I am on the sixth volume of my fourth circumnavigation of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of 20 novels, set during the Napoleonic Era. Much of it takes place between bouts of naval warfare, at home as an half-pay officer with his wife Sophie and their three children. Jack Aubrey visits his father, a former general and now radical member of Parliament, and in this passage, already dismayed by his stepmother, a former milkmaid younger than Jack, he rues what the old man is doing to Woolcombe, the house where he grew up in Woolhampton, which lies on the road from Bath to London:
[Aubrey senior] had recently set about altering Woolcombe on an ambitious scale. It was perhaps that which had saddened Jack most. The house in which he was born had no doubt been a raw and staring edifice when it was first built two hundred years ago [circa 1614] – highly ornamented red brick with a great number of gables and bays and high corkscrew chimneys – but no Aubrey since James’s time had sprung up with Palladian tastes or indeed with any tastes at all in the architectural line, and the place had mellowed wonderfully. Now it was beginning to stare again, with false turrets and incongruous sash-windows, as if the vulgarity of his new associates had infected the General’s mind. Inside it was even worse; the panelling, old, dark, and inconvenient to be sure, but known for ever, had been torn out and wallpaper and gilt mirrors had taken its place. Jack’s own room had already vanished; and only the unused library, with its solemn rows of unopened books and its noble carved plaster ceiling, had escaped; he had spent some hours there, looking, among other things, at a first folio Shakespeare, borrowed by an earlier Jack Aubrey in 1623, never read and never returned: but even the library was doomed. The intention seemed to be to make the house false – ancient outside and gimcrack modern within: at the top of the hill, where he had always taken a last look back (for Woolcombe lay in a dank hollow, facing north), he directed his gaze steadily down on the other side, to Woolhampton.
Was that a fling at modernism? Yes and no. Modernism as we know it today did not exist in the early 19th century, of course. But the tendency toward the garish new was already well established by then. It is that tendency that has the modern era by the throat, most sadly in architecture. Today we look back with envy at the architectural disputes of prior eras. How, we wonder, could anybody so vociferously favor, say, either Gothic or Classical over the other? With modernism having wreaked havoc on the built environment of the West for closing in on a century, and on the rest of the world for half a century, they both seem, along with every other strain of traditional and vernacular architecture, heaven sent.
Mindful of O’Brian’s description, it has been said that preservationists often work too hard to restore old houses to their original look and sheen, peeling away the sensibility of time that enhances lovability. The last annual meeting of the Providence Preservation Society, in January, featured a keynote by Adele Chatfield-Taylor, the early preservationist leader and former longtime head of the American Academy in Rome, who had this to say:
A continuing worry for some of us was that once a building was rescued, those in charge seldom considered anything but a full-blown, multi-million-dollar restoration or reconstruction as a way to preserve it. And to this day it is, more or less, our favorite model of what to do.
But at least preservationists of that era wanted to save beautiful architecture. Now they mainly want to save Brutalist architecture and other errors. The 20th-century battle (or surrender) that saw modernism routing tradition in architecture is a tragic saga that awaits its Patrick O’Brian.