Ross Douthat vs. modernism

In today’s New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat attacks modern architecture in order to remember the late Steve Jobs. Yes, you read that right.

The whole breakdown is after the break.

Take it away, Ross:

From the 1960s through the 1980s, the United States of America conducted a long experiment in ugliness. Our architects grew bored with beauty, our designers tired of elegance, our urban planners decided that function should trump form. We bulldozed row houses and threw up housing projects. We built public buildings out of raw concrete. We wore leisure suits and shoulder pads, buried heart-of-pine floors under shag carpeting, and paneled our automobiles with artificial wood.

This is the world in which Steve Jobs came of age. It was, not coincidentally, a world in which it became easy to believe that the United States was in decline. Our churches looked like recreation centers, and our rec centers looked like re-education camps. Our campuses and civic spaces were defaced by ziggurats of cement. Our cities had crime-ridden towers and white elephant shopping centers where the neighborhoods used to be. Our suburbs were filled with what James Howard Kunstler described as the “junk architecture” of strip malls and ranch houses.

Wow. Well this is what happens when a columnist with clearly no knowledge of architecture tries to write knowingly about it. It seems to me here that Douthat is assaulting a few different things: the growth of the suburbs, the rise of Brutalism, and finally, schmaltzy, ’70s-type, shag carpet design.

To begin, his timing is all mixed up. The growth of the suburbs would be the late ’40s and the ’50s. The rise of Brutalism would be the mid-’60s. And schmaltzy ’70’s design would be, well, the ’70s. Nothing he addresses has anything to do with the ’80s. Compounding that is his mixing up of how these different things relate to each other. Brutalism was largely created to take on the problems of ‘junk architecture’ — to take the focus off of false facades and put it into honest buildings that brought people back to cities. No, Brutalism wasn’t entirely successful, but it wasn’t entirely a failure either. And it certainly was more than defacement. He’s right to note that schmaltzy, ’70s architecture (I can’t think of a good word for it) was not really successful at all, and was borne largely out of the tiring of modernism’s appeal. But then his analysis gets even worse:

Then, gradually and haltingly, beauty began to make a comeback. A “new urbanist” movement championed a return to walkable neighborhoods, human-scale housing, and pleasant public spaces. Our clothes became less garish, our cars more curvaceous, our civic architecture less offensive. And most remarkably, our machines ceased to be utilitarian boxes, and became something beautiful instead.

Good god. I hope Michael Kimmelman has some harsh words for Douthat. His equating of beauty with new urbanism and neo-traditionalism is misguided, to say the least, and disturbing, given its prominent location in the nation’s best newspaper. Fortunately, the column only gets better (not that it could have gotten much worse):

Like the glories of Art Deco and the allure of the “Mad Men” era, [Steve Jobs’s] products were a rebuke to the idea that the aesthetics of modern life needed to be utilitarian and blah. From the Apple store to “The Incredibles,” Jobs revived the romance of modernity — the assumption, shared by Victorian science-fiction writers and space-age dreamers alike, that the world of the future should be more glamorous than the present.

OK. I can stomach that. I agree that Steve Jobs’s focus on the future has been a positive thing.

The question is whether this revival has staying power. The age of architectural Brutalism is past, but between the travails of planning-by-committee and the red tape of bureaucracy, our civic projects still tend to be uninspired in design and interminable in execution. (The newest additions to the Washington Mall, the World War II and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, look like rejected rough drafts for monuments rather than inspiring finished products.) For all its successes, the new urbanism sometimes feels more like a reclamation project than a renaissance: it’s saved the row houses of yesterday without building the neighborhoods of tomorrow.

Some good points there, though they’re marred by the assumption that Brutalism is an entirely bad thing. Douthat fails to note that during the 1960s, Brutalism was the cutting-edge future; it is only in hindsight that so many people see it as ugly. And his disparaging of Washington’s newest memorials is deserved (see this post and this one).

Douthat’s conclusion:

If [tomorrow’s innovators] learn anything from Jobs, it should be that their vocation isn’t just about uniting commerce and technology. It’s about making the modern world more beautiful as well.

Sigh. Douthat makes the mistake made by so many in this piece: he assumes that modernism (in different forms) is a terrible thing. It isn’t! It’s perhaps the most important and greatest thing to happen to architecture in centuries.

Douthat’s point that Jobs did place on our focus on the future is a reasonable one, though Steve Jobs is far more complex than the innovator-entrepreneur-artist hero so many (including Douthat) have made him out to be. In the design of his products, Jobs’s obsessive minimalism was not entirely about the future — it was equally if not more about playing to the public’s perception of simplicity and traditional elegance. (Remember his plan for a new Apple HQ a couple of months back?) A columnist with a nuanced understanding of the successes and failures of modernism — and the meaning of beauty — would perhaps have far more interesting things to say on that point.

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