Trad and not so trad, cont.

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The Macedonian Museum of Archaeology, in Skopje, is an example of “bad trad.”

In light of my recent review of Beauty Memory Unity (2019), by Steve Bass, I offer a long post from 2017 that urges classicists to criticize bad trad more gently if they seek a classical revival. Bass describes strict methodologies for working with proportion to create beauty, but admits that great architects of the past may have used their intuitions instead. Today’s classicists who use more intuitive, less canonical methodologies should not be castigated by those who do use canonical methodologies. The same should apply to the rules of classicism generally, for the reasons described in the Dec. 17, 2017, post, “Trad and not so trad, cont.,” below.

I hasten to add that classicism that follows canonical principles, or innovates with them intelligently, is more likely to produce beauty than winging it. Still, in an era when establishment architecture seeks to crush classicism, and has no desire to create beauty, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.


Classicism over thousands of years has developed an architectural language that modernism has not even sought to construct. A language would suggest a reliance on precedent. Among those who have criticized my admiration for Stan Weiss’s interior decor, Eric Daum puts it well. He writes that the decor “deletes adverbs, denies noun/verb agreement, and it doesn’t understand the rudiments of punctuation.”

Perhaps so. An antiques dealer and hotel developer, Weiss calls his ornament – yes, bought from catalogues and assembled according to his own design – a “classical fantasy,” comparable to Sarasata’s Carmen Fantasy for Violin. Maybe there is too much antique furniture in Weiss’s basic conception. Elements of his rooms strike me as Piranesian. That surely overstates the case, but the notion that it is “ugly” or “gives [one commenter] a stomach-ache” seems more like virtue signalling than genuine critical analysis.

But the objections are passionate and eloquent, and, I think, come from the heart. It is a reaction to be expected from anyone who has labored first to learn and then to apply the rules of classicism, and thus demands respect.

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One commenter, Nancy Thomas, a publicist who, however sensible, is not an expert in architecture, wrote:

All I know is my eyes dance at [Weiss’s embellishments], and if I could print a set of note cards with the artwork in that first image, I would do so. … What fun … how Classical!

My focus as a writer on architecture is the style wars between modern and traditional architecture. My reading in the principles and techniques of classicism is not deep, not at all. I don’t need a deep understanding to think and write about how a public square of classical design is superior to a public square squelched by modernism. I do understand the idea of classicism as a language. The importance of high standards in classical work is mother’s milk to me. However, after being assaulted on Pratt Street by the exterior of the Weiss House, I was very much taken aback by the interior. It was like stepping from an icy shower into a hot bath where nymphs bearing towels waited to dry me off in front of a fireplace. (These days I suppose they could be accused of harassing me!) At any rate, beauty is what my eyes beheld.

The honesty of my reaction is, I think, just as pure and passionate – as valid if not as well tutored – as the reaction against it.

Commenter “Anonymous” (or “Soundslike” in his original comment) writes:

The more that well-meaning traditionalists defend bad-trad architecture that treats tradition as just another shallow stylistic grab-bag, the less of a real argument we have against the cruelties and follies of Modernist architecture. … We have so much more than “style” going for us, but not if we accept anything with doodads and gewgaws applied to speak for “tradition.”

That’s all very well, entirely unobjectionable and perfectly valid so far as it goes. But the future of classical architecture does not rest entirely on the virtuosity with which classicists apply the principles. The future of classical architecture depends on whether classicists can leverage the public’s taste for traditional design into a movement away from modern architecture and back toward architecture people love.

So, what’s that famous line? “Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

That is a very practical piece of advice, and it is applicable here. “Good trad” and “bad trad” are not so easily divisible. There is a scale between bad and good. At the bad end of the scale is architecture that deserves every iota of the classicists’ disdain. But as you move up the scale from the truly bad to the almost good, the advisability of castigating the almost good as if it were truly bad diminishes. Educated architects may not be emotionally capable of making this distinction, but members of the general public are, and do so instinctively, with a degree of sense born of continuous experience.

Seth Weine writes in his comment that “it is not true that bad (or even poor) classicism is better than no classicism at all.” Some classicists believe that bad trad is a greater enemy to the classical revival than modern architecture. Again, however understandable such a sentiment may be among experts, if taken seriously it virtually forecloses the possibility of a classical revival. My reply to his comment was:

Disagree strongly, Seth. Most people can tell the difference only to some degree. They may know enough to disdain the very bad, dumbed down “classicism” of a high-end CVS but far less so that of an interior like that of Weiss’s house. The latter cannot hurt the reputation of classicism anywhere near the way the former can. Therefore it serves to enhance classicism’s rep in light of most of what the public sees in its built environment. It baffles me that so many classicists cannot appreciate this. Experts might understandably see it differently, and obviously high standards are the best standards, but we design and build for clients and the public, not the experts.

The producers of places like Weiss’s interior – or, say, Providence Place mall, completed in 1999, or the neo-Georgian buildings on the edges of the Gaebe Common (except for its Triangolo Gate, which is high classicism) at Johnson & Wales University, or the Westin Hotel and its addition, or at least two of the several new hotels scheduled for construction, to take several examples from Providence – should be praised for their evident desire to produce buildings that the public will at least like.

The best examples can be praised with some brio, while lesser examples can be praised with some reserve. Even if their designers have no desire to please the public at all and have built traditional buildings for some other reason, they should be given the benefit of the doubt and praised. It may be safe to criticize the baddest of bad trad, but it should be kept in mind that what they all need most is education, not condemnation.

What an admirable goal to create friends, not enemies! It is above my pay grade to figure out how to structure a program to bring design education to the CVS design team, the facilities departments of universities, the staff of Home Depot, the architects employed by the design/build firms that build so many bland buildings today, etc. Suffice it to say, architecture schools are not required to enroll only kids, and churches are not the only institutions that could benefit by sending out missionaries.

“Anonymous” offers a useful reminder that classical education was purged from architecture schools by the modernists, leaving generations of designers without the ability to perform some of the basic tasks of architecture:

[I]f you look at buildings built before Modernism’s coup, in all of them – from the simplest 1770s house on Transit Street to the most ornate 1910s mansion on College Hill to the 1890s Fox Point workforce housing to the City Hall to the Deco storefronts downtown – you see they achieve incredible variety, but that none of them makes any of the mistakes of proportion, tectonic clarity, hierarchy, etc. that are rampant in the house you’ve extolled.

I wrote a fun post a year ago, “Skopje’s classical ambition,” on the topic of bad trad. The post chuckles at an article that quotes, with sympathy, a handful of [Skopje] modernists whose work is being shunted aside. They condemn the quality of the classicism that is replacing it. One of them even blubbered that they didn’t seek his consent to change his building. Consent!? Did he ask consent from the owners whose buildings he demolished back in the 1960s? Hardly likely! Not with Josip Braz Tito in charge!

But I digress. Here is one point from that post that applies in spades:

I lack the credentials to judge any attempt to reconnect Macedonia with its history. But Yugoslavia’s modernists benefited from modern architecture’s global effort to snuff out classical education and craftsmanship. It ill behooves them now to complain that the new classicism in Skopje is insufficiently canonical. Their hypocrisy beggars the imagination.

Classicists’ condemnation of less than canonical classicism may be unwise, but at least it’s not hypocritical!

The reputation of classicism depends only partially on how well particular buildings of classical inspiration are designed. The classical revival depends only in part on the number of classicists graduating from architecture school (few but growing). Those are both very important, and a classical revival will not happen without advances on both fronts. But if the classical revival must await a takeover of modernist education by classicist education, it will wait until doomsday. Unless the market intervenes.

For that to happen, the public must see classical and traditional architecture being built in their cities and towns. Without that, the public will continue to believe that beautiful buildings are something from the past that cannot be expected today, for various untrue reasons, such as their supposedly high expense or their supposed lack of propriety in modern times.

The public, as I suggested to Seth Weine, has no scholarly capacity to judge the canonical qualities of new classical architecture, any more than I did when I entered the Weiss House. At this point, the vast bulk of new classical architecture is likely to fall more or less beneath the level of the canonical. And a lot of it will be good enough to please the eye of most of the public. Classicism, as a profession, should take advantage of this. If it does not, if even the best of bad trad is castigated not just by the modernists but by the classicists as well, the public will continue to feel pressure to doubt its instinctive preference for traditional over modernist buildings.

A tolerance [among classicists] for some degree of bad trad is key to improving the work of its designers, and to strengthening the public’s confidence in its own instincts. Tolerance of bad trad is not incompatible with the highest standards of classical architecture. Both goods can be sought at the same time, and both can be mutually beneficial to the goal of a classical revival. No classical revival will survive if classicists cannot refrain from making enemies of their allies – those who are willing, wanting, waiting to make beautiful buildings, but who need to be taught, not disdained.

In a democracy, public taste should carry weight, but it never will until classicists find a more sophisticated way to address the making – and promotion – of classical architecture at every level. I hope my visit to Stan Weiss’s crib has helped to move that conversation forward.

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,, 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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2 Responses to Trad and not so trad, cont.

  1. John the First says:

    A perspective, on architecture and beauty.
    Consider that architecture, different than music or sculpture, has a practical function and that it can be beautiful in form. What is practical is of necessity (born out of neediness, sheltering in this case, from raw nature), what is beautiful is of the need of the higher mind (if any awakened yet).

    Now, the architecture in question (on the photo) is characterized by a certain grandeur (one of the many characteristics of beauty). Regardless of what one may think of it, and not the best example, if we take grandeur as the subject. Grandeur concerns great things, it talks about great things, it inspires toward great things. It is bigger than ordinary life.
    Now, we live in an age which is an orgy of mass man, which they call ‘democracy’, the rule of small men (and all what that implies..). We also live in an age of historically unprecedented organisation and regulation. The organisation of people, the amount of regulations and laws we know is absolutely enormous. So every man today is hyper regulated, subject to many many laws, regulations, vast bureaucracies, and, often a cog in the wheel of organisations.
    Now, if beauty ought to express a higher striving of the soul, this higher striving, of grandeur in this case, is absolutely impossible, as every man today is a little cog in the wheel, also subject to a state of which the size and extent knows no historical precedent. There is no option for heroism, and the equalization which is the result of the orgy of mass man, the much praised democracy… as a contemporary religion, allows for no heroes (except sport heroes and celebs, say the lowest types, and the latter a mere substitute), and the hyper-regulation allows no freedom. Also, the hyper-specialization of modern man allows for no big accomplishments.

    Thus, modern culture cannot produce anything of grandeur (at least not as an expression of a striving alive in the soul), as the striving towards it is stunted, and so, contemporary traditionalists can only copy the grandeur of the past, nothing of the kind which historically produced great art and architecture can flourish in the soul of modern man.
    The only ‘grandeur’ which is possible in the area of architecture is that of the most vulgar type, that of the grandeur of corporations or individual rich people, the grandeur of big money, and at the the other hand, the grandeur of big tech (more control, technocracy), and big bureaucracies (EU, UN, etc. more control), hence the type of grandeur of modernist architecture. Hence, the soullessness of modernist and neo-modernist architecture.

    The only thing traditionalists can do is to put up a remembrance towards a striving, of what is reminiscent, by means of a copying of the past, and variations of it, but modern life, in its decadence and hyper-regulation, the vulgar media, the ubiquitous noise of mass man, the ubiquitous mediocrity and overall tight control bureaucratic machine society will kill any blossoming urge towards grandeur, heroism and beauty in the soul immediately, except in a few privileged souls perhaps. The inspiring effect of beauty will not last a two hours, as modern man also has no time to be inspired by it, always on the move, always distracted.

    So in short, the architecture of the past was an expression of the soul (not the soul of ‘the people’). Even if these where to an extent copies or imports from other cultures (nothing wrong with continuation like that), but we, we do not have a soul, and if we have a soul, we keep it for ourselves, lest it be buried in vulgarity and destroyed by the system.


  2. LazyReader says:

    Classicisms revival has two proponents.
    1: The Super rich who have the money to dish to dish out as much as can be expected and beyond for the most ostentatious and extravagent. Quinlan Terry said it he likes American clients, they have the cash to pay for whatever they want.
    2: Actual defenders and preservers of classical forms.

    But do not mistake composure for simplicity or simplicity for composure. Classicisms forms come in many details but it’s over all, the same case, the more you’re willing to spend the more you get in return in terms of detail output. Let’s worry about reviving classicism first than whether it’s in good taste. Those details can be sorted out.

    Architecture is a style war among two participants, it needs either a surrender or a victor.
    If an architect today came up with a new “Order” it wouldnt be “classical”, but following the coherent forms………MOST of the architectural styles of the west in the last four centuries were not ‘Classical” they were revival. This day and age they have access to everything in terms of material and shape. Classicism remains but Ideological “orders” are straightjackets to design freedom.
    Imagine if I came along and devised a new “Order” I take the column………….and devise a design of my own? How would it be received?Let people formulate and design. Here in this scifi game are you have an extrapolation; but they look similar….you have a modernist interpreation of…
    Doric, Tuscan, Ionic and the Corinthian.


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