The Modernists believed that form should follow function. Though their buildings were as ugly as minimalism is boring, the Modernists saw beauty in them because they were cheap, and therefore egalitarian. Like today’s minimalists, they criticized ornamentation and focused only on the essentials. But like minimalism, modernism was cold and uninviting. In the end, it repelled people.
The gold standard of modernism, at least in theory, was the Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, conceived as an “oasis in the desert.” Architectural Digest called the proposal “the best high apartment of the year.” To manufacture equality among residents, the elevators only stopped at the 1st, 4th, 7th, and 11th floors—that would reduce congestion by forcing residents to use the stairs. To create camaraderie, those same floors had communal laundry rooms, garbage chutes, and public gathering spaces. But that paradise was a pipe dream. The world turned against the concrete towers that the Modernists had once pushed for, and local residents kept away from it due to high crime rates. So many people moved out that almost half of the buildings were boarded up by 1971, and five years later, all 33 buildings were demolished. In retrospect, the Pruitt-Igoe mirrors the rise and fall of modernism.
Modernism’s collapse is a reminder that total efficiency is for robots. It was inspired by a noble and egalitarian vision of the future whose reality was as hostile as its vision was inspiring. From it, we learn that humans want to live in a world decorated by color and pattern. A world without ornamentation is as bland as soup without spice—and humans want spice.
David Perell on.
I’m always kind of fascinated by articles like this because, confession, I love minimalism. Broad expanses of well-lit, neutral tones (“adult beige” as I once described it to my husband) with only the smallest hint of, preferably natural, ornamentation? Love it.
On the other hand, I do also loathe a lot of Modernist (and, worse, Brutalist) architecture, mostly because it always looks, uh. Cheap. Even when it’s not; most of our major national public buildings here, for example, are very brutalist, and they are definitely not cutting costs on construction. And I just don’t buy the “cheapness is egalitarian!” argument, mostly because of the “the poor don’t deserve nice things, they should be grateful to have anything at all!” undertones. So . . . yeah. There’s that.
Some additional thoughts:
- Modern “Apple minimalism” comes from the fact that Steve Jobs was very, very heavily influenced by Japanese aesthetic minimalism and, in particular, Zen art. So the Western backlash against minimalism always feels like it’s a teensy tiny bit touched by racism (see also: the Western reaction to Marie Kondo).
- The Pruitt-Igoe was actually designed by Minoru Yamasaki who, in case the name didn’t give it away, was a Japanese American architect.1
- It was technically based on (or at least cribbed heavily off the ideas of) the Plan Voisin, which was basically the same thing but in Paris. Parisians loathed the idea and it was never actually built. If you’ve ever seen High-Rise (you know, that arty Tom Hiddleston film) and/or read the book it was based on, the Plan Voisin and its descendants were its Really Real World inspiration.
- In comparison to “Apple minimalism,” its maximalist backlash is pretty much always just upcycled 19th century Orientalism. My parents live in this sort of house—all Persian rugs and antique Chinese cabinets of dubiously legal export origin—and while I don’t hate it, the aesthetic never feels entirely “comfortable” to me because of its history, in a way “Apple minimalism”—which takes style notes but doesn’t, like, wholesale steal artefacts—does not.
- Relatedly, “backlash maximalism” also reads as extremely “university-educated-upper-middle-class white ex-hippie Boomer” to me, because it’s a really common aesthetic here for people of my parents’ age and demographic. So it has unfortunate notes of inter-generational/class conflict, as well as colonialism, in a way I think maybe doesn’t register to Americans as strongly. (See also: the stereotypical Aspirational White Australian Bunnings Buddha Statue.)
- For what it’s worth, I also have traditionally hated Art Deco (mostly because it’s not Art Nouveau, which is the Obviously Far Superior “Art Something”-named aesthetic), though it’s growing on me as I get older.
- Fun fact: His most famous building? The World Trade Centre. [↩]