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It had to happen. And it will no doubt happen again. It's one of those rare cases where a lack of culture actually turns out to be lethal.

At four in the afternoon on Monday 2. January the flat roof of the ice rink in the Bavarian town of Bad Reichenhall in southeastern Germany collapsed under the weight of a 20 centimeter layer of wet snow, killing at least 11 and trapping God knows how many under masses of broken girders and rubble.

As always when disaster strikes the bereaved ask themselves, "Who is to blame?" Some times no one is. It is one of the facts of the universe, that people have shaped religions to reconcile themselves with, that some times bad things happen to good people for no particular reason.

But then again, some times, as in this case, there is negligence involved, whether it be criminal or not. The builders and the people responsible for the upkeep of the building must take some of the blame, as must the municipal authorities whose job it was to certify the building plans. But there are others, most long dead, who are indirectly culpable too in setting the stage for this, and more subtle, disasters.

This is what I had to say on the subject back in early March of last year. The title of that short article, "The Architecture of Dead Souls", now seems slightly skin crawling:

And this is where I have to go into full on spittle flying rant mode. Whenever you engage the architects behind these monstrosities or the public servants who ordered and approved them in debate, and finally, after adrenaline soaked hours of trying not to strangle them outright, have got them to grudgingly concede that yes, that school building is actually ugly as a shaved bat, they fall back on the final argument: "It's functional."

That's when I feel the last croaking breath of a town councilor on my face as I choke them screaming into their philistine faces: "Explain to me how a flat-roofed rectangular box is functional in bloody Norway. Explain how it's functional to hire a guy to rush up on the roof to shovel snow off it every second day in winter so the roof doesn't cave in and kill all the students, you sad excuse for a civilised human being!"

This goes to the heart of Modernism, and is of a part with its consequences in literature, music and art in general. The old traditional forms that pre-dated it certainly conformed to Sturgeon's Law, that "90% of everything is crud," and had its share of rote and uninspired works. If you bothered to dig them up, most collections of sonnets from a century ago or more would throw up enough sunsets and daffodils to send you into a diabetic coma. We can't all be Petrarch.

But the old traditional forms, in architecture, as well as in poetry, at least vouchsafed a minimum of craft and aesthetic art, even if it did not originate in the artist, or builder, him-/herself. Modernism, outside of the hands of its pioneers and most gifted practitioners carried no such guarantee. When everyone is tasked with reinventing fire and the wheel, even the most talented among us would be lucky to end up with a smouldering sled.

In a letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, Sir Isaac Newton, arguably one of the most original thinkers throughout all of human history, wrote, "If I have been able to see farther, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants." Human beings are blessed with a big brain, but very little in the way of innate abilities or instincts. What separates us from the hairless apes we once were is the accumulated learning of the countless generations that have gone before, to which a handful of us might, if we are lucky, add a thing or two. Art and architecture, like all human endeavours, builds on the collective memory of what has been proved to work in the past, and what has not.

Which brings us back to roofs. Once upon a time, in the northern parts of the world, if you said the word "roof", most anyone would automatically, without even considering the reason why, see an image of a sloping roof of one form or another. Now this might, upon a moment's thought, seem self-evident. People living in climates with lots of rain and snow in winter soon discovered that a slanted roof which shed snow and water was a rather good idea. But like many things taken for granted, it wasn't so self-evident after all.

In the aftermath of World War I, bored and disillusioned with the past and all its works, artists and architects not only set out to improve upon the past, but to repudiate it utterly. the Italian futurist Marinetti wanted to fill in the canals of Venice and replace the palazzi with modern factories. While the Swiss architect Le Corbusier wanted to tear down Paris and replace it with "machines for living". Sainte Chapelle, the Louvre, Notre Dame and the irregular nooks and crannies of the Latin Quarter, everything had to go, to be replaced by what we see today in the banlieus so recently convulsed by riots and vandalism.

Not only the frills and ornaments that made even modest buildings of the past psychologically fit for human habitation were deemed not "functional" and were banished, but just about anything not conforming to straight lines and angles was anathema. It was an utopian architecture, and like most utopian schemes it disregarded the realities of the everyday world people live in.

One thing is that people like the frills and ornaments and idiosyncrasies of older buildings, and given the choice, and money permitting, they, and most architects, choose to live in them, and not the "modern" machines of said architects and city planners. The brutalist assault on what they consider kitsch ornamentation and sentimentality betrays a decidedly non-progressive contempt for ordinary people's very humane taste for traditional comforts.

Secondly, these architects, even when they came up with designs that in and of themselves are beautiful and elegant, overlooked the fact that projected out and mass-produced in the real world, their designs would not only be subjected to, but in fact encourage, the use of substandard cement, weak plaster wall segments and cheap, easily corroded steel.

Add to that the fact that these modern buildings, with their pristine flat white surfaces, were inherently high maintenance, with the lack of eaves, to give partial protection against the elements and drain water beyond the walls, meaning that within a year those surfaces would be stained with unsightly brown discolourations, for example. There's no doubt that done on a big enough budget, and scrupulously maintained, modernist architecture can yield striking results, whether in the form of villas for the wealthy or lavish office buildings like Mies van der Rohe's Seagram building on Park Avenue. But its application to whole cityscapes and housing for the poor has wrought little but disaster.

And ugly cheers on ugliness. Even the most callous of us have an abiding respect for beauty. Most of us, except for the mentally disturbed, shrink back from taking a hammer to a work of art, or even the mildly aesthetically pleasing. But the grey cracking concrete manifestations of utopian modern architecture we literally piss on. Of all the arts, architecture is the one we interact with the most. It shapes us and our actions in a very real way. Anyone who has tried to work both in a handsomely appointed office in a noble old building and the drab cubicles of a modern office landscape will know the difference. Surroundings devoid of human sympathy elicits little sympathy and care in return.

The result was, even in more southern climes, where the standard flat roof design is viable, instant slums, inhuman urban wastelands of endlessly reflecting mirrors of ennui and misery. Partly thought up to alleviate social ills, the architecture ended up creating machines for grinding the poor people forced to live in them even further into the ground. And taken up enthusiastically and wholesale, with a willful disregard for local traditions of craftsmanship, by builders in northern towns and cities, the results can even be lethal.

Whatever the original intentions of architects and builders, the French banlieus and schoolchildren crushed under collapsing roofs can hardly be called positive contributions to the progressive cause.



This article is also available at Bitsofnews.com and The European Tribune.

Originally posted to Alexander G Rubio on Tue Jan 03, 2006 at 04:55 PM PST.

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