Magazine article The American Conservative

Occupy le Corbusier: Will a Silent Majority Rise against Architecture's Elite?

Magazine article The American Conservative

Occupy le Corbusier: Will a Silent Majority Rise against Architecture's Elite?

Article excerpt

Winston Churchill once said, "We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us." Today, however, a detached elite shapes our buildings, and only then do they shape us--mostly to our detriment.

So why isn't architecture of interest to politicians of either party here and now, as it was to Churchill? The natural environment has its champions in American politics, but the built environment, where most of us live and work, does not. That can--and should--change.

Buildings shape the setting for civil society and influence our quality of life. As the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has written, "insofar as architecture has any role to play in supporting the social life of those who live with it, the street of congenial facades must inevitably offer more basic nourishment than the block of dead corridors."

Traditional architecture--derived ultimately from the columns, pediments, arches, and other features of ancient Greece and Rome--evolved by trial and error, teaching best practices to builders and architects generation by generation. The centuries forged a classical language that fostered architecture sensitive to the public's desire for "congenial facades." But in the mid-20th century, new ideas took over, and the public has ever since been subjected to endless experimentation and vanity projects.

In most cities and towns, the way new buildings look is not influenced by public taste, which is generally traditional. Instead, it is the purview of municipal and institutional facilities committees, design-review panels, the developers who hire architects who cater to the tastes of officialdom, and the local circle of professionals, academics, and journalists who may be relied upon to cluck at any deviation from the elite fashion in the design of new buildings.

Maybe we should be glad that voters are not faced with yet another set of reasons to shout at each other, as building design stays absent from public debates. But it is far from clear that traditional architecture and urban design, if they became a political issue, would be as divisive as immigration, abortion, or gun control. In fact, such an agenda would likely prove appealing across ideological divides--so the first party to politicize architecture could steal a march on its rival.

Architecture is not intrinsically conservative or liberal, let alone Democratic or Republican. Yet a quiet consensus favors traditional styles in architecture. It seems an awful lot like a "silent majority."

Perhaps Americans were not always so quiet on the subject. H.L. Mencken, in an editorial from the February 1931 issue of the American Mercury, wrote: "The New Architecture seems to be making little progress in the United States.... A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier, would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration." (Le Corbusier was one of modern architecture's founders. He proposed in 1925 to eliminate the beauty of central Paris and replace it with 60-story towers in a vast park crisscrossed by highways.)

Resistance was soon vanquished, however, as the strength of popular dissatisfaction was systematically subverted by architectural ideologues capturing the professional institutions. Within a decade or two, the styles most people disliked had taken over the industry, and as of today modern architecture's advocates have controlled the establishment for well over half a century.

"Tower in the park" urbanism is now used across America to warehouse the poor. And thanks to Corbusier, the more refined glass-and-steel versions of public-housing towers increasingly house the 1 percent and their corporate headquarters, transforming our downtowns into oppressive zones of aesthetic sterility.

Civic design remains in the hands of a very small minority whose tastes are diametrically opposed to those of the public. But if architecture became a recognized matter of public concern, Scruton's "disenfranchised users of architecture"--who like a house that looks like a house, a church that looks like a church, a bank that looks like a bank, and an office tower that looks like it is not about to fall down--might find it easier than we imagine to topple the architectural establishment. …

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