- Aug 11, 2019
- Reaction score
How Autism Spectrum Disorder and PTSD following World War I shaped 20th century architecture and design.
Fascinating article exploring the origins of modernist architecture. IMO while it makes good points it still feels a bit too explanatory for me to take it without a grain of salt.How did modern architecture happen? How did we evolve so quickly from architecture that had ornament and detail, to buildings that were often blank and devoid of detail? Why did the look and feel of buildings shift so dramatically in the early 20th century? History holds that modernism was the idealistic impulse that emerged out of the physical, moral and spiritual wreckage of the First World War. While there were other factors at work as well, this explanation, though undoubtedly true, tells an incomplete picture.
Recent advances in neuroscience point to another important factor: one reason modern architecture looked so different than past constructions was because its key 20th century founders literally didn’t see the world in a “typical” fashion. They couldn’t. Their brains had been either physically altered by the trauma of war or, like Le Corbusier, they had a genetic brain disorder. And while their recommendations for “good design”—a new world, a clean slate—certainly reflected their talent, ambition, and drive, their remedies also reflected their brains’ specific disorders.
Eye tracking people with autism can help us understand why Le Corbusier remained blind to others’ views—he literally couldn’t process visual stimuli normally. And the autism diagnosis can also help us better understand why his architecture turned out the way it did. This is quite important. For it turns out people on the spectrum often struggle not only with social relations but with visual overload referred to as hyperarousal. So, no surprise, then, that Le Corbusier would streamline Villa Savoye, built near Paris in the early 1930s (above, at left), to the point it suggests a box on stilts rather than what it was: a wealthy couple’s country retreat. No wonder his National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, Japan, completed some two decades later (at right) would feature so much blank concrete. Le Corbusier’s designs are a likely response to his atypical brain; he was striving to limit stimulation, wrestling to calm a brain abuzz.
Gropius’s war experiences were particularly horrific; seriously wounded on the Western Front, he also survived a plane flight where the pilot had been shot dead. So, when he built his own home in a Boston suburb, (in Lincoln, MA, 1938) two decades later, and three thousand miles away from where he saw military action, he put the building on a remote hilltop far from the street. Its front façade and overall form suggest a concrete pill box or duck blind, complete with flat roof, hidden door and slit windows, the better to shoot from. His home office has a front window with a sill more than four feet off the floor—no one could possibly see him inside from outside and he could only see out when standing up (not unlike a WWI trench). The brain of a war veteran may forever mix past with present, struggling to find safety ever after; the terrorized subcortical parts of his brain, stuck at the Front, directing every move of the design.
Why should it matter that the people who gave us modern architecture in the 20th century had traumatic brain damage and disorders? For one, the information reframes our understanding of how modern architecture came to be. We can now better understand, at least in part, why modern buildings look so different than older or traditional ones: relationally-compromised people with atypical “fixations” and emotional regulation came up with the architectural approach, abetted by a wounded world rushing to bury the past and an economic power structure all-too-willing to profit from it.