I kid you not. The other day a correspondent wrote me out of the blue suggesting that I read a book called The Golden City, by Henry Hope Reed. “Curiously, Ron,” I replied, “I’m reading The Golden City right now.” This is probably my third or fourth reading of Henry Reed’s masterpiece, which is perhaps most famous for juxtaposing photographs of classical and modern buildings and ornament in New York City. His case against “the Modern,” as he called it, was made directly and with sublime force, a picture being worth … etc. But he supplied words as well. Below are some of them.
The passage, on page 54, must be read with a pinch of melancholy. In it he reveals his sense of an imminent collapse of “the Modern,” which by the time the book was published in 1959 had evicted classicism from the architectural establishment. Reed’s optimism was, alas, premature.
Already the fashion that would be taste has its academy, far more rigid and orthodox than the old classical academy. Without a single exception education in the nation’s architectural schools is confined to the “form follows function” approach. Textbooks have been written according to Modern strictures, and lately an emasculated form of history has been admitted to provide a prop for today’s originality. Yet with all their orthodoxy and power, ensconced as they are in key positions in museums, architectural firms, and schools, the Modernists remain uneasy. They who once prided themselves on being rebels are no longer rebellious. Against whom can the heroes of this “permanent revolution” raise their swords? All is not comfort in the bare office whose very aspect is a sign of weakness. Their contempt for the past and the living world about them, as a former trustee of the American Academy in Rome remarked to the author, is the best evidence by far that we are witnessing a temporary craze. No doubt there will be plenty of high blood pressure when the inevitable change takes place, but it will not stop the coming of a new architecture, new painting, and new sculpture when taste in its traditional sense, i.e., knowledge of the best examples of classical art, once again takes command.
Maybe it is a mistake to spotlight these words. The modernists’ command of the industry has strengthened considerably since Reed penned his book. He died in 2013, living more than long enough to see what happened, and how. The founding modernists – Mies, Gropius, Corbusier – were authoritarians, and their DNA infects the second, third, and fourth generations of modernist architects, even if few practitioners are actually aware of it. Every time they design a modernist building they express modernism’s retrograde principles, which are baked into their work and would cause them to shudder if they were more self-aware.
Bit by bit, however, they do grow more self-aware, for the strength of the truth is growing, too. The natural beauty and sustainability of tradition, and its basis in science, is becoming more well known. The public is learning that its preference for a house that looks like a house is not merely “a matter of taste.” The networks of classical and traditional architecture show impressive growth. Larger numbers of young people seek careers in the arts and crafts allied to classical design. The difficult battle for more traditional curricula in architecture schools is having its impact. The slowly expanding number of major commissions for traditionally designed development projects girds the success of traditional firms. Each new traditional project helps the public understand that beauty is possible today, and is not, as the modernists insist, some lost relic of yesteryear. These trends are forcing architectural history, discourse, and practice toward an unnaturally suppressed cyclical change.
Murder will out.
As time goes on, Henry Reed’s ghost is sure to spin more gently in his grave.