Modernism's Architecture Is from an Old Blueprint

In my architectural history course I was taught that buildings—and the way they are grouped—reflect the beliefs, social values, and worldview of their time. If this is true, what does modern architecture say about us?

Arguably, the pivotal point that separated modern architecture from all that went before is the brief period when the Bauhaus was active in Weimar Germany soon after World War I. In that war's aftermath, old values were seen as outdated. Christianity was deemed to have failed, and secular humanism took over.

The Bauhaus was a revolutionary, modernist school of art, architecture, and design. Its first director, Walter Gropius, declared in its 1919 manifesto that architecture "will one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith."

Recent technological developments in structural steel and concrete made it possible to create buildings with radical new shapes, shapes that reflected the rejection of traditional aesthetics, which was associated with the discredited old order. Architects and urban planners came to believe that designing a fundamentally new environment would lead to a better life for all.

Oskar Schlemmer, in the manifesto for the 1923 Bauhaus exhibition, wrote,

The State Bauhaus, founded after the catastrophe of the war, in the chaos of revolution and at a time when art was explosive and laden with pathos, will first become the rallying-point for those who, believing in the future and storming the gates of Heaven, wish to build the Cathedral of Socialism.

And for good measure he added, "Religion is the precise process of thinking, and God is dead."

The Bauhaus school regarded ornament as superfluous and immoral. Instead, plain, orthogonal shapes would express the logic of the new order. Buildings became severely rectangular.

The Curse of the Vorkurs

One intention of the Bauhaus was to combine architecture, craft, and art. All new students were assigned to take the Vorkurs, or basic foundation course. This course was initiated by the mystic Johannes Itten, an artist and former kindergarten teacher. Students were given exercises in light-dark contrasts, tone scales, color, material and textures, and forms and rhythms.

There were no "professors" at the Bauhaus; rather, they were called "masters of form." In my own heavily Bauhaus-influenced architecture school, the faculty were called studiomasters, and the Vorkurs was called Basic Design.

In our first year, we were required to create aesthetically satisfying compositions of horizontal and vertical black lines on sheets of white paper; we were then instructed to make three-dimensional cubes from thin strips of balsa glued together at right angles in a manner possessing artistic merit. We also did studies in color and texture, form and rhythm. It was only in our second year that we were taught how to design simple buildings, but by then it was too late. Even though we knew that the buildings were intended to accommodate people, their needs were subordinated to the principles we had learned in our first year—Basic Design.

This led to the curse of the Vorkurs: the merit of what was produced was judged for its abstract aesthetic value rather than for its meaningful relationship to people. So, if a Vorkurs exercise called for an "aesthetically significant three-dimensional object composed of eight equal isosceles triangles," an aspiring potter might produce a modernistic vase. A budding architect, thinking really big, might come up with One World Trade Center.

From Germany to America to the World

Although the modernist movement had its origins in Europe, it was American architects who pioneered new building types, particularly the skyscraper. Some of the early examples were masterpieces, and a significant part of their success was that they didn't reject the existing styles of expression as the Bauhaus architects did; ornament, for instance, was not seen as degenerate. American architects like Louis Sullivan embellished their skyscrapers with rich and imaginative ornamentation. Such buildings fitted successfully into the cityscape.

The Bauhaus only lasted from 1919 to 1933, when it was closed down by the Nazis. Several of its leading lights, notably Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe, then emigrated to the United States. Both men had a profound influence on architecture in America, and from there it spread all over the world.

Mies "less is more" van der Rohe designed orthogonal skyscrapers in Chicago and New York. His most famous is arguably the Seagram Building in New York. Completed in 1958, the structure is a severe rectangular prism that cost a fortune to build. In 1999 the New York Times architectural critic Herbert Muschamp made it his choice as the most important building of the millennium.

Really? Compare it to a building like St. Patrick's Cathedral, less than three blocks away, and decide for yourself.

The Influence of Architectural Photography

Architectural photography has played an important part in this change from intricate richness to severe rectilinearity. Before the invention of photography, when pictures of buildings were painted by artists, people were depicted in the paintings. The human figures helped give them scale and interest. But there are seldom any people in architectural photographs.

This is largely because early architectural photographs took a long time to expose, meaning that things that moved—like people, animals, and vehicles—would come out blurry. So they were simply left out. But without them, architectural photos would end up looking bare and boring—because modernist buildings were bare and boring—unless photographers could inject other artistic elements into them. So they employed various techniques of good composition—pleasing contrasts, foliage, focal points, and so on—to enhance the images. The result was an independent work of art, self-sufficient and aesthetically satisfying, yet devoid of any human references.

Architects established reputations by means of these people-less photos. Worse, architectural students learned about the work of the world's great modern architects by studying these contrived photographs rather by than visiting the buildings they illustrated. The message to an aspiring young architect was plain: if you want to achieve fame and fortune—to become a "starchitect"—your building must photograph well. Today, buildings designed by starchitects are often described as iconic.

Magazine Architecture

The word "icon" has been loosely used in recent decades, and its real sense often lost. It comes from the Greek eikon, meaning "likeness" or "image." In the Eastern Churches, an icon is a representation, in the flatness of two dimensions, of a sacred personage. It is a signpost, but not the thing pointed to. If the icon becomes an end in itself, it is called idolatry.

This is important to keep in mind when considering the effect that architectural photography has had on architecture. If the photo becomes the end, rather than serving as an icon that points to the end—to the building—we are in trouble. Yet this is precisely what has happened: the photos of great works of architecture have ceased being icons, instead becoming revered objects in themselves.

Stewart Brand, in his book How Buildings Learn, calls this approach Magazine Architecture; he relates architect Frank Duffy fuming to him about

the curse of architectural photography, which is all about the wonderfully composed shot, the absolutely lifeless picture that takes time out of architecture—the photograph taken the day before move-in. That's what you get awards for, that's what you make a career based on. All those lovely but empty stills of uninhabited and uninhabitable spaces have squeezed more life out of architecture than perhaps any other single factor.

Brand himself goes on to attack the architectural magazines responsible for this approach. He talks of "magazine architects" as "image-driven and fad-driven architects, because architectural magazines probe no deeper than the look and style of the buildings they cover."

One of the great architects of the twentieth century, Le Corbusier (1887–1965), though not associated with the Bauhaus, was also a modernist. He defined architecture as "the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light." This is precisely what makes a great photograph, and the photogenic quality of his buildings has had a lot to do with the advancement of his reputation. His definition is striking, but it is not a definition of architecture; it's more appropriate to sculpture. What Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus architects produced was not so much architecture as habitable sculpture.

Other Modern Styles

In any case, the widespread dissemination of photographs of modernist architecture, and the consequent construction of modernist buildings all around the world, had the result of making most places look like most other places.

Hence, architects began looking for other ways of expressing themselves, and many joined the postmodern movement, a style that spurns the artistic rigidity of modernism but that also rejects the idea of any truth being absolute. Postmodern architects' buildings were  "playful," featuring visual "quotations" such as classical columns and pediments, for example, rendered in a way that was jocular and full of irony.

Or so the architects imagined. The public was not easily fooled, however, and considered this new style as pretentious and self-indulgent as its modernist predecessor. In reaction, some architects resorted to neoclassicism: Greek temple look-alikes made their appearance, but these structures were expensive to build and not widely admired, either.

So neoclassicism was quickly followed by hi-tech—extravagant exercises in swooping forms whose construction was only made possible with the help of sophisticated computers and software. The Dubai skyline is an excellent example of what results when would-be starchitects strive to outdo each other in the design and construction of extravagant Vorkurs shapes. Designed for maximum visual effect, the city's buildings often evoke the now debased term "iconic," but are themselves meaningless, as are the spaces between them.

(With tongue in cheek, we could summarize these recent architectural styles as follows: postmodern buildings tend to be ironic, neoclassical buildings Ionic, and high-tech ones iconic.)

Neglecting God, Neglecting the Soul

The builders of the Tower of Babel were perhaps the first starchitects, for like their modern counterparts, they wanted to "make a name for themselves": "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4).

In contrast, the medieval architects responsible for the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe are mostly unknown. They also wanted to build "a tower that reaches to the heavens," but not in order to make a name for themselves. Rather, they wanted to glorify God to the people who worshiped in their wonderful buildings. The thought of thereby achieving starchitect status would never have entered their minds.

Today's architecture effectively expresses what happens to humanity when secular humanism takes over from belief in God. Not only is God not glorified, but humanity also loses out. Our cities are molded by cameras and computers, and we live, work, and play in soulless habitable sculpture.

Contrast Le Corbusier's definition of architecture—"the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light"—with an observation made by Eric Metaxas in Oxford University's Church of St. Mary the Virgin: "What is it about architectural splendor, what is it about beauty, that speaks to us? It's almost as if we have souls, isn't it—as if something in us is made for beauty." 

studied architecture at the University of Cape Town and urban design at Oxford Brookes University. He has worked in South Africa, the Middle East, and the United Kingdom.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #35, Winter 2015 Copyright © 2019 Salvo |