by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 11
February 2020
Debate
18:11

Why shouldn’t modern buildings be beautiful?

Go to any of the great Victorian train station like St Pancras. Typically these feature cast-iron pillars and glass canopies — cutting-edge technology for the time. Credit: Getty

It’s not often that I disagree with the brilliant Mary Harrington, but her post this week about architecture is a rare and partial exception.

It’s reported that Donald Trump wants all new government buildings to be designed in the neoclassical style. Mary is sceptical (and probably right to be) — but this is the bit I had trouble with:

In buildings constructed before the age of steel girders and reinforced concrete, pleasing decorative features such as brick arches over windows are as much a structural necessity as an aesthetic choice. But modern structural engineering has removed the need for these necessities, meaning their addition becomes an optional aesthetic extra. Thus unless Trump were to ban modern construction methods in federal buildings, stipulating neoclassical style is little more than an aesthetic gloss over a postmodern engineering approach to the built environment that has no need to be constrained by place, limits or context
- Mary Harrington

Go to any of the great Victorian train stations. Typically these feature cast-iron pillars and glass canopies — cutting-edge technology for the time. However, the ironwork is often also richly ornamented — the metal teased into intricate designs that serve no structural purpose.

Another example: the townhouses of 18th and 19th centuries are full of purely ornamental features. A lot of Georgian-style buildings feature one or more ‘string courses’ — i.e. distinctive horizontal bands of brick or masonry between two storeys (or along the base of a window line). Again these don’t serve any structural purpose. However, they do break-up the visual impact of an otherwise extensive facade. It’s one of the ways in which the Georgians achieved ‘gentle density’ — i.e. terraced streets and squares made up of multi-storey, but elegant, buildings.

The architects of the industrial revolution (and thus the modern world) had no problem with combining the latest technology and “optional aesthetic features”. Indeed, they did it beautifully — and, where they still stand, their buildings are loved.

It is the architects of the 20th century — not the first to build with modern methods and materials — who banished ornamentation. They did so for reasons of ideology allied to the short-sighted financial objectives of their cost-cutting paymasters.

If we are to build for human beings once more, not spreadsheets, then we need to take on that ideology and demolish it. This is one culture war worth fighting, though preferably not with Donald Trump leading the charge.