Trads must step up game

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Christopher Newport University, in Newport News, Va. (CNU)

While channel hopping a couple weeks ago, just before Christmas, I landed on C-Span and discovered to my horror I was watching a live broadcast of the groundbreaking for Frank Gehry’s memorial to Frank Gehry – oops, I mean Dwight Eisenhower. I had been hoping, along with many Americans eager for a renaissance of Jeffersonian architectural principles in this country, that President Trump would pull the plug on that insult to Ike. Gehry has, after all, publicly expressed his dislike of Trump, but Trump did not take the bait. This was not a good moment for the president to exercise his celebrated capacity for forgiveness and restraint.

Make America Great Again indeed.

Meanwhile, the organization that had worked hardest to block the Gehry memorial, the National Civic Art Society, has gone all-in on an even more important project – rebuilding New York’s Pennsylvania Station using an updated version of the original design. At least make New York great again. But the path to success here seems considerably narrower than the path to success for blocking the Ike memorial had seemed.

The classical revival fumbled the ball after 9/11 when it failed to raise its voice during the long national debate over how to rebuild at Ground Zero. The major victory for new traditional architecture in the public eye is the National World War II Memorial on the Mall, loved by veterans and the public, which opened in 2010. Its success as a trad icon was undermined, however, by classicists who bought into the modernist narrative that its design was reminiscent of Nazi architect Albert Speer. Ridiculous. Classicists should not let themselves be sucker-punched.

America needs a big classical project to inform the public that traditional architecture is not just a thing of the past, that it can and should be built today. That it can is shown by the masterful new pair of Collegiate Gothic residential colleges that were opened at Yale this past fall, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. They are big. They are beautiful. And yet, as far as promoting a classical revival, they might as well not exist. Yale is great, but it’s not exactly a crossroads of America. The two colleges have not even been acknowledged by the New York Times.

Penn Station’s revival seems to be the only major project on the horizon that could serve to demonstrate, in the United States, the practicality and the delight of new traditional architecture. The NCAS is on the case, but the governor of New York and the city’s mayor have no more of a clue than the president of the United States.

Slowly, the number of architecture school programs that acknowledge the existence of new classical and traditional work has grown over the years. And tons of traditionally styled mansions have been built for rich people, who of course may choose the kind of house they want without the say-so of a committee. Some significant new traditional churches, a pair of Mormon temples, concert halls in Charleston and Nashville, and a federal courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala., have been built in recent years, as have a state university campus in Newport News, Va., a new campus of the University of Southern California in L.A., a fitness center at Brown University here in Providence, and the two new undergraduate residential colleges at Yale. Nice. But that’s a veritable silence of the lambs next to the ongoing barkathon of the dogs of modernism.

Surely I have left worthy mentions off the list. Still, if we want to make architecture great again, we need to seriously step up our game.

And it appears that next year might see such a stepping up, with, I am moments ago informed, the completion expected in 2018 of a cathedral in Knoxville, at least two churches, one in Florida and another at Hillsdale College in Michigan, another federal courthouse, this one in Mobile, Ala., another concert hall, this one in Houston at Rice University, and, perhaps in time to make the next roundup, a new school of architecture at Notre Dame.

That sounds peachy, and it probably leaves many projects unmentioned, but the compilers of modernist roundups will snicker into their sleeves at the numerical disparity they will be able to point to. Sure, but add up the points for beauty and they are left choking in the dust. If only we could calculate that statistic, then the walls would come tumbling down. And yet society has learned to turn up its nose at beauty, so …

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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2 Responses to Trads must step up game

  1. David: Thank you for your great narrative of the slow descent into inanity of the Ike Memorial. One thing I would point out though is that you say “America needs a big classical project to inform the public that traditional architecture is not just a thing of the past…” but in my experience it is not the “public” that needs to be informed. They already are. The public I meet every day knows what they don’t want for their own buildings and it is Frank Gehry.
    We are busier than we have ever been in my almost thirty years at the helm of a leading traditional architecture. We are currently working on projects in ten states including two on the scale of the Yale projects you mentioned.
    As you say in your article the WWII memorial (great by the way) is popular with the public and Veterans. Folks know when something is designed for them and not for the designer and they can’t get enough of it. In that the New York Times is far behind the ball.

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    • Ethan, I agree with all you say, but would emphasize that what the public needs to know is not that traditional architecture is better and more pleasing than modern architecture, but that it is not a thing of the past and can be built now. The public likes it but is, I fear, to some degree snowed by claims of the mod-symp community that it is unaffordable or inappropriate. How many people who see new traditional architecture for the first time understand that it is in fact new and not something that has fortunately been preserved? I wonder. But no, I do not think that public taste needs to be educated – it is the mods who need to be shown the gate.

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