The reactionary avant-garde

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Richmond Riverside, London. (photo by David Iliff, from Public Square)

The epitome of a contradiction in terms, the idea of a reactionary avant-garde is a most appropriate description of what the theorist Nikos Salingaros calls the “cult” of modern architecture. Charles Siegel uses the term in the title of his new book The Humanists versus the Reactionary Avant-Garde, and Rob Steuteville’s review, “A human-centered architecture for our time,” for Public Square – the online journal of the Congress of the New Urbanism – has me awaiting the book most eagerly.

Modern architecture as cult suggests the stodgy backwardness reflected even by its most outlandishly wacko projects. Reactionary avant-garde defines that attitude to a tee. Neither its practitioners nor its establishment (the AIA, etc.) seem to have any idea how ridiculous the public considers their work, and yet their refusal to brook any discussion of the impact of their work suggests that they do have some idea, and do not want to address it. Why should they? The leaders of the profession are rolling in money, and laughing all the way to the bank. So why should they indeed? The good of humanity? Nah.

Rather than review a review of the book, I will merely attest that Steuteville’s lengthy treatment seems almost to be a table of contents for my own thoughts about the style wars to which this blog is devoted. Naturally, Steuteville’s review of Siegel’s book highlights CNU’s role in those wars, whereas another reviewer might highlight the “contemporary classicists” of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. No matter. Both wage the war against modernism from similar perspectives, whether they like to admit it or not. And you’d be surprised at the vigorous debate within each organization over whether to confront modernism directly.

That I still need to read the book itself is an even greater inducement for me not to write about it here. So I merely invite the reader to read the review and, if it sits well, to buy the book. The links for each are above.

I have illustrated this post as Steuteville has illustrated his review – with Richmond Riverside, near London, a mixed-use development designed by Quinlan Terry that epitomizes the humanism of the architecture that both author and reviewer, and I, support. I visited Richmond Riverside in 1998. Modernist critics complain that the modern technology and conveniences inside somehow render its exterior design inauthentic. Siegel will, I’m sure, take a sledge hammer to that kind of modernist thinking.

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.
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1 Response to The reactionary avant-garde

  1. Pingback: The “reactionary avant-garde” | Architecture Here and There

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