Hugh Kavanagh, an Irish student of architecture from Cobh, Ireland – a seaside town known also as Queenstown, which was the Titanic’s last port of call and boasts Pugin’s St. Colman’s Cathedral – sends me an extraordinarily sensible essay. He wrote “Death by Nostalia: What Architects Can Learn from Archaeologists” for the autumn 2012 Archaeology Ireland. I’ve lifted it from his blog Scrawling from the wreckage: Architecture, Design, Art and Making.
Kavanagh’s essay strikes many useful points regarding the dead hand of modernism upon the present, most particularly how much we miss the slow way of evolving architectural practice into the future, which helped us of the present avoid alienation from our past. Here is the first paragraph:
The title of this piece, “Death by Nostalgia,” is a quote from Frank Zappa’s autobiography where he describes the continual recycling of styles in popular culture as stifling progress and innovation in contemporary music. This view has been common amongst the creative arts in the 20th century, where innovation and avant-garde are seen as superior and definitive. Architects have fallen into this way of thinking, too, with the result that a serious interest in architectural heritage has been seen as backward thinking. Amongst many in the modern creative arts, past artistic accomplishments are seen with patronising fascination like something from an alien culture, to be kept in glass cases to ward off infection. Our separation from the past is something that society takes for granted today, but this is a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, artistic progress was slow and methodical so we did not feel so alienated from our preceding generations’ work. The 20th century has seen an infatuation with the future and in some way it has been archaeology which has benefited by being an expression of the basic human need for us to feel in touch with our roots.
In that paragraph Kavanagh approaches a point that I have lately taken to making with increasing urgency about creativity. As Kavanaugh says, most architects and artists now see novelty as the sole valid approach to creativity. They look down their noses at the past, and especially the type of creativity that was prevalent in the past. That is the creativity that involves improving current techniques of embellishment: how painters can improve the way they mix paint colors, apply brushstrokes, render subjects by model or by imagination; how musicians can improve music by advancing notational composition, better techniques of designing and making instruments, of playing them, improving the acoustic quality of concert halls; how singers, playwrights, film directors, actors, poets, novelists, and every kind of artist can advance their artistic techniques; how architects can do what they do to improve upon the classical orders, or how they can make a building better meld its functions of beauty and utility – and so on and so on.
The idea, whether by methodical practice or by sudden insight, is to improve the virtuosity of the artistic process, rendering it more pleasing or more capable of reaching toward an aesthetic ideal, be it that of accuracy, gusto, accessibility, meaning, beauty, simplicity, emotion, whatever.
Leaving aside the other arts, this is how architects displayed the supposedly progressive character of their art/industry in the centuries leading up to the takeover of architecture by modernist practice. As brilliantly described by Hugh Kavanagh, it is how buildings archaeologists are now rediscovering the techniques of the architects of the past – how they made architecture, and how they made it the creative enterprise that it once was and can be again, by better understanding both how to restore old and build new architecture.