Modernist architecture isn’t barbarous – but the blinkered rejection of it is

25 August 2018 9:00 AM

The Guggenheim: deranged architecture?

When I was younger, one of my favourite books was James Stevens Curl’s The Victorian Celebration of Death. His latest is much less cheerful.

Like one of those innocents who re-enact the Civil War in embarrassing costume on Bank Holidays, Curl has been time-travelling backwards into a pre-modern world. He returns from the past with a crude message that has been familiar since Reginald (Menin Gate) Blomfield told us in the 1930s that modern architecture is a godless conspiracy of foreigners, Jews and Bolsheviks to eradicate an established culture of building, patiently evolved over three millennia.

This is less than a half-truth. Yes, modernist principles, misunderstood by unimaginative planners, often led to atrocious results. Le Corbusier’s ‘vertical garden cities’ became vertical slums. And there is only a sliver of difference between Walter Gropius’s lofty Bauhaus ideals and a crap council estate.

Curl’s ambition is to compose the critique of all critiques, joining a tradition of anti-modern alarm which has included E.M. Forster, Orwell, Vonnegut and Prince Charles. And, of course, Evelyn Waugh. In Decline and Fall, Margot Beste-Chetwynde commissions a new ‘clean and square’ house from Professor Otto Silenus. Dismayed by the result, she soon has it demolished, saying: ‘Nothing I have ever done has caused me so much disgust.’

Anyway, the size of Curl’s ambition may be inferred from a description of his book as object. It is dense and shiny. Advance praise is integrated into the prelims, a mite too proudly. It has a ‘Prolegomenon’ (yes, really), abundant Latin quotations, nearly 40 pages of preface and acknowledgments, 58 of dense endnotes and 42 of bibliography. Plus a prolix ‘Further Thoughts’ and a turgid epilogue. It is windy, overwritten, under-edited, repetitive and full of clichés. It is a book where ‘much ink has been spilled’. And its design is a disgrace to OUP — and would be to the corner-store copy shop. The jacket is typographically illiterate, the layout is artless, while the pictures lack contrast and sit unhappily grey in a visually dreary book. If this is what the author thinks is good design, then God help us and OUP.


But worst of all, Curl’s ambitions are undermined by his simplistic argument and awful prose. The ‘moderns’ were not a coherent gang of unlettered anarchists, bent on destroying history. They did not represent a ‘sundering, a cultural catastrophe, based on dissolution and unreason’. They were a very broad church. And his Manichean distinctions between modernists and traditionalists were not at all clear cut.

For example: Nikolaus Pevsner, routinely damned as the modernists’ calculating Mephistopheles, actually established architectural history as a proper academic discipline. He also founded the Victorian Society. John Betjeman, routinely presented as nostalgia’s avenging angel, was a journalist on the progressive Architectural Review and collaborated on a book with the arch-modernist and ex-Bauhausmeister Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

Architecture evolves. From the primitive hut to Greek temples; from Teutonic forest groves to Gothic cathedrals; Renaissance, revivalism and then the purification of modernity. But ‘modern’ has now itself become another historical style label. Its moment has passed. Modernists aimed to escape their historic circumstances, but no one ever can. Anyway, we are all pluralists now.

Aiming his trembling arquebus at some sitting targets, Curl calls contemporary architecture ‘psychotic’ and ‘deranged’. I have seen Louis Kahn’s India Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, the Farnsworth House in Illinois, Tadao Ando’s Naoshima, Foster’s Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, the Guggenheim in New York and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and do not find these psychotic or deranged at all. On the contrary, I find them fine, elegant and elevated expressions of the human spirit, at least the equal of the Parthenon or Chartres.

Curl argues for localism. But localism would never have given us Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s, buildings whose designs were borrowed from France and Italy. He admires, quite correctly, the great achievements of Islamic, Gothic and south German rococo. These he says, ‘express everything modernists hated and outlawed’. But that is nonsense.

He argues for the lifeless kitsch of Prince Charles’s Poundbury and demonises Le Corbusier for his lack of narrative reference; but Corb was inspired by Swiss vernacular, aircraft, cars, ocean liners, the Middle East and monasteries. And Curl dislikes stains when they appear on the ‘brutalist’ Robin Hood Gardens. But stains are an architectural fact of life: Buontalenti’s grotto in Florence is covered in them. ‘Design,’ he tells us, ‘should be based on sound precedents.’ So much, then, for the originality of Hawksmoor, Soane, Gaudi and Frank Lloyd Wright. Here is a book that does not make sense.

The concluding image is revealing: an embarrassingly redrawn-by-the-author version of ‘Death as a Friend’, by Alfred Rethel, a mawkish German history painter of the third rank. Curl shows himself moribund, slumped in a chair, exhausted by his overwriting, visited by the Reaper while tower blocks outside the window of his study are licked by ‘the flames of destruction’.

When I’d finished reading, I threw this book away. It has the stench of death about it, rather like those earlier studies of cemeteries. At least the modernists, for all their vanities and absurdities, believed in life, in optimism, in making new. Professor Curl thinks differently. It’s his own vision that’s dystopian.