Category Archives: architectural modernists

As a cur to its vomit, an architect returns to his concrete

Thamesmead (1967-72)

Dalrymple writes that compared to the slum dwellers of São Paulo who erect their shacks in a day, the average French or British architect is

an æsthetic illiterate and incompetent, or perhaps moron would be a better word. Æsthetically, if not hygienically, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are to the modernist quarters of Paris what Fra Angelico is to Damien Hirst.

Perambulating in one of the modernist quarters of Paris, he observes:

The inhumanity of the designs bespeaks a psychological talent, that of the torturer who is able to apply electric cattle prods to people during the day and sleep soundly at night, having persuaded himself that his work is socially useful or even laudable.

Robin Hood Gardens, Poplar (1972)

He surveys

a residential wilderness of concrete in which the small open spaces have the appearance of prison yards. They are surrounded by menacing iron fences. The best you can say of the buildings — dehumanising even when on a small scale, with the appearance of a bunker rather than of a house or even of an office — is that you can usually find something worse in a radius of 200 yards.

The desolation

demonstrates that modern architects have about as as much regard for human individuality as they have for that of cockroaches.

Dalrymple believes the architects

have some subliminal idea of the evil that they have perpetrated. They utter the modernist mantra ‘Form follows function,’ the function in this case being the cooping up of African immigrants, needed as cheap labour, in the human equivalent of battery chicken farms. Yet the architects display some faint awareness that man does not live by function alone, so that, having erected concrete boxes of various dimensions from tiny to vast, they then, as an afterthought, append meaningless decoration to the boxes, say a zigzag pattern painted on a side wall, or a concrete false wall with a hole or a slash in it, the wall sometimes painted mauve or apple green in contrast to the grey behind and surrounding it.

Ronan Point, Canning Town (1968)

The architects

have thus invented something new and unprecedented in architecture, features that are neither functional nor decorative, that is to say decorative in any positive way, any way that might lend grandeur, elegance, charm, or tenderness to a building. It is a sign of a bad conscience and an inchoate awareness that the inhabitants have been treated as no human beings ought to be treated, as inanimate units. No doubt the size of the population, and bureaucratic complexities, ensure that large numbers of people are treated this way some or all of the time; but that is no excuse for incarnating this lamentable fact in architecture.

The political slogans that adorn the outer walls of the ground floor of many of the inhuman buildings are

anarchist rather than communist. Perhaps this is because of some awareness of the affinity of communism and fascism for this kind of architecture, as a factory for the production of the New Man who has only the supposed collective or national interest in his mind and no personality or character of his own. Between these buildings in Paris and those in Russia under Khrushchev or Brezhnev, or in Romania under Ceaușescu, there is nothing to choose.

Hutchesontown, Glasgow (1961-68)

Dalrymple notes that communist iconography glorified construction and was full of factories and smoking chimneys as symbols of progress. By contrast, the anarchist slogans are

much more fixated on the physical destruction of things. Looking round, it is not difficult to see why, and even to sympathise with this emphasis, albeit that Bakuninite anarchism is no more likely to bring about human happiness than is Marxist communism.

He thunders:

The hideousness of what has, on a very large scale, been constructed—at a time of prosperity unprecedented in human history—is shameful.

Alexandra Road Estate, Camden (1972-78)


Residential housing in the Bagnolet suburb of Paris

Part of the Tours Aillaud (1977) in the Parisian suburb of Nanterre

Fra Angelico, Annunciation, c. 1445

Damian Hirst, The Tranquility of Solitude (for George Dyer), 2006

São Paulo

Rio de Janeiro

Imprisonment to preclude criminal acts is sometimes justified

Hulme Crescents (Wilson & Wormersley, 1972)

Dalrymple writes that on the whole, he is

against the practice of preventive detention, as being the weapon of authoritarianism.

However, he strongly favours preventive detention

in the case of graduates of French or British architecture schools.

These people, he says,

should be incarcerated immediately on graduation.

Why? Because

it is the only way to preserve what is left of the material fabric of civilised urban life.

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

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.

Æsthetic barbarians

Cité radieuse de Rezé

Dalrymple writes that the modernists were adept at claiming that their architecture was both

  1. a logical development to and æsthetic successor of classical Greek architecture; and
  2. utterly new and unprecedented

The latter, he points out, was nearer the mark. They created buildings that,

not only in theory but in practice, were incompatible with all that had gone before, and intentionally so. Any one of their buildings could, and often did, lay waste a townscape, with devastating consequences. What had previously been a source of pride for inhabitants became a source of impotent despair.

Le Corbusier’s books

are littered with references to the Parthenon and other great monuments of architectural genius: but how anybody can see anything in common between the Parthenon and the Unité d’habitation (an appellation that surely by itself ought to tell us everything we need to know about Corbusier), other than that both are the product of human labour, defeats me.

Cité radieuse de Marseille