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  • Writer's pictureBenny Kuriakose

Failures Of Modern Architecture

Many architects and thinkers have said that the ‘Modern Architecture Movement’ with its tower blocks, apartments, shopping malls, housing layouts etc., is unsuitable from the social, cultural and environmental point of view. But unfortunately, many of the present-day architects and designers do not know their work is hated by the people who live with it. They may accuse the public of lack of taste or for not appreciating the formal qualities of the so-called architecture, which one can only assume to have been built for the admiration of other architects and for the glossy magazines.

List of Contents

Modern Architecture Deviates From The Social Objectives

Criticism on Modern Architecture

Technological Failure

Cultural Failure

Climatic Failure

Ecological Failure

Sustainability is the Way Forward


Modern Architecture Deviates From The Social Objectives

As the construction of thousands of concrete buildings has accelerated people have realized that something is wrong with them. People know that the old buildings are beautiful and suitable for the climate. For the early adherents, the Modern Architecture movement was not separated from the movement against fascism, war, hunger and unemployment. For them, Modern Architecture was the means by which the living conditions of the people, and above all the poorest, were to be transformed better.

Le Corbusier, like many others, such as Frank Lloyd Wright has not dreamt about a concrete city. In taking part in Le Corbusier’s vision and discarding the rest, and then implementing the concept in the meanest possible way, architects violently parted the reality from the vision. Except in Alton West and a handful of other states, there is no trace of gardens in the vertical cities that have been built, and precious little of the architectural quality or the supporting facilities and amenities that Le Corbusier had built into the Unites d’habitation at Marseilles and elsewhere. (MacEwen, 1974)

Criticism on Modern Architecture

  • Although the Modern Architecture movement could have developed in a positive direction, it degenerated into a mere style, and one has to ask what has drained away from the social content and substituted another. Our modern unpleasant cities, with their pollution and stress, are a kind of illness that reflects, not only global environmental sickness, but also a wider crisis in the human condition. (Richards and Plessis, 2001).

  • Jane Jacobs gives a critical account of the state of most American cities, which is true for others as well. “Low-income projects have become worse centres of delinquency, vandalism, and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities” (Jacobs, 1978).

  • The indiscriminate worship of technology and the machine with the naïve belief that technology could provide an architect with any material, shape, or climate he wanted was one of the major reasons which led to the failure of Modern Architecture. In addition, other reasons such as the failure to understand the historical continuity and the importance of organic growth also contributed to the disaster. The growth of the big private and public corporations since the second world war with their desire for expansion, profits, and power led to the draining of the social content from modern architecture. (MacEwen, 1974)

The buildings changing the face of the towns and cities are housing developments, shopping precincts, chain stores, office blocks, hotels and garages. It is these types of buildings conspicuously missing from the architectural awards.

Technological Failure

The Modern Architecture movement believed that exploitation of advanced technology would make buildings not only quicker to build and cheaper, but of a higher standard. Standards were cut, bad enough in small buildings, but disastrous in high structures. In this attempt, a few techniques and materials were positively dangerous to health such as asbestos, paints, cavity insulation, air-conditioning etc. Asbestos was once considered to be a wonderful building material, to be used as a roofing alternative. CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) were initially considered to be non-toxic, but only after destroying large areas of the ozone layer did we realize the danger of using them in the air-conditioning equipments. (Papanek, 1995)

Cultural Failure

The built form, size, appearance and location result, not simply from physical factors such as materials, climate or technology, but from society’s ideas, its forms of economic and social organization, and the beliefs and values which prevail at any one time. Society produces its buildings, and the buildings help to maintain many of its social forms. (King, 1980).

The built environment has both subtle and profound influences on the psychological well being of individuals and entire communities. With urbanization happening all over the world and the adoption of standardized techniques and methods, traditional communities were broken up and forced into new cities and high-rise apartment blocks. Their old interdependence and self-help were destroyed.

Climatic Failure

Even before the energy crisis of 1973, the failure of Modern buildings to cope with a variety of climates was apparent. They relied on technology – artificial ventilation and air-conditioning to provide comfortable conditions. Local and traditional methods that had evolved simple and successful means of achieving comfort were ignored. Large areas of glass were employed in all climates – hot or cold.

“We clad building with reflecting mirror panels, and then build two such structures so close to each other that the temperature between them can build up to more than 71 Deg C during the summer.” (Papanek, 1995)

Ecological Failure

Apart from engaging social issues, the very technology, designed to improve our lives has produced unexpected waste products. Environments that are not energy conserving, buildings built out of the exploitation of the world’s scarce resources such as timber, sand, steel etc., using methods that pollute and produce toxic wastes are performing an assault on the health and sensibilities of human beings.

Building construction accounts for 25% of the virgin wood and 40% of the raw stone, gravel and sand used worldwide each year. Globally, buildings consume 16% of the water, 40% of the energy used annually, and close to 70% of the sulphur oxides produced by the fuel combustion are produced through the creation of the electricity used to power houses and offices. (Dimson, 1996)

The richer countries of the world should feel guilty for statistics that has often been quoted since 1970: 6% of the world’s population consumes more than 35% of its resources. Roughly 70% of the energy used in the United States (which produces more than 25% of the planet’s greenhouse trace gases) is attributable to urbanization: this includes transportation, heating, lighting and power, and the generation of that power itself (Papanek, 1995)

Western modernity is a consequence of western social, economic and industrial circumstances. It has its own shortcomings, not only for the people in the west but also for the environment and resources everywhere. It is neither affordable nor indeed relevant to the economic, social and cultural needs of the rest of the world. The major constraint on sustainable architecture is rarely resource scarcity. What is of major for the future, is the disposal of waste and its consequences, not lack of energy and other resources.

Urban road pollution is now the second biggest killer in Europe, accounting for 60,000 deaths a year from lung cancer, heart disease and bronchitis. Road traffic and urban exhaust air from buildings kill more people than smoking. (Richards et al, 2001). The two areas of imminent resource stress – fossil fuels and climate instability – are both directly influenced by decisions made by architects. The role of architects and city planners are crucial to the survival not just of mankind, but also of natural systems generally. (Richards and Plessis, 2001)

Sustainability is the Way Forward

In the case of the built environment, it is the duty of the architects and designers to see that more sustainable technologies are used. We need to develop new approaches and solutions, which means selecting appropriate technologies, using the best, not the cheapest method of construction, employing life-cycle assessment, seeking out local sources of energy and materials, employing local building skills and know-how. Such a sustainable architecture may have the following characteristics;

  • The architecture should be reversible. Any technology which uses cement and concrete will be irreversible. Once it is done, if the building is to be dismantled, it produces waste materials. On the other hand, timber and steel structures are reversible.

  • Architecture should use fewer energy materials and renewable materials. Steel and cement are very high energy-intensive materials. Generally, less energy-intensive techniques are more labour intensive. However, in a country like India, where cheap labour is available, these high energy-intensive techniques can be used. This will have the dual advantage of reducing construction-related carbon dioxide emissions as well as generating employment.

  • One of the best ways of practising sustainable architecture is the recycling of materials and buildings. Here, conservation of buildings becomes a major strategy for a sustainable built environment. It is absurd to destroy sound structures that can still have a useful life. By doing so, we are burning inherited capital.

The Kerala State Coir Corporation
The Kerala State Coir Corporation Building Was Conserved and Adaptively Reused as a Contemporary Art Exhibition Centre. It Will Later Become the Coir History Museum.

Click to know more about the conservation of the Kerala State Coir Corporation.

In Sustainable Development: the UK Strategy (1994), the Government recognized the importance of urban regeneration in contributing to a sustainable pattern of development that uses “the already developed areas in the most efficient way, while making them more attractive places in which to live and work” It can be argued that all urban regeneration contributes to sustainable development through the recycling of derelict land and buildings, reducing demand for peripheral development, and facilitating the development of more compact cities.

Kottapuam Market waterfront
Kottapuam Market waterfront
The Existing Waterfront Area of Kottapuram Market Was Rejuvenated by Us as Part of the Muziris Heritage Project. This Can Become Model to Spruce Up Other Similar Degenerating Urban Areas.

Click to know more about the revival of the Kottapuram Market area.


For the third world, energy conservation in buildings is not an important issue, compared with rainforest protection or water conservation- (Richards, 2001). The forces that lead to the diverse interpretation of sustainable design are climatic, cultural, professional and social factors. These can easily be overwhelmed by the internationalism of sustainability. A more eco-friendly practice occurs when both local and global issues are balanced.

For instance, India has a tiny environmental impact per capita compared to the west and its examples of sustainable design. What we need is not international sustainable architecture, but an architecture that takes its lessons from our traditional techniques and materials. Generally, the green design can be found in the third world countries and the low-energy high material approach in the developed world.

What is needed at the moment is a blending of the old and new. Traditions can be used for development and the thinking that everything modern is bad (or good) need not be true. The difference between modernization and westernization should be understood. What we need to get rid of is a bad imitation of the West. Sustainability must run as a common thread through all our thinking about the design of our built environment. Thinking about it focuses, in particular, on promoting greener lifestyles, energy efficiency, mixed uses, biodiversity, transport and water quality.


  • Department of the Environment (1994) Sustainable Development: the UK Strategy. HMSO, London.

  • Dimson B (Ngowi), Principles And Challenges of Sustainable Design and Construction, Industry and Environment, 1996,

  • King, Anthony, Buildings And Society, 1980

  • MacEwen, Malcolm, Crisis In Architecture, RIBA Publications Limited, London, 1974

  • Papanek, Victor, The Green Imperative - Ecology And Ethics In Architecture, Thames And Hudson, 1995.

  • Richards, Brian, Architectural Design, Special Issue on Green Architecture, July 2001, Vol. 71, No.4.

  • Richards, Brian and Plessis, Christina du, Architectural Design, Special Issue on Green Architecture, July 2001, Vol. 71, No.4.

For more information on the conservation of buildings and sustainability in architecture, visit the link links given below:

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