Modernists, academics and NIMBYs

Modernist architects, starting perhaps with Adolf Loos and including also Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, made the argument at the start of the 20th century that ornamentation was superficial and dishonest, obscuring and distracting from the materials and the function of the building. Since then, and particularly post-WWII, we have generally avoided ornamentation in new buildings. It’s rare to see anything built today with any detailed ornamentation – very much in contrast to previous eras.

Most people, though, like to decorate things and like to see things that are decorated. They don’t have an argument or a theory for it. They simply find it pleasing.

Let’s assume for the moment that the modernists were wrong: that for one reason or another they misunderstood the value of ornamentation. Many people are wrong about many things, and mostly it just doesn’t matter too much. If the world had been functioning correctly, the modernists would have built some houses that didn’t sell, everyone else would have built houses rich with ornamentation, and the market would have voted with its feet and its cash for the latter. So why did the modernists have such a stranglehold on architecture?

My guess is that it’s the academic study of architecture that has had such a detrimental effect. It’s the academics who elevate theory above practice. It’s the academics who need a theory and an argument with which to justify everything. Without a theory, where would the academics be? But we don’t have a good theory of aesthetics or ornamentation. And in the absence of a good theory, rather than admitting their ignorance, academics will grasp at any theory available. And the one that was available was the simple, comprehensible modernist disdain for ornamentation. And because every profession needs credentials these days, in order to become a credentialed architect one must absorb and regurgitate a bad theory.

Modernist theory won among academics not because it was correct, but because it was available. And credentialism has ensured that their folly is our folly.

Perhaps there’s something to be said here about the effect of status as well: most buildings are not commissioned as a solo endeavour. A developer will build a whole block of flats or a whole estate of houses, not a single house in isolation for the customer who will live in it. In order to build all those houses, various committees – both internal to the development company and external as part of the planning process – have to be satisfied with the design. And there is likely to be a fair amount of emperor’s-new-clothes preference falsification going on in that process. No one wants to be seen suggesting anything so twee as Poundbury.

England is afflicted with NIMBYism. And I think that part of that comes from the belief that we can’t build nice buildings anymore; that anything built now has to be ugly and out of keeping with anything built earlier. Why would we think that? Surely if we wanted to we could build in any style that we wanted. And yet, with a small handful of exceptions, everything built today looks modern – in that it lacks ornamentation and is ugly as a result. So NIMBYs are all too often correct to oppose new construction on those grounds. How different would this country be if we believed that we could build beautiful things?

Yes, we could build things in any style we wanted. But if we built something in a gothic style, for example, or a Victorian style or a tudor style, someone would ask us why. And we wouldn’t have a good argument beyond saying that that was what we liked.

This expectation that we justify things with arguments is sometimes a terrible trap. There are many areas of life where our reasons are at best rationalisations, or where we are led astray by an ideology against our better judgment. It’s not just in the field of aesthetics that we lack a good theory.