Bruce Donnelly, an urban planner and design theorist from Cleveland, had two very interesting posts on the TradArch list yesterday. In the first passage, he is referring to comments from others about how classical architects can learn from modern architecture. In the second item he refers to the recent withdrawal by Clemson of its proposed modernist school of architecture in the middle of Charleston’s historic district after vigorous objections from the community. Here is the first:
In general, … I think we should channel what the Modernists insisted that our forefathers “un-learn.”
Put yourself in 1930, and imagine what most people thought. Many people, especially architects, were probably quite glad to get rid of the overly complicated rules, misapplied precision, and stylistic controversies [of classical architecture]. But when they tried to do modernist architecture, the vast majority of them simply built traditional buildings with chunky square window frames and plain, ungainly proportions. They didn’t really understand modern architecture. They were trying to lose the basic underpinnings of the way that they thought the world worked for architecture. They just couldn’t do it. At best, it produced Moderne. Basic, traditional, building is a knowable thing that once known is almost impossible to un-know. It is so intrinsic to human form-making that it takes conscious effort to peel away from it.
Now, we can take the position that such a deep connection is intrinsic to Nature or human nature, is divinely-inspired, etc. Or we can just accept that it’s just a flawed product of human evolution. Whatever works for you. But I don’t think that we can deny that it exists. I will stand by this: once the basic deep structure of traditional architecture makes it into the brain even the most committed designers can never quite shake it. Wright tried desperately, for instance, but look at a Usonian house’s pergola and you will see dim echoes of the ancients. Le Corbusier had to wean himself consciously over decades to get to Ronchamp. It is a mental ratchet that tends to get stuck in a halfway position.
Traditional architecture’s deep structure starts with being made of walls and posts, frames and vaults. It is essentially cellular. Openings are holes punched in walls or infilled frames. It has visual centers that spawn visual centers relentlessly – and symmetries and so forth. It has all these qualities that have to be mastered to do well, but that still suffuse modern society despite a century of attempts at negation. Now, classical architecture is a particular language from a particular region. It incorporates the deep structure and elaborates it into an art, by applying it again and again. For instance, if traditional architecture always makes some use of contrast, classical moldings elaborate that contrast into a multi-level, orchestrated system. But the same basic impetus for contrast exists even if you’re talking about logs sticking out of a mud-brick wall in Yemen.
The main thing that modernist architecture offers is a sort of slippery space that buildings and parts of buildings can float in. That is, it offers a spatial system that can enrich traditional architecture so long as it doesn’t take over.
A little while later, Bruce comments on the situation regarding public pressure leading to Clemson’s withdrawn proposal in Charleston:
The main reason they [the modernists] are vulnerable is that people instantly know the difference between traditional and not in a side-by-side comparison. The problem is that it takes a side-by-side comparison. If you put [modernist] House VI next to a ranchburger, the ranchburger wins. But put the ranchburger next to a drafty 1860 house with open-air dogtrot with a fake mantelpiece in the parlor nailed to a board wall papered with newspapers. A good number of people will want to fix up the drafty old house.
It’s actually kind of amazing that we’re in this position. It’s like a prize fighter who won with both hands tied behind his back and his legs tied to the ropes – because the other guy concussed himself on the microphone hanging over the ring.