Monday, June 30, 2008
This email from an internet list helps explain why NYU might be getting the design it's getting (in the post above), despite the public process it's gone through. The email was in response to a post on the list with this question: "All other people have to produce what the customers want. That's called "the market". Why are architects relieved from it? Or aren't they? Do they have to obey some other strange market we don't even know of?"
My friend said,
My attempt at an answer is this, after working for 11 years to promote traditional architecture and urbanism, and coming from a very different profession, law:
Many modernist architects believe they are the representatives of the March of History, that modernism is a successful revolution of the 20th century, and that it is their obligation to defend this revolution, especially against any counter-revolutionary, reactionary attempts to reintroduce the defeated, deplorable architectural styles and urban design principles from before the functionalist / modernist inventions of the 1920s and 30s.
Architects can be experts at psychologically manipulating clients and the public to feel ashamed of their secret, personal preferences for traditional architecture. In an interview, the Norwegian architect and Pritzger Prize winner, Sverre Fehn said: "You have to smash the dreams of your client". The architectural establishment will laugh at any suggestions for a traditional design, or if that does not help, attack aggressively or even use the legal system to ban traditional architecture (large new urban developments in Oslo have regulation plans requiring modernist architecture).
These control mechanisms are supported by an internal organisation of the architectural establishment that has been compared by Nikos Salingaros to pseudo-religious cult movements. The techniques used include the initiation of young devotees in architecture schools, via ideological teaching programs (some would call them brainwashing), and the shaming and expulsion of traitors who question the hegemony of modernism (as many traditional architects have experienced - they are often victims of Berufsverbot).
The message from opinion polls, referendums and the housing market across Europe is that 70 - 90 % of the population prefer traditional architecture, if they are given a choice. In Norway, where modernism is totally dominant for larger commercial, cultural or residential buildings, at least 80 % of new single family homes, summer houses and cottages are traditional.
You will find the domination of modernism in sectors where decisions on design are made by bureaucracies, experts and committees (including private sector boards). People in these positions are more likely to abandon their personal aesthetic preferences in favour of what is "accepted", "required" or "normal", and design that will give them praise from the architectural profession and the cultural media. Developers are told that a mixed-use block structure is not "modern" and "of our time", but monofunctional concrete slabs in a "park" setting are.
There is a lot of sociology a work here: People are given a clear message that acceptance of modernism will give you access to the cultural establishment; you could even get an award for being "bold" and "innovative". Honesty regarding your true preference for traditional design will only result in ridicule and embarrassment.
A good example is the treatment of Prince Charles by architects and cultural journalists. As an unquestionable member of the elite, his opposition to modernism was of course dangerous. To prevent his message from infecting people high and low in society, it was regarded necessary to depict him as a ridiculous, reactionary figure, and a threat to social progress. Ten years ago there were signs that he had been "advised" to tone down his engagement in the architectural debate. But the last years he has returned, stronger than ever, with sustainability and public participation as new and very good arguments for traditional building and urban design, and his ideas now shared by organisations like INTBAU, CNU and CEU.
For some reason, even after a sustained modernist campaign the majority is still true to their aesthetic preferences in the private sphere (homes and summer houses). But within the financial elite we see clear signs of a tendency to prefer architectural design that will give you recognition form the cultural elite. Luckily, most people still care more about their personal well-being than the opinions of architects and critics in the cultural sections of newspapers.
But modernist ideologists are far from giving in: In Norway, the architectural establishment has recently started a campaign against the traditional design preferred by most people when they are in charge (building a house for yourself and even paying for it). We now have government-funded programs to educate the population in the blessings of "innovative" architecture, combined with the labeling of traditional design as pastiche, nostalgic, not of our time, copies of a society that no longer exists, etc.
Modernism is replacing Lutheranism as the Norwegian State Ideology.
The domination of modernist architecture in construction based on expert, government and corporate decision-making processes can be compared to the domination of "communist" ideology in Eastern Europe before 1989. Very few believed in the ideology, but people knew that acceptance of the "official story" was absolutely necessary to have a career and avoid serious problems. When the system collapsed, it turned out that even after 50 years of communist and atheist indoctrination, only a minority actually believed in the dogma they had passively accepted, and it even turned out that more people were religious than in Western Europe. This gives some hope for people struggling with the current modernist domination in architecture and urbanism all over Europe.
In 1997, when we opened the "Urban Renaissance" exhibition from A Vision of Europe, Bologna in the City Hall of Oslo, the curator, Gabriele Tagliaventi, shocked people by saying in his speech that the 20th century had been plagued by three totalitarian, Utopian ideologies; fascism, communism and modernism, and that it was about time to expose and dethrone the only one still in power, modernism. Even some traditional architects thought Tagliaventi went to far. But he was right. To repair the catastrophic destruction of the European urban and cultural landscape in the 20th century, by war and modernism, and build all the new sustainable urban settlements needed, we will have to expose the responsibility of modernist ideology, especially in urban planning, reintroduce education in well proven design skills, and empower local communities and the end users of architecture. Modernism should be reduced to the position it deserves: A failed ideology, but also an architectural style that should compete on equal terms with other styles on the market place.
This is not an issue of personal stylistic preferences (believe it or not, but I can very well appreciate good modernist architectural design!), but relieving society of the undemocratic, unjustified and destructive domination of an ideology over one of the most crucial sectors for the building of a humane, sustainable society.
Thomas Heftyes gate 14
0264 Oslo, Norway.
+47. 92 62 26 26
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THE ARCHITECTURAL DEBATE HAS CHANGED RADICALLY.
Thanks to Audun Engh for his excellent essay on how anti-architecture has become institutionalized through an abuse of the legal system. It's an old technique for building a power base and exterminating your ideological enemy by perfectly legal means. Audun then notes that:
"For some reason, even after a sustained modernist campaign the majority is still true to their aesthetic preferences in the private sphere."
The reason, of course, is that human-scale architecture and urbanism satisfy deep physiological and spiritual needs. Human beings are nourished by the sort of buildings and cities that Audun Engh, John Massengale, Leon Krier, Christopher Alexander, and myself promote endlessly. By contrast, people are made uneasy, anxious, and sometimes sick by the cult buildings of modernism, post-modernism, deconstructivism, and blobitecture. Please read the new book "Biophilic Design" to see the enormous quantity of scientific evidence supporting this truth. This material has long been ignored by the architectural establishment (because it would force contemporary architects to stop practicing iconic anti-architecture).
The architectural debate based on aesthetics is over. Now the real debate begins, pitting our biological nature and most profound spiritual needs against a legislated denial of them.
Posted by: Nikos Salingaros at Jul 1, 2008 8:57:40 AM
Hello Mr. Massengale, I wrote an article explaining the reasons why the classical system of architecture was superior technology to the modern system of architecture, based also on things I learned from Mr. Salingaros. I hope it can be useful in your debates.
Posted by: Mathieu Helie at Jul 27, 2008 7:56:06 AM