More Semes on modernist “coup d’etat”

"Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Rome, by Armando Brasini, 1923-38, resumed 1950-51. Still lacking the tall dome Brasini intended, the church nonetheless impresses with its intensely dramatic lower portion, which seems driven by centrifugal forces." (Steven Semes)

“Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Rome, by Armando Brasini, 1923-38, resumed 1950-51. Still lacking the tall dome Brasini intended, the church nonetheless impresses with its intensely dramatic lower portion, which seems driven by centrifugal forces.” (Steven Semes)

[This post is the second part of two beginning earlier this morning here.]

In response to my recent post on the fecklessness of an editorial in the January edition of Pencil Points about the new modern architecture, Steven Semes sent more fascinating information about how modern architecture took over the field of architecture:

I think you are right about the lack of conviction with which traditional architects defended their positions in the 1920s and ’30s, at least in the U.S. The situation in Italy at the time was more boisterous, with active debate and competition for official recognition of various styles. At home, there seemed to be two reactions on the part of the traditionalists: on one side, defensive posturing and platitudes about tradition and the importance of keeping things as they have always been and, on the other, a willingness to do whatever seemed to be current and stylish. There were almost no really prominent architects in the U.S. who had the wit and imagination of a Brasini or a Piacentini, who could make new traditional buildings that were really new in the sense that they used the old language in ways that enlarged and refreshed it. (Or, in the U.K., a Lutyens or Holden.)

Thus, the “old guard” was vulnerable to charges that they “copied” (even if they didn’t) because there was so little real adaptation of models, but rather a kind of “sampling” that rarely reconceived the precedents or sought new expressions. Of course, the modernists used any weapon at their disposal to convince the profession and the public of the alleged decadence and plagiarism of the traditionalists, using a vitriol in their attacks that is astonishing (and, of course, continues today). There was also a general cultural enthusiasm for newness at any price and, compared to the shiny new modern buildings, with their gleaming white walls and nautical motifs, buildings like the Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Va., looked like what Lewis Mumford said they were: cemeteries.

To me it seems that the traditionalists did not help themselves, though in the end, they did not fall because they had nothing to contribute, but because they were “executed” by the revolutionaries.

The triumph of modernism in the U.S. was a coup d’état at the top of the academic/professional establishment that took decades to consolidate, but, it finally was – with the aid of a Stalinist repression of the remaining traditionalist firms, academies, publications, competitions, etc. The take-over of the schools was critical, because once hundreds of students began emerging from the leading academies without any preparation in architectural history and plenty of indoctrination in the dogmas of Corb and CIAM, there was really little the traditionalists could do. And, I think, there was little interest in defending themselves, as the traditionalists had already lost confidence in what they were doing even before they came under attack.

My colleague Bill Westfall has written about the last decades of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in Paris, and how it slowly abandoned its historic pedagogy, becoming a rather empty institution early in the 20th century. All of this is fascinating and needs to be recounted by a scholar who can gather all the threads of the history and tell the tale. I hope someone will do it someday!

In any event, it seems that the traditionalists had every confidence that their power in the profession would maintain itself, and because of that confidence their ability to defend it atrophied from disuse over the years. By the time they needed it to defend their principles against those put forth by the modernists, their ability to argue their case had disappeared. That is happening today, it seems to me, to the modernists, who, with a few exceptions (such as Rem Koolhaas), mouth the old platitudes about modernism being the inevitable architecture of the future, with their ritual denunciations of “copying” the past.

Perhaps the classical revival will take advantage of this modernist sloth. Andres Duany’s effort to publish a new treatise on classical architecture – in which he seeks to recapture as classicists architects branded by the modernists as “precursors to modernism” – may be seen as part of this conversation. Perhaps the same may be said for the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s 2011 conference on postmodernism. I have criticized both – along with the Driehaus Prize awarded a couple of years ago to postmodernist architect Michael Graves – for undermining the preference in the public mind for tradition over modernism.

And I think such efforts do put that preference at risk. It is one of the two main strategic advantages (the other being the housing market’s preference for traditional styles) that the classical revival can deploy in its fight against modern architecture. But maybe those efforts by Duany and others will serve, in the end, as useful ways to think outside of the box in seeking a path back to the one true box. It remains to be seen whether classicists are dilettantes, as Duany claims, or whether they will join the fight that will be required to secure a future in which the built environment ennobles, or at least pleases, the public.

That discussion needs to be part of the effort to reform major institutions – capitalism, academia, government, etc. – to serve the broader needs of society as, like architecture, they once seemed to serve more effectively than they do, to say the least, today.

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.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Architecture Education, Architecture History, Other countries and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to More Semes on modernist “coup d’etat”

  1. Michael J. Tyrrell says:

    I meant to say/ include “faster, cheaper, and for far greater profit”…


  2. Michael J. Tyrrell says:

    Great item for many reasons. However, where in this is your assessment of Architcture as a trade vs. as a profession? Modernism, with its intensive, energy-reliant systems would lend itself well to this rise of “professionals” (i.e. the defacto “Specifications Industrial Complex” and its plethora of pre-manufactured component experts), where the Architect as tradesman -ascraftsman- hadn’t. It’s like LBJ knocking off Kennedy to ensure the expansion of war contracts. Traditional architecture got the heave-ho because of the market’s ability to produce buildings faster and “cheaper”. Remember, the future is (was) “in plastics”. More reference on the role of modern economics and technology as a deterent to trad(e)ition, please.


    • Although I don’t buy into the Kennedy scenario, I’m afraid there’s a lot of truth in what you say about the influences that favored modern architecture – as suggested by the Route 195 toolkit!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.