Why Architectural Elites Love Ugly Buildings

By Graham Cunningham

A libido for the ugly…something that the psychologists have so far neglected: the love of ugliness for its own sake. —H.L. Mencken

When the British government recently set up a Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, the appointment of philosopher Roger Scruton to chair it brought a frisson of excitement among conservative-minded architects and commentators. It seemed to signal that the anti-Modernist counter-revolution that has recently been gathering momentum in architectural circles, particularly in the U.S. and UK, was moving beyond journalism and into the realm of public policy. The optimism was short-lived as Scruton was abruptly sacked (and then reinstated) in a panicky reaction (by the Minister for Housing) to a storm of character assassination coming from Britain’s all-powerful media commentariat. This story is now old news, but the question remains as to what, if anything, a “building beautiful” initiative might actually achieve in the face of an architectural culture that seems to prize novelty above all else.

All Western publics still treasure their nation’s classical and gothic architectural marvels and flock to them as “tourist attractions,” but among the architectural cognoscenti, a conceptual line-in-the-sand must be drawn—somewhere in the early 20th century—marking the end stage of this kind of beauty. Architectural beauty, as commonly understood for most of Western civilization’s history, must from then on and for evermore be continuously and radically reinvented.

A widespread public bewilderment at the “Deconstructivist” showcase buildings that they are told is great modern architecture is well known. But less well understood is that most of the Western world’s architectural academy are militantly disdainful of most popular conceptions of architectural comeliness. And this disdain extends not only to the “classical” in public and commercial buildings but equally to the average person’s ideal of a home and neighborhood (the focus of the Building Better; Building Beautiful Commission’s brief). This disconnection between popular and highbrow conceptions of beauty and ugliness now has quite a long history, going back to at least the 1950s.

Le Corbusier in 1964 (Wikimedia Commons)

In large parts of post-World War II Europe, the bombs of war were followed by a three-decade-long blitz of dogmatic Modernist social engineering and megalomaniac town planning, most of it taking inspiration from the then hugely fashionable theories of the Swiss architect who called himself Le Corbusier. The most forgiving thing one can say of it all was that the trauma of the war had given rise to a widespread mood of alienation from all things past. But the consequences of this alienation from the past and an intelligentsia intoxicated with utopian dogma were a tragedy, and one that unfolded on a vast scale.

Great swathes of eminently salvageable traditional urban fabric fell victim to so-called “slum clearance,” to be replaced by a utopian landscape of impersonal and often windswept “public” open space that quickly became a joy only to the thug and criminal. These barren landscapes were dotted with high-rise blocks, concrete beehives that could fulfill the utopian fantasies of their creators if their mainly working-class residents had somehow …read more

Via:: American Conservative

      

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