Why are all modern buildings ugly? Why are all modern political trends absurd? By Ed West.
Almost everyone prefers traditional buildings, so why are modern buildings nearly all so ugly?
One historic reason for this problem is fashion. In every country where the question is asked, overwhelming majorities favour traditional buildings and NIMBYism even decreases when residents are presented with vernacular styles.
But they are not popular with the people who matter. Back in 1987, when he was just 21, psychologist David Halpern conducted a survey of students, asking them to rate buildings by attractiveness. He found that almost everyone had similar tastes, generally liking traditional styles — the sort you’ll see in Gentle Density.
The exceptions were architecture students, whose favourite building was everyone else’s least favourite, and vice versa. The longer someone had been at university studying architecture, the more out of tune their tastes were with most people.
Craving to be “special,” a form of virtue-signaling:
This trend matched the development in art heralded by Clement Greenberg’s seminal 1939 essay, ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, which attacked the ‘second-hand, shabby, and impersonal’ work of Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper, declaring that good art must almost by definition be unpopular with the public.
In Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey observed that: ‘What is truly meritorious in art is seen as the prerogative of a minority, the intellectuals, and the significance of this minority is reckoned to be directly proportionate to its ability to outrage and puzzle the mass’. This mindset infected architecture too, and most western cities stopped producing the sort of homes and public buildings which people loved. …
Architecture has long suffered from this high-status opinion cascades, a sort of runaway evolution in which costly displays of counter-logical opinions help the individual; the more you support architecture which demoralises people, the more sophisticated you are. This has hugely reduced the supply of desirable homes, a problem which has become more costly as urban demand has intensified. …
But even the “sophisticates” don’t actually believe their posturing:
The truth of status cascades is often illustrated by revealed preferences. Stated preferences are what we claim to believe, and these are heavily influenced by social acceptability bias; revealed preferences are what we actually do.
In Britain, people are prepared to pay more for older homes, pre-1919 buildings having increased in value at double the rate of modern buildings since 1983 – by 465% v 255%, according to data from Halifax. Since more modern homes benefit from all sorts of technical improvements, it should be the opposite …
It is indeed the style which attracts people, rather than the age, and a study from the Netherlands showed that ‘even controlling for a wide range of features, fully neo-traditional houses sell for 15 per cent more than fully non-traditional houses.’
But perhaps the most famous, or infamous, revealed preference in architecture is that modernist architects themselves almost invariably live in traditional Georgian or Victorian homes. Show me a brutalist utopian housing estate that won architectural awards, and I will show you an architect living in an early Victorian cottage in Chiswick or Brook Green. …
Monarchs have their uses:
King Charles, as Prince of Wales, has already had a big impact on British architecture, in particular sabotaging attempts by high-profile modernist architects to impose their terrible ideas on the city. Charles was right about modern architecture long before it came to be accepted that much of what was put up in the late 20th century was complete excrement. The Prince was widely mocked, but he knew that in the long term he’d be proven right.
Architecture is hugely influenced by status games, and status competition is driven by insecurity, with new entrants to the upper middle class often the most desperate to adopt the right views. Charles was able to express some incredibly low-status opinions on architecture, perhaps because he was fairly secure about his status (being Prince of Wales and all that).
One of the advantages of monarchs is that they have an interest in caring about posterity in a way that democratic politicians don’t. Elected leaders can’t even think about 11 years into the future, let alone 100. Hereditary rulers know that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will carry their name and so take the blame and credit for what they did. …
There is barely a single building commissioned by democratic politicians of the past seven decades that will be loved or cherished by our great-grandchildren; many will have been demolished by then.
Virtue signaling will be the death of civilization.