Diamant on trad in Europe

Image of European street scene atop blog of Michael Diamant.

Below is a guest column by Michael Diamant, a connoisseur of architecture living in Stockholm and founder, in 2012, of the website New Traditional Architecture. He is expected to participate in the annual meeting of the Traditional Architecture Gathering set for Feb. 26-28 on Zoom. It is sponsored by Nir Buras of the Classic Planning Institute and Patrick Webb of the American College of the Building Arts. Diamant replied as follows to my request, on behalf of TAG 4, for information on trends in Europe.

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In general I see things going more or less the same way as the last year. A handful of very excellent projects, a much larger number of general or mediocre ones. The wheel tracks of each individual country have moved little. Somehow, no country in Europe can have it all, but generally they are good in one area.

Germany: Good in scale and proportion but generally very strict, white and with little or no ornamentation. Problem here is a lack of growth in the number of new classical architects, despite an active countrywide organisation promoting new classical and new traditional.

Russia: The most creative architects here work under municipalities that are bad at upholding regulations. Russian building projects are forced by developers to be over-dimensioned, ruining streetscapes and aesthetics despite talent, creative decoration and ornamentation. But as individual architects they really push things forward and are talented and creative.

UK: Excellent projects in both scale and quality, but quite boring and zero push forward. I fear the 19th century will never end there.

France: The best at tradtional urbanism by far. New traditional architecture is very common but in the form of low quality “construction company classicism.” Scale is excellent and streetscapes are improved, but as individual projects they are mostly pastiche, with typical modern balconies facing the street rather than the courtyard.

Hungary: A world of its own, as always. Many notable classical reconstruction projects and lots of new vernacular projects. Their own new Hungarian organic style (which is not as good as previous traditional styles) is quite popular with institutions. If their organic school would move towards more classical and traditional styles, this is the country where you would see the first complete return of classical instead of modernism.

Poland: Large-scale reconstruction and restoration projects. New buildings are vernacular and mostly private, suburban projects. Has the largest student body in Europe interested in becoming classical architects. May also become the first European country to have classical architecture as a program at university.

Belgium: Excellent new vernacular villas, a few high-quality multifamily projects in villages and the suburbs of larger cities. Dreadful modernist developments in the cities replacing classical architecture.

Sweden: The paradox: few new projects but the best national discourse. Building new classical is debated all the time in all the big newspapers. The new trend is municipalities demanding classical construction in their development plans. While this is good, lack of knowledge and expertise is a huge problem.

Netherlands: Reasonably abundant but very boring. Their best projects are the many urban repairs where they replace 1960s eyesores with traditional-looking designs.

These are the main players, but things are happening all over Europe. The positive thing that has come out of this past year is the increase in many places in knowledge of and interest in traditional design by the public and architects and architecture students. Students from places like Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia have contacted me to learn more about studying classical architecture. A summer school in classical architecture was started in Sweden four years ago and last year a summer school in classical architecture was started in Brussels.

Generally speaking, there will be little improvement in each country if they don’t learn more about what is happening in other countries so they can be inspired. The key is higher expectations by municipalities, I would say.

Regarding the U.S., Latin America, Australia and New Zealand things are of course moving forward. From my outsider perspective, the U.S. builds amazing projects yearly in lousy urban settings or in suburbia.

The dream would be if American architects could start building in European urban settings. In Latin America I would say that the biggest trend is that RAMSA [Robert A.M. Stern Architects] has established itself in Peru with their fourth and fifth multifamily project under construction. This North American thrust into Latin America cannot be understimated. You will problably see RAMSA designing projects (in their New York-style classicism) all over Latin America in the coming years, transforming the luxury market.

— Guest post by Michael Diamant

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Do people really feel beauty?

The Korenmarkt in Ghent, in the Flanders section of Belgium. (ttnotes.com)

I recently received an interesting comment from a frequent visitor to my blog. John the First, as he styles himself, quoted from my January 31 post, “Learn more about classicism,” that “Europeans are surrounded by beauty.” He wrote:

I live in the centre of the city of Ghent, the famous “Korenmarkt” being around the corner, with an overwhelming amount of historical buildings, cathedrals, churches, castles, mini castles and a great deal of former aristocratic residential buildings. Actually in context of the crude aesthetics of modern commerce, the blind rush of mass man consumerist, and the narcissism of tourists, these buildings appear like ghosts from the past. It doesn’t even appear to me that the always in a hurry, eating or smartphoning fastfood crowds notice them and really enjoy them. The tourists are out to photograph themselves with the buildings on the background.

My reply went out almost immediately:

You are too hard on them, John. I had no idea you lived in Belgium. Congratulations. But does someone enjoying the scene need to stand there drooling in front of this or that building? Or may they consciously or unconsciously experience an elevated mood or sense of pleasure deriving from the beauty of where they are that is distinguishable from what they might feel in an ugly, sterile, modernist environment? Even if only one in ten feels the specific joy of a beautiful set of buildings such as you describe in Ghent for a moment or two, the value of the beauty is manifest. And you have no idea whether someone doing a selfie is also enjoying the beauty behind him or her, who chose to take the shot in a place of beauty rather than a place of ugliness, yes?

Yes! Admit it, John, you have not reckoned with the power of beauty.

I am reading the new, 60th-anniversary edition of Henry Hope Reed’s classic The Golden City, originally published in 1959. It is one of my bibles, and a full-throated defense of classical architecture at a time when it had almost died out in America. “The Modern,” as the style was called by Reed with a gentle twist of his lips, had replaced traditional design not just in America but in most of Europe. As I pointed out in my post, with so much of the old remaining in Europe as a model for its architects and city planners, it was baffling that the Europeans had been snookered as badly by the modernists as we Americans, and that their design elites were even more intent upon crushing traditional design practices than their confederates on this side of the pond.

In Europe and America, between World War I and World War II, the traditional design establishment surrendered without a fight. European modernists (those of Great Britain included) rebuilt bombed-out cities in styles that almost make one pine for the ruins. Prince Charles was right to say of London that “[y]ou have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings it did not replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”

So how did the modernists manage such a thoroughgoing design revolution between the two wars? It’s too complicated a question to address here. Suffice it to say the revolt against beauty was as thorough as it was unnoticed – until Reed. His Golden City begins with a long set of photographs comparing what had been built before and what all too often replaced it in New York City. The photos need no exegesis. (Though of course he provides one, with his patented brio.) Anyone looking at the before and after would agree that a great wrong has been perpetrated not just on New York but on the world. Reed explains:

It is the absence of ornament in the Modern city that most betrays its unreality. The real world is not a desert, unpeopled and solitary; the real world is full of life and of the reminders of life. (“I plead for decoration,” Clifton Fadiman has written, “man is an ornamental animal.”) An essential part of it is reflected in the ornament about us, from the dolphin-headed coffee spout at the Automat to the Statue of Liberty in the harbor.

No doubt this is as obvious to the people at the Korenmarkt in Ghent as anywhere else. Every human being spends a lifetime experiencing architecture on a daily basis, and thus is capable of judging the art of architecture more naturally and more ably than, say the arts of painting or poetry. Only architects have had their human sense of beauty “educated” out of them at architecture school.

The historic preservation movement has saved many thousands of buildings in Europe and America (among all too many losses). But the ancient idea of using the inspiration of the past to build anew has been unaccountably slow to revive in an era where the ugly continues to maintain its stranglehold on the beautiful.

Beauty remains under assault in the world of architecture, but it reigns supreme in the eyes, hearts and souls of everyday people.

Note the lonely modernist hulks shunted by the Belgians to the outskirts. (continenthop.com)

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Wrong building, wrong place

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Proposed 12-story tower in the Jewelry District of Providence. (Pebb Capital)

A friend just sent me William Morgan’s piece at GoLocalProv.com, published today, about the proposed Corso Building, which was approved by the city in 2019 but has recently been downsized from twelve to nine stories. I repled, “I totally agree with Will here but then why does he go —- it up near the end of his piece by writing: ‘Why not some exciting, innovative architecture for what is also called the Innovation District?’ Totally the reverse of what he said in his first paragraph.” I then linked him to my October 2019 post on the same subject, which is below:

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Mark Patinkin, a columnist for the Providence Journal, wondered in Friday’s [October 2019] paper “Is Providence turning into the city of ‘no’?” He rushes to the defense of a newly proposed building in the Jewelry District that is opposed by the Jewelry District Association and others. Mark, who is famous for his affection for Rhode Island, makes vital errors of judgment that amount to a profound misunderstanding of Rhode Island, its capital city, and why its citizens love it.

Mark, you are in good company, because the Jewelry District Association, the Providence Preservation Society and others make the same error. Here’s how he opens his piece:

Critics are opposing a tall modern building near Providence’s open 195 land. No, not the Fane Tower. That’s 46 stories. Now they’re against one that’s 12 stories. They say that’s too tall, as well.

That’s what we’ve come to. …

Yet this cool new building is even opposed by the Jewelry District Association, which is leading the fight against the Fane Tower. At 46 stories, the tower is admittedly controversial, but for the association to also oppose a well-designed 12-story building makes it come off as a Dr. No Society, against everything.

The opposition is no doubt creating a dilemma for Providence’s Downtown Design Review Commission [DDRC], which has to evaluate the proposal. Part of their job is to listen to neighbors. But their main job is to have a vision for Providence’s future.

The Fane tower is opposed by many because of its height, as is the 12-story building proposed by a group including Michael Corso, a key figure in the 38 Studios scandal. The case against the Fane’s height is solid. In 2014, the city, with major input from citizens, passed a zoning plan that set a height limit of 100 feet. The Fane proposal for a 600-foot limit was rejected by the DDRC, but city council passed a law to change the limit to 600 feet and overrode Mayor Elorza’s veto of that legislation.

The council action seriously destabilized Providence’s development process to the detriment of its business climate. Opponents and a lawsuit are not trying to disrupt the regular development process but to fix it.

Compared with opposition to the Fane tower, the call from the JDA and others to oppose the Corso tower because of its 12-story height doesn’t cut the mustard. Arguing that this is too tall does indeed express what Mark says. It “makes us come off as a Dr. No Society, against everything.”

But Mark is missing the forest for the trees.

Important as it is in opposing the Fane tower and as unimportant as it is in opposing the Corso tower, height is not the key factor in either case. What’s important is much deeper than height. It is the character of the city.

It is the design of the Corso tower, which Mark calls “well-designed,” “cool,” a “jewel,” that matters. The photo atop this post clearly shows the design’s aesthetic problem. The building does not fit. Even if it were half or a third as tall it would not fit. But legally speaking, too, Mark is wrong. Providence’s comprehensive plan and zoning laws for downtown and the Jewelry District demand again and again that “new development [be] compatible with the existing historic building fabric and the historic character of downtown.”

Most people outside of the design process do not really have the language or vocabulary to express why “fitting in” is important. The developers, the designers, the planning bureau staff and most of those paid to frame the debate over how Providence will look believe that the public’s taste and its mostly traditional views on design are not cool, are behind the times and beneath contempt. In fact, the average citizen has ideas about architecture that are far more sophisticated than those of the experts, however intuitive and subconscious the average person’s ideas may be.

So organized opponents of the Fane and the Corso buildings studiously ignore both the popular opposition to design that does not fit and municipal laws against design that does not fit. The JDA supported the new Wexford Innovation Complex, even though its design fits in just as poorly as does the design of the Fane tower. Naturally, developers and the municipal planning department have also ignored these mandates for many decades. And the latter are, after all, beholden to politicians, whose attitudes more closely align with voters than with various architectural experts and municipal planning staff. The result is an official development process that tilts toward confusion rather than clarity, promoting higher developer cost and delay.

Why should new buildings fit into the historical character of an old city like Providence? Is that more important than growing the economy? In fact, it is vital to growing the economy. The reason why starts with a disastrous wrong turn that architecture made a century ago.

Advocacy organizations such as the JDA and PPS buy into a false narrative of architectural history. It divides architecture into a “past” and a “future” that disadvantages styles that most people like and favors styles that most people dislike. It is based upon an error made a century ago by a small coterie of European architects who believed that cities should reflect the character of machinery and break from tradition. Instead of evolving slowly as practices advance from generation to generation, novelty was prized – but only if it embraced a marketing ploy designed to reflect a false-face “future.”

The result has been architecture and city planning that evoke the metaphor of sleek machinery and technology but have failed to provide the promised efficiency or social progress. It is nevertheless protected from criticism by all of the leading institutions of the profession, from the American Institute of Architects down all the way down to the professional staffs of places like the JDA, the PPS and the Downtown Design Review Commission. This closed feedback loop has seriously damaged our society, imposing self-destructive practices on the professions and industries that build our cities.

The long and the short of all this is that most people involved in the development process obey the dictates of those who think any building designed for today has to look like “the future.” In fact, any building built today is of today, neither the future or the past, and it is the duty of planning officials, working with citizens, to define what that should mean.

Or, as Mark put it:

Part of their job is to listen to neighbors. But their main job is to have a vision for Providence’s future.

This, really, is the basic idea behind Mark’s column; it’s just that he does not understand the import of his own words. Given the broken feedback loop, that is understandable. Still, to the extent that the Corso tower’s “cool” new design reads “machine,” to that extent it offends the sensibilities of most citizens of the city Mark professes to love. I am sure that’s not what Mark wants. The work Mark looks back upon fondly that reopened the city’s rivers and restored its old commercial downtown was traditional. He should keep that in mind. He needs to scrape the architectural moss off his back. Mark needs to open himself up to “new” ideas. Today, oddly enough, designing traditional places that people love is the “slow architecture” movement that is assaulting the ramparts of conventional modernism.

Historical character and “fitting in” mean different things in Providence and, say, in Houston. If Providence wants to remain uniquely attractive and open to genuine economic growth based on its physical allure, its elites – nudged maybe by a reawakened Mark Patinkin – must confront their prejudices and act to save the city from a slow ruination now well under way.

***

Below are photographs of the Jewelry District taken this morning [October 2019] near the proposed Corso tower that show the area. It is mostly a mixture of fine old brick factory buildings of greater or lesser size, some smaller brick buildings, and more recent crud, large and small. Although no high-quality historical buildings would be demolished for the Corso, both 151 and, especially, 155 Chestnut, the first two shots below, minimal as they are, add more to the district than would be added by the Corso tower. If erected, it and other buildings of recent vintage have pulled the district toward a mishmash that undermines its historical character.

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And finally, two more views pertinent to the changing character of the Jewelry District:

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Historic mill architecture in Jewelry District. (Norbert iImages)

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View from new pedestrian bridge to Wexford complex in I-195 corridor. (GoLocalProv)

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Driehaus for Treese of Mainz

Apartment building in Berlin designed by 2021 Driehaus Prize laureate Sebastian Treese. (STA)

Perhaps it makes sense that Europeans have received the four of the last five Driehaus prizes. One went to a Thai. At the risk of appearing nativist, the last American laureate was the Florida architect Scott Merrill (2016). This year’s deserving recipient has just been announced by the architecture school at the University of Notre Dame. Sebastian Treese, of Germany, is part of an admirable European trend toward traditional architecture that may be outstripping the strides being made on this side of the Atlantic.

I expect to be posting more on European trends soon.

Some of the traditional design in Europe is dodgy – less so than in the U.S., of course – but European architects have the great advantage of working in Europe, where urban settings have survived intact, effectually surrounding European designers with excellent models of beauty in their craft. The work of Treese, who was raised in the city of Mainz, fits superbly into its settings. His apartment building Eisenzahnstrasse 1, in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district, is a good example. His firm’s website (linked above) describes its stylish design:

The façade’s clear horizontality – a nod to Haussmann’s Paris – is emphasized by the strong, continuous lines of the balustrades. The central, gently curved avant-corps resting on tectonically credible consoles carefully maintains the horizontal nature of the façade. Historically, residential buildings in Berlin were erected as plastered masonry structures, and Eisenzahnstrasse 1 was conceived of and realized in the same material. As a result, despite its peculiarities, the building seamlessly blends into its surroundings to complement the existing streetscape.

In short, Treese’s design reflects the innovative “peculiarities” common to centuries of classical and traditional work. His apartment house takes not only its horizontality from Haussmann’s Paris but its curved vertical bays from styles associated primarily with the Baroque, throughout Europe but originating in Italy. It is only in the imaginations of modernists wearing their Pevsner-shaded glasses that classical and traditional work is divided up into “periods” so distinct that they cannot appropriately inspire work in any other era (such as our own). In fact, these historicist periods blend from one to the next so extensively, and take their inspiration from so many sources, that distinct styles within distinct temporal windows are difficult to find in genuine architectural history.

This knowledge suffuses the work of Treese and the best classicists of Europe (and America). Nevertheless, even in the highest reaches of classical orthodoxy, such as, I’m afraid to say, Notre Dame, the impulse remains strong to fudge the difference between work inspired by tradition and the experimental work that still dominates today in Europe and America. For example, the Notre Dame press release announcing Treese’s prize reads:

His buildings enrich the urban settings where they are constructed, and upon reflection it is clear that they are imbued with a rich understanding of historical precedent.

How long, really, must one “reflect” in order to conclude that Treese’s buildings are “imbued with a rich understanding of historical precedent”? It seems to me that only those whose understanding of architecture is marinaded in the failed orthodoxy of modernism would need to reflect for more than one or two nanoseconds to reach that conclusion. The press release continues:

The firm is reinterpreting the lessons of the past to produce a new traditional architecture and urbanism that embodies the culture, climate and physical order of existing places. …

The firm is not “reinterpreting” anything, so far as I can tell. That is what modernists do. Rather, Treese and his colleagues are making use of techniques and design philosophies common to generations of architects until traditional architecture was almost snuffed out by modern architecture.

Maybe I am being too picky, and I suppose that in today’s world, saying that an architect is just doing what architects did for centuries would be coming too darn close to asserting that they lack creativity. That is not true of Sebastian Treese, as I’m sure most close observers of the Driehaus Prize and Notre Dame recognize. Philanthropist Richard H. Driehaus and the School of Architecture at Notre Dame have handed out this award – worth $200,000 to recipients – since 2003, when the excellent Leon Krier, a native of Luxembourg, won for his architecture, his theories, and his witty sketches explaining why traditional architecture and urbanism are more humane than modern architecture. Keep up the good work!

[The original version of this post failed to note that one of the last five Driehaus laureates, OngArd Satrabhandu (2020), is Thai. Also, the Driehaus Foundation itself is not involved in the awards program.]

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Save Lille’s Chapel St. Joseph!

Chapelle Saint-Joseph, in Lille, slated for demolition in late February. (LaVie.fr)

The Chapelle Saint-Joseph, in Lille, situated in the northernmost tip of France, should remain standing in testimony to the beauty of France. The chapel has been abandoned by the city government. The French ministry of culture has refused to classify it as a monument worthy of preservation. Its demolition and replacement by a mammoth and culturally insensitive university complex is set to begin in earnest late in February.

The preservation organization Urgences Patrimoine and its founder Alexandra Sobczak-Romanski seek interim relief before the president of the administrative court of Lille to delay the demolition. The ministry’s decision in November refusing to classify the chapel can be addressed thereafter if its supporters are granted time to persuade the minister of culture, Roselyne Bachelot, that her predecessor’s deputies have offered poor advice. The chapel would be replaced by a huge university edifice in a modernist architectural language insensitive to the surrounding campus of the College of Saint-Paul, designed by August Marcou, architect of the chapel and the Palais Rameau nearby.

Chapelle Saint-Joseph should be saved, and the proposed educational facility, incorporating the chapel, should be designed to fit into its setting. The resources are there to pursue such an alternative.

The fight to save Chapelle Saint-Joseph, built in 1880-1886 near the already protected palace, takes place against the backdrop of a broad international movement to protect the world’s fragile built heritage, including recent new elements of that movement that promote new development sympathetic with its surroundings. The British government has just announced reforms in the local development process that boost the public’s role in judging a project’s beauty. In the United States, the new administration will soon decide whether to carry forward with its predecessor’s mandate to favor tradition in government architecture going forward.

France has already decided to rebuild the damaged Cathedral of Notre-Dame in its historical style. Surely the president, the senate and the ministry of culture felt the pressure of the French citizenry in their quest to protect France’s greatest landmark. No doubt France feels akin to the Americans in their dominant preference for tradition over experimentation in architecture, a preference identified as nearly three-quarters by the Harris polling organization this past October – a finding that only confirms longstanding evidence of the popularity of tradition from both anecdotal and academic sources.

What sense could it make to save the Palaise Rameau and the College of Saint-Paul if in the end their beauty and their sense of place are to be smothered by an architectural elephantiasis within their midst? Saint-Joseph’s unique architecture – “eclectic,” the ministry avers – is a reason for not against its classification as a monument. Its Gothic virtuosity is remarkable. Its style carries the lovely whiff of Sainte Chapelle. Its embellishments inside and out, and especially its overhanging complex of bell towers, are enough to justify the chapel’s classification. Étienne Poncelet, chief architect of the monuments division, notes the chapel’s curious layout based on the number seven: the nave’s seven bays, the choir’s seven bays, the seven apses evoking the pilgrimage to the seven Roman basilicas.

It may be seen as less than fair, indeed as discriminatory, for the French ministry of culture to focus its protective concern so much on Paris, leaving the heritage of the exterior districts up for grabs in the commercial rumble and tumble of our age. Lille, or at least the citizens of Lille, and the citizens of the world who might visit Lille, deserves its beauty in spite of itself. Chapelle Saint-Joseph deserves to live. Its demolition, when there are alternatives that serve the interests of both sides, would be a crime against the history and the culture of France. Please do not let it happen!

Here is the email of the organization seeking to save the chapel: urgences.patrimoine@gmail.com

Preliminary work to gut the chapel has already begun. (archyde.com)

X marks site of chapel within grounds of the College of Saint-Paul. (paj-mag.fr)

The replacement block proposed by the school that owns the building. (Saison Menu Architects)

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Mandating beauty in Britain?

Illustration of British street types in proposed “Living with Beauty” reforms. (UK)

How thrilling to read that Great Britain’s housing ministry has just issued a proposal to bring beauty and the public more to the forefront of planning and design decisions on the Sceptered Isle. Is this a “mandate” for beauty? Certainly not in the sense that President Trump sought to mandate beauty via executive order. It remains to be seen how President Biden will follow up on the potential for unity it embodies. Much as I recognize the strength the Trump E.O. would have placed behind the ideal of beauty – and tradition – others rightly note that a mandate may not be the only way to do it.

Nevertheless, the skeptic in me recommends that Brits “count the spoons,” as one observer put it after placing the new proposals in the context of other developments in British planning circles, not to mention the difficulty of reforming the bureaucracy in charge of a huge and rapacious industry.

The proposed reforms of the “Living with Beauty” policy proposals arise from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, chaired by the late classicist Sir Roger Scruton. The proposals were announced on February 30 by the housing minister, the Rt. Honorable Robert Jenrick, M.P.

I never read “Living with Beauty,” the final commission report issued after Scruton’s return to its chairmanship, from which he was unfairly dismissed. I read the interim report by Scruton’s replacement, Nicholas Boys Smith, issued before Scruton’s reinstatement (upon his return, they shared the chairmanship). I have looked through the new National Model Design Code.

Such reports normally strive to be diplomatic, and the same may be said of the new policies just announced. Scruton and Boys Smith shared an understandable reluctance to define beauty or to set standards in ways that go up the craw of the modernists with excessive vigor. While frankly guilty of producing the conditions that the new policy will try to correct, modernists cannot (alas!) be excluded from the new process going forward.

The result of this diplomacy is a definition of beauty that you could drive a truck through, and a reliance on the repetition of ideals to assure their achievement. A press release from the housing ministry said of the new proposals:

The measures mean the word “beauty” will be specifically included in planning rules for the first time since the system was created in 1947 – going back to a previous time when there was a greater emphasis on whether a building was considered attractive to local people.

The proposals are silent on defining beauty, except for repeating the word again and again, and associating it with qualities with which few would disagree. Aside from promoting “good quality design” over “poor quality,” the proposals offer little genuine guidance, obviously a difficult task if not tackled straightforwardly. Too much diplomacy is an invitation to those comfortable with the system and its attitudes to try to avoid reform and prolong comfort. Design quality, it may be supposed, is no less in the eye of the beholder than beauty.

On the other hand, the fact that a commission was charged with lifting beauty and the public out of the mire, with new proposals to carry out a new emphasis on both, would be totally inconceivable without the prior work and the recent participation of Scruton, Boys Smith and others who recognize the value and popularity of tradition. Likewise, tradition in architecture has gotten a lift from Trump’s executive order, which caused a rumpus that put classical architecture in the news like nothing before. (The U.S. has no equivalent to Prince Charles.)

Many classicists joined modernists in criticizing Trump’s order, mostly because either they disliked the idea of a mandate, even as they ignored the existing mandate in place since 1962 – or, in some cases, they just hated Trump. The torrid attack on Trump’s order by establishment modernists was sufficiently ridiculous to have been fully understood by the general public.

No doubt such a process will proceed in Britain with the “Living with Beauty” proposals. Studies there have identified how differently modernist architects and the public view traditional and modern architecture. And a poll by the Harris organization found in October that some three-quarters of Americans prefer traditional to modern architecture across a wide demographic spectrum, at least for federal buildings and courthouses. It is perfectly likely that Britons, and for that matter peoples around the world, have similar attitudes.

Despite the diplomatic language of the new reforms, their intent is crystal clear.

It may be too soon to judge how the modernist establishment in Britain will react to the new proposals. However attenuated, the “Living with Beauty” policies are sure to have a positive influence. Developers will have to actually listen to the public. They will have to wiggle around rules in which the concept of beauty, however defined, is set in concrete. They never had to do this before, and they might find it difficult now. And yet maybe the new proposals will be so easy for developers and modernists to get around that their associations will not bother to object. Or maybe the reforms will just be ignored. It has happened before. That is likely only in the unlikely event that the public, so active in recent years, retreats back into its shell. Even so, the new rules will open doors for the public to object to projects they do not consider beautiful by their own definition.

Maybe this is how Biden should approach the issue raised by his predecessor.

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Learn more about classicism

Androssan mansion, by Horace Trumbauer, inspired “The Philadelphia Story” (HouseHisTree)

Alexis de Tocqueville discovered, during his visit to our country in the early 1830s, that we Americans form more associations to pursue civic goals than in Britain or, I suppose, in France, his native land, else he would not have thought such a finding to be of interest. His concern was only with “the associations that are formed in civil life and which have an object that is in no way political.”

This is certainly true of Americans interested in pursuing the classical revival in architecture. I am a member of the TradArch list, which I’ve mentioned many times on this blog. It is a forum to discuss architecture, and those who insist on dragging politics into these discussions are often admonished by those who run the list. I am also a member of the Pro-Urb list, whose focus is more on urbanism than architecture, though the subjects are far from unrelated. More specifically, topics discussed often arise from the Congress of the New Urbanism, which was once more closely associated with the traditional design it promoted as beneficial to livable neighborhoods. In recent years, as CNU has begun to take its alleged “style neutrality” more seriously, its influence – it was once vast, nationally and internationally – seems to have waned. Over the years, I have occasionally been warned off political topics by Pro-Urb’s gentle administrator, Lucy Minogue Rowland, who styles herself “Snow White.” I’ve always thought her fair, and under admonishment I immediately back off.

Both Pro-Urb and TradArch get my posts, and those interested in architecture and urbanism may join both lists without a fee. I wonder how many other lists (often referred to as “listservs”) focus on traditional architecture. I have often considered joining a modernist list in order to throw in a hand grenade every now and then. Perhaps learning more about how modernists think would be an appropriate goal, even though we classicists are surrounded by outlets for modernist groupthink – oops, I mean analysis and opinion.

I wonder whether forums for those more interested in modern architecture discuss traditional architecture as much as the trad lists discuss modernism. Or is traditional design off the mods’ radar? Their public critique of trad work (“not of its time,” “it copies the past,” etc.) is as up to date as the horse and buggy. Trads struggle to keep their critique of modernism up to date because modern architecture, like the weather in New England, changes every five minutes.

Aside from the listservs there are many ways to follow the progress of traditional architecture, which of course was dominant until the 1940s and exclusively so for centuries through the early decades of the century just passed. When modernism took over almost every institution of architecture, traditional work almost came to a standstill. It was primarily the doings of the late historian Henry Hope Reed that kept tradition alive. He wrote The Golden City (1959) and started Classical America in 1968. The Institute of Classical Architecture was formed in 1992 and merged with C.A. in 2002, eventually renaming itself the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, of which there are fifteen chapters around the country, all of which have some means, such as a blog, to keep in touch with members and others interested in traditional architecture. Although it has absurdly tried to remove “advocacy” from its mission statement, the ICAA is the closest rival to the American Institute of Architects, which ought to be neutral but in fact caters almost exclusively to modernist tastes. Britain’s equivalent, the Royal Institute of British Architects, at least has its own Traditional Architecture Group, however favorable it, too, is to the dominant modernist interest. Another most important group, the International Network for Traditional Architecture, Building and Urbanism (INTBAU), has chapters worldwide, including one in the U.S.

Blogs and online communications spring as well from firms that produce traditional work, such as Robert A.M. Stern Architects, David M. Schwarz Architects, Fairfax & Sammons, Ferguson & Shamamian, Glave & Holmes, Franck & Lohsen, McCrery Architects, Historical Concepts, Allan Greenberg, Michael G. Imber Architects, Duncan Stroik, Andreozzi Architecture, and LeVaughn & Assocs., to name only U.S. firms with which I am familiar from a list of the top 50 traditional firms compiled by the Institute of Traditional Architecture. In Britain, Robert Adam Architects and Quinlan Terry are established classicist firms; the latter’s son, Francis Terry, has started his own along the same delightful lines. Most if not all these firms have ways to reach out to potential clients and to the almost three-quarters of the public that prefers such work to that of modernist firms, whose commissions generally come to them by way of committees beholden to the establishment.

Recently, I was tasked by a committee of sorts – the Traditional Architecture Gathering, an arm of TradArch that meets every year; this year’s TAG 4 confab is Feb. 26-28 – to touch base with associations interested in traditional design to identify trends in the field of architecture. The 2021 event will be hosted by the Classic Planning Institute’s Nir Buras, author of The Art of Classic Planning and TAG founder Patrick Webb, who runs the excellent blog Real Finishes and is on the faculty of American College of the Building Arts. It made me wonder how many sources of information I was not reaching out to. For example, Christine Franck, founder of (CARTA), the Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture at University of Colorado Denver, and Nikos Salingaros, of the University of Texas, whose scientific research in neurobiology has done so much to extend our knowledge of classical architecture’s deep relationship to nature. Of course, they will probably be at this year’s TAG 4 (via Zoom this year).

The number of schools of architecture devoted to traditional coursework has slowly grown over the years. So far as I can tell, the species had gone extinct by the 1960s or ’70s. The School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, whose classicist curricula was not developed until after a campus uprising that ousted a modernist curricula in 1991, has, so far as I know, no modernist course work in its curriculum. Please don’t tell me if I am wrong (only kidding). The original chapter of the Students for Classical Architecture was formed at Notre Dame. Whether Notre Dame’s school will remain exclusively classicist cannot be known. Given the cancel culture raging in the nation, a counter-insurrection is not beyond the realm of possibility. At Notre Dame or anywhere else.

Other schools whose curricula are mainly or partly classical include Judson University, Andrews University, University of Miami (Fla.), University of Colorado at Denver, Catholic University, College of Charleston, Benedictine College, Utah Valley University, American College of the Building Arts, Grand Central Atelier and the Academy of Classical Design. The info on architecture schools is from the ITA website. There are about 150 U.S. architecture schools.

The major journal for classical and traditional design is Traditional Building magazine, with its erudite articles and its lovingly extensive advertising for firms that offer traditional ornament, materials and workmanship. TB also hosts comprehensive quarterly symposia on traditional architecture, materials and techniques. TB’s sister publications are Period Homes, Traditional Building, New Old House, Arts & Crafts Homes, Early Homes, and Old House Journal. Founder Clem Labine writes a spirited column about architecture in TB. TB also hosts the Palladio Awards, which vie with Driehaus Prize (whose winner gets $200,000 compared with $100,000 for winners of the Pritzker Prize) and the ICAA’s Arthur Ross Awards and awards programs at some of its chapters (such as the Bulfinch Awards, sponsored by the New England chapter) for recognition in traditional architecture. All of the ICAA chapters feature outreach in some form to members and citizens interested in the classical revival.

Funny thing. Go into any store with a substantial shelf of magazines and all you’ll see under architecture is magazines for renovations and interior designs of houses in the classical style. That was true a few years ago. It seems to confirm the recent Harris poll that found almost three-quarters of Americans prefer traditional architecture, no matter whether they are rich or poor, black or white, educated or not, from any region of the country, even whether they voted Democrat or Republican. Of course, members of the TradArch list have known that all along, and so have the modernists (it drives them nuts).

In Europe, classicists have an even smaller beachhead in the war of styles. Europe is so steeped in how to do cities right that you’d think that’s what they’d do. And yet modern architecture has an even greater hold on elite sensibilities than in America. In the great cities of Paris, Rome, Venice, along with smaller cities and towns throughout the continent, people are surrounded by beauty. Tourism is such a strong segment of their economies that crowds of travelers seem to be choking off the lives of cities (at least before the pandemic) and beauty must be witnessed over somebody else’s shoulder. Is the theory that if Europe hugs ugly, then tourists will scram? I leave out London, which seems to be committing hari-kiri. Will Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union stay this suicide? One source from which I’ve sought information on trends for TAG 4 is the Prince’s Foundation, founded by Charles. I have not heard from them yet. Here I should note Léon Krier, the wicked doodler who masterplanned Charles’s beautiful new town of Poundbury, and the British historian James Stevens Curl, author of Making Dystopia (2018) and the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture (1999). A proposed modernist redevelopment of the classical Royal High School in Edinburgh has been rejected by the government of Scotland. Excellent! In Stockholm, even farther north, the Swedish public seems to be in revolt against redevelopment there, turning against the bleak prospect of a modernist future. Good news, if true! Michael Diamant, who keeps track of new traditional architecture from Stockholm, is also on my list of TAG 4 sources. I hope he will fill me in. Is that what the website Arkitekturupproret (“Architecture Uproar” … ?) is about? I don’t know. I can’t read it. Oh my.

This post has gone on way too long, and yet I’m sure I’ve left out someone or something I should have mentioned. I will try to execute an abrupt conclusion.

One of my favorite movies is The Philadelphia Story. After getting halfway through this post, after going to bed, I endured one of those ephemeral night thoughts, which drove me to my poor computer to jot down Jimmy Stewart’s drunken call, “Oh, C. K. Dexter Haven!” Now I can’t recall why that seemed pertinent to this post. Was the Main Line mansion where the action takes place designed by Horace Trumbauer? Or was it in Hollywood? If so, so what? Wasn’t Katherine Hepburn’s character, Tracy Lord, supposed to be a bronze statue of a goddess? Does Cary Grant want to deplatform her? Does his role represent an interesting case of intersectionality? Maybe that will be on the agenda at the TAG 4 conference later this month. But isn’t that politics? Perhaps we will have to wait for Snow White to decide, or whoever plays her role on the TradArch stage.

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Russia’s artful classicist – Da!

Roman House (2006), the firsr major project in Moscow by Mikhail Filippov. (YouTube)

Historian James Stevens Curl, the author of Making Dystopia (2018), the most comprehensive critical history of modern architecture, has sent me a marvelous video of the classical work of the Russian architect Mikhail Filippov. His work has been described as “Piranesian,” a reference to the Renaissance Italian artist whose specialty was imaginative classical structures and ruins that seem drawn from his own dreams. Elements of Filippov’s fanciful style call this quality to mind, but his finished works are far from ruins, and in a world fatigued by our dismal built environment it all does seem dreamlike, even utopian. But it is real.

In the half-hour video, Filippov describes his work in Russian, with subtitles. It displays a multitude of sketches of major urban developments he was asked to submit early in his career, which began as an artist and architectural renderer. Some of his unbuilt projects are on Russian waterfronts. He pairs his drawings with footage of what was actually built, his vision scrolling leftward at the top at the same pace as today’s view scrolling leftward at the bottom. These are heart-rending sequences. He says:

We live in an epoch exempt from the architecture we like, and we don’t care about the architecture of our time. We might like many things about our modern neighborhoods. We like them for abundant greens, fresh air, kindergartens, playgrounds, parking lots, etc., but not the architecture. If we want to see architecture we have to go to the center, or travel to historical sites, such as St. Petersburg, Venice, Paris and others. There we can see the true architecture that we miss in our modern places. This is a very unique situation in the human’s history. In all times people used to prefer the architecture of their own epoch. Today all the architecture of the city centers all over the world are declared as architectural monuments by law. They have to be preserved. And they are still the centers of political, economic and cultural life. The closer to the center the higher are the housing costs. And most importantly, nothing can be demolished there. For example, all historical centers, monuments and older buildings destroyed during the World War II were carefully restored. No one piece of modern architecture would be restored like that, since it’s never perceived as real architecture.

So true. Yet I suspect that Filippov’s description of which buildings survive in most historic city centers, especially on this side of the Atlantic, is on the optimistic side – but we’ll let that go for now. He is describing the ideal.

At 18:30 of the video, it starts showing his completed works, supplemented by his drawings. Roman House (2006), a “multifunctional residential complex” (the terminology undercuts its elegance), was Filippov’s first major project in Moscow. “The urban regulations allowed not higher than four-story buildings facing Kazachy Lane and seven-story buildings behind. I reflected this height change in a round courtyard with a colonnade stepping up.” The next built project fills the site of a former factory in Moscow and is even more imposing, and the next one, a social-housing project for military officers, picks up on the rondurous quality of his first Moscow project and is even more imposing still.

The video also has Filippov describing some of his techniques of fabrication and construction. Some say the result is on the thin side, insufficiently articulated, but what they are seeing in some of the photographs is, I think, not a lack of depth in the detail and fenestration but the effect on surfaces of the lack of time and weather. Unlike modern architecture, traditional architecture ages gracefully.

Watch the video and then visit the website for a more extensive set of both the drawings and photographs of the completed projects in Moscow and elsewhere. Without a doubt, Mikhail Filippov has managed to turn his artistic talent into a series of architectural masterpieces.

Roman House (2006), the firsr major project in Moscow by Mikhail Filippov. (YouTube)

Mikhail Filippov / Nadezhda Bronzova – “Monument to the XXI century,” 1987

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Don’t trifle with this building

Plan to turn Old Royal High School into “arts hotel” rejected again. (The Scotsman)

Opened in 1823 to a design by Thomas Hamilton, Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School has a stern and foreboding look. But surely a grin can be detected among its colonnades: It has recently dodged the bullet of redevelopment as an “arts hotel” (a what?). City Council for the Athens of the North, as the UNESCO World Heritage city is known, may have despaired of a use consonant with its location. The school, which absquatulated in 1968, sits halfway up Calton Hill in the Scottish capital, overlooked by the Dugald Stewart monument, a memorial to Admiral Nelson, and the Parthenon-like National Monument of Scotland, whose incompletion demanded its inevitable nickname, Scotland’s Folly.

Old Royal below Stewart Monument, Nelson Monument, National Monument. (Guardian)

Of course, the real Scotland’s Folly is the Scottish Parliament, an absurdist structure opened in 2004 at ten times its original budget estimate, and set at the base of Calton Hill below the Old Royal. The new parliament was said to have “aimed to achieve a poetic union between the Scottish landscape, its people, its culture, and the city of Edinburgh,” according to Wikipedia. Just look at it! In 2005 it won the Stirling Prize, Britain’s Pritzker equivalent, ratifying the egoism of its ugliness. It should be torn down on general principles.

New Scottish Parliament (Wikipedia)

Edinburgh’s famous St. Mary’s School of Music has the council’s backing to occupy the Old Royal, but it will now have to compete on the open market. The muscular building can probably wait for a buyer, given its over half a century of waiting thus far. Can the music school’s wealthy backers compete? The building looks old, craggy even, but it also looks venerable. It ought not be trifled with. You’d think a music school would be just the thing – but you never know these days. It might even want Mickey Mouse ears, any ears to stuff wax or cotton balls against the racket. (But no! Scotland is a civilized place and St. Mary’s teaches classical, doesn’t it? So its website suggests.)

Proposed additions for “arts hotel” are to left and right of school. (Gareth Hoskins Architects)

The Mickey Mouse ears of the proposal recently defenestrated by council seem only modestly ridiculous by the standard of the modernist parliament. Should it have been acceptable given the probability of even worse alternatives? Certainly not. Modern architecture violates a city’s spirit, and should be given no quarter whatsoever. Throwing the Old Royal onto the market at least opens up the possibility that a sensitive buyer will respect the history of Scotland.

Edinburgh already has way too much modern architecture for a Heritage City, degrading both the city and the U.N. program. Recently a so-called Golden Turd, another atrocious hotel, has been inflicted upon its citizens, dealing yet another body blow to the city’s primary economic driver of tourism. Like my own city of Providence and so many other places around the world, Edinburgh seems intent upon wrecking its brand. (The commercial nomenclature usefully exposes the pretense of such policies.)

In fact, the Old Royal High School itself should house the Scottish Parliament. Tear down the monstrosity it currently occupies and move the happy legislators into a building more appropriate to the historic dignity of Scotland.

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O’Brian’s game of composers

Paul Bettany as Maturin and Russell Crowe as Aubrey in Master and Commander. (20th Century Fox)

Having just had a capital meal of lasagna to celebrate a removal of sutures from the gap left by an extracted tooth, I am reminded of a passage I marked years ago in Patrick O’Brian’s The Nutmeg of Consolation, 1991, fourteenth in his series of Napoleonic era sea novels, which I am rereading. In the margin near the passage are the scrawled names of Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany, actors who played Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin, so I had probably just heard of the movie patched awkwardly from several books in the series, and thus I probably read Nutmeg in in 2003. The movie was called Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Though beautifully filmed, it was something of a disappointment.

Anyhow, this passage opens after Aubrey suggests to Maturin that they continue a musical game they often played (after meals on board) as amateurs on violin and cello. Here is O’Brian’s description of the game:

The game they played was that one should improvise in the manner of some eminent composer (or as nearly as indifferent skill and a want of inspiration allowed), that the other, having detected the composer, should then join in, accompanying him with a suitable continuo until some given point understood by both, when the second should take over, either with the same composer or with another.”

The game’s last round the captain claims to have won.

“Winning, for all love: how your aging memory does betray you, my poor friend,” said Stephen, fetching his ‘cello. They tuned, and at no great distance Killick [Aubrey’s manservant] said to his mate, “There they are, at it again. Squeak, squeak; boom, boom. And when they do start a-playing, it’s no better. You can’t tell t’other from one [one tune from another]. Never nothing a man could sing to, even as drunk as Davy’s sow.”

“I remember them in the Lively: but it is not as chronic as a wardroom full of gents with German flutes, bellyaching night and day, like we had in Thunderer. No. Live and let live, I say.”

“Fuck you, William Grimshaw.”

Killick’s reaction to the kind, forgiving sentiment of his mate Grimshaw puts me in mind of my feelings toward … well, I will not go there. But the game Aubrey and Maturin played I find intriguing. As a non-musician who loves classical music (as readers of this blog are well aware), the game strikes me as well beyond the level of playing that might be practiced in moments of leisure by amateur musicians today. I hope I am wrong, but in reading passages like this (and many others in the 21 volumes of the Aubrey-Maturin series), I am persuaded that all the endeavors of Western civilization (and maybe others, as are often described in the exploits of these historical novels) have today reached levels perishingly low. That is certainly true of architecture.

Aubrey and Maturin played their game in around 1814. As I say, I imagine that today’s young musicians – amateur or professional, and surely among the most civilized of people – would hardly be capable of such an erudite musical game. Again, I hope someone will tell me I am wrong. But all you need is eyes to know I’m right about one of civilization’s highest achievements: architecture. As with music generally, architecture achieves beauty (and with it, towering intellect) only by building upon and learning from the achievements of the past.

(Here is an interesting post from 2012 about Aubrey and Maturin as musicians on the website Boston Musical Intelligencer.)

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