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.