A timeline of “authenticity”

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Bonaguil Castle in the Aquitaine. (eupedia.com)

Authenticity must rank near the top of the list of dubious words. Authentic has been split from its original meaning and used to brush a patina of merit upon many dubious ideas. A good example is its use by the late architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable to distinguish genuine creative design from what she calls “copying the past.” Since almost every advance in every field in the sciences, technology and the arts has relied on previous advances, the idea of progress unattached to the past is the height of absurdity. And yet that is the conceit of most modern architecture today.

Here is a more useful take on the word from the novel Timeline, written by Michael Crichton in 1999, two years after the publication of Huxtable’s notorious (my word) book The Unreal America. In that book she seeks to show that new traditional architecture brands America as culturally wedded to inauthenticity. She equates all new traditional architecture with Disney theme parks. Huxtable’s notion that modernism represents genuine creativity and thus genuine authenticity turns truth on its head. Crichton’s passage below seems almost a direct rebuttal to Huxtable’s thinking.

Timeline tracks a corporation’s development of quantum technology that enables it to send a team of archaeologists back to the Middle Ages to rescue a colleague trapped in a French castle just before a major battle during the Hundred Years’ War. The company’s CEO plans to give a speech to investors describing the technology’s potential to help historians and archaeologists better understand and learn from the past.

In practicing his speech, the CEO, Robert Donziger, states:

“Authenticity will be the buzzword of the twenty-first century. And what is authentic? Anything that is not devised and structured to make a profit. Anything that is not controlled by corporations. Anything that exists for its own sake, that assumes its own shape. But of course nothing in the modern world is allowed to assume its own shape. The modern world is the corporate equivalent of a formal garden, where everything is planted and arranged for effect. Where nothing is untouched, where nothing is authentic.

Up to this point in the speech, Crichton seems to be channeling Huxtable. But he goes on:

“Where, then, will people turn for the rare and desirable experience of authenticity? They will turn to the past.

“The past is unarguably authentic. The past is a world that already existed before Disney and Murdoch and Nissan and Sony and IBM and all the other shapers of the present day. The past was here before they were. The past rose and fell before their intrusion and molding and selling. The past is real. It’s authentic. And this will make the past unbelievably attractive. That is why I say the future is the past. The past is the only real alternative to– Yes? Diane, what is it?” He turned as she walked into the room.

“There’s a problem in the transit room.”

Substitute for “the past” the words “architecture before modernism” and you have a call to move into the future by continuing to evolve according to the more authentic design principles that had shaped the previous two or three thousand years. This applies in all fields that have abandoned home truths and traditional practices – for example, cuisine, which has largely emerged from its Rice-A-Roni bout of midcentury modernism. Likewise, we ought to move beyond GMA – genetically modified architecture.

When, toward the end of the book, it appears to Donziger that flaws in the technology will be fixed and the stranded team of researchers will be rescued, he actually gives his speech. Only then do readers learn (surprise!) that he plans to apply the technology not to science, history or scholarship but to creating a new sector of the entertainment industry in which people will pay to travel to a historical period of their choosing.

So it appears that as far as authenticity goes, it’s the same old same old. New traditional architecture is clearly part of the alternative. Without it, modern architecture will lead to the fearful authoritarian world imagined by Orwell, Huxley and Bradbury or in films such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Those dystopian books and films were set in a fictional architecture of modernist machine sterility and inhumanity. Must we like it or lump it? Stay tuned! (Indeed, there is a movie. See Timeline trailer. Where’s my Netflix?)

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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