I reprint this post less than a year after its publication last May because, for the first time in modern architectural history, there is a chance that the Modern Movement might get its come-uppance. The proposed executive order to shift federal buildings away from modernism and toward classicism, if it is signed by President Trump, would vindicate the seminal advocate of classicism, the late Henry Hope Reed. It is Reed’s vision, in his 1959 book The Golden City, that Bruno Zevi warns against in the review quoted below.
Here’s a passage from “Warning to the Architectural Avant-Garde,” in the May 1959 issue of the journal L’Architettura, by Bruno Zevi, as translated in a collection of essays called Architecture in America: A Battle of Styles, edited by William A. Coles and (the late) Henry Hope Reed, Jr., published in 1961*:
If historical-critical thinking in Italy has any value, it should succeed in defeating the intertia, uncertainties, formalistic evasions, and superficialities which presently pollute the Modern Movement and threaten its development. …
This year there was published in the United States a book entitled The Golden City by Henry Hope Reed, Jr. It is the most reactionary but also the most skilful attack on Modern architecture written in the last decades. It begins by comparing a series of buildings executed in the Greco-Roman style between 1860 and 1920 with their Modern equivalents and it concludes in favor of the former. …
With a consistency and a display of ideas worthy of a better cause, Reed denies the significance of a century of history and maintains that it is not only necessary to return to false arches, columns with bases and capitals, and pastiche decoration, but that we will inevitably return to these because the language of Modern architecture has gone sterile and its crisis can only end in a return to the neoclassical.
We must consider this book not so much to refute it analytically as to understand how the project could have been conceived, how in the world a scholar with a solid knowledge of history dares to prophesy with tightly argued logic the coming of the neo-Roman and the neo-Renaissance. It is not a question here of dealing with an old man nostalgic for the past, like our late teachers, but with a culturally equipped individual who has followed the development of Modern architecture and still, with an astonishingly anti-historical mode of approach, denies its significance.
The Golden City denounced the architecture of the Bauhaus school 40 years after its wretched founding, and 60 years before its ridiculous centennial this year. Even then the modernists knew what was wrong with modern architecture. But they are still here. Why?
* Henry Hope Reed Jr. and William A. Coles were art historians and, in 1968, founders of Classical America, which merged with the Institute of Classical Architecture in 2002 to become the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.
David, this is really brilliant and I thank you for dredging this up. Bruno Zevi is perhaps more responsible than any other figure in Italian culture for the dictatorship of the Modern in the post-War period. He viciously attacked anyone who did not make architecture the way he thought it should be made. He then prohibited even the mention of the names of the architects who had continued to work in classical and traditional modes from the 1920s on. An entire generation of brilliant architects was suppressed by an impenetrable damnatio memoriae which Zevi cast over them. But this condemnation wasn’t really due to their complicity with fascism–that was true of all architects practicing between 1922 and 1942–but due to their resistance to the Modern Movement. The Modernists who’d worked for Mussolini were forgiven but the traditionalists were not.
Zevi hated anything that suggested arches and columns, and he was equally dismissive of the work of the Rationalists since both schools had flourished under fascism. The way to overcome the fascist past, he thought, would be to make buildings without arches and columns, certainly, but also without orthogonal grids or rectilinear geometries of any kind. He instead taught and promoted a style that he called “organic architecture,” but which had nothing to do with Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of the same phrase. It’s main attribute seems to have been a hatred of all right angles. As a result, post-War Italian architecture designed under his influence was, for the most part, not only terrible but completely arbitrary and irrational. Only since Zevi’s death have Italians begun to discover and critically examine the full range of architecture produced by their countrymen between 1920 and 1945. Some of the stranglehold of Zevi’s control over the discourse has weakened.
Zevi’s invective against Henry Reed is absolutely delicious: he simply cannot conceive of how an intelligent person might not have bought the modernist narrative. How is it possible? Zevi’s devotion to the zeigeist was so strong that the possibility of someone denying the inevitability of modernism was simply unthinkable.
I’m just now reading the autobiography of the Italian architect Paolo Portoghesi, who devotes an entire chapter to his rather eventful master-pupil relationship with Zevi.
Yes, Steve, this was a delicious find and I knew I had to get it out asap. I had heard of Bruno Zevi but had not realized that he was such an influential and yet preposterous figure. His apparent inability to imagine that someone like Reed could question the zeitgeist is certainly the choice line from this passage. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much!
Steve, I have made the switch and so now your comment comes in under your name. I have added to it my original reply. David
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I always thought the move away from traditional building styles were from evolving building technology and changing culture. Sure I love the Pantheon in Rome, but I don’t think I want to see it anywhere else with cheap materials I think the author really has to think about what “traditional” really means. They didn’t have flexible titanium panels and the freedom of steel structure back during the times of Classical architecture. If these materials existed at the turn of varying centuries, what marvels do you think McKim/White/Mead, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc would have done? The reintroduction of classicism with modern elements.
I’m all for classicisms return to major cities I’m not particularly enthusiastic what that entails namely demolition of existing buildings? Costing even more taxmoney to rebuild offices for workers to do exactly what they did before………busy work. In this era of debts and defecits is building more stuff for the government a wise use of taxdollars. The Fed doesn’t need anymore buildings. The Government has tons of office buildings and properites it lets sit empty. They . UP until Donald Trump turned the Old Post Office building into one of his hotels; news about the buildings DECADES of vacancy brought to light just how much vacant real estate the government owns.
Before the massive growth of government, Washington DC was a modest and unbusy town. Post WWII, the government expanded to the point it had no space left to occupy, solution BULLDOZE whole neighborhoods to build the massive bureaucratic power complex. DC’s population peaked after 1950, and unlike most cities it wasn’t merely White Flight; it was the government massive real estate expansion as they and the businesses that catered to them continued to build in a city that had no ability to alleviate it’s office/business demands with highrises.
Lazy, modern architecture didn’t come about because of new technologies or cultural change, it came about because a few nutcases had a bad idea but were able to leverage societal guilt to push it forward – and have devastated societies and human life in untold ways.
You don’t have to worry about fake Pantheons. The idea of battalions of fake Pantheons marching down the avenues of Washington is a scare tactic of the modernists. Don’t fret.
If they could bulldoze a modernist building for every classical or traditional building that goes up, society would benefit in untold ways. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Lazy!
Why do you suppose law and medicine insist on using Latin terms? Is it really the case that habeas corpus or myocardial infarction can’t be suitably expressed with modern language? It’s a manifestation of the same general admiration for a history European elites once imagined was somehow superior. It was the art-historical context which educated people admired about classical architecture, and not really something inherent in the architecture.
It’s not even the right word, Classical, in the western sense of course, is of the style of Greek or the Romans who copied them, of the era of classical antiquity. It was architecture born of this time, contemporary to the people and their beliefs, technologies, knowledge, values, etc. The Renaissance was a rebirth of classicism, so related, but differentiated. Neoclassicism was another revival. There are contemporary architects who design in this manner, which is a form of mannerism, meaning in the manner of.
I’m for classicism per the discretion of the property owner, not at a major public expense as everything government builds costs more. There are far more pressing concerns, it doesn’t matter if the welfare office is classical or modern; the depressing truth is it’s goal is to fill with people to facilitate further expansion. A bloated government with more real estate and properties that it knows what to do with suddenly wants the money to bulldoze it’s current inventory and build anew, THIS TIME in the architecture of palaces now the palaces not for kings but for bureaucrats, administrators, civic servants. Replacing the DMV with a classical building may increase the enjoyful experience of getting your license/passport renewed, Nor obtained any more efficient or faster. Replacing the FBI’s hideous main headquarters with a Beaux Art’s masterpiece…..is not going to rat out the incompetent agents. Nor would replacing the NSA’s twin black box nightmare suddenly cease their spying on your personal life. The IRS has a nice classical office………didn’t stop them from spying on conservatives and the Trump campaign. Architecture stems from culture, Not the other way around.