A Vision for Architecture as More Than the Sum of Its Parts

Radiant urban sprawl
It is at this point in the story that some architects will protest: surely it is unfair to blame modernist architects for the ills of the built environment! After all, the American-style suburbs are full of pseudo-traditionalist schlock… we modernist architects are actually making the world more sustainable, through our new “green building” technologies; you can’t blame us!
We will have more to say about the merits of “green Modernism” below.

But this pseudo-traditionalist schlock, so detested by many architects, is a mere thin veneer of marketing applied over the same stripped down blueprint for sprawl — the one created by modernist architects like Le Corbusier, based upon the fundamentalist concept of “the city as a machine”. Its segregated parts would combine mechanically, and would be connected by machines — specifically, automobiles, and the machine-like buildings that they moved between. If a little applied schlock made the package easier for consumers to swallow, that could be easily arranged.
Today’s modernist designers would love to disown the aesthetics of American-style suburbia, but the fact is that the industrial manufacturers of these mass-produced suburban environments loved the modernists’ machine-minimalism. Not content merely to strip down the parts of the old cities into functional bits of machinery, they also stripped down the detailing of the buildings themselves. They made flat, clunky windows, deleted ornamental trim, eliminated connective outdoor spaces — and gleefully turned buildings into just so many manufactured boxes, packaged in decorative marketing gimmickry.

Of course, human beings were also treated as segregated bits of machinery. Would-be suburbanites were lured by the knowledge that they could drive far away from others who weren’t like them, and live in large houses on large lots away from other people. They could always drive to the big-box stores for their growing consumer needs. Everyone would then produce a great deal of economic activity, make a great deal of money, and all would be well — until the unintended consequences took their devastating toll.

So the rapacious industrialization of the environment came packaged in a marketing campaign aimed squarely at consumers’ deepest Freudian desires and fears. Perhaps the most seductive marketing concept of all, on display to such powerful effect at the General Motors diorama at the 1939 World’s Fair, was the allure of an exciting new technological future. This intoxicating “futurism” was a concept pioneered by Le Corbusier and other early modernist architects. Industrial behemoths like General Motors readily understood the seductive appeal of this exciting technological novelty — New! Improved!

But a related concept, no less attractive to General Motors, was that anything older — like old streetcar lines, or the streets and street-friendly buildings on which they ran — were intolerably old-fashioned.

The streetcar lines must be bought up and demolished; the inner-city neighborhoods, with their tight walkable streets, must be abandoned.
Some twenty years later, General Motors captured this romantic spirit of industrialization perfectly in a rapturously futuristic television and film advertisement. An attractive couple glides through a dazzling modernist utopia in their rocket-like car, as the music plays:

Tomorrow, tomorrow, our dreams will come true!
Together, together, we’ll make the world new!
Strange shapes will rise out of the night, but our love will not change, dear —
It will be like a star burning bright, lighting our way, when tomorrow meets today!

In the advertisement, the “strange shapes” that “rise out of the night” are buildings, and they are clearly avant-garde works of alluring fine art. This was yet another example of a potent marketing combination. If fine artists were now in unquestioned service to promoting industrial products, well, that was surely progress in modernity. Such work could thus also be placed within the honored tradition of great architects of the past — however much it actually rejected most of that design legacy. With this combination of product marketing and avant-garde art in service to industry, modernist design took a commanding hold over consumer consciousness — and over the power-brokers of civilization.

Thus was born a powerful alliance that continues to this day — and continues to obstruct, except in mechanical and tokenistic ways, the needed revival of walkable street-based urbanism. Le Corbusier said we must embrace an exciting future, and to do so we must “kill the street” — and he was remarkably effective in doing so. General Motors, too, said we must embrace an exciting future, and to do so we must kill the streetcar, and the “old-fashioned” world in which it existed. GM too was remarkably effective, fueling the massive destruction of inner-city neighborhoods, and the streetcar systems that served them.

It must be said that this regime did in fact work extraordinarily well, in the limited sense of an economic development strategy centered on industrialization and the merciless denuding of the built environment according to geometrical fundamentalist ideas. But the model, economically a riotous success, now leaves us with a looming global crisis of extraordinary proportions. Le Corbusier could perhaps be forgiven for not knowing about climate change, resource depletion, or the complex dynamics of good cities. Today, however, we have no such excuse.