Beauty or the Machine?

Learning from the nostalgia of architecture
By David Brussat ,

What might the world be like today if modern architecture had not so rudely interrupted the progress of traditional architecture?

Such a question need not be a mere exercise in nostalgia. The built environment of the early 20th century that existed before modernism’s rise was not static. A painting is static. A sculpture is static. Architecture has never been static. A building is not static, still less can a city be static. Architecture has always been a representation of society’s aspirations in motion, heading into the future.

Wondering what might have been can help model a world of the future better than the future envisioned by the modernists, who have failed on many levels to achieve their aspirations.

Wondering what might have been will not make it so, but it can plant seeds that can help make it so someday, sooner or later.

Capriccio of work by Driehaus Award winners by Carl Laubin. Image: Facebook   

Imagine the energy, the creativity, the technological virtuosity that were diverted by modernism and its bland rejection of beauty. Modern architecture expended a lot of energy setting up an alternative vision of how buildings and cities should be constructed. New materials, new methods of construction, new processes to bring these new materials and new methods to bear on the systems - new ones, of course - that architects and planners needed to achieve the goals of the new architecture.

Modern architecture and its acolytes in their compounds expended a lot of energy developing rival forms of architectural creativity, and then, once they’d agreed on what they called the International Style, they spent a lot of energy setting down the rules by which buildings and cities would be constructed. The Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) lasted for 30 years, meeting semi-regularly from 1928 to 1959, and generating the Athens Charter - largely reflecting modernist founder Le Corbusier’s stilted vision of the Modern Movement.

Montage of skyscrapers by 20th century starchitects, by Rem Koolhaas. Image: Brussat archives   

Even today, movement bigwigs meet globally at the Venice Biennale and lesser forums to debate the latest issue de jour, be it economic or sociological - how modern architecture should address worker housing, the income gap, climate change, what to call interns, design/build and other challenges to the profitability of the independent architect, how to resist the siren song of beauty, women in the profession, etc.

I am sure that agendas at the annual meetings of the American Institute of Architects, reflected a different sensibility after its founding in 1857 than it does today.

Concerns of craft aim not at the perfection of the world so much as the progress of architectural design in its manifold variety. The successive treatises from Vitruvius onward express the rules of classicism, but the rules of classicism have a different purpose than the rules of modernism.

Whereas the rules of modernism seek to enforce its successive social and ideological agenda items, the rules of classicism have always been the search for higher levels of virtuosity in the achievement of beauty. Artistic progress, not the politics of art. The classical agenda advances not through congresses of professionals in any given year but from artists experimenting with craft year by year, decade by decade, passing on their discoveries from practitioner to practitioner and generation to generation.

The Architect’s Dream (1840), painting by Thomas Cole. Image: Image: Wikipedia   

What if this practical evolutionary sensibility focused on beauty, rather than the agenda-driven, sterile, inhuman, technocratic, machine-worshipping, utopia-seeking sensibility of the modernists, had prevailed over the past century? My guess is that the result today would have been, for all of humanity, closer to the paradise the modernists have never come anywhere near to achieving.

Think about it.

Churchill stated that “first we shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” If so, then the society shaped by tradition built by trial and error over centuries dedicated to beauty is sure to be not just lovelier than but better than the society shaped by an architecture that has rejected the tools of beauty in order to embrace a mechanical metaphor that embraces the “next new thing” so frequently that it has never had the chance to stand the test of time.

Vision of a future Paris by Eugene Henard (1849-1923): Image, Urban Planning Library, Cornell University   

Instead of what we have today - “It makes our heads hurt,” said the late Tom Wolfe - imagine cities and towns whose energies have not been wasted by the rejection of beauty but have been invested for decade after decade in creating better methods, materials, practices and technologies for achieving beauty.

That did not happen between 1920 and 2020, but it can happen between 2020 and 2120. It is not too late if only we will think it through and act - whither go we, beauty or the machine? It will be the easiest solution to a problem that ever a planet did face.

Ah, yes! Think about it!

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