Parsing fraud and timidity

Deputy Dawg. (imgarcade.com)

Deputy Dawg. (imgarcade.com)

Two examples of modern architecture in deep perspiration came across my desk today. First came Robert Ivy‘s tremulous three minutes of AIA video advice – “Hello, everyone. This is Robert” – to rattled architects, and second came Norman Weinstein‘s fraudulent attempt to stake out a middle ground in the style wars, which he considers a “fake controversy.”

As one whose blog is subtitled “Style Wars: classicism vs. modernism,” I am gratified that the modernists are running scared. Whether they need to be, I tend to doubt. Nothing has really happened that diminishes their power to ignore the longstanding and continuing unpopularity of what they do. Yes, having the New York Times put a shot over their bow is unsettling. In most fields, however, the establishment accepts dissent as par for the course.

Only in architecture does dissent result in the fear-soaked defensiveness seen in these two bits of propaganda. They are very different on the surface but deep down they are the same. They realize that their brand is in trouble but they’ve long ago lost the ability to defend it – not because they’ve hired sloppy PR men but because it is, in the deepest sense, indefensible. This is a fact that most people whose minds have not been purged by graduate-level art and design education recognized a very long time ago.

Click on Ivy’s video and its pathetic quality leaps right out. The Weinstein piece is just as risible but its elucidation strikes me as more fun.

Poundbury. (telegraph.co.uk)

Poundbury. (telegraph.co.uk)

A more transparent attempt to dodge the style wars by engaging in them I’ve never before read. Weinstein pretends that all classicists are alike in their nostalgic sensibility. But that much debate rends the traditional side of architecture today he must surely be aware. Or maybe not. Why should a modernist stoop to research?

For Weinstein to recast classicism by using the word nostalgic, which every modernist considers a pejorative (and is recognized as an intended insult by every classicist) is hardly an example of objectivity in rhetoric. This is no way to develop a less polarizing language of style.

The fraudulence of Weinstein’s pose as some sort of moderate in the style wars was most evident in his open expression of hatred for Poundbury, the village project of Prince Charles. Weinstein has every right to his own opinion but he has no right to his own facts. Poundbury does reflect how parts of Britain once appeared, over a long stretch of time – cleaner perhaps, and newer, less organic, but pretty much the same look. And, oh yes, Britain is still a monarchy, so, contra Weinstein, Charles is living in the present.

Not once in his entire piece does Weinstein use the word beauty or any of its synonyms. This is telling. The fact is that what he calls a “fake controversy” is a very real, very deep disagreement in the profession, and the side that is rooted in tradition has every reason to demand to be heard in the open field of the battle of ideas in America.

I think there probably is a moderate position in the style wars, a cogent and honorable one, but Weinstein fails to represent it at all. This is no surprise. He is not even genuinely trying to represent it, except to an audience of his own side’s true believers, who will not apply any intellectual rigor to its assessment but just circle the wagons – and that is precisely what Weinstein, at least, is counting on.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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.
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