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An Engineer Debunks Modernism’s Claims

Modernism's disjunct between what is planned and what is possible
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A new critic of 'starchitecture' has appeared upon the scene. And he’s not just another traditionalist with a stylistic axe to grind. Rather, Malcolm Millais is an experienced structural engineer who has worked with Arups and other top engineering firms on major international projects. With an engineer’s respect for logical analysis and cost-effective design, his critique is based on the enormous disconnect between the mythology of Modernism and the shortcomings of what actually gets built. He’s summarized his case against Modernist architecture in his new book, Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture.I had the good fortune to spend some time with Millais recently when he was in New York doing research for an upcoming book on Le Corbusier. In extensive conversations with Millais on contemporary architecture, it became clear that his disdain for the pompous rhetoric of Modernism is not based on aesthetics; he’s an agnostic when it comes to architectural style. The underlying problem, which Millais documents in his book, is that Modern Movement design is driven by ideology rather than technical and economic soundness.

The original Modernist architects, Millais points out, declared they were discarding all historical precedent because they were creating a new, rational, scientific architecture for social benefit. In his book, Millais delineates the dozen principles that allegedly underpin Modernist design – and then shows in detail how most of these tenets are either wrong or ignored in actual practice. Rather than creating a new, rational, socially relevant architecture, Millais shows that Modernists have concocted some of the most dysfunctional buildings ever erected.

Whim, not theory

Millais has particular scorn for flat roofs. Modernists adore flat roofs because they create a clean linear silhouette. But flat roofs are notoriously hard to make waterproof, and – as Millais notes with grim satisfaction – excessive leaks are one of the major complaints against Modernist buildings. And it was quite amusing during lunch at the new Renzo Piano addition to the Morgan Library to hear Millais’s engineering critique of the Morgan’s new building. He pointed out numerous ways that design whim – rather than Modernism’s theoretical rationality, economy and functionality – had driven the design.

Some psychologists have also recently suggested that Modernist architecture causes gloomy, negative emotions in people. These researchers contend that sterile, hard- edged environments cause feelings of alienation that can actually be scientifically measured.

So now that the Modernists’ rationale for rejecting all traditional design and ornament has been thoroughly undermined, perhaps it’s time for Gehry, Libeskind & Associates to join the Institute of Classical Architecture for a little rehab and retraining!

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