Photo by Patrick Perkins
Artillery Row Books

Still making dystopia

What have modern architects learned from their most trenchant critic?

It is now three years since James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia was first published. Professor Curl’s book revised the history of architecture in the 20th century, exposing the standard curriculum taught to students as a poorly-conceived fabrication. The truth, backed by the mountains of evidence he cited, was frightening.

Curl’s critique of the theory and practice of modernism demolished the economical-ethical-political arguments put forward for decades that justified forcing people to live in inhuman environments. It was all a power-play, to drive humane architecture and its practitioners into the ground so that a new group of not very competent architects and academics could take over. 

Alas, after three years, the situation is much the same as it was before 2018. Whoever practised humane architecture continues to do so today. Practitioners who have always applied Curl’s philosophy include Classical and Traditional architects, and followers of Christopher Alexander (who do not necessarily use a Classical style, but reject the modernist design straightjacket so as to create a more living structure). Those who produced image-based inhumane architecture have not changed tack or been influenced in any perceivable way.

Curl’s book covers human-scale developments that were allowed at the margins of the profession during several decades, as long as they didn’t threaten the core where the spotlight shines. Practitioners the world over, most often working in isolation, produce excellent and humane buildings. That work is hardly ever seen in the media, certainly never in the architecture journals. I’m sure that those architects now feel vindicated. It is possible that Curl’s book provides a rallying point for those who desire a new, humane architecture. 

Social media ridiculed Curl, claiming he was deranged and on his deathbed

Among influential architecture schools in the world that teach its principles wholesale, there is Notre Dame university in the USA, among only a few others. Another school teaching traditional architecture, started some years ago in Viseu, Portugal, fell victim to a political conspiracy. My friend José Cornélio da Silva was its head until it was forcibly closed down. I’m aware of some new but not yet fully developed programmes on traditional architecture outside the mainstream, but at establishment schools, modernism reigns inviolate. Recent efforts to change the certification standards for schools of architecture failed miserably. 

Dominant architectural culture is so entrenched, so powerful, so monolithic, that nothing — absolutely nothing — can change the system. The regime reacted first with viciousness and unprofessional behaviour towards Curl’s work, then with silence as it continues to practise and preach what it has always done.

Sad to say, it was Curl’s fellow Brits who were most vitriolic in their condemnation. On the other side of the pond, we Americans — or, more precisely, a fairly large group of classical practitioners — recognised his effort by awarding him the 2019 Arthur Ross Award in the category of History and Writing. This set of prizes is given annually by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA), with a gala dinner and ceremony held in New York City. From David Brussat, who attended: “His book’s publication may finally turn the tables on modern architecture. For that, he was welcomed as royalty by the gala’s attendees, spoke longer than anyone in accepting his award, and was rewarded with the most rousing applause.” 

James Stevens Curl, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, Oxford UP

And what happened in the UK? Hugh Pearman, then editor of the RIBA Journal (Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects), wrote a very unsympathetic review, stating that “James Stevens Curl’s latest book, [is] an (obviously) anti-modernist diatribe” and reluctantly admitting that he “can draw a little”.  Social-media commentary ridiculed Professor Curl, claiming he was deranged and on his deathbed (fortunately another lie). One distinguished British Classical architect was sure that his good friends in the profession and architectural media would never participate in such vicious behaviour — but had to retract this when confronted with screenshots of texts signed by those people he had formerly trusted. The material was later taken down, but not before we archived it. 

Architects resisted the message provided by Curl’s book because it demolished whatever they had learned to be good architectural practice, thus questioning the ethics of what they were doing to make a living. Architectural academics reacted the most violently since they usually make no money from actual building, having invested their entire world in maintaining the cult of modern architecture. Losing one’s belief and sacred mission in life is far more threatening than losing one’s income. Here we get into what happens when those outside the cult question the very basis of the pseudo-religion that has formed the worldview of the believer.

Developers don’t care about the cult, nor about architectural history or theory, but about making a lot of money. This is where the modern movement made its great success: provide a standardized, very cheap way of bulk building that totally ignored the emotion and psychology of the user. Build and sell minimalist boxes and then force people to live in them. It was a dream come true for speculative construction, especially when backed by a supporting chorus of academics and sold-out architecture critics. 

1920s modernism was social engineering as fanaticised as any political movement

Planners and regulators tend to be rather stolid and unexcitable bureaucrats just following the rulebook. It never occurred to them that those rules represent a political victory of modernists who re-wrote the older humane regulations just before the Second World War. It has become impossible to build humane urban fabric — which was the intention of those seeking to impose the Dystopia of Curl’s book title. One of the revelations of Curl’s book is that 1920s modernism was a plan for social engineering as determined and as fanaticised as any of the parallel political movements that arose at the same time around the world. 

The arguments articulated by Curl soon found an echo in an unprecedented manifesto from students of the Architectural Association in London, demanding radical reform of their curriculum. Published in June 2019, this call for educational reform does not mention Curl’s book explicitly. Even if there is no direct correlation, a global interest in changing architectural education began precisely at this time, leading to a collection of essays and conferences that resulted in the 2020 Pune Declaration

Curl’s book provided a needed boost and support for those who already knew that something was terribly wrong with architectural education and practice. It gave, as well, a direction of liberating thought for those in the system who somehow felt uneasy with all the glorious pronouncements that everything was going along perfectly fine.

Lost in the equation here (and perhaps not as pronounced in Curl’s work as the historical narrative) are the economic and industrial forces that never cared for human values. Unscrupulous architects simply served as the industry’s marketing arm, dressing up monstrous projects in an alluring costume with the trappings of fine art, while universities promised a coming Utopia. What they made instead, as James Stevens Curl meticulously documented, was dystopia.

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