Some Thoughts on the Empty Heart of Modernism

by James Stevens Curl (March 2019)

Interior of the Pantheon, Rome, Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1732


As we ought to know from what happened in the aftermath of the 1914-18 War, throwing everything out and starting again is not necessarily a great idea, either architecturally or politically. I do not think any rational person would now accept that the ‘successor-states’ of that rather wonderful invention, Kakania (from K. und K. [Kaiserlich und Königlich], meaning the Austro-Hungarian Empire),[1] were roaring, stable successes, and we know what happened to architecture when millennia of experience, knowledge, and rich, infinitely adaptable languages were all dumped in favour of nihilism, pidgin-speak, and deliberate ugliness. I, for one, abhor that one of the most civilised entities in Europe, producing marvellous architecture, art, music, poetry, opera, literature, artefacts of all kinds, not to mention potable wine and edible food, was replaced with the horrors that led to the cruel totalitarian disasters of National Socialism and repressive Communism.
When I was last in the Kapuzinergruft (Crypt of the Capuchin Church) in Vienna, I stood beside the newish sarcophagus of the Archduke Otto (1912-2011), who would have been Kaiser and King (he was the son of the last Kaiser/König Karl I & IV [r.1916-18][2] and Kaiserin/Königin Zita[3]), had not the Monarchy collapsed in 1918. I reflected that the last time I was as close to him was in Jervaulx, Yorkshire, UK, many years ago, when we were dining at adjacent tables, and fell into conversation. He was one of the most intelligent and civilised men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting: well-read and -educated, extremely courteous, fluent in several tongues (remember that the Kakanian Army had to print the standing orders for the troops in eleven languages), urbane, with imagination (sadly lacking in the apparatchiks who seem to be in charge everywhere these days), excellent taste, able to discriminate (sharp intakes of breath all round) between the dross and the treasures, valuing tradition without being hidebound, and possessing both probity and flexibility. I recently reviewed a huge tome, entitled Vienna 1900, and therein is a photograph of Otto von Habsburg as a little boy, with the old Kaiser/König Franz Josef (r.1848-1916). This tenuous link I have with that vanished Empire moves me deeply, for it is something on which to ponder: much of that old world seems to have profound lessons for us today.
Beware of throwing everything out: something far worse will take its place.
I am steeped in church music, architecture, liturgies, detail, etc., and abhor the deplorable tendencies among contemporary clergy to reposition themselves as apparatchiks of the social services, jettisoning what they have the effrontery to call ‘redundant plant’ (i.e. church buildings, furnishings, screens, monuments, vestments, and even chancels): some even liken their iconoclasm to ‘slum-clearances’. They think this will make everything ‘more relevant to Youth’, and so turn the great, mellifluous language of the liturgies into something that sounds like the Dearing[4] Report on Further/Higher Education, a catatonic piece of cant if ever I read one. I do not notice ‘Youf’ in its hordes streaming into the sad, dreary, stripped buildings from which all beauty and dignity have been expunged. One does not need to be a fanatic, a religious maniac, or even a convinced Believer to be able to observe that all is not well, and that the ‘Plot’ is being lost. I can remember when Sir Ninian Comper’s[5] exquisite designs for screens, reredoses, church furnishings, etc., were routinely damned by the likes of Nikolaus Pevsner[6] as ‘irrelevant’, and Dykes Bower’s[7] finely-wrought designs for churches were also arrogantly dismissed because they drew on craftsmanship, learning, scholarship, and could not be viewed through Bauhaus-approved spectacles, so his work, too, was either ignored or denounced, while some meaningless piece of tat (which has not survived the test of time) was praised to the skies. Beautiful churches, finely furnished, where dignified liturgies accompanied with music that elevates and enhances, can give solace, nourishing the mind and restoring equipoise. The meaningless, undignified drivel of the pen-pushing bureaucrat, with the occasional twanging guitar as accompaniment, in a setting resembling a National Health waiting-room provided by the Farewell State, will not do anything except increase despair, impoverish on every level, and destroy any vestige of possibilities for devotion or meaningful reflection. Without such uplifting experiences, in places that transcend the banal, there is little hope for humanity at all. Deep thought in quiet places of great beauty, dignity, and solemnity, can help us to regain something lost: squalor, be it hygienic, moral, intellectual, material, or aesthetic, pushes us further away from that which elevates and brings peace, and squalor, in quantity, is largely what Modernism, in its many forms, has brought us.
As I say in my Making Dystopia, the jettisoning of the unmeasurable in Modernism has been a catastrophe: Cost-Benefit Analysis is the prototypical weapon of the unimaginative bureaucrat, from which all unmeasurable data are omitted. I am fully aware of the difficulties inherent in trying to argue for a spiritual dimension, for beauty (which the modernists will, of course, dismiss as ‘relative’, and therefore discount completely), for giving meaning to architecture, and so on. But to dump everything, including the legacy of religion, I reckon leads to disaster, just as it did in the 1930s and 40s. I am very afraid we are heading that way again, and this time I think it could well be an awful lot worse, as I do not detect any coherent, powerful forces capable of resistance. All seems to me to be cloudy, full of instant meaningless sound-bites, obsessions with pointless ‘celebrities’, and foolishness on all sides, not to mention the devaluation of education by means of rampant inflation of grades and expectations, and much else on which I have written.[8]
Recently, the British magazine, Prospect, issue 275 (March 2019), published a ‘duel’ between Barnabas Calder, an enthusasistic supporter of ‘Brutalism’, and myself: the proposition was ‘Has modern architecture ruined Britain?’ I did not like the question, as any work of architecture, realised today, is obviously ‘modern’, and that does not necessarily mean it is rotten architecture, although more often than not, unfortunately, new buildings are truly dreadful, ignoring their contexts, and could never be described as ‘architecture’ at all by any thinking person. My opening salvo stated that any visitors to these islands (meaning the British Isles, Atlantic Archipelago, or what ever other term is acceptable in these dreary PC times) who have eyes to see will observe that there is hardly a town or city that has not had its streets—and skyline—wrecked by insensitive, crude, post-1945 additions which ignore established geometries, urban grain, scale, materials, and emphases. Such structures, I went on, were ‘designed’ by persons indoctrinated in ‘schools of architecture’ in ways that made them incapable of creating structures that did not cause immense damage and offend the eye, the sensibilities, and the spirit. Harmony with what already exists was never a consideration for those monsters, as it was not for their teachers: following the lead of ‘Le Corbusier’ (as Swiss-French ‘architect’ Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris [1887-1965] called himself, in line with other persons with totalitarian tendencies such as Stalin, Lenin, and Molotov), they have, on the contrary, done everything possible to create buildings incompatible with anything that came before. It seems that the ability to destroy a townscape or a skyline was the only way they have been able to make their marks. Can anyone point to a town in Britain that has been improved aesthetically by Modernist buildings? Look at the repellent stuff inflicted on numerous cities by the infamous John Poulson (1910-93) and some of his bent cronies (from the 1950s until they were jailed in 1974). How has this catastrophe been allowed to happen? A series of totalitarian doctrinaires reduced the infinitely adaptable languages of real architectural design to an impoverished pidgin-vocabulary of monosyllabic grunts. Those destroyers rejected the past so that everyone had to start from scratch, reinventing the wheel and confining their design clichés to a few approved banalities. Today, architecture is dominated by so-called ‘stars’ , and becomes more bizarre, egotistical, unsettling, restless, and expensive, ignoring context and proving stratospherically remote from the aspirations and needs of ordinary humanity. Their alienating works, inducing grave unease, are without exception, inherently dehumanising and visually repulsive. I pointed out that this was imposed because of irrational Modernist beliefs inculcated by a process of brainwashing in so-called ‘schools of architecture’.
Of course Calder and many who think like him, loving concrete (the most widely-used substance on earth, even though the cement-industry is causing massive environmental problems not just in its manufacture, but in many other ways as well, including spectacular failures of concrete structures),[9] abetted by journalists who think they can write a little, and by an architectural ‘profession’ with vested interests in continuing on the path to dystopian ruination, are all in denial. They are incapable of engaging in proper debate, but fall back to imagining ‘fury’, ‘hate-mongering’, ‘rage’, and other nonsenses while indulging in cheap, sneering abuse.

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The Prospect ‘duel’ ended with votes cast 65% (636) for my arguments that Modernist architecture HAS wrecked Britain, versus 35% (341) votes by those incapable of connecting their optic nerves to their brains, so desensitised are they to what has happened. And that desensitisation was deliberate: when people can no longer see, and are conditioned to accept the ugly, the threatening, the dystopian horrors unleashed on us all, the possibilities for any charlatan to impose what ever he or she likes on us are hugely improved, and with them the vast profits accruing from  creating hell on earth. When more than half of the votes cast in such a ‘duel’ are by those who cannot actually see that anything is seriously wrong, or, if they can, and they either do not care, or think it is fine, because of their own vested interests, to continue on the paths of destruction, society is in very much more serious trouble than even I had previously thought. It means, I am afraid, that the unassuming, the whimsical, the delightful, the gentle, the spiritual, the peaceful, the true, have all been consigned to oblivion, and that only the Spectacle, the Celebrity, the Moneybags, the Dystopian, the Vile Uglifiers have any future in a world hopelessly corrupted and besmirched deliberately, for reasons of cheap sensations and obscene profit.
That, in essence, sums up my respect for tradition, for what we have that is valuable, and for what I do not think we should ignore. I would emphasise that I am not preaching: just reflecting, somewhat pessimistically, on what I see and hear around me. Unless there is a complete reversal, a change-around, and re-education, the world will become an ever more unpleasant and violent place.

[1] Robert Musil (1880-1942) referred to Kakania in his gigantic novel, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities), published 1930, 1933, and 1943, which chronicles the last years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
[2] Karl von Habsburg (1887-1922), Kaiser Karl I of Austria, and King IV Károly of Hungary (r.1916-18).
[3] Zita of Bourbon-Parma 1892-1989.
[4] Named after Ronald Ernest Dearing (1930-2009—created Baron Dearing of Kingston upon Hull in 1998).
[5] Sir John Ninian Comper (1864-1960), eminent Scots-born ecclesiastical architect.
[6] Sir Nikolaus Berhard Leon Pevsner (1902-83), German-born architectural historian, given to viewing everything through those Bauhaus-tinted spectacles, thanks to his embarrassing adulation of  Walter Gropius (1883-1969).
[7] Stephen Ernest Dykes Bower (1903-94), eminent English church-architect.
[8] James Stevens Curl (2019): ‘Onwards and Downwards’ in The Jackdaw 144 (March/April) 16; James Stevens Curl (2019): Review of The New Idea of a University by Duke Maskell & Ian Robinson in The Jackdaw 144 (March/April) 24.

James Stevens Curl is a leading architectural historian, and read for his Doctorate at University College London. He was twice Visiting Fellow at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge, and is a Member of the Royal Irish Academy, a Fellow of the Societies of Antiquaries of London and of Scotland, and a Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. His most recent books are Oxford Dictionary of Architecture (with contributions on landscape from Susan Wilson), 2015, and Making Dystopia, 2018, both published by Oxford University Press and it recently was announced he won the The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art's 2019 Arthur Ross Award for Excellence in the Classical Tradition in History & Writing.

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1 Mar 2019
Send an emailtraeh
Would have liked to see the author critique specific buildings, and use images. ------------------------ I find several things wrong with much "modernism" in architecture and art. At the same time, I can see that modernists were striving for something real; but I don't think they quite knew what. The same can be said of abstraction in painting. The painters were reaching for something but for the most part had no clear idea of what or how to get there. ------------------------ "Modern" artists in both fields, architecture and painting, had instinctively or consciously come to the view that "art" could no longer mean mere representation, repetition, or reproduction. "Creation" had to mean something more than copying nature, imitating already existing things, or reproducing the appearance of visible objects. So modernists tended to reject everything that smacked of representation or figurative work. ------------------------ What was left, unfortunately, was a void they apparently did not know how to fill. But since artists had not previously proposed a void as "art," they and the art critics decided the new emperor was beautifully clothed. They were right to try to transcend mere representation, but what they put in its place was often still actually just representation though it seemed to them to be non-representative because what was represented was almost nothing, and was nothing identifiable. They had merely impoverished representation, not found something actually transcending it. Knowingly or not, they were looking for a real non-physical world of real, living, creative spiritual beings and processes. They were looking for a real spiritual world to express, not for mere abstractions. ------------------------ In modernist and post-modernist architecture, one problem is that architectural form tends toward two sterile extremes. One either gets lots of dead boxes, right angles, and perhaps some rather abstract curves. Or else one gets wildly chaotic forms, like some of Frank Gehry's buildings. I seem to remember structures of his that look like someone crumpled up a gigantic piece of paper. Both extremes -- the abstract geometric and the chaotic random -- lack a feel for living, higher order processes, forms, and transformations. ------------------------ Boxes, for example, are composed of straight lines, which merely repeat themselves along their whole length. One right angle is identical with another. A square plane is a seemingly "flat" surface that imitates the absence of a third dimension. That appearance of "flatness" is a type of uniformity, i.e., repetition all across the plane's surface. So a building made of rectangles and boxes is to that extent a conglomeration of repetitions and in that sense dead. Meanwhile, a choatic Gehry building -- and I don't know all his works, perhaps some are not chaotic -- looks as though such "form" as it has is random and accidental and barely form at all. While his work is novel and a relief from dead rectilinear buildings, Gehry's chaos too is more or less dead. That which is alive is not chaotic. That which is alive is in metamorphosis, and metamorphosis is highly if rather mysteriously orderly and constantly reduces disorder and entropy. ------------------------ Living order must unify opposites. Neither chaos nor rectilinear box shapes, nor forms that can be unambiguously characterized as "curves" or as "straight lines" or as "angles," unify opposites, or they do that so slightly that they must be considered essentially static, dead. I say that merely to describe, not to disparage. ------------------------ What very few architects seem to care to do or perhaps to know how to do is create truly metamorphic forms, forms that incorporate all the formal opposites into a single mobile continuous process, a true dynamic unity, whereas non-metamorphic forms merely juxtapose formal elements and result at best in aesthetic aggregations. Aggregations may be pleasing and attractive and constitute a unity of sorts, but not a deeper unity. ------------------------ Furthermore, it seems worth noting that forms that truly unify opposites do not create order by rejecting chaos. Instead, metamorphic order fully integrates chaos by incorporating the maximum diversity of polar opposite qualities. What metamorphosis can do to unify and order opposites can be further ordered by means of bi-lateral symmetry. ------------------------ In any case, very few seem to know how to let a curve metamorphose gradually into a series of almost straight lines joined by gentle angles, or how to get from the angular to the curved. Or how to cause the convex in a building to flow into the concave, and vice versa. Instead, architects generally only set such qualities side by side. Consequently buildings looks like a (perhaps beautiful) collection of parts assembled (perhaps beautifully). So no deeper inner continuity is perceptible flowing over the whole surface of the building. The architect is satisfied if he has arranged his static juxtaposed abstractions in a way that might be aesthetically pleasing. But life and spirit really only begins to appear if one kind of formal quality is shaped so as to metamorphose into another, one opposite into another. ------------------------ This does not mean that someone like Gaudi is the lodestar. I would argue that his buildings, as lovely as they in some respects are, in one respect mistake uniformity for unity. With uniformity no metamorphosis is present because only a single element is involved and thus no tensions or differences need to be unified. In Gaudi's case, everything tends to be flow and curve. Though his flowing curves are in one sense not at all standardized or uniform, in another important sense they are uniform, namely in that they neglect the opposite quality, namely angularity and discontinuity. To get fully beyond uniformity and achieve real unity, Gaudi would have had to find a way to gently metamorphose flow and curve into discontinuity and angularity, and vice versa. In a way the most difficult and counter-intuitive kind of metamorphosis is that between the flowing curve and the angular break. We tend to assume that metamorphosis has a purely continuous and flowing character, but that is a half truth. In sculptural form, metamorphosis means finding ways to merge continuity and discontinuity, the flowing curve and the angular break. If it seems hard to imagine how continuity and discontinuity can be one thing, consider the transition between, say, orange and red in a spectrum. There is no discernible sharp break. Yet it is not a continuum. It could be called a discontinuum perhaps. That is part of the mystery of transformation, and of death, and of rebirth. Death is real. Yet death like every other change is really transformation, and thus not merely an end. Insofar as death is transformation, death also means rebirth. ------------------------ With metamorphic sculptural forms, the form will often be impossible to refer to as either pure flowing curve, or as a collection of straight edges joined at angles. If instead, for example, one combines gentle angles, one can approximate a flowing curve. The form is then no longer either curved or angular. It becomes a sculptural synthesis of those opposites, a series of not exactly straight, but instead gently curved lines with gentle angles joining them, so that you really have a metamorphic negotiation between the curved and the angular. ------------------------ A virtue of sculptural metamorphosis is that every point of a form can be unique and unstandardized. Every point is a transitional form between two or more other surrounding forms. Every part of the surface is thus uniquely shaped. Metamorphosis means one cannot just drop in a circle here, and right angle there or assemble the building with prefab abstractions. One must undertake unique formative negotiations between polar qualities at every point of the form. Every form becomes an image of becoming, the coming into being of the new. ------------------------ Only metamorphic forms really begin to make visible the living spirit and go beyond "representation." But the formal richness of metamorphosis need not overwhelm the observer with chaotic complexity, since formative processes can be relatively minimalist in style or comparatively baroque and efflorescent, and in either case can be combined with bi-lateral symmetry. The most alive, complex, highest form of which we are aware, the human one, possesses bilateral symmetry. ------------------------ One other point against much of modernism in architecture is the often narrow concept of "function." Form should follow function, but function should not be conceived in the modernist way as mainly physical or utilitarian or economic. Also, and perhaps more important, what are the spiritual and human functions the building serves? A building's form should express or suggest in some way what people do there.

1 Mar 2019
Ben Havers
You stated what I think everytime I venture out in the city!

23 Mar 2019
Pappy LePhew
In accord with his last sentence, would be interesting to see commenter traeh's blueprint for a bordello.

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