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A friend wrote recently. He was responding to my observations about the role of public spaces in sustaining a robust sense of solidarity.

Good architecture is a public good, he writes, and “bad architecture is regressive. There will always be bad buildings because there will always be budget constraints and mismanagement by building committees. But the boondoggles foisted on the public by celebrity architects are thoroughly inaccessible to those outside the intellectual class.

He goes on to say, “It’s not a new observation; Tom Wolfe made the case in The Painted Word years ago: ‘Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until . . . it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture . . . and came out the other side as Art Theory!’”

This is not, however, just a matter of academic absurdity and aesthetic malpractice. It has an effect on our political culture. “If you’re a lower or middle class American, you can stand in Grand Central and marvel at the technical expertise, physical sacrifice, and artistic genius that the station required. You also sense that the people responsible for such a place had both confidence and hope in the future. They also wanted to transmit something to that future, to tell us something of the natural virtues required to put up such a building.”

I think that’s quite right. Modernist and postmodernist architecture are the perfect ideological tools for isolating and demoralizing ordinary people, making society more pliable for the dominant elites who can theorize and marinate in irony.

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