Modern architecture that uplifts and inspires; it needn’t be the cubes.

Zak is busy thawing bloodworms for the fish and I’ve been looking at this article on the School of Life site, Why is the modern world so ugly?

Why is the modern world so ugly?

We have many tasks to squeeze in before a long walk this afternoon, so I can’t précis the article, and you must read it. It’s brilliant. I agreed with most of it, specially on developer architecture – the blocks of luxury dwellings, ‘These are the flats,’ says Zak, ‘every cube!’ And they’re right on the suppression of discourse. I disagree with the idea there should be a classical diktat rather instead of a modernist one, and the implication that different classical architects were stylistically indistinguishable. And I got into a conversation about it with a couple of mates of mine.

What about these modern buildings then? asked Mike. He is often awe-inspired by modern buildings. Rich reminded me that there is beauty in ugliness; some of the ugly buildings in the article are rather beautiful.


Bagsværd Church, Copenhagen by Jørn Utzon, 1976, ‘looks relatively dull on the outside,’ says Mike, ‘but is designed to give an amazing experience of light and serenity inside.’


Guggenheim Museum, New York by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1943/59


Dancing House, Prague by Vlado Milunic and Frank Gehry, 1992/96


Black Diamond Library, Copenhagen by Schmidt Hammer Lassen, 1999


Copenhagen Opera House by Henning Larsen, 2001/05, donated by the foundation A.P. Møller og Hustru Chastine Mc-Kinney Møllers Fond til almene Formaal (donors always deserve full credit. Three cheers to them all).

Right, yes I agree on all those buildings Mike. I didn’t know any of them, or the architects. I see Jørn Utzon did Sidney Opera House, so that’s a triv fact stored up. Bagsværd kirk is like a war memorial from the outside, then the interior is all light in both senses. It’s beautiful. I like his buildings. He reminds me of Frank Lloyd Wright. His rural buildings remind me of Falling Water. The carefully chosen materials and silhouette so it stands out and recedes into the background at intervals. It’s beautifully polite and considered architecture. And when the silhouette breaks the skyline it does so politely, intelligently and creatively. Bold, white forms that make a dialogue with the sky not a statement against it. Like the Guggenheim. The Black Diamond does the same thing by being translucent, and the dramatic silhouette becomes as lively and changeable as the sky. Yes, Rich, I agree on some of the ugly buildings. Especially on Liebeskind. I think he’s brilliant, and a cityscape needs kinetic buildings like that. There’s a building he designed for Goldsmiths (in North London?) and it used to make me happy every time I saw it. We were going to have something of his down here, the original plan for the King Alfred development, and I was sorry when it fell through. The article is a bit selective on past architecture, because classical buildings weren’t identical or even more than generally similar. The Baroque was meant to be eye-catching and theatrical. Those old Italian streets where the line of regular houses is broken by an exploding Baroque church fronts. And individual architects’ styles were certainly recognisable. There was a competition to design the Piazzo Navona Fountain in Rome. Bernini’s rivals wanted to rig it so he wouldn’t win, and they made sure the designs were anonymous. The Pope chose Bernini’s immediately. He said, ‘If you don’t want me to use Bernini, don’t show me his work.’ And I like Mies Vander Roe’s Barcelona Pavilion. That reflecting pool alongside it is like a renaissance villa. Beautiful building. Good architecture is always good because it’s built on human principles. It goes wrong – for me – when it’s meanly built or dehumanising in scale, like the Walkie Talkie, weird and annihilating. It’s so subjective though.


This is the view from our walk on the Downs yesterday. In the distance you can seen the whole stretch of Brighton with some of the ugliest concrete towers I’ve ever seen, but far off and close to, it’s a view that lifts my soul like San Gimignano. But I’m not keen on building many more of them, especially not more luxury flats in Developers’ Modern. I believe in beautiful modern architecture, and if any of it turns up here I’ll send you a photo of it!


The Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van Der Rohe and Lilly Reich, 1929 mentioned in the article – as gold star, conscientious modern architecture – reminded me of Kimbell Art Museum in Dallas.


The Kimbell Art Museum, Dallas by Louis Kahn 1964/72

I looked the Kimbell up to see who built it. I hadn’t known Kahn’s work before. From the examples here

it looks transcendental, just on uplifting side of the curve, where the spirit soars and questions without tipping into doubt and insignificance. It’s portentous, even numinous architecture. There isn’t a Chac Mool in the middle, but I could imagine one.


The Salk Insitute for Biological Studies, La Jolla by Louis Kahn, 1965

The Salk Institute reminded me of Renaissance stage designs, and I found this example by one of the first great classical revival architects, Sebastiano Serlio.


Set design for a Tragic Scene by Sebastiano Serlio, 1540, woodcut.

It’s a street of Renaissance and Roman buildings, united by classicism but highly individual in how they express it. It’s a set for a tragedy, Serlio’s ideal of a street fit for high and solemn drama.  Ancestral voices speak through statuary and triumphant arches. The Obelisk, whose original meaning as a symbol of the Sun God Ra had been forgotten by this date, but displaying one was said ‘to betoken some Excellence.’  doesn’t have to mean samey and monolithic.

This design is one of a pair. The other is a set for comedy.


Set design for a Comic Scene by Sebastiano Serlio, 1540, woodcut.

In this one, there are weeds in the old-fashioned Ghibelline tower – symbol of ruling power? – and a bare roof on the Cardinal’s palace, and Gothic arches aplenty, heavily out of fashion by 1540, and backstreets and buildings rudely out of scale with each other. It’s meant to be run-down, chaotic and ramshackle, a place for mistaken identities and hard lives, rip-offs, big bust-ups and falling in love, last minute reprieves and happy endings. They could both be views of the same city. Life and architecture is variety..

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