Why are new buildings so…..modern?

Railways administration building, Spencer St

Many Australians admire old buildings like the Windsor and Parliament House, so I’m a little surprised there’re so few new commercial and public buildings with the elaborate decoration and classical references common in nineteenth century buildings. I was schooled in the modernist tradition so I don’t personally regret this absence all that much, but that doesn’t mean I’m not intrigued why there’s so little of it. Here are a couple of conjectures:

The first and probably obvious reason is that high labour costs mean highly wrought decoration simply isn’t affordable anymore. Modernism had to be invented after WW1 because historical styles were simply getting too expensive to emulate. Nowadays, workers with the requisite skills and artistic talent can get better pay and/or status in other areas. Artisans have been crowded out of the building industry by “new” industries like film, theatre, commercial design, media, advertising and, more lately, the web.

But with contemporary technology like CNC machines and the ability to import prefabricated components from low labour cost countries, this isn’t such a convincing explanation anymore. If there’s demand for greater visual complexity, a country like China – which has plenty of flamboyant modernist buildings – could be using its low cost base to construct buildings rich in decoration. These wouldn’t necessarily need to hark back to earlier periods, they might simply celebrate ornamentation and embellishment.

Another reason could be that large organisations are simply not as prepared to invest in the public domain – provide a positive externality – as they were a century ago. Expectations of proper civic behaviour might be much lower now than they were then. As mentioned here by Ajay Shah, companies and governments now have many other ways of signalling their wealth, power and prestige and accordingly don’t have to rely so much on buildings as a key form of communication.

Yet that argument isn’t entirely convincing either. Major buildings are more spectacular in form and scale than they’ve probably ever been (not least in China) – there seem to be an infinite supply of new architectural feats that apparently defy the laws of physics and mechanics (‘feat-urism’?). There still seems to be plenty of demand for buildings that put a lot of effort into how they look to outside observers — it seems like every city in the world wants a gleaming new art musuem designed by Frank Gehry.

Maybe it’s something far more prosaic. With so much demand for daylight and so much low cost glass, perhaps there’s simply not enough surface area to invite decoration or to effectively use the rigid stylistic forms of yore. Or maybe the classical forms are so functionally limiting that the empowered contemporary users of today’s buildings aren’t prepared to tolerate any of the compromises to comfort and utility than nineteenth century users endured as a matter of course.

I can’t of course omit mention of architects. Working within the conventions of a fixed style would be anathema to an ethos that favours the perpetual search for difference and novelty. For a while there Postmodernism picked up some of the forms of historical architecture and combined them with modern elements, but it was still self-consciously modern. Builders provide home owners in the suburbs with houses garnished with period features, but architects don’t do reproductions.

The modernist architectural “style” is a broad and flexible idea that was underpinned by fundamental changes in technology and society – perhaps that explains better than anything else why it has endured for a 100 years.

11 Comments on “Why are new buildings so…..modern?”

  1. Russell says:

    You can easily take in, and appreciate, all of the old buildings like the one you’ve featured. When something goes 40 stories up you can’t see it from the street, unless you’re a mile away, so what’s the point of decorating it?

    Also the decoration on an older building makes it individual, so you can feel in some relationship to it, whereas the scale of the skyscraper prevents you having much of an emotional relationship to it, decorated or not.

    Although we’ve had these blank, featureless commercial buildings for 50 years, it seems to me only in the last 10 years has a similar style become more common for residential buildings – it took a long time to blunt our feelings for expressing ourselves by adding decorative things to our living space. People nowadays seem to aim for interiors that are utterly empty.

  2. Nathan Alexander says:


    Thanks again for yet another thought inspiring piece. A few comments.

    As you mention, the oft-trotted out argument about the cost of ornamentation doesn’t really wash. In these days of laser cutting and pre-cast whatsits, all Australian buildings could be highly ornamented if people wanted it enough, and for very little extra cost.

    However, your suggestion that classical architecture might be too functionally limiting doesn’t really wash either. One could build a contemporary building with all the best standards of comfort and clad it to look like the Railways Administration Building in your photo, and it could easily have better thermal efficiency than most glass-clad buildings.

    Part of the answer to todays’ less ornamented buildings (and generally buildings with less intrinsic visual interest) is that we move around a lot more, and at a higher speed. In the days of horse and buggy, the average person had more time to notice each building they passed, and probably passed a smaller number of buildings, but more often. This put more community pressure on building developers to create beautiful buildings.

    Another part of the answer is that more buildings today than a century ago are put up by developers speculatively rather than by builders for a commissioning owner. Developers have less incentive than owners to create an interesting building.

    A third reason is that glass curtain-wall buildings are simply the cheapest way to clad a large commercial building. What started for stylistic reasons was broadly adopted and continued for purely financial ones.

    A fourth reason is that architects don’t know how to design ornamentation. Modernism wiped out the tradition, and we lost classical architectural ornamentation as a living ‘language’. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are great examples of cultures where the clients are engaged in an ‘arms race’ to attract interest to their developments, and where the traditional buildings and contemporary housing for locals are full of ornamentation. However the large commercial buildings are, with a few exceptions, unadorned. The arms race takes expression in sculptural forms and gigantism. Why? Because the architects are Westerners and don’t even know how to think about ornamentation, let alone do it.

    I’m a designer with a modern aesthetic myself, a child of two Modernist architects. However, as an urban designer, I think we are all the poorer for the loss of ornamental languages in our buildings. I’d love to see architects learn to ornament again.

  3. Alexander says:

    Three words: La Sagrada Familia.

    You might not want what it looks like, but unless you can understand the idea of building a building over decades, you don’t have the right attitude to build anything that detailed. And what do you do when living patterns have change so much it’s useless?

    Melbourne isn’t standing still. We expect everything to change, and we expect our city to change—even if we don’t always like what it’ll do. We just don’t understand the idea of building something to—last.

    I love old buildings, I love La Sagrada Familia, and I find modern & contemporary architecture … well, World War III might be a good idea. But what we’re doing is necessary because of the times we live through and our cultural attitudes.

  4. Russ says:

    Is highly wrought decoration up the building (ala American sky-scrapers of the early 20th century) possible any more? My impression of modern building techniques is that the floors almost “hang” off the central core. A stone exterior would need substantial strengthening, or compromise some important elements like interior space and light (though light makes a building expensive to heat/cool).

    My favourite skyscaper in Melbourne is 333 Collins St, which has an elaborate exterior that reflects and preserves elements of the previous 333 Collins. It is quite unique though. A handful of modern atriums and podiums are quite elaborate, but never classically styled. Perhaps though, that is just a reflection of the types of statements owners want to make with their buildings. Even the government doesn’t seem interested in promoting classical style and its connotations these days.

  5. Bruce Dickson says:

    In considering your latest great question (some particularly excellent ones lately Alan!) it is also interesting to examine the intrigue and interest that seems to have been generated in reverse – when cinematic art designers’ futurist (if not fantasmical) cityscapes are presented to us.

    Some degree of excitement if not admiration always seems to be created by viewing these as well. Admiration for the past and admiration for the future?

    But then again, it could all be about how they appear visually and externally, not necessarily about what it means to actually live in or among them! By way of example, our ornate old iron lace terrace houses look so great and quaint along a streetscape, but try living in one!

    I think the growing levels of appeal found in the trend towards minimalism and clean lines in our housing and more, is because this offers a meditative mental counterpoint to the overwhelming rush of information and data etc that we are now subjected to daily. There is also that link to dejunking and depossessing and freeing the mind that Buddhism has so successfully pointed to as an alternative to the seductions, excesses and downsides of modern life. As a counter to ts stresses and paucity of moments of silence, peace and clarity. That need for time and space to think in more relaxed circumstances.

    Paradoxically, we probably hold a great affection for the older elaborate buildings because they provide the variety from the modern designs and their frequently poorly thought through and delivered end products. Sometime the older way also built into the site and land form more naturally and provided opportunities for intimacy and contemplation of their beauty. The opposite of the openness and streamlined faster sense of pace some modern public buildings can also paradoxically foster.

    These days, it would seem to be the meeting and harmonious merging of the modern with the natural (shades of Frank Lloyd Wright) again with its apparent Buddhist links that marries some of these concepts in a less cold or stark fashion – if this is one of the most damning of criticisms of some modern architecture.

    But again, no simple analysis possible here, because taking your Gehry example, astonishing buildings inspired by screwed up pieces of paper discarded in rubbish bins but delivered with such powerful visual harmony and anarchy also win our attention and praise!

    They would all seemingly have their places in our lives and living environments, and we seem to becoming far more open to seeing them mixed and even contrasting one with the other in our surrounding built environments. Not to say that walking through an intact medieval village or somewhere of great harmony and unity like Florence or Venice does not still feel amazingly good!

  6. Oz says:

    Fad and fashion continually change. Surely no one wants retrograde urban design steps to for example to the 17 Century and turn central Melbourne Southbank into a Tudor village: or Neo-Gothic Revival of 100 years or so ago. Modern architecture needs to still follow the Bauhaus approach of form following function.
    In Melbourne, there are many modern aesthetically pleasing medium density buildings of limited height with interesting balconied facades satisfying the environmental expectations of residents, as well as investment returns to financiers.

  7. rohan says:

    Perhaps you mean ‘why are new PUBLIC and commercial buildings so AGGRESSIVELY modern’; the easy answer is that they are are ‘modern’ ie. contemporary in style because they are new and people generally expect them to be ‘the latest’, not a repro of what was done last century. And recently new techniques have allowed more and more speccy engineering, more unlikely forms and finishes. The important WOW factor. There is also the fact that Modernism has again emerged as triumphant after the experiment of Postmodernism, which allowed for ironic reproduction (eg. the exaggeratedly classical Chicago central library 1993, and numerous Deco revival office towers of the 1980s/90s including our own 333 Collins mentioned above). New public and commercial buildings are often complex and striking, but ‘decoration’ per se or revival styles are not (usually) considered appropriate.

    But almost the opposite is true in single family housing …. just tour around Toorak or Camberwell or any wealthier suburb anywhere in Oz or the US or UK, and even Russia, and you will see revival styles, complete with decoration aplenty. Wrought iron, pilasters, corinthian columns, Tuscan limewash, Georgian windows, Cape Cod classics – they’re all there. In Melb Nicholas Day specialises in new Victorian or Georgian designs – he even gets the materials and proportions right. So ‘people’ do like the old stuff, and often wilingly reproduce it for themselves to live in, but they dont expect their library, art gallery or office block to be cosy and olde worlde.

  8. Russell says:

    When you look at fashion in dress you see the simple vs the decorated changing back and forwards. I was looking at old family photos recently and my great aunts in 1910 are unrecognisable in 1930: from elaborate and decorated hairstyles, layers of clothes and frills, ropes of pearls and broaches … to bobbed hair and almost sheath dresses. I wonder if the disenchantment with imperial, class-ridden styles of expressing prestige after WW1 contributed to the simplification. And decoration, as signifer of status, never recovered in our more egalitarian society. As the egalitarian ethos evaporates, we’re seeing more ostentation in size – perhaps decoration will follow.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think there’s a lot in that view – modernism reflected the ‘zeitgeist’ at the end of the nineteenth century, following a remarkable century of social and economic change (astonishing to think that Darwin published Origin only 41 years before the start of the twentieth century).

  9. mc says:

    Another factor is the highly ornamented buildings take a lot of effort to maintain. With the rise in the cost of labourers, finding people willing to be paid nothing to clean/repaint/etc all the fiddly bits has got harder.

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