The Problems of Apostasy: Architecture in the Modern Age

by Peter Kellow

Robert Adam Sackler Library, Oxford, England, 2001, courtesy

The theory that underpins modernist architecture rests on a fundamental premise, which is this: there exists a modern age (the age in which we live) that is radically distinct from what went before. Modernism then goes on from this to claim an exclusive right to be considered the appropriate architecture for this modern age. Thus, it argues that what we would normally regard as “traditional” architecture should not be employed in the contemporary world.

In evaluating the modernist position, we first need to address this premise of a modern age. Is the concept valid? And if it is, how should it be defined? Modernists respond to these questions by saying that the idea of a modern age is valid because in the last two or three hundred years there has occurred a revolution in science and technology that has caused a radical break with the previous era. Science and technology therefore justify and define the idea of the modern age.

Whereas we may question the modernist characterization of the modern age, that does not mean that the very idea of it is not valid. Over the last two or three hundred years, there has undoubtedly occurred a radical change in the culture in which we live. But we need to ask ourselves whether this change is profound enough to justify supposing a definite break. I would suggest that the modern age is a valid concept but the Modernist attempt to characterize it by the developments in scientific knowledge and technology is not just superficial but wholly misguided.

Although many aspects of the modern world can be traced back to the Renaissance, it is with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that the modern world came of age. The Enlightenment had many aspects, but a primary intellectual component was the challenge to the authority of religion and the belief in god. Will Durant, the great popular historian, on receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1968, said: “The basic phenomenon of our times [is] the decline of religion.” And in his monumental history of civilization, Durant referred to the period usually called the Middle Ages as the “Age of Faith” – surely a more apt and descriptive term, and one that identifies the important contrast with what followed it: the loss of faith. With the Enlightenment, the undermining of religion and faith became explicit, to the extent that prominent figures could proclaim themselves to be godless persons—“atheists.”

Modernist architecture has from its outset affirmed that it represents a rupture with the past. Modernists claimed that the new style, which was not supposed to be a style at all, reflected the science and technology that defined the modern age. For example, by allowing a great deal of repetition of elements without variation, buildings could suggest the mass production of modern manufacturing. But reflecting modern technology is only part of the story. There is a psychological aspect that is far more fundamental to the reading of modernist buildings, and it is this that achieves their main rhetorical force. I will call this “negative dependency.” This is how it works. 

Modernist architects like to suggest that historical memory plays no part in the aesthetic that they wish to establish. Historical architectural features are eliminated from their buildings, and it is claimed that they reflect in a pure way the mechanical nature of the modern age to which they belong. However, I would suggest that nothing can exist in a context free of history and that modernist buildings are no exception. Consciously or unconsciously, they achieve their rhetorical power through their historical context. But they do this not by drawing from history but by rejecting it. They retain a dependence on history but in a negative way. This is how they originally achieved shock value, which they retain until this day to a greater or lesser extent.

On the contrary, contemporary traditionalist architects (just like their equivalents in pre-modern times) draw from historical styles in a positive way. They are “positively dependent” on history. I will return to this in a moment, but first let us consider in a bit more detail how negative dependency works in architecture. 

Take an early modernist building, the Fagus Factory by Walter Gropius (1910), which was and is considered a key work in the modernist canon. Practically all the features that distinguish it can be understood for the way they reverse our expectations of how buildings should be normally designed. In traditional buildings, we are used to seeing solid walls with window openings punched into them. This gives us a balance between enclosure and permeability, creating an amenable environment within and a face to the exterior that we can make visual sense of. But in the Fagus Factory, practically the whole wall is covered with a glazing system This means that there is nothing corresponding to the normal sense of a window, and the enclosing function of the wall is ambiguous, to say the least. A notable radical element in the design is the way the wall-height glazing turns the corner which is formed by a single glazing bar. This again subverts our customary sense of enclosure and constructional solidity. There can be absolutely no functional reason for these features. They are merely expensive conceits. They serve an exclusively aesthetic purpose. 

Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, Fagus Factory, Alfeld-an-der-Leine, Germany, 1911, Courtesy Matt Sternwald

In this way, the rhetorical power of Gropius’s groundbreaking essay rests on “negative dependency,” that is to say, in viewing this building we are keenly aware of how it differs from traditional building and our innate sense of how buildings are formed. Although it might claim to be free of history and represent a new beginning, in fact, it is absolutely and completely dependent on history—but in a negative way.

This idea of negative dependency is integral to the whole idea of the avant-garde, for a work can only appear avant-garde to the degree that it is different from what went before. Clearly, we must be aware of what went before. Only by reading it in respect to work that preceded it could its avant-garde credentials be established. Early modernist buildings like the Fagus building were negatively dependent purely on traditional buildings. But, as time went on and modernism became widespread, avant-garde buildings could also be negatively dependent on previous modernist buildings. The extent to which buildings can constantly react against what went before and remain cogent architectural essays has a limit. What we have seen recently is a straining to be different that tests the limits of structure, functionality and taste. 

But what I want to argue is that, in spite of this ongoing striving, the rhetoric of modernist buildings never loses its dependence on traditional buildings. The reason concerns not just our historical cultural memory, but also that fact that we have an innate way of reading buildings that cannot be overturned, however much we may be subject to its negation through the modernist ethos in our surroundings. A primary purpose of a building is to provide enclosure or shelter, and this is central to our intuitive reading of them. There is not enough space here to go into detail of how this works, but broadly we interpret this enclosure through the simple elements of wall, window, doorways, roofs and so on. These are not arrived at arbitrarily. They come from the way we use buildings, framing our psychological attitude to them. Modernist buildings deliberately challenge this intuitive sense. In the case of Gropius’s building, we saw how the sense of window and wall is undermined, but there are many ways in which modernism achieves essentially the same aim.

Rem Koolhaas, CCTV, Television Cultural Center, Beijing, China, 2002 Courtesy Joost Barendregt

Modernism intends that we should move into a brand new world, where the old vocabulary is dispensed with. But the reality is that we still read the new buildings with the same vocabulary, although instead of presence we see absence. The ubiquitous curtain wall that we saw in the Gropius building never loses its negative dependency, even today, because we never lose our intuitive sense of the architectural elements. The rhetoric continues to function. 

If the curtain wall does appeal, as modernist apologists will maintain it does, it is surely not the appeal of beauty but of power, and, of course, power can be seductive. If we are to come to terms with anything as mechanical and impenetrable as a curtain wall, we are going to have to set aside some of our human values. There have been people throughout history who have been prepared to do just that.

In the field of pure art, it is easy to see how modern abstract paintings display a similar “negative dependency” on figurative paintings. Without the formula established by traditional gallery art, it is difficult to see how abstract art could have emerged. Art has gone on from abstraction to devise conceptual art, installation art and other forms, but none of these can escape their negative dependency on traditional figurative paintings (or sculpture). As with modernist buildings, their rhetorical power depends on what they are not at least as much as what they are.  

I have said that a primary way of understanding the modern age is through the loss of religion. But although many might not subscribe to established religions, this does not mean that their currency and value in our society is diminished. Some people who call themselves atheists wish that they would, but it is a curious thing that those who so fervently wish to deny god have to define themselves in relation to him or her. They apparently remain unaware that, by so describing themselves, they further validate the concept of god. This is a clear case of “negative dependency” of the same kind that we saw with modernist architecture. However much we may desire to free ourselves from religion and its symbols, we seem to lack the vocabulary to do so. When Richard Dawkins published his “atheist” tract, The God Delusion, he said his publishers told him that having “god” in the title of a book helps sell a lot of copies, which his certainly did. Thus, whilst he profited from the currency of God, he altered the truth or not of the concept not one jot, although he may have marginally contributed to enhancing its currency.

The fact that we cannot do without the old vocabulary demonstrates the non-viability of a truly atheist position. We can say we reject god if we wish, but this comes from a position of fully accepting the currency of the notion of god, as the very term atheist clearly shows. For this reason atheism is a contradiction in terms. A much more viable position to adopt is that of an apostate, someone who held to a faith but then rejected it. In this way, we acknowledge the inescapability of the currency of the religious vocabulary without getting involved in questions of truth. 

In a parallel way, modernist architects, whether they recognize it or not, are also apostates. Their vocabulary depends on the rejection of traditional architecture of the past and the innate architectural vocabulary that goes with it. They understand the old vocabulary in exactly the same way as everyone else, but they take the position of denying it. However far they may think they have departed from the traditional way of building through successive revolvings of the avant-garde turnstile, the negative dependency remains. Traditionalism and the rejection of it remain built into the rhetoric of modernism. And so, like the putative atheists, they only achieve a kind of apostasy. They never manage to move completely into the new world free of the past that they seek. As Voltaire said: “When the past is put out through the door it comes in at the window.” 

This failure follows from the fact that the modernists’ characterization of the modern age is fundamentally flawed. They wish to define the modern age as an age of science and technology and therefore of certainty and determinacy. In this, their vision of modernity resembles more the pre-modern age, the “age of faith,” for it too relied on absolute certainty. Religious faith then was all-pervading and absolute to a degree that it is difficult for us to imagine now. If science is used as the defining aspect of our age, then a similar apparent certainty becomes available to us, and so science can become a kind of ersatz religion for the modern age.

This leaves it open for science to permeate disciplines where it has no proper place, resulting in theories and ideologies that seek to impose certainty where they cannot be sustained, to force an uncertain unpredictable world into a determinate straightjacket. These are really pseudo-sciences. Examples are Marxism, Freudianism, positivistic philosophy and, of course, modernism. And all of these attempts have resulted in a degradation of humanity to a greater or lesser degree. They overstate the potential of science and fundamentally misread where the loss of religion has left us.

Martin Heidegger, one of the greatest and most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, distrusted science as a guide to the nature of the human experience and the way we should live. He saw modern science, for all its achievements, as a mere continuation of practical knowledge and technologies that derived from the past. The promotion of science as the defining aspect of the modern age he viewed as profoundly reactionary. With the loss of religion he understood that the certainty that went with it was also lost and could not be replaced. Modernity has necessarily brought us into a world of indeterminacy and uncertainty. 

Peter Kellow with Andrew Pinchin, Apartments, Keswick Road, London, England, 1991 Courtesy


Heidegger characterized the human situation thus: he said our existence can be described as one of “thrownness.” By that he meant that we cannot explain our existence or that of the world in which we live. So existence is purely contingent. Ultimately, we cannot make sense of our existence as the old religions used to promise and the new pseudo-sciences do now. Thus existence in the modern world is far from being comprehendible and determinate, as the scientific model would suggest. This explains the persistence of the currency of the vocabulary of religion in the modern age, for in reality we have nothing substantial to replace it with. This is why the idea of god, whether you subscribe to it or not, has lost none of its currency. Attempts to formulate a viable atheist creed stall at apostasy.

Where others have seen scientific determinacy invading everything, Heidegger sees that science cannot approach the fundamental questions concerning the human condition. We have put aside religions’ answers to these questions but have nothing to put in their place. This leaves us with only this experience of arbitrary “thrownness.” This should not be seen as a problem to be solved. It is simply a statement of how things are and may refer us to the profound truth that the world and human existence are radically indeterminate. That awareness can give us something to build on. Attempts to use the scientific method on the territory that religion occupies will always end in either failure or self-delusion. This is why the vocabulary of religion remains alive in our culture, never more so than in the arguments of those who would reject it. They remain trapped in the contradictions of negative dependency.

The parallels with architecture are clear. Modernists try to break away from history but remain dependent on it, but in the negative sense. Modern traditionalists recognize the untenability of that practice and embrace the vocabulary of the past. Just as the vocabulary of religion may have a different meaning in modern times, so may the architecture of past styles. But the positive dependency remains as a vital source.

This understanding of the modern age as an age of fundamental indeterminacy explains why modern traditionalism is a viable response to it. We cannot use the “architectural vocabulary of the modern age” because there is no such thing. The attempts to evolve one have never progressed beyond a negative dependency on styles that are of pre-modern origin. However outlandish, however far they go from any semblance to what most people would regard as looking like a building, modernist architects have to rely on the rhetoric achieved by denying our intuitive expectation of how buildings look. It is like stretching a piece of elastic to its limit. Every so-called innovative new aesthetic has to strain to find enough force to pull a little harder. It is not a natural easy progression but an ever more strenuous and contorted one. The elastic will snap when the culture finally decides it can take no more and the effort is just not worth the stress. At that point, we might well return wholesale to the old vocabulary and make a fresh start.

This will not result in an ossification of architecture, as modernists would claim, but a springboard to new horizons. Instead of walking the plank of negative dependency, we can do what modern traditionalists already do and use the vocabulary of pre-modernity in a positive way. We can work with a “positive dependency” on traditional architectural styles. That is to say, we use their vocabulary as something to build on, to adapt as taste desires and to be inspired by.

In making judgments on what we should design, our surest guide is our sense of beauty and appropriateness. These should be integral to the craft and the art of the architect. This means developing sensitivity to human values and cultural identity. These are our best hopes in an intellectual age unavoidably characterized by profound contingency and indeterminacy.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2011, Volume 28, Number 3