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.