September 27, 2021

WHITHER TARTARIA? At Astral Codex Ten, Scott Alexander writes:

Imagine a postapocalyptic world. Beside the ruined buildings of our own civilization – St. Peter’s Basilica, the Taj Mahal, those really great Art Deco skyscrapers – dwell savages in mud huts. The savages see the buildings every day, but they never compose legends about how they were built by the gods in a lost golden age. No, they say they themselves could totally build things just as good or better. They just choose to build mud huts instead, because they’re more stylish.

This is the setup for my all-time favorite conspiracy theory, Tartaria. Its true believers say we are those savages. We live in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, Art Deco skyscrapers, etc. But our buildings look like this:

[Snipped – a photo of  a very 1970s-looking modern campus box, with the caption, “The headquarters of Google, one of the richest corporations in the world. A third-rate 1500s merchant would be ashamed to live anywhere as bare.” — Ed.]

So (continues the conspiracy) probably we suffered some kind of apocalypse a hundred-ish years ago. Our elites are keeping it quiet, and have altered the records, but they haven’t been able to destroy all the buildings of the lost world. Their cover story is that technology and wealth level haven’t regressed or anything, those kinds of buildings have just “gone out of style”.

People say that conspiracy theories are sometimes sublimated expressions of critiques of our society. No mystery what this one is criticizing. Some people don’t like modern architecture. How many? I sometimes see claims like “nobody really likes it”, and certainly it feels intuitively incontrovertible to me that the older stuff is more beautiful. But I know some people who claim to genuinely like the modern style. Are the modern-is-obviously-worse folks just over-updating on their own preferences?

The best source I can find for this is a National Civic Art Society survey, which finds Americans prefer traditional/classical buildings to modern ones by about 70% to 30% (regardless of political affiliation!). In a poll of America’s favorite architecture, 76% of buildings selected were traditional/classical (establishment architects said the poll was invalid, because you can’t judge buildings by pictures). A study of courthouse architecture determined that “[our] findings agree with consistent findings that architects misjudge public likely public impressions of a design, and that most non-architects dislike “modern” design and have done so for almost a century.”

Yet 92% of new federal government buildings are modern. So I think there’s a genuine mystery to be explained here: if people prefer traditional architecture by a large margin, how come we’ve stopped producing it?

Read the whole thing, which reads like an extension of Tom Wolfe’s 1981 book, From Bauhaus to Our House. As Wolfe wrote:

The compounds—whether the Cubists, Fauvists, Futurists, or Secessionists—had a natural tendency to be esoteric, to generate theories and forms that would baffle the bourgeoisie. The most perfect device, they soon discovered, was painting, composing, designing in code. The peculiar genius of the early Cubists, such as Braque and Picasso, was not in creating “new ways of seeing” but in creating visual codes for the esoteric theories of their compound. For example, the Cubist technique of painting a face in cartoon profile, with both eyes on the same side of the nose, illustrated two theories: (1) the theory of flatness, derived from Braque’s notion that a painting was nothing more than a certain arrangement of colors and forms on a flat surface; and (2) the theory of simultaneity, derived from discoveries in the new field of stereoptics indicating that a person sees an object from two angles simultaneously. In music, Arnold Schoenberg began experiments in mathematically coded music that proved baffling to most other composers, let alone the bourgeoisie—and were all the more irresistible for it, in the new age of art compound.

Composers, artists, or architects in a compound began to have the instincts of the medieval clergy, much of whose activity was devoted exclusively to separating itself from the mob. For mob, substitute bourgeoisie—and here you have the spirit of avant-gardism in the twentieth century. Once inside a compound, an artist became part of a clerisy, to use an old term for an intelligentsia with clerical presumptions.

Alexander asks, “92% of new federal government buildings are modern. So I think there’s a genuine mystery to be explained here: if people prefer traditional architecture by a large margin, how come we’ve stopped producing it?”

Hey, the previous president tried to right this aesthetic debacle, but in late February, as the Politico noted, “Biden tosses Trump’s classical architecture order:”

Former President Donald Trump’s attempt to favor classical architecture got the ax on Wednesday as part of a sweeping scrapping of Trump-era executive orders by President Joe Biden.

Trump’s executive order in December, titled “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture,” disparaged the modernist architectural styles of some federal buildings as “ugly” and a jarring contrast with local architectural styles. The Trump administration hailed Greco-Roman-inspired buildings as an important homage to democracy in antiquity.

The executive order, signed in the final moments of the Trump presidency, promptly met condemnation from architects as aesthetically myopic, though it had relatively weak enforcement. The order only placed a preference for classical styles in future buildings and did not outright ban brutalism.

The lede of the article was “Brutalists, rejoice!”

Rejoice in stylish, handsome buildings that look like this:

Headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI, The J. Edgar Hoover Building at 935 Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C., Thursday, March 23, 2017. Construction finished in September 1975, and President Gerald Ford dedicated the structure on September 30, 1975. (AP Photo/NewsBase)

Because Trump despised brutalism, knowing that the vast majority of the public did as well , and because the media moved in a reflexive lockstep against him, he had Slate defending Brutalism with this classic 2018 moment: “Of Course Trump Hates Brutalism — Buildings like the FBI headquarters are everything Trump is not.”

I’m not sure how he ever recovered from that comparison.

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