We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it


new internationalist
issue 202 - December 1989

Captives of Design: Modern Architecture

Richard Swift argues we
need more say in the shape
of our built environment.

The claims made for modern architecture remind one of Mark Twain's evaluation of Wagner's music -' it isn't as boring as it sounds'. It's pretty hard to see the harmony of pure Platonic forms in the endless glass walls that tower over most financial districts. What intends to impress, often in fact depresses.

Whenever the pioneer socialist William Morris found himself in Paris he took rooms near the Eiffel Tower so that he wouldn't have to look at it. For him the Tower with its soaring cast-iron lattice work represented an ugly and mindless glorification of alienating technology. As a designer himself, he was concerned with the effect of' the architectural environment on the quality of people's lives. Morris - perhaps influenced by his school days in Oxford - believed in 'necessary unpretentious buildings' executed with handcrafted detail by artisans whose skills were then - in the late Victorian era - being swept aside by mass production techniques in the European construction industry.

It is very unlikely that Morris ever made it to the US town of Waycross, Georgia. If he were to show up there today he would be shocked by the shape our 'built environment' has assumed since his death. Waycross is a truck-stop town a stop-off point for people visiting the Okefenokie Swamp. The old part of town has been eclipsed by endless strip development. Mile after mile of Taco Bells, donut shops. burger joints, used-car lots and muffler emporiums flash their wares in neon to attract the cars whizzing by on the inter-state. Waycross is an extreme example of the prefabricated clutter coming to dominate the North American landscape - with the rest of the world showing every sign of following suit.

A good architect would be quick to disown Waycross as 'not really architecture'. Certainly the only designers responsible undoubtedly developed the archetypal McDonald's or Burger King to be plunked down anywhere regardless of terrain and tradition. Yet for some architects the modern vernacular - a category that would embrace Waycross - has much to teach us about design. The architectural theorist Robert Venturi has even written a book entitled Learning From Las Vegas to challenge the notion that the Nevada gambling capital is just so much trashy kitsch. And certainly the important architecture for most of us is that which we are forced to live with every day - the term 'architecture' cannot be reserved for the high art of the best cathedrals and skyscrapers.

When it was built in the 19th century, the Eiffel Tower represented the glorious technological future or the bleak ascendancy of the industrial age, depending on your view.
Photo: Alan Clifton / CAMERA PRESS

What is clear is that people care, often passionately, about the buildings around them. If architecture is an art it is one with a special social responsibility. Nearly all architecture is public. Consenting adults can choose to read novels or visit avant-garde painting exhibits but there is little choice about the new high-rise development up the street, the windowless lunch room at the factory, or the box-like apartment that was all you could afford.

Another reason why people care about their built environment is that it reflects ideas about what matters. St Peter's in Rome or the Great Mosque at Medina express reverence and respect for God. Richard Rogers's new high-tech Lloyds insurance headquarters in London is but a hymn to what is thought to matter most in today's world - corporate prestige. It is interesting to note, though. that within the techno-gloss of the Lloyds building the boardroom is modeled on an eighteenth-century manor house complete with fireplace and period furniture - one architectural law for the powerful and quite another for the rest of us who are stuck with the high-tech rhetoric of pipes and shiny metal.

There are some promising signs that architecture is leaving the private world of 'likes' and 'dislikes' to become a contentious public issue. The current flash-point in this dispute is the offensive by Prince Charles - launched via TV, a museum display and now a book - against the soulless concrete fades of modern architecture. The Prince is deeply offended by office mega-projects like the Canary Wharf development soon to dominate London's riverfront. He holds that this kind of runaway commercial development is tearing apart the traditionally pleasing fabric of British urban design and is being imposed on people against their will.

The Prince's salvos have proved as popular with the person-on-the-street as they have unpopular with an increasingly impatient architectural establishment. The architects shoot back that the Prince is engaging in a know-nothing schoolboy tirade and advocating a kind of 'paint-by-numbers' classicism totally out of touch with the modern world.

Prince Charles speaks for many. But maybe architects are too easy a target. After all, the profession is far from monolithic. In any big struggle over urban design there are always architects on both sides of the fence. The cut and thrust of debate in architectural circles can get pretty nasty as widely differing views on style and social responsibility clash head on.

Architects cannot be held responsible for the modern world. They may design banks, high-rise apartments and prisons but they didn't invent these things. The look and feel of a city has more to do with decisions taken by planners and real-estate developers than with the form and shape of buildings. Here is where much of the worst damage has been done.

Marx. who was perhaps overly impressed by capitalism, held quite correctly that it was 'the most revolutionary of social systems'. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way perfectly viable neighbourhoods - often of great historical interest - are subject to the wrecking ball simply because 'redevelopment' means higher profits. The logic of late capitalism reduces quality to a series of numerical calculations about housing units, cost-per-square-foot and sales volumes. Architecture must be structured so that these kind of calculations come out right. In most cases the architect and the potential of a design are squeezed between the commercial needs of the developer and the local planning criteria.

Prince Charles is attacking what lies behind the architects as much as the architects themselves. He cannot point to the undeniable ugliness of Thatcherism without stepping over the constitutional line. It is within bounds however to attack the commercial expedience which results in an ugly and alienating urban environment. He believes architectural reforms will bring about 'capitalism with a human face'. He represents a paternalistic conservatism that harks back to a mythical golden age before social conflict and crude free-market Thatcherism - when Britain's rulers took responsibility for society, including the design of its buildings.

Glitz city: the Las Vegas strip at rush hour.
Alan Clifton / CAMERA PRESS

All the same, the response of the architects has not been helpful in dispelling the profession's reputation for arrogance. One cannot help but get the impression that they feel only architects can understand and thus criticize architecture. Whether in Ibsen's Master Builderor Ayn Rand's Fountainhead the literary image of the architect is of someone who thinks they can play God. There is a French expression 'as dirty as a painter, as crude as a sculptor, as arrogant as an architect'. And US architect Frank Lloyd Wright once boasted that his massive concrete bunker - the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue - would be the only thing left standing after a nuclear attack on Manhattan. It is hard to hear the petty concerns of mere mortals when you are designing with an eye to history.

It was with this kind of monumental confidence that the modernist movement in architecture built for a future where planning would solve everything and efficiency and beauty were one and the same. It was a time to build new dreams in a Europe shattered by World War One and where the only glimmer of hope was the Russian Revolution. The modernists were inspired by socialism - but they put their real faith in technology. So it is not surprising that the machine became their model for building. Clean straight lines, pre-fabricated construction techniques and lots of concrete and soon a radiant city of shining towers would arise where once there had been dismal slums. The Swiss architect Le Corbusier pronounced 'styles are a lie' while the equally influential Mies Van der Rohe set forth the new austerity of 'less is more'.

The modernists dreamed of an unadorned world of cement, steel and glass and in the building boom after World War Two something like it came about. But it wasn't as they had imagined it. As the French architect Claude Schnaidt pointed out: 'they had reckoned without the commercial instincts of the bourgeoisie... utility became profitability... the rational dwelling became the minimal dwelling.., the 'Cite Radieuse became the urban conglomeration.., austerity of line became poverty of form... Modern architecture that had wanted to play its part in the liberation of mankind.., was transformed into a giant enterprise for the degradation of the human habitat'.'

The beliefs that once underpinned modernism - progress through science, technology and economic growth are today looking a bit tattered. The global environmental crisis and the threat of nuclear extinction have shaken the easy faith in progress. This has been accompanied by a certain popular revulsion to austere modernism predicted by Kenneth Clark way back in 1934 when he concluded: 'I cannot believe that the human spirit will for long be content with such a starvation diet."

Today it is held by some architectural theorists that we have left an age of modernism that denied any significant choice in design and entered an age of pluralistic post-modernism. Others point out that much that passes for post-modernism is just bogus styling: the superficial use of design motifs. In other words modernism has not been rethought but simply wrapped up in prettier paper - the odd pillar, pitched roofs, brighter colours. One is reminded of the pretty curtained windows painted on the sides of dilapidated buildings beside New York's Cross Bronx Expressway so that commuters could be spared a daily vision closer to bombed-out Dresden than their lovable Big Apple.

But whatever the present shortcomings it is safe to say that the modernist consensus in architecture has broken down. There is now more openness and hope in the search for new design solutions,

Some are more interested in those solutions than others. Architects, like most of us, can be judged by the company they keep. Do they haunt corporate board rooms, wheeling and dealing over three-martini lunches'? Or do they hang out at tiring community meetings trying to work out schemes for local mental-health clinics and co-operative housing? In either case compromise is the name of the game but the final results - not to mention the size of the fee - are quite different.

There are an encouraging number of architects who are willing to abandon the world of handsome government commissions and corporate 'noblesse oblige' to take the side of the community. But a 'design for change' strategy runs right up against some familiar roadblocks. In the Third World frustration with big developers is often replaced by frustration with an intransigent bureaucracy. The famous Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy found this particularly tormenting. According to him, 'if solving architectural problems gives the satisfaction of climbing a mountain, co-operating with the bureaucracy is like wading a bog - soul destroying, nothing less'. Yet he persisted.

Old buildings are rapidly replaced by the new in the roller-coaster world of big-time real-estate development.

Fathy flew in the face of Western modernist orthodoxy in the Egypt of the 1940s by pioneering the attractive and cheap use of mud-brick building methods and traditional Nubian dome designs. And the spirit behind Fathy's ideas certainly has more to teach the Third World than the high-tech modernism he rejected. In the poor world over a billion people lack adequate housing and a hundred thousand have no homes at all. In Bombay alone tens of thousands cook, eat, sleep and raise their families on the city's sidewalks. Yet most Third World cities have modem business districts with skylines of high-rise towers that are barely distinguishable from their Western counterparts. The elevators may be decorated with 'out of order' signs and the air conditioning may not have worked in anyone's living memory but you can't. really be 'modern' without them

What Fathy realized was that he had to build on the rich indigenous design traditions that run throughout the Third World. There is the beautiful and varied school of Islamic architecture, for instance, or the age-old vernacular designs of Nepal and Nigeria. There is the elaborate self-built housing in the shanty towns of Africa and Latin America. While in Yemen they have been building detailed multi-storey dwellings of mud brick for generations. It is not uncommon for such structures to be eight floors in height and last 200 years - a fact which makes its own comment on 1940s housing projects from Glasgow to St Louis long since gone to rubble. The Third World will never house its homeless by expensive Western methods. Better to pour resources into local designs and materials - and use homeless people's own labour and enthusiasm.

Design works best when it reflects a culture, a terrain, a people, a place - and an anonymous mass of concrete and glass is unlikely to do that. In the rainy climate of the UK this greyness is not just inappropriate but cruel beyond belief. It is admittedly hard to achieve a responsive design while trying to hang onto the precarious pendulum of style: classical discipline one day and flamboyant revolt the next. But the first steps toward such responsiveness must clearly be giving added weight to the needs of the neighbourhood and the environment.

The community architecture movement in the UK has been in the forefront of taking up this challenge: it has a string of success stories not just in housing but also in the creative provision of community services like health clinics and arts centres. In New York the 26-year-old Pratt Centre for Community and Environmental Development is a flagship for US 'advocacy planners and architects'. It works with community organizations to rehabilitate the old brownstone housing stock in run-down areas of Brooklyn, the Bronx and the Lower East Side. These small but committed practices exist right across the industrial world and are gathering strength. Meanwhile, in much the same spirit, a new breed of development architects is working on appropriate forms of community design in the Third World.

The new front lines in the design wars are clear in the battle over what will replace the ugly 1960s Bullring development in the centre of Birmingham, in England - a gigantic post-modern shopping arcade called the Galleries or a small-scale People's Plan based on mixed residential and commercial uses. The issues are not to do with style, but with scale, diversity and use of public space.

[image, unknown]
Horst Schafer / CAMERA PRESS

The involvement of architects in these overtly political causes carries architecture right into the thorny debate about the relationship of art to politics. Architecture has always expressed political ideas. The grandeur of neo-classicism reflects the pretensions of government (and the impulse to despotism) on both Left and Right. In a way the modernist movement tried to usurp political choice through its own political ambition. Their architecture reflected their belief in an inevitable (and for many undesirable) future. Le Corbusier titled his book Architecture or Revolution as if building could be substituted for politics. But the search for a style that would hit exactly the right political and social note has proved fruitless. What is needed is politics heading in another, scarcely less difficult, direction: a democratizing of design by rethinking the relationship between the 'genius' designer and the 'passive' consumer of this most collective of all art-forms.

It is easier to imagine this done by the tenants committee of a local housing co-op than in the much more diffuse political process of designing a new national library or museum. Nevertheless it is important that we are not intimidated by architecture, that we try to come to grips with what makes it work for us - or offend us. Only a design-literate culture can ensure that architects and their sponsors reflect an informed and diverse public opinion. After all, the shape of our buildings is the shape of our future.

1 Modern Architecture and the Critical Present, Kenneth Frampron (St. Martins Press, 1982).
2 The Dilemma of Style, J Mordaunt Cook, (John Murray, 1987).
3 Architecture for the Poor, Hassan Fathy (University of Chicago, 1973).

Worth reading on... ARCHITECTURE
A lot of the substantial literature on architecture assumes knowledge of the history of style. Two excellent personalized accounts of one man's encounter with architecture from an activist perspective are Harris Stone's Workbook of an Unsuccessful Architect (1973) and Monuments and Main Streets (1984) (both Monthly Review Press). A good overall history is Kenneth Frampton's Modern Architecture: A Critical History (Oxford University Press, 1980) - see also Frampton's essay in The Anti-Aesthetic; Essays on Postmodern Culture (Bay Press, 1983). Charles Knevitt and Nick Watts' Community Architecture (Penguin, 1987) provides a look at the alternatives to monumentalism and Redesigning the American Dream by Dolores Hayden (W W Norton, 1984) gives the feminist case for alternative housing design.

previous page choose a different magazine go to the contents page go to the NI home page next page

New Internationalist issue 202 magazine cover This article is from the December 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop