TAG 4.2 versus TAG 4.2?

Backdrop for session breaks shows relationship between classicism and nature. (CPI)

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.

Leon Krier’s plan to update Pierre L’Enfant’s federal core, in Washington, D.C. (Leon Krier)

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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13 Responses to TAG 4.2 versus TAG 4.2?

  1. Milton W. Grenfell, architect says:

    Ms DelVecchio is a very nice lady, but count me in Brussat’s take no prisoners corner. The colossal waste of resources, the disfiguring of countless cities and towns with irredeemably ugly and disfunctional buildings has been nothing short of criminal.
    The only saving grace of these monstrosities is that their shoddy design leads to their destruction, which due to their ignorance of building principles, is often self inflicted.

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    • And an extraordinarily talented architect. But thank you, Milton. Those who seek comity or compromise with modernists – fine individuals though some of them may be, and even if it is true, as Andres says, that some are moving in our direction – do not reckon with the damage they’ve done to the globe, its inhabitants, and the ideas of beauty, civility, honor and, yes, honesty in dealings among professionals.

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  2. John the First says:

    “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.”

    Prince Charles is among the leading modernists, sharing the design (of society) table with the modernist elites, modernists in the broadest ideological sense. The fact that he individually might love traditional architecture says nothing. He is on the table with all those prestigious (non-democratic) modernist global-scale, top-down control elites who are fast forward destroying tradition (in the broadest sense). There is an unbridgeable gap here, a schizm, in this cooperation.

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    • Whatever he may be otherwise, John, Charles is not a modernist in architecture. That’s what counts in my book. I rely on time to dispose of most of his inanities, but we need his help on architecture now.

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      • John the First says:

        When someone promotes classical architecture philosophies, at the same time lining up with an elite of top down engineers of society, the result will at best be a stylistic mismatch, due to operating from two conflicting philosophies. If these ‘inanities’ are not disposed, traditionalists will be working technocrat disneyland for the people. And the modernist’s scorn will be justified.

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  3. David,

    I wish to support Melissa in the strongest possible manner. She was an outstanding moderator for the discussion following my presentation at the TAG Conference, and understands the message perfectly.

    “Certainly classical architecture ticks all the boxes in Nikos’ diagrams, but that does not mean it’s the only means in gaining useful insights from his work. I think he would agree.”

    Precisely! The scientific experiments and the mathematical theory that ties into these results have implications for wonderful and new human-scale design. The spectrum of adaptive form languages is endless. It happens to include all of classical and traditional architecture being practiced today, plus many other, as yet to be developed form languages. That opens up incredible opportunities for all of our young architects in the immediate future.

    The problems arise because the same experimental results coupled to mathematics-based architectural theory exclude some currently popular styles, plus accepted cultural icons going back to the 1920s. Here is where one has to decide whether to get into polemics or not. I respect all of my colleagues who do envision a new era of human-scale architecture, but who decide not to criticize those who refuse to practice it. Personally, I’m not so tolerant.

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

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    • I agree that your work (or classicism, if that’s what she meant) can be used for different purposes, Nikos, and I understand you want to stand behind Melissa, who did a splendid job as moderator (except for that one line, to which I objected). But I still doubt that being soft on the modernists, even if it is sometimes useful, will advance the classical project.

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    • Anonymous says:

      Thank you Nikos!

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  4. LazyReader says:

    I don’t “Hate” modernism as a design philosophy. I just like Classicism more…
    I still think the two disciplines can “Behave”
    it’s better to cooperate

    House concept in Perthshire, UK.

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  5. It seems you misunderstood me. I don’t believe an us and them debate encourages good discussion — particularly when the topic was the fascinating potential for evidence based design which Nikos, Ann and others so eloquently presented. Rather than alienate the “modernists” as a uniform, fixed and inflexible other, we should see this new research as an opportunity to find common ground. All architects can effectively employ these ideas in their work in ways that allow humans to live their best healthy lives and thrive. I am a passionate advocate for traditional architecture, as you know, but retreating into a corner with like-minded friends and alienating others misses the opportunity to build bridges that push us all forward. Debate should be civil, characterizing everything that’s not classical as inherently bad is a gross oversimplification that I’ve found off-putting since I was a first year student at Notre Dame. All architecture we build today is inherently “modern” some architects engage in evolving traditional language — we are the ones who already put some faith in the accumulated wisdom of what worked for centuries before the advent of modernism. Your “modernists” believe more strongly in their own powers of invention, and many designers exist somewhere in between. My generation owes a huge debt to architects like Leon Krier for having the tough debates that allowed us to learn about traditional architecture at all, and to learn about it in an environment where it was beginning to be seen as a viable alternative. Young students today are quite open-minded and interested in a range of ideas, especially the need for human-centered design. Nikos was invited by undergraduates at Yale (in the Architecture and Forestry schools) just last year to give the same talk – along with several of the other panelists. The students were curious, engaged and asked thoughtful questions. This research is an opportunity to have a larger discussion within the design community, building bridges with those who have previously been skeptical of our traditional work, encouraging them to synthesize these ideas into their own projects. As a moderator it’s my job to engage all in discussion, not alienate those who do not 100% agree. Certainly classical architecture ticks all the boxes in Nikos’ diagrams, but that does not mean it’s the only means is gaining useful insights from his work. I think he would agree. Evidence based design is an opportunity to enhance all architecture.

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    • Thank you very much for your comment, Melissa. With all due respect, however, I don’t think I misunderstood you in the least. Quite the reverse. I understood you perfectly. You don’t believe “an us or them debate encourages good discussion” about architecture. And I disagree. I directly quoted your remark that “we don’t help classicism by bashing modern architecture,” which is to deplore “an us or them debate.” You obviously support classical architecture, and I am an ardent admirer of your work. As I said in my post, it is very much understandable that people want to tone down their objection to other people’s ideas. You are free to do that and I am free to do the opposite. Confronting modernism heatedly is one way to argue, and another way is to design excellent buildings in the classical manner. Personally, I don’t think compromising with modernists or being gentle with them helps move classicism along, but I would eagerly defend your right to assert that it does. Both Nikos and Leon, I am sure, would consider those to be counterproductive. Your role as panel moderator and your comment that I criticized were perfectly fair, but in a free country I am allowed to disagree. I’m sure we can both agree on that, and let many flowers bloom.

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    • John the First says:

      “Debate should be civil”

      As I read, the early twentieth century modernist movement had quite some leading personalities, personalities which were known for some unpleasant and deviating qualities.. I’d say that these modernists still maintained individual character, human scale, not in their buildings, but as humans.
      We are more modernist than they in the sense that we seek to remove what we see as undesired traits from individuals, by means of sometimes dictating popular creeds and often (by now) hollow phrases, shaping individual conformity to what is collectively accepted and imposed as standards of civility (if an individual argument for what is felt as ‘off-putting’ can be raised to a standard..).
      So, like these historical modernists designed buildings with a massive amount of the same windows in rows all perfectly conformist, we are more modernist, shaping humans which are ever more all the same. So we seek to build traditional buildings, prestigiously claiming to maintain and respect individual and local character, meanwhile seeking to remove individual character from people.

      I suggest to indeed ‘develop another language’ and to become really ‘human-centred’.
      Instead of using dictating creeds, which do not convey reasons and as such counteract individual thinking, one could take recourse to something which seeks to make an appeal rather than to dictate (which is very modernist), and which seeks to convince by means of seduction:

      “Manners beget manners”

      Traditional language, I ran across it in a novel of which the setting was the middle-ages, which was quite ‘human-centred’.

      ‘Less creeds, more of yourself’, could be the next creed.

      Like

  6. LazyReader says:

    DC has enough buildings for public enjoyment. I’m all for complete traditional towns but also property rights advocate….
    Contrary to Kriers claims. Modern building materials use LESS energy per capita than traditional…traditional requires less maintenance input energy….but that’s simply a question of how much maintenance you plan to defer.
    People who glorify past Never lived it.
    History of civilization in a nut shell…
    HUNTER GATHERER
    agrarians at mercy of feudalism,
    First leanings of industrialist thru human labor
    Tyrannical overthrow
    Industrial Revolution
    Revivalism
    Modernism.
    Leon didn’t flee Luxembourg because all modernist buildings….he left for much of the same reasons so Many Europeans came to America…..opportunity and greater geopolitical freedom. If he wanted too he could gone to Africa to experiment his traditionalist community trials and build it for Africans. Minimal hydrocarbons. Back to land society. Largely pre industrialized…

    Like

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