According to an article published in Common Edge titled “The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture,” the history of modernism was an idealistic impulse that arose from the “physical, moral and spiritual wreckage of the First World War.”
Advances in neuroscience suggest that one reason that modern architecture looked so different from what came before it was because the 20th Century architects had been so traumatized by the devastation in war that they couldn’t see the world in a “typical fashion.” Their new innovations were a clean slate for a new world.
Also, the father of modernism, Le Corbusier, has been diagnosed by forensic psychologists as autistic in recent years, which gave him a very different view of the world.
“For all his genius, Le Corbusier remained completely insensitive to certain aspects of human existence,” biographer Nicholas Fox Weber writes in Le Corbusier: A Life (Knopf 2008). “His fervent faith in his own way of seeing blinded him to the wish of people to retain what they most cherish (including traditional buildings) in their everyday lives.”
Other post-WWI architects, such as Walter Gropius and Mies Van der Rohe, have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, both of them suffering through the German trenches where two million of their countrymen died in four years. Gropius’s story is particularly interesting: as a survivor of a plane crash, when he finally built his own modernist home in Boston, on the other side of the world from where the war was fought, his concrete building resembles a bunker or pillbox, with a flat roof, hidden door, and a machine gun slit. His office had a window four feet off the floor, where no one could see him looking in, and he could only see out by standing up—not unlike a trench.
The article cites psychologists as often saying “fixation drives exploration” and that these war survivors’ fixation on the war changed their exploration of architecture irrevocably.
As Steve Jobs once said, “The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
It makes you wonder what post-Covid-19 architecture will resemble.