The idea that buildings were better in the past is as old as the history of architecture itself. In his 1836 Gothic Revival barnstormer Contrasts: or a parallel between the noble edifices of the middle ages, and corresponding buildings of the present day; shewing the present decay of taste, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin juxtaposed idealised mediaeval architecture (lofty cloisters, pious monks; resplendent housing for the poor and a gothic spire floating serenely above) with buildings of the modern world that he saw as austere, dehumanising and godless, with Bentham’s Panopticon housing the impoverished and endless rows of gridded housing dominating the streetscape.
This drawing of such contrasts is obviously an effective rhetorical tool because it continues to be a common device of contemporary advocates for architectural traditionalism. You may well have seen the Twitter accounts that indefatigably produce such side-by-side comparisons of modernist and traditionalist architecture. The often poorly-maintained modernism is inevitably photographed under stormy skies, with piles of rubbish stacking up in the foreground. As a point of comparison are offered the most photogenic surviving buildings of 18th century London, 19th century Paris or older vernacular, half-timbered or ragstone examples.
That this tactic has become such a common trope of anti-modernist reaction might be surprising to one of its founding thinkers. The architectural historian David Watkin’s book Morality and Architecture was the architectural vanguard of a ‘New Right’ turn that germinated at the University of Cambridge in the 1960s and 70s. Whether Keynesianism, rock music, trade unionism or welfare-state architectural modernism, he was part of a generation of public intellectuals who laid the theoretical and philosophical groundwork for the refutation of political concepts of progress and modernity which underpinned post-war social democracy.
For Watkin, Pugin’s shrill comparison of an idealised reinterpretation of medieval architecture to the fallen contemporary built environment was the original sin of modernism. Contrasts is one of the first polemics to frame questions of architectural style in fundamentally moral terms. Style became the expression of a higher truth or creed that determined the necessary character of architectural form as an expression of religious revelation, Hegelian geist or transcendent political inevitability.
Nobody participating in architectural discourse today sounds as much like the targets of Watkin’s critique as hardcore advocates of traditionalism, who perpetually insist on the degeneracy of modernism: that we live in fallen times, the built environment has been made uniquely crap in our moment due to the malevolence of a cabal of omnipotent architects, and that only the cleansing fire of demolition and traditionalist revival can return us to a state of grace. To take this position, they are shadow-boxing with an idea of modernist hegemony that hasn’t existed since the early 1970s.
To portray a grand, sweeping conspiracy and lay all the faults of the contemporary built environment at the feet of a handful of architects deliberately intent on dehumanising the public realm seems an incredible claim. Indeed, this hatred of misanthropic, left-coded elites often plays into the hands of far-right and white supremacist politics that can coalesce around traditionalist advocates on social media. Regardless of the politics of traditionalists themselves, calls for a return to tradition, the demonisation of state-led mass housing, the image of a Eurocentric architectural style as singularly virtuous or moral can unintentionally play into the hands of a political tendency that decries ‘judeosocialism’ in the YouTube comments.
Most recently, traditionalists have latched onto neuroscience as a vindicator of their preferences. Experiments which track eye movement and neural activity have begun to be held up as proof of not just the popularity of traditional architecture over modernism, but also an innate, neurologically-proven superiority. These experiments often seem to be methodologically unsound in their framing, not least because images of architecture are not architecture, but also because their premises and conclusions seem to have a certain question-begging consistency.
One such paper offers an analysis of eye movement on seeing an image of a streetscape as proof of the aesthetic failure of the Guggenheim in New York. Generalised observations about eye movement and pattern recognition require significant leaps of logic to be made into firm arguments for something so culturally specific as a single architectural style. If there is some universal neurological perception of the built environment, our actual embodied experience of architecture seems to me so fundamentally bound up with acculturation and social experience that it would be impossible to parse them apart.
The arguments of traditionalists cleverly insinuate themselves in the borderland between common sense and scientific truth, and thereby critical responses are often left flat-footed, forced to defend an architectural discipline and practice they themselves might readily critique. The shop-talking smugness of this opposition can sometimes weigh down their arguments. And then the cycle continues, with either side speaking past the other. Online, especially on Twitter, the war between the opposing camps seems to explode into days and weeks of ferocious mudslinging with alarming regularity.
What is it about this anglophone, online-only architectural culture that traps us so perpetually in this loop? On both sides, this argument is often shallow. Partly at issue is the image-dominated social media landscape that we exist within, coupled with the algorithmic rewards of getting people mad online. This fractious stalemate poses serious problems and questions for architecture and its reception.
A mantra often called upon by defenders of modernism is the ‘survival of the prettiest’. This argues that some traditionalists have a skewed sense of what the historic built environment was like, because we’ve demolished much of it, and have left only the prettiest parts. This argument was the focus of an essay titled ‘Against the survival of the Prettiest‘ by Samuel Hughes, an Oxford-based researcher who is a senior fellow at Create Streets, a British urbanism think tank with a focus on traditional architecture and urbanism. Hughes’ piece demonstrates at times a studied blindness to the complex ways that architecture and aesthetic preferences are embedded in their economic, cultural and social context.
Hughes’ argument is that people today find most contemporary buildings to be ugly, and most traditional architecture to be beautiful. He addresses the common ‘survivorship bias’ counter-argument (i.e. that all the old ugly buildings were demolished), by arguing that the paintings of ‘Canaletto, Bernardo Bellotto and Eduard Gärtner’ depict pre-modern cities full of beautiful buildings. In reality, most cities in the early modern period simply didn’t look like the views painted of them for the tourist market. And to frame Canaletto or Bellotto solely as purveyors of picture-perfect postcards of the early modern city ignores their rich depictions of ubiquitous sites of construction, destruction and habitation. These paintings are beautiful, though not, I suspect, in the way traditionalists intend it.
Happily, there is considerable academic research which addresses the limitations of paintings produced for elite audiences, with their own ideological agendas, in reflecting the lived reality of the urbanism of the early modern period. Elaine Tierney’s work highlights more complex forms of evidence: legal records, diarists, and business archives that present a much less tidy picture of the early modern city than most visual sources convey, for example, the patchwork of temporary wooden structures built to house victims of the Great Fire of London which turned significant parts of the city into a refugee camp well into the 18th Century. Similarly, ephemeral, pragmatic and invasive structures like sheds and workshops filled the streetscape and were the subject of running battles over land use, inflammable hazards and burglary. Though we lack many pictorial representations of such structures, it’s safe to say that they were not, by Hughes’ own narrow definitions, particularly beautiful.
Indeed, the failures of architectural and economic actors to produce beautiful urbanism in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London was a common theme in early eighteenth-century writings. The architect Nicholas Hawksmoor famously wrote of the failure to rebuild the city:
One might have expected some good when ye Phoenix was to rise again, vizt. A convenient regular well built Citty, excellent, skilful, honest Artificiers made by ye greatness & Quality of ye worke in rebuilding such a Capital. but instead of these, we have noe city, nor Streets, nor Houses, but a Chaos of Dirty Rotten Sheds, allways Tumbling or takeing fire, with winding Crooked passages (Scarse practicable) Lakes of Mud and Rills of Stinking Mire running through them.
Hawksmoor’s evocative description of the chaos of early modern London reflects the complex processes of early modern city-making, putting the lie to notions of a gleaming Portland stone metropolis. To Hawksmoor, the failures of his hopes for London were a result of both action and inaction. Inaction by the state, municipal and civic authorities; and unrestrained action by private developers, who were ‘Continuously Cobling up to Sell by wholesale’ inadequate, unsafe, insecure and ugly new developments.
But there is an even more fundamental question at play in this debate: what is beauty? For many traditionalists, the transhistorical objectivity of beauty is a first principle around which the rest of their worldview is structured. When asked about the basis of their conception of beauty, the answer is usually a question-begging commonplace about the principles of classicism, human scale, symmetry, ornament and gentle density.
That any of these architectural principles transcend cultural, social and historical context seems to stretch credulity to breaking point. These arguments are presented as self-evident or common-sensical: that it is human nature to love a Georgian townhouse and to despise a brutalist council estate. This is a belief much contradicted both by history, and by the contemporary growing appreciation for post-war modernism, as so much of it comes under threat of demolition. The public perception of architecture is structured by prevailing political, economic and social forces, an idea which is distasteful to purveyors of an objective theory of beauty.
Again the early modern period can help us here. The 20th Century wasn’t the first time (and won’t be the last time) that architectural practitioners found public opinion about architecture to be at odds with their designs. Christopher Wren (1632–1723), tasked with rebuilding St Paul’s Cathedral and London’s parish churches after the Great Fire, found himself conflicted by competing demands on his designs. Parishioners, church officials and royalty alike forced him to deviate from his ideal plans. Some he termed ‘Unbelievers’, as they demanded that his ambitious, centrally-planned proposal for St Paul’s be made more conventional, with a long nave and spire-like dome better suited to Anglican expectations.
These traditionalist demands upon Wren’s architectural practice were confusing to him. He had spent much of his life as a polymath academic at Oxford University and was a founding member of the Royal Society. He developed a scientific, geometric and philosophical argument for the inherent beauty of classical architecture. His experiences as an architect led him to modify this theoretical basis for beauty with a cultural addendum, that of “customary beauty”:
Customary Beauty is begotten by the Use of our Senses to those Objects which are usually pleasing to us for other Causes, as Familiarity or particular Inclination breeds a Love to Things not in themselves lovely.
That mediaeval architecture was popular, and that his pure geometric classicism was alien and contentious, led Wren to the premise that familiarity breeds love, even for buildings that are not beautiful. This is eerily similar to the conversation around modernism: flat roofs and glass curtain walls alienate us because they are a departure from the pitched roofs and sash windows that structure our collective impression of how a building should be. But in late 17th Century Britain, this idea of popular preference for architectural familiarity was an argument against the starkly new, continental classicism that traditionalists today defend as inherently and universally beautiful amongst Western cultures.
There is a broader failure here on the part of traditionalists to understand architecture on any other terms than what Australian architectural critic Robin Boyd described as ‘A Machine for Being Looked At’. Not only are their aesthetic precepts the only criterion on which buildings can be judged, but how buildings look are the most important thing about them. This can lead to some dodgy conclusions, as when Samuel Hughes addresses the aesthetic qualities of the most horrendous slums of 19th century Britain:
Slum clearance by contrast almost certainly does generate some important survivorship biases, since the demolished neighbourhoods, like the Gorbals in Glasgow or St Ebbes in Oxford, were typically the poorest areas. But we know from photographs and from surviving neighbourhoods built to identical building regulations that though these buildings were often overcrowded and unsanitary, and though they were relatively austere architecturally, it is just not true that they were particularly ugly. As is often remarked, some neighbourhoods of physically similar buildings have become popular and fashionable since inner urban renewal. Oxford’s Jericho, which narrowly escaped destruction around the same time as St. Ebbes, is one example.
The proposition that we can separate our aesthetic judgement of the ‘actual building’ from the social context in which the building exists totally ignores Wren’s problem of ‘customary beauty’. Buildings exist within economic and cultural relationships of care and representation. The public polling which is used by traditionalists as evidence of the beauty of historic architecture is reliant on these relationships. That such voters might only have come to see slum buildings as fashionable after a century of demolition and gentrification reflects the contradiction in an argument simultaneously reliant on ‘customary beauty’ and on purportedly objective aesthetic principles.
To emphasise this contradiction, we need only look at historical perspectives of slum buildings. Take for example Friedrich Engels’ description of St Giles in London, from his book The Condition of the Working Class in England:
The houses are occupied from cellar to garret, filthy within and without, and their appearance is such that no human being could possibly wish to live in them. But all this is nothing in comparison with the dwellings in the narrow courts and alleys between the streets, entered by covered passages between the houses, in which the filth and tottering ruin surpass all description. Scarcely a whole window-pane can be found, the walls are crumbling, door-posts and window-frames loose and broken, doors of old boards nailed together, or altogether wanting in this thieves’ quarter, where no doors are needed, there being nothing to steal. Heaps of garbage and ashes lie in all directions, and the foul liquids emptied before the doors gather in stinking pools.
If traditionalists have developed a contemporary conception of architectural beauty that can extend to such buildings, it is not one that would command much popular support in the nineteenth or much of the twentieth century. That these buildings were demolished is itself proof of the survivorship bias at play in our perception of the history of the city. Furthermore, it shows the poverty of an argument that considers their aesthetics in such dislocation from their economic and social context
The writings of Freidrich Engels give a flavour of the general regard for such buildings in the 19th century, and to argue against their ugliness on the grounds of deeper aesthetic principles would have bemused most of his contemporaries. This is why slum clearances (often combined with aggressive programmes of social cleansing) were widely politically popular, albeit with tension and resistance around questions of rehousing and the destruction of communities.
We need look no further than Gustave Doré’s engravings for London, A Pilgrimage to understand that the aesthetic principles advocated by traditionalists are no guarantee against the perception of ugliness. What seems missing from much traditionalist discourse is the possibility that the complex social and economic status of buildings throughout time might have informed aesthetic impressions of them, and that slums were ugly, because they were slums.
The desire for mass demolition of historic housing long predates the ideological strictures of modernism. Indeed historic housing of many different periods and regions has enjoyed a rocky reputation quite outside of any dogmatic modernist project. The now-popular Georgian townhouse was demonised by a mid-19th century generation of critics. As part of a broader attack on the culture of his parents’ generation, John Ruskin placed the iconic terraces of Gower Street in Bloomsbury alongside Periwigs and Poussin as the great aesthetic crimes of Georgian taste. Given how much traditionalists love to use location-adjusted price indicators of the housing market as evidence for the aesthetic preference against modernism, it seems remarkably myopic not to consider how or why it was that large swathes of Georgian and Victorian housing stock were so cheap and so unpopular in the mid-20th century that they became a haven for squatting.
Ironically this phenomenon is connected to the ad hominem that modernist architects never lived in modernist buildings. In post-war London, architects often found themselves at the cutting edge of gentrification in places like Islington and Camberwell, arm in arm with civil servants and lawyers, the front-line of ‘knockers-through’ who transformed poorly maintained and systematically undervalued historic housing into the desirable real estate that is now totally unaffordable even to the richest in London’s overheated property market.
The obverse of this phenomenon is clear in the shifting status of the modernist mass housing of the post-war welfare state. For hundreds of thousands of people, moving out of the slum conditions of the historic inner city and into modernist housing was not a process of alienation and degradation, but of communal life, unprecedented access to green space, and hitherto unimaginable amenities. As one early resident of the London County Council’s Aylesbury Estate commented in an oral history interview:
The estate was like a shiny new penny. It was lovely. It was really lovely. It’s hard for me to paint a picture for you but it was a beautiful place to live … The community side of it, you know? I mean you knew all the neighbours … You know you would never have got that sort of community in a row of houses as you did with the landings …
Some of the later failures of these buildings were no doubt due to flaws in their design and construction under hegemonic post-war modernism. But many of the estates demolished in the last half-century failed because of the economic and political climate in which they existed. They were deliberately under-maintained and undermined by a neoliberal order largely opposed to the political ethic which produced them. That this political abandonment has contributed to the ‘customary ugliness’ of modernist housing seems self-evident.
Writer and architect Douglas Murphy has highlighted that Create Streets have their own role to play in this process. Such traditionalist advocacy can hasten and justify the demolition of modernist estates and their replacement with developer-led for-profit housing, worsening the housing crisis in the process. Meanwhile, developers have no qualms about the inherent undesirability of modernism, gutting Ernö Goldfinger’s iconic Balfron Tower for the private market, evicting its social housing tenants through deception, and proving that there is a market for brutalist chic stripped of social purpose. The ‘customary beauty’ of housing, from the Georgian townhouse to the brutalist block, is deeply attached to their commodification and the movement of political or market forces.
In every moment of architectural production, there are huge cultural tensions. The causes of ugliness in the built environment more often stem from aggressive cost-cutting than any ideological or aesthetic commitment. Ugliness can come to dominate our built environment through a combination of private greed and public-sector parsimony, more rarely because of the ideological commitments of designers. Architects are often pushed out of meaningful decision-making through competitively tendered design and build contracts which lead to aggressive value-engineering. Volume housebuilders will often abide by the bare minimum of traditionalist touches, from bricks to limestone lintels to pitched roofs, but the results are rarely beautiful, often because of a pathological insistence on private, defensible space and as ever, car-parking provision. It seems unlikely that traditionalism in Britain, with its political base firmly in the Tory party, has the ability to overcome these market forces.
History has much to teach us about what makes buildings good, beautiful and socially valuable. Traditionalists argue that their architectural preferences are validated by a combination of public opinion and an objective aesthetic code grounded in history and neuroscience. Their arguments often rely on a misrepresentation of the past and a misunderstanding of the complex processes by which people make sense of their built environment. Wilful blindness to the economic, cultural and political forces that shape such perceptions leaves us unable to think clearly about how and why buildings come to succeed and fail, and rarely make our built environment more beautiful in the process.