The “of our time” bugaboo

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Photo of addition to 215 Jefferson St., Alexandria, Va., taken by Brent Brolin in 1972.

I have just concluded Brent Brolin’s Architectural Ornament: Banishment & Return, written in 1985 and republished in 2000. It tells the history of how the meaning of innovation and creativity was lost in the 19th and 20th centuries, leading to, among other curiosities, modern architecture. There are too many quotable passages in the book, but here is one that deftly describes one of modernism’s most stubborn shibboleths:

“The style of the times” looms over the past 150 years like the Holy Grail of design. Red herring is a more apt term. Designers claiming to search for a style of our times really mean “a style I like.” It is another weapon to use against those whose vision of our times differs from that of the designer. Searching one’s creative soul for the expression of our times is at best a thankless task; at worst it is a crude form of self-deception. There is no one “style of the times.” That unhappy occurrence would only be possible in a homogeneous or totalitarian culture. There are many versions of “our times,” each valid for those who hold it.

He follows with a paragraph describing how architects nowadays are forced to personalize their work, differentiating it as much as possible from that of competitors. In the process they unintentionally debunk their “of our time” credo. But they don’t care. Why should they? They know that this blatant inconsistency in the foundational thinking of modern architecture will not be mentioned by the establishment’s stable of architecture critics.

We live in an age of designer architecture. Like designer jeans, it demands that the author’s name be writ clear, so the public knows what value to place on the work. But because architects do not yet sign their buildings, they must resort to the symbolic signature – the personal style. Designer buildings express personal styles and idiosyncrasies regardless of context. You can tell a Le Corbusier building wherever it is. With an occasional exception in the oeuvre of each, you can say the same of Wright, Mies, and so on, down to the present-day line-up of stars.

While I was reading this book, my old friend Steve Mields sent me, unbeknownst, a copy of Brolin’s earlier book, The Failure of Modern Architecture, written in 1976. It promises to be even more fun, possibly even more so than the first paragraph of Freaky Deaky, by Elmore Leonard, which he also placed in his Christmas package. (Steve included a note just inside the novel’s cover that, minus a couple of expletive deleteds, reads: “Bonus Paperback! Chapter One is the funniest beginning chapter of any book I have ever read, ever!” I found Chapter Three even funnier than Chapter One – but it is not an opening chapter.

Imagine my delight to find inside the back cover of Brolin’s Failure, as I looked up its copyright date, a 1972 typewritten note in a plastic baggie from the author to “Occupant” of 215 Jefferson St. (pictured above at the top of this post), in Alexandria. Illustrative of Brolin’s generous and aesthetically broad-minded spirit, it reads:

Nov. 2, 1972

Dear Sir: I was visiting my brother in Alexandria and happened to drive by your house. The addition to your house struck me as a particularly happy meeting of old and new architecture. I am an architect myself and so was curious to know when the addition was built and who had the good taste to do it this way.

I would very much appreciate it if you had time to drop me a card. Thank you very much.

Sincerely,

Brent C. Brolin

P.S. I am enclosing a photo of the addition which I took at the time and hope you enjoy.

Apparently, “Occupant” replied because the photo is printed near the end of his 1976 book, with a caption noting that the 1782 Georgian house’s addition, with its large fan window, was built in 1967. The architect was David R. Rosenthal. The windows of the addition may have been washed by Steve, who in addition to being perhaps the most underrated humorist of his day, is a fenestration cleanliness engineer. He has a practice of acquiring books from the libraries of his clients, either by purchase or donation.

Steve also included a 1967 “First Day of Issue” envelope for a stamp honoring a “Plan for Better Cities” upon the 50th anniversary of the American Institute of Planners (of which Steve’s father, my father’s best friend, was a member). The envelope has a hilarious engraving of a group of city planners (all white males in suits) around a table conceiving a new project, which is also revealed on the envelope. I will post on this soon, with additional remarks about friends, friends’ fathers and city planners.

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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