[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.