This year’s Arthur Ross laureates, just announced by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, honored such luminaries as Julian Fellowes, creator of and writer for the Downton Abbey series, the classical architects Jaquelin Robertson and Gil Schafer (two separate awards), sculptor W.P. Sullivan, painter Anthony Baus, the planning firm Urban Design Associates, and the British historian James Stevens Curl, who is this year’s laureate in the category of History & Writing, for his new book Making Dystopia.
Stevens Curl, whose book I have read and have been writing about since before its publication by Oxford University Press this past October, would appreciate, I think, the painting by Laureate Baus that sits atop this post, called “Surrogate’s Courthouse.” Its French Baroque style exemplifies the author’s love for all the many threads of stylistic tradition that stem from the classical mother ship. Just imagine how beautiful cities and towns around the world would be today if the evolutionary diversity of architecture had not been so rudely interrupted in the last century by modern architecture.
Laureate Curl’s book aims not just to condemn modern architecture. Modern architecture does that very well on its own. The book exposes as none before it the foolishness, danger and even villainy of modern architecture’s central propositions, detailing meticulously its links to the Nazis and its character, even today, as a cult propagated largely by techniques its founders learned from totalitarian regimes of the left and the right. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, the wife of one of those founders, wrote after his death an essay, “Hitler’s Revenge,” that explained how modern architecture would be a disaster for American cities, which was predictable, but not how American cultural and industrial elites would be totally bamboozled after World War II, as they remain today. Stevens Curl’s book has performed that service with panache. It will pave the way for a revolution by beauty against the fraudulent domain of ugliness.
Yet the Ross Award is more an honor for Professor Curl than a victory.
The victory in the headline of this post is rather the victory he scored in February over Barnabas Calder, an advocate of Brutalist-style modernism, in an online survey pitting traditional against modern architecture. He and Calder went three rounds in written debate on the question “Has Modern Architecture Ruined Britain?” in Prospect magazine. Readers were asked to vote on who won. Yes got 642 votes to 342 votes for No, or a 65 percent to 35 percent win for tradition. This was perhaps to be expected in a survey polling an international readership relatively conversant on design issues, but far understates the preference for tradition among the population at large.
Indeed, the survey’s inner workings turned out to encapsulate the world of architecture writ large. The modernist establishment’s willingness to use their dominance of the profession unfairly was demonstrated starkly. Hugh Pearman, a leading critic for the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), tweeted his followers advance word of the start of voting. The modernists’ No vote surged to a lead of 95 percent to 5 percent before the trads had even got out of bed. Calder expressed his joy, and then no doubt chewed on his hat as the trads strongly rebounded, leaving the mods cranky in the dust.
Professor Curl’s victory and his honor both cry “Truth will out!” from the rooftops. The fall of modern architecture is under way, and the classical revival is rumbling just over the horizon.
For a taste of Professor Curl’s vision, here is an essay of his, “Some Thoughts on the Empty Heart of Modernism,” just published in the New English Review.