The foreboding of H.H. Reed

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Here’s a passage from “Warning to the Architectural Avant-Garde,” in the May 1959 issue of the journal L’Architettura, by Bruno Zevi, as translated in a collection of essays called Architecture in America: A Battle of Styles, edited by William A. Coles and (the late) Henry Hope Reed, Jr., published in 1961*:

If historical-critical thinking in Italy has any value, it should succeed in defeating the intertia, uncertainties, formalistic evasions, and superficialities which presently pollute the Modern Movement and threaten its development. …

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Henry Hope Reed in Rome.

This year there was published in the United States a book entitled The Golden City by Henry Hope Reed, Jr. It is the most reactionary but also the most skilful attack on Modern architecture written in the last decades. It begins by comparing a series of buildings executed in the Greco-Roman style between 1860 and 1920 with their Modern equivalents and it concludes in favor of the former. …

With a consistency and a display of ideas worthy of a better cause, Reed denies the significance of a century of history and maintains that it is not only necessary to return to false arches, columns with bases and capitals, and pastiche decoration, but that we will inevitably return to these because the language of Modern architecture has gone sterile and its crisis can only end in a return to the neoclassical.

We must consider this book not so much to refute it analytically as to understand how the project could have been conceived, how in the world a scholar with a solid knowledge of history dares to prophesy with tightly argued logic the coming of the neo-Roman and the neo-Renaissance. It is not a question here of dealing with an old man nostalgic for the past, like our late teachers, but with a culturally equipped individual who has followed the development of Modern architecture and still, with an astonishingly anti-historical mode of approach, denies its significance.

The Golden City denounced the architecture of the Bauhaus school 40 years after its wretched founding, and 60 years before its ridiculous centennial this year. Even then the modernists knew what was wrong with modern architecture. But they are still here. Why?

***

* Henry Hope Reed Jr. and William A. Coles were art historians and, in 1968, founders of Classical America, which merged with the Institute of Classical Architecture in 2002 to become the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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 The foreboding of H.H. Reed

  1. STEVEN W SEMES says:

    David, this is really brilliant and I thank you for dredging this up. Bruno Zevi is perhaps more responsible than any other figure in Italian culture for the dictatorship of the Modern in the post-War period. He viciously attacked anyone who did not make architecture the way he thought it should be made. He then prohibited even the mention of the names of the architects who had continued to work in classical and traditional modes from the 1920s on. An entire generation of brilliant architects was suppressed by an impenetrable damnatio memoriae which Zevi cast over them. But this condemnation wasn’t really due to their complicity with fascism–that was true of all architects practicing between 1922 and 1942–but due to their resistance to the Modern Movement. The Modernists who’d worked for Mussolini were forgiven but the traditionalists were not.

    Zevi hated anything that suggested arches and columns, and he was equally dismissive of the work of the Rationalists since both schools had flourished under fascism. The way to overcome the fascist past, he thought, would be to make buildings without arches and columns, certainly, but also without orthogonal grids or rectilinear geometries of any kind. He instead taught and promoted a style that he called “organic architecture,” but which had nothing to do with Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of the same phrase. It’s main attribute seems to have been a hatred of all right angles. As a result, post-War Italian architecture designed under his influence was, for the most part, not only terrible but completely arbitrary and irrational. Only since Zevi’s death have Italians begun to discover and critically examine the full range of architecture produced by their countrymen between 1920 and 1945. Some of the stranglehold of Zevi’s control over the discourse has weakened.

    Zevi’s invective against Henry Reed is absolutely delicious: he simply cannot conceive of how an intelligent person might not have bought the modernist narrative. How is it possible? Zevi’s devotion to the zeigeist was so strong that the possibility of someone denying the inevitability of modernism was simply unthinkable. Delicious.

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    • Yes, Steve, this was a delicious find and I knew I had to get it out asap. I had heard of Bruno Zevi but had not realized that he was such an influential and yet preposterous figure. His apparent inability to imagine that someone like Reed could question the zeitgeist is certainly the choice line from this passage. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much!

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