The Modern Pox Upon the Old City

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:

2016-05-22 10.57.26

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:

2016-05-22 10.56.59

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.

21 thoughts on “The Modern Pox Upon the Old City

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  2. Detroit was built of brick by some of the finest architects in the world, and built to last. All for what, so that it could become a crumbling, drug-infested African slum? Since white people have no legal way to prevent this from happening, and no right to collective self-defense (compared to, say, Korean shopkeepers during the L.A. riots), they have adopted a semi-nomadic existence. Buy a cornfield, cover it with cheap houses and strip malls, and when vibrancy starts moving in, abandon the place and move on to the next cornfield.

  3. Kristor: Two weekends ago I was in Santa Barbara. I was there to participate in a belated memorial ceremony for my mother, who died last February. There are a number of topics that link my experience to this post: The nomadism of airports and airplanes; the obliteration of tradition in so-called gentrification; and the craziness of formerly serene small towns in California or elsewhere that have succumbed to being colonized by Beverly Hills or the equivalent. On my return to Upstate New York, at which time I needed to grade the end-of-term papers and turn in grades to the registrar on a forty-eight hour deadline, I was in a semi-catatonic state from which I am still recovering. This little note is, nevertheless, in the nature of a promise to rejoin this thread and give my report on the fate of Santa Barbara, which I remember from as early as 1960, soon.

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  5. @Kristor


    Another interesting aspect is the way that modern elites foul their own nests – if Yale is building attractive new buildings it is ine of very few universities to do so. Many of the loveliest university towns have been disfigured, for decades, by ever uglier university buildings. This flies in the face even of commercial self-interest (since these colleges get their clients becaussse of their old world looks, and because these modern buildings are more expensive to build, and run, than the old type) – but it happens anyway.

    There are plenty of examples in Oxford – here is a recent one:

    My point is that the behaviour of the elites (who make these decisions), in which they do things like build vile buildings *despite* that they themselves live with the bad consequences and lose money on top of it, demonstrate that they are motivated – not by incompetence or carelessness – but by a positive desire to destroy the good; and also (since this trend for actively-ugly architecture has been going on for many decades) that this destructiveness is strategic, long-termist.

    So, from observing modern architecture, we are forced to conclude that the ruling elites have a long-term strategy of destroying beauty (and other Goods), and that this is being pursued despite changes in government, artistic fashion, economics, incentives, personnel etc.

    It implies (of course) a very powerful, dominating, purposeful, supernatural evil at work ‘behind’ what superficially look-like a multitude of individual architectural decisions made through The West for more than half a century.

    • The will to destroy goodness is more or less the definition of Satanic. This is more than indifference to the good, and more than sacrifice of goodness to expedience. Vandalism is an irritating but fairly low-grade expression of this will. The corruption of innocence is near the top–indeed it’s almost a simulacrum of Satan handing the apple to Eve.

    • Yes. The dead flatness of the roofs in modern New Haven bespeaks a decapitation of the human soul. These architectural catastrophes are unforced errors. No one ordered the architects, engineers, developers, planners, investors, and politicians to build these things. These were all well-meaning people, who thought that these buildings were a *good idea,* all things considered. They understood their desire to destroy the good as *positive.*

      Only utterly lost, disoriented minds could have committed such obvious, flagrant errors. I mean … flat roofs? That’s as stupid as, say, inviting millions of your enemies into your own country.

      Modernism – which is Leftism – is tenable only given a mammoth, willful blindness to reality. It is *exactly* the blindness Paul speaks of in Romans 1:20-32, which reads as a precise description of Kali Yuga:

      20. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:
      21. Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
      22. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools,
      23. And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.
      24. Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves:
      25. Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
      26. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:
      27. And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.
      28. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;
      29. Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,
      30. Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,
      31. Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:
      32. Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.

      The key verse, the fulcrum upon which the whole vile regress teeters, is 21. Who turns from God turns ipso facto to the Enemy. There is no other way to turn from the Real and True and Good than to irreality and falsity and evil; no way to turn from the Light except by turning to the Prince of Darkness, and enlist in his service.

      So yes: there is supernatural coordination of these apparently independent works of evil. We could equivalently say that evil everywhere has a certain look and feel, a certain smell and crookedness, certain shared characters of disorder, dissonance, illness, death.

      To turn from the Real is ridiculously easy. It need not be accomplished by some great and conscious and painful decision. Were it so, evil would be rare. On the contrary: the turn to evil is almost always accomplished, not by a commitment of the will, but rather by a failure thereof. As Harvey Cox famously put it, “Not to decide is to decide.” To fail to decide for the Good is to decide for the Evil. And to decide for the Evil is to welcome him into the heart.

      It happens unconsciously. It happens by unconsciousness; and it engenders unconsciousness. It stupefies the intellect and so misdirects the will yet further. The personal Fall is a vicious cycle.

      We are all in very great peril of that Fall, at all times and in all places. This is why the saints all abjure us to pray constantly, lest through mere inattention we fail in our will toward the Good.

      In outward pragmatic terms, the turn from the Real can be accomplished only by rejecting him, by hating him and all his works. And this means rejecting and hating the world he has made – including oneself.

      Those who reject God cannot but hate themselves. Given that hatred, suicidally uneconomic decisions based on foolish fantasies can seem realistic, rational, prudent, good, profitable. That’s why we get these patently ridiculous buildings – and music, art, “entertainment,” sex, public policies, yes and religions too.

      Our situation is dire, as usual.

      I would however enter a note of optimism. Who rejects God must hate himself; but who loves himself truly and well cannot but love God, a bit. Love yourself, and you love a bit of what you find in your neighbor, who is a bit like you. Love your neighbor, and you love your fellow creatures, all of whom share some of the orderly and beautiful properties that enable the world and its denizens to perdure coordinately from one moment to the next. Love at all, then, and you love God, willy nilly. Matthew 25:40.

      Almost all men do still love.

      Until the good in us is utterly extinguished – an asymptotic project (or, as I suppose I should say, ‘reject’) – there remains in us a seed of the good, which eo ipso is a love of the good: good is as good does. It is that seed in us that quietly hates modern architecture, and is attracted to traditional neighborhoods – making such neighborhoods more valuable. That seed in the hearts of many men and women motivated the turn away from modernism to traditional forms in the design of the new colleges at Yale – this, in the very belly of the Beast, a campus where the social evil of Leftism romps without let or hindrance, and, having banished all notice of any alternative to its own madnesses, turns on itself, and rends, in orgies of ostracism.

      Redemption is possible. It is then possible to fight our way home. And there is, still, a war on. Some victories are still won.

      There is in architecture throughout the West a budding turn away from the grotesque and the brutal and the inhuman back – or rather, properly speaking, again forward – to the traditional, the humane, the beautiful. It is perhaps most evident in church architecture (especially in Russia), but may be seen also in the respectful restoration of old buildings of all sorts – now quite a big business – and in new residential construction. Architecture MMXII is a Facebook site that follows developments on that front.

      It is in us still to build beautiful things. Saint Vitus Cathedral in Prague was completed in 1929.

      Saint Vitus Cathedral

      Taking the long view, the Gothic Age is only just over.

      Or is it? There is a good case to be made that the High Medieval Synthesis is, not over and done with, but rather deep in the crisis of a long and dreadful illness, and has just begun to turn the corner back toward health.

      The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City is still under construction. In Philadelphia, construction of Saint Mary’s Cathedral paused at the Crash of 1929, with only the apse complete.

      The Work continues.

      • Excellent post and comment (complete with a sycophantic “as usual”). Have you seen the plans for the New Mount Carmel Monastery in Wyoming? Wander around here. Yes, beauty is still possible for modern man, of course. While there is still breath!

        Some time ago, I wrote about Thomas Aquinas College in California and New World Byzantine architects, and you already mentioned the glorious renewal in Russia. I don’t know whether the tide is turning, but at least now we have counter-currents.

        I wonder how our descendants will speak of our era. What will they say when they visit the ruins of Le Corbusier’s soulless visions? Thankfully, they won’t have to live with this one.

      • Thanks for those refreshing links – and for the link to Le Corbusier’s forbidding Plan Voisin for Paris. Architects seem particularly prone to utopian visions, especially when the scale of their imaginary project is grand or comprehensive or synthetic. Viz., in the limit, the vast arcologies of Paolo Soleri, ingenious and often fantastically beautiful cities – as drawn, anyway – in a single enormous building, a gigantic machine.


        The built utopiae such architects envision always invoke – presuppose, and hope to engender – a utopian social order. Le Corbusier writes:

        Paris of tomorrow could be magnificently equal to the march of events that is day by day bringing us ever nearer to the dawn of a new social contract.

        Ah, yes, the March of Events toward a New Social Contract that will Fundamentally Change Human Society and produce a New Man in a New Age. Either you are with it, or you are on the wrong side of history, and Leviathan will roll right over and obliterate you. Resistance is futile; one way or another, you will be absorbed.

        It’s all idealist Marxian chiliasm, materialist, determinist. There is in it no room for play, for the wild anfractuous concrete. There is in it, i.e., no room even for the lifeless mechanism of Darwinism, let alone for the warmth of the merely human, for animal life as we actually discover it. It’s all pure Gnostic nobility, bloodless, shorn of meat. Le Corbusier would have deleted Paris, the City of Light.

        It’s madness. It’s insane megalomaniac hubris.

        It’s the policy of the present administration.

        Consider by contrast the humble yeasty vision of Christopher Alexander, high priest of the organic and traditional in architecture, of the human and natural. He began his researches – his scientific researches, NB – by trying to find out what people actually like. And what he found was that they generally like – nay, love – such environments as old New Haven.

  6. Looking to the south, the town does not appear to be any sort of haven, new or otherwise.

    “They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters . . . . they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses . . . . so he bringeth them unto their desired haven.” Psalm 107: 23-30.

    • I am not surprised that you agree with us about modernist architecture, a.morphous. You, too, after all, are a beautiful cathedral still under construction.

      The beautiful loves beauty, and calls to her as she is to her called.

    • Wow, I thought the Edo Museum was creepy. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was about to start walking towards me as I approached. It has nothing on the Geisel Library at UCSD in a.morphous’s link. Thing looks like some hungry, alien super-insect.

      • Re: hungry, alien super-insect. That’s what I thought. Well, actually an evilly smiling multi-headed snake creature about to eat its viewer – hungry, as you say.

  7. Every time I see this kind of stuff, all I think of is ‘Soviet Architecture’. It’s the same hollow, heartlessly minimalist blight upon the landscape that you can find in the most unfortunate areas of the Eastern Bloc. There are circuit boards with more character than the layouts of many Modern cities.

    And the thing is, the change isn’t due to advancing technology. You can easily find a lot of beauty in Singapore and the UAE.

    What I also find is that in these hotspots of ugly architecture are treated like crap by their residents. There are always backroads and inlets full of broken glass and garbage. You don’t see that in places where the architecture, the layout, speaks to a higher sense in the population of purpose. I really do think architecture can impact how a population treats their surroundings.

  8. A passage from The Fountainhead comes to mind:

    Henry Cameron: Why did you’d decide to become an architect?
    Howard Roark: I didn’t know it then. But it’s because I’ve never believed in God.
    Henry Cameron: Come on, talk sense.
    Howard Roark: Because I love this earth. That’s all I love. I don’t like the shape of things on this earth. I want to change them.
    Henry Cameron: For whom?
    Howard Roark: For myself.

    While I agree with many of your points, I am inclined to defend flat roofs…perhaps not for their utility (although many a flat roof is constructed for monetary reasons), but beauty can be found among them. I think that when done properly, flat roofs can reach out and embrace the earth in ways that a pitched roof simply cannot. Sure it isn’t a gesture to heaven, but there is meaning embracing the Earth as well. Also, traditional architecture is not stranger to trying to hide its pitched roofs behind cornices and statues (I’m thinking of the Doge’s Palace and the Palazzo Chiericati).

    I think you make a fantastic point that architecture these days doesn’t try to engage the public on a symbolic level, and this is where its true fault lies. It has been my experience that a vast amount of architects see their buildings as formal exercises that show off their own abilities, with their aesthetic value being judged mainly by novelty. Heaven forbid we get a modern architect with the confidence in himself to build something that is just a little “boring”.

  9. Kristor wrote (explicating Utopian thought):

    “Either you are with it, or you are on the wrong side of history, and Leviathan will roll right over and obliterate you. Resistance is futile; one way or another, you will be absorbed.”

    Might I humbly suggest the following amendment:

    “Whether you are with it, or on the wrong side of history, Leviathan will roll right over and obliterate you. Resistance is futile; but even if you submit, one way or another, the chances are pretty good that you will still be annihilated.”

    • Ha! Just so. The Revolution devours her young, sooner or later. She seeks the End of History, which ends all histories. Well then may we see her satanic source.

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