Year in Review 2018: Rise of the Alt-Arch

Opinion: The “alt-arch” is the meme-strewn corner of the Internet devoted to the far right’s fetish for the castellated, the timber-thatched, the Baroque, the architecture of authority.

The Twitter account @ArchitecturalRevival posts about the “correctness” of traditional European architecture, those “vernacular” castles and churches that purportedly embody the highest achievements of Western culture.

Superficially, @ArchitecturalRevival appears to be an architecture-themed Twitter account like any other. It posts photos of traditional buildings from around Europe, some familiar (the Palace of Versailles), others more niche (a Victorian brick factory). It’s the kind of thing that might seem comforting, neutral, like the smell of wood smoke. Yet, there is a strange subtext, imperceptible to the uninitiated: a certain tone, bordering on the belligerent and somehow defensive.

Like an angry and confused drunk posing as a wine connoisseur, @ArchitecturalRevival conceals vicious politics behind a civil veneer of traditional architecture. @ArchitecturalRevival is a key player of what could be called the “alt-arch,” the meme-strewn corner of the Internet devoted to the far right’s fetish for the castellated, the timber-thatched, the Baroque, the architecture of authority. Unlike the probing judgment an actual connoisseur might proffer, here there is not a hint of depth or nuance, no critical judgement or expertise, no desire to understand context, but only a superficial attraction to the subject. To the moderators of @ArchitecturalRevival, “traditional” means old and is always to be associated with “beauty” and “order” so as to elide aesthetics with ethics. It revels in solidity of stone construction. This is architecture to set your moral compass by.

Despite its hyper-contemporary methods, the alt-arch is a metastasized development of an older tendency exemplified by the polemics of Léon Krier, an outspoken apologist for the architect of the Third Reich, Albert Speer. Just as the alt-right breaches civility to reveal the ugly underside of right-wing politics, the alt-arch foregrounds the implicit exclusionary biases of Krier’s brand of traditionalism. A jacked-up, 76mbps version Poundbury for the microblogging age, it has opened up a new arena of the culture wars. The alt-arch seems intended for a general audience, those who might say “I don’t know much about architecture, but I know what I like,” who are easily seduced by the false dichotomy of traditional versus Modernist. Yet, among its adherents are also practicing architects—its followers list is just a scroll away.

The generic European culture of the past that the buildings found on alt-arch feeds ostensibly represent is taken to be inviolable, and altogether better than the present we inhabit. The architecture is comforting in its timelessness, but this is also the problem: buildings are not timeless, they come from a specific time and cultural context.

You wouldn’t know it from the images used in alt-arch memes, which all share a hyper-digital aesthetic, itself a combination of HDR, filters, and smoothly rendered graphics. It is a heavily edited world that owes as much to Google search and Photoshop as it does to the Western architectural canon. The memes never really fulfill their roles as memes—as a unit of cultural reproduction—since they do not travel far, never really reaching a broad audience and so are left reverberating in the echo chamber. They are a product of the type of juxtaposition that internet culture both thrives on and generates. It’s the way a timeline works—things that in the past would have been kept apart by geography and time, or at least grouped by the careful hand of an editor or curator, are now smashed together with unfathomable speed.

The phenomenon of traditional-architecture-as-meme is thus intrinsically awkward. The dissonance between the content and the delivery is only exacerbated by attempts to bridge the gap. The awkward memes use serif font, whereas the rest of the internet seems to have agreed on sans-serif, all caps Impact font. If typeface embodies the voice of the writer, then the voice of the alt-arch is English-as-third-language. It’s not that the alt-arch is not fluent in “internet,” it’s just that you can hear the gap between expression and intent. Take this since-deleted tweet from @NordicBeauty:

“Important buildings should evoke a sense of awe and prestige and serve as a monument to their nation.”

So it is in this context that the “classical” and European architecture become elided with European people. By the time we move a few steps down the retweeting chain we reach traditional blood-and-soil ideology. This suggests there is something unsavory latent in the assertion that European architecture and a specific ethnicity are bound together.

While there is an affinity with some forms of recent architecture and the internet—such as the current trend for a kind of ironic pluralist Postmodernism, the contemporary Flemish palimpsest fetishists, or the burgeoning love affair between Instagram and Brutalism—there is a disconcerting dissonance between traditional architecture and the screen. We view an alt-arch meme through the same screen which we stream music videos, check the weather, or order something on Amazon Prime. One second you are liking an image of a dog, and the next you are lending tacit approval to ethno-nationalism. Traditional architecture is thus given the same weight as any other constituent unit of internet.

The architecture is comforting in its timelessness, but this is also the problem: buildings are not timeless, they come from a specific time and cultural context.

When recently the issue of ethno-nationalism was raised with @ArchitecturalRevival, the account admins pushed back hard and doubled-down on some of the rhetoric. What may have seemed initially an unfortunate correlation between their feed and fascist sentiment, now seems more intentional. The content presents an unembarrassed confidence about being associated with fascists. A piece by Sarah Manavis published in the New Statesman over the summer looked more closely at the links between the timelines and the web of connections that constitute the scene. At the time of the report, @ArchitecturalRevival had followed only about 50 accounts, of which “maybe half are architecture twitter accounts and the other half are, broadly, ethno-nationalists,” Manavis quoted an architecture enthusiast as saying. “The account has also shown a preference for cultural conservatives in its ‘likes,'” Krier among them, wrote Manavis.

In disseminating a false dichotomy of traditional and modern, the alt-arch sets up the straw man of the debased new. Ahead of Manavis’s thought-piece, @ArchitecturalRevival tweeted that “Tradition and beauty is [sic] making a gradual comeback. A growing number of architects are rejecting the soulless and anti-traditional modernist ideas of the 20th century.” Of the many questionable points here, the tweet neglects that Modernism was the product of deeply cultured architects who drew from the well of the architectural tradition. Classical references run deep in Modernism’s heroic phase from Tecton to Aalto to Stirling, and the movement was never simply a reaction to what had come before. It’s clear that good architecture, Modernist or not, is not built by philistines.

Surely, the alt-right is nothing if it’s not about culture. Culture is the terrain of opportunists like Steve Bannon, whose filmography is far longer than his political CV. And perhaps architecture, more than the other arts, can encompass a whole culture. It takes so damn long to put together, it necessarily involves a large swath of society, and is often the product of more than a generation of thinking. It holds a set of associations deep within it. But to think, as the alt-arch does, that any specific architecture has fixed meanings or singular interpretations is to misunderstand it.

There are moments in time when you can feel the grip of history. When it is easy to imagine how the everyday media in which you are immersed will one day be shown as evidence in the textbooks of tomorrow of a shift in public mood. Alt-arch memes feel like artifacts from this moment, oddities which actually act as a synecdoche for an era, and they could well be used to explain to people in the future how and why fascism spread once more through society.

You may also enjoy “Year in Review 2018: The Style of Our Time Is Reuse.”

Categories: Architecture