Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many lessons have been learned, but this post will not, of course, comment on its geopolitical takeaways. Instead, and briefly, I hope a useful parallel can be drawn between the swift end of the Cold War and the possibility of such an end to the style wars of architecture. Modernism deserves a seat alongside communism on the ash heap of history.
The parallel has to do with timing. The Cold War came to an unexpected end at the end of the 1980s. Forty years of confrontation, then poof! – it was all over. The same might happen in architecture, with popular traditional styles suddenly coming out of nowhere to defeat officially dominant, intellectually vapid and arguably authoritarian styles of modernism.
Historians still argue over what brought an end to the Cold War. Many strands of history contributed. The magnificent collapse of Warsaw Pact dominoes probably would not have occurred, however, if President Reagan had not switched to offense. On Friday a statue was unveiled in Berlin to commemorate the 40th president. If he had not decided to replace three decades of “containment” policy with his hugely controversial hard line, the Cold War might still be with us.
Is there anything in architecture’s style wars that compares with the strategies Reagan used to win the Cold War?
Without the preservation movement, there would by now be little left of old buildings and neighborhoods on which to model a classical revival. Without the Congress of the New Urbanism, there might be no new towns, villages and city districts to teach the public that beauty remains a viable approach to our built environment. Without the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, the principles that had created successful cities and towns for thousands of years around the world would have no soapbox to speak truth to the power of the modernist establishment. And yet, after years of major victories in the fight, all three venerable institutions display evidence of being pooped.
I have spent the last two or three hours trying to keep to a reasonable space the many permutations a comparison of possibilities might take. I have cut out more paragraphs than the number remaining in this post. I gave up and put off the heavy lifting for another day. Surely, sudden victory in the Cold War must have been harder to win than sudden victory in the style wars of architecture. It can happen – most likely, perhaps, if no one expects it.