Review of Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism

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

Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2018
592 pp., illus. 72 b/w. Trade, $60.00
ISBN: 978-0-19-875369-8.

Reviewed by: 
Giovanna L. Costantini
September 2018

In Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, distinguished architectural historian James Stevens Curl, author of The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, issues a call to judgement among architects, art and architectural historians, urban planners and educators to reverse over a century of cultural demise inflicted in large part through architecture’s failure to exercise its civilizing role and societal purpose. Juxtaposing dystopia, a condition of dysfunction,with utopia, a region of ideal happiness, he develops the case that the concept of the ideal city as an expression of social order characterized by a symbolic design and formal pattern, has been debased and profaned, mutilated if not annihilated—with modernism’s minimalist, utilitarian tendencies and historical erasure having an alienating, disruptive impact on society at large. Curl thunderously argues that the once respected art of architecture has become ‘tragically corrupted’ owing particularly to economic special interests and a surfeit of urban skylines proliferated over the course of the twentieth century that obliterated local identities, historical memory and social concourse.  With particular invective levelled at Corbusianity, the uncritical adulation of works by Swiss-born architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, called Le Corbusier; CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Modernefounded in 1928); and American architect Philip Johnson, he derides the crude simplicity of the modernist aesthetic; the abandonment of ornament and sculptural elaboration; the looming dominance and exaggerated scale of towering behemoths; severance of relationality to life and natural surroundings; and the theoretical dogmatism, pervasive global reach and persistence of the Modern Movement in architecture and planning.

The role of the past looms large in a narrative in which modernism is viewed as a prodigal that has squandered its inheritance. He condemns the movement for the debasement and denunciation of centuries of esteemed tradition, contributing, not to a centered sense of humanistic belonging within the flow of time, but to dislocation, to an historical vacuum in which swank banter and glib eclecticism replace time honored standards of construction and emblematized ideals. He decries the loss of accumulated knowledge integral to the future of Western civilization, of qualified marks of experience and expressions of higher learning aimed at human betterment. But the more trenchant purpose of Curl’s analysis is to reaffirm the meaning and role of architecture itself, its import to civic conduct, communal relations and cultural identity. He attributes to architecture the ability to orient social purpose through visual models, animate design and inspired embellishment; he stresses the psychological importance of symbolism and spiritually resonant signage; and he regards the edificatory import of architecture, its capacity to orient the spirit, elevate the mind, ennoble daily enterprise, to encourage social consciousness, enshrine values, memorialize and honor fundamental to human endeavor.

Curl directs his most vehement attacks against The International Style of architecture whose program of featureless “less is more” reductionism, rigid geometries, anti-historicism, mass production and dogmatic conformity extends from the aftermath of World War I until the advent of Post-Modernism. Characterized by flat roofs, plain, smooth, white walls, horizontal windows and mass-produced components, the International Style that flourished in Europe between the wars, transplanted to America and elsewhere after 1945, was in large part due to the emigration of Bauhaus practitioners such as Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe surrounding World War II. Sanctified by Alfred Barr and Philip Johnson in exhibitions originating at the Museum of Modern Art during the 1930’s and 1940’s, Curl carefully examines the careers of International Style propagators, the style’s evolution from its Bauhaus origins, and architectural positions promulgated against the backdrop of factory-based industrial design, National-Socialist Germany, Fascist Italy and Soviet Social Realism. In so doing, he elucidates the manner in which The International Style came to be recognized as a universal, ahistorical aesthetic despite its complex, at times compromised, politically-tinged pre-history, tied for a period to ingratiating service under Hitler.  Curl probes deep beneath the surface to interrogate the motivations and character of its principal proponents, exposing pernicious political forces and competing ideologies.  He examines the culture wars that raged after 1945, when it was feared that Italy, France and Greece might succumb to communism, where ‘culture’ was used by the Soviets as a tool of political persuasion and modernism initially associated itself with leftist sympathies. Lectures on Modern art in New York aligned abstraction, once denigrated as degenerate by way of Entartete Kunst,with democracy, thereby inclining public opinion towards Modernism in opposition to German Nationalist dictatorial tyranny. Later, he maintains, interpreted as quintessentially democratic, Modernism (vis-à-vis non-objective Abstract Expressionism) came to be promoted as the antidote to totalitarian Social Realism.

Though Curl acknowledges certain formal aspects of modernism that may be considered positive, i.e. its dramatic power of modelling, its vigorous alternations of light and dark and juxtapositions of mass, he does not scrutinize modernism’s essentialist, anti-materialist aims nor its relationships to early Japanese influence, Eastern philosophies and Cubism except in pointing to abstraction as a principle stylistic tendency. Yet the dialectic between interiority and exteriority, between the seen and the unseen, which stems ontologically in the West from a fundamentally classical Platonic position, inspired many modernists beyond the sphere of International Style architecture, providing a foundation to its anti-materialist posture. Although this ontological premise, more evident in non-illusionist painting, did not largely inform modernist architecture until much later through Minimalist theorization, it provided one strain of logic to high modernism’s conceptual emphasis and duration together with a subconscious need to withdraw from the chaos, barbarism and wreckage of war-ravaged Europe and American industrial blight.

Infused with poignancy and sentiment, Curl’s text articulates the sense of loss that accompanies the perceived ruination of a once glorious historical tradition together with the spiritual impoverishment that results from detachment from the cultural and religious roots of a civilization’s history. Transcendent codings of symbolic meaning visibly present in art and architecture have been systematically eradicated and forgotten, he argues, with Modernism having devalued and destroyed much of the aesthetic, compassionate, educational, empathetic, ethical and religious standards once integral to the higher aims of culture. Curl explores the philosophical underpinnings of framing worldviews, principles associated with science and religion; classical philology; rationalism and the Enlightenment; mechanism and materialism in philosophy; the Frankfurt School of critical theory; human physiology and other contextual perspectives. He is mindful of quantum shifts in the living and working surroundings of the last century and the subjugation of the built environment to the demands of global political economics. Yet he challenges the assumption that "there is no alternative” to the cultural degradation of society or of its physical environment. Rather than molding individuals to the demands of the marketplace, he urges urban planners to consider humanizing factors and quality of life, advocating cultural enrichment as a stimulus to civic virtue. “Culture,” he writes, “which might be regarded as the intellectual part, even the essence, of a true civilization, permeating it through and through, used to inform university education:  it was a kind of consciousness that continuously revived and acted as a catalyst to thought and understanding.” For this reason, Curl’s lamentation shifts resolutely to intervention through education, particularly the reform of architectural education, to more fully incorporate a meaningful historical syntax, aesthetic cultivation and time-honored standards of construction into foundational instruction. 

Encyclopedic in scope and meticulously documented, the text reflects a prodigious breadth of knowledge and impeccable scholarship. Author of dozens of books deemed reference sources in schools of architecture throughout the world, Curl is the recipient of the President’s Medal 2017 of the British Academy, a Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland, and the Royal Irish Academy. Written with passion and eloquence, Making Dystopiais a work of rare intellectual magnitude, to be recognized as an important, imperative contribution to the culture of our times. It promises to become essential reading to students of architecture, architects and urban planners concerned with cultural heritage, with the quality of human life within a built environment, and with architecture’s enduring legacy to the higher aims of civil society.