Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

The architecture of nihilism

I’d said in the Ugly Churches post that calling a particular church “regrettable” isn’t meant as a judgment on the religion itself or the parishioners who worship there, but only on the architecture itself. But it’s true that architecture, especially church architecture, should express the values and beliefs of those who use the building for their gatherings. It’s generally true that architecture, like all forms of art, expresses values, spiritual and otherwise, and shapes the way those who live with and among those buildings see the world.
With that in mind, please take a look at Michael Totten’s fascinating report from Romania, which was passed along by a Dallas reader. Totten writes about how communism brutalized the country, and how it still has a long way to go to recover. What the dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu did to Bucharest, by destroying so much of its traditional architecture in his quest to create the communist New Man, can never be repaired. Totten:


Ceausescu’s communist urban planners chopped up Bucharest with a meat axe.
They pulled down most of the classical buildings that once made the city aesthetically pleasing, then they put up a bunch of crap in their place. The streets are too wide. Buildings don’t match, and sometimes there is far too much space between them. There isn’t much coherent fabric or feel to most of the city, even in most of the old city center. It is very nearly an antithesis of Paris.
The brilliant Anthony Daniels, who now writes under the pen name Theodore Dalrymple, loathes ghastly brutalist architecture as much as I do. He properly blames the Swiss architect Le Corbusier and his baleful influence for wrecking so many once beautiful cities like Bucharest and even marring cities like London.
“Le Corbusier was to architecture what Pol Pot was to social reform,” Daniels recently wrote in City Journal. “In one sense, he had less excuse for his activities than Pol Pot: for unlike the Cambodian, he possessed great talent, even genius. Unfortunately, he turned his gifts to destructive ends, and it is no coincidence that he willingly served both Stalin and Vichy.” Le Corbusier, he says, “was the enemy of mankind” and “does not belong so much to the history of architecture as to that of totalitarianism.”
The grotesque modern architect once described a house as “a machine for living in” and is still scandalously lionized by many professionals in the field even today. (Do such people stay in the asteroid belt of tower blocks in the suburbs of Paris when they visit on holiday, or do they prefer the beautiful parts of the city such as the Latin Quarter like normal human beings do?)


Read Totten’s report, if only to see his photographs of modern Bucharest’s hideousness. The people of Bucharest are going to have a more difficult time recovering from the Ceaucescu tyranny than will the people of Romanian towns whose traditioanl architecture was left alone by the communists (Totten has some lovely photos of those places). And do check out Theodore Dalrymple’s meditation on the baleful influence of the madman Le Corbusier. Here, Dalrymple recalls meeting with two women at a recent exhibition dedicated to celebrating Le Corbu’s legacy (read on, past the jump — there’s a point I want to make here, but I don’t want to make this entry too long on the front page):


At the exhibition, I fell to talking with two elegantly coiffed ladies of the kind who spend their afternoons in exhibitions. “Marvelous, don’t you think?” one said to me, to which I replied: “Monstrous.” Both opened their eyes wide, as if I had denied Allah’s existence in Mecca. If most architects revered Le Corbusier, who were we laymen, the mere human backdrop to his buildings, who know nothing of the problems of building construction, to criticize him? Warming to my theme, I spoke of the horrors of Le Corbusier’s favorite material, reinforced concrete, which does not age gracefully but instead crumbles, stains, and decays. A single one of his buildings, or one inspired by him, could ruin the harmony of an entire townscape, I insisted. A Corbusian building is incompatible with anything except itself.
The two ladies mentioned that they lived in a mainly eighteenth-century part of the city whose appearance and social atmosphere had been comprehensively wrecked by two massive concrete towers. The towers confronted them daily with their own impotence to do anything about the situation, making them sad as well as angry. “And who do you suppose was the inspiration for the towers?” I asked. “Yes, I see what you mean,” one of them said, as if the connection were a difficult and even dangerous one to make.


This encapsulates one of the great mysteries of our era: why did ordinary people capitulate to this insanity? The poor Romanians, and other subject peoples who lived under communist totalitarianism, never had a choice. But we in the West did. We let them get away with so much inhumanity — and still do, in many cases and places. In both East and West, it seems, all that was necessary to work this wickedness was to capture the imagination of the elites. But at least the Romanians and others had no chance to fight back. What’s our excuse?

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posted March 10, 2010 at 11:55 am

Compare it to a city like Budapest, Hungary, not so far away. It’s not spic and span and shiny like so much of Western Europe. There’s still holes in some facades from gunfire in WW II (and possibly Soviet forces a couple of decades later?) The walls have not been sandblasted clean from city pollution. In summer, it’s a beautiful city to admire, sitting on the banks of the Danube river. Vienna is just upriver, but the pace of Budapest is slower, the taste is more real. It’s also a lot cheaper, which doesn’t hurt the gastronomical experience one bit. The stuff WE in the U.S. call “goulash”? A travesty. It’s actually a slow cooked stew of two different kinds of meat and aromatic vegetables and paprika. (Which in Hungary, has FLAVOR – indeed, at the border customs makes sure you are under the limit for “personal use” quantity of not only cigarettes and alcohol, but also Hungarian paprika.)

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posted March 10, 2010 at 11:56 am

If you haven’t read Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House you simply must. It’s not a long read and it brilliantly describes how we ended up with this architecture of nihilism.
Let me boil it down for you: European trust in the elites exported to American along with Corbu, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, etc.

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posted March 10, 2010 at 12:13 pm

I think that church building committees and ecclesiastical architects don’t speak the same language or look at things the same way. First, I would hope that the committees would contract with someone who has experience in a church – as a member and on a board or two. This would help them appreciate the architect’s orientation. Second, they need to be less impressed with the architects credentials and pay more attention to the work they have done. If you have to be told the design is “important”, “dynamic”, or “a striking new statement about the church of the 21st century” then they have not accomplished their task. Making a statement is fine, but if it comes off as visual bludgeoning or simply gobbledegook, then the task is not completed. Every Church Building committee should be required to read “The Emperors New Clothes” before engaging some brilliant star of architecture.
Second – learn to read blue prints. Also, square footage is not the same as cubic footage (all plans ought to include cubic footage, just so someone gets a sense of how massive or tiny a plan is. Basic construction knowledge helps enormously. Also do not assume that guys know building and women know decor. If this is indeed to be a shared structure, let everyone have a hand in the design and the decor. Third – make sure the building actually works. Too many of frank Lloyd Wrights buildings do not actually work – the electrical must connect, the rain must flow away, the doors and windows must open and close completely, and the bathrooms and taps must function. You cannot blame the builder for a flawed design.
Some of the classical church designs no longer work in our current technological setting. The example is the Oratorium at Ave Maria. The inverted ship was once a tribute to the Galilean fishermen. But the massive inverted battleship design is less humane and inviting. Sometimes the old ways don’t fit new settings or technologies.

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posted March 10, 2010 at 12:18 pm

O – and for an example of a church that is misplaced in its context and a building that did not even meet its intended design, look at McCaw Chapel at the College of Wooster, Ohio. The structure was to have been buried, so only a few of the highest pieces poked out. But the stone on which the school was built too dense and so the building is now perched above ground – massive, white, and completely inappropriate for its surroundings. But rather than insist on a redesign based on unexpected changes (though a better architect would have known about this before going ahead with the design), they went ahead with the work anyway. Wrong on so many levels.

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lancelot lamar

posted March 10, 2010 at 2:07 pm

I agree with all this, Le Corbusier’s work was and is a horror. However, reinforced concrete, if done right, can be beautiful as a building material. Louis Kahn’s Kimball and Tadao Ando’s Modern in Fort Worth both use it extensively, and they are beautiful, humane buildings.

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Rawlins Gilliland

posted March 10, 2010 at 2:16 pm

A problem I have with all this is the suggestion…or edict as it were…that a certain kind of classicism is the ‘correct’ and ‘good’ architecture, in church settings or elsewhere, and anything that deviates is seen in calloused terms…rejected as a questionable, pointless structure or worse; an abomination.
It may be hard for those who do not feel any kinship or allure to anything that is non-traditional, but many of us respond very much to many forms of experimental / ‘modern’ architecture on a visceral level.
I know, Rod, that you have no taste whatsoever for the avant-garde whereas I many times am profoundly moved by strikingly individualist buildings. That was clear when you were in Dallas and ‘reviewed’ the new Winspear Opera house and AT&T Center, (neither of which you actually would visit, a drive-by thumbs down.) Both of which I found breathtakingly exciting.
I always sorta figured that: I’m a senior citizen who has remained open-minded and receptive to the future’s pliable expression while you’re a young man who has subscribed to the more rigid theory of artistic set-in-stone paralysis.
FYI, I do not on the surface ‘love’ that French church that resembles a Frank Lloyd Wright bomb shelter. But I do think it’s more intriguing than disturbing.

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Franklin Jennings

posted March 10, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Rawing Gilligan may not be an architect, but he creates some gorgeous straw men.

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posted March 10, 2010 at 3:08 pm

There’s a rich history of artists who become avant-garde brand names to be flaunted by elite consumers, regardless of the actual content and quality of their work. There was a lot of this throughout the 20th century, with an obsession with all things “modern”. Think Jackson Pollack in painting, unlistenable atonal/serial music in “classical” music, “Free” jazz squawking that sounds like a middle school band getting tuned up, etc. I.M. Pei is a more recent manifestation of this in architecture. Gullibe city leaders the world over (especially in Dallas) just HAVE to have some monumental and monstrous building by him on display, otherwise they’ll never be a World Class City.

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the stupid Chris

posted March 10, 2010 at 4:22 pm

So you agree with Prince Charles…25 years ago.

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posted March 10, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Let’s see…. Communism BAD!! Elites icky!
Does anyone think for a minute that, had the Ceaucescus called their dictatorship something other than a communist government, Bucharest would look any different today?
And what about all the other major cities of Eastern and Central Europe that were under communist governments from the end of WWII until the last few years? Have they been similarly destroyed? No. In fact, many are quite a bit better preserved than comparable cities in the free countries, though perhaps due to neglect and economic stagnation as much as appreciation of history and culture. Communism GOOD! (for historic architecture, at least)
And one last point about elites. All societies have elites. It’s the definition of elite. Dictatorial elites destroyed Bucharest. Monarchical elites gave us Paris (and destroyed a medieval city in doing so).

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posted March 10, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Yes, this stuff is ugly. But I am almost equally offended by the fact that most of it is shoddy and will fall apart in less than a generation, at great public expense. This is especially true of concrete (unless very very well reinforced.) In cold wet climates, it expands and contracts with changes in weather, and ultimately crumbles. I have had the misfortune of teaching in several concrete academic buildings constructed in the early-to-mid 1960s, all of which have had to be completely rehabbed or altogether abandoned over the last ten years.
Even the classics of modern architecture are not exempt from this fate. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water is……falling. The Mies Van der Rohe campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology has a miserable reputation among that institution’s architecture students. One of them was an intern of mine for a while, and told me that a leak in his studio “glass wall” destroyed an entire set of his drawings and nearly kept him from graduating.
An ugly building robs the soul. A shoddy building robs the commonwealth. Not sure which is worse.

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Rod Dreher

posted March 10, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Let’s see…. Communism BAD!! Elites icky!
Oh, please. This kind of snottiness is unnecessary. For one thing, do you really think communism wasn’t bad? Really? Or is it for you the kind of thing that should be defended because the wrong sort of people condemn communism?
For another, you should know, as someone who reads this blog fairly regularly, that I’m the last one to bash elites as elites. All societies have elites. Elites should be judged by their behavior and the quality of their leadership. What I found remarkable in this instance was that under communism, the people had no choice but to accept whatever their elites chose to do to them and to their collective architectural heritage. In Western democracies, that wasn’t so — and yet, we still allowed some extraordinarily ugly, brutal buildings to be built, even though it’s hard to find people outside of architectural schools who love them.
It does appear, Bob, that you are yourself guilty of the kind of crude sense of judgment that you falsely impute to me.

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Daniel Lee

posted March 10, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Corbu casts a long shadow…
In the insular ivory tower world of architects, for much of the 20th century, Le Corbusier, along with Mies Van Der Rohe, was an all powerful God figure, devoutly obeyed and worshipped at the leading schools of architecture in the west, up until the late1980s. He held a messianic status as the voice of the newest form-making movement of the day, International Modernism. The movement’s fundamental commitment was to the tearing down of the old world, to build a radically new world. It was to be new in every way, with a new and modern aesthetic severed from the cultural myths of the past, to serve as a vessel for experimental social engineering strategies, all enabled by the amazing capacities of the industrial complex when freely using steel, concrete and glass.
Leading American schools of architecture such as Harvard and MIT, bought into this “progressive” thinking in the 1940s and 50s, when Mies and Gropius moved to the US academies, and dismantled their architectural history departments in an attempt to eradicate the culture memory embodied in the architecture of the past, all to advance the daring modernist Utopia.
Architectural students became the shock-troop/evangelists of the new order, ruining their lives and our cities carrying out the pseudo-gospel. Hoping to see this extreme utopia realized in his lifetime, Le Corbusier (“Corbu”) fought with the entire Paris political establishment for almost 40 years trying persuade them to let him enact his “Plan Voisin,” which required razing the historic city’s core to make way for tall apartment blocks, rising high above motorways and interchanges, carving the city and its inhabitants into strictly zoned functions and classes. In the towers, built of cast concrete, residents were to have lived in small “machines for living.” The new city was to be managed by a vast bureaucratic economic administration.
I lived in Paris as a child, and grew to love its centuries of accumulated cultural artifacts. Corbu’s plan would have been a social disaster (much like Pruitt Igoe). When I became a young student of architecture in the late 70s in the US, this oppressive ideology was still entrenched in most schools of architecture across the country, and still remains in place in much of Europe today. For any student, to challenge this view was to invite quick rebuke from professors, whose tenure depended on adherence, a form of political correctness in its day.
Yes, Prince Charles challenged this establishment in the 1980s out of his love of London, which was threatened with the wrecking ball, as did others, including Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, and the more forceful post modernists who surfaced in the late 70s and early 80s.
There is still a remnant of the old Modernist guard. And they still worship Le Corbusier. They are alive and well, and entrenched in positions of influence at many of our leading institutions including, of course, the academy. As true believers, they are confidently waiting out this minor “rear guard action!”
But the tide is turning slowly in our culture, with a new appreciation of a different view. Many in a new and younger generation are taking up study of the ancient and proven artistic, craft and architectural traditions of the past, the ones cultivated so carefully by our forefathers of generations ago. It is a rebirth of knowledge and affection for that which endures, which connects us in artistic and spiritual conversation with the ancients, those who have gone before. And it is a rich conversation, deep with meaning and mystery.
Daniel Lee

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posted March 10, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Brutalist architecture is indeed hideous and the picturesque Romanian villages are much prettier. On the other hand, the ugly concrete block apartment buildings evoke a time and a place too. They’re as much a part of the history of the country as the Dracula castle. Erasing all of it from the landscape probably isn’t desirable either. They need to find a way to live with what exists and make it functional for the people who live there, not bulldoze it and pretend it never happened.

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posted March 11, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Franklin, Rawing Gilligan may not be an architect, but he creates some gorgeous straw men.
I disagree. While I vehemently oppose Rawling’s view of architecture (among other things!), I cannot deny he is talking straight about the need to be consistent in one’s thinking. That’s no straw man! Indeed, he seems to be one of the few here who is willing to talk to the real undercurrent of Rod’s post, which is: do we have the right to judge beauty for the entire community? To boldly claim that quality is objective? If one dares to say yes, as Rod does, a heck of a lot will follow that make the modern worldview pretty shady.
The terrible truth is that unless one follows Rawling’s “live and let live” attitude in everything – morals, aesthetics, civics – modern progressivism makes no sense. If only “conservatives” were as intellectually honest or consistent (especially crunchy types!) as Rawling. Rather, most squirm on the hook, wanting it both ways. Rawling’s consistency, otoh, is refreshing.
Another way to say it: To create social beauty, peace, and moral tranquility in society requires a majority population who is not only properly disposed to beauty and truth, but also unwilling to tolerate those who disagree in the public square. This latter concept is abhorrent to moderns of all types, progressive or not, and thus we can never create cultural beauty. Ugliness quickly follows (see NY, Detroit, Houston, etc). It’s a fitting punishment for our twisted ideology. Only peoples deeply concerned with cultural beauty and truth are able to create the great cathedrals with 1/100 the wealth or technology. But it can’t be done without being “intolerant”. Today, we are so “tolerant” we can’t agree to build a decent looking doghouse! (Let alone a culture safe for children, the old, and the weak). It’s a fitting punishment for our kind.

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