Why do so many new buildings look so strange? (And does that matter?)

Surveys show that many people are puzzled by new building designs. A provocative new article suggests the origins of their aesthetic lie in the brain disorders of an earlier generation of architects.

Portland’s “Yard” building, a new design at the east end of the Burnside Bridge.

The authors of a recent article on the Common Edge website don’t mince words.   We live in a world of increasingly foreign, blank and detail-free buildings because the founders of the movement that still governs how buildings are designed had brain disorders.

Citing new scholarship as well as evidence from neuroscience and medical research, authors Ann Sussman and Katie Chen lay out a thought-provoking (and likely debate-provoking) argument:

How did modern architecture happen? How did we evolve so quickly from architecture that had ornament and detail, to buildings that were often blank and devoid of detail? Why did the look and feel of buildings shift so dramatically in the early 20th century? History holds that modernism was the idealistic impulse that emerged out of the physical, moral and spiritual wreckage of the First World War. While there were other factors at work as well, this explanation, though undoubtedly true, tells an incomplete picture.

Recent advances in neuroscience point to another important factor: one reason modern architecture looked so different than past constructions was because its key 20th century founders literally didn’t see the world in a “typical” fashion. They couldn’t. Their brains had been either physically altered by the trauma of war or, like Le Corbusier, they had a genetic brain disorder. And while their recommendations for “good design”—a new world, a clean slate—certainly reflected their talent, ambition, and drive, their remedies also reflected their brains’ specific disorders.

The authors go on to cite recent scholarship on the highly influential architect Le Corbusier, and the evidence that he suffered from autism.  That condition resulted in eccentric approaches to handling visual information, and disregard for the normal interests of everyday users:

“For all his genius, Le Corbusier remained completely insensitive to certain aspects of human existence,” Weber writes in Le Corbusier: A Life (Knopf 2008). “His fervent faith in his own way of seeing blinded him to the wish of people to retain what they most cherish (including traditional buildings) in their everyday lives.”

Other founders like Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe were also victims of brain changes as the result of traumas suffered during World War I, write the authors:

The impact of World War I turns out to be quite significant for other founding modern architects, too—for different personal reasons. Both Walter Gropius (1883-1969), who brought the modern curriculum to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in the 1930s, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) who did the same for the Illinois Institute of Technology, likely suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or brain damage from surviving years of military conscription in the German Army which lost more than two million men in the four-year conflict.

The authors suggest that Gropius, in particular, was inspired in his radically simplified design ethic in part by his experience of post-traumatic stress as a result of the war:

Again, given the disorder, his directive to students to “start from zero” in their design process, or his dismissal of architectural history as entirely irrelevant, becomes effectively reflexive, since avoidance of the past is a PTSD response.

Does this matter?  Yes, because if architects think certain buildings are positive contributions to the environment, but the rest of society does not, that raises the question of who gets to decide.  Can architects dictate to others what they have to experience, even if the others don’t like it?  Is that professionally responsible?

In fact many studies show that there is a strong divergence between what architects think is a “good” building, and what almost everyone else does. For example, a paper by Robert Gifford et al. (2002) cited extensive evidence of this divergence, and concluded: “If we are ever to have more delightful buildings in the eyes of the vast majority of the population who are not architects, this conundrum needs study and solutions.”

A paper I wrote with the physicist Nikos Salingaros also speculated on the reinforcement of this divergence as the result of cult-like architectural training — a phenomenon I have observed first-hand, both as a student and an instructor of architecture, at the U of O and elsewhere.  (My Ph.D. is also in architecture at Delft University of Technology, a program currently ranked third in the world; before that I did grad work at UC Berkeley, ranked fourth.) I saw first-hand that my profession certainly has its own silos and its own blinders — and its own economic incentives, biased toward the status quo.

Do Portland architects care about this issue?  Should they?

Read the full article:  http://commonedge.org/the-mental-disorders-that-gave-us-modern-architecture/  Warning to architects and their fans:  this material may be upsetting to comfortable ideas!  You may want to vent your angst in the comments section.


4 Replies to “Why do so many new buildings look so strange? (And does that matter?)”

  1. Most of them look like Soviet block housing. Depressing. The others look deranged. Painting everything a shade of gray doesn’t help either.

  2. There has alway been good architecture and bad architecture. Some 19th century architecture are ugly and gaudy. There are examples of beautiful modern buildings; other buildings are not so beautiful….. To make blanket statements about modern architecture is plain silly.

  3. Thanks so much for this insight and thought provoking article. Please keep preaching your gospel. We all need to hear your message.

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