I have had the pleasure, just now, of running into my old friend William Morgan in my new friend Kristen Richards’s ArchNewsNow, the daily global roundhouse for architectural news and commentary (in English). On Kristen’s list for Friday I find that Will has written a review of Buildings of Vermont for The Boston Globe, and begins by introducing us to his friend Nikolaus Pevsner, the late, great British architectural historian.
Will recalls that Pevsner wondered why Will did not write a history of American architecture, state by state, as Pevsner had for the Sceptered Isle. ” ‘After all, Morgan,’ the greatest scholar of English architecture admonished me, ‘there are only 40 states, and there is not a parish church every couple of miles. You could do it in a summer or two.'”
Will gently twits his mentor’s “Eurocentric myopia” – 40 states indeed! – and points out that there are 40,000 structures in Vermont on the National Register of Historic Places. I didn’t know there were 40,000 buildings in all of Vermont. My family visits the Green Mountain State every summer, staying in the ski resort of Stowe. I have written a column about Vermont, which reminds me that Will has a book on New England farmhouses that I must get around to reviewing. Will has written lots of books, mostly, I think (and I trust he would like to think), in the vein of Pevsner’s 32 volume Buildings of England series.
Regarding the volume Will has reviewed of the Buildings of America series (there is also one for Rhode Island, which I reviewed long ago), the one on Vermont architecture is by Glenn Andres, an architectural historian at Middlebury College, with photographs by Curtis Johnson. The author may or may not be ranked among Will’s friends but he is certainly not a friend of Nikolaus Pevsner, and not just because the latter is no longer with us.
Will praises Andres’s book for pointing out that Vermont has more than just red barns and white churches. (I don’t think that very many people actually believe there are nothing but red barns and white churches in vermont. Nevertheless, writes Will, “Andres was ‘pained’ by his editors’ choice of the barn-in-the-meadow cover” for the book. That, Will adds, is because the book’s purpose is “to look beyond the stereotypes to explain the remarkable range, quality, humanity and persistence” of Vermont’s landscape.
Yet, one looks in vain through Will’s review and its illustrations for examples of this running roughshod over stereotype. I don’t know whether Andres includes much of Vermont’s modern architecture in his book. Probably not. I do not think there is very much of it to include. Maybe Andres realizes (perhaps along with Will and Nick, in sotto vocce) that Vermont is No. 6 on the National Geographic’s list of world tourist meccas precisely because there is so little modern architecture in Vermont.
Usually when architectural historians speak of stereotypes they are about to engage in Pevsner’s particular specialty of historicism, of which concept he was among the originators. This is the idea that you can accurately categorize architectural styles by time period, a process that enables you to claim that the style of a new building is appropriate or inappropriate because it does or does not reflect its “era.” That’s a useful idea for modernists because it “proves” that since we are in the modern era, only modern architecture is appropriately built today. This is, of course, the central orthodoxy of the architectural establishment today among designers, historians and preservationists.
Architecture built today on the basis of historical principles is dubbed “historicist” – an error if not exactly a crime. This generalization is Pevsner’s chief contribution to the field of architectural history. Notwithstanding his natural reverence for the traditional British architecture he categorized so meticulously, he does not believe that those old buildings should be the source of a designer’s inspiration for new architecture today.
Nick and Will may have been friends, but Pevsner was no friend to beauty. The British landscapes he documented have been ravaged by modernism, and the failure to disapprove of that is a signal failure of modern civilization. For the ideas of Pevsner have been inimical to the humanity around the world. Historicism distorts history by covering up the reality that tradition is a phenomenon that builds slowly upon the lessons its past generates for its future. Stylistic change may be pigeonholed only by denying the fact that traditional architecture of all styles – Gothic, Romanesque, Georgian, Classical, Greek Revival, Victorian, etc. – has many more elements in common than otherwise. Denying its lessons a legitimate role in the education and inspiration of architects and builders in our era requires a denial of the plain truth.
Buildings are buildings, they are not historians. Just as historians have a difficult time determining the significance of history in the language of words and ideas, architects cannot be expected to articulate the meaning of their times in the far blunter language of glass, wood, stone and steel. For millennia they did not attempt it; in the modern era, having banned most of the tools architecture once used to convey meaning, they failed immensely and immediately, leaving behind them a record of scarred landscapes and brutalized public spaces. It is the purpose of architectural historians today, it seems, not to reveal that truth but to cover it up.
The fact is that architecture was, until recent times, slow to change in building form. None of the very lovely styles that were its result over a span of 2,000 years are any less legitimate for building today than they were at their time of erection long ago. Constant stylistic revivalism proved that long ago. Logically speaking, historicism must delegitimize all architecture from the ancients through early 20th century eclecticism. It all “copies the past” to some degree. Modern architecture, with help from architectural historians such as Nikolaus Pevsner, managed to topple the enduring concepts of architecture after World War II. The world has been poorer for it, and uglier to boot, ever since.
Will seems unintentionally to suggest, by not choosing to cite or display any modernist buildings from historian Andres’s book on Vermont, that the author does not buy into the idea that modern architecture deserves an important place in his book. If so, Andres has done valuable service for architecture in Vermont and for architecture everywhere. I will find the book and discover whether that is the case.
The sooner the public can pressure the architectural establishment to cut the crap, abandon its cult, return to its senses and bring the field of architecture back to its roots, the sooner we may all begin to recover some of the beauty that once characterized most of the built environment but now prevails only in places like Vermont – and Rhode Island (not to mention Paris, Rome, etc.) – that have resisted the slaughter of their architectural heritage.