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How a Massive Societal Shift Could Undo a Century of Ugly Building
The new disposition of things will demand a revival of the architectural wisdom of the ages.

Firminy, Maison de la culture, designed by Le Corbusier. Thierry Llansades/Flickr

Firminy, Maison de la culture, designed by Le Corbusier. Thierry Llansades/Flickr

Anyone who has traveled outside the USA to towns and cities in civilized foreign lands, and who then comes home to the punishing wilderness of American suburbia must, at least, suspect that something crucial in our culture has been out of order for a long time. It’s taken decades to build out the San Fernando Valley, and the countless other grotesque environments for daily life like it from sea to shining sea. What’s painfully absent is the quality I will call charm, and that is no small thing.

The conditions in a place like the commercial highway strip—of which there are tens of thousands—cast a spell of deep existential horror upon our everyday lives. You get not just the totalizing renunciation of conscious artistry in the design and assembly of our surroundings, but also the ferociously aggressive and immersive ugliness we’ve managed to substitute for it. This immersive ugliness of the highway strip is actually entropy-made-visible, and entropy is the force in nature that you really don’t want to mess with, since it is the bringer of stasis and death. Naturally, we’re repelled by it. And yet, we’ve foolishly managed to surround ourselves by it.

The quality of charm in man-made places is quite the opposite of what entropy represents. It attracts us. It invites us into the adventure of living within nature and within our own humanity. It alerts us that we have a reason to live. It’s the quality that unifies the things of this world and produces in humans a bond of gratitude for being here. You don’t have to work harder to achieve a charming place than you do to design, finance, permit, and construct an arterial highway of muffler shops, fast food shacks, big-box stores, and acres of free parking. But you have to know that the difference matters.

Two books might give our ailing culture a clue. The first is the revised edition of Cognitive Architecture (forthcoming this October) by architect and neuroscientist Ann Sussman, with Justin Hollander, an urban design professor at Tufts University. The concise and breezy book introduces a set of straightforward neuro-cognitive discoveries about how the brain interacts with our surroundings that offer an enhanced understanding of the mysteries of charm.

For instance, the visual sector of our brain has evolved to devote more than half its capacity to recognizing faces. Our brain wants to apply that faculty to buildings. Our eyes seek out patterns in them that denote we’re in the presence of humanity. When buildings are detailed correctly, we can read their “faces,” inviting us to understand what we’re looking at. That’s a big reason that traditional buildings come in types, each with its characteristic demeanor. They inform us that we’re seeing a house, a church, a city hall, or a power plant. Sometimes, those buildings even wear hats (they have interesting roofs).

World War I changed all that, Sussman and Hollander say. The slaughter of the trenches so shattered a generation of young men that their post-traumatic stress transformed culture dramatically. Modernist architects such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were so emotionally damaged by their war trauma that instead of visually processing human faces in their buildings, they neurotically reenacted the horror by designing buildings that looked like bunkers and fortifications. The blank façade ruled. Ornament was deep-sixed. Windows became mere holes in the wall. Building typologies were done away with so that one might mistake an art museum for an insecticide factory. World War II only reinforced the PTSD of the earlier war, and Modernism has ruled ever since, despite the discomfort and revulsion it provokes for many ordinary people.

Mathematician Nikos Salingaros’s straightforward new book, A Theory of Architecture, does a masterful job of revealing the hidden mathematical coding that connects human cognition with architecture that is comprehensible and meaningful to us. Salingaros is a long-time colleague and collaborator with Christopher Alexander, whose groundbreaking 1977 book A Pattern Language unlocked the lost secrets of creating successful human environments—places in which people actually liked being. Salingaros takes it deeper into the science. Buildings express themselves in nested hierarchies of form that must be mathematically consistent with each other at each scale, from the smallest detail to the thing as a whole. “The suppression of ornament…” he says, “results in alien forms that generate physiological and psychological distress.” He has a great deal more to say about the connections between human emotional needs, physics, and the interplay between them, and it goes a long way towards explaining the catastrophe of the built environment in our time.

The odd part of all this is that it’s now necessary to get the backing of science to validate what used to come naturally: the ability to build pleasing places. Architects from Vitruvius through Brunelleschi, Bullfinch, Richard Morris Hunt, and thousands of others were eager to execute building designs that complied with the laws of the universe and the operations of the human brain. They all received some sort of training, of course. That knowledge and skill was transmitted by a long succession of their predecessors back to the most distant antiquity. A few traditionalist hold-outs survived the Modernist decades, disdained and pitied by the mandarins of academia and the celebrity starchitects.

Now, the coronavirus, the plague of our time, has accelerated another turning of history. Western civ and the economic horse it rode in on are suddenly in a lot of trouble. The familiar certainties of modernity itself are collapsing, along with manufacturing supply lines, capital flows, and energy supplies. The result of all that is liable to be a society far less intoxicated with technological triumph and grad school mystification. A lot of the fabricated, modular building materials of the past hundred-odd years that made Modernist architecture possible will no longer be so easily available—concrete, plate glass, titanium claddings, steel beams, aluminum trusses, and much more.

This new disposition of things, which we are quite unprepared for, will demand a revival of the building wisdom of the ages. It will be a vast improvement over the anxious, neurotic exercises that can now be plainly described as yesterday’s tomorrow. The necessary return to traditional modes and materials will yield a revived architecture of grace notes, humility, and decorum. Wait for it!

James Howard Kunstler is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including his recent work, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward.

About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency and the four-book series of World Made By Hand novels, set in a post economic crash American future. His most recent book is Living in the Long Emergency; Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Jim lives on a homestead in Washington County, New. York, where he tends his garden and communes with his chickens.

10 Responses to “JHK in The American Conservative: How a Massive Societal Shift Could Undo a Century of Ugly Building”

  1. dowd August 9, 2020 at 5:29 am #

    Outstanding article. Agree 100%. Modern Architecture is a soul killing invention of the devil. It needs to be sent back to hell where it belongs and be replaced by classic forms of beauty and charm that have been with us since Greek antiquity.

  2. Linux Maximus August 9, 2020 at 6:22 am #

    I call the new glass and steel monoliths Statues of decadence

  3. peter m August 9, 2020 at 6:25 am #

    “Modern Architecture is a soul killing invention of the devil”

    Modern architecture is a reflection of the way we produce and communicate.
    Soulless, mechanical mostly with limited skill sets, strapped in a production system solely aiming to produce for the profits of the few, atomized individualism that actually denies the existence of “society”.

    What does one expect from artistic expressions in such a social environment? From an approach to an integrated architecture providing spaces that are a pleasure to live in, to meet and communicate instead of encountering automatons hacking away at their various “I-phone” iterations?

    Luckily in Europe there are still such places….


    and I have the pleasure to live in one…

    • peter m August 9, 2020 at 8:05 am #

      “From an approach to an…”
      Should read: An approach to an….

  4. EnterpriseSpaceship August 9, 2020 at 7:40 am #

    Our Western Civilisation wanted the maximum amount of fossil fuels supplies burned the quickest possible – being the only positive value-item in the whole Economy.

    San Fernando Valley, China ghost cities, the tallest building in the world Burij Khalifa in Dubai and almost all others since the Titanic – were a demonstration that Architecture became a tool in that burning-crusade.

    Architecture became another SUV before SUVs, another moon-landing before the moon-landing, and even another n. bomb before Hiroshima.

    It was a colossal mistake the Western Civilisation has committed when its mind set allowed the construction of much bigger and powerful structures and systems than humans body scale and muscle power.

    Shame, humans were not urged to discover earlier – Energy, like time, only flows from past to future.


  5. Opie August 9, 2020 at 11:27 am #

    It’s this aspect of Jim’s thinking that attracted me this site to begin with. I absolutely concur with every word. The grotesqueness of our environment plus ridiculous noise which attends us drives a lot of what passes for mental illness IMO.

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  6. Amman August 24, 2020 at 4:34 pm #

    What and whither the “building wisdom of the ages?”

  7. SouthernYankee September 10, 2020 at 11:44 am #

    “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area.

    There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.”

    – Agent Smith (The Matrix)

  8. Bob12065 October 31, 2020 at 4:48 am #

    There’s only a handful of comments to this article. That tells me that the subject matter doesn’t really resonate with most folks. And while classical architecture is beautiful to behold from the outside of the buildings, I’m not sure that the rooms/offices are all that utilitarian once you are on the inside of the building. I’m thinking of old granite courthouses, city halls, and other such buildings. Of course I haven’t spent much time in such buildings in Europe, so I can’t make an apt comparison. But one thing that I do know is that such buildings are very expensive to heat and cool. I guess that is where nuclear power would help, if it could be constructed without the budget busting 30 year permitting delays.

  9. Chippenhook February 10, 2021 at 8:59 pm #

    Just as the designers of women’s clothing are always looking for something different w/o regard for whether it actually looks good on women, so it is with architecture.

    We have certain home styles that are timeless and have withstood the test of time…..dutch colonials, capes, salt boxes and so forth, which can be appealing brand new or 200 years old. And we have styles that do not age well at all and have little aesthetic even when new….raised ranches/bi-levels, split levels, post-WWII ranch houses, and heaven forbid “contemporaries” with vertical clapboards and oddly pitched roofs. Even worse for the poor we have mobile homes that within a few years start looking like slums on wheels.

    The metal commercial buildings found in lower end strip malls are kind of like the business world’s mobile homes. The newer brick buildings tend to be bland and utilitarian rather than uplifting. It is as if the designers spent so much time on the technical aspects of the building’s functionality and adherence to code that they forgot to step back and ask themselves does it look good today, will it look good 50 or 100 years from now.

    I do recall seeing a well done very large subdivision in suburban NC a few years back. The price points ranged from starter homes up to high end, but all were done with a certain traditional colonial aesthetic that has withstood the test of time. The starter homes were of course smaller, had less land, and had fewer amenities but they had similar design elements that made them appealing visually rather than shouting utilitarian starter home you find in most lower end subdivisions. And the neighborhood came with an elementary school in the center as well as recreation spaces. I would note that the smaller lots for the starter homes weren’t immediately obvious because the developer maintained a similar house size vs lot size ratio as they did with the larger higher end homes. It maintained a certain cohesiveness of the neighborhood as a whole. All in all the development didn’t have that sterile look that neighborhoods of strictly McMansions tend to have.