Why Do People Hate Modern Architecture?: A Video Essay

This month brought the 20th anniver­sary of Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, which prompt­ed peo­ple around the world to remem­ber all that was lost on that day. The fall­en Twin Tow­ers of Minoru Yamasak­i’s World Trade Cen­ter have only gained sym­bol­ic res­o­nance over the past two decades, despite hav­ing been unloved when they still stood. “They often appeared to New York­ers like a pair of mid­dle fin­gers — to good devel­op­ment, to good eco­nom­ics, to good taste,” writes Gothamist’s Hen­ry Stew­art. “They brought all, high and low, rich and poor, togeth­er to hate.” Some crit­ics of the World Trade Cen­ter made com­plaints root­ed in pol­i­tics, finance, and urban design; most just did­n’t like how the thing looked.

For 28 years, what the World Trade Cen­ter in gen­er­al and its Twin Tow­ers in par­tic­u­lar sym­bol­ized was all that the Amer­i­can pub­lic detest­ed about what it thought of as the out­landish scale, aes­thet­ic drea­ri­ness, and sheer inhu­man­i­ty of “mod­ern archi­tec­ture.” But as Bet­ty Chen of ARTic­u­la­tions points out in the video above, there’s mod­ern archi­tec­ture, and then there’s Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture.

“A tru­ly Mod­ernist design,” she says, “adheres to a strict set of for­mal rules that upholds Mod­ernism’s fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple: form fol­lows func­tion.” Such Mod­ernists as Wal­ter Gropius, Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe, and Le Cor­busier sub­scribed to the notion that “archi­tec­tur­al design should be dis­as­so­ci­at­ed from his­toric ref­er­ence, be free of unnec­es­sary orna­men­ta­tion, and be sim­pli­fied to the essen­tials of func­tion.”

As ver­sions of these prin­ci­ples for rebuild­ing a new post­war civ­i­liza­tion — vul­gar­ized ver­sions, some might say — caught on in the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tu­ry, cities around the world set enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly about putting up “emp­ty box­es of noth­ing­ness.” Or so argued Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture’s detrac­tors, who gained the cul­tur­al upper hand short­ly there­after. “If the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry is con­sid­ered to be the age of Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture,” says Chen, “then the lat­ter half of the cen­tu­ry can be defined by a con­tin­u­al, unre­lent­ing assault on Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture.” That assault includ­ed the demo­li­tion of anoth­er of Yamasak­i’s mid-cen­tu­ry projects, the Pruitt-Igoe hous­ing com­plex, which began on March 16, 1972. Though car­ried out with­out mur­der­ous intent, it did involve a notable death: the death, as archi­tect Charles Jencks famous­ly declared, of archi­tec­tur­al Mod­ernism itself.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Every­thing You Ever Want­ed to Know About the Beau­ty of Bru­tal­ist Archi­tec­ture: An Intro­duc­tion in Six Videos

The World Accord­ing to Le Cor­busier: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to the Most Mod­ern of All Archi­tects

How the Rad­i­cal Build­ings of the Bauhaus Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Archi­tec­ture: A Short Intro­duc­tion

A Quick Ani­mat­ed Tour of Icon­ic Mod­ernist Hous­es

Watch 50+ Doc­u­men­taries on Famous Archi­tects & Build­ings: Bauhaus, Le Cor­busier, Hadid & Many More

1,300 Pho­tos of Famous Mod­ern Amer­i­can Homes Now Online, Cour­tesy of USC

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Green space is white space says:

    Mod­ernism is more than build­ings. If you want to look at the height of Mod­ernism, look at an iphone.

    I spent some time liv­ing in a high Mod­ernist build­ing. The hall­ways and stairs were cold, inhu­mane and life­less. The apart­ment how­ev­er, was so well designed for flex­i­ble liv­ing I’ve nev­er seen or expe­ri­enced any­thing bet­ter. I’m not going to describe the lay­out.

    It’s prob­a­bly under­stand­able the cri­tique of Mod­ernism was­n’t men­tioned: post­mod­ernism. More suc­cess­ful social­ly, polit­i­cal­ly and philo­soph­i­cal­ly — a bit dis­mal applied to archi­tec­ture.

    I cur­rent­ly live in a post­mod­ern sub­ur­ban house. On the one hand, it’s got faux fea­tures, like repaired bits where tiles could­n’t be replaced like for like, and faux bent nails hold­ing them on. The areas that are tra­di­tion­al­ly wood are alu­mini­um. (Much like the Dis­neyesque his­tor­i­cal tourist town I grew up in, where the things that looked old­est were the newest and the gen­uine­ly old bits some­how could­n’t pull off “olde” any­more. The new part of the town had a fake old sign that said, “Olde Town.” Seri­ous­ly. And the riv­er was full of PCBs, but it looked pristine­ly clean; no algae, no life. We’re wor­ry­ing­ly obsessed with sur­face lev­el effects.)

    On the oth­er hand, the post­mod­ern sub­ur­ban house nev­er needs paint­ing. The win­dows can be cleaned, both sides, from inside. The streets are curvy and the hous­es are at odd angles, which ‘wastes’ space but helps cre­ate lots of green areas. In this case, it’s the ‘wast­ed’ space that makes it live­able. It’s like Mod­ernism in a vague­ly old­er style. So Mod­ernist Vegas kin­da works. I let the theme park bits slide.

    PS. Sur­face lev­el effects: the insu­la­tion cav­i­ty between the walls is the width of 2 fin­gers. When the North Atlantic con­veyance even­tu­al­ly reach­es a tip­ping point — 50 years? 5 years? — win­ters will be 20 below 0.

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