A thrilling week of classicism

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Our table in the dining hall at the University Club of New York.

I am still coming down from the high honor of attending the Arthur Ross Awards, of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, as guest of James Stevens Curl, author of Making Dystopia and, for that, winner of the 2019 Ross in the category of History and Writing. The gala celebration of this year’s laureates was held, as it always is, at the University Club of New York, an elegant pile by Charles Follen McKim of the Gilded Age’s leading firm, McKim, Mead & White (all three were club members).

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James Stevens Curl at the club’s Table 33.

It’s probably no longer true that Cambridge academics with books printed by the Oxford University Press are required to represent, in their dress and elocution, the bygone Empire. Stevens Curl’s black-tie outfit was impeccable, with not one but two watch fobs in the pockets of his vest. He looked (and sounded) the very model of a – um – modern major general.

Readers of my blog are forgiven for thinking it has become the James Stevens Curl Here and There blog, but his book’s publication may finally turn the tables on modern architecture. For that, he was welcomed as royalty by the gala’s attendees, spoke longer than anyone in accepting his award, and was rewarded with the most rousing applause, although the winners included, among other luminaries, his estimable fellow Brit, Julian Fellowes, writer and producer of Downton Abbey, a BBC production dear to the hearts of all classicists. Fellowes, whose Ross was in the category of fine arts, had the audacity, and to my mind poor taste, to reveal in his brief remarks that he’s not against modern architecture – a fact belied by his life’s work.

Notwithstanding my awareness of the man’s denizenship in the Hollywood swamp, my jaw dropped so far as to upset my demitasse of postprandial joe.

Well, Stevens Curl does oppose modern architecture, to state the matter gently, and by rights his book ought to kill it. This became clear a week later when he visited Boston to lecture at the College Club of Boston, an event hosted by the New England chapter of the ICAA. His stentorian persona had rattled the chapter’s board members, so much so that they were astonished at the 83-year-old’s sweet personal gentility, evident even after two gruelling weeks of travel across the country to speak at other ICAA events.

During his lecture at the College Club, even as he manifested his exhaustion by fumbling his notes, he rose to the occasion again and again with roaring denunciations of modern architecture that were nevertheless couched in his sharp Brit wit. He quieted the room with a flood of details exposing the close ties of the early modernists to totalitarians of the left and right, stonewalled for decades by acolytes of Corbusier, Mies and Grope (as Professor Curl likes to call Walter Gropius, founder of the modernist cult; 2019 is the centennial of the Bauhaus School, which got the dystopian ball rolling).

Many classicists and architects specializing in traditional design, while aware that modern architecture sneers at their “twee confections,” do not really seem to be aware that the proper word for the relationship is not rivalry but enmity. Modernism’s failure to destroy the practice of classicism is not for want of trying. It may well be that today’s modernists are not up to speed on their history, but if classical architecture had had the sort of relationship with, say, the Third Reich that the early modernists did, the tom-toms of expulsion from the profession would beat loud in our ears.

I think that even so knowledgeable a crowd as the audience at Stevens Curl’s lecture in Boston was generally stunned by the facts that flew from the lectern. The applause at the end seemed, to me, generous but nonetheless slightly hushed. Most classicists, who just want to design buildings in their preferred styles, are miffed by the “war of styles,” and wish it could be dispensed with. “Can’t we all just get along?” is the common refrain.

No, says Professor Curl. We cannot. Speaking truth to power is often as difficult for the members of the choir who hear and shudder at the speaker’s truth as it is for the speaker himself. James Stevens Curl epitomizes the tough love required to bring beauty, and sanity, back to the world of architecture. The ICAA, with its chapters, is to be applauded for stiffening its upper lip and bringing the great man over to our side of the pond.

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James Stevens Curl enjoys dinner at the Parker House after his lecture in Boston.

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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4 Responses to A thrilling week of classicism

  1. stanleyxweiss@gmail.com says:

    Dave …am glad you had a seat at the table !!Stan

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. LazyReader says:

    Some might say there’s a certain elitism and classicism (negative word version) associated with classical architecture. However regardless of whether you live/work in said building is irrelevant, namely because of the amount of positive emotion these buildings equate upon those who casually stroll by and view them.

    Opponents of Traditional and Classical architecture assert such buildings are too expensive to construct today. Thus it’s ironic that “scientific” Modernism has just produced two of the most costly and over-budget structures in living memory, 1 World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) which has stood out to the total of over 3 Billion dollars (whilst Burj Kkalifa has a million additional sq feet, and over 1000 additional feet in height and costed less). And the WTC’s PATH transit hub or the “Stegosaurus” ; Combined these projects broke the bank at over 8 billion of federally insured construction. The fault is not entirely the architect….it lies with political leaders obsessed with high tech boondoggles. By selecting Santiago Calatrava and Skidmore; to design the Transit Hub and tower, the political czars had to be certain of two things: They would give them a visually dramatic building and two, it’d be really expensive because of the vast engineering difficulties. By this point in their career, Calatrava, Gehry, etc are notorious for buildings that are extremely costly to build and maintain.

    Those that insist classical is too time consuming and expensive forget modern Technology has in a double edged sword fortunately/unfortunately eliminated most of the labor and time sensitive “Craftsmenship”. Also don’t forget Cast Iron architecture a century and a half ago allowed the replication of classical designs in mere hours of production and installation. Mass produced need not mean mass conformity. And cast aluminum is lighter than iron (3 times lighter) and less expensive to acquire, you just melt down a landfill of cans. Recycled Aggregate is a growing business. Worldwide over 25 billion tons of concrete are manufactured annually and a lot of this ends up in landfills. Cornices, Pediments, Glyphs, friezes, Columns, entablatures, acroterions are all doable with CNC style machining, spray molding and substitute materials including cutting recycled concrete pieces; that don’t require tons of imported stone and actual veneer stone can now be cut to as little as 3/8 of an inch. We all remember the S*** storm when they remodeled 2 Columbus Circle, think of that……in reverse. Small buildings can have their glass/concrete facades removed and refurbished with classical exteriors, no new construction needed. The hideous buildings in L’Enfant plaza in DC are ripe targets.


    • Glad you pushed back against the lie that modern architecture is cheaper to build than classical architecture. Modern architecture can be built well or poorly, and so can classical. The former is expensive and the latter less so. Enjoyed your link to Benny’s takedown of federal Brutalist architecture! Very funny, if deplorable and tragic.


      • LazyReader says:

        We see mass produced elements of classical design in our suburban houses. Namely in the form of pilasters and pediments over our door frames. Our window shutters….which don’t actually shut.


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