What went wrong with architecture?


No. 31 - July 2008

            The Gare du quai d'Orsay [now the Musée d'Orsay], and the Grand Palais, are not architecture.

            Le Corbusier, Trois Rappels: Le Volume in Vers une Architecture (Grès, Paris,1925)

            Then Le Corbusier burst on the scene. His plan was to demolish Paris north of the Seine and to put all the people into glass boxes. Instead of                     dismissing this charlatan as the dangerous madman that he clearly was, the world of architecture hailed him as a visionary...

            Roger Scruton (1), Hail Quinlan Terry in The Spectator, 8 April 2006

            When I first arrived in the United States [in 1940] it was...still possible, in Massachusetts, to squelch an unusual proposal with the words ''It isn't                 done". No such code exists today; everything can be done and, most certainly, is being done. Our cities have taken on the look of a free-for-all...

            Walter Gropius, address given on his 80th birthday in Cambridge, Mass., May 1963 (see Apollo in the Democracy, McGraw-Hill, 1968)

            A certain kind of architecture - we call it barbaric - has been all the rage in recent years...it denies all the belles époques of history and, moreover,             is an insult to common sense and good taste.

            Henri-Paul Nénot (2), then president of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, in an interview with L'Intransigeant, 24 December 1927

            It seems to be forgotten, in architects' drawing-offices, that far more people see the outside of a building than its inside.

            A lost or forgotten art

            Do you know a city whose modern districts - those, shall we say, that are less than a century old - are as beautiful, as elegant, as attractive as its historic centre? If you know such a place, please tell me; I should be delighted to know of its existence.

            For in every city that I have visited, and there are many, it is always the old quarters that are interesting. Everywhere these havens of fine architecture, of good town planning, are surrounded by indifferent modern suburbs, without character; not necessarily unpleasant, but generally of little interest and sometimes downright hideous. Except where one finds a suburb which has been, perhaps still is, a town in its own right and has kept its old buildings; such as Hampstead or St-Germain-en-Laye.

            We seem to have lost, about a century ago, the ability or the willingness to create beautiful urban environments. Since ancient times, the bourgeoisie (in the original sense of the word) has known how to build fine bourgs. We are delighted to inherit the beauties of our medieval, Elizabethan, Queen Anne, Georgian, Victorian cities; but what beautiful new city developments are we going to leave to our successors?

            When you visit a town or a village that dates from the 18th century, you immediately appreciate the elegant lines and pleasing proportions of the buildings, be they grand or modest. It seems that, in those days, architects and builders quite naturally created houses, streets, public or commercial buildings, even factories or workshops, which had a certain easily-recognisable grace.

            In the nineteenth century, structures became heavier, less graceful, but it was still customary to create handsome buildings. The Second Empire (1852 - 1870) of Napoleon III gave us the Paris we know and love today, built under the supervision of Baron Haussmann, in all its splendour, its harmonious symmetry, its inimitable elegance

            However, since the First World War, we have fallen into a state of persistent, worldwide urban mediocrity. No modern street offers a panorama comparable to the Rue de Rivoli, built in the first half of the 19th century. Stone has given way to ugly concrete, woodwork to cold metal, architectural detail to flat, featureless surfaces, the symmetry of the fine streets of earlier centuries to ugly medleys of incongrous buildings. For most of the last century, town planning has been in a state of breakdown. Who, or what, is to blame?

            The rejection of tradition

            The architects of the Bauhaus (3) and their followers insisted that the beauties of historic architecture were totally irrelevant to the early 20th century. They therefore demanded the rejection of tradition and the relaunching of architecture from a tabula rasa. Le Corbusier, despite his contempt for the Gare d'Orsay and the Grand Palais, nonetheless admired the Hôtel des Invalides; that had been built in the 17th century, when its classical style was still valid. Orsay however, opened in 1900, was not of its time (though it was in keeping with then current fashion) and was therefore unacceptable. Useless to argue that, ever since the Renaissance, great architects have never been ashamed to copy Greek and Roman models. In the 20th century, 25 rather than merely 22, 23 or 24 centuries after the Parthenon, such practices could no longer be tolerated.

            Today, the British neo-classical architect Quinlan Terry (4) says that he enjoys working for American clients because...they have no moral hangups about building in an outdated style as they put it. Personally, I congratulate those clients on their good sense. But I ask myself, why on earth should anyone have moral hangups on this subject? If a style is good, if one loves it, then why not use it? The Greeks, the Romans, the builders of the Middle Ages, of the Renaissance, even of the 19th century, have no monopoly on their styles!

            The modernists' violent break with tradition led to the almost total rejection of an immense treasury of architectural knowledge and wisdom. Can we wonder that the results are deeply flawed, in both practical and aesthetic terms?

            Modernist and post-modernist (often highly eccentric) architecture continues to be built, but it is interesting to note that hardly anyone buys it on his own account. Nearly all such constructions are public or institutional buildings; those who commission them do not pay for them out of their own pockets, neither do they live in them.

            On the other hand, the new buildings that people buy with their own money, and live in themselves, are mostly more or less traditional. Look at the brochure of any housebuilder, you will see that most of the products on offer could, with a few minor differences, have been put up a century or even two centuries ago. Modernist architects have never really persuaded us to love their work. This makes them very angry with us; but can they blame us, if they will not design houses that we want to live in?

            Refusal to design new buildings compatible with their surroundings

            This refusal is clearly liked with the rejection of tradition. It also reflects the lack of a sense of community. The architect says, in effect: I don't care about the 18th or 19th century character of this district, I have to put up a new building here and I am going to express my modernist ideas, whether or not they sit well with their surroundings. I am not here for the good of the local community, to contribute to the harmony of the city; I am here to demonstrate my own originality. New architecture has no merit unless it reflects innovation and change. Like Frank Sinatra, I'm doing it my way.

            All that nonsense is a symptom of the prevalent exaggerated individualism, of the decline of the sense of community.

            The rejection of decoration

            Ornamentation is merely a finishing touch, also sprach Gropius (5) in 1911; never mind that the Art Nouveau movement, then still in fashion, had insisted on decoration as an integral part of any work of art or craft. After all, ever since the age of classical Greece it had been normal to make basic elements of buildings, such as columns and capitals, in decorative forms. But for the modernists, all decoration was odious, as Adolf Loos (6) announced in his famous essay Ornament and Crime of 1908. Decoration: a riot of glaring colours, an entertainment pleasing to savages!...as a people grows more cultivated, decoration disappears: thus thundered Le Corbusier (7) a few years later. Did he regard the Athenians of old as savages?

            The modernist hatred of ornament can be partly explained by the use of decoration, common in those days, to mask the poor quality of cheap products. Enlightened designers called for better products, stripped of deceptive décor; in a word, honest products. But how could this argument justify the total rejection of decoration? Surely it can have real aesthetic value; it is by no means merely a means of covering up faults.

            But the modernists, tired of the misuse of ornament and the wilder excesses of Art Nouveau, condemned all ornament absolutely; and their attitude has persisted throughout most of the 20th century. That is why the world is full of boring buildings with monotonous facades, without colour, without mouldings, without any kind of embellishment.

            The decline of public enthusiasm for fine buildings

            Today, we spend a lot on our interiors; we like them to be pleasant, convenient, luxurious, even sumptuous; but we seem not to care about the external appearance of our buildings. Le Corbusier complained (8), concerning the Paris Opera, that it was an 'outside' architecture, arguing that the pursuit of the style of Charles Garnier, its chief architect, could only lead to an architecture with everything on the outside and nothing within. His logic is hard to follow, since the inside of the Opera is magnificent.

            By contrast, modernist architecture is hardly interested at all in external beauty. Visit the new Opera at La Bastille, you will indeed see an 'inside' architecture; the interior of this building is by no means bad, it is practical and even pleasing; but the exterior is hideous. Visit the Centre Pompidou, or the Lloyds Building in London, if their grotesque facades do not put you off completely! There are certain recently-built luxury hotels which, viewed from the outside, could well be prisons.

            It seems to be forgotten, in architects' drawing-offices, that far more people see the outside of a building than its inside. Public opinion feebly tolerates the construction of innumerable buildings with no exterior merit. Sadly, we have allowed ourselves to be persuaded that no longer is anything better possible.

            The greed of property investors

            This problem seems, from the point of view of architecture and town planning, to be less significant than one might expect. Property speculators and greedy landlords have always been with us. The elegant and charming Palais Royal in Paris (not Richelieu's original palace, but the group of adjoining buildings that surrounds the garden) was built in 1781 - 86 by the Duke of Orléans (father of France's last king, Louis Philippe) as a speculative venture to help the extravagant Duke pay off his debts. The attractive Square d'Orléans (9), in its day home to Chopin, Georges Sand, the opera singer Pauline Viardot, Alexandre Dumas the elder and other celebrities, was developed during a period of intense speculation in that part of Paris. The great actress Mademoiselle Mars bought the property in 1841 for 250,000 gold francs and resold it in 1843 for 500,000 francs. Nothing new about this kind of thing!

            One might imagine that such financial manoeuvres would lead to shoddy buildings, constructed as cheaply as possible, of miserable quality. It wasn't necessarily so. The speculators of past centuries have left us some remarkably good buildings. Today, the converse seems more usual; grandiose projects, built with little regard to cost, turn out to be monstrosities. Some of the worst have been built by socialist or communist régimes. One finds ungracious modern suburbs equally in western and easterrn Europe.

            It seems that quality of architecture and planning has little to do with the prevailing economic régime. It is more a matter of public attitudes. Do we want to create beautiful buildings, or just functional structures? Do we have the sense of community that encourages the creation of harmonious streets and cities? Or are we egotists who just want to build what pleases, or enriches, ourselves, without regard to its affinity with our neighbours' buildings?

            Planning weaknesses

            Libertarian economists deny that it is even possible to define what is good for society. That is why they want to leave everything to the invisible, but also blind, hand of the market.

            But how can we create a beautiful city, if we can have no vision of the common good in terms of the architectural beauty, the convenience, the attractiveness, the charm that we see in well-designed cities? We cannot hope to achieve this by simply letting every property owner build whatever he fancies. We need good planning, of which we see the admirable results in Paris, in Dublin, in Venice, in Edinburgh, in St Petersburg; in all those fair cities that everyone wants to visit.

            And even in London, but only in those districts where wealthy, enlightened landowners have been able to regulate the development of large areas. London has not benefited from good planning, except on estates such as Mayfair and Belgravia, which belong to grand aristocratic families. In England, the doctrine of laisser-faire is too deeply entrenched to allow democratic planning authorities to provide streets of Parisian elegance. So, instead of strolling along the handsome Boulevard Haussmann, one has to do one's shopping in the disgusting dog's breakfast of Oxford Street.

            Libertarians claim that the free market always knows best and always leads to the best results. In the domain of city development, they are clearly wrong. Baron Haussmann, the Dukes of Westminster and the Earls of Cadogan have well and truly known better than the market.

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            1 Roger Scruton (born 1944) is a British writer and philosopher, professor at Cambridge (England). To read his fine article, go to link.

            2 Henri-Paul Nénot (1853 - 1934), architect of the Sorbonne and the Hotel Meurice in Paris and of the Palais des Nations in Geneva. Le Corbusier complained furiously at the award of this last-menioned contract to Nénot rather than to himself.

            3 The Bauhaus (1919 - 1933) was an academy of arts founded in Weimar by the architect Walter Gropius. The academy attracted an important group of avant-garde architects and artists.

            4 Quinlan Terry (born 1937), English architect spécialising in neo-classical buildings. Among his most notable creations are Richmond Riverside and Brentwood Cathedral, both in the London area.

            5 Walter Gropius, lecture on Monumental Art and Industrial Construction, Folkwang Museum, Hagen, 1911

            5 See my essay Ornamental Crime in this series , August 2006

            6 Le Corbusier, L'art décoratif aujourd'hui (Grès, Paris, 1925), page 85

            7 Le Corbusier, L'héritage de Charles Garnier in Almanach de l'Architecture moderne (Grès, Paris, 1925)

            8 This square is at 80, rue Taitbout, Paris 9e