MODERN ARCHITECTURE, UNPOPULAR AND UNDEMOCRATIC
Updated: Aug 17, 2022
It may come as no surprise to many of us, but when the public actually gets asked, overwhelmingly the majority say they DO NOT like modernist architecture.
From studies conducted time and time again, we find that citizens all across the West prefer the classical and traditional vernacular styles of buildings vs the modernist and brutalist latter.
To help make this even clearer, I've compiled a list of studies and research further below in this blog post. The most recent and important poll is that of the National Civic Art Society in 2020, which asked over 2000 Americans across a variety of backgrounds to state their preference for classical vs modern architecture. Over 72% preferred classical. You'll see in the rest of the research that these results repeat in countless other instances.
The fact that these preferences are not reflected in public policy and publicly commissioned buildings goes to further suggest that the architectural elites are completely out of touch and at odds with the desires of the people.
In the Swedish city of Gothenburg, proposals over a number of recent years by the 'Social Democrats' and Councillor Hampus Magnusson to open public consultation and enable democratic voting for stylistic preferences on new buildings in the city, led to an avalanche of outrage by the architectural elite. In May 2022 , Mr. Per Bornstein a representative from Sweden's Board of Architects responded angrily saying "We cannot have a mob rule based on clickbait". Original quote link here.
Bornstein's position is that the public shouldn't get to decide for themselves the stylistic preferences of their own public buildings, but rather that choice should be left up to the cult of modernist 'experts' who need to be OBEYED.
The same pattern of divide between the out of touch Architectural elite and the public, can also be seen in another example from Sweden. In 2016, the industry organisation 'Architects Sweden' gave the Kasper Salin prize for best building to "Studio 1" by architect Johannes Norlander. At the same time, Studio 1 came in fourth place as as Sweden's ugliest new construction of 2016 in a public vote of 1500 people by the 'Arkitekturupproret' group.
We find ourselves in the strange and frankly undemocratic position where, the people's needs and desires for beauty and liveable spaces are actively sabotaged by architects. They are an elite class of decision makers that have been trained from university to disdain the beautiful and embrace the ugly. Architecture schools do not actually teach students anything about craftsmanship, emotional reactions to buildings or the psychological and health benefits of traditional architecture. Most of the courses are majority based on the maths and engineering side; a purely-functional, modernist-focused, CAD-software degree looking at how one can bend and warp materials into strange shapes and look at unusual forms. It is astounding that by default, architects never get taught traditional craftsmanship, ancient principles of architectural design or understanding what people love and need from buildings. Architects, thus graduate by the thousands, as cookie cutter replicas of the same mantra, "we will not listen to the needs of people and create beautiful places with designs that have been loved for thousands of years, but rather dictate an obscure theory from the late 1920s from a man who wanted to turn Paris into a slum".
Truly. The very essence of modernist architectural philosophy comes from the delusional takes of a man named Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who renamed himself 'Le Corbusier'. Amongst many of his grand ideas, was to turn Paris into a high-rise urban hellscape. This is the man modernist architects all worship and idolize. This truly idiotic cult, now rules over our public spaces, our lived experiences in the physical realm, our day-to-day visual reality.
Unless they are the landlord, users of buildings rarely have any input into at all into the design process. For public buildings the decision is almost never given to citizens through democratic voting but rather left to modernist architects. Politicians seldom take interest in aesthetics let alone public preferences, occasionally getting involved in political scoring contests with opposing factions over a buildings short-term costs. A small amount of regulation lies with the councils, who seem to spend more time on compliance of fence heights and stopping any mixed use-zoning (Heavens forbid we have a shop at the front of a house) than thinking about how to create beautiful fine grained urban areas. The most we ever hear about the bureaucracy concerning new buildings is usually news that a councillor or local politician received a bribe or two from a cunning developer.
The relationship of citizens to their public spaces is completely broken.
Full-fee paying University students don't get to say whether they are taught in gorgeous timber panelled lecture halls or tedious, bland seminar rooms. Office workers do not get to say whether they would prefer to work in a glass tower or rather an Art Deco masterpiece. Families don't get to decide on designs for their public libraries or shopping centres. As a populace, we simply have ugly boxes dumped on us from our architectural overlords living in their fantasy modernist heaven. Now that we know there is a large portion of the population who object to the continued use of ugly modernist design, where does that translate into new calls for comment and revised processes for council approvals? It seems only political agitation and community led groups like "Architectural Uprising" in Sweden (who have had some small wins) will work. Unless large numbers of citizens come together and protest, the default decision of developers, architects and politicians will be to leave the public OUT of the decision making process for public building aesthetic preferences.
Compilation of Research and Studies on Public Preferences towards Classical & Traditional Architecture:
Harris Poll AND THE NATIONAL CIVIC ART SOCIETY (2020)
A survey conducted by one of the most recognized and non-partisan polling companies, asked more than 2,000 Americans to consider classical vs modernist designs of federal buildings and give their preference to either design.
Across the board preference for classical architecture:
Americans of every age, sex, race and class category showed support for classical architecture by an enormous 72% to 28%.
Bipartisan support, political leanings did not affect support for either:
There was also no difference in aesthetic preferences from political backgrounds. 73% of self-identified Republicans, 70% of Democrats and 73% of independents supported classical designs over their modernist counterparts.
Study Link: Open PDF here
Examples of the survey include a resounding win for the William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building against the brutalist architecture of the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building.
Harris Poll and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) (2007)
A survey of 2,214 of randomly chosen Americans were asked to rate 248 US buildings on a likeability scale. From that list the American Institute of Architects revealed the top 150 favourite buildings; a list called “Americans’ Favorite Architecture”.
Classical and Traditional Vernacular wins:
The results were overwhelmingly in favour of traditional building styles, out of the top 50 buildings, only 12 could have be described as ‘modern-looking'.
Recent builds shunned:
Only 2 in the top 50 buildings were constructed in the 35 years prior from when the study was conducted in 2007.
Study Link: Open here
YouGov and Adam Architecture (2009)
In a survey by YouGov, one of the most respected polling and research companies of the United Kingdom, it was conclusively determined after a survey of 1042 British citizens that the public preferred traditional architecture over contemporary 'modernist' buildings.
Traditional building styles win again:
Asked to choose from a selection of 4 buildings which they preferred, a massive 77% of respondents selected the traditional neo-classical styles over the modernist ones.
Study Link: Open here
OIKOS AND SIFO SURVEY (2021)
An overwhelming majority of the Swedish people prefer classical architecture to modernist. This is according to a survey commissioned by the think tank Oikos. The survey is carried out by Kantar SIFO. 1,090 Swedes answered the survey.
For branded buildings, the difference is extreme. When the Swedes get to choose which architecture they think is most beautiful and want to see more of, and this is exemplified by the newly built Liljevalchs+ on the one hand and the Nordic Museum on the other, only 2 percent prefer architecture in the style of Liljevalchs+, while a full 86 percent want to see more architecture in the style of the Nordic Museum (classical).
Even when it comes to more ordinary buildings, an overwhelming majority prefers the classical aesthetic to the modernist one. Only 30 percent want to live in the houses that are built today, while 70 percent prefer to live in houses that look like those built in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Modernist characteristics such as stripped-down facades are rejected by the Swedes in favor of ornamented facades with the numbers 18 versus 63 percent.
A democratic failure:
This democratic and market economy failure should be addressed. That is also what the Swedes think. The SIFO survey shows that 75 percent want politicians to set requirements for how new apartment buildings should look and 43 percent believe that citizens should have more influence over the design of buildings and 25 want to have an equal influence, while 8 percent see less influence. The rest, 25 percent are unsure.
Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society (2004)
Research by the Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society in 2004, based on a sample of 2,000 people was conducted creating a list of the 10 worst and 10 best buildings in the United Kingdom. Respondents were not given choices, but rather asked to come up with their own suggestions of the best and worst on the spot, ad hoc.
Traditional & Classical Win. All modern buildings considered the worst.
The findings were brutal: there were no modernist buildings on the “Best Buildings” list.
But worse still, the "Ten Worst Buildings List" was entirely filled with modernist buildings.
The Ten Worst Buildings included:
The Dome, the Gherkin, Canary Wharf, the Scottish Parliament, St George’s Wharf in Vauxhall, BBC White City, Tate Modern, the Bullring in Birmingham, the Post Office Tower and Centre Point.
The Prince’s Foundation AND CREATE STREETS (2014)
This report by the foundation of Prince Charles, and Create Streets, covers one of the most comprehensive studies into the preferences of British citizens in housing and urban development. The research in the report considered sixteen community consultations in depth, with thousands of participants across all the consultations.
YES to traditional, NO to modern:
There were many important conclusions drawn from aggregating data across the entire surveys including that 84% of British people desired to respect historic form, architectural style AND materials and 79% wanted to retain historic buildings. The data on preferences in favour of modern architecture was also telling, only 25% of participants wanted 'contemporary' design.
Study Link: Open PDF here
Henrik Loodin & Ola Thufvesson (2022)
A research study by Henrik Loodin and Ola Thufvesson at Lund University Sweden on a sample of 109 respondents, surveyed the architectural preferences of city centre professionals. The study found that traditional architecture was the most preferred and viewed as better for city centres. Baroque buildings were considered most attractive followed by turn of the century (years either side of 1900). (D). The the least attractive streetscape was modernist architecture from the late 1960s.
Study Link: Open PDF here
Council of Upplands Väsby (2019)
In the autumn of 2019, a survey was conducted where residents of the Swedish suburb in Stockholm 'Upplands Väsby' were asked by their council on which architectural style they would prefer. They were given a choice between images from different periods, on the one hand turn-of-the-century houses, on the other a house built after 1930. Majority of the 670 residents who responded said that they preferred traditional pre-1930s architecture.
Study Link: Open PDF here
The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (2002)
In May 2002 a UK government agency CABE (The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) commissioned a comprehensive study A face-to-face survey was conducted with residents in England between 19 March and 15 April 2002 on architectural preferences with 1,018 completed face-to-face interviews. The study had two interesting statements concerning preferences for aesthetics and architecture. First, “Architects should concentrate on designing buildings which appeal to as many people as possible” to which 80% of respondents agreed; and second “New buildings should be adventurous and different, even if they shock or offend some people” to which only 30% agreed. It's not clear what was meant by “adventurous and different”, but it is a somewhat interesting philosophical set of statements to pose, in which it seems the public are reasonably in favour of aesthetically pleasing buildings rather than strange and shocking/offensive. It's interesting that over 31% surveyed believe "most new buildings are eyesores" with 45% disagreeing. But more drastically 30% also indicated they disagreed with the statement "On the whole, I like new buildings". This shows there is a large portion of the British public who do not in fact, like new modernist buildings, and believe they are extremely ugly. The 2002 research by CABE also indicated that only 3% of those surveyed would like to live in houses or flats that are examples of recent modern architecture (eg. Murray Grove, Broadwell Housing at Coin Street and Gainsborough Studios in Islington).
Article Link: Open Here
Newspaper Västerås Länstidning (2016)
In a vote for the Swedish town of Västerås's ugliest building, the newspaper Västerås Länstidning's audience of almost 2000 voters decided with more than one in three believing that the 'Punkthuset' a brutal modernist building was indeed the ugliest. The newspaper notes that "it seems to be the "brutal" modernist architecture of the 1960s that upsets the most". Not a single building before 1960 was nominated for the ugliest building competition!
Study Link: Open Here
Society Barometer 2016
The Swedish survey, "Society Barometer", statistically guaranteed to be representative of the entire country, asked 2,500 Swedes aged 18-74 to answer a web survey Sweden's most beautiful building. The Ringwall in Visby received the most votes .
Sweden's most beautiful buildings according to Sifo's survey:
Drottningholm Palace, Stockholm
City Hall, Stockholm
Uppsala Cathedral, Uppsala
Kalmar Castle, Kalmar
Turning Torso, Malmö
Royal Palace, Stockholm
Örebro Castle, Örebro
Only one modernist building, Turning Torso (in 7th place) and a grand suspension bridge with a fantastic view came into the top ten, with the rest being historical buildings. Thus, the taste of the majority is again very clearly shown.
Study link: Open PDF Here
CREATE STREETS AND IPSOS MORI RESEARCH (2015)
In a comprehensive series of 1000 in-home interviews with adults in Great Britain aged 15+ , respondents were shown five different types of housing and asked whether they would support these examples as a new building in their local suburb or a new undeveloped plot "around 15-20 minutes walk" from where they lived (Brownfield Land).
The most popular choice for new housing design was Poundbury (75% support), a town following a traditional architecture blueprint, spearheaded by Prince Charles.
Study link: Open PDF here
BMRB Research (1998)
A study conducted by the British Market Research Bureau asked participants whether “Old styles are right for new houses” and “New houses should not imitate old houses,” 63.5% believed that old styles were preferable for new builds and 54% thought new houses should imitate old houses with only 25% disagreeing. This survey included both prospective buyers for new houses and those not seeking to buy, and the results were roughly the same.
Chetwood Associates (2004)
British Architecture firm Chetwood Associates commissioned a study asking a group whether they “liked modern architecture.” Only 33% responded positively saying yes and this result was seen evenly distributed across all the wider demographics.
The Journal for the Royal Institute of British Architects (1994)
The RIBA Journal showed research from 1994 where it was indicated that 67% would “prefer an older looking property or copy of an older design” for their house, by implication, only 33% would prefer something less traditional.
Halifax Building Society (1997)
Halifax Building Society commissioned Mulholland Research to sample 302 recent and future buyers. Only 12% said they wanted a house “more innovative and up-to-date in appearance”.
BMRB Research for the Popular Housing Group (1998)
Research undertaken for the Popular Housing Group in 1998 by BMRB had a wide range of findings from a face to face survey of 829 people. One of the results was that only 4.5% wanted to choose a house of modernist design. Interviewees were shown 6 cards with different styles of residential architecture for houses. Two of these styles were specifically modernist and gained very few votes, with only of 1.5% of people for modernist with predominantly glass and 3% for modernist with natural materials.
This list will be further updated if any new studies come to light.
Written and compiled by Radomir Kobryn-Coletti