Semes on Paris and our cities


Paris, looking toward the Madeleine. (The New Criterion)

Steven Semes, head of the Rome program for the school of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, and the author of The Future of the Past (one of my bibles) has written a long and, I am sure, brilliant essay about the vandals at (or inside) the gates of Paris. I am posting it before reading it because I know it will be good and readers should have it asap. I may add a comment or two about it later. “Preserving the City of Tomorrow: The Best Way to Improve Our Cities,” published in The New Criterion, was sent to me by Andrew Reed, nephew of the late Henry Hope Reed, who essentially led the Classical Revival for half a century.


Semes’s essay recapitulates virtually the entire debate raging in the fields of architecture and urbanism today. Here is one passage, which opens with a reference to “architecture of our time,” the mantra of what modern architects and their camp followers say cities need:

This aggressive aesthetic of “our time” is conspicuously at odds not only with our historic cities, but also with the real and pressing imperatives of our present conditions: climate change, urbanization, and the need for a sustainability that actually allows us to live together without foreclosing the quality of life for future generations. The building technology celebrated by modernist architecture—with its reliance on inherently unsustainable glass and metal exterior envelopes—and the urban development models of superblocks, isolated towers, and automobile dependence are principal contributors to our current energy crisis. Preposterously, the architects and their political supporters insist that we continue, even accelerate, the practices that produced the environmental crisis in the first place, while the obvious remedy lies all around them in the historic city.

Semes goes on immediately to quote a report of the Council for European Urbanism, essentially suggesting that if sustainability” is key to the future of cities, then why not try “what has already been sustained”?

Nah. Makes too much sense. Click and read this great essay.


It should also be noted that Semes credits Mary Campbell Gallagher of SOS Paris with voicing many of the arguments over skyscrapers in Paris. He quotes her regarding the David vs. Goliath aspect of the battle, adding, “One hears echoes of ‘La Marseillaise’ in those words!”

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,, 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, Development, Other countries, Preservation, Urbanism and planning and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Semes on Paris and our cities

  1. Pingback: Utility, form and Sullivan | Architecture Here and There

  2. abdaigle says:

    Fabulous essay! It very eloquently describes the solution for growth in all great cities. Simply build more great cities! How? By paying attention to what people love and giving them more. What an innovation! Architects everywhere are shirking their responsibility, celebrating not people or place, but their bespeckled egos. Time is fleeting, and it eventually tells all.


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