Some thoughts on modernism
Scott Alexander has a long post discussing why we build modern buildings that are ugly, rather than the sort of beautiful older buildings that were constructed in previous centuries. Tyler Cowen laments the fact that modern American residential neighborhoods are much less attractive than older residential neighborhoods.
At first glance, the two pieces might seem similar. But Cowen actually likes the sort of edgy modern architecture that Alexander dislikes. Here I’ll argue that Alexander is mixing up a bunch of issues that seem related, but are actually quite distinct.
Here are my claims:
1. Modern architecture can best be understood by considering three categories: single family home, mid-sized non-profit, and corporate buildings (including skyscrapers and Apple stores.) The mid-sized non-profit sector is where you see most of the “ugly” architecture that people dislike. As with all other art forms, the best architects have advanced to the point where average people can no longer appreciate their creations. It’s no different in serious novels, painting, classical music, poetry, art films, etc. There are a few “ugly” modern houses and “ugly” modern skyscrapers, but most individual people and for-profit corporations won’t pay for what they view as ugly. Edgy architects need the non-profits.
2. New residential construction in conservative towns is uglier than new construction in more liberal towns. Liberal Laguna Beach has nicer new construction than conservative Newport Beach. The difference is large, and is unrelated to whether the new houses are contemporary or traditional. This claim is based on hundreds of hours of observations. When I travel, my favorite activity is walking through random residential neighborhoods, looking at houses. Today, you can easily verify my claim using Zillow. Here is a modern home in Laguna Beach:
3. Most new houses in the modern style are more attractive than most new houses built in traditional styles. Modern architecture is not being foisted on the public. Rich people who build a new home along the ocean in La Jolla or Laguna Beach or Malibu have enough money to build an English Tudor, or a Georgian or a Gothic style house, but they usually prefer a modern design. It looks better. The best looking houses in Palm Springs are mid-century modern:
4. I’m going to sound like an insufferable snob, but richer people have better taste, on average. The fact that new $3 million homes are more attractive than new $600,000 homes is partly about the budget, but not entirely. Ugly $600,000 McMansions contain lots of awkward features like misplaced Palladian windows that actually add to the cost. It’s not all about the budget. America’s spectacular economic success has created a vast number of semi-rich people with bad taste. (Which is good!)
5. Alexander mixes up several unrelated issues in comparing modern architecture with older styles, such as buildings with and without lots of ornament, and edgy vs. graceful. Graceful modern buildings differ from edgy modern buildings in a way that has nothing to do with a lack of ornamental features such as intricate stone carving. There are lots of ugly older buildings that are full of ornament, and there are lots of beautiful modern buildings with a sort of classical simplicity. (And of course vice versa is true.)
Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building:
6. Skyscrapers are a sort of special case. Because of their scale, traditional styles don’t generally work very well. Chicago’s (gothic) Tribune Tower is fine, but China tried to build skyscrapers topped with traditional Chinese motifs and they were almost universally ugly. Art deco is a transitional style between traditional and modern. New York’s great art deco skyscrapers are beautiful, but today people want bigger windows. Would another Chrysler building plunked down in Miami have been better than Hadid’s new (post-modern) tower?
What else are Miami architects supposed to build? (The little art deco hotels in Miami Beach are wonderful, but do they scale?)
7. The elite vs. masses framing is not useful, as there are actually three important groups; the elite, the educated, and the uninterested. I’ll use an analogy from painting to illustrate my point. Let’s say that 1% of the public appreciates the paintings of de Kooning. Assume 10% like Van Gogh (that’s 33 million Americans). And assume that 90% don’t care enough about painting to even visit an art museum. What then? Which art is “popular”?
If you show everyone in the world a pretty painting by Bouguereau and a self-portrait of Van Gogh, most people will say the Bouguereau is better. But if you bring a Van Gogh exhibit to your local art museum, then 10 times as many people will show up as to an exhibit of Bouguereau. So which artist is “more popular”? That’s not even a question, as there is no clear definition of “popular”. Popular with everyone, or popular with people who look at paintings?
As an art form progresses, it gets more and more difficult for average people to appreciate the art works. That’s not a problem for painting, which the public can easily ignore. It is a problem for the Boston City Hall, which Tyler Cowen can appreciate but most people cannot. It’s in your face. It’s not one of the graceful “classical” examples of modernism.
To my eyes, brutalist architecture is more difficult that post-impressionism, but not as difficult as de Kooning. Maybe roughly as difficult as Jackson Pollack or Mark Rothko. Not a lot of individuals or corporations will choose difficult architecture, but a few will. Most often, it’s non-profits that go for this stuff, as with MIT’s decision to hire Frank Gehry to do one of their buildings:
To summarize, people struggle with this issue because they don’t realize that it’s actually multiple issues. For skyscrapers, the international style is the only thing that really meets our modern needs. When it comes to residential houses, it’s simply wrong to suggest that modern architecture is ugly. Modern style houses being built today are quite attractive, and the ugly houses being built today are mostly McMansions that try but fail to ape traditional styles of architecture. Some good traditional-styled houses are being built, mostly in liberal areas. Mid-sized buildings put up by non-profits are what most people visualize they think about “ugly” modern architecture. Some of this is in fact ugly, whereas in other cases it’s just difficult art that goes over the head of most people. Sometimes over my head. Time will tell.
I don’t entirely disagree with Alexander. Indeed, I actually have rather conservative taste in art, which might surprise readers of this post. I prefer Richardson, Sullivan and Wright to Gehry and Koolhaas. I often prefer older buildings. And I even like homes like the one below, which looks like 16th century Tuscany, but is actually 21st century Irvine, CA.
I just think it’s more complicated than simply old architecture is good and new architecture is bad.
PS. Here’s another example of how Alexander’s framing doesn’t work. We are told that modern music is ugly for most listeners. Not like the greats of the past. OK, would the average person prefer to listen to a composition by someone like John Williams or Andrew Lloyd Webber, or would they prefer to listen to one of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas?
The problem with modernism is not necessarily what you think it is.
PPS. To head off accusations of hypocrisy, I do live in a modern style home, but previously lived in a traditional style home. I just want my home to be attractive and useful.