Column: Exploding modernism's myths10:26 AM Thu, Sep 24, 2009 | Permalink
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Illustration: "Modern Movement reality," by Louis Hellman: The legacy of founding modernist Le Corbusier (From Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture, Frances Lincoln Ltd., London, 2009)
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EXPOSÉS of modern architecture have seen through the emperor's new clothes for half a century: Henry Hope Reed's The Golden City (1959), Peter Blake's Form Follows Fiasco (1977), Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), Roger Scruton's The Classical Vernacular (1994), and, lately, Nathan Glazer's From a Cause to a Style (2007), John Silber's Architecture of the Absurd (2007) and now Malcolm Millais's Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture.
The last may well be the angriest, and maybe the funniest. Together they have smashed the principles of modernism into rubble, but the death-defying eyesores keep going up and up and up. Millais, an engineer and London native, attempts to explain the Teflon surfaces of an architectural style that almost nobody outside the design "ghetto" (as Millais puts it) likes, and whose myths have been exploded again and again but refuse to collapse.
A British friend of the author living here in Bristol e-mailed me earlier this year to suggest that I might enjoy Exploding the Myths, then newly published in Britain. We lunched downtown at Tazza and he lent me his copy. I took it to Tazza the same evening, and though it was not then due for publication in America until later this year, a woman sitting at the next table noticed it and said she had recently purchased it at Symposium Books, right next door.
I don't normally keep an eye peeled for signs, but that was a heck of a coincidence. If destiny intends this book to finally explode modern architecture, it will not be coincidence but the book's bloody cussedness that does the trick. Still, coincidence will not shut up. The mother of the friend of Millais who lent me his copy lives in London near Chelsea Barracks, site of a planned set of modernist towers by Richard Rogers criticized by Prince Charles. Quinlan Terry, the classicist whose neo-Georgian alternative killed the Rogers design by sparking a battle of styles that Rogers lost, drew his sketch at an opposition meeting held in the mother's neighbor's kitchen.
The author's anger drips with a mordant humor driven by his inability to believe that something as ugly, stupid and unpopular as modern architecture has flourished. He writes as a practitioner in a profession that has seen its honor stripped away by modernism. Engineering used to define the limits of architectural experimentation. Now engineers gerry-rig the laws of nature to help the modernists prop up their conceits, pressing the envelopes of stability, strength, tension and gravity. Thus has modern architecture lured engineering into its bed. "Supine engineers" is how Millais sadly refers to those of his mates who've been seduced by the sloppy seconds of modern architects' money and fame.
But even the most creative engineers have been unable to help the modernists design buildings that work, and Millais's book is an encyclopedia of the technical failure of the most famous concoctions of modern architecture. From the dysfunctional chapel at Ronchamp by Le Corbusier ("As a church, Ronchamp didn't work very well. . . . What it did do was to allow Modern Movement architects to now pursue any whimsy, without even having to pay lip service to functionality") to the unoperatic Sydney Opera House by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, who fled Australia when the cost of its structural flaws was exposed -- to the Richard Rogers/Renzo Piano inside-out Centre Pompidou in Paris, whose summer visitors broil in its outdoor escalators -- to the Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis that symbolized Le Corbusier's most savage legacy: "towers in the park" for those in society with the least choice of where to live. Etc., etc. In short, the more modernist the building, the more likely its dysfunction.
Buildings that look as if they might fall down are probably the most likely to fall down. Reading the passage on Pruitt-Igoe, the first major demolition of a modernist project, I waited for Millais to uncork the punch line -- that its architect, Minoru Yamasaki, also designed that even more tragic set of demolished buildings, the Twin Towers of 9/11. . . . Millais misses few of the nuggets of irony to be mined from the dysfunctionality of architecture that prides itself on its functionality, but he did miss that one.
Still, the pages of Exploding the Myths crackle not only with the humor of its vivid (if not always classically grammatical) prose, but with hundreds of photos, sketches and cartoons, all with comical captions that lighten the book's central tragedy.
Millais has written perhaps the fullest account of how modern architecture has survived dysfunction, dishonesty, ugliness and unpopularity. By the book's end, however, the "why" still remains elusive. Must modern architecture literally kill people before the world will rise up against its destruction of the human habitat? After 70 years, a communism good only at killing finally got its come-uppance. It was totally unexpected. Perhaps Prince Charles will turn out to be modern architecture's Ronald Reagan.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal's editorial board (email@example.com). His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Here and There.