Two researchers recently suggested that autism and post-traumatic stress disorder led to the minimalist stylings of Le Corbusier and Gropius.

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Their questions and tools are useful, but there’s danger in mistaking one piece of a puzzle for its entirety.

Modernism, Ann Sussman and Katie Chen implied in their August essay, was a path emerging from neurosis and one that never should have been followed.
Modernism, Ann Sussman and Katie Chen implied in their August essay, was a path emerging from neurosis and one that never should have been followed. © AP

Two researchers recently suggested that autism and post-traumatic stress disorder led to the minimalist stylings of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius. Their questions and tools are useful, but there’s danger in mistaking one piece of a puzzle for its entirety. 

The places we inhabit influence the way we see the world. A military installation or a prison is designed to have a psychological impact as much as day-glow kindergartens and restful hospitals. Equally and inevitably, psychology has shaped architecture. 

Might we discover then that form follows dysfunction? Ann Sussman and Katie Chenhave done so in a provocative piece published last August for Common Edge, “The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture.” Narrowing Modernism down to two crucial figures, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, they suggest minimalist ahistorical buildings originated in part from autism (in the case of Le Corbusier) and post-traumatic stress disorder (Walter Gropius). Modernism, they imply, was a path emerging from neurosis and one that never should have been followed. 

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Sussman and Chen make grand claims as to Le Corbusier’s “hyperarousal” and his inability, rather than simple unwillingness, to maintain social relations. Similarly, they make unsubstantiated insinuations that Gropius’s brain had shrank due to repeated near-death experiences. But speculation over the mental state of two dead men is ultimately unverifiable. What is demonstrably untrue is that Modernism was intrinsically a dysfunctional byproduct of the First World War. Western architecture had been heading in that direction for at least thirty years. This came partly in reaction to the ornate excesses of Art Nouveau and partly due to the influence of Japanese architecture, following the end of the country’s isolationism (Gropius acknowledged the latter in his book, with Kenzō Tange and Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture). The defining credo of “Form follows function” was coined not by a Modernist but by the master of exquisitely decorated 19th century skyscrapers Louis Sullivan.

In Europe, the transition towards minimal architecture had been going on for so long there had already been generational schisms, backlashes, and synthesises. There were already architectural masterpieces in this spirit including Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple (1896-99), Josef Hoffmann’s Sanatorium Purkersdorf (1904-5) and Stoclet Palace (begun in 1905), and Adolf Loos’s Steiner House (1910). Even architects as flamboyant as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Otto Wagner were producing proto-Modernist work leaning towards geometric essentials; the former’s Glasgow School of Art (1897-1909) and unbuilt spaceship-like Concert Hall (1898), and the latter’s Austrian Postal Savings Bank (1903) and steel and concrete Villas (1886-1913). The Modernists sped up this process in an accelerated evolution rather than revolution. 

It could be said that the drive towards order came from the disorder of the industrial age, and attempts to use new technologies to mitigate its evils. Again, this began before Le Corbusier, Gropius, or World War I. Tony Garnier’s recognizably modernist Cité Industrielle (1904-1917) had been initially inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City (1898). Far from being blank for blank’s sake, clean and rationalized space was tied to health and efficiency. Jan Duiker’s Zonnestraal (1925-31) and Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium (1933) are reminders that Modernism focused on the treatment of maladies, not the expression of them, while Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s Frankfurt Kitchen (1926) provided the model for kitchens that wouldn’t slowly grind us down. Far from soulless, a new golden age of church building ran through Modernism, beginning with Frank Lloyd Wright’s remarkable concrete and glass Unity Temple (1905-1908) that aimed to “let the room inside be the architecture outside.” Indeed, concrete had already taken hold before the war, including Auguste Perret’s Rue Franklin Apartments(1902-1904), his Garage Ponthieu (1907), Kahn’s Packard Automotive Plant (1905), and Robert Maillart’s Giesshübel (1910). 

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