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March 04, 2003

Modern Architecture and Sexual Anxiety


Perhaps you recognize the author of the following quote:

The evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.

It was of course Adolf Loos, Viennese architect and architectural theorist who uttered those words. Through his 1908 article, “Ornament and Crime,” (which is almost certainly the most influential piece of architectural writing ever) this anti-ornamental bias became embedded in Modern architecture and in the buildings we see around us every day. A book which I read recently, “The Evolution of Allure” by George L. Hersey, points out that the actual source of Loos’ concept (which was by no means merely aesthetic) was the writings of Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909.)

Lombroso was one of the pieces of flotsam and jetsam tossed up by the tidal wave of Darwinian thought in the latter 19th century. His concern, which was by no means unique to him personally, was with the downside of evolution. If species could evolve and thrive, they could also devolve, degenerate and become extinct. And of course the fossil record of vast numbers of now extinct species suggested that such would almost certainly be humanity’s fate. Unless, of course, humanity followed the eugenic advice of the good Dr. Lombroso, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pavia, professor of forensic medicine, hygiene, psychiatry and criminal anthropology at the University of Turin and director of a mental asylum in Pesaro, Italy.

Lombroso’s starting place was the concept put forth in the 1870s by the embryologist Haekel: that just as each embryo recapitulated its evolutionary history in utero, that each human being’s life recapitulated its genetic past. Those (like criminals) with poor breeding which either conserved or advanced their atavistic features would never reach the evolutionary stage where they could participate in civilized life. Fortunately for civilization however, Lombroso was on the case, as Mr. Hersey notes:

Thanks to Lombroso’s research these antievolutionary types could easily be spotted…Lombroso’s “atavists,” as he calls them, meaning evolutionary throwbacks, reproduced in their persons the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and of the inferior animals who lie behind them in the evolutionary cladogram.

And humanity’s upward climb is not just threatened by the genetic heritage of the “atavistically criminal”—it was also threatened by, well, women. As Mr. Hersey notes:

La donna delinquente, first published by Lombroso and G. Ferrero in 1893, deals with sexual selection from a potential husband’s point of view. The authors’ purpose is to establish that women are biologically inferior to men, and this must be taken into account whenever sexual selection, or rejection, occur…[T]he lower in the evolutionary ladder a species is, the less dominant are its males, and vice versa; so that male dominance is, again, the sign of humanity’s more evolved state. The authors also cite Darwin and the French biologist Milne Edwards to the effect that in the higher species the “atavistic force,” that is, the conservative tendency to keep things as they are and avoid progress, is stronger in females than in males. That is why women dress in fashions borrowed from the past while men prefer modern, unornamented clothes. Women’s liking for such fashions is in fact a pathological condition—“misoneisim,” hatred of the new. And the fact that women ornament themselves—wear necklaces, rings, tiaras, and the like, dress their hair elaborately, and strut around in extravagant clothes—all this, to Lombroso, symbolizes not only their essential atavism but also the atavism of ornament and, for that matter, the atavism of art itself.

One might think that if a genetic theory concluded that women were atavistic through and through, that the jig was pretty much up for mankind. (And gotten on with enjoying decadence.) However, the indominable Doctor Professor Lombroso was made of sterner stuff than that. He seems to have had some idea that art and culture could make up for the shortcomings of nature—provided, of course, that culture was purged of decadent and atavistic elements. Chief among these was the ornamental tendencies of Art Nouveau:

…Lombroso found criminal degrees of ornamentation even in wild nature. The abundant, lushly ornate vegetation of the tropics, for him, is composed of “criminal plants.” To create ornament from the poisonous parts of the organisms, from their skins, arteries, teeth, leaves and flowers, to glorify and exploit such sinuous tendrils, powerful ductile leaves, shining surfaces, and intoxicating blossoms (which is precisely what the Art Nouveau artists of Lombroso’s time were doing), was nothing less than to celebrate crime. Such art praised and urged onward nature’s vices and immoralities. It was poisoning European civilization. Other criminal elements in art and literature are “exaggerated minuteness of detail, the abuse of symbols, inscriptions, or accessories, a preference for some one particular color…[These things] may approach the morbid symptoms of mattoidism [criminal madness].”

And, of course, the form of ornamentation that signaled the ultimate atavistic influence at work was tattooing. The supreme repugnance of this activity wasn’t limited to Dr. Lombroso, either; Loos himself wrote:

Tatooed men who are not behind bars are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. If someone who is tattooed dies in freedom, then he does so a few years before he would have committed murder.

Hence, by analogy with tatooing, architectural ornimentation is out.

At this distance in time one can only conclude that at least a certain percentage of men at the dawn of the 20th century were so unhinged by the general collapse of religion, class boundaries and gender roles that they demanded an architecture of geometric rigor (intended no doubt unconsciously to compensate for a lack of the phallic variety): modernism. How much anxiety and dread lie behind modern architecture's imposingly blank geometric surfaces! (The elimination of vast choruses of erect columns on public buildings certainly suggests a diminution of masculine joie de vivre!)

Perhaps society has calmed down enough now for an architecture and an art of greater naturalness and humanity. Of course, if one goes by the tragic history of the World Trade Center and the architectural plans now announced for the site, perhaps not.



posted by Friedrich at March 4, 2003


Ah, scornament! Great post. I'll have to dig up some of these books to make sure you are not pulling my leg. It is really hard to believe.

Last week there was a front page article in the WSJ on the WWII allied bombing of a particular German city. The city was completely destroyed, and subsequently, in the words of a local historian, "rebuilt without a face." An entire city with no ornament.

I have often thought that true architectural styles are like the human faces of different peoples and races: Endless variation, all beautiful, and many times even more beautiful when mixed up a bit. While there is wide variation in personal preference when it comes to sexual attraction, virtually all people feel comfortable looking upon the HUMAN face, regardless of color or particular features. Modernistic architecture, by contrast, is a face with no lips, no protruding nose, and no recessed cavities for the eyes. Modernism is a horribly disfigured burn victim. Some may prefer full lips, some may prefer thin lips, but only a seriously disturbed person prefers no lips on a featureless face.

The contempt for the human nature of architecture by modernists is all too evident. Here is blogger AC Douglas sneering at the only WTC entry with any hint of ornament, emphasis added:

"But things could have been worse. Lots worse. We could have been stuck with that cloyingly nostalgic and UNIMAGINATIVELY HUMAN-SCALED aesthetic insult submitted by Peterson/Littenberg Architecture and Urban Design, and then where would we have been."

It was noted in the comments on another recent Blowhard post that modernistic buildings can look beautiful with a warm yellow or red sun reflecting off them in the late afternoon. This is indeed true. In this case the structure functions much like a distant mountain or butte. But a building is not a mountain, and while the white capped Rockies may make a beautiful backdrop to Denver, they hardly function as nice place to meet someone or have afternoon tea. Similarly, the Sahara desert has its moments, but strange beauty at a distance does not qualify as architecture. A building must be beautiful from a distance and also beautiful close up. Without ornament, it may succeed at the former, but it will certainly fail at the latter.

Posted by: Paul Mansour on March 5, 2003 1:27 PM

Ah yes. That old conundrum of architectural history. Ornamentalism - friend or foe?

As an amateur enthusiast, I find that architectural theory is usually boring and ultimately pointless. The common man knows what he likes, and seldom asks why it is so. Should the layman, such as myself, seek a simple explanation of why the object of his desire is the way it is, or how history has contributed to his own affections for it, he usually gets inscrutable theory decorated with convoluted verbiage for his pains.

It seems as if the more architectural jargon, obscure terminology, and arcane references the theorist can cram into his pet theory the better. This is one time when less is not more. For example, we learn here that Loos’ manifesto is an abstraction of Lombroso’s theory, which in turn is an abstraction from Haekel. The layman’s initial curiosity leads to a headache as his brain begins to suffocate under ever increasing levels of abstraction. It is akin to their discussing not only the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, but what type of music they are dancing to as well.

Can theorists be forgiven for abandoning us mere mortals in that they converse such that only their fellow gods comprehend? Why not? After all, since theorists seldom venture to actually build something that can maintain widespread popularity across time, they are free to say whatever they want. The theorist seldom explains if I would actually like a building built to his particular standard. I read Le Corbusier theories with interest, only to discover the stark horrors that they yield in practice. Everyone knows his theory, and nobody lives in his houses.

The “theory” I believe is in a comment I found in the Next Whole Earth Catalogue (1980):
“ I am not familiar with the theories of modern architecture but what it looks like from the outside is that architects noticed they were designing for the masses and decided the masses didn’t deserve any fun. Old architecture, Victorian, Gothic, you can play all kinds of games with-treasure hunt, hide and seek-because the builders left curlicues and knickknacks around for you to discover but all you can say about the maker of the modern skyscraper is You win. (You don’t win fair but you win.)

My manifesto? Long live the column and curleycue.

Posted by: Biased Observer on March 6, 2003 12:39 AM

The stick-up-the-ass prissiness and moral righteousness of modernist and academic architects is not to believed, and becomes only more evident the more you look into the thinking and history behind the, er, "style." And the crap we let them put over on us! Including the Libeskind WTC proposal -- great, let's commit tens of billions of public money to backing a radical (and unproven) art experiment, and then let's insist that tens of thousands of people live, work in, and pass by it every day. Are we nuts?

The image that often comes to my mind when wrestling with modernist architecture is this: the modernists took natural languages (English, German, French, etc), and threw them out in favor of Esperanto, a supposedly universal "language" that was going to (what else?) lead to world peace and understanding. Featureless, without a history, without quirks and idiosyncrasies ... And somehow we let them get away with it. Tragic.

Leon Krier makes the point that one way traditional architectural styles beat modernism is that modernism exists on one scale only -- a modernist building is sometimes impressive and effective as design (forgetting for the moment what an insult it is as a building), but almost always viewed from only one distance and angle. Get up close to it and it's a stained and cracked blank. Traditional building work well visually from a distance (overall shape), from the midrange (big elements), and closeup (ornament and detail). In other words, traditional architecture is human, modernist architecture is inhuman.

There actually is a bunch of recent writing and thinking about architecture that makes these arguments, and does so very concretely and enjoyably. You just won't hear much about it from the conventional modernist-drenched architectural press. A few quick examples:

"Suburban Nation" by Duany and Plater-Zyberk (and a colleague of theirs whose name I'm embarrassed to forget)
"Architecture: Choice or Fate" by Leon Krier (a genius)
"How Buildings Learn" by Stewart Brand (hey, a Whole Earth Catalogue guy)

I suppose if we were all mature and wise we'd spend time trying to figure out why it is that architectural modernism has been so successful, given what an insult it is. But I'm not feeling that mature right now.

Great posting, thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 6, 2003 11:13 AM

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