The Worn-out, the Modern, and the Dangerous

Some buildings look better worn-out. Ageing yields value to violins, books, and historical buildings, among others. What about the plastic toys, the houseware and the ordinary blocks of flats? Why aging turns sometimes into an asset, while other times into a drawback?

Our taken-for-granted values slumber at the bottom of things. Unaware of our word choice, we talk about:

Stones that get patina, whereas concrete gets just cracks.

Copper domes that get verdigris (what a refined French-flavored word for a poisoning cupric salt!), while metallic handrails get so corroded that we avoid touching them.

Blatant deformations of old wrought-iron fences create atmosphere, whereas a tiny scratch on a flawless smooth new fence immediately draws our disapproving eyes.


          may come with age …

when we fill up with shared meanings, intimate dreams, and hidden desires the missing bricks, absent roofs, and plaster holes of old buildings. When weathering peels off the old facades’ plaster and exposes some bricks, our imagination starts fluttering mysterious stories and romantic love affairs. Add some ivy and a lilac tree, and ready is the novel (or a city break)!

          or may not

Now try to instill some meaning into the plaster holes of an average 1960s block of flats. You push and poke. You thrust and pierce. The holes continue to be just holes. Grey, bleak and gloomy. A slight dread may linger within your knees. Some sceptic thoughts on the actual order of things may wander in your mind. Eventually an apocalyptic future scenario may arise (and definitely no trip over there).

          may come with modernity…

when modern architecture sticks to its creed: the form follows the function. The content dominates the container. In other words, the interior space unfolds a comfortable logic of light and shadow, of open but still intimate spaces. When the interior inspires the outer appearance of the building, and even its surroundings, then yes, charm springs out!

          or may not

But there is no charm in a plainly rectangular surface dotted with windows, on which the wearing effect of wind and rain left repellent shades of rust. The shallow modern architecture ages quickly and ugly. Weathering has disastrous effects on its simple lines and surfaces. It turns minimalism into poverty. Our eyes get used to discoloration and meaninglessness. To a grim nothingness through which…

          the danger comes in

Out of this grim nothingness just an exotic sunny vacation or a radical green behavior can push us out. Both solutions are spiritually dangerous. The exoticism of glamorous architecture that scintillates on the Arabian peninsula is too far from Walter Gropius’s drivers to modern architecture to be a credible alternative. It infuses us with a shallow rush towards highly elaborated, twisted and intricate sculptural architectures. Sculptures are beautiful objects, highly visited, but not easy to dwell in. Most people just overnight in such sculptures such as the many-stars-hotels in Dubai.

At the opposite spectrum lies the radical movement toward traditional, vernacular, green, eco, bio, free, smart, sustainable, durable, community-driven architecture. Whatever the buzz word describing it, this architecture lies the dweller and the passer-by. It irritates our common-sense, our nerves and our money.

Let’s have a closer look at the idea of community for it seems to be a must in the architecture workshops, competitions and specialized books nowadays. However beautiful the concept of living together, most of us prefer the comfort of an ordinary private home where we wear whatever we want, even nothing; gulp however we want, even dragon-like; and do whatever we feel like without strangers’ gazes. 

I’ve recently seen a project happily promoting the house of the future: an apartment sharing the kitchen with other apartments. Modern people don’t have time to spend in kitchens, was argued there, so that the solution is a common kitchen where people take turns in preparing food for all. Really? Is this the crucial issue of our IT-led time: food preparation? I’m not sure how much community-aware one remains when forced to share the kitchen with incompatible people in however highly conceptualized, newly designed contemporary dwelling. 

With half of Europe still crammed into so-called modernist, so called community-shared (read communist) housing in which kitchens and bathrooms were shared (Nobel-Prize winner Svetlana Aleksievich should be a must on the required readings of theory of architecture classes), in which simple form means no form at all, and air is reduced to a standard of 8 cubic meters per person, it is intellectually doubtful and ethically irresponsible to promote it as the housing model of the future. 

Why ugly ageing?

I haven’t seen tourists wandering any street packed with decrepit 1960s block of flats. But I’ve seen many strolling the streets of old downtowns, no matter how shabby the buildings are.

Is it something in the modern architecture prone to ugly ageing? I wonder what…

The fear of ornaments?

More than 100 years ago a stormy lecture rocked the arts and architecture in Secession Vienna. Adolf Loos — 40 years old, slim, seemingly fragile, but highly seductive — incriminated, in front of a sophisticated audience, the ornament. Ornament and Crime has become a manifesto for the modern architecture (Don’t read it if you’re tattooed or love indigenous cultures. It will make your hair stand on end!)

In brief, all these ornaments that make up today’s eclectic look of many a European capitals– sculpted leaves, twisted flowers, curled heads, protruding deities — are useless and therefore harmful for progress and modernity, he claimed. He was right. But how to create beautiful objects if you don’t decorate them? It’s like a birthday cake without marzipan figurines.

Well, it is possible, argued Loos, who was actually a classicist (in the Roman sense of the word), and his fellow promoters of modern architecture. An object is beautiful through qualities such as shape, proportion, and material. It doesn’t need additional ribbons, flowers, dots and colors to show off. The dependency on additional decoration means a lack of quality. This is visible even in the contemporary trend of crafted, more natural food whose appearance is simple, closer to the original colors of the ingredients (no chemically enhanced colors).

Therefore it’s nothing wrong with the modern architecture in theory. Just in practice. The laid-back practice of modern architecture strips the ornaments but doesn’t add anything to the basic layouts to create a sense of beauty. “Ornament and Crime” refers to other qualities able to bring beauty, such as proportions, rhythm, light, which should replace the decoration. It sets a contrast between the outer qualities of an object (decoration) and its intrinsic qualities (pattern, texture, material). But in the everyday practice of building and arranging spaces it seems far more difficult to follow proportions and ratios than to stick and glue some ready-made decoration.

As a result, the ordinary modern architecture looks poor and wrinkled from birth. Only the extraordinary modern architecture resonates deeply with our search for beauty. But we don’t dwell in the extraordinary. Our daily experiences are grounded into ordinary. What should we do?

There may be the time to take a break

A break from the over-standardization of ordinary architecture cunningly legitimized by economic grounds and even by technological advancement. (Why do the intelligent buildings look like cuboids drawn by first graders?)

A break from over-revering shiny architectural sculptures that glister ephemeral into dessert landscapes stripped of basic infrastructure and human rights. These are not models for an architecture of the future.

And after the break, think again what modern architecture achieved and where it failed. Breathe and chant: beauty should remain beauty. Otherwise, the modern architecture will turn into an old hag hunting us.