Decline of Western Civilization

Modern Architecture Reflects Our Generation’s Mediocrity

The crushing uniformity of the suburbs nationwide contributes to the rising levels of misery in our society. Lots of people have noticed that all suburbs basically look the same, and it’s quite unfortunate because when you travel to a different place, you want it to look and feel different.

But it never does. Every town is laid out the same. Maybe the only difference is that strip malls in tropical areas have terra cotta roofs and stucco siding.

You have no idea where this is, do you?

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It could literally be anywhere in America.

And this, too:

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It might be in suburban Kansas City. It might be in suburban Indianapolis. It might be in suburban Seattle. It might be in suburban Cleveland. We’ll never know.

I could tell you this photo is from Denver, and you’d believe me:

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But it could also be from Charlotte, or perhaps Memphis. Who knows?

This is not good.

Most people don’t get to experience beauty anymore–not in nature, because most people don’t live anywhere near nature, and certainly not in architecture when most buildings today look like this:

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Why do people love New Orleans’ French Quarter?

Because it’s a breath of fresh air from the monolithic, utilitarian drabness of modern architecture:

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It’s aesthetically pleasing. It elevates your mood simply by looking at a picture of it.

Boston, one of America’s oldest cities, features a striking contrast between old:

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And new:

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That’s Boston City Hall. That’s what we built, compared to what our predecessors built nearly three centuries ago. Compare our architecture with theirs and you cannot tell me we have progressed as a people. Which generation do you think featured greater men, the one that built Faneuil Hall, or the one that built Boston City Hall?

Where I live, in Chicago, my favorite buildings are those built decades and decades ago, like the Wrigley Building, built in 1924:

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And the Board of Trade Building, an Art Deco masterpiece built in 1930:

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You can tell a lot about a people by the buildings they make. In fact, when we die off, our buildings will be the only things we leave behind in this world to give future generations a sense of who we were.

Preceding generations left us with buildings like this:

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And the Treasury Building, completed in 1869:

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And my personal favorite in D.C., the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which was actually built in the 1880s even though it was renamed for Eisenhower in 1999:

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This, however, is what we will leave behind–the FBI Headquarters building, completed in 1975:

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The Romans left behind the Pantheon:

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We’ll leave behind the HHS Building, built in 1977, a poster child for “Brutalist” Architecture:

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Britain has a similar problem with bleak, depressing modern architecture intermingled with (and overrunning) its breathtaking Gothic masterpieces. The great commentator Theodore Dalrymple has an apt quote in his book “Our Culture, What’s Left of It” that he intended for the British but could just as well apply to us Americans:

“The British are barbarians camped out in the relics of an older and superior civilization to whose beauties they are oblivious.”

It’s a harsh realization when it finally dawns on you that your generation is not the best that ever was. But how can we deny it? Just look at the aesthetic we’re going to leave behind compared to the one left behind by our predecessors.

So the question is, is our ugly, depressing and not-built-to-last architecture a result of our cultural stagnation and malaise, or the cause of it?

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