Why Do People Hate Modern Architecture?

Today we shall be discussing about why do people hate modern architecture. It’s clear that many people, as demonstrated in the comments, have a strong rejection towards Modernism – seeing it as monotonous, ugly and even dehumanizing.

There are some valid and very compelling reasons why many people dislike Modern Architecture. A point of clarification – in this article we’re referring to Modern Architecture with a Big “M” – a formal architectural design movement that was most prominent during the early to mid-twentieth century. The word “modern” with a small “m” which describes things that happened recently, makes this kind of confusing.

As in – a neoclassical-style building that was completed in the last few years is technically “modern,” but it’s not “Modern.” I didn’t come up with these terms. The thing is – Modern Architecture is not just about how it looks. A truly Modernist design adheres to a strict set of formal rules that upholds Modernism’s fundamental principal – Form Follows Function. In the 1940s and 50s, most architects and designers embraced this principal. Many were followers of theorists associated with the International Style, such as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and LeCorbusier.

They argued that architectural design should be disassociated from historic reference, be free of unnecessary ornamentation, and be simplified to the essentials of function.

This radical approach is understandable in a time that was recently plagued by two devastating world wars. Modern building techniques were cheap and efficient, especially for the rebuilding of war-torn urban areas, and why would people want to retain characteristics of the old imperialistic empires responsible for all the war and chaos?

But in pursuit of this pure functionalist approach – did we end up building empty boxes of nothingness? In 1968, two architects – Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi , along with students of their research studio at the Yale School of Art and Architecture – ventured out to study the design of the Las Vegas strip. At the time, especially to their colleagues of the academic establishment out east, taking design lessons from a place like Vegas was absurd. Las Vegas was seen as wasteland of urban sprawl, rampant commercialism and kitschy decor.

But Scott Brown and Venturi saw something rich and meaningful in the vernacular architecture of ordinary life, and together with their colleague Steven Izenour, they published the findings in their 1972 book “Learning from Las Vegas,” which became one of the most influential and controversial architectural texts of the twentieth century.

Scott Brown and Venturi believed in learning from history and evolving from traditional practices. They argued that “Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect.   To question how we look at things.” It’s important to point out that Scott Brown and Venturi were not calling for a direct revival of historic styles.

Their actual position was that sometimes it’s necessary to “look backward at history and tradition” in order “to go forward.” One crucial historic lesson highlighted by Scott Brown and Venturi is the importance of ornamentation and iconography – elements that Modernist abhor. Egyptian hieroglyphics, Byzantine mosaics, Gothic stained glass, and Renaissance frescoes would have all been written off by Modernists as superfluous decoration, but they argue that decorative elements.

It’s a “superfluous” piece of decoration that definitely references history, and technically serves no architectural function. But it provides context and denote purpose. Scott Brown and Venturi really challenged architects and designers to put away their egos, their idealism, their puristic concepts – and take a hard look at the everyday realities of their actual surroundings. Las Vegas may have looked tacky and eclectic, but it represented the speed and messiness of contemporary life.

Sparkling signs may embody frivolity and excess, but it reminded people of the fun fairs they used to go to as children and the glittery things their grandparents would bring home for them. Modern Architecture neglects “an individual’s need for intimacy and detail” while “five-eighth scale reproductions of Disneyland” satisfy this need. Scott Brown and Venturi weren’t the only ones criticizing formal academic institutions during this time.

In fact, they were very much inspired by Pop Artists of the 1950s and 60s who challenged elite art establishments by appealing to popular imagery and mass culture. However, unlike the fine arts – it’s arguably much more important for architecture to be in tune with the needs of everyday people – as you can choose whether or not to look at a work of art, but essentially everyone in modern society has to live with the built-environment.

Architectural theorist Charles Jencks argued that “architecture…faces the problems of modernism more directly than the other arts” as “the dilemma of bigness, mass production, anonymous living” are the elements of our everyday reality. However – in the 1950s – most American architects modelled their designs from ideal cities like Le Corbusier’s Radiant City or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, not from observations of real contemporary communities. This makes “Form Follows Function” an idealist concept that often falls short in reality.

How many buildings built a few hundred years ago, 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago still house its original activities? Whether it’s a home, workplace, school, shop, entertainment venue, or community centre – functional actives are always in flux and programmatic needs are always changing. This is not to say okay screw design, we don’t need architects and designers anymore. No because I’d be out of a job.

But it does mean that designers needs to be adaptive and flexible. A lot has changed since the 1950s and 60s. The Las Vegas Strip today is a very different place from what Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi observed – but it is nevertheless still an eclectic reflection of popular culture. Scott Brown and Venturi are also by no means the only critics of Modern Architecture.

Shots were fired as far back as 1961, when Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Aldo Rossi’s the Architecture of the City, and Hassan Fathy’s Architecture for the Poor were also powerful critiques and challenges to Modernist principals. By the 1970s, many followers of Mies van der Rohe have also come to abandon his teachings, a shift symbolically demonstrated by Stanley Tigerman in 1978 – depicting Crown Hall, one of Mies’ most iconic and revered designs, sinking into the ocean like the Titanic.

In fact – if the first half of the 20th century is considered to be the age of Modern Architecture then the latter half of the century can be defined by a continual, unrelenting assault on Modern Architecture.

So why do people hate Modern Architecture? Because it erases historic traditions that are meaningful and symbolic to us. Its purist approach is in conflict with the complexities of contemporary life. Its utopian models fail to address the real needs of everyday people. And its strict, formal principals cannot adapt to the shifting needs of a changing society.

The downfalls of Modernism is not in the glass and steel nor the straight lines and sharp angles. It’s not about what’s ugly and what’s not, it’s in the problematic ways that Modernism has shaped our world. So what do we do now? Do we tear them all down and rebuild again? I’m sure that’s what some of you are going to say in the comments but I honestly don’t think that’s right either. If we learned anything through all this – it’s that there is value to in learning from the past – including from Modernists.

The legacy of critics like Scott Brown and Venturi is not in overthrowing Modernism, but in teaching us to be flexible and adaptive, to gain an appreciation for the vernacular and the ordinary, to be more accepting of diverse traditions, and to practice thoughtful evolution as opposed to radical revolution.

What do you think? Are you a supporter of Modernism and think “form follows function” should be upheld as a primary design principal? Or do you think decorative, symbolic, historical, and vernacular elements are valuable to design and that architectural principals should be more permissive and adaptable? Share your opinion in the comment below and check out our article on  why do people write.


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