Category Archives: architecture (totalitarian)

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

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

Corbusians versus the cockroaches

Dalrymple writes that Le Corbusier’s

casual but vicious totalitarianism, his inhumanity, his rage against humans, is evident. He felt the affection and concern for humans that most people feel for cockroaches.

Like Hitler, Le Corbusier

wanted to be an artist, and, as with Hitler, the world would have been a better place if he had achieved his ambition — one could have avoided his productions. The buildings that he and myriad acolytes have built scour the retina of the viewer.

The Corbusians are original in nothing but the new outrages they commit

A single Corbusian building

can devastate a landscape or destroy an ancient townscape, with a finality quite without appeal.

As for Le Corbusier’s city planning,

it was of a childish inhumanity and rank amateurism that would have been mildly amusing had it remained theoretical.

Dalrymple’s æsthetic detestation of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret

Le Corbusier, Dalrymple points out, was

  • personally unpleasant
  • a plagiarist
  • a liar
  • a cheat
  • a thief

His ideas were

gimcrack at best, and often far worse than merely bad.

A criminally bad architect

To commission a building from Le Corbusier

was to tie a ball and chain around one’s ankle, committing to Sisyphean bills for maintenance, as well as to a dishonest estimate of what the building would cost to build. He was technically ignorant and incompetent, laughably so. His roofs leaked, his materials deteriorated. He never grasped elementary principles of engineering.

A house by Le Corbusier

was not so much a machine for living in (one of his fatuous dicta) as a machine for generating costs and for moving out of. In the name of functionality, Le Corbusier built what did not work; in the name of mass production, everything he used had to be individually fashioned.

Having no human qualities himself,

and lacking all imagination, he did not even understand that shade in a hot climate was desirable, indeed essential.

Foulest of the fascist architects

Le Corbusier’s writing is

exhortatory and often ungrammatical, full of non-sequiturs and dubious assertions. He raves rather than argues; everything is written in an imperious take-it-or-leave-it mode.

Le Corbusier’s pronouncements, and the belief in them,

led to the construction of a thousand urban hells, worse in some ways than traditional slums because they were designed to eliminate spontaneous human contact. He hated the street, because it was messy, unofficial and unofficiated. He hated it as an obsessively houseproud woman hates dust.

Despite his horrible failings, Le Corbusier exerts

an unaccountable hold over architects and intellectuals. In France (but not only in France), to criticise him is to put oneself beyond the pale, and careers have been obstructed if not ruined by doing so. He seems to have a grip over minds, and those who are attracted to him are attracted also to totalitarian methods of keeping control over opinion. While hundreds of fawning books have been published about him, only a relative handful have taken a critical stance, and even those that provide ample evidence of his manifold defects and crimes refrain from drawing the obvious conclusion.

Architectural totalitarianism

Modernist architecture, writes Dalrymple,

is inherently totalitarian: it brooks no other, and indeed delights to overwhelm and humiliate what went before it by size and prepotency, or by garishness and the preposterousness which it takes for originality, and which turns every townscape into the architectural equivalent of a Mickey Finn.

Modernist architecture is inherently totalitarian

An unbelievably hideous building for the National Coach Museum in Lisbon

An unbelievably hideous building for the National Coach Museum in Lisbon