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Book: Blast on the past

In Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism James Steven Curl reignites the critique of Modernism, its protagonists and its acceptance in the aftermath of the First World War, yet breaks little new ground

Le Corbusier's 1924 Plan Voisin for Paris

Le Corbusier’s 1924 Plan Voisin for Paris

Source: © FLC / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Le Corbusier’s 1924 Plan Voisin for Paris advocated razing the city from Montmartre to the Seine to build 18 skyscrapers. It is among a multitude of schemes that James Stevens Curl believes exemplify what was wrong with Modernism

One could fill a shelf with anti-Modernist books written from the 1920s onwards, so the appearance of another suggests that its predecessors have been largely unsuccessful in their effort to shift opinion. Although architecture itself may change, the outlines of the argument do not alter much over time. Most readers will have made up their minds, based on a number of determinants among which reasoned argument seldom figures. It is a safe guess that most readers of the AR will dislike this book. Does it, however, have any medicinal value?

There is certainly no attempt to sugar the pill. James Stevens Curl – noted as a historian of Georgian and Victorian architecture, and for a series of pioneering studies of building types involving pubs, death and freemasonry – has opinions in common with most of the opponents of Modernism stretching back from David Watkin and Tom Wolfe to Camille Mauclair’s L’Architecture va t’elle mourir? of 1934 that incited Le Corbusier to respond with his book, Croisade ou le Crépuscule des Académies. Curl’s speciality is biographical criticism, for his arguments are frequently ad hominem, on the basis that revealing the clay feet supporting many well-known heroes, their works and ideas will also be discredited. These lengthy sections on the hidden histories of the Modernist ‘pioneers’ suggest the scope is international but, without announcement, it becomes apparent that they are present because of their supposed baneful effect in Britain rather than elsewhere.

‘The question of whether individual architects are ‘nice’ people or not should never become a criterion in judging their work’

When the opportunism of Gropius and Mies in their hope of working for the Nazi regime began to be revealed after their deaths, it was a useful corrective to hero-worship – similarly with Le Corbusier and the Vichy regime – but these things are now fairly well known and do not, on their own, win the argument. Indeed, if we follow David Watkin’s line in Morality and Architecture in 1977, then the question of whether individual architects are ‘nice’ people or not should never become a criterion in judging their work, although this habit is far from being abandoned.

Curl is determined to have his fight, however, and cares little for stealth or guile. One might argue that the enemy has been dead for a long time – that was already seeming to be the case in the 1980s when the Prince of Wales spoke out. Like Prince Charles and some other warriors in this field, he moves the fight onto the grounds of religion and spirit, denying the Modernists any part in these higher things but failing to present a convincing picture of what they would look like if we were able to regain them. Ironically perhaps, Curl’s villains – notably the terrible twins, Mies and Corb – have re-acquired cult status since the 1980s because it has been possible to show that their motivation was also a religious and spiritual one. There is an element of artificial self-reinforcement in this, because literature breeds more literature on the same topic, especially where archives are available and buildings preserved up to the nines as tourist sites. There is also an observable phenomenon that enthusiasts, both in and outside the architectural culture, find in the most-challenging projects, such as Sheffield’s Park Hill or Kensington’s Trellick Tower, a proxy for other discontents about the state of the world today, accordingly inclined to be uncritical of their shortcomings.

While there is something in the way the architectural bubble works that demands hero architects (of both genders) and gives them uncritical adulation, the range has been expanding continuously and the old Olympians are now part of a more-assorted pantheon. Long ago, the ‘Other Tradition’ proposed by Sandy Wilson and Peter Blundell Jones gained traction. The elevation of Adolf Loos (who does receive a favourable mention from Curl for his vernacular sympathies) and Louis Kahn (not mentioned) has changed many people’s acceptance of what might be allowed in architecture, while the majestic volumes from ETH Zürich, produced by Helen Thomas and Adam Caruso, on Rudolf Schwarz and Fernand Pouillon – both previously well beyond the pale – have enriched the canon and blurred the boundaries between Modernism and its many shades of Other. Other Modernists who took lessons from vernacular and regional precedents, such as the Danish architect Kay Fisker, are the subject of fresh enquiry and approval. Curl’s condemnation of the immediate postwar reconstruction of cities is one point on which he is in line with those who would otherwise disagree with him. So many mistakes in planning seem to have been made because the free use of cars was deemed unstoppable and, although we are far from rid of them, we are now trying to reverse this.

‘The survival of Modernism, included in the book’s subtitle, is still a live issue’

All this suggests that Making Dystopia is fighting the wrong battle. The survival of Modernism, included in the book’s subtitle, on the other hand, is still a live issue. The author taught for many years at De Montfort University School of Architecture, and he seems to be unloading a lifetime’s frustration at the narrow tyrannies of uncritically accepted cult figures, as exercised in architecture schools. For a readership unfamiliar with what has usually passed for design education, an eyewitness record could have provided more dramatic evidence of corruption than the excesses of long-past interwar avant-garde. More convincing still would have been to show how every rebellion within the system has tended to generate a new form of pervasive paradigm against which students have little chance of resistance. A book such as The Favoured Circle by Garry Stevens does more to unmask the mechanisms behind these changes that are only changes in name – in reality, however, it constitutes more of the same. The gang-like behaviour of this circle when threatened has been painfully apparent in the wake of the recent Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. The Favoured Circle has been busy admiring itself for circling its wagons rather than offering to engage in dialogue with others who might think differently.

Someone from outside these clashes of Roundheads and Cavaliers will want to know what Curl would like to see instead of the architecture he has demolished with his verbal onslaughts. This gap is only partially and rather predictably filled by the names of some of the better-known contemporary classicists, names that would have filled the same gap 30 years ago. Given Curl’s knowledge of the 19th century, one would hope that his sympathies were wider, and might have engaged the imagination of the people he was trying to convert. One could imagine him suggesting something more tectonically rich, more colourful and more loaded with arcane symbolism – a steampunk version of John Outram, perhaps, rather than Quinlan Terry.

‘Was Modernism a pathological condition, an over-reaction to a state of spiritual crisis?’

We don’t have to go quite so far. Out on the streets, at least in London, many new buildings owe more to the patterned brickwork of 1920s Amsterdam and Hamburg than to the old cardboard cut-outs on Curl’s shooting range. Even the stripped Classical ordonnance of Albert Richardson has sometimes reappeared out of the mist (yes, I mean you, Eric Parry). One might hope Curl would find something here to cheer him up, but he seems to relish his umbrage.

To answer the earlier question, the medicinal value of the book is not well matched to the disease. But then, if treatment is required, it is probably the psychologist who is needed rather than the pharmacist. Was Modernism a pathological condition in the first place, an over-reaction to a state of spiritual crisis? Witnesses of the time felt that it was but, as the nature of the crisis changed, many of them changed with it and Modernism became a richer and more-inclusive category. Flowers may be persuasive where heavy artillery is not. Trauma seems to have been passed down through successive generations, binding the family together rather than aiding its rehabilitation in a normal outside world, and old slogans, such as the misquoted ‘Ornament is Crime’, appear on the front of coffee-table books that denote membership of the club. Opposition only increases their defensiveness, which is why Making Dystopia is not calculated to ease the suffering on either side. This conflict has been going on for so long, it appears as though no remedy will ever work.

This piece is featured in the AR February 2019 issue on Failure – click here to purchase your copy today