July 22, 2020 - 7:00am

The thing about modernist architecture is that it isn’t very modern anymore. It is now well into its second century and quite frankly showing its age.

In a brief but noteworthy piece for Fast Company, Nate Berg reports on the plight of famous modernist buildings that have seen better days. Examples include Bulgaria’s  — a colossal concrete flying saucer which was only built in 1981 but is now a decaying wreck “in danger of collapse”.

It was dedicated to the glory of the Bulgarian Communist Party, which may be why it’s been allowed to rot in the decades since democracy was restored. Ironically, it is American philanthropy that’s riding to the rescue of this socialist edifice — as part of the Getty Foundation’s Keeping It Modern programme.

However, as Berg explains, on this and other conservation projects they’ve got their work cut out:

The buildings were designed through experimental engineering techniques and constructed with unconventional materials that, the Getty notes, ‘were often untested and have not always performed well over time.’
- Nate Berg, Fast Company

However, the biggest problem with saving modernist buildings isn’t technical, but philosophical.

The essential qualities of a building were summed up by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in his famous triad: “firmitatis, utilitatis, venustatis.” Which is to say that a building should be structurally sound, useful and beautiful.

Two thousand years later, the modernist architects decided to do away with the beauty requirement. Instead, “form follows function” became their guiding principle.

Hence, the lack of venustatis in the contemporary built environment. But, as has become clear, the 20th century didn’t do too well on the firmitatis either. Modernist buildings are difficult to maintain, repair and adapt — and thus over time, they also lose their utilitatis. That’s why our cities are full of dysfunctional buildings that need to be torn down and replaced after only a few decades of use.

But perhaps that’s entirely consistent with a modernist spirit — which was all about sweeping away the detritus of history and embracing the new.

How strange, then, to see contemporary modernists go to such lengths to save the past. Modernist conservation is surely an oxymoron. If form follows function, then a dysfunctional building ought to lose its form. In other words, the only ideologically consistent conservation method for modernist architecture is demolition.

Apart from Croydon, of course — which should be preserved as a warning to future generations.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.