Romance and the style wars

Screen Shot 2019-12-08 at 8.39.56 AM.png

Scene from The Diary of Anne Frank, released in 1959. (ATSC TV)

On Sunday I saw the 1959 film The Diary of Anne Frank and, in its depiction of Anne’s friendship with the son of another family hiding with the Franks in the attic of a Dutch row house in Nazi-occupied Holland, I thought I saw another example of the difference between traditional architecture and modern architecture.

In one of the film’s subplots, Anne, played by Millie Perkins, and Peter Van Daan, played by Richard Beymer, are thrown together in the attic of the row house, serving downstairs as a spice factory. The two teenagers’ friendship turns romantic so slowly that it is barely apparent until near the end, when it is consummated with a gentle kiss shot by the camera in dark silhouette.

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 10.22.04 PM.png

Entablature. (David Darling)

That is the traditional progression into love. It can be speeded up or even slowed down further to reflect the personalities and circumstances involved. The more or less subtle steps along the way might perhaps be compared with the succession of classical moldings that mark the transformation of a wall into a ceiling by means of a cornice, or, on the exterior of the house, by the diverse levels of ornament – such as (in rising order) the astragal, cymba reversa, dentils, ovolo, modillions, fascia and cyma recta – that make up the entablature of an ornate classical roof cornice.

The previous sentence, in its representation of architectural progression and multiplicity of scale, might have been written by Palladio, Christopher Wren, or Charles Follen McKim, or, today, by Quinlan Terry or Robert A.M. Stern. So what sort of sentence might have been written by, say, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, one of the founders of modern architecture?

“Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma’am!”

I do not believe that is an exaggeration. And I don’t deny that Palladio might have felt the urge to WBTYM in his life. Many of us do, today and yesterday, but the urge is, shall we say, less frequently subdued in our modern world. Despite its pretense to an attention to fine detail, Mies’s Seagram Building (1959) cries out “Wham! Bam! Thank you, Ma’am!” It is a blockhead of a building that elbowed its neighbors (until most were replaced by Miesling copies) and poked its finger in the eyes of its observers, as it still does.

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 9.36.12 PM.png

CCTV, by Rem Koolhaas. (skyscrapers.com)

The Beijing headquarters of China’s CCTV, by Rem Koolhaas (who is Dutch), is even worse. I have often depicted the building as stomping on the Chinese people. With less direct reference to its form, which looks like a pair of legs walking – China’s authorized nickname for the building is “Big Pants” – it might also be said to be engaged in rape. That act of violence is, of course, the representative evil of the 21st Century, as murder was in the 20th. Not very romantic.

Of course the scene of Anne Frank’s diary is hardly romantic. It is set during World War II with Nazi concentration camps of the Holocaust just over the horizon of the daily lives of the Jewish families hiding out in the Dutch attic. Indeed, the horror of their situation is deepened by the elegant architecture of the Amsterdam street upon which it unfolds. The irony of Germany’s embrace (if it may be so called) in the 1930s of Hitler and Nazism is that it occurred in such an undeniably civilized nation. Notwithstanding the world war that was its end result, Hitler’s takeover of Germany was not quite a WBTYM event. It was more subtle, but it certainly was not romantic.

Am I comparing modern architecture’s takeover of the architectural establishment in Europe and America to Hitler’s takeover of Germany? Serious difficulties beset such a comparison, to say the least. But yes, I am.

The big difference (aside from what many will consider the outrageousness of the idea) is that Hitler was more subtle. The bastard first won an election and then maneuvered his way into a degree of authority that transformed Germany into a dictatorship. By comparison, the modernists’ takeover of the establishment in architecture between 1940 and 1950 seems like a rape. The droogs of A Clockwork Orange come to mind. The trads were unable to resist. Was it PTSD from two world wars and a depression? I don’t know. Anyhow, traditional architecture was the establishment for centuries.

(I hasten to add, as if it were necessary, that I am not comparing the horrors of Nazi Germany to the horrors of modern architecture. A shooting war is more horrific than a bloodless coup in architecture, however far-reaching and dispiriting the consequences.)

I’m sure there will be objections to the path this post has taken since it compared the attic romance of Anne and Peter to the WBTYM that is too often conventional today. Allow me to apologize in advance. A blog post often represents writing gone wild, and it is more like a one-night stand than the slow-motion enchantment of an erudite essay by Hazlitt. Still, I hope the stray, disruptive thoughts of this post will be appreciated by some.

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 9.24.57 PM.png

The hideaway was third from left on this Amsterdam block in 1930. (annefrank.com)

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.
This entry was posted in Architecture and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Romance and the style wars

  1. John says:

    Lots of textual elaboration, theory, the cold atmosphere and brutality of form of the CCTV architecture versus the pleasant pictorialness of the scenery in Amsterdam 1930 (located in my country of birth) says it all in pictures.

    Some philosophical musings on the beautiful and the picturesque:

    On the Metaphysics of the Beautiful and Aesthetics (Schopenhauer)
    http://manteau.nl/philosophy/arthur-schopenhauer-on-the-metaphysics-of-the-beautiful-and-aesthetics

    The sources of architectural types (Herbert Spencer)
    http://manteau.nl/philosophy/herbert-spencer-spsv2-the-sources-of-architectural-types

    Like

  2. LazyReader says:

    The purpose of modernism in architecture and art is to eliminate emphasis architecture once held in regards to cultural and ethnic standards and achievements. If the form is simple enough, mass produceable or capable of being replicated or done using the simplest of tools and techniques; techniques that don’t require skill than anyone can do it. Even so the echelon maintains it’s Status Quo they’re the only ones who can bring about such form and beauty.

    In the modern “Woke” society, anything regarding historical or cultural contributions to architecture is painstakingly wiped; PARTICULARLY that of the Western World; as we are apparently the true barbarians and primitive societies were peaceful and superior? If you can’t handle your religion or ideology being criticized, you are mentally and sociologically unequipped to live in a society that values free expression. So instead today’s architects embrace meaningless shapes with no historical context. Thus nothing could ever be traced back a any of despised aspects of western civ. Modernism today in their mindset is nothing more than the opposite of “Western Chauvanism”. Even though thru modernism, the buildings regardless of appearance look the same wherever they stand. A glass box in Italy’s most historic district is no different than a glass box in Downtown Dubai………Sorry Norman Foster. Thus instead of offending fragile psyches, they offend common aesthetics. Which is why the buildings look like shit. It has no authentic attachment to any place, people or culture. And when people point that out they’re decried as white supremacists.

    Before; 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 some of the most costly and over-budget structures in living. By this point in their career, Calatrava, Gehry, etc are at the end of their lives; they’re old or close to retiring NEVER the less; they’re still notorious for buildings that are extremely costly to build and maintain. Today traditionalism is rejected on grounds of systemic racial oppression or male dominated patriarchy. None of these buildings by conflict of their complicated and irrational geometry and complicated engineering and expensive materials is suitable for urban renewal, their destiny is the wrecking ball when the cost of maintaining borders on what it costs of refurbish.

    Like

    • John says:

      “opponents of Traditional and Classical architecture assert such buildings are too expensive to construct today”

      Even if true in some cases, or to be taken as hypothetically true, they (modernist architectural establishments and the general governing establishments) have enough money to invest if necessary, they rather receive the remaining money themselves to put it in their bank accounts, or invest it in their other hyped technological toys or their ideological hobbies, as long as it grants them power and glamour. This website has to keep it relatively nice, exposition of real motives would paint an offensive and very ugly picture.

      Liked by 1 person

    • John says:

      In relation to the communist style and modernist style architecture massively erected in Europe after the WWII (large, ugly, uniform blocks covering whole areas), the argument that there was not enough money and time during the phase of rebuilding and the phase of the boom is also nonsense. There was enough money around to create beauty, which only requires simple means. The real cause is that the money is in the pockets of select elites, that there is not enough goodwill to create beauty, lack of taste, ideological one track minds, ideological framing, and general lack of foresight and application of common sense wisdom.
      There is enough money around in the world, and enough cleverness to create value…, all arguments related to having not enough money for improvement are complete lies.
      These arguments all depend on your belief in the necessity of current conditions, conditions which lead to a lack of money being made available.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.