Architect, bury your mistake

Old Stone Square, by Edward Larrabee Barnes, 1984, now Brown School of Public Health. (brownsmokelab.org.)

Old Stone Square, by Edward Larrabee Barnes, 1984, now Brown School of Public Health. (brownsmokelab.org.)

Yesterday I ran some passages from the late critic Lewis Mumford and thought I recalled having written a column on him years ago after reading a biography. I cannot find it. But here is one column from June 1994 in which I quote Mumford being thrown in my face by a local architect. I would have liked to have been able to throw yesterday’s quotes [“Mumford’s words of warning“] back in his face but I was unaware of them. And my interlocutor would have the last laugh, since Mumford was hardly the wizard my quotations suggest. In the end, he backed the modernist horse.

Moreover, the decline of modernism perceived in this old column from the Providence Journal has not played out, at least not beyond a snail’s pace. After postmodernism, modernism got a second wind, goofing it up to applause that continues, at least among the establishment. In Providence, the “aesthetic calamity” of Old Stone Square was indeed repeated in the GTECH building. Sad, sad, sad! How much nicer the world would be if architects had indeed been hypnotized by Henry Hope Reed!

***

Architect, bury your mistake
June 30, 1994

Doctors bury their mistakes. Architects can’t.

– Frank Lloyd Wright

MODERN ARCHITECTURE was a mistake, but Frank Lloyd Wright was wrong. Architects can bury modernism just as democracy buried communism. The greatest crime against history was buried by statesmanship: Surely architects can bury a great crime against art.

Build over it. Build around it. A long, twilight struggle? Perhaps, but as the struggle against communism showed, victory can be more swift and less costly than even its own generals might imagine.

GTECH headquarters building. (lauralanden.com)

GTECH headquarters building. (lauralanden.com)

Modern architecture has been discredited, but its retreat is not yet a rout. In Providence, an aesthetic calamity of the magnitude of Old Stone Square will not be repeated. And great hammer blows have been rained upon modernism by the construction of new buildings in traditional styles, such as the Westin Hotel. Yet there is no assurance that local architects will avoid the stalemate of post-modernism.

The Convention Center, Fleet Center and Citizens Plaza are the most elegant local examples of this generally unsatisfying style, which rejects the modernist fear of ornament but shrinks from embracing the traditions of decoration. Providence Place, Rhode Island’s next major building, could lead architecture in the right direction nationally and internationally, but only if the integrity of its design is maintained.

The final victory of traditional over modern architecture, here as elsewhere, requires that the failure of modernism be understood intellectually by architects as fully as it has been understood intuitively by the public from the beginning.

Take Old Stone Square. The public cannot stand it, and never could. A reverence for that monstrosity is of a piece with the old communists’ assertions of belief even as their system collapsed around them. The building’s admirers probably live in old houses, as surely as old communists shopped at elite stores.

To be sure, the professional sneers and lost commissions suffered by architects who rebelled against modernist orthodoxy aren’t the same as bullets in the base of the skull, but their effect on the impulse to criticize has not been altogether dissimilar.

In Form Follows Fiasco (1974), architect Peter Blake admits it took him more than a decade to muster the courage to reveal publicly his dismay over modern architecture. “By 1960 or thereabouts,” he writes, he and “many” of his colleagues “confronted a severe crisis of confidence and competence. We knew that our beautiful diagrams had failed us, our clients, our art, and our time; but we had not, as yet, come up with any persuasive alternatives.”

The alternatives he suggests – an end to high-rise construction, liberation from the automobile and population control – are evasions based on his reluctance to admit the obvious, which was that the alternative had always been staring him in the face. Then and now, it was to return to (which does not mean to copy) traditional principles of architecture.

But first, architects must admit that modernism itself is not traditional. Fifteen years before Blake’s apostasy, Lewis Mumford wrote in Roots of Contemporary American Architecture (1959) that “modern architecture is a continuation of the great traditions of historic architecture, not a break with or a rejection of them. . . .” (This assertion was thrown in my face a while back by a prominent local architect, who has twice assured me he’s working on a rebuttal to my opinions, which he calls “stupid.” Well, if they are so easy to demolish, where’s your critique?!)

In fact, modernism is no less an aberration in the history of architecture than communism was in the history of political freedom. Whatever its “roots” may be, a central feature of modern architecture is its rejection of ornament, which is why most people do not like it. Mumford admits that modernism is “a two-faced Janus,” but warns that it would have had problems even if “the entire architectural profession had been hypnotized by . . . Henry Hope Reed.”

I doubt it. Reed wrote a book, published also in 1959, called The Golden City. It no doubt galled Mumford no end. Subtitled “A Pictorial Argument in the Raging Controversy Over ‘Classical’ vs. ‘Modern’ Fashion in Architecture and Other American Arts,” Reed’s book juxtaposes photos of traditional and modern buildings – a debating strategy that makes his case perfectly.

Reed goes on to predict that modern architecture is dying. Maybe it was, even in 1959. But if so, it has taken a dreadfully long time collapsing – and again, like communism, it may yet need a good strong push from courageous architects to finally fall.

* * *

Copyright © 1994. LMG Rhode Island Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Record Number: MERLIN_1121251

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, Architecture Education, Architecture History, Art and design, Blast from past, Development, Preservation, Providence, Urbanism and planning and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s