Featureless skyscrapers; boxy houses; gimmicky public buildings. Modernist architecture – monoliths of glass, steel, reinforced concrete, and stucco, rejecting texture, slaves to the straight line – is transforming skylines into non-places that architects love and the rest of us try to ignore. With resignation, we wonder: Perhaps Modernist buildings are industrialism’s inevitable and only viable outputs. Maybe, we’ll all get used to it and learn to like it – just like we hated Brussels sprouts as kids. And could it be that Modernist architecture is architecture now? That’s all there is and anything else is aping the past.
Back in 2015, while picking up my dropped jaw in the exquisite medieval village of Conques in southern France, a fellow traveler and I started comparing today’s Modernist buildings (which we’ll refer to as just “Modernism”/”Modernist” below) to those from the so-called Dark Ages. “Well, these buildings are beautiful,” she said “but that’s because they’re old”.
Are older buildings better just because they’re old? No, but it’s easy to see why so many people think so. Today’s architecture, dominated as it is by Modernism, is so consistently bad that we assume beautiful buildings which stir our souls and raise our spirits are products of the past; we believe we’re no longer capable of creating beauty. But, as we’ll see below, it’s not true. True beauty that’s appreciated for generations is possible today.
Go traveling, compare the traditional and the Modernist architecture, and make sure you aren’t paid by the mainstream architecture industry (“It is difficult to get a person to understand something when their job depends on not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair). I did, and here’s what I realized: Old buildings are beautiful because they are traditional.
In short, here’s why, architecturally, traditional beats Modernist:
It’s evolutionary and adaptive to local conditions
Is more environmentally sustainable
Is more popular among the general public
Holds its value in the long term
Let’s delve deeper into these points…
You may think that “traditional” is another way of saying “belongs in the past” or “copies the past”, that it’s inherently anti-modern and stifles innovation. In fact, traditional in this context means “a series of successful innovations that build on one another”. In other words, traditional architecture is inherently modern, always changing, free to adapt to local conditions. This timelessness is the only true modern.
Modernism, on the other hand, is not modern. It’s a product of a particular time (ie. since the 1930s until now – and hopefully not far into the future) that has thrown out centuries of accumulated knowledge in favor of trendy, untested ideas that age quickly and badly.
The shelf life of Modernist buildings is short. According to one study, in contrast to traditional buildings that can last centuries or even millennia a Modernist building’s average lifespan is just 25 years. At that point, what looked edgy and novel to one generation of architects and homeowners looks dated to the next. The building is torn down, its non-recyclable materials shoveled into landfill, and a similarly fated and equally environmentally destructive replacement is erected.
Unsurprisingly, Modernism is unpopular among everyone apart from architects. One study I discussed previously showed that people overwhelmingly prefer conventional building types over “unique” or “innovative” forms. That’s why Modernist buildings tend to lose their value quickly. Despite Modernism architecture’s obsession with novelty and uniqueness, the results are generic mish-mash cities and towns that look like anywhere.
These glaring critiques of Modernism are almost always missed by those otherwise well-informed folks who rightly advocate for increased density. Yes, suburbia has had dire consequences – erasing community, forcing everyone to drive, putting the planet at risk – and we all need to live closer together. But this enthusiasm to densify without considering architectural quality is introducing a host of new problems.
But lest you think it’s all doom and gloom, look out! There’s good news. Around the world, traditional architecture is making a comeback in the face of Modernism’s still-dominant rampage (images courtesy of @NewClassicism):
Pinch yourself if you must, these buildings are real and they are new. And lest you think that the US, otherwise drowning in junk architecture, is missing out on this feast, think again.
Even for readers located in my own state of Texas, a place generally falling over itself to belch out low-quality buildings, you too can have the good stuff. The following images are courtesy of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art Texas Chapter.
But surely the cost of traditional building is prohibitive in today’s assembly line world? Not so, says noted traditional architect Quinlan Terry. A recently completed traditional building, which beat out a competing Modernist design, at Harvard University was reportedly completed under budget (and ahead of schedule). And in the long run, traditional buildings constructed from quality materials last longer, age more gracefully, are easier to modify and repair, and retain higher monetary values over time. In contrast, Modernist buildings are the real money-suckers, imposing on future generations the costs of tearing down and rebuilding and limiting neighborhoods in accumulating long term value.
Certainly, beware the pitfalls. In pushing for traditional architecture, we must see through the imposters which slap skin-deep traditional-looking aesthetics upon non-traditional structures. The real McCoys’ entire structures are traditional, made from time-tested materials: load-bearing masonry, stone, brick, and wood.
Traditional architecture, of course, is not by itself enough to make great towns and cities. We also need great (that is to say traditional) urban design which arranges buildings to form an inviting and lively public realm – our streets, squares, promenades, and parks. This union, said to be present in newly-built towns like Rosemary Beach, Florida, will allow places to emerge that can finally rival what we created in the past.
But first, we must push for a new system of production, one which ends the Modernist era of disposable buildings and ushers in a new era of quality, traditional architecture.