Of History, Architecture & Memory

Humans are conditioned to think today’s buildings are automatically uglier than what came before.

The Eiffel Tower was once considered a monstrosity by French architects. / Flickr

A couple of years ago, Daniel Kay Hertz published one of the best analyses of the plain ignorance and delusion many people who live and write about cities live under. It was called “The Immmaculate Conception Theory Of Your Neighborhood’s Origins”, and showed how the older homes people admire today for their modesty, affordability and character were the extravagant McMansions of the 1% back when they were built.

The “immaculate conception theory” is fairly common and rooted in ordinary human psychology: people assume that the past was better and project their values onto it, but nostalgia has sharp consequences. The job security and benefits of Baby Boomers, for example, were luxuries their grandparents never knew, but now we assume it’s the way thing always worked in the past; nostalgia for streetcars has resulted in the waste of tens of millions of dollars on projects that don’t benefit transit users.

But sometimes it just leads to hilarity. Take this piece from Current Affairs, titled “Why you hate contemporary architecture”. A perfectly good sentiment, but the authors’ own ignorance combines with their ideological blinders to undermine their points.

It makes some good points regarding contemporary architecture, such as that it’s elitist, ugly, unsettling and anti-human in its sterile rationalism. But it also makes a lot of cliched and untrue ones.

For example, the authors talk about how unpopular new buildings are — but new buildings are invariably unpopular. As Ben Adler noted in a review of The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, “today’s architectural landmark was the Victorian era’s suburban tract house, or McMansion, decorated with mass-produced moldings and clad in sandstone from Connecticut because it lent an air of grandeur but was cheaper than marble.”

They talk about the Tour Montparnasse in Paris because it sticks out — it’s the tallest building in central Paris and its glass windows are tinted, so it’s a black cylinder towering over the whites, creams, verdigris and slate of historic Paris. But is being different what determines ugliness in architecture? The Eiffel Tower is now well-beloved and symbolizes Paris, but when it was built in 1889, a committee of 300 artists, architects and writers wrote the following:

Honored compatriot, we come, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the beauty of Paris — a beauty until now unspoiled — to protest with all our might, with all our outrage, in the name of slighted French taste, in the name of threatened French art and history, against the erection, in the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.

Are we going to allow all this beauty and tradition to be profaned? Is Paris now to be associated with the grotesque and mercantile imagination of a machine builder, to be defaced and disgraced? Even the commercial Americans would not want this Eiffel Tower which is, without any doubt, a dishonor to Paris. We all know this, everyone says it, everyone is deeply troubled by it. We, the Committee, are but a faint echo of universal sentiment, which is so legitimately outraged. When foreign visitors come to our universal exposition, they will cry out in astonishment, “What!? Is this the atrocity that the French present to us as the representative of their vaunted national taste?” And they will be right to laugh at us, because the Paris of the sublime Gothic, the Paris of Jean Goujon, of Germain Pilon, Puget, Rude, Barye, etc. will have become the Paris of Monsieur Eiffel.

Listen to our plea! Imagine now a ridiculous tall tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black factory smokestack, crushing with its barbaric mass Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the dome of Les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all our humiliated monuments, all our dwarfed architecture, which will be annihilated by Eiffel’s hideous fantasy. For twenty years, over the city of Paris still vibrant with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see, spreading out like a blot of ink, the shadow of this disgusting column of bolted tin.

So the mere facts that new architecture is new and unpopular do not, in and of themselves, mean anything. Sacre-Coeur, the domed church next to the Tour Montparnasse, was similarly loathed when first built in the 1870s — and now people decry Montparnasse for not fitting in with Sacre-Coeur!

The authors place far too much stress on what they call “the principle of ‘aesthetic coherence’”, which is that buildings should look like they fit in with each other. This is a severe misreading of architecture and history.

If one honestly and carefully examines a city’s architecture, one sees that, even in the most seemingly “coherent” areas, they rarely are. Many European cities have Medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern styles, if not some surviving Roman buildings still in use. Over the summer I was on a street in the Upper West Side of Manhattan with Victorian brownstones, a Romanesque church, a 13-story Italianate high-rise, A Dutch, Belgian or northern German-inspired building, some plain brick tenements, a one-story building with a kind of neoclassical thing going on, and some more ornate Italianate high-rises. Some of the brownstones were classic, one had a bowfront — but had been modified to have a ground-level storefront. This was all one random street I happened to be on in Manhattan, but it had a huge variety of styles, massings, ornaments and uses. There was no dominant aesthetic or style.

But why do people think they “fit in” together? For one thing, they have underlying principles that were common to architectural styles around the world before the 20th century. They have proportion in where windows are placed, in the height of the building compared to the street frontage of the lot. These proportions are based on nature, while a researcher named Ann Sussman argues that traditional buildings were designed to be similar to the human face, which we naturally respond to positively. But the early modernists were traumatized by World War One or, in the case of Le Corbusier, were autistic, and could not respond to faces in the same way. As a result, modernist architecture makes neurotypical people feel put off and disoriented.

There are other, more practical reasons for apparent uniformity. Before and during the 19th century, it was impractical to transport building materials a great distance, so cities were built with what was at hand: brick in London, limestone in Paris, wood in much of the United States and so on.

One of the most important factors, though, is memory. Quite simply, old buildings look like they belong together because we’ve always seen them together. We remember the city as it has always been to us and live at a time of change.

Lastly, the authors’ ideological bias distracts their thesis. They are anti-capitalist leftists, but they don’t realize how much architecture has been built by capitalists. In fact, they say that “capitalism eats culture and makes ugly buildings. Money has no taste.” This comes right after praising Beacon Hill, which is not only a hodgepodge of styles, but was built by a group of wealthy Boston merchants and landlords (many of whom originally made their fortunes in the slave trade) called the Mount Vernon Proprietors, who may’ve stolen the land they built on from the painter John Singleton Copley.

Similarly, in an age of design review, rampant NIMBYism, and zoning that governs the dormers on your house, the assertion of “a free market approach to design and development” is laughable. Some of the worst features of modern buildings have been baked into zoning codes. Relatedly, as Seth Zeren once said at a CNU New England meeting, we just don’t build enough for a new style to become prevalent. New, glittering glass-and-steel towers look much more at home in Singapore, Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei than in slower-growth cities. During the 19th century, almost every building from before 1850 was torn down in New York, replaced with an Italianate palazzo revival that still forms the basic pattern of 19th-century downtowns.

That, too, is another thing we have forgotten.

[This article was originally published on Robare’s blog Urban Liberty.]

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