Take modernist bull by horns

Ruane Center at Providence College, by S/LA/M Collaborative, winner of the Palladio Award for new work above 3,000 square feet. (sullivanbuckingham.com; photos below by David

Ruane Center at Providence College, by S/LA/M Collaborative, winner of the Palladio Award for new work above 3,000 square feet. (sullivanbuckingham.com; photos below by David Brussat)

The recent announcement of the Palladio Awards reminds me of how rare it is to find an active pursuit of self-interest, let alone boldness, in carrying out the classical revival since the death, in 2013, of Henry Hope Reed Jr. He led society’s pushback, in America at least, against modern architecture’s attack on beauty in the built environment. The battalion of journals on traditional architecture founded by one of his staunch allies, editor emeritus Clem Labine Jr. of Active Interest Media Group, has kept up the good fight.

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The Palladios are handed out by two professional journals, Traditional Building and Period Homes, that represent two primary realms of architecture, houses and buildings. Both publications unabashedly favor the design and development of new houses and buildings in traditional styles, publish essays expressing how a proper understanding of tradition embraces both the past and the future, and carry copious advertising by firms that produce the features of traditional architecture. It is growing in popularity as many in society grow tired of the tarnished “excitement” of modernism.

Traditional architecture dominates the design and construction of houses because people generally buy or build their homes in a style that they find congenial to their expression of self, and have the power to carry out such purchases according to their own lights. Buildings, on the other hand, are larger architectural structures that house more complex human endeavors, such as city halls, banks, churches, museums, universities, etc. Their design is usually chosen by boards whose memberships are marinaded in the false idea that “the future” must look like a Jetsons cartoon, and that traditional ideas of how buildings and streets and cities should look is considered old hat and sneerworthy – even though such ideas reflect what most people still love and want, both in their personal settings and in the settings of places where they work and enjoy themselves.

Modern architecture and planning rose to dominance here over several decades when American society was feeling confident after winning World War II. That confidence was reflected in a popular admiration for design that embraced sleekness and purity of line – fast forward! – which reflected the supposedly utilitarian ideal of running society as if it really were a machine – which became the default idea of the future in popular culture, advertising, etc.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out well, and modernists never figured out how to craft buildings, streets and cities with sleekness and purity of line without seeming to omit aspects of design that reflect the long human penchant for detail in every aspect of life.

Detail, manifested as ornament, reflects not only a desire to put a personal imprint on the artifacts of one’s own life; it also reflects the ordered complexity that is built into our DNA, causing the evolution of human endeavors to reflect, in their development and replication, the structures of natural change and reproduction, the survival of the fittest. Ornament is the metaphor for our prehistoric need for information about our immediate environment – the intuitive capacity to identify where a tiger might be hiding on the savannah.

Modernists wrongly concluded a century ago and today work hard to maintain the fiction that sleekness and purity of line is inconsistent with embellishment. Student architects and designers go to school to cleanse themselves of the instincts for ordered complexity and adaptive structure – which have evolved forward as the attraction to beauty. They are taught to treat the wide public dislike of their work as a feather in their cap, and that is the attitude they maintain as professionals.

The American Institute of Architects is a bastion of modern architecture’s benighted querulousness, its instinct to draw up the bridge against popular taste in the big job of forming society’s vital sense of place.

Some people are tired of having to erect a defense mechanism against the ugliness of what these professionals have created. People want to fight back, and they have the numbers to force change. Traditional Building is one of their few rallying points in the tricky game of confronting the modern (and modernist) development process. and yet it is a battle that in a democracy ought to be relatively easy to win. Some other organizations have had a hard time girding their loins and stepping up to the plate. How sad this is!

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.
This entry was posted in Architects, Architecture Education, Architecture History, Art and design, Development, Providence, Urbanism and planning and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Take modernist bull by horns

  1. Pingback: Hypocrisy of the modernists | Architecture Here and There

  2. Too bad for their next building, as I understand it, they are returning to the bad old ways!

    Like

  3. How wonderful to open this up, see only a corner of the Ruane Center, and know immediately that it was communicating the essence of the campus of Providence College. Just a cornice did all that!

    Like

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