Western cities more than a century old all feature a stark contrast between their remaining old-fashioned neighborhoods and their horrid modern depravations of the builder’s art. In few however is the contrast as stark as in New Haven, Connecticut. Consider the view from two different windows of a single hotel room in that town, and choose one for yourself.
First, the view south over the post war cityscape:
Note that grey monolith just left of the Ikea store. Up close, it is far and away the ugliest, most brutal building I have ever seen, literally breathtaking in its visceral affront to the human body. One aches to get away from it; the feeling it provokes is subdued rage. This is perhaps why it stands now vacant. The adjacent Ikea store is positively charming by contrast.
Modern New Haven is dispiriting – it engenders despair. Few pedestrians are to be seen on its barren sidewalks, scuttling quickly on their way, heads down.
Here then is the view to the north, taking in the Yale campus:
It is a different sort of city altogether. Old New Haven is full of charm and life. The streets are busy with cheerful pedestrians.
I am happy to report that the tower crane at the upper right of the second photo marks the site of construction of two new colleges designed in grateful conformity with the traditional architectural styles of Yale. There are a few modernist abominations on campus – the School of Architecture, naturally, is the palmary example. But only a few.
There are, likewise, a few old survivors in modern New Haven: here a church, there an apartment building or bank, over yonder a solid house. Modernist buildings are not usually built to last, thanks be to God. And no one likes them. Our great grandchildren will need to replace them – and will be glad to do so. The few old survivors will be the treasured seeds of new traditional neighborhoods.
Consider now the most obvious difference between the two styles of buildings.
The old city is full of steeples and towers, and its roofs are almost all pitched. The buildings all point to the sky: to the heavens, to the empyrean beyond it, to the uttermost horizon of creaturely contingency. They are literally inspired. They gesture toward eternity and infinity, toward the Truth that cannot change, upon which all things hang. By their constant indication of First Things, they imbue the daily life below with awareness thereof, so that quotidian experience is pegged and oriented to God, enchanted, and a bit ennobled.
The roofs of the modern city are all dead flat. Where there are towers, they are shorn off at the top, like a mountain decapitated. They are disoriented. They are two dimensional. They are, literally, uninspired. Not only are they mute about the meaning of life in respect to First Things, they usually fail to mean anything at all, even about their own functions. So are they stupid, and stultifying. Only the parking lots that surround them are perfectly clear about their own purposes.
Not coincidentally, friendly skies – the sort that succor abundant life – punish flat roofs. After the rain that looms in both photos above, two men rushed up onto a nearby flat roof to sweep the water off and then bake the rest away with a torch. In temperate climates, flat roofs don’t work well. Buildings with pitched roofs last longer.
Architects all know this, perfectly well. We can conclude that buildings with flat roofs were designed to fail. They were intended to work badly. They were meant to insult life as it is really and beautifully lived.
Modernism hates the constraining facts of corporeal life. Modern buildings manifest that hatred. But to hate reality is to hate oneself; and to express that hatred is to vitiate its expression ipso facto. So modern buildings are completed by a crippling weakness.