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Modernists vs. traditionalists over beauty: a cautionary tale

We prioritize what’s in front of us in the Now. Since Aristotle’s Physics, all we consider is based on “presence“, and the rest has already happened, or it’s just potential. It’s been a while but we stuck with the cultural bias.

The good news: what is cultural can be redefined. Critics of Aristotle such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, or, more recently, Byung-Chul Han, assert that one of the flaws of the Western tradition is our inability to look beyond what our senses process in the present tense.

The problem with Aristotle’s reductionistic vision of reality, a WYSIWYG world (just like modern user interfaces in computing: “what you see is what you get”) where “A is A” is all the nuance we are unable even to consider. So much is lost because of a cultural, deeply ingrained shortsightedness.

And so, experiences become literal, whereas mystery, opportunity, or things discarded by reality (because we chose other paths) join the hubris of blurriness. And so, we live, says Nietzsche, in a dualistic, rational jail built by Plato and Aristotle. It’s a nice one, yet still a prison.

The challenge of explaining the complexity of stuff

In our vulgarizing daily job, we need to simplify concepts and explain things with images and “real life” interviews, as Kirsten Dirksen’s videos show. Sometimes, Kirsten needs to painfully leave aside some beautifully oneiric content for the sake of rhythm and clarity. But simplicity isn’t always the solution, and so much gets lost in our contemporary rush to fitness in the memetic jungle.

Some months ago, Kirsten was up to the challenge, and she decided to edit a profuse, vibrant, and complex interview with agroforestry and restoration agriculture expert Mark Shepard at the Shepards’ homestead in Wisconsin. It’s a landscape of beautiful rolling hills and farms that could serve as the background of some hopeful advertising by a retirement community or an insurance company.

Some of the farm compounds cluster around several buildings put up in different moments, including old barns that have increased their charm as they age, as well as metallic grain silos and sheds built with scraps that, from the road, give character to the area.

Yet some comments of Kirsten’s video, which became popular, would say one time and another it was a shame Mark’s property happened to have flourished somewhere like Wisconsin. What they thought of the area was something that I, as a visitor, had not experienced myself.

The problem with transplanted canons

One comment went even beyond hinting at the —according to him— aesthetical mediocrity of the area depicted in the video. He hoped for something more Disneyesque, “prettier,” with an effortless pop-culture-level beauty, as irresistible as sugar. I couldn’t help but answer that, in Wisconsin rolling hills, it makes more sense to shoot for a new vernacular rather than poorly transplanting a pseudo-European pastiche and put it in the middle of nowhere.

I said it wasn’t a coincidence that Frank Lloyd Wright came up with his own “vernacular” in Wisconsin. He didn’t seem to need the imitation of some European castle, aristocratic or vernacular home. The place was beautiful; if anything, the area should look for its own type and celebration of beauty and “the sublime” instead of blindly adhering to any perceived or standardized canon.

My response may have hit home, since some time after the original comment disappeared (and with it the thread) deleted by somebody then too embarrassed to have said the farms in Wisconsin’s rolling hills are something not worth keeping or not “beautiful” per se, in their modern-utilitarian rusticity.

Either/or? Innovation and tradition could work together

Modern architecture doesn’t need to be detached from landscape or the needs of people, the same way that not every building designed with some traditional canon will accomplish its utilitarian purpose and that of beauty better than its modern counterpart.

We can dedicate entire essays to criticize the caricaturesque rigidness of some of Ayn Rand’s characters and ideological stances, but Howard Roark, the architect from The Fountainhead, brought to the mainstream the tensions of contemporary architecture and its relationship with public taste at its lowest common denominator.

The Fountainhead‘s beginning highlights the importance of tradition even upon skyscraper builders: the Dean of his university tells Roark the best architecture copies the past since it’s not —he says— up to the most refined architecture to innovate or improve what has already proved sublime. But The Fountainhead’s protagonist rejects to copy the past, losing one commission after another because of that.

Today’s irony is that traditionalists claim losing ground when they offer a work following traditional styles. Rand shaped Roark after Frank Lloyd Wright’s character. Like the author of the Usonian houses, he would rather reject a project than bending to the pressures of the zeitgeist: market interests, abuse of superficial neo-classicism that hides the fear for experimentation and improvement, and obedience to dogma.

Haussmannian rationality: the new city Parisians hated

To some historians and intellectuals such as Stefan Zweig, the twentieth century (and, with it, the contemporary world) begins in 1914 along with the Great War. To others, and for a good reason too, it starts with the Paris World Fair of 1889.

With that fair, the one where the Tour Eiffel was erected for —and loaded by Parisians for its apparent monstrosity— begins the promise of recent progress: inventing a better future with better technology.

Parisians had hated the city’s rational renovation promoted by Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Poet Charles Baudelaire thought the new clean, rectilinear avenues with recognizable, homogeneous Second Empire buildings would murder the serendipity and surprise that fed both art and life, for flâneurs needed to feel the sense of mystery of the old city to hold their sense of belonging.

Something similar happened in Barcelona, and Ildefons Cerdà’s rectilinear Eixample, the city’s iconic grid, was loaded and attached by a big part of the press and the popular sentiment. Streets were too broad and straight, buildings too homogeneous.

Nobody praised Eixample; then people benefited from it)

Today, Parisians nor Barcelonians wouldn’t guess that, had they been living in the city when it was being transformed, they would have probably belittled what they have come to identify as a symbol of collective common sense. It didn’t happen like that; even more, these and other rationalistic renovations were not only attacked for their aesthetics and potential for property speculation but energetically opposed.

The rise of architecture and urbanism traditionalists, who have become sensations in social media such as Twitter, is blind to how differently we consider architecture or art depending on our culture, education, or simply the zeitgeist of every era and place.

Not all traditional construction shares the same attributes and advantages of the most accomplished buildings we have inherited from the past, no matter how humble, vernacular, or associated to the broadly interpreted “classical” (from neoclassical to Renaissance styles, local Baroques, and pastiches from different eras.)

Some buildings age well. Some others are expensive to maintain or have adapted to some climatic and comfort standards of today’s codes after expensive renovations only attainable in exclusive areas of vibrant cities.

Some other buildings could also be recovered and accomplish great aesthetic and functional use today, but entire industrial era neighborhoods and cities lay almost abandoned in extensive areas of the United States; other countries superpose vestiges of old rational layouts almost erased by Medieval configurations, to return to a more hygienist layout from Enlightenment onwards.

Tradition feels like innovation when it first happened

Lutetia, Medieval Paris, and Haussmannian Paris share some traits and radically differ in others, while Londinium, Medieval wooden London, late Renaissance brick-and-mortar London, and the industrial city kept most of the sinuous streets around the Thames as a testimony of modern Central London to a remote, mythical past that blends Roman rationality with Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Romantic reinterpretations, almost always as forged as the epic poems of Ossian, which James Macpherson claimed to have collected from oral tradition but invented in the context of Romanticism’s “invention of tradition.”

With traditionalism in art and architecture, some commenters risk becoming a mere caricature, the equivalent of The Poems of Ossian for the Gaelic tradition, claiming that the only beauty can come with what has already been built and accommodated as “vernacular” or “classic.” This point of view is as naïve as blind to the fact that, in the early Renaissance, some buildings considered today classic masterpieces were perceived as a foreign, indulgent intromission to local character.

The rise of fantastic traditionalism in architecture and aesthetics has found a profitable niche in forums and videos that try to relate the rise of modern buildings with a conspiracy to end with beauty. One of such conspiracy theories vindicates an imaginary world of pre-modern architecture they call the Tartarian Empire.

The Tartarian Reddit board and YouTube videos claim that such Empire, which according to them, had built the finest Beaux-Arts landmarks before they were torn down by powerful malevolent actors. In contrast, the “empire” itself, located in Central Asia and beyond, would have been crushed into oblivion and obscured in history books.

This cult of pre-modern styles in architecture appropriates late nineteenth and early twentieth century works whose attributed “beauty and grace” (they claim) demonstrate they weren’t conceived by contemporary builders but by legendary Tartarian architects, heirs of an ancient Eurasian tradition.

The dubious taste of some radical neo-traditionalists

Such conspiracies remind us of the dangers of associating any ornated building with pseudo-classical order and fantasized composites, with beauty and quality, not to talk about relating them to a supposed Ancient Central Asian tradition. Yet, the quest for pre-modern beauty is becoming pervasive in some corners of the Internet.

This symptom also points to the interconnectedness of ideologies and conspirational visions of the world. Central Asia’s role in world’s history is indeed underrated, as Peter Frankopan has expressed in his essay The Silk Roads. Yet there’s no hidden civilization building Disney-esque knock-offs systematically destroyed by a global cabal of modernists.

For the believers of some traditionalism that never existed, imaginary places like Tartaria are the equivalent in architecture to what Disneyworld is to the American post-war suburb: a distillation of the popular interpretation of what architecture and urbanism should be. A fairy tale of mixed styles and baroque conceived to please World Fair or amusement park visitors, as well as totalitarian leaders, real o imagined.

Few societies use housing as a family investment vehicle more fiercely than Americans. Yet, changes in urbanism and housing are always controversial and, at best, sluggish and with no real impact overall.

Yet the debate that seems to entertain the public sphere is the quarrel between modernists and traditionalists, mocking each other points ad nauseam.

Gary Cooper (right) as architect Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead”, film adaptation of the novel by Ayn Rand

The memes about where does Rem Koolhas live —pic of a Victorian brick apartment building— vs. what he builds on commission for others —bold internationalist stuff— work on social networks, inspiring a backlash from a majority of non-experts happy to point out some of the evident excesses of brutalism and modernism applied to badly executed projects (especially social housing) across the decades.

Yet the mockery of traditionalists against any experimentation in architecture quickly raises to conspiracist levels: the “elites” design unlivable brutalist places for the masses, but, at the same time, they provide themselves with classic styles, or even the troubling admiration of neo-classical buildings and monuments, whose allure reminds too often of totalitarian city planning.

The prosecution of modern art by Nazis as “degenerate”

The big divide between abstract and figurative art, between modern and traditional styles of architecture, was one more of the several ideological and conceptual battles of European early twentieth century. Albert Speer’s Berlin never took place. The city was heavily destroyed instead, but the fascist and communist utopias left behind —carcasses of the often-monstrous interpretation of classicism for the masses.

Albert Speer’s autobiography would suffice as a cautionary tale to those who mistakenly think there’s a conspiration of modern architecture against beauty in cities and urbanism in general. The Third Reich’s architect ended up practicing self-criticism on his conformity with pastiche reinterpretations of the past and the megalomaniac tendencies of his commissioner.

Famously, the Third Reich combated artists and intellectuals associated with modern art or architecture, flagging any unconventional “deviation” in such disciplines as “degenerate“, and favoring instead a conservative, almost caricaturesque style that would celebrate a take of conventional beauty and health rooted in the “blood and soil” premises.

Ever since modernist movements began detaching themselves from architecture and urbanism as disciplines merging Renaissance reinterpretations of classical, Euclidean models (with several vernaculars practiced by European societies), there has been a conceptual divide between tradition and transformation, between the conceptual exploit of new possibilities and obedience to the canon.

Modernism broke apart more radically than regenerative movements such as Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts and their local versions across Europe, still recognized as a part of the perceived canon of beauty. Modernism was a sharp depart from pseudo-classical and vernacular styles. So, the reaction against some of the new premises was belligerent, similar to the rejection of modern art because of its shifting from figurative schools (realism) into more abstract realms.

Not a fight about angels and demons

The perceived horrors of abstraction in art bear the association, according to traditionalists, with excesses attributed exclusively to modernism. The latter is held accountable for the construction of cold, desolate, gigantic cities from scratch with a monumental vision that parts from old styles, the epitome of whom we find in Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia —the modernist capital of Brazil— or in its Asian counterpart —the new Indian capital of Punjab and Haryana, Chandigarh—, designed by Le Corbusier. Like anything by Le Corbusier, his work in Chandigarh is at once one of the most hated and venerated by connoisseurs.

Such monumental cities, with their extensive use of concrete and utopian symbology, are the cautionary tale traditionalists mention as examples of the excesses of modern and brutalist styles. At the same time, such urbanism is celebrated by those who saw in them an opportunity for postcolonial flourishing with planned cities that didn’t want to trace their layouts and styles to the colonial period and the old metropolis, nor they wanted to limit the possibility of vernacular styles to the past, but to idealist premises for the future.

Gary Cooper as Howard Roark (“The Fountainhead”, King Vidor, 1949)

The modern aspirations of some of the most ambitious postcolonial interventions in the developing world and the opposition it found within some urbanists, architects, and the local populations, bears similarities with the public conversation that took place to overcome the urban devastation of World War II in cities across Europe and Asia, especially among the obliterated cities in Germany and Japan: what was preferable, to rebuild old structures following the same urban patterns, to integrate the new techniques and premises of modern architecture, or to leave some of the landmarks unbuilt as a testimony of horror for future generations?

An uneven mélange of all these options occurred, so the opportunities for pinpointing and blaming are endless.

Not all city dwellers we as lucky as Parisians (unlike the French countryside, the Low Countries urban continuum, or German cities, Paris wasn’t heavily bombarded, nor destroyed by Hitler troops on their withdrawal). Some big cities, such as Berlin or Milan, restored some old buildings but departed mainly from tradition to solve pressing issues such as building efficiency and cost, given the need to house as many people as fast as possible.

When a devastated continent needed to build fast and cheap

German philosopher Martin Heidegger had these and other conceptual considerations in mind when he pronounced his conference “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” in Darmstadt in 1951. An architecture needed to have a sense of place and maintain a human scale and carry a sense of purpose beyond the superficial ornamentation, hence the need to address things such as the well-being of the residents.

The scars of Berlin are so deep and permanent that the city has tried to integrate them. There are traces of the destruction of landmark buildings and parks such as the Tiergarten, testimonies of the Jewish persecution and extermination (with the recognition of inhabitants of every single building, still standing or long gone), as well as the scars of the East-West divide and, of course, the Wall, with its Memorial at Bernauer Strasse.

Forgetting that some of Rome’s monumentalism was done with the concrete of the time —a mixture of pozzolan, lime, and a small amount of water—, such as the celebrated Pantheon, one of the pervasive critiques of traditionalists against the aesthetics of modern urbanism and construction is the extensive use of reinforced concrete, brick and (later on in the more impersonal “international” style of business districts, corporate headquarters, public spaces or high-end residential buildings) glass and steel.

It may not be a coincidence that, in conspirational Internet forums, “internationalist” or “globalist” are among the worst conditions to associate with something or somebody. But the quarrels about the use of materials go beyond concrete, brick, glass, steel, and their most contemporary alternatives: it also traces its roots in the idea of home itself and the materials used on its construction as if our ingrained vision of architecture considered the inner workings of the fable of The Three Little Pigs and their homes of straw, sticks, and brick.

Old and new divides

Previously, another old divide of Western Europe and the Mediterranean basin in general versus northern and eastern European societies had crystallized in a “continental divide” preserved to this day: the use of wood in the north versus a pervasive use of brick and mortar and stone in Romanized Europe. Some time ago, Italian architect Maurizio Crespini, who has been rebuilding an abandoned village in the Italian Alps for some years now through a non-profit, Associazione Canova, shared with us a well-documented account of this divide, a book by Italian researcher Santino Langé (published in 1988 and with no English version to this day.) The book Leredità romanica (1989) traces the similarities in stone vernaculars across Romanized Europe.

This divide is an architectural Maginot line, an Iron Curtain of construction, consisting of a preference towards wooden architecture in timber-rich areas and dry stone or brick-and-mortar techniques in Romanized areas. But the constated divergence also relates to the availability of different types of construction materials. It already shows this trend in Bronze Age societies: the abundance of dry stone or excavated sheds and fountains in the Mediterranean —from Sardinia to the Balearic Islands, contrasts with the difficult-to-preserve remainings of pit-houses and similar structures in Northern Europe due to a more extensive reliance in timber.

Both main traditional techniques were exported to the Americas and the rest of the world with colonizing societies, with a preference for sound stone or brick-and-mortar in permanent Spanish, Portuguese, or even French settlements.

And so, the heaviness and aspiration of permanence showed in old Quebec City, Saint Agustin, or the historical center of Salvador de Bahia contrasts with lighter constructions of the first permanent settlements in the Thirteen Colonies or the West Indies, where only official buildings and prominent houses would indulge in stone or heavy masonry.

Italian Renaissance, Baroque architecture, and new industrial techniques multiplied the use of brick used early on by Greeks and Romans. In the British Islands, Northern Europe, and English and Dutch colonies, brick would compete with wood in flourishing city centers.

Only catastrophic fires would resume the ancient timber preference even in dense urban centers and sumptuous streets. London changed after the Great Fire of 1666, while Napoleonic troops would force a similar transformation in Moscow, torching the city circa 1812.

Roaring Futurama

Entire regions of Northern Europe and North America kept their timber preference for building single-family houses in construction codes to this day and balloon-framing. And the continuity in materials or the conceptual divide has evolved to the difficult situation of our days.

The European conceptual architecture of the “grands ensembles” (seen as a testimony of horror and brutalist dehumanization by some and as a proof of utopian technocracy by others), as well as a utilitarian, car-driven model in the United States proposed by Norman Bel Geddes and General Motors in 1939 New York World’s Fair (Futurama) are usually quoted as a testimony of the excesses of the last century, or as a cautionary tale at best.

Most of the time, it’s not the differences of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier about urbanism that occupy the public and the Internet forums, but the conceptual divide between the reductionistic caricatures of modernity and tradition.

Their vision of urbanism is present in the layout of two controversial, dehumanized excesses of the post-war era: the concentration of isolated affordable housing, still detached from their surroundings decades after their conception; and the eternal expansion of suburban life in North America, decades after the efforts by sectors such as the car industry to create vast suburbs connected through automated highways. Eric Schlosser leaves an account of the period and its conceptual and materialized consequences.

The organic complexity of beauty

Some of the innovations in Haussmannian Paris or the Eixample’s Barcelona were fiercely opposed by intellectuals and traditionalists who saw in them no less than the obliteration of a precious customary evolution from Roman times into the Middle Ages and from Renaissance all the way to the nineteenth century.

Some of the excesses of modern architecture aren’t just related to style but to a social conception of urbanism in which social differences translate into very different outcomes.

And so, the tensions and failures of the centrally planned modern city nurtured a bottom-to-top approach in postmodern urbanism, from Colin Rowe to Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs’ New Urbanism, or the radical ideas of Rob and Leon Krier.

In that generation, Aldo Rossi vindicated a sense of modesty and timelessness in buildings and urbanism. The only way to avoid the neoclassical pastiche or the superficial irreverence of modern buildings signed by starchitects was to be open to create coherence and beauty with any material, if there’s a connection with the place and its people, a psychogeography of place and belonging, such as the one we try to express in the following video:

Can urbanism find its way, creating memorable towns and cities worth inhabiting, connected to their surroundings, and affordable enough so they can foster a thriving and exciting place to live? More than a quarrel between tradition and modernity, we should dedicate more energies to ease urban sclerosis and exclusion.

Beauty blends with messy life and utility once urbanism flourishes. Some things don’t need to be strictly planned, the way Picasso would explain the emergence or “art”:

“Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman, we don’t start measuring her limbs.”

Buildings and urbanism are not art and they serve utilitarian purposes. Yet they cannot be reduced to a mere canonic object devoid of any aspiration to project themselves into the future.


Urbanism needs a large-scale system to work seamlessly and in an easily scalable, improvable fashion. There are ways to seamlessly integrating town and country, roads and paths, public and personal transportation, the relationship of work and family, socialization patterns, and the shape of public spaces and public-private meeting points.

Just like the large patterns that make a city livable, beauty can come gradually and organically, writes Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language:

“Almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these large patterns appear there.”