Why Britannica missed the “storm clouds”

Not sure this cartoon is entirely appropriate, but I could not resist. Presumably sketched by one Maakies, it was posted by TheWhiteSkull at metafilter.com. That is as close as I could come to identifying the artist.

Not sure this cartoon is entirely appropriate, but I could not resist. Presumably sketched by one Maakies, it was posted by TheWhiteSkull at metafilter.com. That is as close as I could come to identifying the artist. [I have since learned from a commenter that the artist’s name is Tony Millionaire.]

Following my recent post of the concluding paragraphs of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s articles on architecture in its 11th (1910-11) and 12th (1922) editions, architectural historian Steven Semes, who teaches at Notre Dame’s architecture program in Rome, sent along some detailed notes to explain the encyclopedia’s curious lapse. Neither article had shown the least awareness of modern architecture’s existence, let alone its upcoming assault on a status quo that seems, in retrospect,  to be far more than reasonably decent.

Here is Semes’s note, which he kindly lets me reprint. His e-mail urged me to pass along his demure suggestion that he is not an expert on the subject.

Yes, you have stumbled on one of the really interesting historical questions of twentieth-century architecture. The Modern Movement was a very small minority of avant-gardists right through the 1920s with minimal impact on the profession at large, especially in the U.S,, where they were almost unknown until the 1930s. The 1920s were still a time of eclecticism and, for the most part, classical revival. Hardly anyone thought the very odd new things in Europe would sweep the “civilized countries” the way they did, from the mid-1930s on.

I break in to note that in 1931 H.L. Mencken wrote an editorial in The American Mercury (where he was editor and publisher) called “The New Architecture” in which he expressed his doubt that modern architecture would make any headway in America. It is a romp to read, of course, but a bittersweet pleasure in light of the ax that history has taken to his judgment. So very sad. The following year,  1932, saw the influential exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art on the International Style.

It wasn’t until after the Second World War that the Modern Movement became the dominant force and quickly suppressed all dissent. If you look at architectural magazines from the two interwar decades you see a progressive increase in attention to “modern” design, but even in the late 1930s, there is a pluralistic coverage of different styles. By 1940, the “Versus” exhibition and conference in New York has modern and traditional work in open opposition, exhibited on two floors of the National Academy of Design. Speaking at the event, Lewis Mumford declares that one floor (the modern work) is “a nursery” and the other floor (with the traditional work) is “a cemetery.” William Adams Delano, speaking for the traditionalists, asks plaintively, “Can’t we all get along?”

All of this points to something quite different from the official history, which continues to maintain that modernism was an inevitable development that slowly but surely emerged as the rational answer to all problems. In fact, it was imposed in a coup d’état starting (in the U.S.) in 1937 when Walter Gropius was installed at Harvard and 1938 when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was installed at the Illinois Institute of Technology, respectively. It was a very sudden and “top-down” revolution, and that is why your editions of the Britannica seem not to have noticed the “storm clouds on the horizon.” There were none.

The history of modern architecture in the 20th century remains to be written.

Steve expanded on this in another e-mail, which I will reprint in my next post.

Also, because it is one of my bibles, I pass along this link to his book The Future of the Past, which is a diplomatic but thoroughgoing refutation of the preservation orthodoxy that putting modernist buildings in historic districts helps maintain the “authenticity” of the latter. It does not, and his book is required reading to understand why preservationists think so, and why they are wrong.

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, dbrussat@gmail.com, 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, Humor and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why Britannica missed the “storm clouds”

  1. Pingback: More Semes on modernist “coup d’etat” | Architecture Here and There

  2. Anonymous says:

    ‘maakies’ was a strip by an artist named tony millionaire. he does more about alcohol than architecture—desperate stuff, but the drawing is great.


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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.