As the once-magnificent spire of Notre-Dame de Paris burned last week, some on Twitter lamented that the moment marked the end of Western civilization. Unsurprisingly, the loudest voices in this regard were people like alt-right leader Richard Spencer, who called for the “white man” to “seize power in his countries, in Europe, in the world — then it will have served a glorious purpose and we will one day bless this catastrophe.” Others, like German far-right leader Alice Weidel, used the fire to advance their ongoing anti-Muslim rhetoric, suggesting falsely that Europe is happy to fund the construction of more mosques instead of taking care of its own historic buildings.
In the small world of “Architecture Twitter” — a community filled with thirty- and fortysomethings obsessed with old European buildings — these messages were amplified. “Architects who call for innovation in the restoration of #NotreDame don’t understand the value of ancient buildings,” one wrote. Another, quote tweeting a video of the Cathedral before the fire, opined: “The Notre-Dame cathedral survived through the two World Wars, through Nazi occupation, just to be brought down by a modern restoration attempt.”
It should be noted that few people in this community are architects themselves. Most are simply admirers of particular forms of architecture, like Romanesque, Baroque, Neoclassical and Gothic. And to a passerby, they seem harmless enough. But for those who follow the alt-right, Architecture Twitter has become an increasingly prominent voice in the wider “online culture war,” where people proselytize about a return to “European traditionalism” in all its senses, including everything from “fixed gender roles” to forcibly segregating white people from ethnic minorities.
In particular, they see the construction of modern buildings — especially those built between 1940 and 1970 and distinguished by block-like concrete or glass and industrial materials like steel (see: the Tate Modern in London or the Guggenheim in New York City) — as a physical representation of the threat to “Western values.”
“Buildings broadcast a message. Good and bad architecture can lift, or subdue a message… aesthetic ugliness promotes ugly behavior,” says 35-year-old Paul Joseph Watson, a commentator on Infowars, in a video titled “Why Modern Architecture SUCKS.” Watson refers to modernist architects — those who designed buildings after World War II, like Ernő Goldfinger, Owen Luder and John Bancroft — as “the social justice warriors of their time” who actively “rebelled against beauty.” By creating large concrete tower blocks — often with the intention of building social housing for the poor — Watson believes they attempted to “socially engineer society” like the Soviet Union.
As many architecture magazines and websites have noted, Watson’s critique of modernist buildings is largely inaccurate and exaggerated; it also fails to distinguish between modernism and postmodernism. Nonetheless, his video has received more than a million views since it was first posted in 2017, and was circulated again in the wake of the Notre-Dame cathedral burning.
He’s also far from the only critic to complain about the legacy of brutalism, a style of modern architecture that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s in the U.K., but was developed largely by French architects like Le Corbusier. Brutalist buildings were characterized by simple, block-like structures that often featured exposed concrete and were constructed in the belief that architects should design buildings with their function in mind first and foremost. As a result, brutalist architects would usually prioritize public space over monuments to gawk at. “Many Brutalist buildings expressed a progressive or even utopian vision of communal living and public ownership,” writes Felix Torkar in Jacobin magazine. (To that end, brutalist buildings were often favored by European governments as social housing for impoverished communities.) “The battle to protect them is also a fight to defend this social inheritance.”
But for the social conservatives of Architecture Twitter, that brutalist buildings still stand is testament to the West having lost faith in itself. Last year, ArchitecturalRevival, one of Twitter’s most popular architecture accounts with more than 40,000 followers, was accused of promoting white nationalism under the guise of appreciating “cultural tradition,” “beauty” and a “hyperborean worldview.” These terms, while seemingly innocuous, were, according to the New Statesman, used by Twitter accounts that regularly post content rife with anti-Semitism and Nazi propaganda. While ArchitecturalRevival hasn’t formally apologized or addressed the retweets, the British architectural magazine Archinect reported that in 2017 the account tweeted, “Where there is ugliness, we will bring beauty. Where there is chaos, we will bring order. Where there is vice, we will bring virtue.”
Other traditional architecture accounts that mostly share pictures of old gothic cathedrals and European baroque structures also have been called out for promoting alt-right and far-right figures who use terms like “traditional” to promote anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic content. For example, TradWestern Art has tweeted, “Reading Nietzsche followed by Evola can cure you of atheism,” while claiming that modern architecture is eradicating “white identity.” And MagicalEurope, a 50,000 follower-strong account that posts pictures of “traditional European culture,” has gone as far as to suggest that Turkey isn’t a real country, in an attempt to downplay the influence of Muslim architects in European traditionalism.
“You wouldn’t think it, but Architecture Twitter is extraordinarily weird and unforgiving. There’s been a ‘culture war’ in the community way before it ever came into the mainstream,” says Ben Anderson, an architecture enthusiast who lives in London. (Anderson asked us not to link out to any of his accounts due to fears of being doxxed.) He tells me that he’s always been fascinated with architecture, both traditional and modern styles. Having grown up in South London, where many of the first modernist buildings were built, he saw modernist architecture as “a piece of the city’s history. It was a time when we had a socialist government who actually wanted to help the poor, and there was an idea about housing being a right.”
Though Anderson isn’t a member of any British political party, he explains that the architecture communities he follows started getting political around the 2016 presidential election. “There was this big surge in people joining architecture groups on Facebook and who were tweeting about it. And it would often be this format, where they would, for example, compare the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican to the Shard in London, and they’d basically imply that modern architecture represented the downfall of the West. These were the same accounts that would retweet things from Richard Spencer, or anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic memes.”
He adds that moderators of these groups usually didn’t do anything about it, and that it was rare for Twitter to shut down any of the far-right accounts tweeting about architecture. “They weren’t technically breaking the rules,” Anderson says. “There are a lot of people who would agree that modern architecture doesn’t look good, or that it’s sore on the eyes. They don’t really think about who’s tweeting it, or what retweeting it does. They just see a picture [of a building] and see it as ugly.”
“The alt-right’s fixation on architectural heritage also reflects the notion of ‘metapolitics,’” Hettie O’Brien writes in the New Statesman, referring to a right-wing theory that political domination is rarely about seizing territory or winning elections, but rather taking over culture and ideas. As such, O’Brien argues the right-wing fascination with “traditional” architecture, especially of Christian buildings like cathedrals, isn’t just about marveling at gothic architecture — it’s also a deliberate political strategy, designed to play on vulnerable white people online. “By adopting a visual language of white marble statues, groups such as Identity Evropa [an American neo-fascist movement] have embarked on a culture war to redefine what and, by implication, who, is ‘authentically’ European.”
Anderson says because white nationalism has seeped into Architecture Twitter so deeply, being able to combat it is an “uphill battle.” “It’s not just that there are older people who don’t get what fascism looks like online,” he says. “It’s also that people who do try to fight them end up getting doxxed and harassed, or anti-Semitic slurs are thrown at them relentlessly.”
That’s particularly true if you’re a woman, as Charlotte, 24, from the West of England tells me over Twitter. Charlotte is an architecture student, and though she says she isn’t a big fan of modernist architecture, she experienced “weeks of abuse” by right-wing Twitter accounts when she tried to call out a prominent Architecture Twitter account for promoting Lauren Southern, a well-known right-wing YouTuber who made a video about “traditional values” in relation to gender.
“It was weird that this account, which I followed because it posted blueprints of old buildings, was suddenly promoting all this right-wing content that I didn’t want to see on my timeline,” she remembers. “I was shocked when I saw it and saw how many times it had been liked and retweeted — by architecture accounts too!” But when she attempted to do something about it, she says her mentions were filled with “all kinds of nasty shit” for weeks, eventually forcing her to leave Twitter for a bit. “Things like how I was too ugly to rape, how I was just a left-wing loser who was anti-free speech,” she says. “There was one who basically said that I was an example of the corruption of Western liberalism. An account with a picture of the York Minster as its display picture told me that I was ‘another white woman who degraded herself’ and ‘hated her heritage.’”
While Charlotte is back on Twitter, she rarely talks about architecture publicly now. “I don’t know if that kind of misogyny and racism has always been there,” she says. “But I think it’s definitely increased because of all the right-wing content on the internet, and architecture is just part of that. They just use it to advance their agenda, and buildings — I guess because you can project whatever ideology you want on to them — are just a way for them to do that while they pretend they’re innocent.”
Luckily, there’s a resistance building among left-wing architecture enthusiasts. On Instagram, the hashtag #brutalistarchitecture has received thousands of contributions. Meanwhile, Twitter accounts like Brutalism101, Concretism and This Brutal House frequently promote environmental campaigns like Extinction Rebellion, a direct-action protest group, to raise awareness of the dangers of climate change, particularly to poor communities who still live in brutalist buildings.
“Brutalist architecture isn’t about how the building looks but about the function itself,” says Steve Keen, a photographer who runs the Instagram account Brutalistlondon. For the fortysomething Keen, the style was “never popular, but it’s important to the history of London and the U.K.” He adds that today’s Architecture Twitter battles aren’t new, but rather reflect what he calls “an ongoing obsession” among right-wing groups to destroy social housing. “It’s not that they hate the architecture,” he says. “There are ugly buildings all over London that they don’t complain about at all because bankers work there. They hate [brutalist] buildings because they were designed for the poor and not the rich. It’s why the [British] government doesn’t maintain the buildings properly, why so many have been left to rot.”
Keen, on the other hand, believes maintaining brutalist buildings is critical, especially at a time when income inequality and poverty in the U.K. is at a record high. “The buildings show what a government that cares about the poor could do.”
“Brutalism is bold and true to itself, because it’s an embodiment of postwar egalitarian optimism that many people probably look back fondly on,” adds Ido Vock, a London-based writer who describes himself as having a “soft spot for modernist architecture.” For him, posting images of brutalist buildings on Twitter isn’t just about resisting the right’s use of 18th- and 19th-century buildings. He tells me that brutalism itself is “unfairly maligned” by society, and that few recognize the social significance of such buildings — that is, they challenge “elitist visions of architecture” that’s designed only for those wealthy enough to access them and “represent a belief in ‘public spaces’ and by extension, local communities.”
“People always pick the worst examples of [brutalism] as an attempt to discredit the entire aesthetic,” he continues. “But really it’s nothing more or less than an external finish. Whether a building is good or bad depends on much more than what its walls are finished in.”