Here is an e-mail I posted just now to the TradArch and Pro-Urb listservs, discussion groups that have for three or four days now been chewing on my last column, “Modernism invades New Urbanism,” along with architect David Rau’s cri de coeur from the Congress for the New Urbanism recently concluded in Buffalo about how traditional architecture has been less and less central to the New Urbanism. Andres Duany, whom I criticized in the column, has urged me to hold a conference on classicism (pitting classicists against classicists) in Providence. I told him I like the idea but am a writer, not a planner. Well, the two lists have taken up the topic with brio. Other places for such a conference have been suggested, along with a range of alternative themes. (The conference was actually held in Charleston in April.] I have followed the conversation closely and have a new idea to throw into the pot. It is as follows:
I’ve been reading this set of threads with mounting fascination at the prospect of a classicist conference. I find the case for places other than Providence perfectly compelling, but of course I must press for my city, and I imagine it might be a good place to hold such a conference because so many attendees are already familiar with Richmond, Denver, Charleston, etc., whereas Providence might be more fresh – though, granted, CNU was there in 2006. As for members of the ICAA, the National Civic Art Society, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Traditional Building and other interested organizations, Providence might be a new experience for many.
Although I think this conference is destined to include elements of both trad vs. trad and trad vs. mod, and should, I agree with those who doubt the wisdom of trying to convert the mods. Not gonna happen. On the other hand, I also doubt that other strategies – while undeniably very, very important – are going to move the dime as much as they might if the playing field were anywhere near level. Frankly, I think it will be politics that moves the dime, because politics is how a democratic society changes its mind on major issues.*
The ability of trads to use newsworthy mod missteps to transform the built environment into a political issue is key. The trads failed to make hay out of the World Trade Center rebuild debacle. The British did better with Prince Charles’s intervention in Chelsea Barracks, with so many media polls pitting Quinlan Terry vs. Richard Rogers to such good effect. We are doing much better with the Eisenhower memorial flap. There are certain to be other useful brouhahas on the national and international level.
We can all practice at the local level for the next architectural imbroglio. We probably have the backing of most voters – though many don’t realize it. We need to raise consciousness on the tragedy of the built environment. We need to leverage the range of distress over the built environment to get politicians to lean on developers (often their paymasters, especially at the local level) to hire architects sensitive to popular and public taste. That’s how change will occur.
I believe we are wise to avoid making design a partisan political issue, but I still feel that the first political party to make an issue of the built environment will steal a march on its opponents. The issue should certainly be spun as bipartisan – and let’s see who picks up on it. The idea of “slow” architecture – and its reverse, the association of modernism with big money and big corporatism – is an essential part of this approach. Other ideas and trends mentioned in these four fascinating days of urbanistic and architectural back and forth could feed into the political approach.*
I’m just stirring this into the pot. I think it is an approach that, in addition, could also serve us well with young people. It does not exclude other approaches, but it is a way to “capture territory” that, so far as I know, hasn’t been widely discussed on this list.
* I could not resist a couple of additions to my original e-mail.