Modernist Urbanism: The Untruths of Beauty and Utility | Adam James Pollock
In the philosophy of the modernist artistic movement, one statement pervades all conversation, decrying the thought that modernism is anything but beautiful: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. In architecture, the entire viewpoint of cubical concrete structures being – dare I say – ugly is often arrogantly disregarded since, as one ought to know, “beauty is subjective”. And so the modernist dreams up an image of subjective beauty, something which only he may find beautiful, a structure so inherently different that he would understand if lesser folk cannot comprehend its appeal. And this subjectively beautiful building will, without a shadow of a doubt, look identical to each and every one which the modernist has produced before.
This idea of a glass and greyscale landscape adorned with concrete corridors and cloisters as the new vision of beauty is the most heinous lie to have been accepted as popular truth in recent years. It is the predication of globalism at the expense of local cultures; it is the neglect of centuries of progress, tradition and craftmanship; it is what the late Roger Scruton referred to as the most evident violation of God’s commandment to love thy neighbour. But, says the modernist, even if one doesn’t understand its beauty, this building makes more sense than those before – think of the utility! And so the lie continues.
The claim of utility as intrinsic in modernist architecture is, at its core, false. If a structure is built with only utility in mind, and no regard for mass aesthetic appeal, there will come a time not too far in the future when said structure no longer maintains this level of utility. It will then be removed, replaced with something of much higher value, and in the blink of an eye an entire architectural period will be lost. The Georgian townhouse located just down the street, however, will still be standing. It was built with beauty in mind, its utility tailored to each generation to come; first, a large, private family home; later, divided into separate flats; at one point it may have been a hostel, or even a bed and breakfast. Its usage may change, however due to its ageless beauty, it will remain.
But again, the modernist speaks up: there is no room for such developments anymore; buildings are erected densely, to great heights, because this makes the most of the space available. The world is too crowded, you know! An untruth such as this speaks more to laziness than to the ingenuity of architects and town planners. In traditional urban architecture, buildings were created right on the edge of the street, one at a time, according to the needs and means of its owners or inhabitants. These buildings could evolve together, organically, being extended upwards and outwards as needs developed. While adhering to the original architectural style, certain artistic traditions and cultures are preserved, allowing for more local-specific trades to remain extant. For modernist structures, this is not possible. They are often produced with a singular notion in mind – as offices, or apartments – as a fully realised thought, with no attention paid to the future. Will the Gherkin or the Shard in London ever be modified, modernised, made more useful for future generations? No – there is only deterioration and decay for them.
As an alumnus of Durham University in the northeast of England, I have been resident in one of the most historic and beautiful cities in the British Isles. In my first year, I was able to live with many other students in a castle, parts of which date to the 11th century and are of Norman design. The next year, in an old stone terraced house underneath a large viaduct, still operational as a train line after almost two hundred years. Talk to anyone who has visited this city and they will testify to the beauty of its history, how so many lives are intertwined in its many listed buildings, hundreds of years old, repurposed as shops, university accommodation, even nightclubs, but never removed, for their beauty necessitates the prolonging of their utility.
However, those versed in the modernist architectural ideology will propound that it is Dunelm House, home to the equally redundant Durham Students’ Union, which is the real masterpiece. The building, in the brutalist style characteristic of nowhere and everywhere at the same time, seems anachronistic overlooking the River Wear, with the 11th century Durham Cathedral obscured from view on the far bank. Popularly referred to by students and local residents alike as the ugliest building in the city, it has regardless been recipient of a Civic Trust award, with its only praise seemingly coming from academics (in the loosest possible sense of the word) and, unsurprisingly, the local council. “But it was designed by the same person who designed the Sydney Opera House”, touts the modernist, full of knowledge and righteousness. This is true. Everyone has their bad days.