Hating Modern Architecture, and Loving It (Part 1)

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There’s no getting around it; Very few people like Modern architecture—a sentiment hardly limited to East Tennessee. It has never had a big following, which ought not to be news for anyone, yet this seems to mystify many of its leading practitioners. Indeed, it is fair to say that while its acolytes have always been meager in number, relatively speaking, the reasons for disaffection among the many are several.

In this multi-part series I will explore some of those reasons, both reasonable and not, as to why Modern architecture is by far the least popular of all the canonical architectural periods of last 2,500 years. Why virtually all Western architects are taught to design in this manner and relatively few, at least in this country, are able to practice as they are taught. Throughout it all, I will discuss how this resonates here in Knoxville.

Failing Forward

Since 2008, the travel website virtualtourist.com has published an annual list of the “Top Ten Ugliest Buildings and Monuments” in the world. A quick visit to the site helps explain why the philosopher David Lovekin calls tourism, “Degenerate Travel.” That said, while the criteria for inclusion is obscure, the resulting lists say much about the antipathy for Modern architecture, one that is widely shared, particularly among those who travel to consume the romance of ostensibly unsullied distant cultures. Two of the entries on that first list are monuments, which, in all fairness, it’s difficult to imagine appealing to any sighted traveler: The LuckyShoe Monument, in Tuuri, Finland (2000) and the Peter the Great Statue, in Moscow, Russia (1997). Of the remaining eight, six are Brutalist works (akin to our own Lawson McGhee Public Library and the University of Tennessee Art & Architecture Building), completed between 1950 and 1978. The top offender is the iconic Boston City Hall (1968), by Kallmann, McKinnell & Knowles. The remaining buildings are from this century and, generally speaking, Modern.

In January 2012, the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medalist David Chipperfield presented a TEDx talk with the provocative title: “Why Does Everyone Hate Modern Architecture?” While Chipperfield, an award-winning practitioner of international renown, spends much time lamenting the poor design quality of most of what has been built during the past two generations, he offers little illumination on the actual question. For Chipperfield, the problem is not with Modern architecture, but with Modern architecture poorly designed. Of course, why would one endorse lousy design of any stripe? Yet, his talk is worth listening to if for no other reason than as a lesson in just how far a posh British accent will go to make a lecture with no clear argument sound convincing.

In July 2014, England’s The Guardian published “Architecture’s Epic Fails: Buildings We Love to Hate.” It listed seven vastly unpopular buildings, five of which were Modern works completed before 1975, the top four in the United States: The J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C. (Charles F. Murphy and Associates); the Boston Government Service Center, Boston, Ma. (Paul Rudolph); 2 Columbus Circle, New York, (Edward Durrell Stone; EMP Museum, Seattle, Wa. (Frank Ghery and Associates). Nasty things are said of all. Of the seven, the FBI building is soon to be vacated by its original owners and probably demolished; the Columbus Circle building was completely redesigned a decade ago yet the old building remains just as hated albeit non-existent. The Tour Montparnasse in Paris (1973) was given the backhanded compliment of being so ugly that it had the unintended benefit of putting a stop to all high-rise construction in Paris’ center for four decades.

One would think that bad architecture was exclusive to the last 100 years. Of course, we know this is not the case. Every epoch has buildings that are great and those that only a mother could love. Anyone who has read John Ruskin, particularly his three volumes on Venice, knows very well that before the 20th century there were unpopular buildings among locals and traveling folk alike. During the 19th century, Ruskin was one of several leading critics attacking most things post-Gothic. Indeed, one of the main reasons he rationalizes his love of J.M.W. Turner’s paintings was that Turner worked in a pre-Renaissance method and the effect was that of a Titian or Tintoretto. That said, the enmity that Modern architecture provokes across a broad cross section of Americans is something that simply has no precedent in either culture or civilization. For Modern architecture is supposed to be our architecture; its form, character, and je ne sais quoi is meant to represent who we are, our here and our now. How then can something that is ostensibly representative of us, that is an extension of our collective selves, at the same time be so loathsome to ourselves?

Curiously, in one important way Modern architecture is quintessentially American; It began emigrating from Europe to this nation of immigrants in the 1920s and 30s. Moreover, Modern architecture—particularly a subset called The International Style—established a hegemonic position throughout the globe after the war during what Time magazine’s founder Henry Luce famously dubbed “The American Century.” American corporations successfully used its powerful ahistorical iconography around the world to advertise a new post-war superpower, not only of militarism, but of commercialism as well.

Two decades earlier, around the time Mr. Luce crystalized for many the nature of the last century, Modern architecture was making a world-class mark across the Tennessee Valley, particularly in East Tennessee, which has a long and substantial tradition of fine Modern architecture, largely owing to the invention of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Most of its dams, control stations, and visitor’s centers from this period and throughout the 1940s are exceptional works of architecture and, of course, engineering. While much is made (and rightfully) of the great sculptural qualities of these enormous concrete works and the constructed landscapes they created, the dam’s interiors offer their own moments of the sublime and the beautiful. The cavernous turbine halls of places like Norris and Pickwick Dams seem like monumental stage sets by early 20th-century film visionaries such as Fritz Lang and Vincent Korda.

Yet, for most East Tennesseans, the valorization of Modern architecture begins and ends with the TVA. The reasons for this estrangement are many and more complex than many popular critics recognize. The roots of the problem begin, not in the architecture, but with this more amorphous thing called Modern.

On any given autumn game day on the UT campus one often finds football fans wandering through the ground floor the Art & Architecture Building’s atrium in search of the well-concealed restrooms. Along their way, invariably one can hear them exclaim how impressed they are at the space—its vastness, the light, the several strange concrete objects that float weightlessly several stories above their heads (faculty offices). I have overheard many of these rest-stop conversations and never once was “modern” used in adjectival disgust—in fact, just the opposite. What these revelers-in-need thought of the building’s exterior is unknown (most on campus seem to hate it), but the interior, which is by far one of the most provocative in the state, was unequivocally positive. And yet, now in its fourth decade, the building still looks, for want of a better word, strikingly Modern.

How then can something so bad be so good? How does one reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable facts about this thing called Modern? 

Next: Part 2, “This Thing Called Modern”

George Dodds’ Architecture Matters explores issues concerning the human-made environment, primarily focused on Knoxville and its environs. He has been teaching and publishing commentaries on the practice and history of architecture, urbanism, and landscape architecture for over 30 years. He has practiced in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., has lectured internationally, and has served on the editorial boards of several journals. Since 2000, he has been on the faculty of architecture at the University of Tennessee.

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