Culture shield

In the New York Times, Alexandra Lange carries out a fascinating exercise – asking seven leading architects (Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, Annabelle Selldorf, Ada Tolla, Norman Foster, Amanda Levette and Vincent Van Duysen) to justify seven of the “world’s most hated buildings.”

Needless to say, all seven edifices are in the modernist style, but given that the architectural profession is dominated by modernism, one would surely expect its leading exponents to mount a compelling defence.

With the partial exception of Foster and Levette, they fail to do so. However, their arguments are still instructive, revealing a great deal about the modernist mentality.

One of the common threads is the elevation of the abstract:

“It’s legendary for being the most hated building in Paris. I want to defend it not because it’s a particularly beautiful tower, but because of the idea it represents…” (Libeskind)

“…the beauty is in its austerity. There are no additions to make it polite or cute. It is what it is.” (Hadid)

“Against my better judgment, I like this complex. It’s sculptural, architectural abstraction to the extreme.” (Selldorf)

Abstraction has its place – in modern art that no one is forced to look at or an experimental novel that no one has to read; but when applied to a building, the experiment is carried out on people who must live with it (or in it).

Sometimes the impression given is that only modernism can deliver objectives that are in fact achievable with less brutal forms of architecture. Consider Vincent Van Duysen’s defence of the Pompidou Centre in Paris:

“…the building has this democratic purpose because it attracts how many millions every year. I couldn’t take my eyes off it when I was studying architecture. It reversed the typical model of a museum into something that was engaging and inviting to the public.”

Are the “typical” museums of, say, Kensington really so uninviting?

In his defence of the Tour Montparnasse (another Parisian blot on the townscape), Daniel Libeskind admits that it is “not a work of genius”, but insists that “we have no choice but to build good high-rise buildings that are affordable.” Yet we do have other options. The work of Create Streets shows that we can provide the space we need using traditional and harmonious patterns of development.

A third type of justification is more of an excuse, which is that supposedly brilliant modernist designs are let down by poor execution and inadequate maintenance. For instance, here’s Ada Tolla on the Vele di Scampia – a notorious post-war housing project in Naples:

“It wasn’t built as specified; value-engineering changed the structure and reduced the interior courtyards, therefore limiting the amount of light. None of the planned public spaces, amenities, schools or offices were ever constructed. The buildings were squatted even before completion…”

That is indeed unfortunate. It’s also an extreme example of a familiar pattern: modern architecture that looks fine on the drawing board, and even when newly built, but which doesn’t stand the test of time. This can’t be blamed on bad management alone – disorder is inevitable and modernist buildings, with their blank faces and unforgiving lines, are inherently vulnerable to it.

The fragility of the style should have been obvious, but the advocates of post-war modernism refused to see it. As Tolla says of the Vele di Scampia “the complex was very positive, optimistic and progressive”:

“The urban planning for the development of the area also testifies to that optimism, with all the roads named after leftist, Socialist or Marxist Italian figures.”

Some of us would regard that as less of a hopeful sign and more of an ample warning.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.