TAG 4.2 means traditional architecture gathering, this year held via Zoom from the offices, in Washington, D.C., of the Classical Planning Institute founded by Nir Buras, an Israeli American architect, author of The Art of Classic Planning, and impresario of the classical revival. The idea, quite obviously, is to gather like-minded proponents of traditional and classical architecture to discuss advances in their practice and the eventual displacement of modern architecture from its decades’ long dominance of the profession.
Or at least that’s what I thought was the idea. After Friday’s second session of the four-day event, I am not so sure. But I’ll get around to that soon. This post will only discuss the first two days.
The first day centered upon the ideas of Leon Krier, a native of Luxembourg who, as a young man, watched as its capital was transformed from historical beauty into a civic monstrosity by the modernists. Krier left Luxembourg and became a leading theorist of the resistance to modernism and godfather of the classical revival (though Henry Hope Reed’s ghost might argue the point). Krier masterplanned Poundbury, in Britain, for Prince Charles, and the beautiful new town of Cayala, in Guatemala, among many other projects, and his pictograms of architectural theory are the delight of all who happen upon them.
He has been working on a new plan for the federal quarter of Washington, D.C., that would fill in its empty spaces with classical apartment houses, and turn the Mall itself into a waterway. It makes great aesthetic sense, and doubles down on the city’s founding designer, Pierre L’Enfant. Alas, it may be a pipe dream. I grew up in D.C. and hope Krier’s plan is carried out. How TAG’s masterplanner, Nir Buras, managed to withhold mentioning his equally lovely plan for the Anacostia River embankments south of the U.S. Capitol, I don’t know.
The format of these TAG sessions invites discussion of the speaker from panelists and feedback from attendees. At session one on Thursday. hundreds of viewers on Zoom left the impression that the classical revival forges ahead, with talented practitioners building new traditional architecture and patient educators adding new facilities to teach, again, how architects built for centuries, even millennia.
Friday’s session started with a lecture by University of Texas mathematician and architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros. He described recent research in the field of neurobiology that explains why most people prefer traditional to modern architecture. His talk was reinforced by the astonishing eye-tracking evidence of architect/researcher Ann Sussman, who was on the panel.
To be succinct, Salingaros showed that traditional architecture reflects the vital need of early humans on the African savannah for visual information to protect against predators and to locate food. The human brain in its oldest recesses still craves such detail, but over the centuries the motive of survival was replaced by the desire for beauty, using artfully arrayed detail and decoration not just for pleasure but for easy identification of purpose and hierarchy in buildings and wayfinding in cities.
Neuroscience shows that the logic and aesthetics of traditional architecture satisfy human needs for emotional balance and stress reduction raised by the anxieties of everyday life. Traditional architecture reflects the natural patterns of human reproduction and organic growth. It is thus healthier and speeds healing. Modern architecture emphasizes the abstract and the experimental, thus tending to challenge the mind rather than relaxing or comforting it. This seems obvious to the average person, and cerainly to advocates of a classical revival. Hospital designers are beginning to recognize the truth, but the establishment in architecture continues to resist.
That resistance showed up in the discussion of Salingaros’s work at Friday’s TAG session, even though almost all of the attendees were surely in sync with what he was saying. There is an understandable desire among even the most vociferous proponents of an idea to soften their interactions with those who disagree with that idea. Since the appearance of and the theories behind modern architecture are the best arguments against it, no discussion of design would be complete without pushback from the modernist that inhabits the dark recesses of the soul of every traditionalist.
After all, leaving aside the desire for comity, almost every architect was taught to think and build in a modernist manner before discovering that there was a better, more logical, more beautiful way of building. Almost all traditionalists had to reject their education before embracing tradition.
So, I was not the least bit surprised when an attendee objected from the floor to the session’s “heated” criticisms of modern architecture. Nor was I surprised by the reaction of panel moderator Melissa DelVecchio, who was the chief architect of the two new classical colleges erected by her firm, RAMSA, at Yale. She declared that “we don’t help classicism by bashing modern architecture.”
Salingaros swiftly replied that “I don’t think it’s heated enough!”
Precisely. Traditional and modern architecture are opposites. One is good and the other is bad. One typology is beautiful; the other rejects beauty. Traditional architecture conduces to human health; modern architecture produces stress and disorientation. Promoting a traditional architecture of joy and healing requires at least the implicit criticism of its opposite. They are two sides of the same coin. Compromise, or the search for a “new way,” is surrender. You cannot hope to advance the classical revival without challenging today’s modernist establishment, which has sought to crush tradition for decades.
Still, in one’s own contribution to the architectural discourse, individuals are free to emphasize support for tradition over criticism of the status quo – which, increasingly so in today’s America, still requires courage. Both are vital.
Thanks to Nir Buras and his organization’s TAG sessions, there will always be people around to push the style wars toward a more intelligent correlation of forces.