Less is more —  Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Less is a bore — Robert Venturi

In a recent post, Alex Tabarrok discussed the problem of modern architecture.  Why do architects no longer produce the sort of beautiful old buildings that we see in many European cities? Alex cites an article by Samuel Hughes, which dismisses one popular explanation—the theory that rich ornamentation is increasingly costly, especially as there are fewer craftsmen trained to produce beautiful sculptural details.  Hughes shows that this explanation doesn’t hold, and that modern technology would allow for ornamentation to be produced at relatively low cost.  Instead, he makes a sort of “market failure” argument.  Ugly, boring and sterile buildings have been foisted on the public by a group of elite intellectuals back in the 1920s:

to exaggerate a little, it really did happen that every government and every corporation on Earth was persuaded by the wild architectural theory of a Swiss clockmaker [Le Corbusier] and a clique of German socialists, so that they started wanting something different from what they had wanted in all previous ages. It may well be said that this is mysterious. But the mystery is real, and if we want to understand reality, it is what we must face.

In this post, I’ll argue that there is no market failure.  In some sense, modernism is what the public actually desires.  And not just in architecture, but in almost all aspects of life.

Hughes’s theory is not new.  Back in 1981 Tom Wolfe made a similar argument in From Bauhaus to Our House.  Unfortunately for Wolfe, the “problem” was not confined to architecture, and thus he had to write another book (The Painted Word) explaining why beautiful old styles of realistic painting were being replaced with abstract art.  Here are a couple examples from the Netherlands.

In the case of architecture, tourists generally prefer the more richly ornamented old buildings of Amsterdam to the modernist edifices of Rotterdam, which replaced buildings destroyed in WWII.  But buildings are not built for tourists, they are built for residents and workers.

Even two Tom Wolfe books are not enough to fully explain modernism, which has affected (infected?) virtually all areas of contemporary life.  A person with absolutely no education in art theory can immediately recognize the difference between more complex and ornamented traditional styles and more simple and streamlined modern styles.  Thus, consider how Coca-Cola containers have evolved over time:


Even the name has been simplified: “Coke”.  I’ll show that a similar change has occurred in almost all areas of life.  But first we need to clarify a few concepts.  People often contrast the “modern” with more “classical” styles.  Here classical means “from the past”.  But art historians are more likely to use the term classical to represent a simple, elegant and symmetrical structure, whereas romanticism represents various forms of complex, asymmetrical and highly ornamented structures.

The British Houses of Parliament were built in the mid-1800s, whereas the Jefferson Memorial was built in the 1940s.  But the Jefferson Memorial is classical whereas the Houses of Parliament are a form of romanticism (specifically neo-gothic.)  Indeed Brazil’s ultra-modern government buildings (see below) are much more “classical” than Pugin’s 19th century masterpiece.

Tabarrok and Hughes are correct that in at least some respects people prefer more traditional styles of architecture.  Consider San Francisco’s famous “painted ladies”:

But traditionalists understate the degree to which modern styles have impacted even residential choices of consumers.  More than 100 years ago, Frank Lloyd Wright revolutionized architecture by replacing vertically oriented boxy houses full of strictly separated rooms with a more free flowing horizontal style where the public rooms seamlessly flow into each other.  Few people are rich enough to afford a masterpiece like the Martin House in Buffalo, but Wright’s approach influenced the postwar preference for “ranch houses” with big picture windows and open floor plans.

The term “painted ladies” is a reminder that modernism has also affected women’s fashions.  Back around 1900, wealthy women wore extremely ornate outfits.  By the 1920s, (the era of Le Corbusier), women’s fashions had greatly simplified—become more “modern”.  In his memoir entitled “The World of Yesterday”, Stefan Zweig sees this evolution as a positive change, and links it to wholesome changes in culture that allowed young men and women to socialize in a more natural and freer fashion.  Thus, old fashioned corsets and cumbersome dresses were a sort of metaphor for painfully restrictive social mores.

If it is really true that in architecture the old fashioned is beautiful and the modern is ugly, why doesn’t this also apply to women’s fashions?  Did Le Corbusier also force women to discard richly ornamented outfits and replace them with simple black dresses?  To be sure, there is a sense in which the Paris fin-de-siècle fashions were more beautiful than modern clothing.  But is this what women want today?  I don’t think so.  They want to be modern.  “That’s the style.”

How about autos?  Why do people now buy simple streamlined styles, not the more ornate styles of the 1940s?  I suppose you could argue that this partly reflects government fuel economy regulations, but there are too many other such examples to explain away.

I encourage people to go to an antique furniture store and look at all the richly ornamented (and often over-styled) items on display.  You’ll see things like massive oak tables with carved clawfoot legs and heavy dark wood cabinets.  Then walk out of the store and visit a furniture store with lighter Scandinavian teak wood designs.  The furniture will immediately seem more “modern”.  It will also seem more appealing to many people.  Did Le Corbusier also foist modern furniture on the public?  Was that streamlined furniture style forced by federal regulators?  Obviously not.  Why did consumers stop buying ornate silver teapots and switch to streamlined modern teapots?  The examples of our modern preference for simplicity are nearly endless.

The guy that said, “Less is a bore” also wrote a book entitled Learning from Las Vegas.  But isn’t one of the lessons of Vegas that it’s not easy to fit traditional styles to modern needs.  Las Vegas is an extraordinarily ugly city.  Surprisingly, however, it is least ugly when it is at its most modern.  The ugliest parts of the strip are places where traditional styles are ineptly pasted onto monstrous hotels containing 3000 rooms, whereas the least objectionable Vegas buildings are a few minimalist streamlined modernist towers such as the Aria hotel.  That’s not to say that buildings like the Bellagio are not interesting—as a tourist I’d much rather walk through its lobby than that of a sterile modern building.  But it doesn’t really work as architecture.  It’s much too big for its neo-Italian style.

This does not mean that traditional styles never work.  The headquarters for Epic Systems just outside Madison is full of fanciful buildings based on various fairy tales. In contrast, Apple headquarters in Silicon Valley is a sleek circle, much in the style of its consumer products.  In aesthetic terms, the Apple building is more successful.  But the Epic campus is probably more fun.  To each their own.  Companies have an incentive to use architecture that allows them to attract the desired workforce.

Nor would I suggest that the more recent is always better.  I prefer the best paintings of 1600-1670 or 1850-1925 over the best output of the past 100 years.  I prefer midcentury modern architecture over the post-modern architecture of the 1970s and 1980s.  I prefer the pop music of 1965-72 over the music of the past 7 years.  I prefer the films of 1950-1980 over those of the past 30 years.  Tastes vary, and your choices may differ.

But the fact that modernism has swept the field in such a wide range of areas suggests that it is not a market failure imposed by out of touch elite architects back in the 1920s.  It is the style that best fits the modern world.  And that’s true even if many of the older buildings are in some sense “better”.  I wouldn’t want Gerhard Richter or Anselm Kiefer to copy the style of Velazquez or Vermeer.  I wouldn’t want David Mamet to copy the style of Shakespeare.  I wouldn’t want Beyonce or Taylor Swift to copy the Beatles or Bob Dylan.  Each generation tries to find its own style.  That’s the market at work.