More on the modernist coup d’etat

Gropius and Le Corbusier at Les Deux Maggots, in Paris. (xxx)

Gropius and Le Corbusier at Les Deux Maggots, in Paris. (

John Massengale, head of the New Urbanists in New York and a classicist who often writes in to TradArch to note that modernism is at least as popular as traditional design in the cafes and restaurants of the Big Apple, has written in to dispute some details of Steven Semes’s analysis of modern architecture’s takeover of the profession. He makes some very interesting points. Much of what he says in demurral does not really dispute the essence of what Semes has written in my last two posts. But Massengale does say this: “I’m one of those who thinks that social and economic forces did make Modernism inevitable.”

I must demur! Modern architecture, at least, was not inevitable, even if many strands of social, aesthetic, artistic and political change during the 1930s and after WWII were pushing in its direction. It was the apparent refusal of tradition to push back that makes modernism seem so inevitable in retrospect. After a depression and a world war during which many cities grew shabbier because maintenance declined as a priority, it was not, I think, inevitable that society (government and major private institutions, that is) would decide to basically tear cities down and build anew rather than renovate. The decision to do so was a modernist decision, and if tradition had fought back in the ’30s and ’40s the decision might have gone the other way.

I do not believe that John actually buys into the modernist orthodoxy that modern architecture was (and is) intrinsically inevitable. But did the correlation of forces (so to speak) make modernism’s adoption inevitable even given the circumstances? I think not. It was tradition’s refusal to fight back, more than any other factor, that surrendered the fort to the bad guys.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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