Pop the “historicist” bugaboo

The architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros recently urged me to bar the use of the words historicist and pastiche, which modernists use to criticize architecture by traditionalists. “The modernists are forewarned that their favorite terms of insult are now off-limits,” quoth the great mathematician (from the University of Texas). He recalled a post of mine from 2017, “Pop the ‘historicist’ bugaboo,” in which I popped both words on the chin. Yet these words, which are obnoxious and insulting to me and Nikos, mustn’t be “canceled” because, however insulting, they are part of the intellectual discourse of architecture. We might as well snap our fingers and cancel modernist architecture altogether, past, present and future, because it is stupid and insulting to all human beings, not to mention unhealthy. As for the words historicist and pastiche, they must not be expunged but rather exposed whenever they appear. They are properly defenestrated in my old post from 2017:


Jan Michl, the design theorist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, saw my post “Huxtable versus Huxtable” and sent me a recent paper called “Towards Understanding Visual Styles as Inventions Without Expiration Dates.” In it, he argues that the late British philosopher Karl Popper had come up with an alternative to [the late critic Ada Louise] Huxtable’s “historicism.”

According to Huxtable and most architectural historians, architectural history advances no further than modern architecture, where it reaches nirvana. That sounds arrogant, but yes, they do actually believe that all prior architectural styles are inappropriate to build in modernity because they reflect the past, not today. That is the “expiration date” to which Michl refers in his title. This attitude architects call “historicism.” (They use the same word to criticize building designs inspired by historic architecture.)

As is often the case, however, the average man on the street sees things much more clearly, intuitively and naturally. Most folks do not discriminate against building styles based on when they were invented. They accept architecture of every type openly and judge it based not on when it was invented but on whether they like it. Michl writes:

[T]he common-sense feeling here ascribed to the public, that art of the past is a natural part of the modern present, has been seldom clearly articulated. … It has been incomparably more prestigious to side with the modernist cause and applaud the “avant-garde” positions than to espouse the perspective of the “philistine” public.

Modern architecture, according to historicism, is based on the idea that the course of history is set, and that with modernism, architectural history has arrived at its logical, rational, scientific conclusion. Traditional architecture, old or new, stands in the way of the new order by evoking sentiments that connect individuals to the past, causing them to resist new buildings that may or may not reflect our time but which definitely lack familiarity.

That is historicism in a nutshell. If it sounds vaguely Marxist, that is no accident. It is, say Popper and Michl, directly influenced by Marx, who put a stopping point – socialism, the goal of communist government – on Hegel’s dialectical analysis of time and progress. The idea that human will and individual action can affect the course of history is traditional architecture’s original sin.

It is no accident (as Marx would say) that futuristic films featuring authoritarian governments that try to stifle free will almost always also feature settings of modern architecture. Look at Fahrenheit 451 or Blade Runner. In the Star Wars series, the bad guys live in places like the Death Star, while the good guys (that is, the oppressed) on various planets live in different sorts traditional villages, towns or cities. Are the directors of these films (such as George Lucas) aware of the philosophical debate that plays out in the sets they create for their films? I suspect not.

Popper sets up an ontological triad consisting of the physical world, the mental world, and the world of ideas for things created over time in the mental world. It is the latter entity, which Popper called “World 3,” that supplants historicism. World 3, or objective knowledge, is a “cultural commons” that enables each human to freely borrow from all of man’s past creativity. This, Michl writes,

represents a truly bold attempt to conceptualize a fact known or at least suspected by every productive person. Namely, that our human creativity is anchored in, and incessantly draws upon, a realm outside the individual creator’s head. … I submit that it implies a powerful alternative to the governing modernists’ “time-keeping” [historicism], and simultaneously a more realistic view of the nature of creativity in the field of architecture and design.

He adds later:

[I]t is neither something eternal nor divine, but entirely man-made, just as birds’ nests and spiders’ webs are created by birds and spiders. … Had Popper been still alive and active today, he would have probably resorted to up-to-date analogies in order to make the concept of World 3 more widely understandable, such as, for example, “World Wide Web,” “Public Domain,” “Open Source,” or “Creative Commons.” Creative Commons in particular might serve as an accessible synonym for Popper’s World 3.

Of the use of locutions such as “historicist,” “pastiche,” “faux,” and “not of our time” by architects trying to solve design problems, he writes:

[T]here can be many reasons for finding a formal solution objectionable, but not the one that points out that it hails from a past epoch – which is what the modernist critical arguments against contemporary non-modernist stylistic idioms invariably boil down to. As already suggested, such branding makes sense only when one subscribes to the [historicist] belief that there is an intrinsically correct aesthetic expression pertaining to the modern period and that this correctness can be discovered only by designers and architects who have turned their back on the past.

The awkwardness of architectural periods that architectural historians have managed to talk around so adeptly is that most historical buildings of whatever “period” have more characteristics in common than not. That is because they all evolve to a greater or lesser degree from Greco-Roman classicism, which is a reflection of both nature and human nature. The traditional idiom, or language, evolved for centuries, honing refinements to building practice. Then modern architecture tried to throw it onto the ash heap of history and replace it with an experiment that rejects precedent. Imagine that! The degree of their success, given the poverty of their basic idea, is astonishing. But given modernism’s inability to develop its own coherent architectural language despite the passage of a century, there is ever more reason to hope today that modernism will be forced to relinquish its hold on architectural authority.

Modern architecture suffered epic fail more than half a century ago, a truth evident to all outside the cocoon of modernism. That is why historic preservation went from being a niche hobby to a mass movement in the snap of a finger after 1960. Jan Michl’s revival of Karl Popper’s thoughts on the invalidity of a central mantra of the modernist cult will be an invaluable tool for readmitting beauty and other shunned qualities to architecture.

My effort to sum up these important ideas should be reinforced by reading Michl’s elegant, evocative and persuasive paper, which is here. A page sent by Audun Engh linking to 30 other papers on architecture, design and education in those fields is here.

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.

5 Responses to Pop the “historicist” bugaboo

  1. LazyReader says:

    If you’re into changing up the status quo, classicism could attract more likers with new designs.
    THE critique of the modernists is defiance of conventional norms. In the US we modified the “Classical order” with different plants, like tobacco, corn, magnolia.
    Art Deco is classical now, but a century ago, was the New modern at the time, more outlandish than the classical. Took design cues from China, Japan, Persia, Wright, etc.
    And made use of materials that did not exist just a few years prior..
    – Stainless steel
    – Nickel/chrome
    – Shagreen
    – Plastics
    – Aluminum
    Begs the question “What could classical architects a century ago; do today do with contemporary materials”
    Titanium, composites, carbon fiber.
    Classical or not there’s an entire Host of new building materials out there.
    Or how it should be designed. 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


  2. Anonymous says:

    There’s good and bad pastiche. I believe we should recapture the word and make it proudly our own.


    • John the First says:

      One could additionally argue that pastiche is at least better than collage. Pastiche at its best at least requires skill and knowledge, it eclectic, passionate and allows for playful combination rather than the disconnected cut and paste work of modernism, which is mere parody and travesty in combination with traditionalism, and boring uniformity and regularity on itself.


  3. John the First says:

    Traditionalists should beware of pastiche indeed, aiming at synthesis, which is quite difficult. One should study the variation of Belgium residential homes to see situations of traditionalist pastiche.
    But synthesis can never be achieved by modernism, only a childish sort of collage. Perhaps modernism cannot even synthesize with older forms of modernism, as these are ego projects. Or rather projects of hyper-reflexive uprooted Faustian man.

    “As is often the case, however, the average man on the street sees things much more clearly, intuitively and naturally. Most folks do not discriminate against building styles based on when they were invented.”

    Though for that reason, overall lack of the capacity of discrimination, they also cannot synthesize. If it would come down to the average man on the street he would democratically bring about a pastiche.
    What is ‘natural’ is what he has gotten used to, though not al things which a man can get used to inspire him and bring about a benevolent effect.

    “Traditional architecture, old or new, stands in the way of the new order by evoking sentiments that connect individuals to the past, causing them to resist new buildings that may or may not reflect our time but which definitely lack familiarity.”

    Modernist architecture is but one of the many tactics of uprooting.
    Ordinary man and even elites have always stood in the way of renewal. In our times the modernists are trying to put themselves in the place of the geniuses of the past who knew the art of synthesis, they are merely destroyers though, but this isn’t limited to architecture. Architecture is but the last vestige, of things of very solid material which cannot be so easily be destroyed as all the other arts.

    “Are the directors of these films (such as George Lucas) aware of the philosophical debate that plays out in the sets they create for their films? I suspect not.”

    I often think that imagination, if created consistently, precedes realization, thus one should not feed oneself too much with dystopian images. There is a certain morbid attraction in play in such dystopian images, you gradually become what you ‘consume’.

    The last link in the article leads to a 404 message, it should end with .html.


  4. John the First says:

    Don’t forget the trees please, without the trees, however beautiful and charming the architecture, or better said, without some living organisms other than humans in the mix, it becomes a stone desert.
    After living some time in the centre of Ghent, which is pretty much a stone desert, the trees in the image were the first thing which caught my eye and pleased me.
    They are so desperately in lack of nature out here that the locals even made a petition which ought to save one of the last pieces of green lawn of a few square meters out here.


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 )

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.