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).
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.