Aslet on classicism’s future

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Clive Aslet, longtime editor of Britain’s tony Country Life magazine, has written a rosy assessment of prospects for the classical revival – that is, the return to prominence of traditional architecture after more than half a century of its suppression by modern architecture. In “On the state and prospect of classical architecture,” in The New Criterion, Aslet writes:

Classicism is a broad river that has run through Western architecture for two-and-a-half millennia. A generation ago it seemed that the stream had reduced to a trickle. Only a small phalanx of recondite architects really understood the classical language of architecture; they were generally employed by private patrons whose social as well as architectural ideas were not at the cutting edge. And yet now, if not quite in full spate, the river has recaptured a degree of vigor. The flow has quickened, the banks are beginning to brim. What has happened, and what does the future hold?

He ends up imagining that traditional architecture will at last solve the growing problem, not seriously addressed by modern architecture, of housing a world whose populations in cities are metastacizing. “Here is demand, on an epic scale, and here, too, the solution,” he concludes, referring to traditional architecture.

Wonderful piece, and though Aslet predicts precisely what ought to happen, his forecast seems even to me to err on the side of optimism. He forecasts change in classicism’s long role as a niche for building nice houses for people with nice incomes, where modernists are happy for them to subsist. He says nothing, however, of the civic, institutional and commercial commissions from which traditional architects remain largely excluded. That must change as well if anything is to change. But Aslet does debunk certain canards – one can’t find anyone capable of carving ornament anymore (now that modern architecture has put them out of work and purposely starved the systems that propagate their craftsmanship). That is already changing. Aslet writes:

[T]here are jobs for classicists, and—strange as it may seem—modern life favors this always backward-looking style. While, in the 1980s, Quinlan Terry struggled to convince a skeptical public that the craftsmanship still existed to produce top-quality classical work, nowadays that work is becoming cheaper to commission. While the best carving is finished by hand, much of the drudgery which leads up to that point can be performed by computer-controlled machinery. Classicism depends on repetition and repetition is the stock-in-trade of computers. In the design process, detail that is hand drawn can be replicated ad infinitum on the computer screen; if the proportions remain constant, detail can also be enlarged or reduced. These are wonders of the New World; they have arrived at a time when the skills of the Old World are often still in commission.

That is music to my ears. So it’s hard to fathom why the same writer at the same time penned a desultory review, in Country Life, of Making Dystopia, by the highly respected architectural historian James Stevens Curl, published by Oxford University Press. It is an account of the “strange rise and survival of architectural barbarism,” to quote the book’s subtitle.

Maybe Aslet thinks bad vibes caused by criticizing classicism’s oppressors will queer classicism’s momentum. Tsk, tsk, Professor Curl!

In “Modernism’s feet of clay,” Aslet commends the author’s scholarship and the accuracy of his book, but then professes dismay at his anger, vapidly asks “why now?” and asserts that Stevens Curl lacks what he has so precisely demonstrated: a deep understanding of modern architecture. Aslet calls the book a rant and wishes it were more “impartial.” And yet the author’s anger is not merely understandable but commendable. Impartiality here, if you believe what Stevens Curl believes, would amount to granting a false moral equivalence between Churchill and Hitler.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still function. In his optimistic assessment of classicism’s future and his put-down of Making Dystopia, Aslet supports and rejects either side of the same architectural coin. Neat trick if he can do it, but the result is sure to be dysfunctional.

No thanks. That’s what we already have now.

Dystopia Aslet review

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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8 Responses to Aslet on classicism’s future

  1. Pingback: Hewitt on Yale’s new colleges | Architecture Here and There

  2. Michael Tyrrell says:

    “The Corbusian vision” is not dead precisely due to the ongoing effects of the Modern Era (an Epoch, actually) in which the petrol-chemical revolution of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries transformed the methods and economic timeframe by which we build. I am the first person to promote and defend tradition, but that process -tradition- requires a reconciliation with the fact that the Digital/Machine Age, and industrial Revolution respectively, changed everything; “the process of selection as applied to a standard” would reach far more people in less time than ever before. It may have cost us in civility and decorum, but it was organic in its evolution relative to profound new technologies and the energy systems that spawned them. Wall Street and Madison Avenue bought in, hook, line, and sinker. The Architecture of The America Dream would be sweepingly consumerist and manufactured to order; it’s Masonic foundation rendered obsolete.

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    • Not sure I agree, Michael. I think modernism evolved with processes and technologies, to be sure, but there has always been a choice to be made by the profession and the industry that could have continued tradition, or returned to tradition without reducing the level of profit, but instead decided to embrace a sterile, ugly, disconcerting mode of building while suppressing all efforts to push back in favor of tradition. Bad vibes!

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      • Michael Tyrrell says:

        David, the bad vibes are a great misfortune -to be sure. For example, look at the area now emerging in East Cambridge (near Lechmere Station) -just awful!! It is the product of a clamoring for profits fueled by cheap oil within short “economic cycles” that doomed the disposition we so cherish. The problem is complex largely because Architecture reflects our (monetary and greed-driven?) priorities; our means and opportunities to pursue riches. There was a time when an equilibrium between the technical miracles of the Machine Age and its environment (Think Art Greco) produced a willingness to imbue the realm, but profits and cheap oil are at the route of the disease -not design philosophy per se. Indeed, the best Modernism of the 20’s and 30’s sought to include the ethos of classicism; to infuse its expedient production with the rigor and intellectual precedent of Athens and Rome. Apples and Oranges you say?…. Not so long as we remain addicted to market consumerism and the petrol-chemical age it relies on. Cheers.

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  3. Robert Adam says:

    I am a great admirer of James’ scholarship and forcefulness but I am also concerned about promoting traditional design by always aggressively rubbishing modernism or its inheritors. Modernists are not bad people, they are just often misguided and to attack current modernists in the same breath as their misguided predecessors is to miss an important point. In the first place, we should now just regard early modernism as an historical phenomenon that had a place in a different time and, as an historical phenomenon, is subject to the formation of tradition and revival (and can be taught as such with impunity). This takes away its wholly illogical ‘perpetually modern’ fallacy. Secondly, amongst the inheritors of modernism there is consistent debate and, right now, that debate is becoming more open to other ideas and in particular the traditional. The dominance of modernism and its ideas was, as we all know, almost total so, if we really are to change architecture and urban design in any kind of ‘our lifetime’ scenario, it is to those who have been educated in modernism that we must turn. And turning they are too, albeit slowly, with the old school somewhere in the slipstream, but there are signs of a definite shift (another piece by you David?). Just savagely attacking them at every turn is, in this climate, counter-productive to our clause. It’s yesterday’s battle.

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    • The effort to regenerate a humane architecture has many strands. One of them, which I practice, is to argue the case against modernist architecture, no holds barred. Others may try to influence the discourse in architecture by promoting contemporary traditional architecture, and I do that, too. You, Robert, are a noted practitioner of contemporary traditional architecture. But the classical revival has to face the fact that much of modernism is ugly and inhumane. And, as James Stevens Curl points out, for all intents and purposes, intentionally so. The modernist pioneers took the path of rejecting millennia of architecture that worked. Many contemporary architects (and academics who teach architecture) still engage in that rejectionism, full force, so far as I can see.

      As I say often in my posts, Robert, I suppose most workaday modernists are not well informed about the history of their profession, partly because so much of its darker side has been suppressed. Nevertheless, they work within a system – modern architecture – that some of us argue has resulted in a terrible assault on the traditions that once made cities and towns relatively pleasant places, whose qualities can be said to have made up, to some degree, for the pain that is our lot in life. So, while most modern architects today are not evil, some of the work that they do relies on principles that contribute to a sterile, disconcerting, hurtful environment whether they understand that or not. The system, I would say, based on its results, is still in full force.

      So I disagree that modernism is dead. The postmodernist critique of the 60s and 70s did create an opening for genuine classicism but led to few buildings that followed the line of their critique of the International Style. The modernists replied with a jujitsu move doubling down on the rejection of tradition, abandoning machine functionality and embracing a sort of whiz-bang defiance of nature and structure. It has been very successful by their own lights. In your eyes this historical progression may take away the “perpetually modern” fallacy, but not in the eyes of modernist practitioners. I see no evidence that significant numbers of modernists no longer hold Corbusier in high esteem or follow his precepts, whether they know them directly or understand them.

      If there are thoughtful modernists out there who are becoming more open to tradition and the classical, however slowly, I welcome them. Details, please! I would love to write about that.

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  4. Yes, Nikos, something very strange is going on, and that’s putting the best face on it!

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  5. David,

    The topic of architectural Modernism does generate contradictory emotions, as is frequently observed even among very intelligent persons. Having read Clive Aslet’s excellent, sensitively-written article for the New Criterion, his book review seems to come from another author. I would have believed Mr. Aslet to have enthusiastically welcomed James Stevens Curl’s book, but evidently I was wrong.

    Let me pick two points in the articles by Aslet as a way of showing how things don’t fit. In “The future of classicism” he asserts that: “It can now be said that the fight [modernism versus traditionalism] is pretty well over … the Corbusian vision is dead.” I totally disagree! Just look at our architecture schools, the prestigious architecture journals, and all the popular news stories about new buildings. And who gets the major commissions around the world!

    Then in his book review he says something of James Stevens Curl that happens to disturb me: “This would have been a better book if he had tried harder to understand his opponents.” Yet this book is brilliant because its author has entered deeply into his opponents’ psyche, to more effectively tear them apart. Something just doesn’t make sense in Aslet’s arguments, and this possibly prevents the two articles from connecting.

    Cheers,
    Nikos

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