“Imitation and Innovation”

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Proposed house in Hampstead Village, London, by Robert Adam. (Adam Architecture)

Robert Adam has an essay in a volume of Architectural Design published in 1988 on the topic of “Imitation and Innovation,” filled with what I would call architectural pornography of the most extreme pulchritude. I was sent the volume out of the blue by Andrés Duany. “Please call Andrés to discuss the enclosed book,” said a note that came inside it. I have no idea why. Was it something I said? Is the book some sort of pre-emptive retort to something he thinks I might write about something he wrote in one of several very long and argumentative threads on the TradArch list, something he assumes that I’ve read? I have no idea. I have not read the threads but I will before I call.

I have no desire right now beyond placing before readers’ eyes a passage from “The Paradox of Imitation and Originality,” by Robert Adam, one of the best, and best known, of British contemporary classicists. The passage I quote below has little to do with what I suspect Andrés wants me to take away from “Imitation and Innovation”; rather, it has to do with modernist architects’ expectation, even hope, that most of the public will dislike the novelty of their work.

To say that direct borrowing from and a desire to formally emulate the past is in principle artistically invalid would remove Roman, Romanesque, Renaissance, Baroque, Palladian, Neo-Classical, Gothic Revival, Arts and Crafts, and debatably many more architectural epochs from serious artistic consideration.

Once this point is fully comprehended it is bound to create a considerable dilemma for all but the most extreme opponents of the use of historical inspiration and form in contemporary architecture. A rejection of most, if not all, of the architecture of the past as artistically invalid even at the time it was built is a very difficult attitude to sustain. The origin of this dilemma lies to a significant extent in the 20th-century project of the 19th-century idea of the avant-garde artist. The fact that much art, later commonly regarded as great, had not found immediate appreciation with the general public … led by an illogical extension to the view that in order to be great, art had to be unacceptable to the general public. This enabled and still enables artists (and architects) to feel safe in ignoring public opinion and has brought about the view that the key to being “of our time” (or slightly ahead of it) lies in the continuous search for a novelty that will surprise and astonish the common man by overturning all those things to which he had become accustomed.

Sometimes I think people don’t believe me when I tell them that most modernist architects consider the public’s dislike of their work to be a feather in their cap. So put that in your pipe and smoke it!

I doubt this is the particular passage Andrés wants me to chew on. After I’ve done the rest of my homework I will call and he will, no doubt, tell me, causing the scales to fall from my eyes!

(Trigger warning: I have helped Andrés edit the text of the first book of his upcoming treatise – Palladio, call your office! – entitled Heterodoxia Architectonica, even though or maybe because we disagree on some of the propositions that allegedly form the scaffolding of the work. This post is not intended to challenge his desire to ask me for more editing assistance.)


After seeing this post, Andres wrote: “I ran across this in my systematic re-reading of the post-modernist and early Fourth Recall [classical revival] texts. I purchased an old copy to send to David to provide him with a feel for the revolutionary ferment of the period. Before it settled down into what it is today. There was no other intent.”


[This post goes onto my blog but not out to my blog send list recipients until my email server quits intercepting my bulk posts under the suspicion that they are spam. I am sorry to say that for the time being those who want to read my posts will have to visit my blog, or get them on social media. I will see if I can send to TradArch and Pro-Urb lists without punishment. – David Brussat]

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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