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.

The Roman Colosseum Has a Twin in Tunisia: Discover the Amphitheater of El Jem, One of the Best-Preserved Roman Ruins in the World

Image via Wikimedia Commons

When Rome conquered Carthage in the Third Punic War (149-146 BC), the Republic renamed the region Africa, for Afri, a word the Berbers used for local people in present-day Tunisia. (The Arabic word for the region was Ifriqiya.) Thereafter would the Roman Empire have a stronghold in North Africa: Carthage, the capital of the African Province under Julius and Augustus Caesar and their successors. The province thrived. Second only to the city of Carthage in the region, the city of Thysdrus was an important center of olive oil production and the hometown of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who bestowed imperial favor upon it, granting partial Roman citizenship to its inhabitants.

In 238 AD, construction began on an amphitheater in Thysdrus that would rival its largest cousins in Rome, the famed Amphitheater of El Jem. “Designed to seat a whopping crowd of 35,000 people,” writes Atlas Obscura, El Jem was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. Built entirely of stone blocks, the massive theater was “modeled on the Coliseum of Rome,” notes UNESCO, “without being an exact copy of the Flavian construction…. Its facade comprises three levels of arcades of Corinthian or composite style. Inside, the monument has conserved most of the supporting infrastructure for the tiered seating. The wall of the podium, the arena and the underground passages are practically intact.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Although the small city of El Jem hardly features on tours of the classical past, it was, in the time of the Amphitheater’s construction, a prominent site of struggle for control over the Empire. The year 238 “was particularly tumultuous,” Atlas Obscura explains, due to a “revolt by the population of Thysdrus (El Jem), who opposed the enormous taxation amounts being levied by the Emperor Maximinus’s local procurator.” A riot of 50,000 people led to the ascension of Gordian I, who ruled for 21 days during the “Year of the Six Emperors,” when “in just one year, six different people were proclaimed Emperors of Rome.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

From such fraught beginnings, the massive stone structure of the El Jem Amphitheater went on to serve as a fortress during invasions of Vandals and Arabs in the 5th-7th centuries. A thousand years after the Islamic conquest, El Jem became a fortress during the Revolutions of Tunis. Later centuries saw the amphitheater used for saltpetre manufacture, grain storage, and market stalls.

Despite hundreds of years of human activity, in violent upheavals and everyday business, El Jem remains one of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world and one of the largest outdoor theaters ever constructed. More importantly, it marks the site of one of North Africa’s first imperial occupations, one that would designate a region — and eventually a continent with a dizzyingly diverse mix of peoples — as “African.”

via @WassilDZ

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Build Wooden Models of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Great Building: The Guggenheim, Unity Temple, Johnson Wax Headquarters & More

Frank Lloyd Wright had his eccentricities, in not just his personal and professional conduct but also the very language with which he described the world. Among the enduringly fascinating elements of his idiolect is the word Usonian, which refers to things of or pertaining to the United States of America.  Wright didn’t coin the term: its earliest recorded user is the early 20th-century writer James Duff Law, who declared that “We of the United States, in justice to Canadians and Mexicans, have no right to use the title ‘Americans’ when referring to matters pertaining exclusively to ourselves.” The most famous architect in American history took Usonian further, using it to label an American architectural sensibility — of, naturally, his own design.

Though Wright did envision an ideally Usonian city, his clearest expressions of the aesthetic stand today in the form of the Usonian houses. Built between 1934 and 1958, these sixty or so residences take advantage, as Wright saw it, of the range of distinctive settings offered up by the landscapes of the United States.

Designed with features like garden terraces, clerestory windows, flat roofs with wide overhangs, and easy visual and physical passage between the indoors and outdoors, these urban-rural hybrids still today draw the admiration of architects and non-architects alike. But truly to understand a Usonian house, perhaps you must build one yourself: luckily, the Little Building Company offers a model kit that lets you do just that.

Their Wright lineup also includes miniature wooden versions of his 1908 Unity Temple in Oak Park, his 1937 Johnson Wax Headquarters in Racine, and his 1937 Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. The differences in scale and complexity between these buildings make for a natural model-building difficulty curve: once you’ve done a Wright house, you’ll be ready for a Wright temple; once you’ve done a Wright temple, you’ll be ready for a Wright corporate headquarters, and so on. Not only will the effort hone your manual dexterity, it will heighten your appreciation for the American architecture-defining innovations Wright pulled off in the early 20th century. But do you have to be from the United States to understand the Usonian? Based in Australia and selling to the world, the Little Building Company suggests not.

via MyModernMet

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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.

360 Degree Virtual Tours of the Hagia Sophia

Last year, when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Hagia Sophia would be reconverted into a mosque, he assured a concerned UNESCO that changes to the 1,500-year-old former cathedral-turned-mosque would have “no negative impact” on its status as World Heritage Site. “A state must make sure that no modification undermines the outstanding universal value of a site listed on its territory,” the world body has said. Claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the “universal value” of the site does seem to have been undermined.

Designated a museum by the secular Turkish Republic in 1934, the site contains hundreds of years of history for both the Christian and Islamic worlds, and the shared heritage between them in the shifting mix of peoples who conquered, settled, and moved through the city first called Byzantium, then Constantinople, then Istanbul.

“The World Heritage site was at the centre of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and is today one of Turkey’s most visited monuments,” Reuters noted last year.

The mosque is open to the public for prayers, and anyone can visit. What they’ll find — as you can see in this recent tour video — is ugly green carpeting covering the floor, and screens, panels, and plywood obscuring the Byzantine Christian art. (The same thing was done in the smaller Hagia Sophia in the city of Trabzon.) These changes are not only distressing for UNESCO, but also for lovers of art and history around the world, myself included, who had hoped to one day see the millennia-and-a-half of blended religious and aesthetic traditions for themselves.

It’s possible Turkish politics will allow Hagia Sophia to return to its status as a museum in the future, restoring its “universal value” for world history and culture. If not, we can still visit the space virtually — as it was until last year — in the 360 degree video views above, both of which allow you to look around in any direction as they play. You can also swivel around a spherical panoramic image at 360 cities.

The BBC video at the top narrates some of the significant features of the incredible building, once the largest church in the world, including its “colored marble from around the Roman Empire” and “10,000 square meters of gold mosaic.” Learn much more about Hagia Sophia history in the video above from Khan Academy’s executive directors (and former deans of art and history), Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Pompeii Rebuilt: A Tour of the Ancient City Before It Was Entombed by Mount Vesuvius

We can’t regard the ruins of Pompeii, however unusually well-preserved they are, without trying to imagine what the place looked like before 79 AD. It was in that year, of course, that Mount Vesuvius erupted, entombing the ancient Roman city in ash and pumice. The exhumed Pompeii has taught modern humanity a great deal about first-century urban planning as practiced by the Roman Empire. But it’s one thing to walk the paths Pompeiians walked, and quite another to see the built environment that they must have seen. The latter experience is available in the eighteen-minute video above, which uses computer graphics to create a tour of a rebuilt Pompeii.

This production, in fact, provides views of Pompeii that Pompeiians themselves could never have seen, including drone-like flights along its streets and around its famous structures like the Temple of Apollo, the Basilica, and the Forum. But even more than its grand public buildings, the city’s private dwellings — many of them grand in their own way — have influenced the way we’ve built in recent centuries.

“With their unmistakable style, they have inspired architects of all times,” says the video’s narrator. Even as urbanization reduced the size of Pompeiian houses, they gained “richness in decorations,” reflecting the sensibility of the local culture.

“Temples, basilicas, spas, houses, and a refined, high-level lifestyle make Pompeii one of the most famous cities of the Roman Empire of the first century,” says the narrator. “All of this, however, is about to end abruptly.” We all know what happened next, but the extent of the destruction wrought by Mount Vesuvius takes a vivid form in the video just above, which compares its own CGI reconstructions of these same buildings to the ruins of today. In its time, Pompeii’s refinement made it a well-known city, and something of a showcase of Roman civilization. But nearly two millennia after its destruction, it has become much more famous as a symbol of civilization itself: its surprising continuity, but also its deceptive fragility.

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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.

What Ancient Greece Really Looked Like: See Reconstructions of the Temple of Hadrian, Curetes Street & the Fountain of Trajan

Ancient Greeks did not live among ruins. This is, of course, an obvious truth, but one we run the risk of forgetting if we watch too many historical fantasies set in their time and place as popularly imagined. That Western civilization as we know it today came to know Ancient Greece through the ravaged built environments left behind has colored its modern-day perception — or, rather drained it of color. In recent years, a big deal has been made about the finding that Ancient Greek statues weren’t originally pure white, but painted in bright hues that faded away over the centuries. What does that imply for the rest of the place?

We don’t have a time machine in which to travel back to Ancient Greece and have a look around. We do, however, have the digital reconstructions of artist Ádám Németh. “My archaeological renderings are accurate to the time period, due to extensive research on references and reviews of sources found online, in libraries and in museums, and also ongoing discussions with archaeologists,” he writes.

“My main goal, through reconstructions, is to make history interesting and accessible for everybody.” Even those more or less ignorant of the ancient world can take a glance at his images of an intact and colorful Temple of HadrianCuretes Street, and Fountain of Trajan.

All of these sites were located in the Ancient Greek city of Ephesus, now a part of Turkey. Though it doesn’t draw quite the numbers of, say, Hagia Sophia, Ephesus stands nevertheless as a pillar of Turkish tourism. Indeed, you can go there and examine its actual pillars, none of which have come through the ages standing anything like as mightily Németh depicts them. Comparisons posted by Marina Amaral on Twitter put former glory alongside current ruin, though even the Temple of Hadrian, Curetes Street, and the Fountain of Trajan as they are today have been pieced together into a somewhat more complete state than that in which they were rediscovered. Even real antiquity, in other words, is to some degree a reconstruction. See more of Németh’s reconstructions here.

via Marina Amaral

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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.

Watch Venice’s New $7 Billion Flood Defense System in Action

There are capitals unlikely to be much afflicted by rising sea levels — Indianapolis, say, or La Paz — but Venice looks set for a much more dire fate. Still, there is hope for the Floating City, a hope held out by large-scale engineering projects like the one profiled in the Tomorrow’s Build video above. Called MOSE (an acronym standing for MOdulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), the system consists of “78 gates, each 20 meters wide, that rise up out of the water when flooding is imminent.” This sounds like just the ticket for a city that, “built in the middle of a lagoon,” has “been susceptible to a natural phenomenon known as acqua alta, or ‘high water,’ since its founding in the fifth century.”

MOSE is now “finally up and running, eighteen years after construction began” — and a decade after its original completion deadline. This was too late, unfortunately, to spare Venice from the 2019 flood that ranked as its worst in 50 years, leaving 80 percent of the city underwater.

“The good news is, it passed the first major test,” successfully protecting the city in October of last year “from a 1.3-meter high tide, and it’s performed multiple times since. But this doesn’t mean that flooding’s been stopped entirely. In December, it was unable to prevent an unexpectedly high tide from sweeping in and drenching the city once again.” Technically, that incident wasn’t MOSE’s fault: “Weather forecasters underestimated how high the water would get, so authorities kind of didn’t think to switch it on.”

This speaks to the difficulty of not just designing and installing a complex mechanical defense mechanism, but also of getting it to work in concert with the other systems already performing functions of their own (and at various levels of reliability). At a cost of over €6 billion (or $7 billion), MOSE has become “far more expensive than first predicted,” and thus faces that much higher a burden of self-justification, especially given the cloud of “corruption, environmental opposition, and questions about its long-term effectiveness” hanging over it. Seen in action, MOSE remains an unquestionably impressive work of engineering, but its associated headaches have surely converted some to the position on Venice once advanced by no less a scholar and lover of that storied city than Jan Morris: “Let her sink.”

via Kottke

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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.

Who Designed the 1980s Aesthetic?: Meet the Memphis Group, the Designers Who Created the 80s Iconic Look

For those who remember the 1980s, it can feel like they never left, so deeply ingrained have their designs become in the 21st century. But where did those designs themselves originate? Vibrant, clashing colors and patterns, bubbly shapes; “the geometric figures of Art Deco,” writes Sara Barnes at My Modern Met, “the color palette of Pop Art, and the 1950s kitsch” that inspired designers of all kinds came from a movement of artists who called themselves the Memphis Group, after Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” a song “played on repeat during their first meeting” in a tiny Milan apartment. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to think of any other design phenomenon that can be located as specifically to a group of people,” says Yale Center of British Art’s Glenn Adamson in the Vox explainer above,

Founded in December 1980 by designer Ettore Sottsass — known for his red Olivetti Valentine typewriter — and several like-minded colleagues, the movement made a deliberate attempt to disrupt the austere, clean lines of the 70s with work they described as “radical, funny, and outrageous.” They flaunted what had been considered “good taste” with abandon. Memphis design shows Bauhaus influences — though it rejected the “strict, straight lines of modernism,” notes Curbed. It taps the anarchic spirit of Dada, without the edgy, anarchist politics that drove that movement. It is mainly characterized by its use of laminate flooring materials on tables and lamps and the “Bacterio print,” the squiggle design which Sottsass created in 1978 and which became “Memphis’s trademark pattern.”

Memphis design shared with modernism another quality early modernists themselves fully embraced: “Nothing was commercially successful at the time,” says Barbara Radice, Sottsass’s widow and Memphis group historian. But David Bowie and Karl Lagerfield were early adopters, and the group’s 80s work eventually made them stars. “We came from being nobodies,” says designer Martine Bedin. By 1984, they were celebrated by the city of Memphis, Tennessee and given the key to the city. “They were waiting for us at the airport with a band,” Bedin remembers. “It was completely crazy.” The Memphis Group had officially changed the world of art, architecture, and design. The following year, Sottsass left the group, and it formally disbanded in 1987, having left its mark for decades to come.

By the end of the 80s, Memphis’ look had become pop culture wallpaper, informing the sets, titles, and fashions of TV staples like Saved by the Bell, which debuted in 1989. “Although their designs didn’t end up in people’s homes,” notes Vox — or at least not right away — “they inspired many designers working in different mediums.” Find out above how “everything from fashion to music videos became influenced” by the loud, playful visual vocabulary of the Memphis Group artists, and learn more about the designers of “David Bowie’s favorite furniture” here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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