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After discussing architecture with modernists for years, it is clear that the way modernists argue is based on a dogmatic worldview. Despite their assumptions rarely being based on empirical studies and scientific investigations, they find it hard to imagine anything other than their own opinion being the only correct one. Since modernists treat certain subjective assumptions as facts, I will address these to provide a more nuanced picture.
What Defines a Modernist?
Modernism is an architectural movement that emerged in the 1920s, driven by the belief that a new stylistic direction was needed for the rapidly changing world. The rules of building proportion and urban planning that had allowed cities to grow and refine for hundreds of years were seen as obsolete. This ideology has dominated architecture and urban planning since World War II. The movement encompasses various styles, including brutalism, deconstructivism, and high-tech architecture. Modernism is characterized by a stripped-down and geometrically simple architecture, devoid of ornamentation, as the overall construction takes center stage in both architectural and artistic design.
Modernists often appear as architects, builders, urban planners, politicians, lobbyists, journalists, and opinion makers. Some may be completely unaware that they represent modernism but have nonetheless embraced the ideological stance, methodology, and dismissive arguments.
Clichés, Mockery and Verbal Scare Tactics
The so-called arguments used by modernists meet almost all the criteria for what has been described as classical fallacies in argumentation since antiquity. They often deflect criticism by repeating familiar clichés, platitudes, mockery, projections, power tactics, and verbal scare tactics. Psychologically, this is a common expression of fundamental insecurity and fear, especially when it becomes apparent that they are unable to respond to questioning with corresponding factual and evidence-based arguments. It is also a clear warning signal used against their fellow modernist comrades not to start questioning or deviating from the unsustainable path they have embarked on and are profiting from.
1. “There’s No Accounting for Taste”
One of the dogmas that modernists take for granted is that everyone has different opinions about what is beautiful and what is not. They argue that this perception is highly subjective and tied to our personality, making it difficult to discuss such aspects. However, this perception lacks support in research. On the contrary, the majority of people have nearly the same subjective perception of what is beautiful and what is not. Read more about this here.
2. “Architecture Must Reflect Our Time”
At the core of the modernist ideology lies an extremely linear view of history. Modernists believe that there is one, and only one, true architectural expression for every epoch. They assume that the ability to determine the architectural era and construction method through architectural aesthetics will generate added value. They want to be able to discern when different buildings in the city were constructed solely by looking at them.
The thing is, the public doesn’t really care if they are able to discern when different buildings in the city were constructed or not. In a recent study, people were shown pictures of areas with buildings from different epochs and in different styles. Architects generally liked these areas, while people in general felt low and even confused. In fact, the public values a sense of place rather than time. After all, the city is built for public use, not for a small group with a special interest in architectural history to wander around “reading the city” as if its buildings were objects in an exhibition.
The easiest and most sensible approach, of course, would be to simply build what people of today enjoy. Different architectural expressions and styles will emerge even if we do not actively strive for them. By designing what the people of today are yearning for, with the materials, technology, and knowledge available, the era is naturally reflected in itself. It is not something we need to interpret or actively pursue. The fact that architecture looks different at different times is a natural consequence of accumulating knowledge, evolving technology, and trends.
3. “People will Learn to Appreciate Today’s Architecture”
If architects are the only true interpreters of what our time looks like, they don’t have to adapt to what people like. Instead, modernists believe that the public will learn to appreciate new buildings after about 40-50 years. Now, modernism has been around for nearly a hundred years and most people still don’t like it.
4. “You’re Reactionary. We’re Progressive”
This is nothing but forcible language and verbal scare tactics. The modernist design philosophy is almost a hundred years old and has become a tradition in itself. It’s highly ironic that this would be considered the only architectural approach that embraces progress. The classical tradition can be varied infinitely, and as soon as architects start drawing according to these timeless principles new classical styles will see the light of day.
5. “Do You Want Outhouses Too?”
It is common for modernists to try to reinforce their image as progressive by portraying opponents as backward with counter questions like “Should we go back to the time before electricity and women’s suffrage?” or “Do you want outhouses too?”. It should be obvious that you can learn from history by embracing what they did well while rejecting the bad stuff. Of course, it is possible to build new houses that are both beautiful and have modern amenities.
6. The Use of Words Like “Pastiche” or “Disneyland”
These are not valid arguments but rather immature attempts at rhetorical tricks aimed at ridiculing a certain type of architecture. This is something that Catharina Sternudd discusses in her academic thesis “Bilden av småstaden.” She argues that there is a modernist discourse that includes a prohibition on historical references. When someone violates this prohibition, they simply try to ridicule this behavior using derogatory epithets.
7. “It’s Not the Architects’ Fault”
It is, of course, not solely the architects’ fault that most of what is being built today is incredibly ugly. Actors such as developers, politicians, and clients also have some influence on the outcome. However, claiming that architects have no responsibility at all is like saying they have no influence on the design of buildings whatsoever.
“It was architects who came up with the modernist ideology. It was architects who developed the modernist styles. Architects wrote books and pamphlets extensively to promote this ideology and its styles. In architecture schools, architects predominantly teach the methods of modernism. By constantly reiterating these unsustainable arguments, it is architects who staunchly defend modernism in the discussions of the Architectural Uprising, in the media, and everywhere objections are raised.
Architects primarily govern the municipal urban planning offices. Architects design local plans. Architects grant or deny building permits. Architects oversee bids and architectural competitions for new construction, and it is always modernism and only modernism that is approved as competition entries. Architects also judge the municipal architectural competitions, and without exception, modernist proposals are the winners.
Architects publish magazines that exclusively showcase modernism. Architects give other modernist architects space and unconditional support. The architectural community awards prizes and scholarships exclusively to colleagues who champion a single architectural style – modernism.”
Albert Svensson, Architect.
8. “We Should Talk About Quality, Not Style”
This is an attempt to confuse the issue by diverting the discussion away from the weak point of aesthetics to something they feel more proficient in. The Architectural Uprising and many others believe that the beauty of a building is an inherent quality that deserves to be discussed on its own terms.
9. “Traditional Architecture Is Too Expensive to Build”
Traditional architecture is very rational in its design and does not have to be expensive. Even though you could use expensive detailing, most attributes required for a building to be perceived as beautiful are quite simple. Basic examples of this include symmetry, proportions, and color choices. In fact, a Dutch study from 2017 shows that traditional or neo-traditional architecture does not cost more to build. However, people are prepared to pay a significant premium for traditional architecture. Simply because it’s perceived as beautiful. A Swedish study from the same year also concluded that traditional buildings wouldn’t cost more to build.
On the contrary, modernist architecture is based on the idea that it is the geometrical shape of the building that is the decoration. Leading to extremely expensive and dysfunctional buildings.
10. “The Knowledge and Craftsmen Are No Longer Present”
There is indeed a valid point that the demand for skilled craftsmen decreased due to modernism’s imposed prohibition on decorations and relativization of beauty. But to claim that all craftsmen have disappeared, along with humanity’s millennia-old knowledge of architecture, is, of course, a significant exaggeration. The survival of craftsmanship traditions is primarily observed during restoration, reconstruction, and even in the production of new buildings designed to fit in, as well as in personally designed private residences.
Have I missed any common argument? Tell me in the comments section!