In my last post, “Neighbors win third straight,” I described the latest zoom meeting of the Providence Historic District Commission, which deferred action for a third (actually, a fourth) straight time on proposals to relocate a historic cottage and to build a new pair of townhouses between Williams and John on College Hill. Friedrich St. Florian, their designer, used a common argument to defend his blatantly modernist design.
St. Florian, who is celebrated for his design of the Providence Place mall here and the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., referred to Venice’s Piazza San Marco to defend his proposal to place a modernist building in one of Providence’s oldest historic districts.
Using an argument widely deployed by modernists for decades, St. Florian noted that “every single building is different in style but are harmonious.” Therefore, he concluded, placing a modernist house on a historic street like John Street should not upset the neighbors on College Hill.
St. Florian is correct in his description of the famous plaza but incorrect in the conclusion he (and many other modernists) has drawn from it. Yes, all the buildings are of different styles and they all fit together nicely, and yet because all of the styles are traditional, the argument is flawed. Architects who make it are actually making the case for the tremendous variety of traditional architecture. But to plop a modernist building in St. Mark’s would be as disconcerting there as to plop a modernist house on John Street.
Let’s say you have four men in a saloon: a white, a black, a brown and a yellow man seated at the bar. They are joined by a red man. How lovely! If, instead of a red man a robot comes into the saloon and sits down at the bar, what then? The robot, which is hard and metallic rather than soft and flesh, does not fit in at all. That is what St. Florian proposes on John Street.
Modernism is by definition anti-traditional. Traditional architecture features elements that grew organically, evolving generation after generation over millennia from the Greco-Roman roots of classical architecture. All members of tradition’s family tree, however different, have enough design elements in common to stand together nicely on St. Mark’s Plaza or on John Street, or, in fact, anywhere else. The beauty of John Street may not necessarily be ruined by a modernist house, but its historical character certainly would be. Modern architecture rejects the whole idea of fitting in.
Coincidentally, it seems, a new survey just came out on Wednesday showing that almost 75 percent of Americans prefer traditional styles of architecture to modernist styles of architecture. The results were broken down by income, age, gender, race, region, education and political preference. In each category some three-quarters of over 2,000 respondents to the survey who chose from seven pairs of buildings, one mod and the other trad, favored the traditional federal building over the modernist building.
Very few Americans or citizens of any country can possibly be surprised by this finding. Despite a relative dearth of scholarly and scientific studies, the wide preference for traditional architecture over modern architecture has been evident to virtually all observers, including modernists, since the outset of their challenge to tradition in the early 20th century.
The survey was performed by the Harris Poll in August and sponsored by the National Civic Art Society. My next post will describe it in more detail.