Stephen Bayley

A barbarous view of modernism

In Making Dystopia, James Stevens Curl calls contemporary architecture ‘psychotic’ and ‘deranged’. But it’s his own views that are dystopian

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’.

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