the establishment is almost completely intolerant of any suggestion that modernism may not be a world-saving, world-redeeming thing. Suggest that modernism has been a mistake, and they'll actually flip out.

There's a historical explanation for this mindset, which is the European experience of World War II. There seem to be two ways of interpreting that horrifying war. In one view, Naziism was the awful expression of an evil that lay deep in the heart and in the nature of Western civ. In the other view, Naziism was an example of barbarism bursting through the ever-fragile shell of civilization.

After the war, the west's elites opted for interpretation #1. As a consequence, it was felt that Western civ needed not just to purge itself of Naziism, it needed to reinvent itself from scratch. If what centuries of effort had culminated in was Naziism, then the project of Western civilization needed to be gone about entirely differently. Hence the European Union, and hence as well modernism in architecture.

It can seem bizarre to us more than half a century after the end of the war, but many people circa 1950 were convinced that classical architecture had played a major role in fascism. It wasn't seen as set decoration or costuming. It was seen as the expression of the society that gave birth to fascism -- really, as a direct expression of Evil. And thus classical architecture had to go. (Similar reasoning reinforced modernism in music and literature as well.) In the place of classical architecture, the new elites would put international modernism. Buildings, cities, and towns would be rationalized, cleansed of all associations with the past. Orderly grids with no decoration -- with all links to the past severed completely -- would help ensure that nothing like WWII could happen again.

Whatever the rationale -- and whatever the motivations -- it's no secret how the modernist-architecture project played out: bleak center cities, the horrors of urban renewal, the enshrining of the bureaucrat and the traffic engineer as our new planners, the rush to the suburbs, the destruction of beloved communities ... Eloquent voices had been raised against the process by the early 1960s. Preservationists rose up in protest, and writers like Jane Jacobs and William Whyte spelled out in exact terms what was wrong with modernism.

Yet by that point the new architecture establishment had installed itself in the schools and in the press -- and on the prize committees, the commision-awarding bodies, and the boards as well. For an EZ example of what this has led to, think about what has become of churches and official buildings. Prior to WWII, church, school, and government buildings in both the States and Europe had often been wonderful; think, for example, of older town halls and college campuses. Now think of recent schools, churches, and town halls. They're often some of the ugliest buildings around -- shedlike, neutral in the most oppressive way, surrounded by parking lots and stray "empty space." Believe it or not, the explanation for this sad development is rooted in the post-WWII fear of Naziism and the hope for a bright new world. (How convenient too that these buildings are so much cheaper to build!) The modernists purveying this line now run the official building process, and it's because of their monopoly that we're afflicted with such a lot of lousy official buildings.

The modernists have continued to be in charge of these power centers ever since, and they've continued in their belief that modernism is the only true way. Ever adapting it, of course. If rigid, abstract grids are finally widely understood to be a problem -- well, then, let's go for zigzags! For a few moments in the '60s and then later with the New Urbanists, it looked as though the modernist monopoly might crumble. But they roared back and firmed up their control of the official process. Today's starchitects make buildings that twinkle and shimmy, but they're just the latest incarnation of the modernism.

What the establishment seems incapable of is considering the possibility that modernism has been a mistake, and that the postwar modernist dream is based on a mistake. Perhaps the idea that classical and traditional architecture contributed to Naziism is wrong; after all, the traditional neighborhoods and cities that got flattened could hardly be said to have benefited from the Nazi project. Perhaps Naziism wasn't an expression of the nature of Western civ; perhaps it was an eruption of barbarity. Perhaps our experience of this shouldn't make us renounce the classical and traditional heritage of our civilization; perhaps it should leave us feeling more tender, appreciative, and protective of it than we were before.

By asserting the glory of traditional western architecture and neighborhoods, and by arguing that modernism is a mistake based on a mistake, Leon Krier became a lightning rod for criticism from the establishment. He turned his attention to Albert Speer, "Hitler's architect," at one point. Speer was the man responsible for the designs of many of Naziism's overblown classical fantasies. In a book about Speer, Krier took the brave step of arguing that classicism wasn't an expression of Naziism but was instead the attractive costume Naziism put on to sell itself. And let's not confuse the costume for the man.

Krier's point was to pry classicism apart from its association with Naziism; he was arguing that, in order to be able to avail ourselves once again of the riches of our own past, we need to stop associating classicism and tradition with Evil. We need to get comfortable once again with the idea that classicism and tradition represent what's best in western civ, not what's worst.

Krier became a pariah, guilty of violating modernist orthodoxy on multiple levels. He's an eloquent critic of modernism; I don't know of many writers who can approach him in evoking and describing the awful ways modernism has affected our lives. But his challenge goes deeper too; he's challenging the basis of modernism's sales pitch, the idea that traditional architecture is Evil and that modernism represents our only possible path of redemption. Krier in fact goes so far as to suggest that it's the modernist drive -- and not the traditional heritage -- that has something in common with totalitarianism.

So the architecture establishment has demonized Krier. For decades, he was unable to obtain commissions to build anything, and unable to find a position teaching either. He has had his impact nonetheless; his ideas, in modified form, provide much of the basis for America's New Urbanism. Krier became the favored architect of the Prince of Wales, whose book criticizing modernist architecture caused a great public fuss in 1989. In order to do what sounds to civilians like something that's not only down-to-earth but humane -- to extoll the traditional city and town, and to revive traditional urban and architectural pleasure -- Krier has had to go entirely around the architecture establishment.

In recent years, Krier has begun doing a little building of his own, and some of his ideas in unmodified form are finding realization. Most notable is a project sponsored by Prince Charles: the construction of Poundbury, a new town extension in Dorchester, with Krier functioning as master-planner. Amusingly, though the architecture establishment has had a grand time dumping on the project, employing their usual vocabulary of abuse ("Disneyland" seems to be a favorite), Poundbury has in fact become a great success.

Who could have guessed it? If given the choice, many people would prefer to live in traditional buildings, towns, and neighborhoods. Why this fact should come as a surprise to anyone I have no idea. It seems as commonsensical as does the idea that most people, when given the choice, will choose to listen to tonal rather than atonal music. But there you have it, and this preference for traditional satisfaction is something the architecture establishment still feels we need rescuing from.

I'm hard-put to explain why the architecture world has had so much more luck sustaining the modernist lunacy than, say, the music world has had. By now it's hard to find many music-world people, even of the most high-flown sort, who maintain that the world needs rescuing via atonal or serial music. Yet analogous arguments still prevail in the world of architecture. Meanwhile, our downtowns and neighborhoods -- let alone our churches, town halls, and schools -- continue to suffer.

Given the kind of flashy press that the work of such starchitects as Koolhaas and Hadid receive, it can seem to an observer that we're in a design-conscious, architecture-besotted age. But in fact what's being peddled to the public at large as The Only Real Architecture is still modernism, modernism, and nothing but modernism. A wide variety of 10th generation modernisms, granted -- one modernism that strikes poses, one that plays conceptual games, another that does the boogaloo ... But it's all modernism nonetheless. We simply aren't being exposed to the alternatives. What we're likely to prefer is being actively kept from us.

Ever the poetic traditionalist, Krier still receives more than his share of abuse. I saw him speak not too many years ago; he was charming, incisive, and urbane. (FWIW, I consider him one of the most exciting theorists of art I've ever read.) He was also ruefully funny about how eager establishment types are to brand him a Nazi simply becaues he loves, designs, and promotes classical and traditional architecture and urbanism. Outrageously excessive and even childish though this kind of behavior may seem, there it is. Despite its lock on power -- despite running the show at nearly all the major schools, government offices, and media outlets -- the architecture establishment goes into hysterical-abuse mode when challenged. What does this represent? Deep insecurity? The perfectionist-utopian's conviction that the only thing that stands between us and paradise are a handful of dissenters?

The excellent Laurence Aurbach, who knows about these things far better than I do, sent me an email about a recent but typical instance of Krier-abuse. I asked Laurence if I could copy-and-paste his note here on the blog, and was pleased when Laurence agreed.

Here's Laurence Aurbach:

Dear Michael,

Has the pro-modernist stance of the architectural academic establishment mellowed at all since the 1950s? Consider this recent tidbit in the gossip column of a New York architecture newspaper. Apparently some architecture students at Cooper Union were dissatisfied with the management of their academic program, and they took their complaints to Dean Anthony Vidler:

"The uprising appears to have unraveled at an official school gathering after the student council presented Vidler with a bizarre document that, among other things, listed gripes about the high price of Mylar while also quoting theorist Leon Krier, whose Nazi sympathies Vidler quickly pointed out to the embarrassment of the unknowing students."

Of course, this is slimeballing of the lowest rank. Krier wrote a monograph about Albert Speer's architecture in which he wrote:

"For, in total contrast to what we have wished to believe since 1945, Classical architecture was not one of the means by which the daily propaganda maintained its reign of terror over the masses. On the contrary it was the civilized face, the aesthetic and cultured façade of this empire of lies, and was used by the regime to implant its totalitarian rule in the captivated soul of the masses. Classical architecture is quite simply incapable of imposing terror by the force of its internal laws. As a part of the totalitarian system, it was chosen only as an efficient form of lie and deceptive promise.

"... In the wake of ideological repression, Classical architecture has become both the unknown ghost and the tragic victim. Undoubtedly there are very human reasons explaining this process of equating the images of Classical architecture with those of destruction and tyranny, but this does not extenuate the fact that the equation is based on incorrect logic: it confuses political ends and cultural means."

Even Peter Eisenman finds agreement with Krier on this. Is Eisenman therefore a Nazi sympathizer?

"That's why I can look, as Leon Krier does at Albert Speer, even though he was what he was -- and I'm best friends with his son -- I have no problem with that. I don't have to be an ideologue; I'm not a flag-waver. I believe that the architecture that the fascist regime was doing was a very important moment in time."

I could go further and point out that "Triumph of the Will" is almost universally regarded as a masterpiece of filmmaking in the service of propaganda. What does that say about film critics -- are they all morally suspect?

No, what this really is about is a cheap ad hominem attack by an administrator who felt on the spot and needed to score a quick victory at the expense of truth or decency. One can only wonder why Vidler felt so threatened as to invoke such a knee-jerk defense.

Laurence Aurbach

There isn't a lot of Krier online, unfortunately. I really, really, really wish Krier were a more enthusiastic user of the Internet -- take it to the people, dude! But 2Blowhards fave Nikos Salingaros has put up a modest and useful website devoted to Krier. Nikos interviews Krier here. Krier's book "Architecture: Choice or Fate?" -- not just a great work of architecture theory but a masterpiece of book design -- is out of print, darn it. But copies can sometimes be found here. Here's a terrific review of the book by James Howard Kunstler.

Many thanks to Laurence Aurbach. Laurence's own website is here. Laurence edits and writes for the wonderful New Urbanist publication The Town Paper. Laurence often guest-posts and comments at David Sucher's blog City Comforts.



UPDATE: Laurence has kindly provided a lot of Krier-related links in his comment on this posting. Great web-surfing material!

posted by Michael at March 15, 2005


Frederic Spotts' excellent "Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics" broadens the field and makes the picture more complicated (ain't it always the way?) Yes, there was lots of Speerian (neo)classical architecture with what now seems brutal mass and scale. Yes, there was denunciation of selected "un-German" threads of modernism in art and music.

But the more you move to architecture and engineering design, the more it's clear that fascism also saw itself as sweeping away cultural cobwebs and embraced machine-age dynamism. There are plenty of American-moderne government and institutional buildings from the 1930s that Speer would have liked. Naziism's autobahns and vehicles and rockets and much more were direct continuations of the Metropolis - Frau im Mond look and feel... lots of streamlining and clean metal that could just as well have been Raymond Loewy or Donald Deskey.

Posted by: Monte Davis on March 15, 2005 10:17 AM

Wow! What an impassioned essay, Michael, a lucid and informed statement. You should really title it "Michael Blowhard on Krier, with small footnote by Aurbach."

You can find several fine photo tours of Poundbury here, and the Prince of Wales' website has a descriptive essay here.

Krier has been busier than ever over the past several years, working on projects ranging from a retrofit of Kentlands to a new architecture center at the University of Miami. One of Krier's most ambitious recent projects is the design for Meriam Park in Chico, California. You can find a day-by-day report about the charrette design process on Jim Horne's remarkable website, (Jim is "just" an activist and a hobbyist, and his site is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in West Coast traditional neighborhood developments.)

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on March 15, 2005 11:02 AM

Excellent post, Michael--and Laurence.

Monte brings up the salient book. Spotts's book is among the best I have read in recent years--on any subject. It is on Hitler's relation to the arts. And it is mind-blowing. How he did NOT hate or dismiss Bauhaus architecture. How he became physically ill in the presence of the "decadent" Paris Opera House. How he threw over Wagner for... Lehar!

I reviewed that book when it came out and I started my review by recalling an experience I had leading a walking tour in New York. An Israeli architect got very upset with me for extolling the virtues of Stanford White's Century Association. "That," he said, "is the kind of architecture Hitler liked."

"No," I said, "it is the kind he hated."

But even if he loved it, so what? You know what else he loved? Verdi. Yes, Verdi. And he was kind to animals. And he was an audiophile. Are you an audiophile? If so, you must be a Nazi. And he was anti-smoking. Are you anti-smoking? If so, you must be a Nazi. This is absurd.

As for Albert Speer, you know what New York building he loved the most? Philip Johnson's "Chippendale" AT&T Building!


Posted by: Francis Morrone on March 15, 2005 11:24 AM

Hitler was a vegetarian too, wasn't he? I suppose that puts a moral taint on vegetarianism?

Laurence, many thanks again for the note, and now for the notes.

Monte, Francis -- thanks for recommending the Spotts. I've just hit the one-click button at Amazon and look forward to catching up with it.

It's great to learn from the experts and the pros!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 15, 2005 12:15 PM

Well...the Romans used classical architecture, and they weren't very nice. And Louis XIV used classical architecture, and he wasn't very nice either. And those French revolutionaries like Robespierre were nuts about classical architecture, and they weren't very nice either...!

Hmm, maybe we should ditch the classical does have a questionable pedigree. Of course, if we do so, maybe we need to toss out French, too--you know, in the interests of moral purity. Oh, wait a minute, there go all the Romance languages. Darn.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 15, 2005 05:36 PM

Friedrich,- and the Greeks, too. And than, what model should we assume for alternative? Peaceful Egyptians? Shumerians? Aztecks? Or, I know - Islamic architecture, the ultimate in peaceful solutions!

Posted by: Tatyana on March 15, 2005 06:39 PM

I hope someone contacts those students at Cooper Union so they can discover what a disingenuous liar their Dean is.

Posted by: lindenen on March 15, 2005 07:53 PM

Congratulations for a fine essay. I’m not very knowledgeable about these topics, but I’d love to learn more. There are a few questions that occurred to me while reading this post and I’d truly appreciate it if someone could provide some answers:

1. Why was architecture’s reaction to Naziism so extreme? From my limited perspective, other arts & design fields didn’t seem to undergo such a radical paradigm shift after WWII. If this is so, what made architecture so different?

2. While compelling, the argument that modernism is mainly a reaction to “classicism-as-the-progenitor-of-Naziism” seems a bit reductionist. Did modernism have other ideological roots? If I recall correctly, it was also the dominant architectural style in communist nations.

3. What has made modernism such an enduring force, even though ordinary folks like yours truly detest it for the most part? While I do understand that once a school of though becomes institutionalized it acquires a life of its own, other fields seem do seem to have a (slightly) greater ideological turnover.

Thanks so much. As an aside, there are some modernist architects whose work I do admire, such as Luís Barragán. Perhaps the fact that he actually used color as an essential ingredient in his work and mostly eschewed doing imposing (in the literal sense) buildings has something to do with it.

Posted by: Andres on March 15, 2005 08:24 PM

A note pertaining to Andres comment... I follow architecture on a casual basis and never got past first-year Architectural Design in college, I can't claim to be "in" regarding how the profession views Nazi architecture. But the posting kinda surprised me because I haven't noticed much being said about Nazi architecture other than some snide, passing remarks about the megalomania of the Berlin rebuilding project and use of some classical details such as columns on buildings -- as if Nazi-era German architects were simply behind the times. I remember nothing said about about how Naziism used "pure" classicism as a political or propagarda tool or anything to slander classical architecture based on any Nazi uses therof. From what I have seen in books, the so-called Nazi architecure was not "classical" in the generally accepted sense; instead it seems much like "government architecture" in the USA as represented in WPA-funded post offices, courthouses, etc. during that same era (the 1930s) -- call it stripped down classical or Deco with a classical twist.

And Michael, regarding Spotts' book about Hitler and the arts, do read it as soon as you unwrap it. I thought Spotts nailed Hitler -- namely, that his self-conception was that he was an artist first and a politician second (Spotts holds that ability-wise, the reverse was true). Anyhow, I've had that notion in my head for years, but it took Spotts to focus the concept, research it and do the dirty work of writing it up. A must-read for folks on the intersection of history and art.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 15, 2005 08:57 PM

On a related note,

Find yourself a copy of the April Discovery and turn to page 88. According to the article cities in Europe must map traffic noise. Find out where things are loudest, and why.

Turns out the cobblestone streets are louder than asphalt streets. Likely because stone reflects sound better than asphalt.

I expect the data gathered will impact building materials, physical layout, and architecture. The adoption of sound absorbing material in place of glass and steel for example. "Decoration" may make a return in a form that ameliorates noise.

Sounds interesting to me.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on March 15, 2005 09:26 PM

FvB, Tatyana -- I wonder if there are any untainted architectures ... Hmm, maybe our only option is to adopt Quaker architecture?

Lindenen -- I hope so too. Wouldn't it be lovely if the tendency some people have to irresponsibly throw around charges like "Nazi" or "racist" were curbed? Wait: but then we'd actually have to take on the substance of actual debates. And that certainly can't be allowed.

Andres -- Thanks for stopping by, as well as for your interesting questions. I look forward to the responses of the pros -- I'm just a longtime fan and buff myself. I can't resist taking a few swings, though.
1) I wonder if it's that postwar architecture embraced modernism more enthusiastically than other arty fields did, or whether the results in architecture were so much more apparent. Euro countries subsidized and backed modernist music, for instance -- Boulez got a lot of official French money. But on a day to day basis you were more likely to run across an ugly new high school or town hall, or a glass-tower neighborhood, than you were a composition by Boulez. The postwar world became very forward-looking in many ways, and aggressively leaving the past behind seemed to be on many people's minds. I wonder if the prominence of America didn't play a role too -- we were by far the most powerful country left, and our corporations went wholeheartedly for the modernist style.
2) You're absolutely right, and if I left the impression that modernism's roots were in anti-Naziism then I screwed up. Modernism in architecture had been around since circa 1920. What changed after WWII was how whole-heartedly it was embraced as The One True Style. The years between WWI and WWII, although they're portrayed by some art and architecture history books solely as preparation for the triumph of modernism, were in fact very, very eclectic. Lots of styles were knocking around -- Mies/Corbu-style modernism was just one of them. As far as I've been able to tell, a whole variety of elements contributed to the embrace of modernism and modernism alone after WWII. German emigrants had moved into positions in American architecture schools .. The horror people felt about the war ... Corporate America's love of the style ... The Common Market settled on the style too ... The embrace of the car and of a gas-based economy ... The perfecting of air conditioning ... Modernism seems to have represented somewhat different things in Europe and America. In Europe, modernism was chic, progressive, international, cosmopolitan. I was in France in the early '70s, for instance, and all the new official buildings and cultural centers were being built in modernist ways -- it was understood to be what Europe had to do to move into a safe and prosperous future. (WWII was still very present in people's minds in France in 1970.) In America, the embrace of modernism seems to have been part of the whoosh America felt in the postwar years -- we're #1, we can do anything, we just won the war, we can re-do our cities, etc. (Part of the general overconfidence that resulted in the Great Society and in Vietnam, as far as I can tell.) Architectural modernism at its origin had all kinds of rationales, although wiping the slate clean and starting fresh always seems to have played a prominent role. You're right that communist countries seemed to love modernism. The early revolutionary Russian designers were pretty snazzy and talented; later, the Soviets seem to have loved the barracks look. It's true too that Italian fascism was much drawn to modernism -- they seemed to love the futuristic chic and dynamism of it. The Nazis themselves didn't dislike modernism; they thought it was appropriate in the industrial sector, with classicism preferred for official places and traditional-vernacular buildings preferred in the sticks. It ain't as though modernism is any less-tainted by political baddies than any other style is.
3) That's a great puzzle and a great question. My hunch is that architecture has such a lot of money in it -- it's so embedded in large ways of doing things -- that the field can be much more of a slow-moving dinosaur than many others can. Important to remember practicalities too: modernism is (in the short term anyway) cheap and easy, as well as convenient -- it suits the convenience of many powers-that-be, even if everyday people like you and I detest it. And the modernists are good propagandists -- they've got many people convinced that modernism (decon, po-mo, whatever) is either pretty snazzy and entertaining, or else that it's inevitable, just something we have no choice but to put up with in order to have the benefits of modern life. Here's hoping that the web will enable a few more regular Joes to break the wall of silence.
(And all along, while modernism was embraced by government and business, private people were buying homes in semi-traditional styles, even if they were clueless about how bad they usually were. So we've had this polarized world -- polarized between hideous modernism and bad-traditional, with the only other option usually being buying an actual old house. Which enabled the modernists to sneer at the real people and pretend that what they were selling was superior, as well as the only serious alternative to obvious lousiness. The great thing about the New Urbanism is that it's proposing a completely different role for architecture and architects. The modernist architect is selling better-and-different. The New Urbanism is accepting what people already like and trying to create a more solid and rewarding version of that -- traditional pleasures that actually work and function as people hope they will. It's a much more modest version of what architecture can be -- a kind of respectful-of-normal-life, service vision. Pretty radical!)
You've probably read Tom Wolfe's famous "From Bauhaus to Our House," but if you haven't you might enjoy it. It's about how German modernism took over American architecture, and while it's hyperbolic and cartoonish, as far as I've been able to tell it's also right on the money. It's also short, fast-reading, and loads of provocative fun.
I'm looking forward to info, musing and corrections from people who know better than I do. Laurence? Francis? Others?

Donald -- I'm looking forward to the Spotts, which sounds like an amazing book. The point about modernism and Naziism isn't that modernism's critique of classicism had anything to it. It's that modernism needs a sense of moral/political crusade and urgency in order to sell itself as exciting and necessary. Part of the way they did that was by setting up historically-based architecture of any sort as evil, because history had, after all, led to WWII. Classicism was especially bad because it got associated with Speer and Naziism, as well as with "Triumph of the Will" and "Olympiad." Thus an architecture that was constantly erasing history was politically and morally imperative, hence the necessity of glass and steel boxes. I remember this kind of line being peddled in college in the mid-'70s; and I take the current rationales for deconstruction to be echoes of it. (Decon is supposed to subvert expectations, rupture regularities, etc -- all for the sake of liberation. But liberation from what? Comfort? Comprehensibility?) Another example: remember how kitsch used to get demonized as near-fascism? That was a line that was being peddled fairly recently, in Milan Kundera's early novels. (Didn't Sontag go on about the evils of kitsch too? But I seem to be achieving my own kind of blank-slateness where Sontag's concerned ...) Nazis were supposed to have been lovers of kitsch -- Nazi experience was supposed to be kitsch experience. Fraudulent, fraudulent -- and the fraudulence was somehow connected to war, to concentration camps, etc. Hence what art needed to do -- in fact the real crusade of art -- was to fight kitsch, typically in harsh and modernist ways. Narrative was too easy -- it needed subverting, so that something non-fraudulent could emerge. I never bought that argument either. I'm rather fond of some kitsch, think some of it's amusing and harmless, and certainly think that the horror and rejection of kitsch can become oppressively high-minded. Besides, I like stories.

Alan -- Oh no, does that mean cities and towns are going to start getting rid of their cobblestone? I love cobblestone, both for its look and for the way that it slows traffic down. But it'd be good news if noise concerns made cities and towns more wary of super-reflective materials. I'll go get the issue of Discovery -- thanks for the info and the tip.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 15, 2005 11:52 PM

The purveyors of "total serialism" after the war seemed to imply all previous music was suspect apart from Webern but rarely pointed out that Webern was an admirer of Hitler (although the admiration was certainly not mutual). Also, if we're going to make glib political analogies, the concept of total serialism itself bears a striking resemblance to musical totalitarianism. An obession with purity? That's not exactly un-Nazi, is it? Rejecting the entire legacy of the past for ideological reasons? An idea promoted by some pretty dubious modern regimes: China's Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge Year Zero, for instance. No wonder Boulez admired the Red Guards.

This kind of inane politicisation is not new. If you've ever read his Confessions, you'll know that Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought of himself primarily as a composer rather than a writer or philosopher. Unfortunately, if you've ever heard any of his music, you'll also know he wasn't very good. His technical abilities were minimal; for instance, he couldn't really do counterpoint. In his theoretical writings attacking his deadly enemy (and a genuine musical genius) Rameau, Rousseau gets round this problem by claiming counterpoint is old-fashioned, 'barbarous' and therefore politically suspect. It's the musical equivalent of Gothic architecture, Gothic architecture is from the Middle Ages and the Middle Ages mean tyranny (look at the Bastille). So the implication is that Rousseau's inability to write counterpoint is no longer a sign of a lack of talent but of his moral superiority to Rameau and Bach. Adjust your ears accordingly.

Posted by: J.Cassian on March 16, 2005 08:05 AM

Thanks for the tip on the Spotts book; I too have ordered it. It sounds very interesting.

Great article.

Posted by: missgrundy on March 16, 2005 12:44 PM


Alan Gowans has an interesting book, "Images of American Living" where he discusses the symbolic magnetism the austere forms of modernist architecture had to those convinved that socialism would inevitably triumph over the dead ornament that encrusted 'honest' architecture much like the social forms created by capitalist masters held the proletariat in slavery. The symbols of modernism then become powerful mirrors of an ideology's beliefs, and as they emerge around traditional architectural forms they reinforce the 'plausibility' of the ideology, that it Indeed is a Body of Truth, and it will grow in the cracks of the sidewalk of a spent capitalist system, and lead to a socialist paradise on earth.

I believe that these architectural forms, and the 'moral language' (honest y of form, etc)developed to justify their adoption as proper forms for various institutional functions, if I am not mistaken, were conceived in Weimar Germany and in France betweem the wars.

America, land of every utopian experiment in creating heaven on earth, where true believers can actually LIVE their ideals, Pilgrims, Shakers, New Harmonyites, and give them architectural and urbanist symbolic form, welcomes such idealists like form makers for the inevitable triumph of socialism and bids them to create *their* version of heaven on earth.

It would be interesting to document how many of these seminal modernist works were 'government funded'. I'm just curious. The 1890's Italianate structure such as the ones in Over the Rhine area of Cincinnati look naked when their neighbors on each side are torn down to provide zoning mandated off street parking.

The 'original' modernist design in a sea of parking is more 'honest' because it does not formally have a backside where the dumpster goes, or bare common brick partywall naked to view. There is no 'heirarchy' of front, side, rear, in the socialist paradise to come.

If you have time to engage Gowans on this, I'm very interested in your opinion of his works, especially his trilogy of "The Restless Art" and "The Unchanging Arts" and "Learning to See".

Posted by: Carl Jahnes on March 17, 2005 12:30 AM

Any relation to Rob Krier, the philosopher of architecture and urban design?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on March 18, 2005 10:33 AM

re: Poundbury, "Disneyland" & success

witold rybczynski recently had some favorable things to say about disney's planned community, celebration :D


Posted by: carabinieri on March 18, 2005 03:11 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?