The architect and planner Andrés Duany, who was a founder of the Congress of the New Urbanism back in the 1990s, gave the final lecture at the fourth session of TAG 4.2, this year’s gathering via Zoom of classicists, now rebranded by the Classic Planning Institute as the Stoa – an ancient Greek word for marketplace.
Duany bombarded the attendees with his patented verve, forcing many to run for cover (figuratively). He repeatedly accused classical architecture of allowing its reverence for traditional forms to thwart the need to compete with the creativity of modern architecture, declaring that “our strength is that we build on the past but our weakness is that we don’t learn from the future.”
His audience expected none of this. Nor his declaration that the treatise he had promised to write after he and his wife, Lizz Plater-Zyberk, won the Driehaus Prize back in 2009 was on its way to completion and had not been abandoned, as almost all classicists had supposed.
In his lecture, Duany complained that this generation of classicists was the only one to have never produced a treatise explaining itself and mapping its future – because, he said, classicists had done nothing new in decades. “Whatever we build must be as correct as Palladio,” he said with regret, “even more so.”
In Duany’s book (literally, and I helped edit the first volume of the treatise, called Heterodoxia Architectonica, back in 2015, for which I was generously paid), there have been four periods during which classicists girded their aesthetic loins after periods of architectural dissipation. Duany calls these periods “recalls,” and that is a good word – a call to order in the face of disorder.
The first recall was the Renaissance, in which Italian architects, having discovered the ancient Roman treatise of Vitruvius, replaced Romanesque, Gothic and other styles of the Dark Ages. The second recall tightened up the classical canon after the exuberent rise of Baroque, Rococo and Mannerist styles in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the third recall, the École des Beaux Arts reimposed canonical discipline after its dissipation in the Eclectic period, which concluded, in the 20th, with the rise of modernism.
The current fourth recall has failed to restrain modernism, but still introduced a contemporary classical revival, including its instruction in a very few architecture schools such as Notre Dame. This movement has pushed back against modernist dominance of the profession and of almost all other academies.
Duany’s treatise aims to lead a fifth recall to gird the loins of the fourth recall, in part by redirecting it toward the young, who need a mission more ambitious than polishing the pillars of past classicism. The fifth recall intends to strengthen the canon by promoting greater innovation and the inclusion of allegedly successful modernist practices, and also by recapturing innovative classical architects who have been kidnapped by the modernists, such as José Plecnik and Louis Sullivan.
Yet even as he supports classicism and condemns modern architecture, Duany gives the trads less credit than they deserve and the mods more credit than they deserve. “It is not true that modernism is bullshit,” he argues, adding that “we’re wrong that glass walls and flat roofs don’t work.” He adds that some modernists now use brick walls and punched windows, which he says were once verboten in the modernist canon, and then he decries the “asymmetry that they learn from us but we don’t learn from them.” More curiously, he claims it is a “mistake to raise the banner of beauty.”
Huh? If not beauty, what? And what, really, can classicists learn from what modernists are designing? If some modernists are learning from classicists, then let them learn some more. Duany says that modernists lie all the time, and that a modernist design proposal often bears no resemblance to what the building will look like. Are these the techniques traditionalists should embrace?
Duany certainly overstates the case that classicists are insipid and the modernists are bold. Many modernists copy the recent past, and many classicists break with a canon that they understand quite well. But classicism, frankly, is about following traditions. With its gargantuan sterility, modernism seems to be laying a template for authoritarian rule. Classicism is the architecture of freedom and of free will. Building on the past conduces to cultural stability, empowers the meaning of tradition, fortifies respect for democratic norms, and strengthens the public’s preference for architecture that they understand and are familiar with, which enables the public to join a civilized polity to address grievances peacefully, which is what the U.S. Constitution is all about, and its equivalents in other democratic societies. Modern architecture has nothing to do with any of that.
This brief report inevitably distorts Duany’s lecture and the ideas of his treatise. His analysis contains much truth, and his expression of the current discourse of architecture is vivid and compelling. But the fact is that Duany’s own discourse, however valid, is an exercise in complexity. He abandons the chief virtue and the powerful strategic advantage classicism holds over modernism, which is that of clarity. The public knows very well the difference between classical and modern architecture, and wants no part of the latter. Duany calls, instead, on classicists to mix and match traditional and modernist concepts, and expects professional and lay people to follow a convoluted discourse. Let us all memorize the Heterodoxia Architectonica, when it comes out. It will not help. He calls on classicists to dilute classicism and embrace modernism in varying degrees. That would make more confusion than anything else, and erode progress toward a classical revival.
TAG, which is now called Stoa and was called @TradArch when first held in Charleston by a few dozen attendees (meeting in person), still boasts adherents whose views contradict those of other adherents. That was true in 2015 (see “Trading TradArch trash talk“) and is still true today. This is called discourse.
I imagine most attendees at TAG 4.2 managed to pick and choose what parts of Andrés Duany’s lecture they liked best. Here’s what I liked best:
Unlike modernists, classicists are incredibly concerned with humans and humanism. We don’t respond to the culture but try to reform the culture. The modernists don’t reform a damn thing, they only express it. The world is ready for the recovery of western culture. … The world needs a revolutionary movement: not what’s new but what’s best.