Making good art despite the current anti-trend

I’ve had this drafted for two weeks now and decided — in light of how busy I’ve been and will be in the foreseeable future — it’s good enough to post at this point. So here it goes.

You’re probably getting tired of hearing me mention Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, but it really is a stellar text. Worry not, however; this post isn’t about the book. It just mentions some of his observations about le Corbusier, a well-known 20th century architect.

I’ve generally affirmed the Corb, but according to Botton he held to some some very — how shall we say it — knee-jerk ideas about architectural aesthetics in his modern world. Botton is very careful in his choice of words and isn’t necessarily condemning Corb in hist text; he’s only making observations. I will be more blunt here and say that Corb seemed to lack (based on Botton’s observations) an appropriate sense of context.

His sense of historical context as applied to his designs was, seemingly, myopic at best. Corb apparently tossed aside every ounce of history related to the arts and architecture in order to look brazenly towards the future. According to Botton, everything le Corbusier designed related back to modern technological advances. His forms looked like wings of an airplane, for instance, or the lines of an automobile, both very new technologies during his lifetime.

One of the architect’s most significant works is the Villa Savoy. In his drive towards a modern design, the architect pressed the clients for a flat roof. The clients wanted a pitched roof. The architect won, and the roof leaked like a sieve for years. In fact, it leaked right up until World War II, when the Savoy’s were about to sue the Corb who had yet to fix the problem. The designer was spared litigation only when the family fled the Villa on account of the war.

It seems to me that Le Corbusier suffered from a common artistic affliction, a single focused desire to be a part of something new and different. He thought he was doing right by designing buildings that staunchly reflected what he perceived to be an accurate interpretation of the way things were going, but in doing so he ignorantly ignored history and history’s practical lessons.

Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut

The newest -ism is almost assuredly an opposing reaction to the previous era, and more often than not a knee-jerk that leaves pretty much all of that previous era in the dust. The new ideas generally seek to be completely different (Did no one else in my generation see the irony in how Alternative music ceased to be alternative once it was enough of a movement to be called alternative?). This may be more pronounced over the last two or three hundred years, but during these recent centuries the pendulum will not rest. It swings back and forth in reaction to the previous -ism, not conscious of how similar it’s complaints and goals are to the generation just 30 years its senior.

Good art isn’t necessarily reactionary. Just because a work of art aspires to the newest ism, the newest new idea, does not make it a successful work.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

3 Responses to Making good art despite the current anti-trend

  1. Tim J. says:

    Never been a huge fan of le Corbusier. Always interesting to look at, but not the sort of spaces I would like to inhabit. I find them cold… inhuman, in a way. More like the abode of some emotionless alien race. Like Vulcans.

    The Bauhaus, too. Very cutting edge (at the time), visionary… but cold and not fun to be in over time. I say this having done most of my Masters work in the Fine Arts building at the U of A, designed by Edward Durrell Stone, who had been heavily influenced by the European Modernists. It may have made people all tingly at the time – being so different – but it is a dull, dull place to *be*.

    And, yeah, the fascination with flat roofs and other impractical elements was just poor design.

  2. pNielsen says:

    The Bauhaus had some good ideas, especially in relationship to the changes the industrial revolution brought along, as I recall. The ones I remember preferring were not architectural, in general.

    However I’m partial to a lot of flat roofs. The prairie style is very homey in my opinion, and usually avoids the cold and inhumane spaces you — and I — find, well, cold and inhumane. Of course, there are ways to make a roof look flat even when it’s not, and technology has found better ways to keep the elements out since the 1920’s too.

  3. Tim J. says:

    I may have been throwing some memories of de Stijl into my impressions of the Bauhaus architecture. Similar themes.

    So much is relative to the culture. If I were Dutch, I might feel differently about living in a de Stijl house. It might strike me in a different way.

    The problem with the U.S. is that in so many ways we all seem to have agreed not to have a culture, so there’s no substantial context for anything. Call it the “Whatever” style.

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