Category Archives: modernist architects

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.

A world heritage site of incompetent modernist architecture

Left to rot: the magnificent Victorian original building

Dalrymple at Aberystwyth University

The university’s original magnificent Victorian building

stands unoccupied except by detritus that can be glimpsed through its Gothic windows unwashed for decades.

The rest, he says,

is of such ugliness that one is left clutching one’s eyes in despair.

Unutterably hideous: one of the university’s structures

The students,

who in term time make up a third of the town’s population, care deeply about the fate of the planet and the future of the environment, but live in squalor.

They

turn everywhere they inhabit into a slum, and wade happily through the litter that they drop — principally the wrappings and containers of their refreshments rather than lecture notes.

Modernist architecture of almost laughable ineptitude

The grisliness induces in the onlooker a sense of hopelessness in the face of such degradation

Vicious trio of architectural desecrators

Dalrymple writes that the apostles of architectural modernism Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier were

so flawed that between them they were an encyclopædia of vice.

They

  • spoke of morality and behaved like whores
  • talked of the masses and were utter egotists
  • claimed to be principled and were without scruple, either moral, intellectual, æsthetic or financial

Their two undoubted talents were those of self-promotion and survival,

combined with an overweening thirst for power. Their intellectual dishonesty was startling and would have been laughable had it not been more destructive than the Luftwaffe.

Larkin’s Coventry

Philip Larkin, Dalrymple points out,

was a bit odd. Could it be that the destruction of his home town, Coventry—its transformation from mediæval city firstly to rubble and then to modernist urban wasteland, not to mention hell—had something to do with the bleakness of his vision?

Dalrymple explains (from 8:17) that until the bombing in the Second World War, and the depredations after the war of the socialist planners (who regarded the bombing not as a tragedy but a heaven-sent opportunity), Coventry was one of the finest mediæval towns in Europe. He is reduced almost to tears by the destruction wrought both by the Luftwaffe and the post-war desecrators.

Much of Coventry could have been restored, and the very little that was restored is of outstanding beauty (though actually it was all everyday architecture at one time).

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An eyesore in Lima

screen-shot-2017-01-22-at-08-36-22Dalrymple writes of the æsthetic shambles that is the Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología:

The building is awkward, angular, without overall unity; its spaces are mean, narrow, and oppressive and its proportions a mess. And this is all before the concrete, for the moment pristine, begins to deteriorate.

One of the architects, an Irishwoman, says of the atrocity she has perpetrated:

We’re interested in weight. For us, the enjoyment of architecture is the sense of weight being borne down or supported, the feeling of moving with the forces of gravity. It’s a very primal need.

Architect Shelley McNamara: interested in weight

Architect Shelley McNamara: weight problem

Dalrymple comments:

I have noticed that when an artist or architect begins by saying ‘I’m interested in…’ bilge is sure to follow, as the night the day. What does it mean, that the enjoyment of architecture is the sense of weight being borne down or supported? Does anyone see the Taj Mahal for the first time and say, ‘Oh, what a wonderful sense of weight being borne down or supported’?

The problem, he says, is that

the pseudo-cerebrations of architects now take precedence over taste.

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Psychopathic æsthetic arrogance

Repulsive and barbaric

Repulsive and barbaric

The Shard (2012), writes Dalrymple, is

grossly incompetent.

It

unbalances an already much damaged skyline

and is an example of

the devastation wrought by barbaric architects.

The egotist Renzo Piano imagines that

his adolescent rebellion is something to be proud of.

Technical advancement,

for which gigantism is often a metonym, is mistaken for improvement.

The Shard would, says Dalrymple,

be perfect for Dubai: its glassy vulgarity would hardly attract notice there. But London is not Dubai even if its prosperity is built, metaphorically, on sand.

Modernity

is the most fleeting of qualities, and useless for assessing the worth of anything. Fascism and nylon shirts were once modern, but no one would now call them the finest flower of the human mind or spirit.

Postcards from Poissy

Banksys of the world! This 'villa' is an ideal canvas. Please visit and tell your friends!

Banksys of the world! This ‘villa’ is an ideal canvas. Please visit and tell all your nice friends

A broken-down ‘machine for living in’

Dalrymple travels to the commuter town outside Paris to view the fascist architect Le Corbusier’s villa Savoye (1928-31). The absurd edifice, Dalrymple points out, is

the acme of incompetence.

Such a blot is, needless to say,

uninhabitable.

It was abandoned by its owners, who found they could not stand, among many other things, the leaks from the roof that were a direct result of the gimcrack design. The structure resembles, Dalrymple says,

a laboratory

or a lavatory.

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Calling all graffiti practitioners: whatever you do to this ‘villa’ will improve it. You are always welcome here

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Get that spray-can out!

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Micturate at your leisure. Thank you

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Yes, you may defecate here

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Fly-tippers will not be prosecuted

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Drug dealer? Operate here, please

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Prostitute? You are welcome to inject heroin into yourself and/or service your clients here. It will improve the ambiance

 

The world’s ugliest building

Centre Georges Pompidou. 1971-77, Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini

French fascism HQ: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1971-77, Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Gianfranco Franchini

Postcards from Chandigarh

‘The finish is crude and rough, the raw concrete horribly stained and deteriorated.’ It was so ‘even before completion’

Corbusian Mecca

Dalrymple exclaims to the pilgrim couple next to him:

What incompetence!

The woman

opened her eyes wide, as if I had denied the prophethood of Mohammed. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked. Of the aesthetics of this hideous place I did not speak. ‘The temperature is forty-five degrees,’ I said. ‘There is no shade.’

Dalrymple claims

no particular merit in having seen at once that in a very hot climate it is best not to have large open expanses without shade, expanses paved in a material perfectly adapted to reflect and radiate heat.

That Le Corbusier did not see it

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 08.15.19is not in the least surprising in the light of his character and life’s work: his blindness was of a piece with the inhumanity that he displayed for decades and that made fascism—indeed, any totalitarianism—so deeply attractive to him. And it is his inhumanity that makes him so much a hero still in French architectural schools, liberating the architect from the need to consider anything but brute technical feasibility.

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Coventry sojourn

A jewel of Coventry commercial architecture

A jewel of Coventry commercial architecture

Dalrymple visits the West Midlands city, where

amid the hideous and dilapidating buildings of a failed modernism

he sees

  • precincts with half the shops boarded up
  • youths in hoodies skateboarding all day along the walkways
  • the prematurely aged, fat and crippled unemployed occupying themselves in the search for cheap imported junk in such shops as remain open
  • lurkers, muggers and dealers waiting for nightfall
One of the city's elegant hotels

One of the city’s charming hostelries

He stays in an establishment

whose nearest architectural equivalent is the hotel in which I stayed in Makhachkala in ex-Soviet Dagestan.

Council House, Coventry: the delicate, judicious, infinitely sensitive blending of the old with the very finest of the new architecture

Council House: the very finest of the new architecture is judiciously and most delicately grafted upon the old edifice to make a charming, congruous and unified whole. The conjoining of the two structures in this way is considered a masterstroke of restraint and elegance, much loved by the inhabitants. Truly the city is blessed to have working for it architects the likes of these