Architectural Dystopia: A Book Review

by Theodore Dalrymple (October 2018)

1968 photo of Tower East Building in Shaker Heights, Ohio, designed by Walter Gropius (from his archives)



Of course, in certain fields the latest is inclined to be best. For example, no one would wish to be treated surgically using the methods of Sir Astley Cooper: but if we want modern treatment, it is not because it is modern but because it better as gauged by pretty obvious criteria. If it were worse (as very occasionally it is), we should not want it, however modern it were.


Alas, the idea of progress has infected important spheres in which it has no proper application, particularly the arts. It is difficult to overestimate the damage that the gimcrack notion of teleology inhering in artistic endeavour has inflicted on all the arts, exemplified by the use of the term avant-garde: as if artists were, or ought to be, soldiers marching in unison to a predetermined destination. If I had the power to expunge a single expression from the vocabulary art criticism, it would be avant-garde.


In this scholarly, learned but also enjoyably polemical book, Professor Curl recounts both the history and devastating effects of architectural modernism. In no field of human endeavour has the idea that history imposes a way to create been more destructive, or more importantly destructive: for while we can take avoiding action against bad art or literature, we cannot avoid the scouring of our eyes by bad architecture. It is imposed on us willy-nilly and we are impotent in the face of it. Modern capitalism, it has been said, progresses by creative destruction; modern architecture imposes itself by destructive creation.


Their intellectual dishonesty was startling and would have been laughable had it not been more destructive than the Luftwaffe. When they claimed to have no style because their designs were imposed on them by history, technology, social necessity, functionality, economy etc., and like Luther proclaimed they could do no other (which soon became the demand that others could do no other also), they remind me of the logical positivists who claimed to have no metaphysic. But if no given style or metaphysic is beyond the choice of he who has it, to possess a style or a metaphysic is inescapable in the activity of artistic creation or thought itself. And even my handwriting has a style, albeit a bad one.


In like fashion, as this book makes beautifully clear, the modernists were adept at claiming both that their architecture was a logical development to and aesthetic successor of classical Greek architecture and utterly new and unprecedented. The latter, of course, was nearer the mark: they created buildings that, not only in theory but in actual practice, were incompatible with all that had gone before, and intentionally so. Any single one of their buildings could, and often did, lay waste a townscape, with devastating consequences. What had previously been a source of pride for inhabitants became a source of impotent despair. Corbusier’s books are littered with references to the Parthenon and other great monuments of architectural genius: but how anybody can see anything in common between the Parthenon and the Unité d’habitation (an appellation that surely by itself ought to tell us everything we need to know about Corbusier), other than that both are the product of human labour, defeats me.


But of course, nothing will come of nothing: architectural modernism has a pre-history just as it has its baleful successors. Professor Curl traces both with panache and erudition and shows that the almost universally accepted history of modernism is actually assiduous propaganda rather than history, resulting not merely in untruth but the opposite of the truth. Thus both William Morris and C F A Voysey were claimed by apologists for modernism as progenitors of it, though this is fantastically unlikely to anyone with eyes to see, and Voysey explicitly detested modernism, among other things saying that it was pitifully full of faults and vulgarly aggressive. Nevertheless, Pevsner, the great architectural historian, who once called for architecture to be totalitarian, insisted that Voysey was a precursor of modernism, thus implying that he knew better what Voysey was about that Voysey himself knew.


The widely accepted narrative of modernism à la Gropius is that it was some kind of logical or ineluctable development from the Arts and Crafts movement. This seems to me utterly fantastic: it is like saying that Mickey Spillane is a logical or ineluctable outgrowth of Montesquieu. It is true that in the work of certain artists, for example Mondrian, one can see a gradual change which might be considered logical, starting from figurative landscapes and ending, via ever greater abstraction, to purely geometric shapes. But even where there is such a development, it is ultimately beside the point: it does not prove that what came later was better. Each artistic product has to be assessed aesthetically on its own merits (which in architecture includes its harmony with an existing townscape), and only someone who sees with an ideology rather than with eyes could conclude anything other than that modernism has been overwhelmingly a disaster.


Moreover, claiming respectable ancestors is somewhat at variance with equal claims to be starting from zero (as Gropius put it), but such a contradiction is hardly noticed by the grand narrative history of modernism that Professor Curl attacks and destroys.


Finding refuge in America, Mies quickly perceived that the power of patronage of megalomaniac building lay with giant corporations rather than with fascists or communists and persuaded many of them to build his preternaturally inhuman and uninspired monstrosities. By a strange quirk of history, and because of mankind’s perpetual propensity to make logical errors, Mies was able to pose dishonestly as anti-totalitarian and even as a friend of freedom precisely because he had fled Nazi Germany where they hadn’t patronised him. He was fortunate that soon afterwards the United States had another totalitarian enemy, the Soviet Union. Mies and his allies were thus able to claim that his totalitarian modernism was actually a manifestation of western freedom. There are many such ironies pointed up in this book that would be delicious had they not had such appalling consequences.


Corbusier was a fascist in the most literal sense of the word, and early during the Occupation advocated the removal by force of the majority of Paris’ population because it had no business to be living there. Can one wonder that a man with thoughts like that built monstrosities?


To the question of the secondary causes Professor Curl returns a complex answer. Secularism and the loss of all religious sentiment has favoured the meretricious. Modernism was from the very first a cult, a substitute religion, but one with political nous, such that it insinuated its believers, à la Gramsci, into architectural schools and architectural publications and would brook no opposition or criticism once in control. This control persists: still in France, and no doubt elsewhere, a man can risk his career by expressing a doubt about Corbusier’s genius, let alone by criticising his manifest nastiness and incompetence. The modernists and their praise singers such as Pevsner instituted a kind of intellectual reign of terror in which those who did not share their views were regarded as reactionary bumpkins or even cretins. But who can look at Lutyens’ buildings in New Delhi, for example, and think that?


There is another factor that Professor Curl rightly emphasises: corporate corruption. Architects who presented themselves as building a revolutionary brave new world were also lining their capacious old pockets, while they served the interests of the building and car industries, among many others. In the post-war world, the car became the measure of all things, and moving by car unimpeded was a proxy measure of efficiency, wealth and modernity. Roads became more important than houses, streets or amenities, which were destroyed in the worship of this new golden calf. The Corbusian dream of speed swiftly evolved into the nightmare of traffic jam, one of the many blights of modern existence.


Professor Curl’s is a very painful book to read. In one sense his targets are easy for, as the photos amply demonstrate, modernist architecture and its successors are so awful that it scarcely requires any powers of judgment to perceive it. It is like seeing a TV evangelist and knowing at once that he is a crook. Yet modernist architecture, despite its patent hideousness and inhumanity, still has its defenders, especially in the purlieus of architectural schools. Moreover, the population has been browbeaten into believing that there was never any alternative, and it is obvious that to undo the damage would take decades, untold determination and vast expenditure. Removing the Tour Montparnasse alone would probably cost several billion. No one is prepared to make this colossal effort.


What Walter Godfrey wrote in 1954 is debatable:


It is not an exaggeration to say that nine men out of ten have lost all sensitiveness to an art that was once a matter of common interest.


If this is true, it is because they have learned to accept, or swallow what they are given. The epidemiology of graffiti, however, suggests to me that, at least subliminally, men still take notice of their surrounding and are affected by them: defacement is overwhelmingly of hideous Corbusian surfaces, that is to say on what Corbusier called ‘my friendly concrete’.


As for the architects and their acolytes, the architectural commentators, they hide behind the claim that most people do not ‘understand’. They claim that modernist architecture is better than it looks or functions, that it is ‘honest’, a weaselly word in this context. The architects cannot recognise the obvious for the same reason that Macbeth could not stop murdering once he had started:


I am in blood
Stepped in so far that should I wade no more
Returning were as tedious as to go o’re


Professor Curl has written an essential, uncompromising, learned, sometimes slightly densely, critique of one of the worst and most significant legacies of the 20th century. He offers a slight glimmer of hope in the existence of architects who, bravely, have resisted the blandishments of celebrity status and the approbation of their corrupted peers. His book has a wonderful bibliography, the fruit of a lifetime of reading and reflection, that will give me occupation for a long time to come. It is a loud and salutary clarion call to resist further architectural fascism.



This review was originally published in The Jackdaw (London, UK) Sept/Oct 2018, pages 14-15. Reprinted by permission.


Related essays on architecture published in New English Review:

August 2011 (D. Hamilton) Tumbledown Architecture

The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism

November 2012 (T. Dalrymple) Ancient and/or Modern

March 2013 (T. Dalrymple) Destructive Creation

Reductionism Undermines Both Science and Culture

Intellectual [dis]Honesty in Architecture

January 2017 (T. Dalrymple) A Modern Machu Picchu

March 2017 (T. Dalrymple) Modernist Architecture is Inherently Totalitarian

Shark leaps inland to housing estate – global warming or Brexit?

January 2018 (N. Salingaros) Dimensions of Failure: A Review of Le Corbusier, the Dishonest Architect



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