Classicism over thousands of years has developed an architectural language that modernism has not even sought to construct. A language would suggest a reliance on precedent. Among those who have criticized my admiration for Stan Weiss’s interior decor, Eric Daum puts it well. He writes that the decor “deletes adverbs, denies noun/verb agreement, and it doesn’t understand the rudiments of punctuation.”
Perhaps so. An antiques dealer and hotel developer, Weiss calls his ornament – yes, bought from catalogues and assembled according to his own design – a “classical fantasy,” comparable to Sarasata’s Carmen Fantasy for Violin. Maybe there is too much antique furniture in Weiss’s basic conception. Elements of his rooms strike me as Piranesian. That surely overstates the case, but the notion that it is “ugly” or “gives [one commenter] a stomach-ache” seems more like virtue signalling than genuine critical analysis.
But the objections are passionate and eloquent, and, I think, come from the heart. It is a reaction to be expected from anyone who has labored first to learn and then to apply the rules of classicism, and thus demands respect.
One commenter, Nancy Thomas, a publicist who, however sensible, is not an expert in architecture, wrote:
All I know is my eyes dance at [Weiss’s embellishments], and if I could print a set of note cards with the artwork in that first image, I would do so. … What fun … how Classical!
My focus as a writer on architecture is the style wars between modern and traditional architecture. My reading in the principles and techniques of classicism is not deep, not at all. I don’t need a deep understanding to think and write about how a public square of classical design is superior to a public square squelched by modernism. I do understand the idea of classicism as a language. The importance of high standards in classical work is mother’s milk to me. However, after being assaulted on Pratt Street by the exterior of the Weiss House, I was very much taken aback by the interior. It was like stepping from an icy shower into a hot bath where nymphs bearing towels waited to dry me off in front of a fireplace. (These days I suppose they could be accused of harassing me!) At any rate, beauty is what my eyes beheld.
The honesty of my reaction is, I think, just as pure and passionate – as valid if not as well tutored – as the reaction against it.
Commenter “Anonymous” (or “Soundslike” in his original comment) writes:
The more that well-meaning traditionalists defend bad-trad architecture that treats tradition as just another shallow stylistic grab-bag, the less of a real argument we have against the cruelties and follies of Modernist architecture. … We have so much more than “style” going for us, but not if we accept anything with doodads and gewgaws applied to speak for “tradition.”
That’s all very well, entirely unobjectionable and perfectly valid so far as it goes. But the future of classical architecture does not rest entirely on the virtuosity with which classicists apply the principles. The future of classical architecture depends on whether classicists can leverage the public’s taste for traditional design into a movement away from modern architecture and back toward architecture people love.
So, what’s that famous line? “Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
That is a very practical piece of advice, and it is applicable here. “Good trad” and “bad trad” are not so easily divisible. There is a scale between bad and good. At the bad end of the scale is architecture that deserves every iota of the classicists’ disdain. But as you move up the scale from the truly bad to the almost good, the advisability of castigating the almost good as if it were truly bad diminishes. Educated architects may not be emotionally capable of making this distinction, but members of the general public are, and do so instinctively, with a degree of sense born of continuous experience.
Seth Weine writes in his comment that “it is not true that bad (or even poor) classicism is better than no classicism at all.” Some classicists believe that bad trad is a greater enemy to the classical revival than modern architecture. Again, however understandable such a sentiment may be among experts, if taken seriously it virtually forecloses the possibility of a classical revival. My reply to his comment was:
Disagree strongly, Seth. Most people can tell the difference only to some degree. They may know enough to disdain the very bad, dumbed down “classicism” of a high-end CVS but far less so that of an interior like that of Weiss’s house. The latter cannot hurt the reputation of classicism anywhere near the way the former can. Therefore it serves to enhance classicism’s rep in light of most of what the public sees in its built environment. It baffles me that so many classicists cannot appreciate this. Experts might understandably see it differently, and obviously high standards are the best standards, but we design and build for clients and the public, not the experts.
The producers of places like Weiss’s interior – or, say, Providence Place mall, completed in 1999, or the neo-Georgian buildings on the edges of the Gaebe Common (except for its Triangolo Gate, which is high classicism) at Johnson & Wales University, or the Westin Hotel and its addition, or at least two of the several new hotels scheduled for construction, to take several examples from Providence – should be praised for their evident desire to produce buildings that the public will at least like.
The best examples can be praised with some brio, while lesser examples can be praised with some reserve. Even if their designers have no desire to please the public at all and have built traditional buildings for some other reason, they should be given the benefit of the doubt and praised. It may be safe to criticize the baddest of bad trad, but it should be kept in mind that what they all need most is education, not condemnation.
What an admirable goal to create friends, not enemies! It is above my pay grade to figure out how to structure a program to bring design education to the CVS design team, the facilities departments of universities, the staff of Home Depot, the architects employed by the design/build firms that build so many bland buildings today, etc. Suffice it to say, architecture schools are not required to enroll only kids, and churches are not the only institutions that could benefit by sending out missionaries.
“Anonymous” offers a useful reminder that classical education was purged from architecture schools by the modernists, leaving generations of designers without the ability to perform some of the basic tasks of architecture:
[I]f you look at buildings built before Modernism’s coup, in all of them – from the simplest 1770s house on Transit Street to the most ornate 1910s mansion on College Hill to the 1890s Fox Point workforce housing to the City Hall to the Deco storefronts downtown – you see they achieve incredible variety, but that none of them makes any of the mistakes of proportion, tectonic clarity, hierarchy, etc. that are rampant in the house you’ve extolled.
I wrote a fun post a year ago, “Skopje’s classical ambition,” that addressed the topic of bad trad. The post chuckles at an article that quotes, with sympathy, a handful of modernists whose work is being shunted aside, who condemn the quality of the classicism that is replacing it. One of them even blubbered that they did not seek his consent to change his building. Consent!? Did he ask consent from the owners whose buildings he demolished back in the 1960s? Hardly likely! Not with Josip Braz Tito in charge!
But I digress. Here is one point from that post that applies in spades:
I lack the credentials to judge any attempt to reconnect Macedonia with its history. But Yugoslavia’s modernists benefited from modern architecture’s global effort to snuff out classical education and craftsmanship. It ill behooves them now to complain that the new classicism in Skopje is insufficiently canonical. Their hypocrisy beggars the imagination.
Classicists’ condemnation of less than canonical classicism may be unwise, but at least it’s not hypocritical!
The reputation of classicism depends only partially on how well particular buildings of classical inspiration are designed. The classical revival depends only in part on the number of classicists graduating from architecture school (few but growing). Those are both very important, and a classical revival will not happen without advances on both fronts. But if the classical revival must await a takeover of modernist by classicist education, it will wait until doomsday. Unless the market intervenes.
For that to happen, the public must see classical and traditional architecture being built in their cities and towns. Without that, the public will continue to believe that beautiful buildings are something from the past that cannot be expected today, for various untrue reasons, such as their supposedly high expense or their supposed lack of propriety in modern times.
The public, as I suggested to Seth Weine, has no scholarly capacity to judge the canonical qualities of new classical architecture, any more than I did when I entered the Weiss House. At this point, the vast bulk of new classical architecture is likely to fall more or less beneath the level of the canonical. And a lot of it will be good enough to please the eye of most of the public. Classicism, as a profession, should take advantage of this. If it does not, if even the best of bad trad is castigated not just by the modernists but by the classicists as well, the public will continue to feel pressure to doubt its instinctive preference for traditional over modernist buildings.
A tolerance for some degree of bad trad is key to improving the work of its designers, and to strengthening the public’s confidence in its own instincts. Tolerance of bad trad is not incompatible with the highest standards of classical architecture. Both goods can be sought at the same time, and both can be mutually beneficial to the goal of a classical revival. No classical revival will survive if classicists cannot refrain from making enemies of their allies – those who are willing, wanting, waiting to make beautiful buildings, but who need to be taught, not disdained.
In a democracy, public taste should carry weight, but it never will until classicists find a more sophisticated way to address the making – and promotion – of classical architecture at every level. I hope my visit to Stan Weiss’s crib has helped to move that conversation forward.