The ultramodern architecture bubble has burst. Today, in much of the world, new public buildings are no longer designed by the ‘starchitects’ who dominated in the late 1990s and 2000s, including Zaha Hadid, Herzog & de Meuron, Rem Koolhaas and Frank Gehry. Cities are no longer filling with vaulting, flowing, gooey, non-orthogonal buildings engineered through advanced computing power. Architecture has been hit by a new sobriety. Tradition, apparently, is back.
The reaction against ultramodern architecture arrived slowly at first, but accelerated with the financial crash of 2008, as the world economy and many political systems became increasingly unsteady. Amid this apparent chaos, the stability of neoclassical architecture was advocated from the very top. In 2020, the United States president Donald Trump signed an executive order advocating ‘classical’ architecture, including ‘beautiful’ traditional styles such as Greek Revival, Gothic, Georgian and neoclassical. This followed the British Conservative government appointing the late philosopher Roger Scruton to head a 2018 commission ensuring that new housing would be ‘built beautiful’, which Scruton made clear meant ‘traditional’.
Even earlier, in 2014, the Chinese president Xi Jinping issued an edict demanding an end to ‘weird architecture’ in China – likely a reference to buildings such as Guangzhou’s curvaceous Opera House (designed by Hadid), the gravity-defying cantilevers of Beijing’s CCTV headquarters (by Koolhaas/OMA) or the nearby ‘bird’s nest’ Olympic Stadium (by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei). Also in Beijing, the traditional alleyways known as ‘hutongs’, many of which were swept away by the Olympics in 2008, have been carefully restored over the past few years as tourist attractions. And in the European Union, particularly Germany and Poland, projects of historical reconstruction – the kind that, in a previous decade, might have involved ultramodern non-orthogonal CGI-optimised arts centres – now feature new traditional-style buildings with gables and pitched roofs, set along winding lanes.
The argument made by the advocates of tradition and classicism is that the answers to the problems plaguing architecture and urbanism in the 21st century lie in the past: the style needed today, the logic goes, is a revival of the traditionally ‘beautiful’ forms of classicism, not some ‘weird’ global version of modernism.
Modernism in architecture is now at least a century old, and has many traditions within it, including gooey CGI formalism, warm Scandinavian architecture from the 1930s, or the harsh and tactile Brutalist monuments built by Britain, Brazil and Japan in the 1960s. There is no single thing called ‘modern architecture’, which is why rejecting it in toto should be as ridiculous as claiming that all jazz or all modern paintings are worthless.
However, in the 21st century, modern architecture has reached an impasse. This problem, according to many of its critics, is that the style is placeless. This argument is not always accurate – most countries have had their own regional or intensely local versions – but, as a broad point against modern architecture, it is a convincing criticism. These buildings could be anywhere; they fail to engage with what is around them. At one time, these features were actually considered virtues.
Consider ‘the International Style’, perhaps the most successful sub-strand of modern architecture, which was formulated by architects and designers such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in the first half of the 20th century. It was so named for the way its cubic, repetitious style had emerged in several countries at once during the 1920s, suggesting it could be reproduced around the world. With steel frames, air conditioning and elevators you could build the exact same skyscraper in Stuttgart, Sydney, Seattle, Seoul or Dar es Salaam. The same interchangeability has been true of the ultramodern architecture of the 1990s and 2000s, with designers rolling out similar designs on ex-industrial waterfronts across the globe, often with an exorbitant wastage of energy and materials.
This sensitivity to place was intended to address the dilemmas of globalism
Perhaps the single most prominent campaigner against modern architecture in the world is Charles Windsor, the King of the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth. In the 1980s, he became widely known for his one-liners directed at various modern buildings: the National Theatre in London (now heritage-listed and much-loved) was described as ‘a nuclear power station’; a proposed Brutalist expansion of London’s classical National Gallery was a ‘monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend’. Putting his money (or, rather, his land holdings) where his mouth was, he then developed an entire town according to traditional design principles grounded in place. Construction began in the early 1990s at a site just outside Dorchester in Dorset that he renamed Poundbury. Over the decades, it has been transformed into a new neoclassical town intended to be attractive, traditional and ecologically sustainable. It stands as a criticism against the apparent coldness, placelessness and disregard for local materials seen in modern architectural styles – a criticism that extends far beyond the opinions and schemes of King Charles III.
The theorists and historians of architectural modernism have long been aware of these criticisms. In the 1980s, as the future King Charles III was attacking London’s non-traditional buildings, the British architectural historian Kenneth Frampton wrote that a modern architecture sensitive to place and materials was required – a ‘critical regionalism’, as he called it. This newfound sensitivity to place was intended to address the dilemmas of globalism, and is becoming only more urgent as unsustainable carbon-intensive building practices come under scrutiny.
But contemporary ‘carbuncles’ have failed to solve the deeper problems of the built environment, and the spectacular architecture of the 2000s is now achingly unfashionable. Today, the most respected designers tend to be those who bridge classicism and modernism, such as Caruso St John or Valerio Olgiati. And UK critics such as Oliver Wainwright or Rowan Moore can be relied upon to ridicule the expensive, computer-aided museums and galleries designed by the starchitects who rose to prominence in earlier decades.
The result is that, in the 2020s, modern architecture has become chastened. But by criticising placelessness – a lack of attention to local differences, whether aesthetic or material – architecture’s ‘trads’ are not always being entirely honest. Increasingly, modernism and classicism share the same issues.
Style wars have returned to architectural discourse. And, as expected, social media is the place to see these kinds of conflicts (and the false binaries they often represent) in their most grossly caricatural form. Online platforms show two obvious positions, both identifiable with a particular politics. One occupies a similar political location to Trump and the British Tories with their mandated classicism. This position is associated with glossy images of classical buildings, ancient Greek and Roman ruins, Central European historic cities, or American Beaux Arts edifices. These images are presented as bright examples of past solutions to the problems of modern architecture. On X (formerly Twitter), some of the accounts sharing these images, with names along the lines of @TraditionalWesternBeauty, are fairly benign. Others are clearly affiliated with far-Right radicalism, accompanied by faint dog-whistling about ‘globalists’ and ‘cultural Marxists’. From this perspective, modern architecture is seen as an example of a placeless globalism, expressed through the ultramodern buildings of Hadid or Gehry, the concrete Brutalism of the 1970s or the glass skyscrapers of the 1950s. The avatars of these accounts are often images of Greek, Roman or Renaissance statues, as if Michelangelo’s David has stepped down from his perch in Florence, picked up a smartphone and decided to denounce degenerate architecture by making memes.
On the other side of the debate are those sharing longing depictions of postwar international modernist architecture, usually through old photographs of British housing estates, Brazilian and Indian public buildings, and US universities. This side of the debate is related to the fact that, at the same time as traditionalism has revived, there has been a major resurgence of interest in what was once the most hated modern architectural subgenre: Brutalism. A modern style that emerged between the 1950s and ’70s, Brutalism is defined by aggressive, dissonant and uncompromisingly right-angled buildings made from raw, unadorned concrete. This style is exemplified by Charles III’s hated National Theatre in London as well as buildings such as Boston City Hall, the Kyoto International Conference Centre, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre or the National Library of Argentina. In recent years, these enigmatic buildings have found their way onto T-shirts, tea towels and mugs. They also tend to be particularly popular among Millennials. Go, for instance, to the Barbican complex in London – an enormous megastructure involving housing, an arts centre, a concert hall, two schools and a library, all in the same bush-hammered concrete – and you’ll almost always see a tour group of youngish, fashionably dressed people being shown round its walkways and foyers. Though there are far fewer champions of this kind of architecture in party politics, even on the Left, the accounts that advocate for this kind of modernism online, with names such as @BrutalistBoi1987, typically lean Left-Liberal.
Resources, technology and energy use can no longer be taken for granted
I have more in common with @BrutalistBoi1987 than with @TraditionalWesternBeauty. Though I enjoy a nicely fluted marble Ionic peristyle as much as the next man, I’m an unabashed enthusiast for the wild ambitions of postwar modernism with its quest for new worlds and new spaces. I find the welfare states of postwar Europe more attractive as sponsors of architecture than I do the slave states of Athens, Rome and Washington, DC. But there are undoubted similarities. It pains me to concede this, as a confirmed enthusiast of Brutalism and other forms of modernist architecture, but both sides of the style wars in contemporary architecture have a certain amount in common. Online, both movements are nostalgic, whether for a recent past or a much more distant one. Both tend to caricature their opponents and treat buildings as abstracted aesthetic objects – little more than JPEGs. Both prefer images in which human life is largely absent. Both keep commentary and history to a minimum (after all, there is only so much history that can be analysed in an online argument). Both work against the reality that architecture is really about space and can be fully understood only by experiencing it in person. But, above all, both perspectives wrench architecture out of its context in a particular place: both the cosmopolitan, urban Left and the ostentatiously nativist, reactionary Right are really celebrating an international style of architecture.
The false binary extends far beyond social media and the domain of style itself. In many ways, the arguments that characterise the style wars miss the mark. The impasse faced by architecture, whether modern or classical, is really about global approaches to materials and construction, rather than aesthetics. Resources, technology and energy use can no longer be taken for granted when it comes to architectural style.
Modernism’s guilt is easily proved: all that concrete, so proudly displayed. Concrete and steel are the materials upon which most modern architecture relies, especially the heavy Brutalist structures of the 20th century and the spectacular architecture of the early 2000s. These materials are hugely carbon-intensive (and expensive) to produce and distribute around the world. There is likely no way in which modernism could keep being practised as it was in the 20th century. On this, ‘traditionalists’ ought to have an answer grounded in place. However, architecture today of any style tends not to use local materials because, in many parts of the world, it is more expensive and difficult to build that way. Building with local materials – whether local stone, wood or baked brick – can involve highly skilled labour, which is hard to come by at a time when the construction industry has been comprehensively deskilled. Contractors working on just-in-time principles prefer to ornament their buildings with prefabricated pieces that can be produced in a classical style just as easily as a modern one. Style becomes nothing more than an interchangeable facade.
In the UK, since 2008, new luxury apartment blocks in London have been made from raw concrete frames that are clad in a quarter-inch of ‘traditional’ brick panels. In Germany, the recently reconstructed Berlin Palace (also called the Hohenzollern Palace) is made almost entirely from concrete, albeit with neo-baroque details. And in many places around the world, single-family suburban homes may look ‘traditional’ but are equally prefabricated (and predicated on a wasteful and bleak car-centric planning ideology). Classicism is every bit as mass-produced, industrialised and international as modernism. Critics of modern architecture might argue that this is a recent phenomenon: surely, modernist buildings have always been placeless, whereas classicism has only recently become deformed by globalism. This, however, is also a myth.
How can an architectural style that prides itself on specificity, localism and traditional materials be accused of placelessness? To understand the emergence of classicism as a global and industrial style, let’s start with a particular historical moment. Though there are precedents in the Greek and Roman empires – Greco-Roman architecture was fundamentally similar wherever you were in the European-Middle Eastern expanse of the Alexandrine and Roman empires, from York to Yerevan – it was the British who went further than anyone else in creating replicated versions of their home environment in the most unlikely places.
Between the 18th and 20th centuries, through British imperialism, architectural styles that might otherwise be firmly associated with locales such as Surrey, the West Midlands or central Scotland were faithfully reproduced when British settlers tried to build a replica of their society on the wastes they’d attempted to make of somebody else’s: in the deserts and coastlines of Australia, in the grasslands of South Africa, in the tundra of Canada, in the bays and volcanic hills of New Zealand. Among the exported architecture, one building in particular was replicated many times in the second half of the 19th century. You’ll find its ‘original’ by crossing the Solent to a small island south of Great Britain. Take a passenger boat from the quayside of Southampton, in the shadow of its 1960s concrete tower blocks. Onboard, you will pass container ships bringing goods to port and car ferries on their way to France before eventually arriving at the town of Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Nearby, facing the sea, is a palace: Osborne House.
People from the area refer to the Isle of Wight as ‘the Island’. It is a place that thrived during the Victorian era, at the height of the empire, due to its microclimate, which created a fair approximation of the Mediterranean in this corner of the north Atlantic. The Island attracted a remarkable parade of the Victorian great and good – a whole league of extraordinary gentlemen and women including Charles Darwin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Julia Margaret Cameron, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and various aristocrats who stayed as seasonal or permanent guests.
Osborne House began as a commission from the reigning monarch Queen Victoria who wanted for herself and her Prince Consort, Albert Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a private house overlooking the estuary that divides the Island from the cities of Southampton and Portsmouth. Construction was completed in 1851 by the developer Thomas Cubitt, who was then building neoclassical terraced houses in much of what is now inner London. Osborne is generally described as a mere ‘house’ in the histories of royal palaces, and seen as a sign of the constitutional monarchy’s supposedly modest tastes and empathy with its subjects – they even used a developer who built ordinary terraced houses! But it is, of course, a palace, with so much space that it housed an entire naval college for a time, until it was finally turned into a museum after the Second World War. However, the term ‘house’ is not altogether fanciful. It may be a palace, but the scale is that of a medium-sized late-19th-century school. This is not Versailles or Peterhof; no absolute monarch, no Sun King, would be satisfied with Osborne. It is as informal as a home for the empress of an empire could possibly be.
Look more closely, and a much more global, imperial and modern structure starts to reveal itself
What exactly is ‘traditional’ about Osborne? First of all, its design is rooted in Mediterranean classicism, especially the Italian Renaissance. Facing away from the sea, the design is similar to other large houses of the period: flat-roofed, stuccoed and slightly stiff. These elements are artefacts of the German prince’s involvement in the design process and reveal his stolid continental good taste. Inside, this taste – marked by history paintings and marble casts of Greek and Roman statuary – fights it out with Victoria and her children’s love of kitsch, displayed through dozens of paintings of their dogs, and seen at its most grotesque in an entire room where the furniture, picture frames and much else have been crafted from antlers.
But Osborne House was also high-tech for its time. There are all manner of lifts, pulleys, switches, dumbwaiters and then-novel electrical devices to keep the royal family in comfort. Outside are more indications of the traditional style: Palladian windows, two campaniles, and a grand terrace of statues and fountains, planted with the semi-tropical flowers and plants that thrive in the Isle of Wight’s microclimate. In front of a rather too-apt statue of a bound slave girl, a pathway appears to lead to the sea, but kinks off into a picturesque garden, with winding paths, dense trees and what was once a private beach, with a glittering little classical alcove for Victoria herself to take in the view of ships passing by. The entire thing is undeniably beautiful, particularly because it does not ram beauty or grandeur down your throat – a contrivance, but an attractive one.
A photograph of Osborne could serve beautifully as an iconic image in the current architectural style wars. It is an elegant building, clean, clear and attractive, indubitably Western, based as it is on the architecture of the Italian Renaissance. It also appears to be rooted in its site, on the bay overlooking the Solent. Any ‘Trad’ could point to Osborne House and say: ‘This is what we want.’ But look more closely at the building and the history around it, and a much more global, imperial and modern structure starts to reveal itself.
At first glance, it may not be clear that the house is an imperial artefact. The references are Greek, Roman and Italian Renaissance. The truly imperial side of the building is carefully hidden within its public shell (like its high technology and simple, mass-produced building materials). The game is up in a large extension to the house built in 1890, furnished by the Indian architect Bhai Ram Singh in collaboration with John Lockwood Kipling, father of the celebrated novelist Rudyard Kipling. You enter it through several corridors lined with portraits of Indian princes, Rajahs and potentates who had ‘accepted’ her imperial overlordship, as well as some portraits of peoples from other corners of her empire: Africans, Arabs, Māori. Victoria apparently longed to visit India but, on deciding it would be too much of a hassle, she commissioned this annex, which would bring India to her. She had it filled with gifts from her Indian subjects: dishes, plates, architectural models, caskets, carpets. The plaster ceiling in one large hall is in a debased Mughal style – a fusion then being created by architects in British India, known as ‘Indo-Saracenic’ style. Goods and ceilings were apparently an adequate substitute for experience.
From the terrace of Osborne House, Victoria would have been able to see two major military and civilian ports at the centre of her empire: Southampton and Portsmouth at Spithead. From Southampton, the liners would leave carrying travellers and settlers to the US, but also loyal subjects who were then creating new Englands (what the historian J G A Pocock called ‘Neo-Britains’) in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Cape. In the mid-19th century, she would have been able to stand in front of Osborne House and see – with a pair of binoculars – gunboats and warships leaving nearby Portsmouth to subjugate the Indian Mutiny at the cost of millions of lives, or leaving to fight dozens of brutal ‘little wars’ in Africa, or to suppress the Māori in the New Zealand Wars, or to force the Chinese at gunpoint to accept the opium of Scottish trading conglomerates.
It is apt, then, that in the 1870s Osborne House would be reproduced in the new colony of Victoria, in a garden site in the new city of Melbourne in Australia. However, in Melbourne, it became Government House, the seat of British power, overseeing and superintending ‘responsible government’. This replica was a statement of continuity and linkage by its architect, William Wardell, himself an émigré to the new colony. Osborne House and Government House were two substantially similar buildings standing at opposite ends of the globe to symbolically administer a Greater Britain that was expanding to every continent on Earth. In fact, the replica in Melbourne is one of many Osbornes. In Australia, you’ll find that Queensland’s Government House in Brisbane is also an Osborne clone. There is another in Auckland, New Zealand, called the Pah Homestead – a house for the Belfast-born Kiwi capitalist James Williamson, named ‘Pah’ because it was symbolically built on top of a pa, a Māori hill fort, as a statement of victory over the native population. And there is another in the far northern dominions, in Montréal, Canada: built for the Scottish-born shipping magnate Hugh Allan, Ravenscrag House may be made from stone rather than stucco, but is an obvious tribute to the original. Capitalists in the British Empire were wont to follow royal fashions, whatever their origins.
The many Osbornes built during the second half of the 19th century were followed in the first three decades of the 20th by many, many copies of other imperial buildings. This grand architecture of the British Empire, seen in Osbourne House, Balmoral House, Buckingham Palace and other places, was retrospectively called ‘Edwardian baroque’ after Edward VII, who took the throne following Victoria’s death. Edwardian baroque emerged as a style by fusing the classicism of 19th-century speculative builders such as Cubitt and the late Renaissance architecture of Christopher Wren into a reproducible international model. Just as Cubitt’s Osborne was copied, Wren’s buildings, such as St Paul’s Cathedral or Greenwich Hospital, were also reproduced across the world. You can find the same domes and pilasters recurring in the former Supreme Court of Hong Kong, the Government Buildings in Dublin, the main post office buildings in Vancouver and Auckland, the government buildings of Pretoria, railway stations in Australia and Canada, and the awe-inspiring former Viceroy’s House in New Delhi (now named Rashtrapati Bhavan), one of history’s most imposing images of raw colonial power, with its 340-room main building erected in stone on a 320-acre estate.
These buildings were roughly contemporary with the earliest monuments of what is called modernism. They were planned, built and completed around the same time as the Bauhaus buildings in Dessau, the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam, the Derzhprom building in Kharkiv and Shell-Haus in Berlin, to name just some buildings nearly a century old that still look like they could have been built yesterday. While the Edwardian baroque buildings are not modernist, they are modern – often built of concrete, centrally heated, technologically advanced, and placed at the far corners of a global empire connected by telegraph, ocean liner and radio.
On one side, tradition; on the other, modernism. But both are mass-produced, industrial and international. Both can be deeply insensitive to space and place. What if there’s an alternative to these false choices?
An alternative is needed to answer the serious problems that architecture faces today. Many of these problems have been raised by staunch critics of modernism, like King Charles III: why are so many buildings wilfully ugly? How can we make public spaces more humane? How can we plan for cities without cars? How can we design new suburbs that are dense and walkable, rather than spaced out? But, in falling back on the classical repertoire, the answers to these questions are unconvincing. King Charles III’s Poundbury has recently started, after some difficult early years, to be a commercial success, but largely at the cost of turning its largest public space – a square named after Charles’s grandmother, with a statue of her at the centre – into a parking lot.
Walking around Poundbury, you can see that many of the buildings use modern construction techniques and materials, and have the same problems with leakage, staining and dilapidation seen in any new suburban housing estate. The changing of the form has not led to any serious changing of the content. If Poundbury wants to be seen as an answer to the problems plaguing architecture, it will have to do better than taking a building constructed out of factory-made breezeblocks and coating it with something resembling the ashlar facade of a Georgian house. Up close, Poundbury’s placelessness is pronounced: the houses don’t even resemble the vernacular architecture of Dorset where it is located. Buildings here tend to be somewhat shaggy constructions of grey stone, not the neat classical terraces of Poundbury. What King Charles III’s project does resemble, however, is similar traditionalist housing estates of the 21st century, including the mock-British suburb of Thames Town on the outskirts of Shanghai and the Disney-sponsored new town of Celebration in Florida (with which it shares some of the same architects and planners). In reality, like much other classicist architecture today, Poundbury is international, industrial and mass-produced. In short, modern.
Housing cooperatives are more attuned to local climate, place and materials than ultramodern starchitecture
This brings us back to where we started: the affinities between a certain kind of modern architecture and a certain kind of classicism, both of which are equally committed to the same polluting, carbon-intensive construction technologies and global capital flows. Today, in the context of the climate crisis, concerns with style hide more urgent concerns about construction and materials. It is not just tedious but actively dangerous to carry on building in the old way, whether that’s concrete frames dressed in titanium or coated in neo-Georgian stock brick. So, is there an alternative?
If there is, it could likely emerge from some versions of traditionalism. Take, for instance, the work of the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who designed several large-scale building projects in North Africa using mud-brick during the 1970s and ’80s. Fathy came to reject modernism, but after shifting towards local tradition his work was always concerned with the most sustainable use of materials, the capabilities of local labourers, and the need to control climate without air-conditioning or similar technologies. But an alternative could just as easily come from some versions of modernism.
When the historian Frampton called for a ‘Critical Regionalism’, a modern architecture sensitive to place and materials, he found an example in the work of Álvaro Siza in Portugal. Siza is a modernist. His buildings are not copied from the past, and his use of interior space and architectural form is inventive. But these buildings are also absolutely of their place. They use simple local materials, and are sympathetic to the scale and sensibilities of the cities and villages in which they are constructed.
If you look hard enough in contemporary architecture, you can find modernist approaches like Siza’s that are ready to grapple with the climate crisis and the problems of construction. Often these answers are found in luxury projects, particularly in the many private eco-houses that have filled the pages of architecture magazines for the past couple of decades. However, a few recent housing cooperatives suggest how these answers could be scaled up.
Cooperatives such as LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) in Leeds in northern England, or La Borda in Barcelona – two projects that offer lower-impact forms of communal living than conventional housing estates – are unashamedly modern in their expression. They don’t look like traditional old buildings because they’re not: form follows function here. The Poundbury repertoire of pediments, columns and decoration is wholly absent. Both LILAC and La Borda are mass-produced, in a way, with easily standardised timber frames used to make the shells of the buildings. This standardisation may appear to be a repeat of the global placelessness of the International Style, but many of these housing cooperatives are much more attuned to local climate, place and materials than any computer-generated example of ultramodern starchitecture (or facade-heavy versions of classicism, for that matter). The designers and cooperators of these alternatives have eschewed the building industry’s off-the-peg components, rejecting concrete frames, asphalt public spaces, excessive water features and metal furniture that’s rough-sleeper-proof. Instead, they have favoured simple buildings with spaces that are denser, greener and more intimate than most forms of modern architecture, whether we’re talking about 1960s Brutalism or the iconic buildings of the 2000s.
Places like LILAC or La Borda offer us an escape from a present that obviously can’t continue, and a way beyond a past that has been reduced to little more than a series of images without context. But these places have one major flaw: neither can be entirely understood as a singular image, at a glance. Architecture doesn’t float in the ether of our screens. It happens in place, and is always caught in complex meshes of competing economic and political interests. If we hope to understand real alternatives to modernism or classicism, those places and interests must be understood, too. Otherwise, all we’re doing is shouting at each other about JPEGs while living in houses we can’t afford.