With the 21st century shaping up to be a time of political uncertainty and climactic disasters, nostalgia for the 20th century gets stronger every year. But one aspect of the bygone century that few, if any, people miss is Modernist architecture.
Modern architecture is often hated for its lack of aesthetic value and association with 20th-century antipathy. Due to the efficiency of its construction, it was the preferred architecture of authoritarian governments and it symbolized the soullessness of runaway capitalism.
This article will explore why modern architecture is widely hated. But first, what is modern architecture?
What Is “Modern Architecture?”
Modern architecture was the predominant architectural movement of the early to late 20th century. It is characterized by a preference for function with little to no attention paid to the aesthetic value of the final building.
Modern architecture is a building style focused on using materials that became available due to the first industrial revolution, such as concrete, steel, and glass. Where earlier architecture styles focused on ornamentation or defense, modern architecture is focused on function.
This style embraces minimalism, urbanism, and scientific management.
Modern architecture emerged as part of the modernist philosophical and artistic movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modernism highlighted the triumph of science over the superstitions of the past. This particular style used the products of that science to build functional buildings.
The first iron-reinforced concrete house was built in Saint-Denis, France, in 1853, and it used cast iron bars to reinforce concrete walls cast in prefabricated forms.
The American Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 to 1959) is one of the most famous modernist architects. Wright, who had no formal education in architecture, largely defined the American modernist architecture movement.
Many of his works have become famous landmarks.
Some of the most famous and visible works of modern architecture are skyscrapers built during the early to the mid-20th century. Skyscrapers developed due to two factors:
- The increased price of land in major cities.
- The invention of strong building materials like concrete and steel.
Simply put, building upward became more economically viable than buying larger lots.
Due to its functional nature and the appearance of frugality, modern architecture became the preferred style of institutional construction (buildings meant for use by governments) by the mid-1920s.
The onset of the Great Depression reinforced this and remained the preferred style of government buildings for nearly 40 years, until well into the post-war era.
During the comparably peaceful and prosperous 1960s and 1970s, it became acceptable for governments to pay extra money for buildings that were both functional and served as artistic statements. Modern architecture was gradually replaced by postmodern architecture, reflecting a cultural rejection of depression and war era austerity.
An early competitor of modernist architecture was the art deco movement. Like modernist architecture, art deco embraced the products of science and engineering.
But art deco used those products to produce beautiful and functional structures.
The art deco movement originated from early groups of professional interior designers in the first decade of the 20th century. They eventually started working with architects to match the beauty of building interiors to their exteriors.
Many early skyscrapers built in major cities like New York City and Chicago were capped with art deco-style pinnacles, with some of the most famous skyscrapers being the Empire State and the Chrysler Buildings. Rather than simple steel, concrete, and glass boxes, these buildings are adorned with gleaming chrome, which became a hallmark of the art deco movement.
The art deco movement peaked in the late 1920s, but during the Great Depression, it became more subdued.
The movement officially died out during World War II as its more whimsical style could not survive wartime practicality. The art deco style had a brief resurgence with some consumer goods in the 1960s and 1970s, mainly jukeboxes and some high-end cars, but it never regained its short-lived glory.
What Are the Aesthetics of Modern Architecture?
The aesthetics of modern architecture are most often characterized by a lack of aesthetics for aesthetic sake. It usually features straight lines wherever possible and the predominant use of concrete as a building material.
The most obvious feature of modern architecture is the predominance of straight lines and rectangles. Shapes and geometric forms consisting of right angles are the most efficient for the use of reinforced concrete and prefabricated components like windows and steel girders.
Other than the shape, modernist structures typically have exteriors consisting of concrete, bricks, steel, and glass. Most are not painted, with the color dictated by the materials.
Aside from the shape and materials used, modern structures often have no style or ornamentation, and their appearance is dictated by the function they are meant to serve. It can be said that modern architecture has no defined aesthetic.
Calling these buildings “ugly” isn’t fair since no one tried to style them in the first place.
Modernist Buildings Are Aging
When Modernist buildings were brand new, they were gleaming white testaments to the strength and efficiency of their governments or economic system. Unfortunately, as the societies that built them fell into decline near the end of the Cold War, the concrete buildings similarly fell into neglect.
The money that was supposed to pay for the maintenance of the great concrete “monstrosities” was instead diverted into bloated war machines or the tax haven bank accounts of newly emergent oligarchs.
Several famous modernist structures have earned the admiration of the architectural community and have been declared UNESCO world heritage sites. Private special interest groups are preserving others.
The robust materials used to build modernist structures make them fairly difficult to demolish. Cleaning and restoring them can be as simple as power washing them or as complicated as partial demolition to install modern amenities.
Ugly Is a Subjective Term
Most critics of modern architecture dislike it because they find it to be “ugly.” The issue of attractiveness vs. ugliness is highly subjective, and many people dislike the idea of buildings with no deliberate style.
Because they already found it ugly, some people formed negative associations with modern architecture that are perhaps unwarranted. That is an example of the psychological phenomenon called “confirmation bias” and the logical fallacy of association.
What Are the Negative Associations of Modern Architecture?
Modern architecture’s negative associations are that it has all of the worst aspects of 20th-century history. Its inherent simplicity and cost-effective nature made it ideal for governments and institutions in all quarters of the political compass.
Depending on the political or economic positions of critics of Modern architecture, the odds are that they blame those they view as their ideological enemies as responsible for it. Western conservatives typically blame the now extinct leftist authoritarians.
Liberals and leftists often draw connections to fascist and neo-fascist regimes of the same time period.
In a less than coherent discussion broadcast on Sky News Australia, the newsreaders and guests espoused their dislike for Modernist structures and associated them with a nebulous and malevolent “Left.”
While those present have poor understandings of history, politics, and economic theory, they did touch on some reality in the fact that the leftist authoritarian governments of Eurasia made heavy use of Modernist-style architecture.
Here is that broadcast on YouTube if you want to see it:
The pseudo-Marxist authoritarian (erroneously referred to as “Communist”) governments of the Soviet Union, China, and their satellite states made heavy use of modernist architecture even before the Second World War.
Soviet propagandists spun the use of the style to demonstrate the egalitarian values and permanence of the State. The actual reason was much more straightforward, which was economic growth.
The state-capitalist economic systems of the Soviet Union and China produced the fastest economic growth and technological advancement in human history. Russia went from a nation of peasant farmers to the second-largest industrial nation in over 20 years. And an essential part of massive economic growth is massive amounts of construction.
Modernist structures are comparably cheap and fast to build.
The Soviets, and later the Chinese, needed to build thousands of new factories, storefronts, government buildings, and housing for tens of millions of citizens. Traditional building practices using wood or stone were too slow and required skilled tradesmen who weren’t available in sufficient numbers.
But the concrete edifices of modernist architecture could be laid out and built by medium-skilled workers who were tending state farms mere weeks earlier.
Europe, from the Pyrenees to the Ural Mountains, was in ruins at the end of World War II. Europe had to be rebuilt in a hurry to avoid even further mass death from exposure and prevent the resurgence of extreme right-wing fascism.
There was only one architectural style fit for the reconstruction effort.
In Europe, the post-war years are most associated with austerity. Money and food were scarce, and people had few resources to spend on frivolities. After all, when your other choice is death from exposure, a concrete tower block is a great place to live.
Modern architecture similarly became associated with austerity during the Great Depression in America. With an unacceptably large percentage of the population unemployed, governments couldn’t be seen spending extra money on institutional buildings.
During World War II, austerity gradually shifted into wartime practicality.
It was not until the post-war prosperity and optimism started to percolate through the USA and Western Europe in the late 1950s and 1960s that it became acceptable for local governments to spend money on institutional buildings that were both functional and beautiful. By the mid-1970s, the institutional use of modern architecture was largely extinct.
But the style was kept alive in the West by increasingly wealthy and powerful multinational corporations.
The prevalence of modern architecture in Western countries is largely due to capitalism.
However you wish to define it, one thing is common to all interpretations of capitalism: money is more important than anything else. The lack of deliberate adornment and ornamentation makes modernist structures cheaper than others.
The prevalence of modern architecture under a capitalist economic system relies on one simple reality: most customers do not care what a building looks like. Most customers will be willing to spend their money there if a business is clearly labeled and the building is reasonably clean.
Lower-tier hotels, motels, and apartment buildings are the most common modernist structures in modern cities. Such structures are usually highly modular and built using mass-produced prefabricated concrete forms.
Commercial architecture, in general, is usually modernist.
Most commercial structures do not need ornamentation or style, whether they are built to serve as office buildings or industrial units. A spartan concrete and glass box can house a multimillion-dollar corporation as well as an art deco masterpiece.
But crucially, the concrete and glass box will still make sense 50 years later.
Why Are Modernist Buildings Still Being Built?
Modernist buildings are still being built because they require a minimal investment in design. These buildings can be built using prefabricated, mass-produced forms and will function anywhere they’re planted. They also yield the highest possible profit margins for commercial builders.
If conservative critics of Modern architecture were correct about the association between modernist buildings and “Communism,” you might have expected the style to die out after the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence and China embraced capitalism.
But modernist concrete blocks are still being built worldwide, especially in the countries that “won” the Cold War.
Whether or not modern architecture was ever favored by the pseudo-Marxist authoritarian regimes of the CCCP and its satellite states, the relative frugality of modernist architecture makes it economical under any political or economic system. Modern structures can be built anywhere with a ready supply of concrete and steel.
The ultimate appeal of modern architecture is that buildings can simply be built to serve a purpose. A factory can just be a factory, a store can just be a store, and a house can just be a house. They don’t have to be works of art.
One intriguing factor in all this is the disconnect between architects and other designers and the general public. Most architectural schools typically view modern architecture as the foundation of contemporary building design.
While the current movement has shifted toward other forms of design such as parametric design, hi-tech architecture, eco-architecture, etc., modern architecture is still at the root of these theories.
For all the spin and hatred around modern/modernist architecture, one reality promises to keep it alive for decades or centuries to come: Modern structures are practical and easy to build.
What’s more, the idea of attractiveness vs. ugliness is highly subjective and in the end, it doesn’t matter how “ugly” or “attractive” a building is as long as it serves its purpose well and people are willing to use it.
- Current Affairs: Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture
- Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Work
- Oxford University Press: The Aesthetics of Space: Modern Architecture and Photography
- Failed Architecture: The Far Right’s Obsession with Modern Architecture
- YouTube: Modern Architecture is Brutally Ugly
- YoutTube: Lasting Beauty vs. Fast Money — the Modern Architectural Dilemma | Marco Serra
- The Spruce: What Is Modern Architecture?
- Wikipedia: Art Deco
- Wikipedia: Association Fallacy
- Wikipedia: Confirmation Bias
- Wikipedia: Contemporary Architecture
- Wikipedia: Frank Llyod Wright
- Wikipedia: Modern Architecture
- Wikipedia: Modernism
- Wikipedia: Postmodern Architecture