Lessons of the Berlin Wall

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Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989, prior to its physical demolition. (Wikipedia)

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.

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Reagan statue unveiled Friday. Note restoration of Brandenburg Gate. (dw.com)

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.

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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13 Responses to Lessons of the Berlin Wall

  1. Pingback: Lessons of the Berlin Wall — Architecture Here and There – THE FLENSBURG FILES

  2. Mr. Downturn says:

    Having been in West Berlin in 1973 I can say that the wall had the effect of keeping the middle and upper classes in the city at a time when everywhere else in the Western world they were fleeing to the suburbs.

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    • And I wonder who many East Germans fled the communist suburbs of West Berlin into the western sector of the city. I’ve always wondered whether the Berlin Wall surrounded West Berlin or just (as we tend to imagine) separated East and West Berlin along their border.

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  3. Absolutely fascinating! I look forward to reading your further thoughts on this!

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    • Thank you very much! I don’t know whether to aim my appreciation at Deirdre or John. I went to the website and, in addition to loving your art, I was charmed by the idea of events involving live painting. Wow! I subscribed immediately.

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      • Deirdre says:

        We’ll, it’s Deirdre commenting but John and I have both been reading along with your blog sporadically as we have time! I’m so glad you enjoyed the site and John’s work. I’ve felt that we were on the same page in a lot of ways since I discovered Architecture Here and There. (In addition to being husband and wife, we work very closely together as I handle his business and consult on his art projects.)

        I was just chatting with John about this particular post and the ideas were resonating a lot with him — we aim to be among those tearing down the Wall of oppressive, intentionally bad art and allowing true art to shine and people to flourish.

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        • Deirdre and John – I’m glad the both of you have found my blog of interest. Your last line picks up on one of my occasional themes, that of what you justly call “intentionally bad art.” Too much leveling, or attempted leveling, going on in our society. Instead of letting people (mostly young people) try to find their own level from which the good, the true and (especially) the beautiful might flow, children are being told that they can all be Rembrandt – except it’s no longer someone like Rembrandt held out as a model but more likely someone like, um, shall we say Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly. Thus, with a bar so low, we can indeed all be “equal.” But how many young people with higher talents and aspirations settle at that lower level, often because it’s so much easier, and never really have any idea they have the talent to fulfill higher aspirations? Alas, this pernicious idea of leveling is degrading much of our education system, thus undermining our national potential in the arts and other realms.

          Well, don’t get me going! Just assure me that I’ve done what it takes to receive your blog. I will put it on my “Blogs I Follow” list if I can remember how.

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          • We agree 100%! And when I say “we aim to tear down this Wall,” well — that has been our aim, but I’d never put it into that particular mental framework before. I find it very invigorating, because, as you say, the Wall was torn down and it was sudden and surprising: perhaps it could be the same in the world of the Arts!
            Thanks so much; we’d be honored to have Beauty Advocacy on your blogroll.

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  4. Eric Daum says:

    David, here I am in Berlin today, on the day of your post and having been at the Wall Memorial yesterday. The holes left in this city have been patched by a mix of traditional and Modern buildings. I must confess that many of the newer modern buildings are quite good: they have a variety of scale, fine materials, and an urban relationship to the street. It seems to me that Modernity’s flaws, the absence of Humanist values could just as easily be attributed to unfettered Capitalism. American Modernism is so bad because the architect is held back by the greed of developers seeking to squeeze every last dime out of a project. In the States, the rights of the individual outweigh the common good, thus we have monstrous projects built that are too big, cheaply detailed, and full of flash and artificial drama. Nevertheless, the high points of my visit have been seeing Schinkel first hand, and seeing the highlights of the Enlightenment city that linger. Also truly fine and jaw droppingly spectacular, Karl Marx Allee, a post-war development in the GDR that is more than a mile in length – a marvel, if I can use that word, of Stalinist architecture.

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    • Eric, I’m sure much of what you say is true. I was last in Berlin in 2003 or thereabouts and visited Potsdamerplatz, which was then maybe half or two-thirds done, and it was horrible, even though (or perhaps because) the architects involved were all starchitects. I cannot say what you would think of it. I distinctly recall a roof over the plaza area that looked like a tilted umbrella. This was not infilll but a massive project. I don’t know what I’d think of projects or infill built since 2003. I do also recall being impressed by Karl Marx Allee.

      Maybe we can discuss all this soon if I am not yet persona non grata at the chapter. I mentioned my ICAA membership in the ID of my recent Journal oped on Providence development, which is, I think, a flagrant violation of the national’s advocacy policy.

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      • Eric Daum says:

        I think you’re still part of our team, I’m sure national doesn’t know. I think Potsdammer Platz is loud and glitzy and the giant umbrella is ungainly, but lit up at night, it was festive. The tower designed by Hans Kolhoff off the South side of Potsdammer Platz is actually quite lovely and evokes the Hanseatic architecture of Lubeck and Hamburg and also some of the great early Modern Expressionist works.

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  5. LazyReader says:

    What won the Cold War
    – Afghanistan: The soviet’s expending enormous war assets on a target they had little reason to hold dominion over
    – Chernobyl: Made the Soviet science/technology sector a complete laughing stock and rendered the largest potential humanitarian crisis ever.
    – Popular Culture: The never ending stream of creative entertainment and music from a free society. From Levis jeans to Billy Jean……..

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    • Yes, Lazy, all those helped, but the Soviets had survived sickness in its system for decades. Reagan’s willingness to counter Soviet advances in Nicaragua, Grenada, the Mideast, etc., plus his pressure on Saudi Arabia to reduce the cost of a barrel of oil, plus his tough stance on arms negotiations, plus his “Star Wars” program, plus his use of clear language to characterize the Soviet regime all played a role in stressing the communist system and pressuring Gorbachev to try perestroika and glasnost to rescue that system, which led to further difficulties. But yes, Reagan won the Cold War, with Gorbachev playing a secondary and perhaps not even a crucial role.

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