One of the most erudite puns on record is the title, “Scrawling From the Wreckage,” of a blog from Ireland (known for its literary power) by Hugh Kavanagh, an archaeological surveyor who specializes in built heritage. Two years ago, I posted his essay “Death by Nostalgia: How Architects Can Learn from Archaeologists.” I was bowled over by Kavanagh’s fecundity of insight. He sent me an email notifying me of another series of essays he is posting, called “Reclaiming Classicism,” of which Part I showed up Tuesday on his blog, whose subtitle is “Architecture, Design, Art and Making.”
“Reclaiming Classicism” is the top post on his blog linked above. He writes that he is embarked on a series about definitions in architecture, such as the word classical. In the popular reckoning the word classical is all over the lot. Recently, at the Bulfinch Awards gala put on by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (ICAA), I sat at a table where the conversation tippled upon that subject for minutes on end. Is classical the fount of tradition or merely its subset? Good question! Shouldn’t we nail down the definition? I suggested that maybe vagueness is perhaps the better part of valor when it comes to what the word means.
This was before I learned, at our meeting on Wednesday, that the ICAA, whose New England chapter allows me on its board, substituted the “classical” in its mission statement with “traditional.” It has also cut “advocacy” from its mission, and switched its elegant logo featuring the goddess Diana encircled by a wreath to a logo that drops the wreath and places a naked Diana in an awkward position vis-a-vis the acronym ICAA. The logo flouts the classical love for symmetry. At least the logo’s font has not stooped to sans serif!
I have not decided what I think about most of the above actions. I think an organization that promotes a minority position in architecture can only lose influence if it abandons advocacy. And the logo cries out for reform. And I am scared by the decision to switch from classical to traditional in the mission statement. Although the ICAA’s interest is or ought to be broader than classical as in Greco-Roman, and should embrace all traditional styles (including Gothic, Victorian, Stick, etc.), switching classical out strikes me as maybe opening doors to more dangerous forms of backsliding. So, since classical could be read as both the origin of traditional styles and as a subset of traditional styles, I think I favor letting people read what they want to into the word, especially, perhaps, when used in a mission statement.
In “Reclaiming Classicism,” Cavanagh describes several definitions of the term, all very much valid but reaching only so far. His definitions do not extend to what the word classical means today to most architects, and to some extent the public. He makes a clear distinction between what architects seem to know and what the public seems to know:
When I speak to others about classicism it’s easy to assume that my understanding is the same as everybody else’s. I’ve learned very quickly that this is rarely the case, with architects and academics showing a very shallow and biased view of classical architecture, while general members of the public often showing great insight and understanding, based on nothing but their personal experience.
Kavanagh promises to unpack this dual outlook on classicism in his next post, which may be several weeks in the future.
For now, I’m happy to have my longstanding belief in the public’s greater sophistication about architecture reiterated by Kavanagh. Most people’s knowledge of architecture is based on experience rather than study, and since architecture school aims to purge the intuitive love of beauty from the minds of architecture students, what Cavanaugh says about the narrow, shallow, biased views of specialists on the classical is not just perfectly valid but perfectly obvious.
With that remark, I will urge readers to call up Hugh Kavanagh’s blog and its wise essays. To make that easier, I have placed his blog on my “Blogs I Follow” list. Learn. Enjoy.