Category Archives: architectural fascism

Dalrymple schools a brute and a barbarian

Debate on the propaganda campaign to persuade people that the brutalist strain was a glorious episode in architectural history

Detail of Balfron Tower (Ernő Goldfinger, 1965-67)

DALRYMPLE: It has the ring of guilty people who protest their innocence too much, who know that they have been complicit in many crimes but hope that by noisy protestation they can drown out their conscience and befuddle the judgment of others. The architects who practised brutalism were brutes. No invading barbarians could have done more damage to towns and cities. Of course, there is no accounting for taste. As James Curl pointed out in debate with an apologist for brutalism, if you do not apprehend the horrors of brutalism at once, there is little that anyone can say. It is like trying to persuade someone that genocide is wrong who does not apprehend it at once. The great mass of the population rightly detests brutalism.

BRUTE: The newly-gained attractivity is growing by the day. In troubled times where societal divides are stronger than ever around the globe and in a world where instantaneous rhymes with tenuous, brutalism offers a grounded style. It’s a simple, massive and timeless base upon which one can feel safe, it’s reassuring.

DALRYMPLE: The idea that brute concrete could create any kind of security other than unease or fear is laughable. When defenders of brutalism illustrate their articles with supposed masterpieces, it is hardly a coincidence that they do so with pictures of buildings devoid of human beings. A human being would be as out of place in such a picture, and a fortiori in such a building, as he would be in a textbook of Euclidean geometry, and would be as welcome as a termite in a wooden floor. For such apologists for brutalism, architecture is a matter of the application of an abstract principle alone, and they see the results through the lenses of their abstraction, which they cherish as others cherish their pet.

BARBARIAN: Unrefined concrete was an honest expression of intentions, while plain forms and exposed structures were similarly sincere.

Le Corbusier: evil

DALRYMPLE: This is like saying that the Gulag was an honest expression of Stalin’s intentions. Sincerity of intentions is not a virtue irrespective of what those intentions are, and those of the inspirer and founder of brutalism were evil, as the slightest acquaintance with his writings will convince anyone of minimal decency.

BARBARIAN: Beyond their architectural function, brutalist buildings serve other uses. Skateboarders, graffiti artists and parkour practitioners have all used Brutalism’s concrete surfaces in innovative ways.

DALRYMPLE: To regard the urban fabric as properly an extended playground is to infantilise the population. Extension of graffiti artists’ canvas to large public buildings is a surrender to vandalism. No one would say of a wall, ‘And in addition it would make an excellent place for a firing squad.’

BARBARIAN: Brutalism evokes an era of optimism and belief in the permanence of public institutions—government as well as public housing, educational and health facilities. While demolishing Brutalist buildings often proves politically popular, they are typically replaced by private development.

DALRYMPLE: Many brutalist buildings, especially those devoted to public housing, have been demolished within a few decades at most because they have been so hated, not to mention dysfunctional and impossible to maintain. They evoke not permanence but the wish that they be pulled down as soon as they are erected. If many survive, it is because they are too expensive to pull down and reconstruct. Private development as architecture can be good or bad, but whether it is one or the other does not depend upon its being private. Much private development is as hideous as anything the government has managed, but that is because architects are terrible and patrons have no taste.

An incompetent architect and an outright fascist

Just see how far you get up the academic ladder in a French school of architecture, writes Dalrymple, if you state what is perfectly obvious, that Le Corbusier

  • was not a genius except in self-advertisement
  • held repugnant fascist views
  • regarded humans in his cities much as we regard bedbugs
  • suggested during the Occupation that millions of people be deported from Paris because he thought they had no business being there
  • drew up designs that were incompetent
  • produced constructions that were instinct with and the embodiment of his odious ideas

Grotesque architectural incompetence: High Court of Punjab and Haryana, Chandigarh. Le Corbusier 1952-55

Bring out your spraycans!

Dalrymple writes that the epidemiology of graffiti

suggests that, at least subliminally, men still take notice of their surroundings and are affected by them.

Defacement is

overwhelmingly of hideous Corbusian surfaces, that is to say on what Le Corbusier called ‘my friendly concrete’.

Villa Savoye. Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, 1928-31. Reinforced concrete.

A clarion call to resist architectural fascism

In Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, James Curl recounts the history and devastating effects of architectural modernism. It is, writes Dalrymple,

a painful book to read. In one sense his targets are easy, for as the photos demonstrate, modernist architecture and its successors are so awful that it scarcely requires any powers of judgment to perceive it. It is like seeing a TV evangelist and knowing at once that he is a crook.

Yet modernist architecture,

despite its patent hideousness and inhumanity, has its defenders, especially in the purlieux of architectural schools. Moreover, the population has been browbeaten into believing that there was never any alternative, and it is obvious that to undo the damage would take decades, untold determination and vast expenditure. Removing the Tour Montparnasse alone would probably cost several billion. No one is prepared to make this colossal effort.

Curl has written, says Dalrymple,

a learned critique of one of the worst legacies of the 20th century.