The Scar of Modern Architecture
March 30, 2020

If I were to design a city, beauty, charm, and loveability would be among my top priorities. Our cities set the stage for which our lives play out, and our happiness should be one of our top priorities. These scenes make me happy;


Bruges, Belgium.

Central Park, New York City.

Puebla, Mexico.

There is a growing body of research showing that beautiful scenery, whether it is nature or architecture, makes us happy.

Ann Sussman has been focusing her research on how the brain responds to architecture. I highly recommend that you listen to the Strong Towns podcast that guest starred Sussman.

Traditional architecture has evolved over thousands of years through trial and error, adaptation, and refinement to be both practical and comfortable. For example, cornices;


A cornice running along the top of a building in Wheeling, West Virginia.

..serve the purpose of preventing rain and snow from falling down the face of the building. Likewise, raising the ground floor above the street with a stoop;

The ground floor of these townhomes in Hoboken, New Jersey are raised a fair distance from the street with their large stoops. not just decorative, but also raises the front door above typical flooding and snow levels, while also doubling as a social platform from where neighbors converse. I could go on; tall ceilings helps circulate the air in summer, many narrow but tall windows provide a lot of sunlight but soften the lighting to break up hard shadows, bedrooms face east to get the morning sun, etc. Many elements that today are just decorative, once had a purpose. Crown molding hides the seams between the wall and the ceiling. Wainscoting was originally used as insulation against cold and moisture. Traditional architecture is both pleasing and practical.

Modernism, by definition, is "a style or movement in the arts that aims to break with classical and traditional forms." The purpose of modern architecture is that it completely breaks from the past. If you listen to the Strong Towns Podcast starring Sussman, she attributes much of the creation of modern architecture to mental disorders associated with World War 1. Sussman points out that just as someone with autism or post-traumatic stress disorder might find crowds, strangers, and eye-contact hostile, we notice a correlation in architecture. For example, in traditional architecture, the front door tends to stand out, offering guests a warm welcome;


All of our attention is drawn to this front door that welcomes us.

In modern architecture, the front door tends to hide away;


Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, Poissy, France.

If you read The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning, it is clear that Le Corbusier finds city streets overstimulating, as he advocates for uniform and orderly cities that function as machines. Similar early modernist architects pushed for removing all ornamentation, demolishing existing buildings and cities, and rebuilding in an international style that would look the same everywhere.


Statements from architecture students. The past is to be ignored, perhaps even actively erased?

(The above image and Tweet were recent additions to this blog post on August 10, 2020.)

Now, you can see why I do not like modern architecture. Not just out of an asthetic choice (although science is telling us that traditional architecture is more pleasing to the brain), but all of these principals are antithetical to everything I value. I want to live in a complex world rich in diversity and emotion, not a souless nihilistic machine.

The early modernists were known to be bullies to their fellow architects and clients to get their way.

While I think the bullying has calmed down as the early modernist architects have since passed on, it is interesting to see a lot of the vocabulary they invented still being thrown around. An example of this is that architecture should be "true to the materials", that is, wood should look like wood, concrete should look like concrete. Could you imagine if any other field did this? If "modern cuisine" had to be "true to the ingredients", with no spices or sauces, only allowing basic dishes such as "steak and carrot" and nothing more? If "modern music" had to be "true to the instruments" with no melodies, rhythm, or harmony, just songs such as "An Assortment of Random Piano Sounds"? If "modern art" had to be "true to the materials", with no subject or perspective, works could be nothing more than "Various Colours of Paint on Canvas"?


Oh wait... Paintings by Tadaaki Kuwayama from the Nagoya City Art Museum.

One of the most damaging ideas from modern architecture is that traditional architecture is "imitating the past" and not "of its time."


The Ross Reading Room of the New York Public Library, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Was this 'of it's time' when it opened in 1911?

The problem I have with this argument is that our ancestors did not care about if we built buildings "of our time." Up until the early 20th century, we had no problem building in any style. We could build a classical, Gothic, or Romanesque church and nobody considered it out of place. Why, after modern architecture came on the scene, is this now "imitating the past?"

It is interesting to read the arguments from the early modernists, a century after they were written and implemented, to see how ludicrous they sound today. For example, Adolf Loos argued that ornamentation is a crime because styles can go out of date (therefore we should build with no style), and building ornamentation was an abuse of labour (so let's take away their jobs?)


Steiner House, Vienna, Austria, 1910 by Adolf Loos.

We know now that you end up with cold, unlovable architecture that nobody cares for except for other architects. We also put a lot of people out of work. Architecture has mostly turned the other way, that instead of being style-less (which turned out to be a style in and of itself), we now emphasize that a building should in the style 'of its time'. (Some call this "post-modern", but it is still distinguished from traditional architecture.)

Nassim Taleb, in Antifragile, said that the longer something has been around, the more likely it will continue to be around. A classic book that has been in print for 100 years, will likely to remain in print longer than any book that was recently released, and the Christian Bible is likely to be in print a millennium from now once the classics of this century are long forgotten. Likewise, the cooking utensils of Pompeii from 79 AD - pots, pans, plates, and jars - do not look that out of place in a kitchen today, and in a kitchen 2,000 years from now, you are more likely to find these utensils than any gadget invented in the last century.


The kitchens at the Fullonica di Stephanus from Pompeii, Italy.

This also holds true in architecture. If we always pursue to follow the latest trends and build something that is "of our time", then it is likely that the newest fad will be the first to go out of date as soon as the next fad comes along.


A 1970s living room.

Rather than focusing on building what is "of our time", if we want architecture that will stand the test of time - that will be loveable enough that future generations will cherish and care for it, and we will not be embarrassed that we will want to change it every decade - the safest option is to build in the architectural style of the oldest building you still like today, as that is what will remain in style the longest.


The John Plume House in Newark, New Jersey was built in 1710, and would still be a respectable house today.

There is a tradition among certain institutions such as banks, museums, court houses, capitols, and other government buildings to favour classical architecture, which has remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. This is to establish for the institution a sense of permanency; it looks as the institution has been here for thousands of years and will continue for thousands of years more. The icons used for banks, museums, court houses, and capitols are classical buildings.


A Google image search for "Museum Icon".

Just as harmful as wanting to build "for our time" is the insistence from many organizations that that new work shall be differentiated from the old, effectively banning traditional architecture, especially when renovating traditional buildings. What ends up happening, however, is that rather than honouring the original architect and builders by modifications and expansions continuing in the original architectural style, we end up vandalizing their work instead. Here are the photos from Architectural Digest's 11 Beautiful Examples of When Historic and Modern Architecture Come Together, which I find very disrespectful to the original architects:


Museum of Military History in Dresden, Germany.


Port Authority in Antwerp, Belgium.


Elbphilharmonie Hamburg in Hamburg, Germany.


St. Antony's College in Oxford, England.


Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.


Sant Fransesc Church in Santpedor, Spain.

As an anecdote of why I do not feel alone in finding modern architecture to be vandalism, we were on a bus full of tourists going through the Swiss countryside, and people were taking photos out of the window and at various towns and scenic look-outs that we stopped at. Our tour guide, along with the other tourists in our group, were obsessed with sharing the best vantage points to take photos from. They would use terms such as 'untouched' and 'picturesque', and at first I thought they meant 'untouched by humans', but I soon realized they meant 'untouched by modernism'. The tourists had no problem with landscapes containing traditional homes, towns, barns, fences, etc. which complemented the landscape; they just wanted to avoid taking photos of modern life such as gas stations, highways, concrete warehouses, etc. which interrupted the landscape.


The Swiss countryside.

'Picturesque', 'beautiful', and 'charming' are rarely words we use to describe modern architecture, instead we use 'cool', 'state of the art', and 'innovative' - words describing something that disrupts rather than complements the surroundings. If you scroll through the list of 27 of the Most Beautiful Small Towns to Visit in Europe, all you see is country-side and traditional architecture.


Manarola, Italy.


Bibury, England.

I believe that NIMBYism and historic preservation as we see it in the United States today is a consequence of modern architecture (and modern urban planning.) If you lived in a town where the only beautiful stuff is from a century ago, and any change or replacement in the last century has resulted in a deterioration of aesthetics, would you not also want to glass case everything to protect it from further change?

Is it more expensive to build in a traditional style? The opposition to the proposal to require classical architecture for federally funded buildings are not arguing against cost. We know that traditional architecture, using tried and true construction methods, is not more expensive than architecture that is trying to always be 'innovative', and we have no problem wasting public money on starchitects.

Nor did families a century ago have to be wealthy to live in a respectable looking house.

These small homes in Hoboken, New Jersey were originally built as cheap housing for workers.


Sears Model No. 115, starting at $652 in 1908 ($18,332.40 in 2020.) The average worker in 1910 could afford this home with 1.5 to 3.5 years income, or approximately double that with labour included.


Sears 'Magnolia' - $5,140 in 1908 ($144,522.27 in 2020.) An accountant from 1910 could afford this home with 2.5 years income.

You could not call the following newer homes picturesque, beautiful, or charming, even though they are being marketed to higher-income families as 'luxury' condominiums;

A newer building in Hoboken, New Jersey.

A larger apartment building in Hoboken, New Jersey.

I am hopeful for the future because there is a lot of research out there that people do prefer traditional architecture over modern architecture [1] [2] [3] [4], and there are good architects out there that build nice stuff, and we should do a better job at recognizing them.


Encinal Bluffs Family Compound in Malibu, California. Built in 2007.


Encinal Bluffs Family Compound in Malibu, California. Built in 2007.


Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.


Rendering of a not yet built building in Brooklyn, New York. The rooftop is strange, but the rest of the building fits in very nicely with New York City.

The United States has a shortage of quality urban places, with the few that remaining are usually glass-cased from change or extremely expensive. I want to see us returning to build more traditional urban places - places people value and want to live. Architecture plays a huge role in the perception of the places we build, therefore we should return to traditional architecture that is both functional and beautiful.


Manhattan, New York City


Vernazza, Italy.

San Juan, Puerto Rico.


The fictional city of Altissia from Final Fantasy XV. Video game developers get it more than real life architects and urban planners. I wonder how fewer people would escape the real world for video games if we actually built places as delightful as Altissia to live in.