I spent a few hours watching and re-watching a debate between Modernists and Traditionalists in the realm of architecture. I found it both enlightening and frustrating. The arguments that the three supporters of Modernism gave were compelling and well-reasoned with the only caveat being, well, this:
Architecture doesn’t only exist in the world of theories one posits, but rather it actually constructs the reality in which most of us exist. Modernist cityscapes make great backgrounds for Sci-Fi films and car commercials, they’re cool off in the distance acting as giant sculptures, but they are miserable places to inhabit which, in the end, is the reason buildings are built. (To inhabit, not to be miserable) I could be convinced by the arguments perhaps, if I hadn’t just walked a quarter mile down Chestnut Street in Springfield, strolling by example after example of traditional architecture which, even in a continuum of states ranging from pristine to dilapidated, was consistently beautiful, contrasted with the few examples of Modernism which sit like concrete and steel carbuncles on the face of the neighborhood, darkening the street and weakening the spirit.
(These are some other pictures of Chestnut Street I took this summer)
I’m sure you’ve noticed how futuristic films have nearly all of humanity wearing one piece jumpsuits. If actual individuals were required to buy them, in the way we’ve had Modernist architecture imposed upon us, I could imagine this panel of experts explaining why the jumpsuit is so good for us; we would hear more or less the same compelling arguments for the shiny metallic jumpsuit that we hear for Modernism in architecture. This would include explaining why certain particular shiny metallic jumpsuits aren’t really indicative of the beauty and comfort of some illusory, theoretically possible super comfortable and humane…shiny metallic jumpsuit. Of course all three of the experts would be wearing cotton shirts, cashmere sweaters, and tweed jackets…just as in the actual example they live in traditionally designed historic homes!
The jumpsuit thing hasn’t ever caught on because, as hot as Erin Gray looked as Buck Rogers’ love interest, very few people want to wear Lycra jumpsuits. In the real world, they suck. They’re not comfortable, not versatile, and they usually look like crap.
In my world it’s easy to see which of these two schools wins the day if what you’re interested in is an architecture that fills people’s lives with beauty, meaning, and wonder at humanity’s sublime skill.
Whatever this or that genius in Geneva or New York City WOULD have done, that is what was done.
As much as I love my hometown I know that when people make decisions about where to inhabit, it’s pretty low on most people’s list. The sole exceptions are the places gifted with concentrations of traditionally designed buildings and streets. I can’t think of a single example Modernist architecture here which does the same. The Modernists in the debate, in the end, are trying to convince us through reason and logic, to love them. Any of my readers who have ever been in love will know that it doesn’t work that way. We love what we love and whom we love because we love them, not because we should. No one loves Springfield’s “New North”, no one ever has, and no one ever will. Perhaps we should be over McKnight and Mattoon, the Cozy Corner, Olmsted Drive, and Court Square, but we’re not.
“Keep your shiny towers in the park(ing lot), we’re staying with our dirty little gridded streets, we love them, we’ve always loved them, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”