Next for the classical revival?

Rival plans for Chelsea Barracks development in London, circa 2009.

Rival plans for Chelsea Barracks development in London, circa 2009.

What those who favor traditional architecture should do to promote its revival has been pretty much the subject of this blog since I started it in 2009. In fact, the strategy I favor has the advantage of being under way already. It needs merely to be shifted into a higher gear.

Battersea proposals by Norman Foster and Frank Gehry. (Gehry Partners)

Battersea proposals by Norman Foster and Frank Gehry. (Gehry Partners)

Quinlan and Francis Terry at their studio in Dedham. (The Guardian)

Quinlan and Francis Terry at their studio in Dedham. (The Guardian)

Latest version of Frank Gehry proposal for Eisenhower memorial. (archdaily.com)

Latest version of Frank Gehry proposal for Eisenhower memorial. (archdaily.com)

A counterproposal to Gehry design from competition sponsored by the National Civic Art Society. (theclassicalartist.com)

A counterproposal to Gehry design from competition sponsored by the National Civic Art Society. (theclassicalartist.com)

Clemson proposal for new architecture school in Charleston. (charlestoncitypaper.com)

Clemson proposal for new architecture school in Charleston. (charlestoncitypaper.com)

Counterproposal to Clemson proposal by Jenny Bevan and Christopher Liberators. (Courtesy of the architects)

Counterproposal to Clemson proposal by Jenny Bevan and Christopher Liberators. (Courtesy of the architects)

Nearest we have to an image of new Brown engineering campus. Proposed building to right of Manning Walk, involving demo of four lovely old hosues. (brown.edu)

Nearest we have to an image of new Brown engineering campus. Proposed building to right of Manning Walk, involving demo of four lovely old hosues. (brown.edu)

On Friday, I received an email that proposed using the word admirable in place of the word beauty. Then another person wrote in to defend the word beauty. Yet another person remarked that “something is emerging” in response (I think) to an email hailing a “New Classical Discourse.” I responded to all this with a relatively lengthy reply and, as I was about to sign and send, I had to take my son Billy to his school bus stop. I forgot all about my languishing contribution to the discourse. Here it is as a blog, with a few amendations:

I must say I too prefer the word beauty over admirable. Admirable is too general. That may be its allure to some – it lacks the baggage that the modernist discourse has loaded upon the word beauty. Admirable is indeed an admirable word and concept, but it cannot fill in for beauty.

The whole idea of debating over new words to promote existing ideas strikes me as typical of the sort of discourse that, fascinating as it is, keeps us little by little from taking action to bring beauty back into mainstream of practice in design and building.

It seems to me that the New Classical Discourse is also a distraction from the main thing traditionalists should be doing – pushing tradition, or classicism, or beauty, or admirability – in the forums that have the power and the responsibility to shape our built environment. Those forums are city councils, design review committees, development authorities, even the newspapers, where events at the former venues are reported.

I have broached this topic a number of times on TradArch and Pro-Urb and in my blog posts without much response. I realize what I am suggesting is difficult because it goes up directly against force of influence in the real world rather than talking amongst ourselves (in the “garden party” or elsewhere) about nomenclature, framing, etc. Again, all quite vital but secondary if the goal is to bring new traditional work into the mainstream of architectural practice and the development process.

We can use existing organizational structure to promote this strategy. Indeed, it is already begun without an organizational structure. It is the work done publicly to derail the Gehry design for the Ike memorial. It is the work done in Charleston to stop Clemson’s monstrosity and to build a more reasonable political infrastructure to oversee new development there. It is the work done by the New Urbanist movement to revive principles of community that worked for hundreds of years. It is the work done in Britain to use public opinion polls to derail a Richard Rogers project in favor of a traditional project by Terry Quinlan for Chelsea Barracks. It is the work done by SOS Paris to oppose plans to build skyscrapers in the City of Light. It is the proposal in New York to rebuild Penn Station as it was originally designed by Charles Follen McKim. It is every activist descent upon  the meetings of public agencies, every letter to the editor from someone peeved by ugly new buildings and anti-urbanist projects being developed in cities and towns around the country, every effort to mobilize opposition to the further degradation of our communities.

I think the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art would be the most effective existing institution to expand this broad effort through its 15 chapters. To the extent that people have not hit the mute button on their reaction to our increasingly ugly built environment, they favor traditional buildings and places by a large margin.

Architects and those who support them have a responsibility to the public. Roger Scruton described the public as the “great disenfranchised majority of users of architecture.”

And I think that the goal should indeed be to move forward by reaching back to the already-existing answer to the problems that have beset architecture, planning, cities and the built environment. We do not need a “new discourse.”

Yes, we should reach back to the classicism and the traditions interrupted before World War II by modernism, and move forward within that tradition, adopting to changes in program and improvements in technology and materials as architecture has always done, learning from past practice, including modernism, as architecture has only lately ceased to do.

The reply will come that young people are not with us, that they consider traditional architecture to symbolize a history that they find embarrassing. I think this impression is false, generated by those who spend too much time listening to the wind blowing through the groves of academe – where generating social angst has become a cheap alternative to seeking practical answers to the real problems of the world. It’s not that such complaints entirely lack validity – it’s just that most people in the real world beyond campus walls pay them little mind, and that discourse has little to do with architecture.

In short, I think we should concentrate on an action program seeking to push forward with an already existing ideal that answers every question.

Here are some previous posts I’ve written on this subject:

Another Chelsea Barracks, Jan. 3, 2015

How to capture territory, Aug. 22, 2014

The Providence conference, June 15, 2014

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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3 Responses to Next for the classical revival?

  1. One answer may lie in ‘co-opting’ the many youths who hunger for authenticity and reject dogma of any stripe, including modernism. Your analysis herewith is spot on: “[Y]oung people are not with us … they consider traditional architecture to symbolize a history that they find embarrassing … [T]his impression is false, generated by those who spend too much time listening to the wind blowing through the groves of academe – where generating social angst has become a cheap alternative to seeking practical answers to the real problems of the world.”

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  2. We’re on the same page, John, you just don’t realize it. If people don’t understand what is good and what is bad, they will have no basis on which to prefer the one over the other, and eventually will not care, like most people today, who put their built environment out of their minds – and who can blame them!

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  3. Stopping lousy buildings is not the same thing as building good buildings. If folks mobilize and stop the construction of 8 out of 10 lousy buildings is that a victory? I think forcing those who would build crap to compete with better buildings is a more affirmative approach. Build better.

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