Your example of a McMansion isn't really one, which might be why you don't find it so objectionable. https://mcmansionhell.com/ is the, uh, canonical source on this; in particular try this article: https://mcmansionhell.com/post/149284377161/mansionvsmcmansion .
Formatting note, looks like a paragraph of commentary ended up mixed into the quotation of The Great Male Renunciation wikipedia: (beginning with "I see no reason to disagree")
"In music, conventional rhythm and melody were set aside in favor of atonal, serial, dissonant, and twelve-tone compositions"
This made me suddenly wonder-- is it possible that architects all prefer the modern style because the constant exposure to the current trends in architecture and studying thousands of buildings often results in liking that style more, like an acquired taste? I ask this because I listen to a lot of music, probably more than most people, and some of the music I really enjoy is experimental and sometimes dissonant. But I genuinely enjoy it a lot. Could some architects have experienced a similar effect?
An amazing roundup of comments, one of the best I've seen on your blog. Kudos to the commenters and to Scott for stimulating the discussion!
I just wanted to say that the buildings in the photos to illustrate works by "frank gehry vs frank lloyd wright vs moshe safdie vs zaha hadid" are more attractive to me than any older building illustrated in any photo on this post or the previous.
As usual, we can partly blame Ayn Rand. She made the idea of ugly concrete geometry puzzles and hyperstylized sculptures sound romantic by describing them, but not needing to show them.
Re: furniture, I have found that the furniture at "cheap, lower class" furniture stores like, for example, American Furniture Warehouse, have very appealing offerings. Their furniture, often in the $500 range for large book shelves or furniture items, has character and uniqueness, and is made of appealing materials. Your local "high class" furniture store, in contrast, will sell bookshelves that look like you could probably make them yourself in an afternoon, and they'll never cost less than $3000.
A big problem with the furniture argument is that while OLD furniture is quite expensive, new furniture is actually very, very affordable; it cost about as much to furnish a house in 2011 as it did in 1980. Obviously you can buy expensive new furniture; I remember once seeing dining chairs for a thousand dollars plus. But if you want something good, affordable and comfortable, you really won't break the bank at all.
>Did Google think about the horrors of WWII before deciding to build a kind of ugly headquarters?
The generalization of this that the people at Google may have though was "I'm not good enough to deserve nice things", and plenty of people in the West feel that way. Or is it just me, that I feel guilty when I indulge in nice things?
The prices of antique furniture have collapsed.
“ Since the turn of the 21st century, the value of much 18th and 19th century furniture has plummeted….
Compared with the heyday of antiques collecting, prices for average pieces are now “80 percent off,” said Colin Stair, the owner of Stair Galleries auction house in Hudson, N.Y. “Your typical Georgian 18th century furniture, chests of drawers, tripod tables, Pembroke tables,” he noted, can all be had for a fraction of what they cost 15 to 20 years ago.
In 2002, Mr. Stair sold a set of eight George III-style carved mahogany chairs for $8,000; in 2016, he sold a similar set of eight chairs for $350.”
Great roundup. On the matter of certain styles "all looking the same," I feel like again and again in my life, I've encountered certain genres - whether it's music (punk, reggae, house), art (abstract impressionism, japanese printing), or literature (science fiction, mysteries) - that I thought all looked/sounded/read the same. And again and again, when I became more interested and involved and knowledgeable about those styles, I had an "a-ha!" moment where the subtle differences became clear, and I suddenly enjoyed the form in a deeper and more rewarding way.
I think there's a bit of a chasm between not paying attention to something like buildings or chairs (and music, food, clothing, etc, etc) and having the attention to detail to tell the subtle differences that can make a thing exemplary *within* its style. But there's a leap of faith - usually backed by aesthetic interest and a lot of exposure - before you can enjoy things that "all look the same"
I had the thought after your initial post that some of the kitsch in new buildings in old style comes from the fact that merely aping the older style with new materials just...may not work due to subtle differences.
A Twitter thread at about that same time discussed the new Netflix Cowboy Bebop in live action. They deliberately recreate the original Cowboy Bebop opening: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yq2N-9EmedA
For example, when Jet is running in the first ~15 seconds, it looks cool and stylized in the original opening: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EL-D9LrFJd4
But in the live action version, it looks uncanny-valley weird for a human being to be moving that way. Something that worked well in animation just looks *off* in live-action, because people don't move that way naturally. I think the stylization of an animated character can work with that, but an actual human in front of a camera may not be able to.
Similarly, if you try to recreate, say colonnades with modern curtain-wall materials, it just comes off as fake. We might also be in the interim where people are finding beautiful ways to work with what's widely available. I dunno, just a hypothesis from that show opening that happened to get pointed out to me the same day as your OP.
At the Dublin meetup recently, one of the attendees used to work in architecture and construction, and we talked for a while about your last post on this.
He brought up the interesting fact that apparently very large sheets of glass, as are used in a lot of glass-fronted buildings and "fancy" boxy architecture, are actually absurdly expensive. Apparently the cost of the equipment involved goes up exponentially with the width of the glass sheet. He estimated that it would be considerably cheaper to just have smaller windows surrounded by decorative stonework - the exact opposite of the "cost disease" hypothesis.
This raised the interesting idea that these designs ARE driven by signaling wealth ... but it only works on fellow architects who know how expensive the "minimalist" materials are!
In art, as well, where you can get incredible representational artwork that puts the Old Masters to shame quite cheap from freelance artists online, there is definitely no cost disease at work.
One thing that bothers me about this post and its precursor is the monolithic presentation of 'traditional' styles. Classical, baroque, folk, Arts and Crafts, Georgian, etc. are different, and many were in response to perceived flaws with others. The practitioners of each did not see themselves as aesthetically aligned (though of course they did not have modern styles as a point of comparison). It may be true that there are lines of similarity between all of these that separate them from 'modern' forms, but I think the point needs to be developed further.
I've now been put on blast by three whole rationalist celebrities! I guess that's what I deserve for running my mouth about Tartaria without doing more research. (Though, have *you* seen Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin in the same room at the same time? I thought not.
About the window thing, I don't know about basements specifically, but England and Wales, France, and Scotland assessed property taxes by number of windows in a building. Square footage or other measures were difficult to assess and would require intrusion by assessors into the building, but windows could be counted from the street. Since taxing something is a good way to make things go away, a lot of people bricked up their windows. Seeing Like A State talks about this, IIRC, because lack of sunlight and ventilation supposedly caused some long-term health effects. I'm going to be daring again and keep that in the post without independently confirming it.
Anyway, I don't know about basement windows specifically, but that might be what they're referring to? As far as I know, no mud floods were involved. Also, what kind of measly empire gets taken out by a merely great mud flood? You can't claim first-rate geopolitical power status unless your empire is rated for at least Excellent Mud Floods and most superpowers would require full-blown Ultra Mud Floods to be destroyed!
>Tartaria was destroyed by a “Great Mud Flood” which explains why so many buildings have basements with bricked-up windows (I have never seen this - is it true? If so, what is the explanation?)
If I had to guess, it's likely related to the installation of sewers in American cities during the 1800s. In several cities the streets were actually raised up to allow proper drainage for newly installed sewages systems: Chicago was raised about 14 feet: they actually put jacks under buildings and raised them up to the new street level but it wouldn't suprise me if in some buildings they just build another story on top and turned the first story into a basement. That's what happened in Seattle after the fire of 1889. The city planners decided that since they were rebuilding a big chunk of the city anyway they would regrade many of the roads to be much higher while they were at it. The new buildings that were constructed were built one story higher than they needed to be so that the first story could be buried once the streets were rebuilt higher.
I think many other cities of the same time period went through similar situations during the "sanitary revolution" where better sewer systems and clean water systems were introduced across Europe and America.
Re: fifty capitalisms, I propose a vending machine that dispenses bits of clay that the general public can use to attach ornamentation onto the building, and I guess also crowbar things that can be used to remove bits of clay that are unattractive. That way, hobbyists that are good at ornamentation will make good ornamentation and it will stay attached to the building if everyone likes it. This idea is good because it is also democracy.
This guy, who writes with smoke coming from his ears and a gun on his blotter, has a lot of receipts on the intellectual trends in architecture that intentionally condemned traditional, human-scale architecture as wicked and, in taking over architecture-school faculties, put a stranglehold on the built environment:
>Great Mud Flood”
> that (among other things) that Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin were the same person, but scientists have covered this up. It also includes the truly excellent sentence “Researchers concluded that history and science are probably a set of lies".
I thought the whole bit about technological regress was quite obviously bonkers, but this strikes me as obviously true.
I generally like Santiago Calatrava, but his Oculus at the World Trade Center transit hub was absolutely not worth the $4 billion spent on it. It does have many of the advantages of the old Penn Station or current Grand Central Station, but the WTC station just doesn't have the same purpose as a waiting area for intercity travel, and you can get much of this functional benefit for much less:
Some people might classify Calatrava as "modernist", but I would classify it as relatively baroque and ornate, and thus put it on the "aesthetic" side rather than "functionalist".
You might find the architecture of Friedensreich Hundertwasser to be an interesting anomaly, with bright colors and ornate designs, in a maybe-kitschy, maybe-traditionalist, or maybe-modernist style, depending on how your eye parses these things:
I am surprised that the confusion about Google persists. I don't recognise the building you call "Google HQ". The Googleplex looks like this: https://venturebeat.com/2012/02/12/googleplex-experience-center-construction/ But Google didn't build it; SGI did, between 1994 and 1997. In the stairways you can find fire risers that still say SGI on them.
Editing error: "they just because more expensive"
because -> become
The McMansion you posted is far above average. Typical McMansions look much worse.
An additional point: survivorship bias is a major factor warping our perception of old buildings. There were many shoddily built or non-beautiful buildings in the past, designed around strict functionality or just badly designed. They have not survived, and the damage they suffered (unlike valued buildings) has not been restored. Again, this may not defeat the fundamental point, but it should be acknowledge and accounted for in the analysis.
I wonder, how elite is "modern" art really?
For comparison, is Bose home audio equipment elite? They make a lot of money, and they sell to customers with money.
For paintings, modern art is hardly the only sort of thing to hang on walls, stuff visually pleasing for the average person is in fact quite popular.
Buildings have many more complications with materials and labor, but the actual homes of people (including the wealthy) are hardly only in avant-garde modern styles either.
There is a market for selling weird novel stuff to rich people at high prices in New York etc. But how would you charge high prices for not-novel stuff, which has an unlimited supply? And certainly the limited-supply stuff in the old styles still goes for high prices.
Being an artist or studying art is not particularly lucrative, in general. Maybe being a modern artist is not in fact high status. Maybe it's just a subculture like being a furry. And the marketing at rich people is just a separate thing where novelty is required to justify the high prices.
The "horrors of WWII" argument doesn't fit the timeline. Modernism, as an avant-garde movement, predates WWII by several decades. Le Corbusier presented his infamous Plan Voisin for Paris in 1925.
The argument is superficially plausible because economic factors- first due to the Depression and then to the war- limited the amount of the non-military construction that occurred for 15 years or so. But the theory kept spreading during those years, which became apparent to the average person when the post-war building boom commenced.
Clearly, lots of people like McMansions or there would not be so many of them. The criticism of them is strictly elitist, namely that they are huge but built cheaply on small parcels of land, with faux finishes “slapped on like wallpaper”. Designs plucked from a catalog rather than designed custom for the lot by “real” architects. In short, the biggest problem with McMansions is that they are the sort of place a gauche, upjumped poor person with money might aspire to.
In Russia, they have tried to reverse some of the architectural damage of 20th Century History. For example, in Moscow they rebuilt the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Originally built in the 19th Century. Stalin tore it down. The land was used for a municipal swimming pool for a while. after the fall of the Soviet regime, the Cathedral was rebuilt. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathedral_of_Christ_the_Saviour
Near St. Petersburg, the palaces of Peter and of Catherine created during their respective reigns were destroyed by the Nazis during their investment of Leningrad. Both the Soviet and Russian regimes worked to recreate both, including recreating the Amber room at the Catherine Palace.
Its possible, but motivation has to be there.
I don't know that this explains the aesthetic issues, but I think it goes a way towards explaing the state of the institutional foundation of our society.
"The People and Their Rulers Increasingly Loathe Each Other" By Michael Brendan Dougherty | October 4, 2021
"A democracy cannot long put up with such a glaring mismatch between the people — broadly conceived — and their ruling institutions. One writer tried, in his own age, to descry “the cause of the present discontents.” He is something of a model for me in these times. “I am not one of those who think that the people are never in the wrong,” he wrote. “They have been so, frequently and outrageously, both in other countries and in this. But I do say that in all disputes between them and their rulers, the presumption is at least upon a par in favor of the people.” That was the inveterate populist Edmund Burke.
"The next decade is going to see a fantastic contest. One the one side are nearly uniformly liberal governing institutions. They will claim to defend liberalism — our inalienable rights, as mediated to us by the media, Silicon Valley, and NGOs — from the predations of populist demagogues. And they will often be caught merely defending their present privileges. They will demand respect for institutions in which their opponents have no voice or share. On the other side will be the ragged populists, democratic in spirit, but prone to wild misstatement and intemperate promises of violence and cataclysm.
"It’s going to get nastier."
A problem with the Baumol cost disease explanation is that modern architecture is nowhere near any sort of efficient frontier of cost versus beauty. They seem to be willing to pay extra to make a building uglier than a simple glass box. Three out of four of your examples of top works by modern architects fit that description.
Frank Gehry -- looks like the nuke-blasted twisted remains of a glass and steel skyscraper
Moshe Safdie -- That irregular collection of concrete boxes seems like the most inefficient form of brutalism I've ever seen.
Zaha Hadid -- Really? What the world needs is a standard glass and steel box, but crooked?
On the architecture piece, I'm going to keep screaming into the void that you have to consider the whole built environment and not just the building itself, and a huge reason the built environment is ugly is that a lot of it is dedicated to car infrastructure.
If we are entertaining the idea that people won't build nice buildings because of Auschwitz, then we should entertain the idea that people have less reason to build nice buildings because it'll still be ugly anyway when it's between a parking lot and a highway.
Cities used to have more human-scale stuff in them, more trees, more space for people. It's not surprising to me that as the car infrastructure tends to result in lots of huge plain-concrete structure, the buildings tend towards that too. Taking your Google HQ example - is it in a place where anyone ever walks by for any reason other than they're going to work? People mostly probably drive by at like 50 mph. Why would you invest time in making it nice to walk around?
I think we should separate out discussions of (i) your standard "podium building" from (ii) a bespoke "starchitect" building that's supposed to be cutting edge but everyone hates.
Podium building example: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9d/One-by-five_Apartments_Austin%2C_TX.jpg
The podium buildings are designed to be as cheap as possible while fitting into all the various zoning/etc rules, and the "starchitect" buildings are less concerned with cost and more with, I guess, making a statement?
Your argument is complicated by an important facet of commercial buildings: how well the building works for its actual the tenants.
I can tell you having worked as a process server / temp in many skyscrapers in NYC the difference between modern glass boxes and art deco skyscrapers on the INSIDE is night and day. A glass rectangle is actually very efficient, people love windows, natural light, and corner offices, and the amenities of having large floors is much nicer than the cramped higher floors of skiny pencil art deco skyscrapers. Take the old RCA Victor building[New York Architecture Images- General Electric Building](https://www.nyc-architecture.com/MID/MID017.htm) (unquestionably beautiful on the outisde) or even the Chrysler building. The lobby to the Chrysler building is pretty but tiny compared to modern skyscrapers. And the upper floors on both are very cramped (I’ve been to offices in both of these buildings).
Modern glass and steel skyscrapers can be dazzling, but they also maximize utility for the tenants, who love floor to ceiling windows and (for commercial tenants) large floors. These design constrainst limit how a building can look from the outside, though some skyscrapers have been built in “postmodern” retro style, like Philip Johnson’s AT&T (now Sony) building. [550 Madison Avenue - Wikipedia](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/550_Madison_Avenue) Many newer buildings have grand lobbies much larger than the lobbies in art deco buildings.
My problem with historical preservation is that often only the merits of the building from the outside to a passing tourist are taken into consideration. A glass box skyscraper is much more functional in actual use.
“We should find these same architects and ask them to coordinate us into only building environmentally-sound buildings in order to prevent climate change, or whatever.”
I’m confused by the flippant tone…? This is happening. The American Institute of Architects has a program called the 2030 Commitment to push the design of all new buildings as carbon neutral (https://www.aia.org/resources/202041-the-2030-commitment). Something like half of all US architecture firms are part of the program and almost all the big ones.
My (delusional) hope is that video games, and especially VR, will save us. Enough people will see From Software's mega-cathedrals and demand better from real-world buildings.
On a moderately related tangent, the section on artistic rebellion reminded me of the UI design of Persona 5. It's done in a "ransom-note" style that I'm sure breaks all sorts of design principles, but even a philistine like me can tell that the designer understood the rules and chose to break them in a calculated manner.
Perhaps modern architecture's problem is credentialing.
I have a friend who studied architecture in college, in one of the leading programs in America. He's a bit quirky, a bit of a recluse, wickedly funny, and a superb architect. He showed our whole fraternity his big senior design project, which was a stunning - and practical! - building to revitalize the fishing economy of his home state. He'd worked closely with the state government, including scientists, fishery experts, economists, conservationists ... he had chosen three sites to build these facilities, and he and his team felt that there was a solid chance that if they managed to build two of them it could rescue his state's economy and a few key native species for decades.
His plan out of college? Go apprentice himself for five years so he would be legally certifiable to lead the project he had already designed.
It's not like this credentialing came from nowhere! Those regulations were written in blood. But they have costs that mere capitalism can't overcome. As one of the highlights noted, it doesn't matter how cheap yellow or dragon patterns are if they're illegal.
But also, I know a number of people who lament the death of classical music. At the same time, most of the big-orchestra classical music I own was written in my lifetime for games and movies. Now, maybe I'm just a rube and this filtering has worked on me, but I think that for many arts we don't live in an era of want. In fact, we live in an era of such bewildering wealth that we've lost sight of it all. The art and artistry of movies and video games - which runs bills comparable to buildings and can take years to produce - is nothing short of astonishing, and getting better all the time.
Sure, the particular ways that people used to make art aren't in vogue right now. I don't know anyone who builds palace anymore, but battleships and aircraft carriers sure feel crenelated enough for my tastes. Plato had a lot to say about shadows on a cave wall, but everyone you know has seen high resolution pictures of Pluto. If someone tells you art is dying, ask them for Monet's goddamn renders.
>I might be the only person in the world who likes McMansions. They just look like nice, pleasant buildings made by people who want to vaguely enjoy the place where they live. Probably the least offensive thing people are making these days.
I totally agree with this, there are some examples of ugly modern big houses that people trot out but on the whole big modern houses are comfortable and tend to look alright.
As a YIMB-ish guy living in Boston, I think I have a relevant data point for your "maybe opposition to housing is because the buildings now suck" point. We have a style here (like most older cities do) that characterizes the mass housing that was built ~80-120 years ago. Here it's the triple decker; you can name your other-city equivalents (Philly/Baltimore row house, etc). People love them. I've lived in a couple, and owned a condo in one, and I too love them.
That said, one of our local YIMBY guys did some research on how people felt about these things when they were being built. No great shock: they fucking hated them. They were destroying neighborhoods, they were hideous, they were a threat to the moral fiber of society.
I don't particularly like the look of the new stuff they build these days. I very strongly suspect that this is because some primeval wiring in my brain associates older with classier and recognizes the new stuff as some sort of nouveaux riche thing it oughta think poorly of.
So whatever's going on with architecture, I very much doubt that it's to blame for our housing crisis; finger pointing there has to stick squarely with "people hate when their immediate neighborhood changes and we decided to give everyone immense asymmetric power to prevent their immediate neighborhood from changing."
Re. this: "Remember, the Baumol effect happens when new technology makes some industries more productive. Since the high-tech industries are so lucrative, wages go up. Then low-tech industries have to raise their wages so that their workers don’t all desert them for the high-tech industries. But since low-tech industries aren’t improving their productivity, they just become more expensive, full stop."
This might explain why wages in low-tech industries don't fall as much as you'd expect them to, but I'm not convinced this makes sense as a complete explanation of why some low-tech things cost /more/, in inflation-adjusted terms, than they did before.
Suppose in the year 2000 we have a population consisting of nothing but widget-makers and tuba players, who make widgets and tuba music for each other. Tech increases, widget-makers make 10 times as many widgets, and by 2010, their salaries increase by a factor of 3. The salary of tuba players also increases by a factor of 3, via Baumol. But the Baumol effect can't drive a tuba-player's salary above that of a widget-maker, or else the effect would switch directions, driving up the salary of widget-makers as they quit to become tuba players.
So, in the best-possible scenario for tuba players, everyone in 2010 is making 3 times as much money as before, and tuba music costs 3 times as much as before. /The amount of hours that anyone has to work to hear tuba music has remained the same. /
It seems to me that the Baumol effect can never raise the wages of tuba players above that of widget-makers, nor make the inflation-adjusted price of tuba music rise. If so, then it can't explain bridges costing more /in inflation-adjusted dollars/ to build, let alone costing hundreds of times more.
I suspect the effect is more due to all those widget-makers having to spend less of their income on widgets, and having lots more left over to spend on tuba-music, so that absolute demand for tuba music goes up. Tuba-player wages then do go up because band directors have to pay them more, but that's not to keep TP salary in line with WM salary (mediated by the decisions of existing tuba players); it's to convert more widget-makers to tuba players, to try (and fail) to keep up with the increasing demand.
BUT, there are many, MANY fewer professional musicians today than there were 200 years ago, even without adjusting for population. So this hasn't happened, at least not with tuba players. In this case, I'd say that technology has amplified the productivity of tuba players more than that of widget-makers--they can make recordings, and fill not just opera houses but entire stadiums and cable TV channels with paying audiences. (That's not even mentioning iTubas and YouTuba.) Tuba player salaries go up not because bosses are trying to return tuba players--they aren't; they've been firing them like mad since John Philip Sousa died. Salaries go up for the opposite reason: we don't need all those tuba players; we just need a few tuba superstars. A single tuba player could provide literally all of the tuba music for the entire world, as Chuck Mangione did with the flugelhorn and Zamfir did with the pan flute.
But then we have to invest millions of dollars in marketing each of those superstars, putting them in a position to demand a lot of money. Like EL James, or the cast of Seinfeld.
Stone masons are probably different. Maybe something is happening on the other end of the demand curve, with a greatly diminished demand for fine masonry, resulting in the kind of job where customers have to pay higher prices because demand isn't evened out by large numbers--each mason will sometimes be unemployed (and must charge more when he works because of that), and will sometimes have multiple job offers at the same time (and can charge even more when that happens).
I just wanted to add another contrasting example; the new entrance lobby to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Ontario. Daniel Libeskind's "The Crystal" opened in 2007 and elicits either admiration or hatred. https://media.architecturaldigest.com/photos/5706ec8d3c6ec36d75349d57/master/pass/daniel-libeskind-architecture-05.jpg
I'm glad you found my last comment interesting !
I heard of the Great Masculine Renunciation through the Beau Brummel controversy, but didn't check or remember most of the details. This was a "I heard a relevant phrase once" moment.
On music: There is still plenty of classical/baroque/romantic music being written - for movie soundtracks. The Lord of the Rings soundtrack is 13 hours long, involves 400 musicians, and has over 100 leitmotifs.  This is comparable to Mahler's Ring cycle, although perhaps lower quality.  Other movie series - Marvel, Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc also use operatic music, usually performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
On drawing / painting: we certainly still do know how to produce high quality artwork, and quickly. This is perhaps best seen in webcomics, some of which update 3-4 times a week. (!!!) Painting an entire story is not prohibitively difficult: it is given away for free online. Two particular ones worth mentioning are Stand Still Stay Silent  and Unsounded .
 http://sssscomic.com/comic.php?page=687 This is the chapter cover for Ch. 15. I think that this is a particularly good chapter cover, bad it does drop you in the middle of a sad part of the story.
 http://www.casualvillain.com/Unsounded/comic/ch14/ch14_01.html This is the chapter cover for Ch. 14. This is a side story, so you don't need to have read the rest of the story to follow it. I'm not linking to the first page (although it's easy to find) because the art was simpler then.
I guess that's as good a reason as any for why all my favorite bands list King Crimson as one of their top influences, but all their songs sound terrible to me.
Unless it's some sort of joke. If I ever make it big as a musician I think I'll list Green Jelly as my top influence, to see if it catches on. Who's coming with me!?
I don't think many rationalists would like "The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction". Benjamin seems almost aggressively uninterested in convincing anybody that he's right; it's like he's just writing down his conclusions without even much of a gesture toward how he got there or why it must be so. That's how it struck me, at least. I think it's the style in a certain branch of Continental philosophy, which is also marked by a general distrust of rationality. Still, I'd be very interested to read a rationalist review / analysis of it.
For modernist architecture, as well as fashion and some art, much of the genre seems to evoke a quality of distinctive neutrality. It has to be unique, yet have a "clean" look in order to be able to fade into the background. That's an attribute that's hard, but not impossible, to appreciate. Look at that Frank Lloyd Wright house. Part of its charm is that it's interesting to look at, but doesn't take away from the beauty of the natural surroundings.
Modernism also has a different failure mode from traditional aesthetics. Modernist aesthetics, when it fails, just looks bland, impossible to tell apart from lazy utilitarianism or alienating hellscapery. If you're a designer of a bad building, maybe trying to frame it as "modernist" is a way to salvage your reputation by pretending you did it intentionally. That would explain part of the persistence of modernism. It's a way to cover up sheer bad design or lack of inspiration, and the trick works often enough that people keep coming back to it.
Why do we need art and architecture that can "fade into the background," you ask? Perhaps it's population growth and mobility. When people are moving around all the time, you don't know who's going to be buying your house next, or wanting to rent your office space, or are designing a building for a diverse public (about half of whom just hate government spending in general), you need a structure that's appealing yet neutral.
Even for our fashion, we don't know what sort of aesthetic standards we'll be judged on by the strangers we'll be meeting every day. Even if we are high status in a particular institution or social scene, we'll meet people every day who are totally outside of that, and might enjoy making fun of us for trying to display our high status with exaggerated ornamentation.
So think of modernism, for the most part, as a way to "gussy up neutrality." If you view it as the highest yearning of a nice safe rectangle, rather than the sad decay of an extravagent gothic cathedral, I think the aesthetic will start to make more sense in its own right.
FWIW, Yale just recently built two new residential colleges that are in the “old style” of trying to look like Cambridge. So occasionally, hugely wealthy institutions do indeed spend money like this.
Oh, has anyone mentioned Kincaid? His art seems relevant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DYnbCRrZn54
"No matter how hard you try to get everything based on money and market forces, it’s still controlled by kind of elite taste and sense of “wouldn’t want to make waves”."
You're missing the obvious answer here: capitalism is itself controlled by the "elite" (i.e the bourgeoisie). Money and the markets are maintained by the bourgeoisie (elite). This is something Marxists have known and written about at length.
Egalitarianism was also the reason for the Mao suit. Everyone dressed the same; everyone was equal. I'm honestly surprised today's wokies haven't adopted a similar garment. It would place a barrier between them and the rest of the country and make it clear who are the anti-racists and who are the racists.
Antifa has their uniform, but it's designed to provoke terror, much like other violent organizations.
I think that each art form that we've discussed here has different dynamics, which makes picking out a single cause that has led to all of them tricky. I'd go so far as to say that all the plausible mechanisms that has been suggested is partially true.
Fashion: Notable in that there's no real difference between elite and mass opinion. Everyone can watch the latest James Bond movie and agree that everyone in it is wearing very nice clothes. As already noted it got simplified and de-ornamented some decades earlier than the other art forms. More recently we seem to have undergone a second great reunciation, as men have collectively decided that actually even a plain suit is too fancy and they'd rather just wear shirt sleeves, then t-shirts and jeans... and over the past couple of years suddenly it's okay to wear sweat pants. Men didn't need much persuasion to do this, we just needed an excuse, which leads me to suspect that the first great renunciation was also just about comfort and convenience.
Architecture: worth noting there's several streams of architecture going on. In residential architecture, where middle class people get to call the shots, there's plenty of building in traditional styles still going on. In office and apartment buildings and shopping centres, where property developers call the shots, you'll see a lot of fairly boring towers and boxes because that's a sensible way to get bang for your buck. It's only in public architecture (public buildings, museums, universities) that the elites get to call the shots based on the tastes that they have (or want to be seen as having) and this is where you'll see the biggest gap between what people want and what they get. Still, I think architecture is slowly recovering from its 20th century experiment with high modernism, and I'll take a 2010s public building over a 1970s one any day.
Music: really complicated, defies simple analysis. "Art" music drove itself off a cliff sometime around 1930, but "popular" music has gone from a bunch of "Hey nonny nonny" to a vast array of genres with varying levels of complexity.
Painting, sculpture, poetry: these are dead art forms in search of purpose, calmly floating away unmoored from the laws of supply and demand.
Prose: notable for being the only major art form that _hasn't_ undergone a major simplification. If this one had followed the same trajectory as the others then the top-selling novels of 2020 would look more like See Spot Run.
Thank you for the quotation, and the honour of taking the biggest hit!
I don't disagree. I felt I addressed your point that there's clearly beauty out there in referring lone genius. They're not necessarily uncommon, just evidently not common enough that we can rely on them alone. My claim is that the general and systemic capacity to produce beauty, once lost, is difficult to recapture.
If it isn't obvious I see beauty in 19th century terms, it's a phenomenological object that emerges from free and healthy life. But I think my points hold for a broader and more subjective view that fits this comments section. Are we not here grappling with the failure to make things that please people, in the most general sense? In a box that big surely, whatever you make of beauty, it can fit.
I think my point is worth reiterating because we're doomed to miss the truth in this discussion if we don't contemplate the possibility of a singularness to beauty. Modern manners and habits keeps us from declaring the taste of modernists basically wrong, but it could be. These people could be aesthetically sick.
I don't know, but it's a view we shouldn't avoid considering. It's incredibly problematic if true, so we should be suspicious of a desire to just stamp beauty as subjective and move along.
I've really enjoyed these posts, and hope it may continue into a longer series.
I got a degree in art education, and despite liking both making and teaching art, constantly wanted to give up over all the rubbish "art is intentionality" conversations, and find aesthetics very difficult to think or talk about. This is a problem professionally, because I'm supposed to lead aesthetic conversations, but mostly just paint and sculpt and run kilns and such things. Students mostly don't want to talk about aesthetics beyond things like "I want to draw this musician because I connect with his music" or "I like this galaxy painting because it's beautiful" either.
For the most part, we seem to be living in parallel artistic universes that hardly overlap. Maybe three of them.
The popular universe, full of graphic novels, fantasy, sci-fi, and generally highly detailed story worlds with realism, attention to detail, classical sound tracks, and so on. That's the conceptual world Burning Man installation art inhabits. There are fun art spaces in this sphere, like Meow Wolf, no expanded into Omega Mart and a new franchise.
Then there's a local and traditional art scene. My suburb holds an annual studio tour, and while a portion of it is scammy crystal stuff, much of it is quite technical and traditional, describing itself with labels like "Hudson River School" and local metalworking or pottery traditions.
Then there's the "high art" world. Which I've studied a bit, and sometimes understand where people are coming from, but it's more intuitively foreign than traditional architecture from anywhere in the world. There's a lot going on about material innovation -- photography, tube paints, acrylics, screen printing, and so on. Much of which is quite interesting. But it's interesting historically, rather than aesthetically. I keep encountering people trying to teach pop art lessons, because it's bright and simple, but am not convinced that either they or I particularly understand pop art. There seems to be an interesting personality and story there, but it's more historical than artistic, in a way that neoclassical sculptures aren't. Some 21st Century art does connect on a more intuitive level -- I feel that say about the Harlem Renaissance, for instance; probably because it's outsider art more than establishment, and the iconography mostly isn't obscure. The current planting style, especially the work of Piet Oudolf, is rather romantic and very attractive -- especially the seasonality of how it's planned out to grow and decay through late summer and fall. I'm especially a fan of the Lurie Garden in Chicago.
Both in making and teaching art, I mostly inhabit that second space, and there's a lot there, though it's fairly regionally specific. While it might not be feasible to find Art Deco furniture in places without an Art Deco tradition, there are very attractive regional styles still in production, as well as conventionally popular murals on plenty of neighborhood buildings. In an otherwise basic mobile home, I have hand carved wooden posts on the carport in the local style. A neighbor has wooden architectural accents, as well as an attractive, traditional hand carved wooden bench. They can be had from roadside sellers at a working class salary (for people who want to invest in that sort of thing). Our wrought iron isn't Art Deco, but it's common and attractive, with some especially nice gates and courtyards. I think New Orleans might also still have an active tradition in this. People are still building lovely small churches, as well, with charming domes and lovely traditional frescoes. But religiosity is down, so it's not surprising less money has been going into this lately (Russia excepted). Anyway, my current city isn't rich and international enough to need towers of glass and steel.
We have our share of ugly subdivisions, but I think that really is a budget constraint. There's strong demand for single family homes with yards, new appliances, and updated heating and cooling, and the fastest way to get this done is in the form of boring subdivisions. Alas.
In any event, I've come to the conclusion that, as interesting as it might be to find out the specifics of why organizations in New York or other big cities make the choices they do, it mostly doesn't affect me very much. The subdivisions do affect me, and I would strongly prefer they take the form of villages with a plaza and shops in the center, but the incentives to make that happen aren't there. I'm not sure why capitalism seems to be failing there, but it seems to be something to do with zoning, but more to do with people already committing the most they're able to for a house and yard, with nothing left over to pay extra for aesthetically appealing small walkable shopping areas -- or not more than a couple such areas per city. I certainly don't shop at my local market, and go to the big ugly warehouse stores instead.
As a busy architect living in New Orleans, I'm coming late to the discussion but I thought I would add my thoughts to the highlight reel instead of trying to say something in the 1000+ comments of the original post. The post and resulting discussion were a great read and within the comments, some were good, some bad, and a few that have a misunderstanding of architecture as both an art and science and that somehow Modern Architecture really just started appearing post-WW2.
Taking a step back, the idea that all old/classical architecture was supremely ornamental, solid, and stately is because for many of the surviving buildings they were intended to be signifiers of the dominant culture, ruling classes or thriving capitalists. The important buildings were built with narrative decoration but also narrative & symbolic floor plans. This applied mainly to government buildings, religious buildings, palaces, then the later mansions, museums, libraries & courthouses.
But a deeper study of the mundane buildings surrounding those architectural gems, most were not highly decorative nor constructed to last centuries. Many were made of low-quality brick, stone and/or wood timber (later replaced with cast iron & steel framing.)
There have been stylistic shifts even within classical architecture that swung from the austerity of the Romanesque to the highly decorative aesthetics of the Baroque. The classical buildings that make up our Nation's Capital are modernist interpretations of Roman & Greek architecture that were never crisply detailed nor marble white. Those are modern steel structures with stone skins. The last traditional stone building constructed in D.C. (that I'm aware of) is the National Cathedral, which took 83 years to complete.
Historically, the building arts in the early U.S., with regards to stone construction, lag compared to Europe because we had an abundance of timber and a dearth of cathedral stonemasons for decades. This is why early American & Colonial architecture is much more austere and less decorative than the later classical buildings we admire that came along. Yes, we had some brick buildings back then but early brick buildings back then sucked. I've worked on them - low quality brick that had to be covered in plaster to keep it from melting. Even Washington's Mt. Vernon is all-wood construction w/ wood siding cut to look like stone block.
Burnham and Root's Monadnock Building in Chicago appeared in 1891 and was lambasted for being too austere because it lacked decoration. It's also the tallest load-bearing brick wall building at 16 stories. Burnam and Root ushered in the Chicago style that was less decorative than previous buildings but decidedly more decorative than today's buildings.
But the modern architecture we're focusing on is the style that has its roots in the early 1900s. The Viennese architect Adolf Loos helped kick off the movement with his polemic 'Ornament and Crime' and while he eschewed the overt ornamentalism that prevailed in his city of Vienna, Loos designed several buildings that are examples of rational ornamentalism where the elements of building and craft become the decoration vs. the filigree of the then classical architecture. Japanese architecture was becoming known in the West as well and its minimalism had profound effects on many architects that would become pioneers of 20th C modernism. WW1 had a huge impact on bringing about modernism in architecture, art, music, and literature and the rejection of Imperialism and the Belle Époque era. Between WW1 and WW2, modernist architecture was seen as utilitarian and egalitarian and less ostentatious than the Art Deco & Moderne Movements. The Mid 20s & 30s saw early Modernist works by Aalto, Mies, Corbusier, and other European architects and the new methods for building as a way to create affordable aesthetically modener buildings for everyone, this was true of the original Bauhaus school and its founders. IN the U.S., FLW, R.M. Schindler, Richard Neutra, and others were pushing modernism especially in California
But it wasn't until after WW2, did the efficiencies and minimalism of Modernism collide with the reconstruction demands of the markets and, in the U.S., an exuberance and embrace of the New. When Mies Van der Rohe completed his Lake Shore towers and Seagram buildings in 1951, and SOM's Lever House in 1952, the International Style (Mid Century Modernism) became the de facto style for corporate America. These early Modernist towers were not cheap nor unornamented. The ornamentation was expressed through tectonics, materiality, and massing vs. applied ornament (we'll skip PoMo for now.) Once Corporate America attached itself to the International Style. we soon started to see lesser quality iterations of the Seagram and Lever buildings being built across America and we get the crap that Facebook inhabits.
At the same time, we had a shift in how construction was done, buildings became more complex to build, maintain and operate. Skilled labor was still unionized, you had trade schools that taught building trades, so you still had craftsmen to create classical elements when needed or commissioned. Today we have stricter building codes that dictate the life-safety, health, and welfare of building occupants, accessibility codes, energy codes, hurricane and earthquake criteria to design against which all impact the overall cost of a building. Not to mention the complexity of the operation and the building automation systems.
And while it seems absurd that architecture can't operate like a car factory, it's because literally, almost every building is a one-off structure that is never duplicated again (office parks not withstanding.) Prefabrication is utilized and can save on some labor costs, the construction industry is also heavily dependent on global supply chains and impacted by mother nature in a way other industries are not. The U.S. is facing a poly-iso insulation shortage due to a TX factory shutting down during their big freeze (broken sprinkler pipes flooded the factory) and a 1/3 of the U.S. supply chain disappeared. These impacts cause delays & rising costs that no one can plan for. Again, a client's budget is the biggest driver in what a building gets constructed out of and its resulting aesthetics.
Another big reason we don't see more classical architecture being built for public buildings and institutions is that that style of architecture is too expensive to replicate with traditional stone cladding and ornamentation and taxpayers balk at any public building that has the whiff of being ostentatious. For private developers, investors, and Wall Street, there exists the same issues but now you have to factor in an ROI of 5-10yrs on a building before it is sold.
The commoditization of architecture, both commercial and residential, has had a huge impact on the investment of capital one puts into commissioning a building. If you're building a spec office building to cash in on a hot market, you can't afford to spend 10 years building a stone edifice so you build a contemporary building that costs $200/SF and you can build it in 12months and lease it out to WeWorks until you clear your note, make money and then sell the building.
The residential arena is the inverse of the commercial arena where most homebuilders throw up cheaply constructed schlock houses using 5 different floor plans & finished with cultured stone trim, foam columns, and some vinyl siding, then call it Traditional or Transitional Premium Custom Homes. Whereas most modernist-style homes are custom-built one-offs that are often times bespoke construction.
Architecture and construction are complicated and complex which is why it befuddles so many, including the architects and contractors. As for why can't modern architecture be colorful, it is can be. Check out Legoretta's work. Dezeen the website as plenty of examples of colorful, playful, and ornamented modern buildings. They may not have Corinthian columns and a marble entablature telling the story of Eros but they're decidedly not boring or ugly. Despite the protestations of the National Civic Art Society and their push poll on "traditional" architecture.
I disagree on the "technological regress" comment. In reality we're living in a world where we have amazing technological capabilities that are hampered by useless rules and regulations such as the requirement to conduct "environmental studies" before building anything larger than a single family home. If you allowed an engineering firm to just build a bridge without worrying about any regulations whatsoever and shielded them from anyone who dares to oppose the construction locally, I'm sure they could build a working, durable bridge for a price far lower than during the 19th century. Of course... the complete disregard for rules might result in more accidents than usual, tons of noise, construction garbage being dumped into a random hole, etc. It would also require the government to arrest a few dozen people who will inevitably try to sabotage the construction for various reasons. But it could definitely be done.
I think the mechanical reproduction argument (that reproducibility leads to weird non-mass taste taking over the elite) is pretty persuasive, when you consider that in fields which have always had perfect reproducibility (e.g. literature and film), there hasn't been any shift of the sort you describe -- I'm no expert on avant garde film, but I'm pretty sure that the films that are considered good today by serious critics are no less coherent or "representational" than Un Chien Andalou or whatever. And in literature, the shift since WWII has been towards SFF and postmodern techniques, none of which is any clear sense less "ornamented" or populist in its appeal than Tolstoy or Henry James. The closest thing in literature is that rhyming metrical poetry has gone somewhat out of fashion since WWII, but that hardly seems like the same kind of epochal shift as represented by abstract/conceptual visual art -- contemporary poets still try to write meaningful things that sound nice, and I don't think critics are particularly impressed with "Tender Buttons" style non-semantic stuff or typewriter-bashing anymore. So it's really just the fields in which there was a major shift of reproducibility that this change has been pronounced. That indicates a signaling explanation pretty clearly to me.
(Of course, in the case of architecture there are all kinds of complicated economic and regulatory factors, which make it an especially unilluminating case study of the purely cultural question imo)
How about the CIA? "By promoting modern art movements such as abstract expressionism – and artists including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko – as showcases of America’s creativity and freedom of expression, foreign intelligence services ended up shaping the modern world’s aestheticsensibilities."
The complaints about McMansions always remind me of the quip "Oh, nobody goes to X anymore — it's too crowded!"
There are a lot of McMansions in America... and almost all of them have (presumably happy) families living in them. The owners just don't bother posting online about how OK they are with the design.
I am sure somebody's said this already, but I think we shouldn't conflate ornateness, beauty and being magnificent/astonishing/awe-inspiring.
For example, the labor cost and regulations probably explain why the Burj Khalifa or the Shanghai Tower weren't built in the US.
In short, this not a single issue and various suggested explanations all work to explain some of the aspects of the current situation.
This may sound a bit silly, but I think it reinforces Scott's argument that modern architecture isn't most people's preference: what styles are people building in Minecraft?
There's a subreddit we can look at: https://www.reddit.com/r/Minecraftbuilds. Sorting by all-time top, the first modern style build comes in at post 25, and that one isn't external architecture; it's a kitchen. Looking around the subreddit and on Google Images, two of the most popular styles seem to be medieval (especially stone castle-like structures) and rustic (with lots of wood and nature incorporated). Classical and East Asian are also popular. Modern style is much rarer.
Minecraft is interesting because people are free to design buildings however they like, unconstrained by cost, regulations or other practical considerations. And anyone can play Minecraft, so we get to see designs by people who aren't architects or otherwise associated with the modern art elite.
One possible counter-argument is that people prefer modern style in real life, but in Minecraft modern plain box buildings aren't impressive enough to get upvoted. This may be part of it, but you certainly can find modern-style Minecraft builds that are impressive and creative. It's just less common than other styles. Another possibility is the blocks Minecraft offers may favour certain styles (eg, they have a large selection of wood blocks). However, it has a lot of block types and you can find examples of every architectural style in Minecraft.
I too don't believe in the cost argument. There are plenty of new beautiful buildings in classical styles. Also, "classical styles" doesn't mean tons of ornaments or detailed stonework.
Here's a competition for "Most beautiful new building in 2020" by a Swedish association for classical architecture. There's zero statues and it doesn't look that expensive, but still lots of beautiful classical buildings: http://www.arkitekturupproret.se/2021/02/04/rosta-fram-sveriges-vackraste-nyproduktion-2021/
Below is an interview (in Swedish) with Eric Norin, a young architect who campaigns for the classical style. He tells some stories from his six years at one of the most prestigious schools of architecture in Sweden. A hundred years ago, the first assignment for new students was to draw a classical Greek temple. His first assignment was to dissect a fruit. There was zero exams during the entire education. The word "beautiful" was never mentioned. If you want to learn traditional styles, you have to leave Sweden. https://open.spotify.com/episode/7nCmrlepV0TAq39umRx0Dy?si=Lr8q3IIYQGejSif5sVBwsg&dl_branch=1
My take is that architecture is ideologically captured by modernism. Most architects today don't know or care for the traditional styles, and since society has a general over-reliance on "experts" which is further worsened by regulatory issues (that are worse in building and in the education of new architects than in many other areas), this becomes self-perpetuating as the old modernist architects gets to decide what new buildings gets built and how new architects are educated.
The comment by Phil Getz is great. I had always thought that the primitive style of medieval art vs the naturalistic sculptures of the classics was some vague side effect of the dark ages, rather than an explicit choice made for ideological reasons. It'd be interesting to read more about this, if there's good evidence for it.
Regarding the hope that CAD software will bring back ornamentation: my (amateur) experience has been the opposite, in that most CAD software is very good at handling simple forms (simple geometric forms, simple repeating forms) and very bad at handling organic forms (complex smooth shapes, fractal repetition and so on). The end result is that it's an order of magnitude harder to model a complex, ornamented and organic-looking shape in CAD software than it is to produce a simple, abstract, geometric shape. This is also true of some common manufacturing processes (such as CNC machining and even FDM 3D printing), which struggle to produce involuted and organic shapes.
As an semi-random example of this in action: in pro-gun circles, there seems to be a near-universal appreciation of late-19th and early-20th century firearms (especially pistols) as looking smooth or attractive, but also a general recognition that such weapons would be un-economical to produce today compared to the square steel-and-plastic bricks that dominate the market.
> If Pinterest is any kind of representative window into the soul of the modern furniture-enthusiast, people really like Art Nouveau.
I don't know much about architecture, but I wouldn't buy any of the items in the bottom row, even if they cost $9.99. They are all completely impractical, and look a bit kitchy to me on top of that. Yes, I understand that e.g. the tea set pictured in the bottom-left required orders of magnitude more labor than my own humble set of ordinary circular plates and cups; but the one advantage I have is I that I can actually eat off of my tea set. Without having a prehensile proboscis of some kind, that is.
>But Kaleberg argues the exact opposite point:
> Architectural ornament is much cheaper than it used to be, so it is less important.
This doesn't sound like opposite to cost disease. On one hand, the "flat" cost of labour to raise a building goes up because of Baumol, and so does the "flat" cost of land. On the other, additional unnecessary _ornaments_ that would display wealth go down in price because of industrialization and improved technology. So the (effective signal / (cost of signals + flat costs)) ratio goes down, and traditional architecture is not very efficient at signalling.
So you either:
A) pay astronomical contracts to a scarce set of elite-approved architects, so that they build crazy structures that make engineers cry. Because that will _actually_ rise the costs of construction unnecessarily by an order of magnitude or two.
B) make concrete, cubic, efficient and borderline functional buildings for the general populace to be in.
>> i think the most famous and esteemed architecture of the last 50 years is *extremely* diverse. frank gehry vs frank lloyd wright vs moshe safdie vs zaha hadid look like they come from different planets.
> In case you don’t immediately recognize all those names, here’s one top building from each
One of these things is not like the others.
On a related note:
Regarding beauty in art, I was told by at least one art professor that true art is indeed *supposed* to be ugly. Beauty (according to the professor) is a kind of fast food for the mind: it makes your brain go "wow" so it glosses over everything else. By making art deliberately ugly, artists are bypassing this quick and easy satisfaction, thus forcing the viewer to engage with the artwork on a deeper intellectual/philosophical level.
Any cost-based theory that aims to cover fashion has to contend with children's dressing-up clothes. You can buy a princess dress for about £15 that has layers of iridescent shimmery silky fabric, heavy velvet in rich colours, and intricate embroidery with beads sewn into it.
People usually think of communist art as ugly Brutalist stuff, but Moscow metro is better-looking to me than many museums.
Especially the early stations. Later stations are either suffering from cost-savings because of the economic collapse (we call them "centipede stations" because of the abundance of columns) or devolve into the same modern architecture style.
I'm not sure if this is directly relevant, but Buckminster Fuller was an architectural engineer whose biography, At Home in Universe, discusses the lag between technological innovation and its use in architecture. (About 40 years.)
The notion of an increased lag in one field relative to another might be relevant to timeframes.
As something of an iconoclast, the obstacles he faced might be relevant?
Have you seen Taipei 101?
It's very art deco - if art deco were done with reference to Chinese architectural forms.
Modern Russian (and possible Chinese, but I know nothing about it) architecture might be an interesting case to check out. 90's brought a great upheaval to society, and a lot of people suddenly had lots of money - which they spent building houses, of course. Literally none of them were "old money", because there were no old money in USSR, but a lot of them romanticised and adored pre-Revolution Russia, and old estates of aristocracy, which they tried their best to imitate. So now we have a lot of pseudo-classical houses in various gated suburban communities, with varying degrees of ornamentation.
In less elite architecture, the much-maligned Commie Blocks and Brutalism gave way to "Luzhkov's Empire" style in 90's, so named after the famous long-time mayor of Moscow. They were much more decorative than the old Soviet apartment buildings - and of course, universally hated by people with art degrees (here's the best set of photos I could find quickly, along with an article by a defender of this style, who renames it "Capitalistic Romanticism": https://daily.afisha.ru/cities/20759-bodipozitiv-ot-arhitektury-kak-i-zachem-polyubit-urodlivye-zdaniya-90-h-i-00-h/). It's hard to pinpoint exactly what that style was about - mostly, it was "anything, but concrete blocks". It included low-budget high-rises with decorative turrets build on the outskirts of the city for those who couldn't afford a more stylish apartment in the center of the city, but didn't want to live in a Soviet-era building. It also included attempts to re-create much-beloved by late Soviet generation Stalin's Empire style (I absolutely love it, by the way!). AND it also included pseudo-classical buildings with cheap-ish decorations. And a rebuild Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, of course.
Today, Luzhkov's Empire mostly gave way to boring Western trends, but you still can see a stealthy, sneaky, very-very high-end new apartment complexes built in the back of historical buildings that tries to imitate them with all success of a nouveau riche trying to blend into Old Money gathering. Still better than most Twisted Concrete that people call "stylish" now, IMO, but what do I know, I also prefer George Thorogood to any rap artist ever.
I don’t know about architecture, but as a hand bookbinder and woodworker (examples: https://stevenhales.org/home/hobbies/) I can attest that Baumol is a big reason that books are seldom bound in goatskin with elaborate gilt tooling any more, or that people buy IKEA furniture instead of handcrafted pieces in cherry and purpleheart. The labor to make those things is very high and can’t be automated. Materials costs are also considerable (I was out $1000 in wood to build a four-door bookcase). But I don’t know if those costs exceed inflation over costs of the past.
> How come we don’t have rich [entities] saying “screw the price, I really want this one thing to look nice”?
I nominate Yale University's two new residential colleges (glorified dorms!) as a counterexample to that. Franklin College and Pauli Murray College were built in only a few years (2014-2017). The university probably had a strong desire to meet the standard of its original 10 colleges (constructed 1930-1940) and not repeat the mistake of the modern architecture of the two built in the early 1960s. The latter (Morse and Stiles Colleges) are near universally disliked by students, who hope not to be assigned to them, to the point where it probably affects Yale's admissions process and image.
Another thing not mentioned is that buildings made for us plebs seem to be designed to be functional and bare bones.
Airports used to be beautiful, this was when only the top 10% flew. I assume the revenue the airports get from mass travel is greater than before but there’s often no desire to create anything but the most functional additions to airports.
It may have been because it was just after being built but I remember when Bristol airport added on new gates. The previous gates were (and are) arranged in a semi circle around a circular concourse. There are shops, cafes and bars at two levels, plenty of seating in the centre including some sofas etc.
The new gates are down a corrugated white painted walkway with no paintings or furnishings. The gates are below this walkway so it never widens out to facilitate shops between gates. When I did the trip last, we were called an hour before boarding. Arriving at the stairs to the gate, after a ten minute walk through the featureless metal tube, the airline checked our identity and let us down to a medium sized room with no furnishings or seats, Instead we basically stayed in line in those Disney type queuing systems. An hour later we boarded.
Recently in Hamburg as I went to the passport control to the gates for travel outside the Schengen zone, whereupon you are stuck, there was also no cafes, food or even a vending machine.
It’s hard to see who this benefits. The airport loses revenue from the cafes or shops they could have built along the way, passengers get a much worse experience. The airlines don’t gain much either. It’s just punishment for air travel being common.
I can’t help but think that if airports were still posh, they would have added the new gates in a similar fashion
> Okay, this ought to be an empirical question. Does architectural ornament cost more or less than it used to? If somebody does a deep dive into this, I will absolutely link them. If you think you could do exceptionally good research in exchange for money, please contact me.
I'm not an architect, but I am a mechanical engineer and I worked for 7 years in a machine shop that served a variety of industries (including on occasion making jigs, molds, etc. for creating mass-produced architectural ornamentation and on *very* few occasions making custom-designed small-batch or one-off ornate items as gifts.)
From my experience, metal, plastic, wood, foam and concrete ornamentation is QUITE cheap now when you can use mass-produced pieces. You're looking at a few dollars for a single piece of ornamentation (or perhaps 10s of dollars if it's large with more significant material costs, etc.) Much cheaper than any pre-industrial architect would have access to.
On the other hand, our custom ornate work was far too expensive for any of our customers to afford. An ornate aluminum pencil-holder we made for one of our long-time customers that we had an excellent relationship with would have easily cost $2000 at our standard rates. Custom work is still extremely expensive, and if you're making an architectural show piece you'll need a lot of custom one-offs and small batches.
That's probably most of the difference in perspective here. Want to mass produce townhouses with a particular set of architectural flourishes? Much more affordable now than 100 years ago! Want to create a unique one-off building on your campus with a set of ornamentation to match its surroundings and your personal aesthetic? No more affordable than it was 100 years ago, and probably more expensive due to Baumol's.
The one other aspect that's worth mentioning is *stone*. When you can make do with concrete or brick of some variety, colored to look like your limestone or whatever, you can easily benefit from technology on mass produced bits. We can cast concrete blocks en masse (even with some ornate features) quite cheaply. If, on the other hand, you're not able to fake your stone with concrete (say, marble or obsidian, or you just really want authentic limestone) then you're looking at a tiny industry which has not benefited nearly as much from automation and is hitting Baumol's head-on.
Let's kick "omniscient narration" around a little.
Experimental fiction does *something* drastic to narration, but omniscient narrator isn't the opposite of it.
The extremely popular ASoIaF doesn't do omniscient narration. GRRM is philosophically opposed to it, so everything comes from characters' points of view. This has turned around and bitten him because he has to get someone whose point of view he wants to offer into place for all the events he wants to show.
A very high proportion of paranormal romances/urban fantasies are first person narration, frequently one person for the whole book.
Regarding cost diseases of traditional architectures, it might be interesting to study the Japanese sengū practice:
"In Japan there is a shrine [the Grand Shrine of Ise] that is rebuilt every twenty years. A new shrine, identical to the old one, is built on a site next to it. The sacred objects are transferred from old to new and the old shrine is razed to the ground. The main building of the shrine thus moves back and forth between two adjacent sites. The practice dates back to the late seventh century. ... Although the structures are simple, rebuilding the entire shrine complex and replacing all of the implements of worship every twenty years cost extravagant sums.3 The same practice of periodic renewal was seen at several other major shrines in Japan before the Meiji Restoration [late 19th century], when the new imperial government limited it to Ise, primarily for ﬁnancial reasons." (from "Japan’s Monument Problem: Ise Shrine as Metaphor" by Jordan Sand, https://www.academia.edu/15221926/Ise_Shrine_as_Metaphor )
> The YIMBYs hate on the historical commissions and their stringent design reviews, but it never occurs to them that if new developments looked more like the historic districts they degrade, people might actually support them more.
Like most "my opponents never consider X" claims, this is false - it's commonly brought up by yimbys, but consensus is that changing the style of building never helps get it approved, so this is at best a very marginal factor and, more likely, a completely fabricated excuse against general opposition to change or density.
I have some comments on the comments:
There actually was a parallel to modernist architecture in Revolutionary France. It's called French Revolutionary Architecture, and it had a branch, the Utopian Revolutionary Architecture, which consisted of building designs like this memorial for Isaac Newton: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolutionsarchitektur#/media/Datei:%C3%89tienne-Louis_Boull%C3%A9e_Memorial_Newton_Night.jpg
In its audacity and its use of blank geometric shapes, its quite similar, but nothing of it was ever built.
Concerning the Adorno quote and the question of "No beautiful architecture after the Nazis", there is a link between the Nazi atrocities and modern architecture, but it's very counterintuitive. In Germany, in the early Wiederaufbau years, architecture continued just as under the Nazis, which means unoffensive traditionalism for residential and commercial buildings. Then, in the early 50s, when there was a civil society again, the architects, who of course where also architects under the Nazis, noticed that maybe they should distance themselves from the Nazis in some form.
So what they did is they identified traditional architecture with National Socialism and condemned both, while praising Modernism as the architecture for democracy. The reason why this is so pervasive is because this movement immediately swept through the universities, so the generation studying after the war learned nothing else. The German hippies also bought into those ideas, so now you have two whole decades only trained in modernist ideas, holding all the positions in universities. In Germany, any person I know who studied architecture is filled to the brim with modernist talking points, and has no idea of architectural history before 1930.
Leon Krier (who studied architecture in the 50s in Germany, and who built Poundbury) tells this story in a Welt interview ( https://www.welt.de/kultur/kunst-und-architektur/article154083485/Albert-Speer-Das-war-gute-Architektur.html):
"Everyone who drew something reasonable was despatched. To my designs the old professor said: 'We did things like that in the Third Reich.' I said: 'That sound's interesting, tell us about it.' But he stormed away red with rage. "
Concerning the Berliner Stadtschloß: The stones of the facade where produced by the German company Bamberger Natursteinwerke, which specialises in producing stone ornaments with industrial robots. (https://www.bamberger-natursteinwerk.de/en/innovation/robots-3d-facades)
One major problem I see with the "our civilization doesn't deserve nice things after WWII" perspective is that in the unlikely event I were to ever find myself in a similar position to Curtis LeMay or Bomber Harris, I'm pretty sure I'd have fewer qualms about bombing cities filled with brutalist and mid-century modernist architecture. Sure, the industrial capacity being targeted and the potential civilian casualties are paramount, but if, for example, there's a Frank Gehry near a ball bearing factory I'm eager to take out....that just might push me toward giving the "go" order. In that sense, this entire line of thinking is self-defeating. It simply makes another Dresden more likely.
On the last quote from Corentin about the evils of serialist dominance of music departments: At least one historians claims that when you do careful empirical analysis you'll see there never was a period of 'serial' dominance, and that even if you extend to all kinds of atonal avant-garde music, there was always at least as much traditional stuff around:
'I will show that whether one is inquiring about academic positions, performances, publications, recordings, prizes and awards, or attention in the press, serial composers were represented roughly 15 percent of the time, hardly a position of dominance. Between half and two-thirds of
composers, throughout the period and in all corners of the musical marketplace, wrote in a relatively conservative idiom, with a style that maintained strong ties to traditional tonality. The other significant groups of composers worked either in a free atonal style or in a more experimental idiom.'
Only someone who actually likes atonal music would give a shit about the distinction between serialism and free atonality (spoiler: to any normal human being, even a fairly musical one who likes earlier classical music they sound effectively identical (unless the serialism is total anyway, in which case it just makes even less sense): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AQx0V2lZs8 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xq2gwuKDPnY). But this does seem like it might show that actually, there was always at least as much *fairly* traditional pieces about.
I say fairly, because it is possible to be quite modernist and difficult whilst remaining tonal. I.e: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_XNfKk-Qbs (At least, I *think* this is tonal (in the sense of having some notes that appear more often than others, and hence are kind of 'home', not in the sense of being in a major/minor key.) I'm not expert and I couldn't find anything definitive by googling.)
> The Great Male Renunciation began in the mid-18th century, inspired by the ideals of the The Enlightenment; clothing that signaled aristocratic status fell out of style in favor of functional, utilitarian garments
Maybe this is just a detail and doesn't meaningfully distract from the point, but isn't a tie the least utilitarian thing ever?
Would folks consider this a building built recently in a classical style done right? I am not sure how much more it cost vs what a modernist cathedral would have cost. It was quite expensive. I find it quite beautiful particularly inside.
I have found this discussion extremely interesting, not least because I'm in the process of developing two new buildings and so am very deep into discussions of design/ornament/cost.
I'm going to ask some builders what kind of costs we'd be looking at to do something traditional. My expectation is that it will be far beyond my budget, but it should be interesting.
The Great Male Renunciation is a wonderful title, but it seems to ignore that the Puritans got there first in the 17th century; if you like, it was taken to the extreme in Cavaliers versus Roundheads: long, curled hair (or wigs), slashed sleeves and bright colours on the one hand, short-cut hair, sober colours and modesty on the other, though there was a general reaction for both Catholics and Protestants towards less extravagance in dress, until the Restoration of Charles II brought sumptuousness back into fashion.
There are definitely these swings between high style and soberness, with the effects of post-war etc. on fashion and taste. Of course, if you are a rising new generation and you are going to rebel against your elders, then if the elders go in for furbelow, you will go in for austere minimalism.
I think the McMansions show the trouble with trying to build old styles today; it is very easy to topple over into kitsch, as someone in another comment noted. Lack of understanding of what the elements are meant to do and how they are meant to go together gets the result of things crammed in together in too small a space and without knowledge of what fits with what. You end up with Las Vegas style recreations that strike a note of vulgarism and of simultaneously being cheap (because they look tacky and low-class) and expensive (because even bad buildings are expensive to build).
You need sympathetic handling of the material in the space and an understanding of what works, combined with tactful updating and change to suit modern tastes. You don't get that easily, particularly when the patrons who are the ones paying for big modern projects want 'star' buildings that break records as World's Tallest or look different in some startling way - the Dubai idea of trying to build new attractions to be the New Seven Wonders of the World as tourist attractions in order to diversify their economy from its reliance on oil to a reliance on tourism and the very, very rich being willing to buy apartments and indulge in luxury retail experiences there.
I think under-explored is the link between Nazism and Communism and the birth of the sort of modern architecture most people hate.
Le Corbusier, the patron-saint of modern architecture, had the same vison as these totalitarian philosophies. It is no coincidence that the three of them rose to prominence in the interbellum, after the devastations of World War I. Their shared philosophy: ”The world that we inherited is rotten to the core and we will raze it to the ground and build a new world that will bring happiness and prosperity to all (my words).”
Le Corbusier was the Stalin of architecture. He thought he knew which architecture would create this ideal world and wanted to impose it on everyone, whether they wanted or not (and most people didn't want it, but who cares). In his Plan Voisin he proposed to literally raze Paris to the ground and replace it with sixty enormous buildings (a kind of enormous Projects or Banlieu). In this respect he was like Hitler, who wanted to do the same to Berlin. Also he worked in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1932.
Apart from that he was a nazi-apologist. In a letter to his mother he wrote:
“If he is serious in his declarations, Hitler can crown his life with a magnificent work, the remaking of Europe.” At the height of the war two years later, he described Hitler as “glimmer of good”, welcoming the great “clean- up” that was about to happen. “Money, the Jews, Freemasonry, everything will be subject to the law. These shameful fortresses will be dismantled.”
(source: https://nationalvanguard.org/2015/03/le-corbusier-shown-to-be-a-hitler-sympathizer/ )
Not to mention that the buildings and cities (Chandigarch) he created are terrible to live in.
It is incredible that he is still held in such veneration by most architects and critics and historians of architecture today.
I always wonder:”Do these people really believe what they write or not?” It is hard to believe they do...
Your post inspired this article on neighborhoods architecture (it’s linked there in the end): https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-10-05/urban-design-why-can-t-we-build-nice-neighborhoods-anymore?sref=ojq9DljU
The page linked on the Pepsi logo had a bunch of broken links and images, but if anyone didn't click through to the actual PDF document, (https://jimedwardsnrx.files.wordpress.com/2009/02/pepsi_gravitational_field.pdf), it's a work of art. ... quite possibly in genre of parody, but I really can't tell.
There are so many good parts, it's hard to pick one. Trying to equate the experience of standing in an grocery store aisle that has Pepsi with the "Relativity of Space and Time" is definitely a highlight.
I once rented a room to a LWer named komponisto. (Don't rent to him; he still owes me thousands of dollars in back rent.) He was trained as a modern composer, but I never heard any of his music. He showed me a score once from his portfolio. It was in something like 2173 / 3481 time, obviously unplayable by any human, and I think not meant to be listened to. He explained that music composition had evolved to a new stage, and was all mathematics now..
I asked him if he thought his music was objectively better than Beethoven's, and he said yes. I asked him, If we could rewind the clock back to 1850, and get a do-over on the past 150 years, would we inevitably end up where we are now, musically, with music in 1472 / 2188 time like his? He said, yes, he thought so.
Just spotted the King Tut throne chair in the wild! Scott, what do you think of this house? Chair in picture #23.
One addition to the comment about the difficulty of building classical style buildings to modern standards, a lot of old buildings are really unpleasant to live in.
I went to college at an English university, where first years could live in some amazingly beautiful old buildings. But I like most people left as soon as I could, because they were cold and damp in the winter, to a degree I'd never experienced elsewhere. And that's even with having been retrofitted with modern central heating and electricity. Undergraduates will put up with much more than families with children, or older people. And people will sacrifice a lot of aesthetics to not have to sleep in 3 layers of clothes. And I imagine building codes reflect that
Ha, those critiques of McMansions you linked strike me as identical to the overtly contrarian inverse chad vs virgin memes that were popular a while ago, most critiques were in the form of "look, it's uncool thing!" and not a single one didn't make me think "and how is that bad?" which to me feels like obvious attempts at signaling.
"The YIMBYs hate on the historical commissions and their stringent design reviews, but it never occurs to them that if new developments looked more like the historic districts they degrade, people might actually support them more."
I think YIMBYs would be fine with the historical commissions if it meant things got built, but that stuff hardly gets built either. People have the option, right now, of requiring every new building to look like the historic buildings, but I have a hard time imagining that increasing the number of buildings built...
For whoever takes Scott up on his research proposal, one of the Getty sons built an authentic 12th-century castle in the 80's (links below). I remember reading about it in "Painfully Rich" aka "All the Money in the World" by John Pearson. Pearson mentions that nobody in the UK knew how to make a flint structure anymore and the contractors basically had to learn on the job. You could probably track down the architect, building plans, etc. for insights.
I think I also recall Pearson mentioning that the lighting inside the castle was pretty grim by modern standards. Perhaps we're just optimizing on different axes now--glass is uniform but also transparent. If you think of it that way, it's kind of nice that people would prefer sunlight and a view of the rest of the city over adornment.
Actually the €7320 Pamono cabinet you linked is 1920s vintage, not new. They have new furniture with similar prices, but generally modern or at least less elaborate in style.
I've found a company that makes new, wooden furniture in a similar style: https://pfifferbutor.hu/klasszikus-butor (Hungarian site). Their prices are somewhat lower (equivalent to ca. $200 to $5000 range). They also make some modern, less elaborate furniture; the classical furniture seems sometimes significantly more expensive, but not always. I haven't investigated it enough to tell if the extra labor cost of the classical pieces is likely to be a significant part of the price: their most expensive furniture I've found are elaborate classical items, but they also seem more massive (using more wood) than any of their modern items.
Maybe it’s the costs, maybe not. But maybe it’s the returns that have changed. In the past when people still believed in…God? King? Country? An ornate building could serve as a rallying point, a way to symbolize or even consolidate power. Now, we don’t believe in nearly anything with as much gusto. Or maybe we do, we just have technology to rally, inspire, or coordinate the movement without building something.
Here's an anecdote from here in Helsinki. A few years back a developer wanted to build a new building in Jugend (a.k.a. Art Nouveau) style to blend in with the surrounding buildings but the City Planning Office refused to give a permit for such a building so they built one in modern style instead.
In some other articles I've seen some architects effectively say that building new buildings in "historical" styles would be tantamount to forgery.
It's curious how a major form of 20th century art entirely evaded the conversation: rock-n-roll music. Within it are many examples of works which are superficially ugly (distorted electric guitars and screaming, scratchy vocals) yet aesthetically enjoyable in a way the masses could mostly learn to appreciate. Perhaps that observation is too obvious, but it is an example of how even the masses can appreciate "ugly" art if they are exposed to it enough.
The name "Derrière Guard" seems vaguely subversive.
hmm being a copiously overpaid mason working on traditional architecture sounds kinda fun ngl
The music was only "conventional" for a time. Art styles are constantly changing. Compare gregorian chants to beethoven to the butthole surfers. All just different configurations of rhythm, melody, harmony, instrumentation. Just different sets of rules applied to the basic elements. No style is better than any other though people obviously have their preferences.
And think it is probably wrong to say that there is something about consonant western harmonies that especially appeal to the human ear, because asian harmonies can be very different and yet appeal to Asians.
It is perfectly fine to say you prefer this or that style. I don't think it makes sense though, to say one is intrinsically better than the other or that a certain style is a sign or society decline or decadence. Lots of dictators made these kind of connections and dictated art styles. Read about Stalin and Shostikovich. And then Trump tried to dictate that all fed buildings be in a "classical" style.
Along with popular music and television and movies I think another often beautiful thing that slips out of the conversation is landscaping. It probably doesn't say much about our society since by nature it's more or less modern art proof. You can do the "Piss Christ" but the "Piss Goldfish Pond" would surely flop. Searching "modernist landscaping" doesn't make my blue collar soul upset at all.
I worked three years as a landscaper and if it wasn't seasonal it would absolutely be my occupation of choice. I have a picture folder of hundreds of beautiful shots. We worked around the upper middle class including some in a McMansion suburb. (It felt rather Jonathan Swift, out of scale but rather nice. To me the social implications of feeling status anxiety rather than the aesthetics were a little chilling)
One day a co-worker observed something like that we were making cookie cutter suburb products but I didn't agree. To me we were making a thousand tiny Versailles, available to an unthinkable proportion of society. I think there is a lot of truth to the idea that there is so much beauty available that it's completely counterproductive as a status indicator. The basic message this sends about our society may be that there is so much equality that the elites are very uncomfortable and are both not in a position to signal dominance and are very motivated to signal 'some kind of superiority'.
In fact I would say there's an underlying social pressure here that's not just about status. In "Democracy in America" De Tocqueville's description of the progress of equality was mesmerizing in how timeless it seemed. He mentioned how the less distance there was between the classes the more hostility - the more people on either side could say "hey, that could be me". It's not just that conventional beauty is no longer rare but that competing with the average person on grounds that they care about is dangerous. People understand modern art is somewhat of a 'screw you I'm definitely different and better' phenomenon and they hate it for that. But say Bill Gates has a house that is unreachably conventionally beautiful - it's not just annoying, it's infuriating. He's the top dog, he has something common to your experience but that you can't have and that you really want.
Besides factors like being an expression of an underlying worldview then, modern aesthetics are the status signal of elites who have been chased into a corner. It's both being unable to successfully signal with something popular as well as being unable to securely signal with something popular. I could see this applying to public art in the sense that it symbolizes who's in charge. An uncomfortable elite are going to be uncomfortable with public monuments that are popular - they want it to be the domain of their worldview and their chosen tastes. A secure elite don't need to make that signal and indeed would want to show the people that they are the representative and deserving rulers of the general populace.
Towns that had large infusions of wealth over a short period of time, e.g. Williamsport PA because of timber mills, and any town that had a railroad through it, have a lot of large fancy houses. Given the US railroad boom in the 1870's, a lot of these houses would be of Victorian / Queen Anne style, with lots of gingerbread and towers.
You see this pattern all over NY State.
I have to admit I’m a little proud of myself for recognizing Kronstadt Cathedral in the header image. It’s part of a historic naval base, and the ornamentation of the dome with the anchors and ropes is unmistakable. It’s incredible inside, too. I was there years ago when I studied in St. Petersburg. Also, the story of the Kronstadt Rebellion is badass if tragic.
>But nonprofessionals with limited budgets are making things very different from the usual modernist stuff. If we wanted our public art to look very different, we could do it tomorrow.
I think the words "nonprofessionals with limited budgets" are pretty important there. If I'm a bureaucrat looking to hire an artist to make public art, I probably don't have time to spend hours going through the full set of pieces every artist has made and judging them (and if I do, I'm taking personal responsibility for their taste). I do have time to check whether the people applying have art degrees and have won art awards, and then maybe look deeper into *those* people or have some kind of loose oversight over the project (to stop them building a sculpture made of dung or whatever). Guess what sort of taste gets art degrees and wins art awards.
Hobbyists are illegible. I'm not saying you *can't* get a legible qualification of art taste that's based on the desires of laymen, particularly in the modern era with electronically-transmissible photographs (e.g. put a set of ten semi-randomly-chosen photographs of recent art pieces on each ballot paper and ask the voter to rank them, then do statistics on the results to hand out "good art" prizes/credentials), but we don't really have it at the moment.
"This is interesting because the male fashion change happened around 1800, but the architecture change happened around 1930. Those are different enough times that I need to re-evaluate my theory that the move from ornate to plain across many different artistic fields was all part of the same big transition."
The main architectural style of 1800 was neo-classical, which was rather lacking in ornamentation. Paul Johnson points out that King Louis XVI, Robespierre, Napoleon, and King Louis XVII all agreed that a public building should be in a Greek/Roman style. Then came more ornate styles like neo-Gothic (the House of Parliament in Westminster). Johnson says nothing is harder to resist than a style in fashion.
Victorian buildings were ornate ... except for the giant 1851 Crystal Palace erected in Hyde Park, a colossal greenhouse of iron and glass that held a world's fair. This grand harbinger of modernism was wildly popular with the public.
The technology didn't yet exist to build office buildings of steel and glass, but with the huge increases in steel production in the later 19th Century, modernist buildings were inevitable.
Really enjoyed the contributions of the community to this one. They fleshed out a lot of my thinking and gave me an appreciation for how difficult cultural history is.
But I'm surprised that there was no discussion on our inability to produce craftsmen. There is zero emphasis on funneling people into fields like carpentary, plastering and building in general. There's loads of people in schools that have poor attention and little time for theory, but would thrive with a basis of practical, essential skills. Some would go on to be masters in their craft. The dreams of white collars are built with the sweat of the blue.
Regarding the question of why there aren’t colorful, fun versions of modern architecture, that’s basically postmodernism. To my taste, the best examples look pretty cool and are fun to boot, for example the Disney building with the seven dwarf caryatid columns. Unfortunately, much of the rest is pretty schlocky, and the movement came and went pretty fast.
More generally, I wish there were more examples of “modernist, but make it looks nice” architecture. There’s nothing wrong with clean lines and big windows per se, but architects seem to be bent on going all in. A little softer and less aggressive modern architecture would be pretty nice. For my taste, I’d love to see what a blending of modern and Craftsman styles would look like.
Whether you want to call it "economies of scale" or "community of practice," one might try to untie the knot by asserting that something will be done at its best while it is being done the most, and that between 1930 and 1950 western (urban) architecture gear shifts from building places to the lower investment and employment of maintenance mode, which involves an irreplaceable loss of knowledge about how the thing was done in the first place.
The weasel word of course there is "urban". Else one finds oneself looking for the community of practice formed around pre-housing-bubble McMansions and wondering why they fell so short.
Never mind, not much explanatory power on this one, move along.
So we reactionaries seem to be calling for a modern version of the Arts and Crafts Movement? 😀
Given some of the examples above, I think modern architects *are* trying to create what they think are beautiful buildings, it's just that there is a wide gap between the 'educated taste' notion of beauty and the commonplace one.
I am happy that your columns exist. They provide some anchoring or foundation for life in the modern world.
Hi Scott. Regarding architectural ornamentation cost, this is something I'd be willing to look into. I write a newsletter focused on construction industrialization and the cost of building, and have looked into this sort of thing quite a bit (example: https://constructionphysics.substack.com/p/construction-cost-breakdown-and-partial)
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(If someone knows a better way of contacting Scott, let me know).
Here's a piece on the Berlin reconstructed palace:
I think a lot of 5 over 1 style buildings look pretty good. There's a lot of them going up around here and many use color accenting well and they are apparently cheap to build (though this is more of a regulatory invention then a technical one). They're a bit blocky but in a way more natural (and functional) way then a lot of brutalist kinds of things. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-plus-five and (for a somewhat negative take) https://archive.curbed.com/2018/12/4/18125536/real-estate-modern-apartment-architecture
Something of a mashup of the stacked cubes (in one brown color) and the color scheme of the Chinese Pagoda does exist in the "Smurf's Buildings" in Geneva:
Any single photo doesn't really give a feel for the weirdness of the place. You can focus a camera in a way that makes it look very traditional, or alternatively in a way that highlights how non-traditional it is (lots of weird angles and curves). Likewise for the color scheme.
Another interesting example is Marina City in Chicago, which again has both modern elements but also a Sagrada Familia feel.
My overarching theory, among many, is that most everything in every genre is shit. Most pop songs are shit. Most TV shows are shit. Most movies are shit. Most books are shit. Most art is shit.
I do like some modern buildings very much, but I agree most are shit, as my theory predicts.
"I haven't got a well-organized answer yet, nor time today to say much" - proceeds to write novel
I have a lot more to say about this, or rather, I have a lot to quote from Octavio Paz, who sees everything in a culture as a language. Our buildings speak.
I don't think it's a crazy idea that our buildings speak of the Holocaust, whether the designers think they are or not. I understand that there is a rejection of Freud these days, but I think the unconscious controls our actions and, as Jung says: our conscious is like a mirror held against the sun. The sun being our unconscious.
We don't know why we build the buildings we do. That's for later generations to decide.
I'll save the Octavio Paz quotes for the next Open Thread.
Baumal seems to be everyone's favorite answer, and it's what occurred to me at first as well. But how do we know that this isn't just survivorship bias? Naturally, the buildings that have been around for 500 years are the ones on a 500-year streak of people saying "this building is so cool that I'm gonna keep spending money on its maintenance". And for every 500-year-old building that gets preferential treatment, there are probably about 1000 that got knocked down because they were unimpressive. It wouldn't surprise me if only 1 out of every 1000 buildings built today will be around in 500 years from now, and that this building is about as impressive as the 500-year-old buildings that are around today.
In regards to your rebuttal of the Tartarian conspiracy as the focus of "the mud flood", wouldn't that exactly be the most probable thing documented world-wide? The deluge is a universally recorded event by all major civilizations and a story in many disconnected tribes.
Between the deluge and the younger dryas hypothesis you have a world-wide mud flood.
Nobody has yet mention dear Einsturzende Neubauten, “falling down new buildings” and their marvelous album Strategies Against Architecture.
People meet their own ideas when experiencing architecture in ways not duplicated in other settings. Culture meets its own ideas. This is discussed but abstrusely and in contexts of gatekeeping and credential barriers. Politics meets humanity - in buildings.
There are some issues with the “here are photos from burning man, people still do ornate things” argument.
About the last comment- I remember reading on Tyler Cowen's blog I believe about how French violinists are first taught to explore their creativity on the violin and later in their education are subject to rigid training, while in South Korea violinists are taught the rigorous classical training first, and only after mastering that are they allowed to be creative and unique. No idea if that in any way connects to the Thai buildings shown in this post... maybe just a higher reverence for tradition in Asian cultures?
Here's the quote from the article (https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/art/2021/09/682_315328.html)
"'If you compare the two systems, the European and Korean systems are the opposite. In Europe, until you're 18 years old, you develop your personality and then you go to university and you really work. In Korea, you have to play (from a young age) and are filled with information. But after 18, they are free of pressures from Korean teachers and family. I don't know if it's the best (education method), but it works,' he said."
You mentioned Beau Brummell, and now I have Billy Joel's "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me" stuck in my head.
Several days ago I've visited an exhibition called "Archeology Now" at the Borghese gallery in Rome. For those of you who have not a chance to visit this gallery, it houses an exceptional collection of sculptures, both Roman and from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Now, the exhibition includes the sculptures by Damien Hirst, and the are located next to these famous statues. What is unusual about this exhibition is that Hirst has created a bunch of new Greek marbles, their Roman bronze copies, and also some new statues from the ancient Egypt and other similar stuff. Some of the statues are damaged ( it's been more than 2000 years since the ancient Greece, don't forget), some are covered with corals - you know, the statues are sometimes found on the sea floor. The point is that the statues look very classical and I find them very beautiful, apparently as the exhibition organizers, many critics and other visitors. See some images here: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/damien-hirst-shipwreck-galleria-borghese-1979877.
I am telling this because in the last 100 or so years sculpture has also undergone changes similar to architecture, music, poetry, etc. It may have been less overwhelming with sculpture than with architecture, because many traditional style statues were produced, say, after WWI, along with modernist/cubist/etc. However, the fact someone can produce new Greek/Roman/Ancient Egyptian statues and they are such a success is a roof that the taste for the classical style remains with us. Or that is was gone for such a long time that reviving it looks like a welcome novelty.
I stumbled for the first time onto this blog and have hugely enjoyed this and the Wither Tartaria post being an architect myself.
I just thought to add another theory for consideration, sorry! The "This Will Kill That Argument"
Victor Hugo in his book The Hunchback of Norte-Dame said "This will destroy that. The book will kill the edifice."
What he meant by this was up until the printing press cultural meaning and content were quite literally embedded in architecture. They were the engines and preservers of civilization and the easiest way to hand down this meaning to future generations. Gothic and Classical Architecture in the west, in the statues, murals and apses of the great churches literally spread and preserved cultural meaning.
The printing press and availability of books meant culture could be copied and transmitted much more cheaply, effectively and with a kind of permanence that buildings can't achieve.
Not only now do we have books but television, films, internet, tiktok! Cultural meaning is so much easier and cheaper to *make* and spread. Architecture still can transmit this but it's slow and expensive to do and less direct.
This theory along with Baumols Cost Disease could probably even account for the timing of modernism after WWI with the added industrialisation of the world from that point onwards. This might be a stretch but I just note in passing that the Great Male Renunciation starts in the 18thC about the same time that the first cotton mills did.
So mabye its not 'this will kill that' as much as how we make something fundamentally changes how we view it as a piece of culture and how we hide and show taste, social class and economic power.
"The problem for artists is not that popular culture is so bad but that it is so good, at least some of the time. Art could no longer confer prestige by the rarity or excellence of the works themselves, so it had to confer it by the rarity of the powers of appreciation."
You might think about connecting this to Virtue Signalling and Elite Beliefs. To believe that castrating little boys is a good thing requires Rare Powers of Appreciation--- which is a big reason why our elite likes the idea. Anybody can say it's morally good to hug little boys; it takes somebody exceptionally brilliant to say it's morally good to castrate them.
One factor that maybe wasn't discussed enough is the effect of fashion. Fashion exists as much in architecture as it does in clothing or anything else. You could probably immediately tell, by looking at a building, which decade it was from. If a building is "old", you will have an adverse reaction to that, since you will recognize the institution that created it as being behind in style. Architects, then, are hired to create buildings in the most up to date style. They are still charged with creating beauty, but now this is limited by the fact that the building has to also be in style, and unskilled architects will prefer to create an ugly, stylish building than a beautiful, out of date one. Idioms in architecture also have limited time to catch up with the style, and the style will have shifted prior to the arrival of an established way of making beautiful buildings in that style.
I bring this up, because a similar question often arises in a field closer to the one I work in. Specifically, people often ask why computer interfaces change so often, especially when (they believe) the old style is so much nicer to look at. The answer I would offer there is that companies want to show that they are still successful and are still updating their programs and websites. The way they accomplish this is by continuously hiring designers to change their UI to be more modern. An old UI might very well be prettier/easier to use/whatever, but most people would worry that it hasn't been updated in many years, and thus avoid using it.
So why shouldn't a similar explanation hold in architecture? Back in the day, whoever was rich 50 years prior would likely still be rich. Also, nobody was rich enough to build new buildings constantly. Thus, fashion in architecture didn't evolve as fast, there was more time for architects to perfect their idioms, thus the buildings were prettier. Nowadays, an institution wants to show that they are still growing and successful, which they accomplish by building new buildings. If these buildings don't look new, then the goal won't be accomplished. Thus, they commission architects to create the latest vanguard of style, simultaneously copying and creating new modes of architecture, and thus causing style to evolve faster. Beauty per se is only a minor goal of this project, and so the buildings look uglier. Or maybe I'm wrong.
A widely overlooked issue that has developed over the last 40 years is the relentless drop in interest rates from their peak in 1981 which has changed the development business from one of investment and returns from rent to one of merchant building and returns from sales, ie captial gains. now, the vast majority of developers are merchant builders counting on the continued arbitrage between the return they build to and the return they can sell investors. this leads to the lowest common denominator architecture and construction quality, and why not, you won't own it after the last lease is signed. this leads to the proliferation of glasses boxes in CBDs (the glass envelope systems are always cheaper than brick or stone) and the monolithic 'Texas Wrap' stick built projects everywhere else. like the stock market, this is driven primarily by endless supplies of new capital seeking better returns, but with short +/-3 year horizons, driven by minimum IRR expectations. no one in this business is prepared, nor knows how to continue when interest rates finally turn and start a 40 year march back up.
Of the people you quoted, Phil Getz is the most correct. There's a book called The Master and His Emissary that goes into much greater depth than he did. You should read it if you want to understand everything about the questions you're asking.
I am surprised nobody came to the defense of midcentury modern architecture from the 30’s to 50’s. Certain neighborhoods built during this period, including one I lived in, are absolutely gorgeous.
Interesting read throughout.
My experience from creating naturalistic and abstract art is that naturalistic art takes a lot of iterations (training, doing, observation) usually years if not decades (at least one) to be able pull it off in a manner that leaves viewers (and yourself) pleased.
Abstract art however much less so. Even lesser if it can justify itself in the theoretical. Which is basically all what modern high-fashion architecture is concerned with (hence your McMansion/Ogliati comparison: One serves as marker of the owner's failing at being elite and the other one gets his own profile in the NYT).
Note that the "inventors" of today's abstract school (painting or architecture) all went through that naturalistic iterations. The "followers" of that school however did not and are usually really, really bad at even basic drawing.
If you sift through portfolios with which students apply for architecture school I guarantee that every high school class of 14-yr-olds will at least have 1 to 3 students, who would have been better choices. Most Architecture starts with a quick sketch. If you can't draw your strokes will reveal it, and so will everything that follows. Which IMO explains a lot of the individual motivations to instead veer into the theoretical.
I could go on for hours. Two things worth mentioning:
1) The German city of Frankfurt am Main rebuilt its hisotrical Old Town to resemble how it looked before post-WW2-bombing reconstruction ruined it. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dom-R%C3%B6mer_Project
It revealed the same conflict-lines as did the Schloss in Berlin: The whole intelligentsia being against the project, everybody else in favor of the naturalism.
2) Since nobody else did mention him, I'll do: Sir Roger Scruton. He often dabbled in the philosophical aspects of the rift between classical and abstract architecture. I don't know if I can endorse all of his ideas, but what I've read so far was always a refreshing point and at least sincere in the snese that it contained traces of actual work. So I highly recommend reading him on architecture.