Lewis Mumford

The Case Against “Modern Architecture”


Three quarters of a century ago, the tides of modern architecture were rising, as the great technical ressources that engineers like Telford, Paxton, and Brunel had introduced were applied, at last, to other forms of building. This was the period when Jenney, Sullivan, and their colleagues developed steel frame construction and found a form for the skyscraper, when Eiffel produced his tower and Freyssinet his Hall of Machines, and when the new spirit that Richardson had brought to the design of traditional domestic buildings in stone and wood was spreading everywhere, from the houses of Ashbee, Voysey and Parker in England to the far shores of California, where at the turn of the century Maybeck had begun work.

For reasons that no one has successfully uncovered, this wave spent itself during the decade before the First World War: except in the design of purely utilitarian structures, there was a return to the pseudo-historic and outwardly traditional, at least in the decorative facing of buildings: skyscrapers with Gothic pinnacles vied with those that were crowned with Greek temples of love; and the splendid train hall of the Grand Central station, now effaced by a loud smear of advertisement, was betrayed earlier by its imitative Renaissance façade. When modern architecture came back in the Twenties, first in France with Le Corbusier and Lurçat, and in Germany with Mendelsohn and Gropius, it was forced to refight the battle that had already seemed won in 1890.

Within the last thirty years, modern architecture has swept around the world. The victory of the modern movement over its traditional enemies has been so complete that special courses must now be offered, outside the usual architectural school curriculum, to provide architects with sufficient historic knowledge to maintain and restore ancient monuments preserved for their historic value. Yet many ominous signs had appeared, during the last fifteen years, that indicated that the victorious forces do not know how to make full use of the victory; that contradictions and conflicts have developed among various groups of architects sufficient already to have broken up the once united front of the C.I.A.M.; that, indeed, the differences that have developed within the ranks of the modern architects are quite as serious as those that divided the pioneers of modern architecture from the traditionalists who sought to continue the old forms and the eclectics who sought to mask the new ones.

The order and the consensus that modern architecture seemed ready to establish in the Thirties is still far to seek: indeed, some of the most brilliant exponents, like the late Eero Saarinen, boasted a theory of form that denied the need for continuity and made of each separate project an essay in abstract design, without any affiliation to the work of other architects in our period or to the architect’s own designs, before or after. As in the advertising copy of our period, the successful modern architects have been saying, in effect: “And now! A new taste sensation.” Or, “You, too, can be years ahead with the latest model.”

This situation has given hope and comfort to minds that are so radically committed to past forms that they would solve the problems that modern architecture faces merely erasing the history of the last century and going back to the classic shells of antiquity, particularly Roman antiquity. This is the last hope of Henry Reed; too empty and vulnerable to merit more than a passing smile. But thought Mr. Reed’s remedies are absurd, the situation in modern architecture is in fact profoundly unsatisfactory: almost as chaotic and irrational as the political situation of the modern world, in which the heads of state solemnly threaten each other to solve their problems, if the other side does not yield, by mutilating the human race and wiping out civilization.

The very fact that one can make such a comparison points to certain underlying errors about the nature of technical and social progress that crept into modern architecture almost from the moment that the conception of new forms, which reflected the needs and ideals of our period, became articulate in the writings of a few architectural critics and thinker, like Adolf Loos and, much later, Le Corbusier. The moment has come to examine these conceptions and to reformulate the ideas and ideals that have, up to this moment, governed the development of the whole movement. We shall perhaps find, when we do so, a need for restoring some of the values that were too ruthlessly discarded in the development of modern form.


Beneath the belief in modern architecture lay certain preconceptions about the nature of modern civilization; and these preconceptions have proved inadequate that it is time to give them a thorough overhauling.

Perhaps the most central of these beliefs was the belief in mechanical progress. Concealed within this notion was the assumption that human improvement would come about more rapidly, indeed almost automatically, through devoting all our energies to the expansion of scientific knowledge and to technological inventions; that traditional knowledge and experience, traditional forms and values, acted as a brake upon such expansion and invention, and that since the order embodied by the machine was the highest type of order, no brakes of any kind were desirable. Whereas all organic evolution is cumulative and purposeful, in that the past is still present in the future, and the future, as potentiality, is already present in the past, mechanical progress existed in a one-dimensional time, the present. Under the idea of mechanical progress only the present counted, and continual change was needed in order to prevent the present from becoming passé, and thus unfashionable. Progress was accordingly measured by novelty, constant change and mechanical difference, not by continuity and human improvement.

In every department, the nineteenth century ruthlessly swept away old ideas, old traditions and institutions, and not least old buildings, confident that nothing would be lost that the machine could not replace or improve. Have we forgotten that the central shrine of our Independence and our Constitution, Independence Hall, was almost sold off to the highest bidder in the early part of that century? But this anti-traditionalism imposed a penalty upon modern architecture; and that is, it was deprived by its own assumptions of either recognizing its essential continuity with the past or of building upon its own tradition. In wiping out the past, unfortunately, the cult of the machine surreptitiously destroyed its own future – and left only an under-dimensioned present, scheduled like any speculative building investment, for quick replacement.

Beneath this belief in mechanical progress as an end in itself was still another conviction: that one of the important functions of architecture was to express its civilization. This conviction was a sound one; and indeed, even without conviction, that condition whether openly recognized or unconsciously fulfilled is unavoidable. But those of us who insisted upon the value of this expression were perhaps unprepared for what it would reveal about “modern times.” We used the word modern as a “praise-word,” in Robert Frost’s vocabulary; and we overlooked the possibility that modern technics, which had given us instant communication, would also provide us with instantaneous mass extermination: or the fact that in its hospitals and medical services and sanitary precautions it would reduce diseases and allay pain; but it has also polluted our food, befouled the air with smog, and produced new tensions and new diseases and new anxieties, as crippling as those that have been banished. Modern psychology has introduced man to the depths of his own nature, in all its immense variety and creative potentiality; but it has also produced the bureaucratic personality, sterilized, regimented, overcontrolled, ultimately hostile to every form of life than its own: cut off from human resources and human roots.

Since modern architecture has begun to express modern civilization, without hypocrisy and concealment that the eclectic architects used to practice, it is not perhaps surprising that the unpleasant features of our civilization should be as conspicuous as its finest and most admirable achievements. We have been living in a fool’s paradise, so far as we took for granted that mechanical progress would solve all the problems of human existence, by introducing man into the brave new, simplified, automatic world of the machine. If we look at our buildings today, with open eyes, we shall find that even handling the great positive forces of our time, with admirable constructive facility, the greater number of them have neglected even the scientific data they need for a good solution. There is hardly a single great innovation in building this last thirty years – total air conditioning, all-day fluorescent lighting, the all-glass wall – that pays any respect to either the meteorological, the biological or the psychological knowledge already available, for this knowledge calls for radical alterations in their use. And still less do these innovations heed humans activities or personal desires.

In so far as modern architecture has succeeded in expressing modern life, it has done better in calling attention to its lapses, its rigidities, its failures, than in bringing out, with the aid of the architect’s creative imagination, its immense latent potentialities. The modern architect has yet to come to grips with the multi-dimensional realities of the actual world. He has made himself at home with mechanical processes, with favor rapid commercial exploitation, and with anonymous repetitive bureaucratic forms, like the high-rise apartment or office building, which lend themselves with mathematical simplicity to financial manipulation. But he has no philosophy that does justice to organic functions or human purposes, and that attempts to build a more comprehensive order in which the machine, instead of dominating our life and demanding ever heavier sacrifices in the present fashion, will become a supple instrument for humane design, to be used, modified, or on occasion rejected at will.


Despite the shallowness of the theory of mechanical progress, the first erections of modern architecture, beginning with the Crystal Palace in 1851, rested on a firm foundation: the perception that the technology of the nineteenth century had immensely enriched the vocabulary of modern form and facilitated modes of construction that could hardly have been dreamed of in more ponderous materials, while it made possible plans of a far more organic nature than the heavy shells that constituted buildings in the past.

In their pride over these new possibilities, the engineers who turned these processes over to the architect naturally over-emphasized this contribution; and when Louis Sullivan proclaimed that form followed function, his successors falsely put the emphasis on mechanical form and mechanical function. Both are in fact essential to the constitution of modern architecture; but neither by itself – nor both together – is sufficient. Frank Lloyd Wright understood this from the beginning, and insisted, quite properly, that he was something more than a “functionalist,” though in the last phase of his great career, as in the Johnson laboratory and the Guggenheim museum, he succumbed to the fascination of an elegant mechanical solution, treated as an end in itself.

In the new beginning that dates from Le Corbusier’s Vers une Architecture, the machine occupied a central place: its austerity, its economy, its geometric cleanness were proclaimed almost the solve virtues of the new architecture. Thus the kitchen became a laboratory, and the bathroom took on the qualities of a surgical operating room; while the other parts of the house, for a decade or so, achieved excellence almost to the degree that they, too, were white, cleanable, empty of human content. This was in fact a useful period of cleansing and clarification. A few critics, notably Henry-Russel Hitchcock, recognized that this was the primitive state in the evolution of an historic style; and that, at a later date, certain elements, like ornament, that had been discarded in this new effort at integrity, might return again – though in fact they had never been abandoned by Wright.

Unfortunately, this interpretation of the new mechanical possibilities was in itself dominated by a superficial esthetic, which sought to make the new building look as if they respected the machine, no matter what the materials or methods of construction; and it was this superficial esthetic, openly proclaiming its indifference to actual mechanical and biological functions or human purposes that was formally put forward, by Philip Johnson and his associated Hitchcock, as The International Style, though it was Alfred Barr who coined the dubious name. From this, only a short step took the architect, with Mies van der Rohe to guide him, from the Machine to the Package. Mies van der Rohe used the facilities offered by steel and glass to create elegant monuments of nothingness. They had the dry style of machine forms without the contents. His own chaste taste have these hollow glass shells a crystalline purity of form: but they existed alone in the Platonic world of his imagination and had no relation to site, climate, insulation, function or internal activity; indeed, they completely turned their backs upon these realities just as the rigidly arranged chairs of his living rooms openly disregarded the necessary intimacies and informalities of conversation. This was the apotheosis of the compulsive, bureaucratic spirit. Its emptiness and hollowness were more expressive than van der Rohe’s admirers realized.

Here perhaps was the turning point in the development of modern architecture. The principle of functionalism, stated even in its crudest terms, was sound as far as it went; and if modern architecture was to develop further, that principle needed to be applied to every aspect of architecture. It was necessary to develop functional analysis to its limits, not merely embracing the physical elements of building, but the internal services; not merely the external structure, but the plan, and the relation of the building to its site; and the site itself to the rest of the urban or rural environment. And even this is only a beginning, because human purposes modify all these functional characteristics; so that the so-called open plan for the. dwelling house turns out to be far from acceptable as a universal solution, once one takes account of the need for privacy, solitude, withdrawal, or of the difference between the extroverted, the introverted, and the integrated personality. As one adds biological and social functions, and personal desires and needs, to those of the purely physical requirements of structure, one must get, as a resultant design, a much more complex and subtle results, than if one centered attention upon only one set of conditions.

How far modern architecture has withdrawn from the effort to achieve such organic richness one learns from recent architectural exhibitions, which have shown modern buildings as spatialized abstractions, in utter isolation. Some of the most famous architects of our time defiantly throw away their best opportunities: thus more than one new business building has been placed in the middle of a large country estate, with all the advantages of a lovely landscape, only to turn its back completely to its surroundings, defiling the approach with an acre of parking lot, whilst the building itself, air-conditioned and curtained in Venetian blinds, mocks its open site, its possible exposure to sunlight and fresh air, by turning inward upon a closed court. The results is the characterless package, which has become the main hallmark of fashionable architecture for the last decade.

Is Le Corbusier’s Unity House at Marseille an exception to this rule? Far from it. Its powerful concrete façade, with variations produced by the ill-conceived and almost abandoned market area, esthetically distinguishes it from the less expensive and less sculptural façades of similar buildings; but for all that, it is mere package, because the plan of the individual apartments is cramped and tortured to fit the arbitrary allotment of space, in a fashion that is as archaic as that of a New York brownstone front that has been built over the back yard and is full of narrow, dark rooms, without exposure. The genius of Le Corbusiers here consisted in making a mere package look like a real building; and the feebleness of current architectural criticism is recorded in the chorus of praise that this extravagant piece of stage decoration still calls forth.


Meanwhile, the advance of technology has presented the architect with a vast array of new metallic alloys and new plastics, with new structural materials like prestressed concrete, with new large-scale elements useful for modular designs, and with new mechanical devices that add to the total cost of the structure, as well as the upkeep. On the assumption that mechanical progress is itself more important than human purposes, the architect has felt, it would seem, almost a moral obligation to use all these materials and methods, if only to maintain his status as a creative designer. In this respect, the architect finds himself in almost the same unfortunate position as the physician, overwhelmed by the enormous number of new antibiotics and other drugs that are thrust on the market by the great pharmaceutical organizations, and often unable to follow through one remedy before a new one is thrust on him.

But the advances of technology, which have opened the possibilities for the new forms that Eric Mendersohn so brilliantly anticipated in his imaginative sketches back in the Twenties, have also revealed the possibility of two new architectural perversions. One of them is the utilization of sensational methods of construction merely to produce equally sensational forms, which have no purpose other than that of demonstrating the esthetic audacity of the designer. The external shell of the new opera house of Sydney reveals this order of design; so, for that matter, does the too-often quoted Guggenheim museum in New York, and even more Wright’s new municipal building in Marin County; and all over the country today, one finds new churches whose very form of construction reveals nothing except a desire to compete on equal esthetic terms with the supermarket and the hot dog emporium. This is not functional and purposeful creativity: it is the creativity of the kaleidoscope, so far the most successful of all inventions for imitating creativity by juggling mechanical forms.

When a child is bored or an adult is ill, the esthetics of the kaleidoscope is enchanting; and I do not underestimate its fascination. Nord would I deny that, related to our emergent needs, many new forms must and will appear in modern architecture, which will reveal meanings and values, intuitions about the nature of the cosmos or the condition of man, that are not present in any earlier architectural system. But creativity, in order to be assimilated, requires an underlying basis of order; and what is more, the most original form needs to be repeated, with modifications, if its full value is to be absorbed by the user and the spectator. The desire for architectural originality through a succession of kaleidoscopic changes, made possible by modern technological agents, when the inner purpose and contents are ruled out of the equation, inevitably degrades the creative process. Such technical facility, such esthetic audacity, poured forth on a large scale, promises only to enlarge the domain of chaos. Already the architectural magazines show projects, and even buildings, that look as if they were ingeniously cut out of paper and twister together, shapes full of fantasy and capable of giving childish pleasure — provided they are not carried out in more solid constructions.

One may explain this excessive virtuosity, with which modern architecture is now threatened, by two conditions. This is plainly, on one hand, a revolt against the excessive regimentation that has gone on in every part of our lives: that regimentation whose symbol is the vast repetitive inanity of the high-rise slab. And on the other hand, it is due to the fact that genuine creativity, which takes into account all the possibilities of structure, the nature of an institution’s function and purposes, the values that the client draws from the community and in turn must give back to the community, is a slow process. Because such knowledge and such facility cannot be improvised in a few weeks, the creative architect must build from structure to structure on his own experience, and absorb that of other architects, past and present. It is far easier to create a sensational shell, with the constructive facilities now available, than to fulfill all the functions of architecture. An engineer of genius, like Nervi, has shown the way toward more solid achievement; but even he has succeeded best when the inner content of the building was as simple as tiers of spectators watching sport, or an exhibition or market hall whose contents could be adequately enclosed by a mere shell.

But there is an alternative to kaleidoscopic creativity that would be equally disastrous to architecture and to the human spirit, though the threat comes from the opposite point of our machine economy. Instead of an endless succession of superficial new forms, dazzling Christmas packages that have no relation to contents, we are threatened by another form of technologic facility, whose present favored form is the geodesic dome. Under this potential technical triumph, buildings as such would disappear, except perhaps as improvised rooms within a mechanically controlled environment, dedicated to producing uniform temperature, lighting, and ultimately, with the aid of drugs, surgery and genetic intervention, uniform human beings. Whether above ground or below ground, this development would bring to an end, in a world of colorless uniformity, the long history of man’s building: he would return to the cave from which he originally emerged, none the richer or wiser for his experience. I will not examine this particular possibility in detail, except to note that many minds are now busily engaged in preparing for this grand act of suicide. So committed indeed are many architects in our day to the automatism of the machine, that they fall under a compulsion to follow the process to its limit, even though that final stage is a colorless and dehumanized existence, just one breath more alive than the world that might emerge from a nuclear catastrophe.


If modern architecture is not to continue its disintegration into a multitude of sects and mannerisms — international stylists, empiricists, brutalists, neo-romantics, and what not — it must rest on some principle of order; and that order must ally architecture to an equally coherent theory of human development. The notion of mechanical progress alone will not do, because it leaves out the one element that would give significance to this progress, man himself; or rather, because it makes the human personality a mere tool of the processes that should in fact serve it.

Man himself is an organism whose existence is dependent upon his maintaining the delicate balance that exists between all the forces of nature, physical and organic, from sunlight and air and the soil, the bacteria, the molds, and growing plants right up to the complex interaction of thousands of species. Despite the great advances in technology man controls only a small part of these processes: for neither destruction nor mechanical substitution is in fact a mode of control. From this complex biological inheritance man extracts and perfects those portions that serve his own purposes. Organic order is bases on variety, complexity, and balance; and this order provides continuity through change, stability through adaptation, harmony through finding a place for conflict, chance, and limited disorder, in ever more complex transformations. This organic interdependence was recognized and expressed in every historic culture, particularly in its cosmic and religious conceptions, with their genuinely sacred buildings, and though these buildings have outlived their technologies they still speak to the human soul.

Greenough’s original analysis of form, on a basis of the biological and physiological nature of organisms, did justice to both process and function, but overlooked their transformation through a still higher and more complex category, that of human purpose. Man is not just an actor and a fabricator: he is an interpreter and a transformer. On the higher levels of existence, form determines function, no less than function form. At this point the continued development of his instruments and his machines; and the only kind of order that can ensure this is one that provides a many-sided environment capable of sustaining the greatest variety of human interests and human purposes. An environment or a structure that has been reduced to the level of the machine, correct, undeviating, repetitious, monotonous, is hostile to organic reality and to human purpose: even when it performs, with a certain efficiency, a positive function, such as providing shelter, it remains a negative symbol, or at best a neutral one.

There are three sources for this larger order: nature is one, the cumulative processes of history and historic culture is another; and the human psyche is the third. To turn one’s back upon these sources, in the name of mechanical progress, for the sake of purely quantitative order, is to sterilize both architecture and the life that it should sustain and elevate. An age that worships the machine and seeks only those goods that the machine provides, in ever larger amounts, at ever rising profits, actually has lost contact with reality; and in the next moment or the next generation may translate its general denial of life into one last savage gesture of nuclear extermination. Within the context of organic order and human purpose, our whole technology has still potentially a large part to play; but much of the riches of modern technics will remain unusable until organic functions and human purposes, rather than the mechanical process, dominate.

An organic approach will handle, with equal dexterity, but with greater freedom of choice, every kind of function: it will not automatically reject daylight in favor of a facile mechanical substitute, or fresh air, renovated by vegetation, for a purely mechanical system of modifying the aire. But neither will it turn to banks into frivolous glass-enclosed pleasure palaces, office buildings entrances into cathedrals, or churches into airport hangers. On the contrary, purpose and function will provide an organic criterion of form at every stage of the design process; and in the end this will produce, not merely an esthetic variety and exuberance that are now almost unknown, but even mechanical economics that have been flouted by our compulsive overcommitment to the machine.

There are two movements now visible that indicated a beginning in the right direction, which will lead, not away from functionalism, but toward a multi-functional approach to every architecture problem.

One of these movements, visible in the architecture schools today, is the students’ demand for architectural and town planning history. The desire behind this is not for forms to imitate, but for experience and feeling to assimilate, for spiritual nourishment beyond that which is offered by the immediate environment or a brief present moment. This is a healthy reaction against the notion that the experience of a single generation, or a single decade in a generation, is sufficient to provide the knowledge and insight man needs to create a human environment of sufficient richness and depth.

The other movement became visible last summer in the meeting of the younger architects who have broken away from the Old Masters of the C.I.A.M. In their attempt to redefine the province of architecture today they expressed many differences with the generation of Le Corbusier and Gropius, as well as personal and characterological differences within their own ranks; but at the end they were united, in a large degree, on one final conclusion: that architecture was more than the art of building: it was rather the art of transforming man’s entire habitat. This concept had already struck root in California, when the school of architecture at Berkeley was reconstituted and renamed as the School of Environmental Design.

If human development does not become sterile and frustrated through an excessive effort to conquer nature without drawing upon all the resources of history and culture to rehumanize man, the architecture of the future will again be a true polytechnics, utilizing all the resources of technics, from the human hand to the latest automatic device. It will be closer in spirit and form to the earlier work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and even more perhaps to Bernard Maybeck, than to the masters of the C.I.A.M.; and it will go beyond them, because it will drawn upon the richer human resources now worldwide in cultural scope, which are happily available for collective as well as individual expression.

Posted: December 2019
Category: Essays