Why Modernist Architecture is Evil

Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University by I. M. Pei

I’ve often told others that most of distinctly 20th century art is immoral and serves atheism. Sure, I’m trying to be stark and pejorative when I say this, but I’m also serious. The subversion of mystery, love, grace, and beauty — the decidedly non-codifiable principles of life — are the leitmotif in the modernist teasing of analytic form (reason without transcendence). Classical architecture is natural, an expression of the forms intrinsic to a created reality and, thus, sits well with the rest of creation; modernist architecture is contrived and absurd, precisely in its reduction to function over and against form as a transcendental category. Now, I can happily increase the acumen of my antimodernist rants, thanks to Roger Scruton’s fascinating piece in City Journal on urban architecture and, specifically, the work of “antimodernist,” Léon Krier. It turns out that modernist architecture even fails as expressions of “function,” rightly understood. There is much, much good in this article. Here’s a bit:


Traditional architecture produced forms expressive of human interests—palaces, houses, factories, churches, temples—and these sit easily under their names. The forms of modern architecture, Krier argues, are nameless—denoting not familiar objects and their uses but “so-called objects,” known best by nicknames, and never by real names of their own. Thus the Berlin Congress Hall is the “pregnant oyster,” Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles the “madhouse,” the new building at Queen’s College, Oxford, the “parking lot,” and the UN building in New York the “radiator.” The nickname, in Krier’s view, is the correct term for a kitsch object—for a faked object that sits in its surroundings like a masked stranger at a family party. Classical forms, by contrast, result from convention and consensus over centuries; they earn their names—house, palace, church, factory—from the natural understanding that they elicit, with nothing about them forced.

Modernist forms have been imposed upon us by people in the grip of ideology. They derive no human significance from the materials that compose them, from the labor that produced them, or from the function that they fulfill, and their monumental quality is faked.



  1. If modernist architecture is evil, then the Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in L.A. must be the devil himself! Alas, I always knew it… The medieval cathedrals will last for 1,000 years. The L.A. cathedral will be torn down within 100 – Let us pray, sooner.

  2. Hear, hear!

    I had the privilege to attend Harvard Law School and got to walk across that wide campus every day as I studied law. It so happens that I went to Harvard with five children (and graduated with six) and my dear wife spent every day homeschooling them. Our home was packed with all the art and literature of a little liberal arts academy in its own right.

    As I helped homeschool and studied law and walked by four centuries worth of Harvard’s architecture, a light bulb went off in my head. The culture of each slice of American history was clearly visible in its art, architecture, literature and law.

    Harvard’s neo-classical structures, built after the Civil War, fit hand in glove with the Supreme Court’s last great efforts to hold back the rising tide of populism with natural law. The Bauhaus style of the new law school dormitories fit so well with the “we don’t know what justice is so let’s just be efficient” rulings of the “Legal Realism” period. The chrome and steel of the Science Center was just what you’d expect from a culture that produced Roe v. Wade’s “forget about law, let’s all be doctors” approach to jurisprudence.

    It was gratifying, as I graduated in 1992, to see some post-modern buildings going up. There’s a new style with an eye for beauty with the clean lines of “modern” form which keeps (some of) the intricacy of the decorative past. It gave me some small reason to hope that America might keep the advances of the Civil Rights movement and other “modern” steps without forever abandoning such “old-fashioned” notions as beauty and justice.

  3. Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral is evil incarnate.

    Scott, I like the comparison with legal philosophy. I agree that modernist art is an expression of nominalism, indeed, a revolt against classical realism.

  4. While I agree with most of Scruton’s (or Krier’s) criticisms of the contemporary landscape of urban architecture, I think the shoveling off the blame for this onto the generic “modernist” architect and his propaganda is ill informed and truthfully sounds borderline ridiculous.

    I would specifically like to address the state of architectural education in the contemporary world. I agree that in most schools traditional architectural design is not accepted. You couldn’t turn in a project with Corinthian columns and survive. That said my school’s modernist aesthetics were strongly rooted in the classical. We were taught proportion, layering of façade, repetition, expression of detail, and in general that our designs needed to be beautiful. Furthermore it was taught that beauty was objective, that it could be judged, that you could pass or fail on aesthetics alone. It seemed pretty traditional and rooted compared to some of my philosophy classes.

    My case is that if anyone is to blame for bland facades, soul stealing office and living environments, huge architectural publicity statements, and the real “form follows function” philosophy it is the culture of economic utility. I have seen it time and again since graduating school: the architect offers up something that has vitality to it to watch it slowly get pruned and shredded by the client until only the bear functionality remains. We fight everyday for beauty (often in a modernist aesthetic) to watch it wither while we read in the news that some super star architect won some commission halfway around the world precisely because they don’t want something to be contextual.

    We have no value for beauty as people anymore. There is no economic incentive. So we settle for cheap modernist architecture which ends up not being neither modernist nor architecture. Form follows function was written with an assumption that there would be a form if function is followed and that the result would be beauty. It was never an exaltation of function alone, only that function will produce an objective standard for beauty. Once beauty was removed from the equation, hollow function is all that remains.

    Stylistically I am a modernist, with Kahn, Scarpa, and Mockbee as my direct influences but also being enamored with everything from Stonehenge to the Pantheon to Palladio to Lake/Flato. I have found a deep transcendence in all styles and find it a weak argument to criticize one over the other when we should be criticizing the lack of quality, thought, and beauty in all of them. If you wish to see transcendence in modern aesthetics come visit Ft. Worth and we will go to the Kimbell and I will show you the subtlety and grace in which a modern building can be wrought.

  5. Modernist architecture’s monumental quality is faked, and an ego trip for the architect. John Simpson, Prince Charles favorite classical architect, has it right. He believes in giving a human scale to his architecture that fits and is recognizable to the people that use it. Good to see discussions about it anyway, instead of letting architects build more of the same gigantic fake monuments and no one speaking up about it.

    I’d just like to see a lot of interesting details put on smaller houses that I can afford. Indstead of giant drywall boxes that are unaffordable and dull.

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