Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Declinism and Modern Architecture

Spurred on by a post by Tyler Cowen, Frank McGahon discusses an issue that is a favorite of lovers of the arts everywhere, to wit (in the words of Mr. Cowen):

But I still wonder why urban architecture no longer yields consistently beautiful urban regions. Anyone who has walked around the major European cities, or even glanced at the Chrysler building, surely has asked the same question. Why is the quality of exteriors declining relative to interiors? Given that nice exteriors are a public good, why were they ever so nice in the first place?
There are problems with this argument, despite its popularity in many circles, and Frank points out one of them straightaway - one man's "ugly" is another man's "breathtaking", and there's no objective scale alongst which to rank all urban lansdcapes in a single file. Even so, he grants that there is something to Cowen's statements:
That said, this is not a phantom phenomenon but to answer the conundrum one must be more precise: The problem is not about a decline in the quality of "architecture" so much as the decline on the quality of "building". At any given time, there will always be many more "buildings" than works of architecture and ordinary, unheralded contemporary buildings are uglier than their historical counterparts. To understand why this is so it is necessary to consider how the process of "making a building" has changed over the last couple of centuries. There are a number of factors here but the two key reasons are 1) "Bureaucratisation" and 2) Technological advancement

1) Planning permission is a relatively recent phenomenon and its most notable consequence is extensive state intervention into the building procurement market. In "supplying" a building or building design, one must not only satisfy the "demand" of the client paying for it or that client's customers but also the demands of the planning bureaucrats. These latter demands are not restricted to consideration of objectively assessed negative externalities nor indeed of subjectively assessed aesthetic qualities but also include assessments of future users' intended needs. That previous attempts by state agencies to anticipate consumer demands in other sectors have failed miserably has not diverted planning officers from this task. One effect of this meddling is that blandness is rewarded.

2) Perhaps more importantly, the technology which permits exciting and innovative architecture also enables the dull and inelegant. Put simply, there are now vastly many more ways to build crappy buildings. In the pre-modernist era, you could only go so far wrong building a building out of brick. Walls needed to be of handsome thickness simply to stand up, only a certain width of window opening was practical. Technological advancements removed many of the restrictions which just so happened to ensure a certain minimum elegance to the ordinary building.
While there is a great deal of merit to both of the points Frank raises, I think there's also a third issue at work, and one which, though closely related to his second point, is not identical to it.

The point at issue is this: while it is true that the modern era has seen an explosion in terms of what is technologically possible, it is even more the case that it has seen an explosion in what is aesthetically permissible, with a bewildering number of styles emerging in all the arts at a rate that would have been incomprehensible in the era of architects like John Vanbrugh and Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Pre 20th century architects were aesthetically constrained in what they could attempt to variations on the same old themes emulating antiquity, and if that meant few buildings scaling great new aesthetic heights, it also made for relatively decent architecture even in the hands of the uninspired. The problem with our era is that now architects are freed from the yoke of Vitruvius' architecture - and even positively discouraged from emulating the best of the past, for fear of committing the sin of "historicism" - they are also free from the restraining discipline that the Beaux Arts influence offered for their most misguided instincts. Modern architecture at its best really is breathtaking, but as few practitioners of any art or trade are geniuses, most modernist structures will necessarily fall far short of the standard set by the works featured in the Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture, and the average mediocre modernist building will be a lot uglier than a run-of-the-mill 19th century structure.

In short, the aesthetic heights are higher than ever, as are the lows lower than ever before, but unlike the old-time architects who designed most European city centres, most practitioners of modernism don't have the guiding template of a design refined over the centuries to keep them from turning out truly abominable edifices.