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.

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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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