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A Critique Of Modern Architecture

If I asked you what a futuristic building looked like, what would come to mind? Glass, steel, and concrete. All are materials that have come to be so associated with the concepts future and modernity they can hardly be differentiated from them. They are often chosen for their durability, cost effectiveness, and ease of use. As a direct result of this they have become ubiquitous in the present “modern” architecture. Everywhere one looks any new project touts how tall it’s construction is thanks to steel, or how pleasing it’s acres of glass are to the eye. However, it is this systemic overreliance on these materials that has resulted in a number of negative consequences we now are beginning to contend with.

Perhaps the best way to start off is to provide a bit of insight on how we got to where we are today. The first real attempt at an iron-framed building, the Ditherington Flax Mill, was built in 1797. However, it was not until the development of the Bessemer process in 1855 that steel production was made efficient enough for steel to be a widely used material. While initially slow to catch on, steel framing exploded in the end of the 1800’s and came to dominate the 1900’s. Steel could be easily manufactured, shipped out to anywhere with a railway, and from there easily assembled into frames of countless configurations to make buildings. This practicality was perhaps superseded by an even more unique property of steel in construction: it could bear the load of building sky high. Unlike brick and stone, steel frameworks did not require huge bases to support decreasing tops. This allowed people in hot real estate markets to simply build upwards to solve their problems. As the old saying goes “the sky’s free”

Concrete as well as asphalt can be explained in similar terms. Both were products that could be manufactured cheaply and on site. With asphalt it’s rise to prominence came with the oil boom, as it is a petroleum product. Concrete however has a much longer history, but it’s primary innovation came by combining it with steel to strengthen it and make it practical for building. Strengthen indeed, and indeed they built! Concrete has been used in virtually every civil project of the last hundred years. It’s the wonder material for construction. No longer do stones have to be cut and shipped. All you need is a container, some steel to embed within, and after a short cooling time you have yourself a structure of reasonable strength that fits exact dimensions at extremely low cost!

This drive to be cheap and hasty doesn’t come without drawbacks. Here’s one example I’m sure many western people all are too familiar with: potholes. The crumbling infrastructure around you in your country is not simply due to a lack of maintenance. It is a flaw spawned from the use of such materials and a constant drive to lower costs. Asphalt is nothing more than a thick paste that gravel or sand are strewn upon. It breaks and cracks easily and must be replaced in it’s entirety after as little as five years of utility. Concrete is brittle and without constant care lasts mere decades before it begins to yield to environmental conditions. Steel rusts, making it a downright hazardous material to build anything with that’s meant to last more than several decades. All three materials are heralded as the means of man to modernity.

For all I’ve covered here there is still one more issue: beauty. In an age where the west cannot even define what a human female is it can hardly be a shock to someone such as my reader that art has tragically decayed. When the concepts of beauty rely on truth, and truth is so contested, there can be nothing beautiful created. The drab and soulless constructions of the modern era exemplify this point remarkably well. Despite this, there is one truth inescapable in design: humans are not machines. It matters not if you can create an efficient and cheap housing unit made of concrete with no walls. If anyone has any other option they will avoid it. Humans need beauty. People want to live in places that are aesthetically pleasing. Places that inspire them to feel wonderment, warmth, and safety.

The present reality in architecture provides none of these. The sharp lines. The uniformity. The uncompromising use of identical materials. None of it makes for a home, let alone something awe inspiring outside of the most ridiculous monuments to such building methods such as the skyscrapers. The sharp lines are harsh; unwelcoming. Spaces are uniform; unremarkable. The attempts to add character to the interiors of such creations are mere drywall or other materials that will not endure and only add to the uniformity. If you’ve visited such places for living conditions one might (correctly) think they were nothing but a cog in their countries economy if not a prisoner of society itself.

I reject the notion that modern building has to be sharp lines and characterless materials. The very notion disgusts me, as I would hope it does you too. The future is not devoid of character and beauty. I believe it will be full of it. To fully realize this vision there will have to be a rebirth of architecture; a renaissance. The single biggest thing that must change is the use of these materials. The west needs to learn once again how to build lasting structures. Not cheap bridges that politicians refuse to maintain, but actual infrastructure. Things that when build use proper materials and can stand the test of time, exceeding their usefulness to the country that build them by centuries.

Stone is the greatest among these. There are structures dating thousands of years that still see routine use without repair. The Roman roads, bridges, and aqueducts are a prime example. Created from stone and crafted en mass, a shocking quantity of the Roman’s infrastructure still exists over two thousand years later. They inspire awe in people to this day, as well as providing some of the better road and bridge infrastructure in the EU. I ask you: if a culture two thousand years gone can make such creations that have spanned centuries, how much more so can we with all modern tools we have at our disposal?

The principal reasons for why such things aren’t done anymore are skill and cost. When a country spends years avoiding skilled quality construction the craftsman who can do such things leave or retire. This of course means as the skills were not used they are lost to the sands of time. Cost is an interesting issue. Countries in the modern era reenact history by wanting money to both pander to the oligarchy’s whims as well as to appease the people they claim to represent. What money isn’t laundered or devoted to useless foreign conflicts is thrown about with reckless abandon. As a result little of it trickles down to a project that the wider public would use. Such is the case with infrastructure. What little money is earmarked for construction is never enough to construct anything of quality. This is a classic example of getting what you pay for. A strong case could be made that concrete and steel aren’t the futuristic crafts of a wealthy nation, but the signs of a decaying nation looking for the ever cheaper and shorter term enterprise.

To bring back such a masterful craft as stonework would require a major shift in political winds for public infrastructure. One I don’t foresee for at least another decade in many western countries. Until then however this is mere food for thought. I hope in the coming years people begin to realize more that just because technology is older doesn’t mean it is inferior. This drive towards cost-efficiency and practicality has had many negative consequences and only superficial benefits. The soulless, drab structures of the modern era are a testament to this decline in artistic value. Ultimately, it is important to recognize that humans are not machines and the impact of the built environment on emotional and psychological well-being should not be underestimated. It is time for a shift towards a more holistic approach to building design. One that considers not only practicality and cost-effectiveness as subordinate to beauty, longevity, and human experience.