Defending Corbu’s Honor

I’m unhibernating this blog to defend modernism against all comers. So watch out.

From the Right:…essentially chilly and faintly inhuman” you say? Not true Sir!

The first clue that this critique is daft is that it’s also made by the Lethal Weapon franchise. (And as a structural engineer, let me take this moment to state that no amount of loathing for modernism can give a pickup truck the ability to pull a steel column — something strong enough to resist California earthquakes — off it’s foundation.) Plus, the roaring fireplace transcends any mere architectural movement, so it’s hardly a point in favor of National Greatness Conservatism Vernacular. In addition to the flames, note the rug, which really ties the room together:

King’s Road House, West Hollywood, CA by R.M. Schindler

All silliness aside, the problem with Wilkinson’s and Douthat’s banter is that they’re participating in a tradition of comparing unlike things: modernist monuments and vernacular homes. This comparison gets made again and again because few people live in modernist houses and thus only experience the style as a museum or a photograph. In reality, modern houses, when lived in, furnished, messed up, etc. are just as human as any other building; lack of molding or window eaves does not suddenly make a space hostile or less insulated:

Eames House
Case Study House #8, Los Angeles, CA by Charles and Ray Eames

From the other Right: The worse insult to modernism is made by Wilkinson who, apparently not familiar with CIAM, claims it for “liberal individualism” causing a generation of leftist architects to turn over in their grave. Forget “spare, elegant, functional,” modernism was about revolution. If you get rid of ornament and increase the economy of homes, then they don’t require a large staff of servants for upkeep and become more accessible to those of moderate means. You undermine the class structure of society. So it’s amusing to see an anarcho-capitalist talk about how modernism is just dandy.

The fundamental problem here is that here “modernism” is really just a stand-in for “mature/superior/good” and is consequently devoid of any real meaning. If one actually gives some weight to the history and beliefs of the practitioners, then architectural movement politics would look something more like this:

  • NGCs: monumental neoclassicism — more white marble obelisks please
  • Libertarians: commercial vernacular — strip malls for all!
  • Theocrats: baroque revival — give me that old time religion church glorification.
  • Socialists: idealistic modernism — revolution via rectangle
  • Liberals: cynical modernism — profits via rectangle (but they trickle down!)
  • Anarchists: postmodernism — fuck it, let’s just make some crazy shapes

And yes, that does mean that “liberal individualism” is something like the intellectual and moral equivalent of the best strip-mall design:  efficient pursuit of shallow, monetary self interest at the expense of higher levels of group happiness.

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