During this time of plague, when a pestilence coughed up (presumably) from the wet markets and potlucks of Wuhan now hangs in our very air, mundane and banausic concerns naturally come to the fore. Finding a way to quarantine oneself while maintaining productivity, ensuring an adequate supply of food, hand sanitizer, and, to put it delicately, lavatory paper for the abstersion of one’s fundament — all these take precedence over loftier considerations. The sickly body politic quickly rediscovers the Ciceronian dictum that salus populi suprema lex esto, “the health of the people shall be the supreme law.” Those who have been raised in an era of overweening federal ambition likewise rediscover the sound basis for the organizing principle of subsidiarity and the reason that our constitutional system charges the states with regulating behavior and enforcing order for the betterment of general welfare, health, safety, and morals, though the last of those may represent something of a quaint concept in 2020.
It is simply astounding, in the cold light of our present day, to think of the time wasted in the early months of this year on hollow political kabuki. Taking a broader view, one might even lament, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb recently tweeted, that “we spend >700bn on imaginary risks from listening to IYI [idiot yet intellectual] geopoliticians & journos when in fact the true enemy is a virus you pick up doing high five with the bartender. Time to fire the Foreign Affairs/Think Tank establishment, close political ‘science’ depts & reset.” And when that reset comes, after we have emerged from our various curve-flattening quarantines, we owe it to ourselves not just to do our best to purge the IYIs and the corporate and social media panic-mongers and fabricators from public life but also to address the altogether pertinent question posed by the UK Department of Environment after the Griffiths Inquiry into the 1968 Ronan Point disaster: “How do you want to live?”
Whereas traditionalists like Alexander design structures to be comfortable (“physically, emotionally, practically, and absolutely”), modernists like Eisenman seek to “invert your conditions — to search for their negative.”
It was this pertinent line of questioning that was followed during a November 17, 1982, debate held at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, an event very much on my mind during the recent polemics surrounding the administration’s proposed executive order on federal architectural aesthetics, a topic rather superseded by current events. This particular discussion was between the Vienna-born British-American traditionalist architect Christopher Wolfgang Alexander and his New York–based deconstructivist counterpart Peter Eisenman, the former responsible for such vernacular-inspired masterpieces as Tokyo’s Eishin Campus and San Jose’s Julian Street Inn, the latter a tedious bore prone to saying such things as “Once you’ve seen one Gothic cathedral, you have seen them all.” Alexander had recently published a manifesto arguing that there is “one timeless way of building,” marked by an admixture of beauty and practicality, which “is a thousand years old, and the same today as it has ever been.” In this view, “the great traditional buildings of the past, the villages and tents and temples in which man feels at home, have always been made by people who were very close to the center of this way. It is not possible to make great buildings, or great towns, beautiful places, places where you feel yourself, places where you feel alive, except by following this way.” Nostalgia, in other words, is entirely justified by its etymology, for the Greek word nostos means to “return home.”
In his remarks at Harvard, Alexander further elaborated on this theme, noting that something as simple as “the beautifully shaped, fully pitched roof,” which “has a very primitive essence as a shape, which reaches into a very vulnerable part of you,” has been abandoned by the “architectural fraternity” in favor of “the weird angle, the butterfly, the asymmetrically steep shed, etc. — all the shapes which look interesting but which lack feeling altogether,” to such an extent that “the history of architecture in the last few decades has been one of specifically and repeatedly trying to avoid any primitive feeling whatsoever.” It is just as Léon Krier put it in The Architecture of Community: “the gesture of an architect may decide whether a human community lives in a city which corresponds to its dreams, or in one which is crowded, chaotic, and hostile.” To Alexander’s dismay, the architects of the Modern Movement have almost invariably opted in favor of the latter.
The deconstructivist school is particularly guilty of this, beholden as it is to principles explicitly predicated on the absence of harmony and the glorification of “controlled chaos” (as if humanity could ever control the forces of khaos, tohu va-vohu, or tamas). So Peter Eisenman, when accused by Alexander of “preaching disharmony,” was true to form when he responded that he was merely
suggesting that disharmony might be part of the cosmology that we exist in. I am not saying right or wrong. My children live with an unconscious fear that they may not live out their natural lives. I am not saying that fear is good. I am trying to find a way to deal with that anxiety. An architecture that puts its head in the sand and goes back to neoclassicism, and Schinkel, Lutyens, and Ledoux, does not seem to be a way of dealing with the present anxiety…. What I’m suggesting is that if we make people so comfortable in these nice little structures of yours, that we might lull them into thinking that everything’s all right, Jack, which it isn’t. And so the role of art or architecture might be just to remind people that everything wasn’t all right. And I’m not convinced, by the way, that it is all right.
Such an admission may have rendered Alexander nearly speechless — “I can’t, as a maker of things, I just can’t understand it. I do not have a concept of things in which I can even talk about making something in the frame of mind you are describing” — but we should be thankful for Eisenman’s honesty. Whereas traditionalists like Alexander design structures to be comfortable (“physically, emotionally, practically, and absolutely”), modernists like Eisenman seek to “invert your [Alexander’s] conditions — to search for their negative — to say that for every positive condition you suggest, if you could propose a negative you might more closely approximate the cosmology of today.”
“To search for the negative,” “to remind people that everything wasn’t all right.” Any reasonable person should react to this ideology in the same way that Alexander did, asking, “Don’t you think there is enough anxiety at present? Do you really think we need to manufacture more anxiety in the form of buildings?” Yet the architecture of anxiety is all around us, literally and figuratively, thanks to people like Peter Eisenman. It is all the more ironic to consider just how insalubrious so much of modern architecture is. As the anonymous Twitter and Tumblr traditionalist personality Wrath of Gnon has pointed out, “another good reason vernacular, traditional, buildings are better: we can actually control airflow (and sunlight etc.) rather than modern architecture which relies on mechanical ventilation that just pumps old air around the office/school/hospital.” The beneficial effects of permeable and hygroscopic components like wood and lime have been well observed. Wood can help keep interior humidity levels at precisely the ranges viruses are least able to tolerate, while lime is, in Alexander Langlands’ words, “like a Gore-Tex lining, the original breathable membrane,” whereas the “impermeable properties of cement don’t feel too clever.” Thus does the architecture of anxiety, ignoring as it does tried, tested, and true practices and human scales, breed ever more anxieties in a miserable feedback loop, in contravention of Roger Scruton’s axiom that traditions are in actuality “answers that have been discovered to enduring questions. These answers are tacit, shared, embodied in social practices and inarticulate expectations,” and we ignore them at our peril.
The die for this state of affairs was cast, one suspects, as early the Neolithic Demographic Transition towards agriculture, settlement, and eventually urbanization, though one could hardly have foreseen the proliferation of what Christopher Alexander called the “prickly, weird place[s]” that deface our present-day built environments and represent a reductio ad absurdum arrived at only after a journey of 15,000 years or so. Roughly 2 percent of human history has featured urban life and what the archaeologist Brenna Hassett has called that “terrifying cocktail of the most dangerous things known to our species — disease, inequality, and, of course, other people,” but only in recent years have city dwellers come to outnumber country dwellers, and the trend will only continue. Peter Hitchens, in a 2019 interview with John Anderson, described his entirely plausible vision of a gray, borderless, dolorous future, as typified by the Istanbul suburbs:
It goes on and on and on, concrete, plastic, concrete, plastic, traffic fumes, concrete, plastic, traffic fumes, everybody working very hard for not very much reward, buying consumer goods that they’re supposed to buy, undertaking the leisure pursuits they’re supposed to undertake, on the computer, living this life in which they are neither rich nor poor, not particularly free, and without any real cultural or artistic release — I see that as the future of the whole world, turning into the suburbs of Istanbul.
But this model for society, lackluster and etiolated, if convenient to some, is increasingly under pressure. The French journalist Renaud Girard has described the ongoing pandemic as having “mis en lumière la faillite de trois idéologies: le communisme, l’européisme, le mondialisme [brought to light the bankruptcy of three ideologies: communism, Europeanism, and globalism.]” Something will have to take their place, in whole or at least in part.
Alexander asked, “Don’t you think there is enough anxiety at present? Do you really think we need to manufacture more anxiety in the form of buildings?” Yet the architecture of anxiety is all around us, literally and figuratively.
We can take some comfort in the fact that, as Brenna Hassett also noted, “people are very good at adapting to the messes they make,” and adapt we will, even if it means increasingly following Thoreau’s venerable advice by adopting “a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose” while eschewing the “unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with furniture and tripped up by its own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land.” In his timely February 25, 2020, UnHerd article on post-liberalism, Peter Franklin described an alternative societal model governed by principles including short supply chains, radical localism, emphasizing the median over the mean, emphasizing “deep optionality,” and rejecting the so-called Matthew Effect (“the more you have the more you get”) which stands in opposition to the weeping prophet Jeremiah’s warning concerning Jehoiakim, who
saith, I will build me a wide house and large chambers, and cutteth him out windows; and it is cieled with cedar, and painted with vermilion. Shall you reign, because you enclose yourself in cedar? did not your father eat and drink, and do justice and righteousness, and then it was well with him? He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him: was not this to know me? saith the LORD.
“Conventional governments of all colours,” Franklin concluded, “continue with the wrong investment priorities, misleading measures of prosperity, and over-centralised, diversity-destroying systems of power.” Given the failures of communism, Europeanism, and globalism, and given that, as Franklin argued, “neither the statist Left, with its blind faith in big government, nor the free-market Right, which panders to private sector monopoly, can nurture true diversity,” there will be a chance in the coming months and years to avoid the sort of future against which Hitchens has cautioned.
“Now the red pestilence strike all trades in Rome/ And occupations perish!” wailed Volumnia in Coriolanus. We are all distressed by the current impasse, and we eagerly await the return to normalcy that will come in a matter of weeks or months. But that normalcy should not be understood to mean an inexorable march towards the future envisioned in Matthew Yglesias’ forthcoming One Billion Americans, which is set to argue that in order “to survive China’s impending global takeover (not to mention Russia), we can’t afford to be weak. We need to get bigger, much bigger. We need one billion Americans” along with “more housing, not to mention better transportation, improved education, a revitalized welfare system, and climate change mitigation.” Though Yglesias apparently draws apples and oranges inspiration from Singapore’s traffic system and Canada’s town planning, the world he conjures up would inevitably partake of the worst of the Istanbul suburbs, the Brazilian favelas, Mexican ciudades perdidas, and the endless, soul-crushing tower blocks of mainland China. As Christopher Alexander exclaimed when confronted with Peter Eisenman’s deranged enthusiasm for “the destructive character” and his outright rejection of a “world of total harmony” — “Good God!”
When during the famous Harvard debate Eisenman and his fellow modernists were accused of “f*****g up the world” from their position of power, followed by a round of applause, the deconstructivist responded with startling naïveté: “How does someone become so powerful if he is screwing up the world? I mean somebody is going to see through that.” To which Alexander responded, “Yes, I think they will quite soon.” That was in 1982. Almost four decades later, “soon” only within the context of the longue durée, people are increasingly seeing through all of that. What the general public does with this newfound clarity will determine whether the architecture of anxiety, in all its forms, becomes all-pervading or is repudiated and replaced by something on a human(e) scale. Here’s hoping.