Against Modernist Architecture (in 1990)

Artists and Artisans

In The End of Autocracy (L&TUR No.16), Gwydion M. Williams argued that the set-backs suffered by Marxist parties East and West had the same root cause – a feeling among far too many socialists that working people cannot be trusted to build socialism, and need to have it imposed on them. Here he links this with the attitude of modernist artists – especially architects – who also like imposing their ‘progressive’ ideas on an unwilling majority. Except that this is unlikely to fool the cultured anarchy that has now developed.

In Peter Brooke’s A Carolingian Renaissance (L&TUR No.10), I was glad to see him expose the phoniness of modem architecture. And then very sorry indeed to see him let them off the hook by saying that it was all an inevitable part of modem life. Reconsidering the matter in the light of his later articles, I now see that this was no accident. His views on architects and on Leninism are part and parcel of a single viewpoint. In one form or another it is a very widespread viewpoint, and has done great and continuing damage to the cause of socialism.

Modernist architecture is a massive outbreak of silliness and bad taste among people who should know better. The question of the social forces that fostered such silliness and bad taste is a separate question. The search for the reason should not be allowed to weaken the central point that it is silliness and bad taste. Edmund Burke in his essay on the Sublime and the Beautiful insisted that a judgment of what is and is not good taste is separate from an explanation of why it is good or bad taste. It would be nice to have an explanation, but people who try to find one usually get out of their depths and start talking nonsense.

(Burke even ventured into the domain of physics, and criticised Newton for having tried to explain what gravity was, rather than simply using it as an explanation for the observed movements of the planets. And on this point Burke was quite right. Newton’s description of how gravity operates works perfectly in most cases, though on occasions we need Einstein’s more complete description. But we still do not know why gravity exists, nor why it isn’t stronger or weaker than it actually is. Physicists think that they are close to a unified theory that would link gravity to the other basic forces of the universe, but they have not got there yet.)

To return to the matter of architecture. I doubt if today’s magnates and planners are worse men than those of the Renaissance. The princes of that era commissioned work from Leonardo, Michelangelo etc. because those were the fashionable names at the time. Nor was there any great difference between personal and corporate – a lot of the work was for church hierarchies, city corporations etc. It just so happened that the fashions of that time were promoting good work, and now they are promoting unpleasant and pretentious rubbish.

Even if the moral climate was worse, it would not excuse anyone from taking a stand for what they know to be right. After all, ‘moral climates’ are only a shorthand expression for the sum of individual decisions. Each good or bad decision changes it by a small but definite amount. Those architects who have gone along with a corrupt consensus are morally guilty. Like most morally guilty people they have a variety of ingenious excuses. These are rubbish, and should be dismissed as such.

The typical tower block is based on the crudest possible geometry, given that land is expensive and buildings must of necessity be three-dimensional. Cubes and cuboids are the simplest of all shapes to work with. – Making a very tall cuboid requires certain engineering skills; but once you’ve seen a few dozen such buildings, their basic lack of visual interest becomes obvious.

A few buildings have risen above it. One I would cite would be Centre Point, which dares to deviate from being strictly cuboid, and somehow manages to find beauty in what is normally a banal form. True, the underground passages at its base are perfectly disgusting concrete ratholes. True, the circumstances of its building and letting were questionable. (But what about Versailles, or the poor Indian peasants who were squeezed to build the Taj Mahal?) I think that future generations will regard Centre Point as a very worthy addition to the great buildings of the world. It is however very much an exception.

[The ‘perfectly disgusting concrete ratholes’ have now been replaced by an expanded underground station that links to the new Crossrail system.]

It is not as if the ‘modernist’ architects did not know better. When you look at the homes they live in, and the offices where they work, it is obvious that some of them have considerable skill and good taste. But an odd sort of pseudo-intellectual snobbery impelled them to design disgusting cuboids when they worked in a professional capacity. They didn’t like them, and nor did anyone else. But they had been taught that this was modem, right and proper. And they lacked the gumption to do anything else.

Theory tends to be invoked. Rather, people will find some complex metaphysical justification for doing whatever may be fashionable. Any damned fool idea can be justified by one theory or another. The basic test should be – if the products of an artistic theory feel wrong, even when they have ceased to be new and unfamiliar, then the theory is wrong.

Poets and painters might be justified in following some esoteric interest that only a few other artists are likely to follow or be interested in. People are free to choose what poems they read or listen to, what pictures they look at or have on their walls. If they have been wasting their time, it is only their own time that they have been wasting. But architecture is an inherently public art. Buildings are inflicted on the people who live in and around them. To justify a style that is universally despised, despite being older than most of the people now alive, takes a special sort of arrogance.

Pseudo-intellectual snobbery outweighs even the more ordinary sort of snobbery associated with royalty. Mr Charles Windsor was saying nothing that had not been said many times before, often much more clearly and by people with a much deeper knowledge of the subject But the fact that he said it did help the ideas to circulate. And the fact that architects have mostly opposed him shows what a completely crazy state of mind they have got into.

Incidentally, I was surprised that Peter Brooke attached so much weight to Mr Charles Windsor’s opinions. The Windsors are a dull, decent, well-meaning, upper-class family. They are not interesting, and they are not meant to be. It is fair enough to argue – as Brendan Clifford did in L&TUR No.4 – that “the soporific of royalty has benefited progressive movements over a long period by neutralising the elements who might have given force to reaction“. But to talk of a ‘Carolingian Renaissance’, as if the monarchy was or should be a major positive force, is to lose all sense of proportion.


In the same article, Peter Brooke raised the matter of both artists and Anglican clergymen wishing to be ‘relevant’. But he either missed or sympathises with the actual set of ideas that lie behind the nice word ‘relevant’. Both artists and Anglican clergymen would like the sort of power that Catholic priests used to exert in strongly Catholic societies, and still do exert in a more limited form. This is ‘relevance’ in the sense that priests (or artists) do as they think fit, and also have a large influence on the habits and beliefs of the rest of the society. In just the same sense, Leninist Commissars and party bosses used to be relevant, and have now lost a great deal of this relevance.

Anglican clergymen are not ‘relevant’, because their church was created for no other purpose than to be a church under the control of civil society. Leninist Commissars lost relevance when it became clear they were not in fact likely to build a socialist utopia in the countries that they controlled. (The ‘news’ of the methods that had been used in Stalin’s time did not disconcert believers very much, for so long as the final goal still seemed possible.)

Artists are not ‘relevant’, because there is no reason to look to them for general social guidance . rather than to astronomers, mining engineers or any other group with special skills. Most people see artists as fellow human beings who happen to have a talent for one or other mode of expression.

Artists in the 19th century .noted the decline of religion, and some of them felt that the situation was wide open for them to fill the gap. They were quite mistaken. The bulk of society was no longer willing to be governed by any of the world’s religions. The old faiths were rejected, despite their venerable traditions, their subtle theology, their impressive religious and devotional art, their martyrs who had been willing to die for the faith, their large numbers of good and dedicated men. Societies that were rejecting religions that could offer so much felt not the least need to be bossed about by a bunch of confused bohemian posers.

Despite some interesting and radical notions, Peter Brooke cannot fully get away from the split between refined superior art and common mundane work. He rejects it in its conventional arty form, and then he reaffirms it in a rather more complex and roundabout form.

The common distinction between artist and artisan did not really emerge until the eighteenth century, and was only fully sorted out in the nineteenth. Raymond Williams’s Culture and Society and Keyword traces how the meaning of ‘art’ and ‘artist’ changed as society developed. Peter Brooke has either not read these books, or read them without understanding anything, since they deal with many of the areas he’s been talking about

Artists, in the new sense, were invited to identify with the ruling groups. They were ‘superior persons’, even though most of them never became rich. Artisans, skilled workers, were relegated to the ranks of the growing mass of wage labourers. ‘Artists’ in the 19th century were put in a false position, and developed an ideology that increased the falseness. Artists were seen as people with superior feelings, superior souls. It was heresy to see them as fairly ordinary people who just happened to have a particular skill for expressing some of their fairly ordinary feelings in verse or story or paint or music. Radical artists were ‘against the bourgeoisie’. But, with a few honourable exceptions, they did not by any means wish to be confused with vulgar artisans or workers.

Having cut themselves off from ordinary life, artists concentrated on expressing their nature as artists. But this was a pointless activity as pointless as if a group of lorry-drivers had dropped the notion that lorries should actually transport goods, and simply concentrated on lorry-driving as an autonomous activity.

The main point about William Morris’s News from Nowhere is not that art galleries are missing. It is that there is no distinction between art and ordinary work. Peter Brooke fails to understand this. He goes part-way towards desiring a breaking down of the division between work and art; and then draws back and reasserts it in a more subtle and convoluted form.


In Absolute Beginners (L&TUR No.12), Peter Brooke says that “The worker, as Ruskin and Morris had prophesied; became more and more an adjunct to the machine; his work became less and less valuable.” This is just not true. There was a loss of skills in the first part of the industrial revolution – at least a loss of those skills like handloom weaving that could not match the work of a machine. But other skills in areas such as metalworking and precision engineering arose at the same time. Modern work requires an increasingly skilled and well educated workforce. Simple repetitive tasks can now be very easily done by microprocessors. But this has not led to a mass replacement of workers by robots – there is in fact a shortage of competent skilled workers. Modern technology has removed some of the worst and most soul-destroying sorts of work, and highlighted the need for humans doing various tasks – some clerical, some manual labour – that only humans can do well.

Any comparison between modem culture and the culture of the past must be made on an even basis. If the everyday objects of modem life are compared with the best survivals of all previous eras, then our age might look quite bad. But that is the wrong method. A better one might be to take an exercise book, and assign a single page to each century. On each page, write down what that century has produced, that could be judged to be of outstanding artistic or literary merit. No two people would come up with quite the same list, of course. But when anyone then made the comparisons between the pages, I am confident that they would find that the 20th century has produced a remarkably large amount of good stuff! It is only when the past is all lumped together, everything from Homer to Wagner, that we seem to have gone downhill.


Marxist socialists in the West let themselves be tempted by the apparent short cut of a dedicated Leninist party seizing power and rebuilding society from scratch. Marxists in the West had no excuse for not knowing that this was being done against the will of the majority of the population. Marxists in the West weren’t happy with it, but generally felt that progress was more important than the will of the majority. And since we have no way of knowing how the world would have shaped up without the development of a strong and successful USSR between the 1920s and the 1950s, it is hard to say if they were right or wrong. This is not the main point I am talking about in this article.

The Bolsheviks in Russia were a radical minority who were imposing their ideas on the rest of the society. That is to say, they were actually doing what the Modernist artists wished to do but could not. It is thus not surprising that writers and artists whose ideas were not in any serious sense socialist identified themselves with Bolshevism. It was not a simple relationship. The USSR was in fact to drop Modernism in favour of Socialist Realism – which was actually a form of idealised Socialist Surrealism, life as the Communist Party would have liked it to be. But the link remained, and is still not completely lost.

It was not only Bolsheviks who attracted a crowd of Modernist ‘groupies’. Both Italian Fascism and the German Nazis got their share. Ezra Pound is the best known example, but Dali was happy to identify himself with Fascism, though people have tried to play down this side of him. Then there was T. S. Eliot, who opted for a right-wing Christianity rather than for Fascism. However much people try to deny it, it’s clear that there is a definitely anti-semitic feeling in some of his poems – he even wrote Jew as “jew”. (And, of course, he was an excellent poet despite the obnoxiousness of some of his beliefs.)

There were other options. Some artists tried to ignore the larger world about them, and some developed personal faiths. Perhaps the best of these, Robert Graves, believed in the ‘White Goddess’, and argued for Her existence by rearranging English translations of obscure and complex Celtic poems. There are many other examples, most of them much less interesting.

These were minority options. By far the largest number of Modernists identified with the strongest actually existing power – mainstream capitalism. For the most part, the capitalists had little use for them. Modernist paintings made good investments, but this was quite independent of which power-block, if any, the artist had identified with. Advertisers have in recent years made a lot of use of Modernist ideas to sell consumer goods, but this is a matter of form more than content. The one socially relevant group has been Modernist Architects. They provided a fancy artistic justification for cheap and sometimes shoddy or dangerous building methods. But they also – whatever their private beliefs – create and sustain a building style that is as suited for modem capitalism as Gothic was for medieval Catholicism.

Modernist architecture is depersonalising and multinational. Office blocks or flats look exactly the same in London, Los Angeles, Delhi, Hong Kong or Tokyo – it was in fact the first truly worldwide building style. It wiped out both local colour and a sense of community. People can form a community in a row of terraced houses, but putting them in a tower block will usually atomise and fragment them.

But time moves on. In Britain, at least, it was discovered that people put into tower blocks became so atomised and de-socialised that they were a menace to society. Instead of becoming docile wage-slaves, they were either inactive or pointlessly destructive. People needed to be given more of a sense of community, if society was to function at all.

Modernists were providing an outdated product. There was therefore a big shift of opinion away from them.

Modem capitalism can only function by persuading the workers that it looks after them better than socialism could. This means accepting the growth of individualism among the working class, and building styles must change to reflect this. Since architects showed a reluctance to yield their cherished bland cuboids for the greater good of the whole system, the establishment shifted to supporting some of their long-time critics. And it became so much a matter of establishment consensus that Mr Charles Windsor felt it O.K. to get in on the act.

Capitalists have realised that autocratic methods are no longer efficient, while too many socialists have hung onto them. People go on trying to be autocrats, an elite imposing socialism on ‘the masses’, for the good of ‘the masses’, long after the working class has shown that it cannot under any circumstances be treated as a passive mass.


Peter Brooke has had some interesting ideas. But he has basically failed to understand what is going on in the world. He proclaimed Islam on the Iranian model to be the wave of the future at about the same time that I concluded that its failure to win the Gulf war bad finished it off as a world force. I think that events have borne out my analysis, and will continue to do so. Islamic extremism doesn’t even seem able to win in Afghanistan – mainly because Islamic idealism comes a poor second to tribalism among the Afghans. It has also given a classic lesson in weak and destructive government in the Sudan.

Socialism can be justified on a religious basis, and very often has been. This is part of the Labour and working class tradition, and if Peter Brooke were to take this up it would be a useful contribution. In his early articles he seemed to be following such a path, but more recently he has wandered off it – or perhaps always bad some separate private goal. Certainly, I can see no logical connection between his present ideas and those of this magazine. And if he still sees one, as I suppose he must since he maintains contact with us, I’d be glad if he explained just what it was.


We live in a society that no longer has an ‘elite’. It does have an excessively large number of people who consider themselves to belong to a small cultural elite. But the truth is that general culture has developed to a point where very large numbers of people can and do think for themselves. . What we have is a cultured anarchy. I use this term as a deliberate challenge to Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, and to people nowadays who follow his ideas. (Though it must be remembered that Arnold’s own work as an educationalist did contribute in the Jong nm to bringing it into existence.)

Society today needs no ‘elite’ to guide it. Nor does it help to speak of ‘spirituality’, which can mean so many different things that it isn’t much of a guide. For what it’s worth, we do have very large numbers of people developing themselves in one way or another. This self-development may or may not be expressed in religious or mystical language – that’s not the main point. What has increased vastly is human potentiality.

The development of the ‘cultured anarchy’ is confusing for the residual elites. Artists have been getting whimsical for more than a century. Two totalitarian systems – Moscow Leninism and Roman Catholicism – have followed a surprisingly similar pattern over the past few decades. First a questioning of established values Khrushchev and Vatican Il. Then a ‘period of stagnation’ –

Brezhnev and Pope Paul. Then one or more short-lived successors. Most recently a dynamic new leader with an eye to the media – Gorbachev and John Paul Il. The Catholic Church has the advantage of not being in direct competition with liberal · capitalism, which has had a period of unprecedented success. But there are signs that some form of modified Leninism will survive in Russia, and perhaps also in the Ukraine and some of the other Soviet Republics. The rapid collapse of 1989 was a collapse of what was held by Russian tanks, not a sudden defection of true believers.

What the Leninist Commissars and the Catholic Hierarchy had in common was a desire to shed their more onerous responsibilities while keeping and even increasing their privileges. Representatives of ‘high culture’ tried that game long ago. They dropped the attempt to produce interesting and coherent works of skill, but still expected to be admired as very special people. Only no one was fooled. It is only people within the self-styled elites who get fooled, or fool themselves, in one way or another.


This article appeared in May 1990, in Issue 17 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  Older articles by Gwydion M. Williams mostly appear as Madawc Williams.

Architecture has indeed changed, but less than the article hoped.

You can find more from the era at