Most people can tell an ugly building from a pretty one, but lack confidence to assign blame – David Brussat

by David Brussat, Architecture Here and There, contributing writer

Localism calls to mind various “slow” movements such as slow food. There should be a slow architecture movement. The topic of localism was taken up recently by the New York Times columnist David Brooks in “The Localist Revolution: Sometimes it Pays to Sweat the Small Stuff.” He describes localism as flipping the power structure. He writes:

[U]nder localism, the crucial power center is at the tip of the shovel, where the actual work is being done. … Change in a localist world often looks like a renewal of old forms, which were often more intimate and personalistic than the technocratic structures of the past 50 years.

Modern architecture is the epitome of centralized industry. For the most part, it is not shovel-ready. Worse, it is a cult – modernist architects never get out and see how people live in their “machines for living.” More often than not, modernists are unwilling to live in the kind of house or building they are paid to erect for clients. Because they control the architectural media, they understand that nobody will point a spotlight at their hypocrisy.

Classical and traditional architects, on the other hand, mostly work at the tip of the shovel because they have no choice. Modernists have ejected them from the establishment, and use it to tilt the playing field toward their modernist colleagues and keep big jobs out of the hands of traditional architects. So traditionalists’ remaining stronghold is in housing for the wealthy, people who can afford to choose the style of home they prefer, and who hire architects to build it for them. (A board of artist-wannabe suits chooses the architect for most major projects based on reputations burnished by the official critical apparat.)

Moreover, while modern architecture likes to imagine that it reflects science, traditional architecture reflects nature, whose principles science describes. These principles are not understood by modernists. Modern architecture is unnatural, unscientific, and primarily ideological. For example, modernists think fractals are jagged bits that make up the exterior walls of an edgy building. Whereas modernist education and practice is abstract and averse to history and precedent, tradition in architecture is intuitive, handed down generation to generation by practitioners whose understanding of best practices starts at the tip of the shovel.

Brooks naturally did not mention architecture in his column. Architecture has ousted itself from the concern of most people – even educated people – because modernism has created a world so maladroit that ignoring it has become an effective defense mechanism.. Most people can tell an ugly building from a pretty one, but they lack the confidence to assign blame. Few attend municipal design and permitting sessions in anything like the number who attend meetings devoted to other local issues. It no longer occurs to people to point fingers at a building for causing headaches, ennui or lack of happiness, even though the damned things press on us every hour, even in our dreams.

Brooks, speaking much more generally, adds:

Expertise is not in the think tanks but among those who have local knowledge, those with a feel for how things work in a specific place and an awareness of who gets stuff done.

Exactly. “Experts” in architecture are the best example of people who lack local knowledge and whose activities are so obviously contrary to happiness, or even usefulness, that their industry has developed a cult mentality that lets them tune out criticism. Eventually, they have no firm idea that people hate their ridiculous designs, and to the extent that they do have some idea, they treat it as a feather in their cap. Modern architecture is the occupation most extreme in its lack of self-awareness.

All organized human endeavors fit onto a spectrum. Those fields that tilt toward architecture’s end of that spectrum, with the most unhinged lusts, contribute more than their share to the dysfunction of society. As the baby boomers have marched through the bureaucracies, they have carried with them theories of societal development, often ingested through a bong, that prioritize thinking that spurns language and traditions that give structure and meaning to the organizations they now dominate. They never lost their adolescent impulse to tear down.

“Success is not measured by how big you can scale, but by how deeply you can connect,” Brooks says. Political analyst Richard Fernandez of The Belmont Club, a PJMedia website, also read Brooks’s column. In his essay “Ripping it all up,” he suggests that the “‘politicians in Washington’ whom he decries as ‘hurling ideological abstractions at one another’ may be unintended outcomes of a polarizing, reductionist narrative that tore up the fabric that actually made things work.”

I think Fernandez may be on to something, but it strikes me as bad news for architecture and the world’s built environment.

For all of its pretensions, architecture, in its current configuration, may be the stupidest profession on Earth, with its head stuck farthest down into a deep hole in the ground. What that means is that it may be harder to reform architecture than any other field. And that may be true even though – with an abundance of models like Paris and Rome and smaller examples of beauty in remaining historical tracts around the globe – reforming architecture may be the easiest task in the history of the world. Easiest – and, alas, with its head stuck halfway to China, least likely.


To read other articles by David Brussat:

David Brussat

My freelance writing and editing on architecture and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call (401) 351-0457

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