Monday, April 29, 2019

Politicizing Architecture, or, My Taste Puts Me in Disturbing Company Sometimes

Grimly fascinating article on how debate over traditional vs. modern architecture has been taken over by politics in general and alt right trolls in particular:
It should be noted that few people in this community are architects themselves. Most are simply admirers of particular forms of architecture, like Romanesque, Baroque, Neoclassical and Gothic. And to a passerby, they seem harmless enough. But for those who follow the alt-right, Architecture Twitter has become an increasingly prominent voice in the wider “online culture war,” where people proselytize about a return to “European traditionalism” in all its senses, including everything from “fixed gender roles” to forcibly segregating white people from ethnic minorities.

In particular, they see the construction of modern buildings — especially those built between 1940 and 1970 and distinguished by block-like concrete or glass and industrial materials like steel (see: the Tate Modern in London or the Guggenheim in New York City) — as a physical representation of the threat to “Western values.”

“Buildings broadcast a message. Good and bad architecture can lift, or subdue a message… aesthetic ugliness promotes ugly behavior,” says 35-year-old Paul Joseph Watson, a commentator on Infowars, in a video titled “Why Modern Architecture SUCKS.” Watson refers to modernist architects — those who designed buildings after World War II, like ErnÅ‘ Goldfinger, Owen Luder and John Bancroft — as “the social justice warriors of their time” who actively “rebelled against beauty.” By creating large concrete tower blocks — often with the intention of building social housing for the poor — Watson believes they attempted to “socially engineer society” like the Soviet Union.
Which, incidentally, is true about some modernist architects, but not all of them; the Guggenheim was by Frank Lloyd Wright, whose politics are hard to classify but certainly weren't left.

But the thing that really amused me about this debate was the reaction of leftists, who say things like:
Brutalist buildings were characterized by simple, block-like structures that often featured exposed concrete and were constructed in the belief that architects should design buildings with their function in mind first and foremost. As a result, brutalist architects would usually prioritize public space over monuments to gawk at. “Many Brutalist buildings expressed a progressive or even utopian vision of communal living and public ownership,” writes Felix Torkar in Jacobin magazine. (To that end, brutalist buildings were often favored by European governments as social housing for impoverished communities.) “The battle to protect them is also a fight to defend this social inheritance.”
Or else they fall back on a sort of bemused contempt, pointing out that alt right Youtube guys don't understand what Postmodernism means.

Let me tell you, none of these alt right guys hate modernism any more than I do, and I absolutely agree that Brutalism is a crime against humanity. If it were up to me I would tear down every bare concrete building on the planet. Plus, there is the weird fact that all the architecture in the world looks the same; an observer with a modicum of knowledge can date any 20th- or 21st-century building to the right decade with 90 percent accuracy. Why? If it isn't because the whole profession is under the control of an elite cabal, then whey aren't there any big, public buildings in the whole world that I love? There's plenty of other art being made for people with my tastes, but no architecture.

So here I am again, wondering why I keep ending up in groups full of cranky conservatives — lovers of Gothic architecture and portrait painting, scholars of Indo-European myth, fans of The Vikings — if not downright Nazis. (I may have mentioned that one of my favorite scholarly books is a 19th-century German folklore study that I read in a special Nazi Party edition endorsed by Himmler.)

My mind is in the Enlightenment, but the artistic parts of my soul dwell in the misty past.

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