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The Decline of the Imperial Aesthetic

A postcard depicting Karl-Marx-Straße, Berlin. railasia / Flickr

Otto Schily, who can look back on a miraculous career from attorney of the Red Army Faction, a far-left terrorist organization, to become a Minister of the Interior of Germany, once postulated that the decline of the East German state was due to aesthetic reasons. Coming from the mouth of the man presiding over the state’s strategic kernel, such a comment should be taken into consideration.

For the international observer, the communist German Democratic Republic was characterized by the Plattenbau, a cheap and badly aging prefabricated concrete-slab building style that still characterizes the post-communist world and has frequently been presented to the Western public eye to prove the collapsed regime‘s inherent economic and aesthetic inferiority. Arguably, the sight of this architecture inspires delight with few: at best, the occasional architecture buff or the ideological Ostblock-nostalgic profess an enjoyment that cannot avoid seeming more intellectual than visceral. Even fewer still are keen on actually inhabiting one of these buildings of claustrophobic ceiling-height and low-quality materials.

It would be easy to give in to the chorus-reflex of blaming “actually existing socialism” for these aberrations in taste, a simplistic argument nurtured by cognitive remnants of Cold War propaganda so prevalent amongst the online right these days. Closer scrutiny presents interesting contradictions: concerning the legacy of communist architecture, we also remember Moscow’s Seven Sisters, Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Sciences, or Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee (formerly Stalinallee). All are in the architectural legacy of 19th century historicism, with gables, columns, and stucco resembling the imperial style of early American skyscrapers. These buildings today are still favorable to local cityscapes and perceived with ambiguity by the locals only because, in their overdimensioned obtrusiveness, they still serve as unpleasant reminders of the Soviet occupation which — in Europe at least – has always been much more crude and less subtle than its American counterpart.

At the same time, the equivalent of the Plattenbau can also be found across the Western world. There’s the horrible French suburbs, the Banlieues, perpetually close to revolt, and expertly captured in their depressive isolationist misery by Kassovitz’s La Haine. There’s British post-war brutalism in planned cities like Milton Keynes or newer sections of Birmingham, there’s the cities of the industrialized West-German Ruhr region, and Le Havre, Kassel, Coventry and Rotterdam, where aerial bombing became a facilitator to “ambitious” urbanist designs. All of those cities feature their own forms of plain post-war apartment block buildings creating similar-looking cityscapes, from Bushwick to Vladivostok.

In Europe at least, all this could be blamed on the demands of the post-World War II era of cities destroyed by British-American and to some extent German aerial bombing campaigns: was there not need to prioritize a non-ornamental, ascetic and resource-efficient form of building?

While this perspective seems intuitive, it is also incorrect. Architecture critic Dankwart Guratzsch even speaks of the architectural program of post-war modernism as a second destruction of Europe. In fact, during reconstruction, many buildings in Europe could have been saved, but were demolished because did not match the futuristic ambitions of city planners. In Germany, a period of Entstuckung, literally “de-stuccoization,” the removal of ornamental building facades, coincided with the period of reconstruction. Certainly of little economic benefit, Entstuckung was a way to pay tribute to a now-dominant aesthetic that emerged at the beginning of the century which equated ornament with crime following the essay of Adolf Loos. Taking up the principles of Le Corbusier’s and CIAM’s Athens Charter from 1933, post-war architects and city planners on both sides of the iron curtain aimed for an economic and functional reorganization of the city. West Germany even embraced architectural modernism earlier than East Germany: In the GDR, it was only introduced after the death of Stalin – centrally commanded to the Soviet Union’s vassal states as a dominant motif by Moscow to illustrate de-Stalinization also as aesthetic caesura. The universal adoption and prevalence of modernism across the iron curtain reminds one of convergence rather than of a competition between East and West.

Liberation or Ressentiment?

Loos and Le Corbusier, as two of the most important proponents of architectural modernism, find their perhaps most popular eulogy in Walter Benjamin’s 1933 essay, “Experience and Poverty.” A mixture of early 20th-century radical disenchantment and careful intellectual optimism, the essay mentions their architectural vision as reflecting a universal decline of the value of experience:

For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly: strategic experience has been contravened by positional warfare; economic experience by the inflation; physical experience, by hunger, moral experiences, by the ruling powers.

The architects thus become the standard bearers of a “positive barbarism,” which Benjamin suggests as a new emerging subjectivity. According to Benjamin, the architects’ aesthetic must be read as an antithesis to the ornate bourgeois interior which inspires undemocratic backroom deals and a hidden-agenda facilitating privacy. Benjamin, following Paul Scheerbart, in return postulates the combination of glass and steel as “the enemies of secrets (…) and possession.” The materials are to translate into form an emerging emancipation against a bourgeoisie perceived as decadent and illegitimate. In a way, Benjamin thus anticipates the American century with its ideal of flat hierarchies, admiration of cunning outsiders and social climbers “from nowhere” against traditional ruling classes deemed oppressive and threatening. It could easily fare as a contemporary anti-establishment right-wing theme. In a way, it did. In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, non-ornamental architecture becomes an expression of individualism and rationalism against the forces of tradition deemed decadent, oppressive, and collectivist.

Both writers convey the very contemporary desire of liberation from ornamental and sclerotic power but also of resentment and a desire for destabilization of the existing order — never without the urge to also destroy and desacralize. Le Corbussier’s “Plan Voisin,” for example, aimed to raze half of Paris and replace it with symmetrical towers, according to purportedly rational principles which included “anthropometric” ceiling heights of 2.26 meters.

The Ruins of Modernism

Today, modernism is in bad shape. Benjamin’s and Rand’s enthusiasm from a position of intellectual opposition has slowly flattened out through decades of the style in a position of rarely questioned aesthetico-political hegemony following its triumph across both sides of the Iron Curtain after WWII. While modernism‘s fiercest and most persistent critics, the New Urbanists around Leon Kriér and James Howard Kunstler, postulating a return to classic principles of architecture, for decades were incapable of extending their critique beyond small circles, they have recently broadened their audience. These dissidents of form have been popularized by a new generation of online intellectuals including small but disproportionately influential and well-curated twitter accounts such as Wrath of Gnon and more widely viewed YouTubers like Paul Joseph Watson. The New Urbanists’ approach has furthermore culminated in its own set of popularly successful urban construction projects in Dorset, Frankfurt, and Potsdam that have since become the cause célèbre of a traditionalist New Right eager to attach its political dissent to an aesthetic alternative to the modernist status quo.

As instinctively popular as the approach to architecture the New Urbanists proclaim as unlikely is the fierceness of the left-liberal criticism they inspire. After all, times seem long past where modernism, as suggested by Benjamin, could have been perceived as a serious critique of ruling class bourgeois ideology. By now, the old 19th and early 20th century elites have been replaced by a financial technocratic elite that has long learned to appropriate the signifiers of modern art and to adapt its insider trades, backroom deals and communitarian nepotism to the transparency of skyscrapers and modern glass and steel parliaments. The vulgarity of the nouveau riche of international financial predators, at home nowhere and cultivating an unmatched cultural and spiritual sterility even generates a nostalgia of the old aristocracy and monarchy. Despite a formally stricter rigidity in social relations, they at least seemed to cultivate a more enjoyable form and thus formulate a sort of cultural immune system against excess: allegiances to high culture and local ties along with charitable responsibility instead of ironic trash culture, woke cosmopolitanism, and tax evasion.

The defense of modernist architecture is particularly surprising, since nothing could incarnate the spatial concentrations of capital, the left’s supposed enemy, better than the skyscrapers of contemporary metropolises. Modern internationalist architecture appears much closer aligned to the omnipotence and fashion-cycles of unrestrained markets, more favorable to a spatial-psychological isolation of its inhabitants, and more illustrative of the center-periphery relationships of the zoned modern city. To not have to endure its sterile appearance and bland surfaces, one furthermore gladly welcomes the visual pollution of omnipresent advertising, windows to sublime beauty against the demoralization of modern facade.

Along with its general absence of popular appeal, the partisanship for modernist architecture thus seems another indicator that contemporary dominant left-wing liberal politics is a constant contradiction of its own fundamentals abandoning its economic and populist doxa for the purposes of crude cultural engineering. Modernism becomes the aesthetic of individualist interchangeability and cultural homelessness. Anticipated is open borders and one-world governance freed from local tradition and cultural sensibilities that risk unpredictability, and freed from the sustainable polities of decentralization.

The Decline of the Imperial Aesthetic

Aging gracelessly, post-World War II architecture today appears like modernism’s worst and omnipresent verdict. Contemporary urbanites can look at several decades of fashionable modernist styles united only in their ridiculously prematurely outdated appearance from brutalism to blobitecture compared to the classic aesthetic wholeness of even the most unsophisticated premodern buildings. While modernism‘s skyscrapers for a while made an impression with their sheer scale, boldness, and promises of futuristic splendor, their bad and unappealing durée has become increasingly obvious. Mass tourism and the plummeting of transaction costs in communication have brought their exotic appeal into immediate reach and turned the glamorous internationalist style into a hostile and alienating banality and sterilizing force. Tainted by the soulless signaling of the technocracy and the advanced decay of the public space, instead of enemies of ruling class secrets, glass and steel have come to stand for the project of a total cultural leveling by an overbearing internationalist empire. The early 20th century promise associated with cultural engineering has turned into repulsion — that the human produced as a blank slate without a tradition could so effortlessly be pervaded by modern propaganda.

The cultural subconscious of a West incapable of matching anymore the surenchère of crude superlatives of modern urban design seen in China, India and the Arabian peninsula has already long dissociated from its creation. With the maximal territorial expansion of modernist style, art and design into the most peripheral petit-bourgeois homes and global emerging middle classes, the fatigue against its uniformity and ugliness are becoming overwhelming and once again inspire the avantgarde’s urge for distinction. The great internet excavation machine has already started inexorably digging up the treasures of Western aesthetic history in the process undoing widely held linear notions of progress and rediscovering and reevaluating traditions and avantgardes that were marginalized in the 20th century. The mainstream as recalcitrant and calcified historical block seems to have yet to find an antidote to the powerfully looming historical progression towards the culturally idiosyncratic, retroconservative and locally distinct. The latter seems inevitable: With the territorialization of the future by techno-deterministic dystopia, of the countryside by suburban sprawl, of imagination by social networked quantifiable mimetic desire, the past becomes the only available outlet, a promise of infinite space to be selectively appropriated and colonized as a retreat from the ugliness of the present. This powerful drive encounters a morose modernist style whose structuring enemy, the aesthetic coherence of the 19th-century city and its accompanying uniform bourgeois tradition have long ceased to exist. Without its oppressive force, modernism‘s individualism and anti-traditionalism, conceived largely as a negative project, have turned into ugly and amorphous hysteria spiraling into the void.

East Berlin was extremely ugly (…) Then the smell of the famous GDR petrol which was also unpleasant. The GDR smelt bad. I once said that its decline was due to a lack of aesthetic.(…)

We must remember the German minister‘s comments as a warning against the legitimizing effects of ugliness for any regime. The New Urbanists have planted the seeds for a shift in aesthetico-political sensibility that is already inexorably proliferating as popular verdict-backed distinction drive and that might prove devastating to any political movement seeking to oppose it. This surging cultural force inoccuously appears to us as a mere change in taste, which nonetheless carries its own profound political and cultural conclusions.

And taste is not a matter of deliberation. It is a cognitive bottom line and prism through which we increasingly perceive the overdimensioned and asymmetric glass and steel buildings, the disruptive and obtrusive modern art sculptures of inner cities with the same emotional distance and subtle horror as the Plattenbauten — as ruins of a failed political experiment and remnants of an overcome social order.

Nicolas Hausdorf is a German editor, analyst, and essayist based in Melbourne. His essay “Superstructural Berlin,” an experimental sociology and pulp theory of Germany’s capital (with illustrations by Alexander Goller) has been published by Zero Books. He tweets at @dcntrrr.