TAG 4: Classical gears up

Raphael’s fresco of his colleagues as ancient philosophers. TAG 1 participants cut in at lower left. (museivaticani.va)

TAG 4, the fourth Traditional Architecture Gathering since the first, held in in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 for members of the TradArch listserv, happened on Zoom this past Friday, Saturday and Sunday, sponsored by the Classic Planning Institute. Some 600 signed up, of whom about 275 attended, including many from atop the fields of traditional architecture, urbanism, art and craft around the world, to discuss the revival of classical and traditional architecture.

From its roots in ancient Athens and Rome, classical architecture has bred a global set of traditions around the world, rising over hundreds and thousands of years. Within this profusion, the classical language now ranks as both the origin of and grand subset of tradition. Modern architecture, a mere century old, arose not only to challenge but to reject tradition, basing its worldview on the culture of the machine as opposed to tradition’s basis in nature. As many predicted, modernism has been a failure, and unpopular to boot, but it maintains a stranglehold on the field’s establishment.

The TAG 4 conference was a rollicking success, somewhat to my chagrin as a devoted hater of Zoom. I sat through almost all of it, staring at the screen till my bum was sore. Zoom presents problems that shine light on the problems of architecture: facial cues are minimized in Zoom; ornament is minimized in modern architecture. How do we join conversations on Zoom without rudely butting in? How do we add new buildings to the conversation of the street without elbowing nearby buildings? Classical and traditional architecture learned how to do this eons ago; modern architecture has yet to even acknowledge the need to fit in, to be polite, neighborly.

“The classical idiom,” wrote the late Sir Roger Scruton in The Classical Vernacular, “does not so much impose unity as make diversity agreeable.”

TAG 4 was funded by the Driehaus Foundation and run by its founder, Patrick Webb, with Nir Buras and Jaydean Boldt. They enforced a strict set of rules to ensure fairness on Zoom, and yet audience interaction with the panelists was not excessively robust, though the “after sessions” ran up to three hours each. Zoom may be here to stay, but upgrades are necessary. How to revive the sacrosanct courtesy of tradition, in architecture as well as on Zoom, was the underlying and often unstated theme of each panel in the conference.

This recollection of TAG 4 will be a hazy first draft of history. I have no recordings of the sessions and took no notes. In my struggle to join Zoom, I missed the great Léon Krier’s keynote address. I missed Ann Sussman, Don Ruggles, Mark Alan Hewitt and Michael Mehaffy on city beauty in a breakout room because I was afraid of logging off accidentally while switching “rooms” away from a panel on the future, which was, inevitably, inconclusive. Still, I found Zoom logging off on its own several times, and I used a link in an email from Ryan Stephenson to log back on each time. Since I am a monotasker, I did not use the chat room to chat for fear of missing insights from the flow of panelists’ presentations.

So I stayed in the main Zoom room and heard many scintillating discussions of the practice of tradition over generations and the growing body of neurological research that places science at the center of love, so to speak: the public’s natural preference for tradition. On the first day, Catesby Leigh, Bill Westfall, Robert Adam, Steve Bass, Lucien Steil, Nikos Salingaros and others wove together strands of theory that suggest why people prefer tradition and why, unlike modernist buildings, traditional buildings become more interesting the closer you get. Why? Because the nestled scales of generative form produce a wide variety of surfaces and detail-within-detail that characterize traditional buildings and urbanism. Even the doors and windows of houses that seem to mimic the human face bond our neurological synapses to traditional architecture. Eye tracking shows that our brains seek embellished surfaces and avoid blank surfaces. For modernists to reject tradition is akin to rejecting science – a rejection they would fiercely deny but which is obvious and undeniable.

On the second day, Michael Diamant, who runs the blog New Traditional Architecture, described his posts that continually update traditionalists all over the world with photographs of new work around the globe. His online map of new traditional projects is vital, as is his list of traditional architecture firms in scores of countries, with their websites. The information he provides has fueled architectural rebellions against the status quo in Sweden, Finland and elsewhere in Europe, and he has participated in creating a nonprofit to push that rebellion, called Arkitekturupporet or Architecture Uprising. Later that day, several young people in a panel of students and postgrads from abroad cited Michael Diamant’s influence on their decisions to switch coursework from modern to traditional architecture, or to learn architecture without architecture school.

Nicholas Boys Smith, who replaced Roger Scruton on Britain’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (and then was joined by Scruton when the latter was reinstated after his ouster by cancel culture), described his organization in London. Create Streets promotes mandating community involvement in vetting local development projects, following up on efforts toward that end by Prince Charles. Boys Smith and Sir Roger made that the centerpiece of the final report of the BBBBC, Living with Beauty. (I was remiss to not include Boys Smith in my recent post on institutions working to return tradition to architecture and urbanism.) In importance, Living with Beauty might be the equal of the Trump mandate on classicism had it not been canceled by President Biden.

Absent that, to jumpstart the classical revival in the U.S., it is vital to build some new traditional structure of metropolitan scale to teach that beauty is available in our era, not a feature of life lost to the past. The most audacious plan is that of Nir Buras to entirely classicize both banks of the Anacostia River, sister of the Potomac. The plan was proposed dozen or so years ago. Later in the second day, day, architect Richard Cameron discussed his plan to rebuild New York’s 1910 Penn Station (demolished in 1963) in its original classical style by Charles Follen McKim. Yale recently built an equally ambitious pair of new classical (or rather, collegiate Gothic) campuses, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. It offers a whole new immersive environment of stunning beauty, but in New Haven it is seen by a pitifully small number of people on any given day. A new classical Penn Station, used by hundreds of thousands of people from the around the region and the world on a continual basis, could be a game changer.

(The panel became distracted from the Penn Station plan by a looming threat to nearby Grand Central Terminal – a proposed modernist hotel of 80 stories designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill intended to remind us of the Twin Towers. ArchDaily.com describes the design as “an interplay of solids and voids that reflect Grand Central Terminal’s iconic design to create visual harmony and cohesion between the two structures.” Huh?! That’s a perfect example, familiar to everyone at TAG 4, of the reality-challenged quality of modernist architectural discourse. The hotel must, of course, be blocked.)

It is possible that the recently rebuilt Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and its civic vicinity, in Dresden, and the recently restored Berliner Schloss or Berlin Palace (in spite of its single ridiculous boring modernist façade) are giving new traditional architecture the sort boost in Germany that a rebuilt classical Penn Station would give to the classical revival in the United States. The two glorious German restorations were described by Bertram Barthel, co-chairman of the German chapter of INTBAU (International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism). Many architects are doing fine traditional work in Germany, including Sebastian Treese, the latest Driehaus Prize laureate, who with his wife and partner Julia closed TAG 4 on a very optimistic note.

To close the second day of TAG 4, we saw a documentary to be released this spring, “Built Beautiful,” based on Don Ruggles’s book, Beauty, Neuroscience and Architecture. Both the book and the film thoroughly denounce modern architecture from the aesthetic and scientific viewpoints, but engage in a sort of Stockholm syndrome, reaching out to modernists in the hope that together we can all rise above the style wars to achieve an architecture that solves the world’s problems. The third day’s TAG 4 featured presentations by architects David Andreozzi of Rhode Island and Daniel Morales of the Kentlands, a traditional town in suburban Maryland designed by Andres Duany, the guru of the New Urbanism. Both Andreozzi and Morales took approaches similar to that of the film. Both displayed a deep and eloquent skepticism of modernist work but deplored the style wars, hoping that modernist architects, who hold the whip hand in the field, will put aside their animosity and lie down biblically with the traditionalist lambs in a heartfelt new age of architectural kumbaya.

Not gonna happen, guys – and it need not happen because the key features of their approach are already embedded in the classical/traditional discourse. As demonstrated by the global scope of TAG 4, an expanding segment of the public is already capable of fitting their skepticism toward modernism into the context of both aesthetic and scientific explanations of that skepticism. Only confusion will result from such inside-baseball concerns as rejecting the word “modern” in favor of the more accurate “modernist.” It’s time to move on, and instead of trying to undo modernism’s dastardly theft of the word almost a century ago, use it instead to jujitsu the false discourse of modernism. We mustn’t surrender when the inevitability of victory is in clear sight.

We don’t want Henry Hope Reed – the late author of The Golden City – to spin in his grave. His book, published in 1959, was the first truly forceful riposte to what he called “The Modern.” Reed led the first effort to organize a determined opposition to modern architecture. His movement seems to be in the hands, for now, of the TAG – which sits at the nexus of so many people and groups devoted to reviving beauty in the world. I can feel his smile.

TAG 5 will continue to address these issues. By that time, Zoom will be more user-friendly. By that time, too, the Classic Planning Institute hopes to set up a structure called a Stoa, after the Greek word for marketplace. The final day of TAG 4 was devoted in part to planning the Stoa, debating whether its “stalls” should be arranged not only by subject matter and by organization, but, in view of the many international participants, whether languages beyond English can be more engagingly facilitated. TAG today, tomorrow the world.

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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9 Responses to TAG 4: Classical gears up

  1. Sharon Kilarski says:

    Hi David,

    I meant to get back to you right after this blog appeared, but got swept away in editorial duties. I’m wondering if you can write about the revival, as evidenced by this gathering and also include some images of the most beautiful buildings of the New Traditional architecture.

    Let me know if that’s an idea you’d like to write about.



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  3. John the First says:

    “Since I am a monotasker.”

    My guess, you are being polite, you are man capable of concentration, dedication and deliberation, everything which internet tech seeks to destroy.

    Zoom here to stay? if so, what is human will go. ‘user-friendly’, yes, though not human-friendly, ‘user’ is another term for consumer.. and the consumer is a number of quantitative importance.

    I am a self-employed internet programmer by the way, already for over fifteen years, take five of me and you have another Zoom program, and I hate it, having seen the major disadvantages and destructiveness (I have to earn a living for the time being though). Being a generation younger I hope that the older generation sticks to their ways and wisdom, to not fall into the trap of what is tendentiously preached as the future. Keep on hating Zoom, and what more, justly so. Internet technology is like modernism, cold and inhumane. And as an insider, from experience, the internet tech sector is no less than a cult.

    “an architecture that solves the world’s problems”

    Nice slogan, of the kind which says everything and nothing. Such big tendentious words most often serve to make an institutional machine look big, they seek to hide incompetence and cluelessness. So, what are the problems actually, and according to whom?


    • Like you, John, I am skeptical of anyone who seeks to “solve the world’s problems.” The job of architecture is not to solve the world’s problems but to make lovable and livable cities and towns. As that is accomplished, the existence of public spaces that generate a propensity to courtesy in the public and, one can hope, their leaders will make local problems easier to solve, and that will solve the world’s problems. Right?


  4. Daniel Morales says:

    It’s too bad you didn’t accept our invitation to join us on the panel. I might have been interesting to hash it out in a public forum. At no point did we talk about laying down biblically with modernists, but I guess everything is a nail to a hammer.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. David Andreozzi AIA says:

    Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. After 100 years of failure in polemics, I am going to try something different. Contextual Sustainablity + Cultural Sustainability = Resilient Design. A code that can be applied to any archetype. If that doesn’t work, I will try something else! Talk to you soon my friend!


    • I’m with you, my dear Maximum Leader, I just hope (but doubt) that modernists will put up with either the contextual sustainability or the cultural sustainability you so sensibly propose. I think both will be seen by modernists as inimical to their mission. [David is president of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, on whose board I am delighted (except during Zoom meetings) to sit.]


      • David Andreozzi AIA says:

        David, I agree with you 100%! The effort convince the 5% extreme modernists, that want to erase history, is futile. That is my point. Lets direct our education on the 90% in the middle. Nature are culture are beautiful. Lets just start there! Peace


        • Daniel Morales says:

          Well put David. We need to isolate the ideologues who coopt aesthetics for their own purposes and allow us to revive the art of architecture as practiced until the modernism imposed a false determinism that invalidates human nature.

          Liked by 1 person

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