As someone who, since childhood, has been interested in one day building or buying his own house, I distinctly prefer classical styles of architecture. Most modern styles, from brutalism and Bauhaus to Le Corbusier and more postmodern architecture, don’t appeal to me. On an emotional and logical level, classical styles just seem better.
Throughout the years, I have noticed that this is not a popular opinion, however, especially among architects, who have a distinct preference for modern architecture. This has made me think. After all, why should I prefer styles of architecture that most in the business of designing buildings are no fan of and think them valid, more valid even than their preferred styles?
After much thinking, I’ve come to believe it has everything to do with classical styles just feeling more natural, both in a historical sense and in their use of materials.
Why Modern Architecture Tends to Unnaturalness
Indeed, when one looks at the history of architecture, one can see a clear break within the natural evolution of styles with the emergence of modernism. Throughout history, architecture has evolved from previous architecture.
Classical architects like Palladio got their inspiration from the Greeks, arts and crafts architects were clearly inspired by Tudor and Medieval styles, and Victorians were inspired by many earlier styles like baroque or the gothic style.
Modernist architects wanted to break with this tradition, decrying the use of, among other things, unnecessary ornamentation. Imitatio et aemulatio (imitation and improvement) became viewed as cheap historicism.
Moreover, most architecture before the modern era evolved bottom-up. Many earlier styles of architecture didn’t even evolve from the minds of architects but from the minds of the owners and occupiers, who primarily focused on improving on the styles already present in their region and creatively using materials found in their neighbourhoods, resulting in architecture that grew organically along with the landscape around it.
Modern architecture, on the contrary, has a similar look everywhere because it uses the same materials (steel, concrete, glass, etc.) everywhere. It is a disruption of the natural evolution of styles alongside the landscape. Creatively it is also a top-down style, thought out by philosopher-architects who wanted to rethink everything and break with the past and impose their new vision on owners and landscape to ‘liberate’ them from past restrictions.
Because of its break from the past, a natural organic evolution of styles, specific to region and cultural attitudes, it, furthermore, also tends to unnaturalness in its form, colour and material. Columns and large chimneys look like trees, bricks look like earth, brick and stone also do not have a slick finish like steel, concrete or glass.
There is at the same time the natural use of symmetry and the natural use of many different shapes and sizes mingled together in classical architecture. There are lines that are uneven; there are patterns.
Modern architecture prides itself on simplistic design, straight lines, crisp white walls, etc, or over-the-top statements, like in blobitecture. Things that might seem great but are all also unnatural. Nowhere in nature is there a big white surface, not even in the sky. Finding a straight line in nature is difficult. Polished and shiny surfaces could mimic water, but water isn’t exactly meant to be lived in. Over-the-top statements lean more in the direction of the grotesque and clash with the harmony of the landscapes surrounding them. Simplicity is not often seen in abundant natural landscapes.
Modern architecture, it seems to me, is, in essence, unnatural, but, of course, that doesn’t mean it is a lesser thing in itself. However, I believe there is a case to be made that it is. Indeed, there are at least two compelling reasons to believe that it is, that I can come up with.
It Is Unnatural and, Therefore, Makes Us Uncomfortable
Colin Ellard of the University of Waterloo studied building facades and their influence on us and concluded that complex facades, as in the façade of a row of historical townhouses or the ornamental façades of classical architecture, make us happy, but sleek and monotonous façades, like in modern buildings stress us out.
This finding is not extraordinary, because when we think of it, complex façades are more similar to abundant and rich natural environments, places we would love to be and live in, while huge monotonous stretches remind us of poor natural environments, like barren fields and deserts, that are not conducive to easy living. Complexity reminds us of naturally healthy environments, while simplistic monotony doesn’t.
Furthermore, unnatural houses that jar with their surroundings inevitably create a sense of alienation. It is no secret that people in cities, full of modern design, feel more alienated than people in historical towns or villages. Apparently, several studies have even linked living in cities with double the chances of developing schizophrenia, along with more risk of chronic anxiety and depression. Increases in crime have also been linked to modernist complexes.
Tourists also value older buildings of note more than modern ones. Modern buildings might delight with a sense of novelty, but once that wears of, they keep sticking out within their surroundings, which makes them look contrarian and as a result uninviting. Classical buildings are in line with the basic structure of our environment and therefore comfort us with a sense that everything is as it should be and there isn’t anything odd and, within our primal mind, dangerous out there.
Even the movie industry understands it: when they produce a romantic comedy, the hero or heroine is more likely to live in a classical townhouse or cottage than a brutalist structure, while on the contrary, modernist architecture is always used in dystopian sci-fi or crime thrillers.
Feelings of discomfort and even stress are clearly linked to the unnatural surfaces of modern buildings, while the opposite is true for classical buildings. Why would we subject ourselves to this discomfort when we could have it otherwise?
It Is Unnatural and, Therefore, Not Aesthetically Durable
A second reason why unnatural modernism might not be the best option is durability, especially aesthetic durability. When a building is a box with white walls, it garners interest by contrasting itself with nature. It profiles itself as a triumph over nature, as order over chaos, often with well-structured hedges and lawns surrounding it as examples of nature under its control.
But as the law of entropy points out, order isn’t tenable. White walls get cracks and green spots, concrete will get dark spots and crumble, white plastic yellows, shine disappears, steel corrodes, straight lines get dents, etc. After a while, a modern building loses its lustre as it inevitably loses its battle against the chaos of reality.
Classical buildings, on the contrary, do not, because they were never built as a contrast to nature, but as a part of it. They are an extension of their surroundings, built with natural, local materials and in the styles of their regions. Moreover, culture has given us a fascination with the look of classical ruins. When moss grows on classical buildings, their stone crumbles a bit, or they are tarnished by dirt; this adds to them rather than detracts from them.
So, What Now?
This is all to say that I don’t want a world in which people do not have the option of choosing modern architecture. Modern architecture might have its own advantages that I am not aware of, and people should be free to choose whatever style they fancy. However, I’d like it if classical styles of building weren’t so readily dismissed as lesser, outdated or infantile.
It is a sign of great hubris to imply that the styles our ancestors liked to build in for thousands of years wouldn’t do for today. As products of the past and their environments, they are more in harmony with what most of us would expect from a local house, and many of us don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I, for one, don’t want a modern house, and my choice should be as valid as any other. Time will decide whether I am right or not.
- Psychology of boring architecture: The damaging impact of big, ugly buildings on mental health.
Adapted from Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life by Colin Ellard. Out now from Bellevue Literary Press.
- Cities and Mental Health - PMC
© 2022 Douglas Redant