Conservatives have long opposed Modernism, but in the video age, avant-garde buildings can become potent symbols in the hands of groups like Infowars and the NRA.
Decrying what it sees as a war on white European culture, the alt-right movement calls out the people it believes stand opposed to freedom: feminists, antifascists, “cucks,” “SJWs” (social justice warriors), and President Trump’s Twitter-foe Rosie O’Donnell. Now you can add architects to the list.
On June 30, the far-right website Infowars posted a 15-minute-long video titled “Why modern architecture SUCKS.” This foray into design criticsim by Infowars—better known for pushing the ludicrous Pizzagate conspiracy and for host Alex Jones’ insistence that the Sandy Hook massacre was faked—comes on the heels of another video that turns well-known works of architecture into symbols of liberal decadence. I’m referring to the National Rifle Association’s “clenched fist” ad, which critics have called “chilling” and “an open call to violence.”
The aesthetic judgment in the NRA’s one-minute ad is implicit, almost subliminal, whereas InfoWars launches a full-bore attack. But both bear the same message about modern architecture: It is the province of the liberal urban elite, and that it stands for oppression.
The Infowars video is not the work of the red-faced, desk-pounding Jones but of a British alt-righter named Paul Joseph Watson. It’s a mish-mash of critiques borrowed from highbrow architectural traditionalists with other opinions that seem idiosyncratic to Watson. He clearly researched his subject, albeit through the keyhole perspective of “globalist” cultural tyranny.
Watson’s basic argument will be familiar to anyone who has sat through broadsides against Modernism before. High rises and concrete are dehumanizing. Modernism is the style of totalitarians, etc. As has been noted many times before, such claims are based on a misreading of architectural history; the early Modernists had democratic ideals and aspired to improve living and working conditions for all classes in society. For backup, Watson quotes and weaves in clips of critics Theodore Dalrymple and Roger Scruton, plus Prince Charles, who in the 1980s famously dismissed one Modernist design as a “monstrous carbuncle.” Morrissey—that’s right, the mopey former Smiths frontman/spouter of controversial opinions—also makes a brief appearance in a vintage clip, lamenting the demise of his childhood neighborhood to the strains of “How Soon Is Now?”
This being Infowars, Watson turns the rhetoric up to 11. The founders of Modernism were “the social justice warriors of their time,” he says, “aesthetic terrorists.” Michael Graves’ Denver Public Library is an “atrocity.” Boston City Hall is a “callous abomination.” The Whitney Museum in New York is an “abortion of a building.”
Watson appears to have a particular dislike for the Whitney’s architect, Renzo Piano. The Italian Pritzker Prize winner appears on screen not once but twice as Watson accuses architects of gratifying their outsized egos. That charge is frequently laid at the feet of famous architects, but the smiling, bespectacled Piano makes a curious target, given the understated minimalism of his buildings.
Piano also designed the Shard, the crystalline supertower in central London, and it is that building that most seems to arouse Watson’s ire. He shifts without a beat from condemning Brutalist concrete tower blocks to lambasting today’s glass skyscrapers; for him, they are all of a piece. The latter kind of architecture he calls “Postmodernist,” a term he uses throughout the video to denote any building he doesn’t like from the 1980s or later. (In fact, Postmodernism was a defined style that sought, ironically, to revive historic motifs.)
Watson seems to have drunk deeply of the writing of James Howard Kunstler, the fiery retro-urbanist who wrote The Geography of Nowhere and whose TED talks Watson generously excerpts. Kunstler was an early influence on New Urbanism, and Watson touts many of the principles of that movement, extolling the virtues of neo-traditional architecture and of Poundbury, Prince Charles’ classicizing model town in southwest England. Watson also complains (correctly!) about restrictive zoning and makes a plug for mixed-use development, not seeming to realize that that is eminently compatible with large, contemporary-style buildings, and harder to find (and fund) in areas of low-rise houses, where he insists everyone wants to live.
The NRA’s ad, on the other hand, uses a somewhat different visual tactic. The spot is narrated by NRA spokesperson and talk-show pundit Dana Loesch, who lays out a series of charges against an unnamed “they”:
They use their media to assassinate real news. They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again.
Over this, we see quick images of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (by Frank Gehry), the New York Times building (by Piano), and the large-scale sculpture “Cloud Gate,” better known as The Bean, in Chicago’s Millennium Park (by artist Anish Kapoor).
We are never told who “they” are, but the shots make it clear: “They” are people in liberal L.A. and Chicago who swan about in fancy parks and buildings.
Perhaps the NRA’s depiction of Disney Hall and Cloud Gate was just an handy b-roll choice, and perhaps Watson’s animus against modern design is a personal quirk. But it seems more likely that elements of the far right are deliberately making architecture a front in the Trump-era culture wars. Why?
In one way, there’s nothing new about this: There’s a long conservative tradition of eviscerating Modernism, which young fogeys can learn from and mine. In the past, the vehicle for such criticism was the magazine or newspaper column and the odd TV gig. But Internet video has opened up the field to amateur critics and made it possible to skip the textual description and short-cut straight to the offending building itself.
As a visual art form, architecture obviously lends itself to video. What easier, quicker way to connote “urban elite” than by pointing to a Frank Gehry building in the heart of a liberal metropolis? In a second or two, it can be framed as the symbolic opposite of an old-fashioned Main Street or historic church—a bizarre-looking redoubt where “they” partake of secular high culture, far from Real America (or Britain’s Brexit heartland).
That characterization is obviously simplistic and unfair, just as Infowars’s blaming of Brutalism for the Grenfell fire in London is flat-out wrong. But that doesn’t mean the idea won’t stick. Over the past several years, conservatives have attacked Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C., as “inhuman,” “vandalism,” and a monument to Gehry’s ego; these arguments won over some GOP members of Congress and have helped stall the memorial’s construction.
Contrary to Watson, the public doesn’t hate Modernism: Witness how many 20th-century designs appear in this opinion-poll list of the country’s favorites. But the unfortunate truth—and another possible reason for the far right’s rediscovery of architecture—is that progressive architecture is a convenient punching bag because it has a small constituency.
Architects number about 110,000 in the United States, or about 150,000 if you count junior architects working toward their licenses. That’s a fraction of, for example, the nation’s lawyers and doctors. The profession also skews urban and blue-state, with designers (and their bolder creations) concentrated in hubs like New York, Boston, L.A., and Chicago. This fits all too well with the narrative of an urban-rural divide.
American architects often lament how marginal their profession has become to national culture, compared to countries that invest substantially in public design. Well, architecture may suddenly be poised for new political relevance in the U.S.—but not the kind its advocates would ever have imagined or hoped for.