Mark Anthony Signorelli and Nikos Salingaros are nothing if not clear and forceful: artistic modernism is a anti-tradition of anti-art oriented toward domination rather than beauty.
Here is a particularly trenchant set of observations about architectural modernism from “The Tyranny of Artistic Modernism,” a recent article in the New English Review:
The constant pursuit of beauty in classical art evinces the profound conviction that the human soul is a thing capable of edification, of being drawn more constantly and more thoroughly towards harmony, and that the making of art is unrivaled in its capacity to further such edification. To the contrary, modern art betrays a pursuit not of harmony, but of domination — domination of nature, of language, of one’s fellow man. The level of stylistic violence implicit in modernist architecture is extraordinary: overhangs without obvious supports, leaning buildings, extremely sharp edges sticking out to threaten us, glass floors over heights leading to vertigo, tilted interior walls also leading to vertigo and nausea. Look at the horizontal windows of modernist buildings that violate the vertical axis defined by gravity, or the “brutalist” exposed concrete in dangerously rough surfaces — a violence against the tactile environment, often falsely excused as being “honest” rather than a sadistic architectural expression. The “milder” forms of this violence are represented in minimalist environments devoid of all signs of life: totally blank walls, windowless façades, curtain glass walls, buildings as cubes of glass, buildings as cubes of smooth concrete, etc. Indeed, the subtlety that earlier attempted to camouflage this intrinsic violence has finally been abandoned, and buildings are now built as if blown apart, dismembered, and their forms melted.
There is a great deal to what Signorelli and Salingaros say. Modernist buildings, especially large scale ones, offer very little to domesticate and humanize their scale and bulk. On the contrary, it is doctrine of architectural modernism to draw attention to and celebrate both. The very conventionally modernist new skyscrapers at the World Trade Center are sheer walls of glass that give us no relief as they rise to great heights. Unlike the nearby Woolworth Building, which is a neo-gothic masterpiece of proportion and decoration, these new building give our imaginations nothing on a human scale. We are simply ants on the concrete sidewalks.
That said, there is something awesome in modernism, rather like the sublime power of large, forbidding mountains, or the vast infinity of the ocean, or the stark and clean feeling of a desert sunrise. It’s a kind of beauty that modern men and women have found intoxicating. We seem to positively desire to be overwhelmed or stopped in our tracks. That’s what architectural modernism promises. Indeed, that’s what a great deal of so-called transgressive art promises when it slaps us in the face. We’re not simply victims of modernism; we seem to actively desire its effects. Signorelli and Salingaros need to grapple with that fact about the modern era.
I’m not ready to sign on to Signorelli and Salingaros’ wholesale rejection of modernism, but I think they point to its dangerous temptation: to become an instrument of domination, a technique for deracinating and disorienting ordinary people so that they cannot resist being administered by “experts” who loom over them like the inscrutable tall buildings of steel and glass that fill New York. What does it say about modernism that nearly everybody’s favorite buildings in New York were built before it became the reigning ideology?
And they are certainly right to observe that the architectural establishment in the West is ruthless in its obligatory modernism. Anyone wishing to design in accord with traditional principles is denounced as a “reactionary.”
It’s an essay worth reading, one the reminds us that the politics of the imagination play an important role.