Scruton’s first beauty volley

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Portion of the hotel at St Pancras Station, London. (University College London)

As I mentioned in “Sir Roger’s hunt for beauty,” Roger Scruton has been appointed chairman of a commission to promote beauty in British housing policy. Naturally, all those who are opposed to beauty in architecture are on the warpath against him. I here link to what may be his first lecture since his appointment, at the Policy Exchange on Nov. 18, dedicated to the memory of Colin Amery, an ally in the fight to return beauty to the built environment. Scruton has assured the public (or, more specifically, the modernist design elites) that his role as commission chairman is not to impose classical style on British housing policy, but to invite traditionalists to join in a conversation from which they have long been excluded. Nevertheless, this lecture is sure to whip up even more hysteria among his opponents – merely because it has so much good sense. Here is a quote from “The Fabric of the City.”

As Colin constantly reminded us, the city is an evolving fabric, in which old and new come together, the old disciplining the new, and at the same time adapting to it. Something in this process of evolution must remain the same: the city itself, conceived as a settlement. Conservation should occur not in order to pickle the city in aspic, but so as to retain its identity as a living community and an object of steadfast affection. Burke argued that in politics we must reform in order to conserve; the lesson of architectural aesthetics is that we must conserve in order to reform.

This fine passage challenges one of the stalest of lies often told by modernists to sway the public against new traditional architecture. It is often said that to build new buildings inspired by old building styles will turn old cities into museums. Leave aside the injustice to museums, which constantly evolve. The idea that contemporary classicism risks turning cities into places solely for rich tourists rather than living, working populations, is a fallacy dear only to the modernist curators of architectural history.

It is those curators, led by the late Nikolaus Pevsner, who have sought to imprison styles of architecture in “periods” so as to argue that a historical style is inappropriate for today. It is the rare architectural historian who sees that architecture underwent constant flux until modernism fallaciously called a halt to that history by banning the toolbox used for centuries to produce beauty. We are left with an architectural language of, in the words of James Stevens Curl, “monosyllabic grunts.” Roger Scruton understands that, and hopes to unchain the queen of arts from its modernist cage. Let a thousand styles bloom! Perhaps that will be his motto: he knows that beauty is sure to win. This is why Sir Roger will be the perfect chairman of the new Build Better, Build Beautiful Commission.

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The big boxes of the future

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A Walgreens of classical style in 2013, after update of original building, shown below.

A few days ago some interesting photographs landed in my email inbox as part of an online discussion of big-box retail and its design, a subject near and dear to my heart, as I have watched the evolution of suburban retail strips on Mineral Spring Avenue (Route 15), in North Providence, R.I., and on Bald Hill Road (Route 2) in Warwick, R.I. They both have grown more traditional in appearance over time. But these photos were of commercial buildings in New Orleans (a before-and-after) and Madison, Miss.

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The one on top is the after, the before being the one to the left. If this were half a century ago, near the outset of suburban sprawl, before and after would be reversed, with the lovely ornate Walgreens demolished to make way for the blank-wall building. The Walgreens is much more recent, fortunately, from 2013. The enlightened property owner is Stirling Properties – ironic, since the Brits recently handed out their latest Stirling Prize, which is, I think, often mistaken over there for the Carbuncle Cup. The architect of the Walgreens renovation was Michael Rouchell, of New Orleans, a founder of the Louisiana chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art.

Beautiful as is Rouchell’s work on the drug store, an even more remarkable phenomenon is on display in the photos at the end of this post.

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Madison’s Mayor Butler

What is remarkable about these new big-box stores in Madison, Miss., is not the quality of their design but that they are, collectively, the inspiration of Madison’s mayor since 1981, Mary Hawkins Butler. I’m not at all familiar with her technique, but for years she has insisted that big-box retail hoping to move into this suburb of Jackson, the state capital, use classical styles for their design. The quality of that design may be relatively low but is still superior to what usually suffices for retail strip architecture. The five examples below are all original buildings, and I can imagine that getting the corporate design czars to budge off their barfitecture must have been akin to pulling teeth.

These stores violate many classical principles, above all that of hierarchy – meaning that a building on a commercial strip should not try to look as if it is a state capitol or a major bank headquarters (as such civic and commercial buildings were once conventionally conceived). The building atop the photos at bottom (not at left below) does the best job of violating hierarchy, and in its design far outstrips the four below it in reaching toward the upper levels of “bad trad.” (In fact, isn’t it really rather nice?) The four below it display major flaws in proportion, detailing and other aspects of classicism.

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Typical big-box store design. (gmtoday.com)

And yet those who enter stores like the Kroger, Sam’s Club, Taco Bell, Office Depot and Lowe’s shown at the bottom must feel, as they enter, slightly elevated, and they probably feel the difference even if they do not necessarily notice it. And if they have just departed a store (left) that does not think it should try to look beautiful, the difference might strike them as more than slightly elevated. In the confusion of factors that cause momentary happiness in human beings, a more beautiful big-box store can only help.

The point here is that by pressuring corporate design apparatchiks to up their game before they enter the Madison retail market, Mayor Butler has improved the quality of life in her community. She has rejected today’s conventions in architecture. Good for her. Maybe she has read Making Dystopia, by James Stevens Curl, which tracks the sordid and dishonest history of modern architecture. Other mayors, governors, town, city and state officials and civic leaders should follow suit – that is, show a similarly rebellious spirit (They should read the book, too, which is here.)

Developers are more interested in having local government on their side than they are in scoring points with local design elites. Communities should take advantage of that. In some places, like Providence, conventional wisdom in architecture flies in the face of local historical character, undermining the efforts of civic leaders to effectively brand their cities and towns. That is just ridiculous, and so easy to stop.

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Seek the bottom of beauty

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Weckbough Mansion, in Denver, features multiple human faces. (Denver Sun)

The headline of Joanne Ostrow’s article in the Denver Sun got my attention:

Is Denver’s contemporary architecture killing us?

Leaving aside that Denverites are not the only victims of modern architecture, the answer offered to Ostrow by the subject of her article, Denver architect Don Ruggles, founder of its Ruggles Mabe Studios, is yes. Ostrow states that “Ruggles worries that the odd angles and sharp points meant to excite are also causing neuroaesthetic problems. ‘This is a public-health issue, not a style issue.’ ”

I started reading the article and was swept up immediately. Ruggles, it seems, is among a growing number of design theorists investigating a phenomenon regarding biology and architecture that I’ve been writing about for several years now. Ruggles described to Ostrow his claim,

with support from neuroscience, that the human brain seeks certain timeless patterns without which we lack equilibrium and a sense of well-being. Freaky, fun, unusual designs may excite, but they also agitate and upset.

Prof. Nikos Salingaros, a mathematician and theorist at the University of Texas, San Antonio, has been writing about the disorienting qualities of modern architecture and its roots in neurobiology. Ann Sussman is an architect and researcher in Massachusetts who uses eye-tracking technology to follow the brain’s behavior as it reflects the approach/avoidance reaction to buildings that Ruggles reveals to Ostrow in this article, and in his book Beauty, Neuroscience and Architecture (University of Colorado Press). Both have been pathbreakers in the neuroscience of architecture.

Boy, was I glad to have stumbled across another fellow traveler!

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House across street from mansion above. (Denver Sun)

Then, however, as I reached toward the end of Ostrow’s article, Ruggles threw cold water on my happiness. He admires the house atop this post and argues next that the modernist house across the street is ugly. Fine! But then he criticizes the sinister-looking Hamilton wing of the Denver Art Museum, by Daniel Libeskind while admiring its neighbor, the Clyfford Still Museum, as “firmly rooted and calming,” though it looks like a Neo-Brutalist retread – and then says the two balance each other nicely. Huh?

In Ostrow’s article, Ruggles’s remarks are followed by quotes from a gaggle of modernists who bemoan his infatuation with the word beauty and his (initially apparent) preference for traditional architecture. Ruggles gets no credit, however, for suggesting that modernist buildings can be deemed beautiful within the ambit of his thesis, which mostly involves nine-square patterns that may be drawn upon the facades or plans of the buildings he considers beautiful. This reminds me of another book I read years ago by a writer who used slanted lines to reveal a building’s proportions, or something like that. (I must add that Ruggles’s firm’s architecture is beautiful, mostly.)

I have just dipped my toe into Don Ruggles’s thinking. His book is next to me. I will read it and try to figure out where he is coming from.

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Hamilton wing of the Denver Museum of Art. (wheretraveler)

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Clyfford Still Museum, near Hamilton wing of Denver Museum of Art. (Denver Sun)

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HQ2 twofers and Providence

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From Rhode Island proposal for HQ2. (all images CommerceRI)

Two major eastern cities have won the HQ2 sweepstakes, and you have to wonder whether the twofers – Long Island City and Crystal City, outside Manhattan and D.C. – both realize they got half a loaf.

How soon will it take for them to recognize that getting half a loaf was to have dodged the full loaf of total victory in this Amazon sweepstakes? The cities that made it to the last round of 20 may be wiping their brows in retroactive relief. Cities like Providence, which managed to avoid Amazon’s attention altogether, may still be counting their lucky stars.

New York City and Washington, D.C., are probably large enough to embrace HQ2 and its 50,000 ÷ 2 jobs without major injury. Even longer commutes and even tighter budgets are not death warrants for such big places. Providence would have been inundated, losers both financially and in quality of life. Probably no midsized city would have been hurt as badly as Providence.

One of Providence’s two major competitive advantages – its historical character (can’t do much to stop its location between Boston and New York) – would have gone the way of the dodo. Many citizens and civic leaders are already doubtful that the city can absorb the proposed 46-story Fane tower. But there’s no question that Amazon would have clobbered the city’s beauty without blinking an eye. Still, how many Rhode Islanders were rooting against HQ2? Not many, I’d imagine.

Reader Michael Airhart commented today on one of my posts on Rhode Island’s HQ2 proposal from a year ago, “R.I’s Amazon HQ2 bid.” After describing Crystal City’s probable fate – “a cluster of a dozen cookie-cutter glass buildings crammed up against the main terminal of National Airport” (here they would have been crammed up against the Rhode Island State House) – Airhart wrote:

Did Providence ever stand a chance of attracting Amazon? No. And I think that reality only strengthens David’s contention that Providence and the state should have played to the city’s strengths — its historic architecture and culture — instead of trying to copy everyone else. Amazon would still have said no, but Providence could then have caught the attention of other companies. Pretend-ing to be like everyone else doesn’t impress the businesses that are likely to consider Providence.

So true. We dodged a bullet. A very big bullet. If we had played hard to get by demanding that Amazon build out its HQ so as to fit into Providence’s historical character, Amazon might have noticed. Probably not, but other big businesses might have, as Airhart suggests. Leave it to the “creative capital” to regurgitate the worst ideas from everywhere else!

Not everyone was against letting such a fate befall Providence, a year ago or today. Many people favor the proposed Fane tower. Many others oppose it, some because of its effect on the historical character of Providence. Yet how many of these latter oppose all of the other carbuncles planned or under construction in the I-195 corridor? Not many, I’d guess. How many opposed the GTECH building? How many opposed the Rubik’s Cube and the many other attacks on the city’s historical character that have arisen since the 1970s. Not many, I wager! And yet those buildings were no less an attack on Providence’s historical character than the Fane tower is today.

Fortunately, because the city avoided two major urban renewal plans of the 1960s that would have destroyed downtown and College Hill, Providence has so much more beauty here than most cities that developers and foolish civic leaders will need all 1,000 cuts to achieve the death of its beauty. But those slow-death-of-a-thousand-cuts are coming faster and faster.

Wake up, Providence!

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Sir Roger’s hunt for beauty

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Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Federal Building and Courthouse (Architect Magazine)

Sir Roger Scruton, the British philosopher and advocate of classical beauty and architecture, has been named chairman of a commission called Building Better, Building Beautiful to advise Britain’s government on issues of beauty in housing policy. This is fabulous news. Who better? Scruton is a knight, after all, and has long donned shining armor.

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By David Levine for the NYRB

Naturally, the choice has irked the forces of modern architecture arrayed on the battlements of the design establishment, whose helots have already started heaving hot pitch over the walls to block him and the forces of architectural tradition. The modernists are already in a fever over the publication of Making Dystopia, by James Stevens Curl, who just has published the most comprehensively damning history of modern architecture ever. Together, maybe he and Sir Roger can jujitsu the design establishment.

Scruton’s appointment recalls the furor over here sparked by the appointment of Thomas Gordon Smith, a classicist at Notre Dame, as chief architect of the General Services Administration, which oversees all federal building projects (no small portfolio). The mods howled and President George W. Bush buckled. British Prime Minister Theresa May appears to be made of equally stern stuff, but she may be too distracted by Brexit to succor the gnashing of teeth over Scruton.

It is also worth noting that May’s cabinet has had ministers of housing and of transport who vocally support traditional design, and perhaps other top officials of like view of whom I am unaware. And of course there is Prince Charles. The United States has never had advocates of tradition in major official or political posts or in other realms of public life, although the excellent Justin Shubow, president of the National Civic Art Society, has just been named to a seat on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

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Commercial building in London.

May’s latest housing minister Kit Malthouse was recently castigated by modernists for tweeting that he preferred the new U.S. federal courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala., (top photo) with its inspiring ancient Greek temple design, over a glassy modernist commercial building in London (left). Click on the Malthouse tweet. Although Twitter replies hardly reflect any kind of deep thinking, this embarrassing tripe at least gets its viewpoint across. Commentary on architecture by professional modernists is actually far worse, filled with jargon that is incomprehensible to the layman, no doubt intentionally so.

The inability of modernist architects to defend their work recalls a similar inability or disinclination of traditional architects to defend traditional architecture in the 1920s and ’30s, when it was challenged by modernism after a reign as “the establishment” lasting not decades but centuries, if not millennia. If inarticulation precedes a fall from grace, then the pathetic reaction to Stevens Curl’s book and to Roger Scruton’s appointment bodes poorly for the modernists as they cling ludicrously to their power.

Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump, his ability to get under the skin of his opponents is a model, of sorts, for how advocates of traditional architecture should respond to what seems to be the unhinged disarray of the modernists. Keep on pointing out the flaws of modern architecture and the fatuity of their attacks on Scruton and Stevens Curl. It is not really necessary for trads to be all on the same page. There are many pages, all useful, against modern architecture. Argue for reform in architecture education. Argue for reform in local development processes. Argue for reform in how architecture addresses climate change (trad is far greener than mod glass and steel). It’s all good!

Because Sir Roger is a conservative on issues beyond aesthetics, such as fox hunting, his appointment is the subject of even more overall vituperation than Making Dystopia (which I reviewed here last week). Most advocates of traditional architecture are worried that some extremists on the far right also like traditional architecture. They have every right to do so, but advocates of modern architecture are not entitled to tar those who advocate traditional architecture with the the views of the far right. That is guilt by association. Traditionalists should not be suckered by this ploy of the modernists into playing down their architectural tastes, or their support for Scruton.

Even though tradition is naturally conservative, traditional architecture is a big tent that naturally appeals to the left as well as the right. The allied cause of historic preservation, for example, appeals as much to the left as to the right. Of course some strains of either cause appeal more to one side than to the other. Traditional architecture’s superior ecological sustainability should appeal to the left even though the modernists prefer the dubious gimmickry of LEED credentialism as a response to climate change.

Most supporters of traditional architecture hesitate to let their essentially nonpartisan aesthetic preferences get tangled up in the coils of partisan politics. That’s an understandable concern, but the quality of an idea arises from the merits of the idea itself, and not from the merits or demerits of those who support the idea.

Above all, do not denigrate what has come to be called the style wars. The public prefers traditional to modernist styles by a very wide margin, and these are firm convictions arising largely from intuition. Architecture is the only art that people engage personally every day of their lives, and so most people have solid judgment based on their innate, neurobiological reaction to their experience – it is superior to the judgment of the modernists, which is based on expertise, so-called, that arises from the purging from students in architecture schools of the conventional respect for beauty. If advocates of tradition abandon the appeal to style, however vital the various alternative appeals may be, the public will not be enlightened but turned off, confused and dismayed. Trads who buy into modernist disdain for style as a primary consideration in architecture play right into the hands of the mods.

In fact, Scruton in his 1979 book The Aesthetics of Architecture states:

A more important distinguishing feature of architecture is provided by its character as a public object. A work of architecture imposes itself come what may, and removes from every member of the public the free choice as to whether he is to observe or ignore it. Hence there is no real sense in which an architect creates his public; the case is wholly unlike those of music, literature and painting, which are, or have become, objects of free critical choice. … Clearly, the architect may change public taste, but he can do so only by addressing himself to the whole public and not merely to some educated or half-educated part of it.

Have faith in the public!

Sir Roger Scruton as the knight errant of beauty is an idea whose time has come.

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Committee’s Fane flip-flop

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Recent rendering of proposed Hope Point Tower in city context. (Fane)

Learning nothing in its latest public hearing that it did not already know, the Ordinance Committee of Providence City Council reversed itself on Thursday to recommend that the council neuter the city’s zoning laws.

It voted three to one to urge the council to raise the height limit on Parcel 42 by a factor of six – 100 feet to 600 feet – for the Hope Point Tower proposed by developer Jason Fane. In July, the same committee voted three to one to recommend against the same zoning change. The only difference was that the first vote came before and the second vote after elections for city council seats. (Bravo for Bryan Principe, the only council member to stand firm.)

That doesn’t mean the Fane tower is now a done deal. The council could still ignore the recommendations of the committee. I don’t think these men and women are corrupt, I think they are held back by old thinking about cities. This old thinking is not the future but the past. It poses in high-tech dress and fools most of the people most of the time. It is corrupt, though a better word might be corrosive – a cancer on the livability, the value, the hopes and the spirit of cities.

For almost a century, American cities have adopted growth and development practices that call for purely functional buildings on purely functional streets. With beauty thrown on the ash heap, the resulting sterility and ugliness of cities caused dismay in most people back then and most people today. The promised efficiency never materialized.

In Providence, massive urban-renewal plans for downtown and College Hill fizzled in the 1960s, leaving our city as one of the few in America with its original beauty largely intact. But Providence’s civic leaders since then have never really understood the jewel they were in charge of. They have instead tried to “catch up” with cities like Hartford and Worcester that went all-in on the idea of cities as machines and people as cogs in them.

Before the city council votes to declare that Providence’s zoning laws are just a façade for copying the respectable failures of Hartford and Worcester, our deep thinkers should rethink this more progressively. A vote for the Fane tower is a vote for the GMO architecture of GTECH, the Rubik’s Cube and the I-195 corridor as built and planned so far. A vote against the Fane tower is not a vote against development but a vote against bad development.

If the council fails to grasp the need to turn the city back toward development that strengthens rather than weakens its historic character – whose loss will kill the city’s future – then it will not matter whether Fane builds his mammoth middle finger flung at all that we love about Providence.

If one American city decided to encourage development that its citizens could love, its skyline would be filled with cranes, and its future would be the envy of every other city. Providence can be that city if it wants to.

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More on ‘Making Dystopia’

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Model of 1925 Plan Voisin by Le Corbusier to replace the Marais district of Paris. (Daily Beast)

A book whose vile subjects have grown used to shucking off well-framed attacks for decades, and yet whose stranglehold on establishment thinking has loosened in recent years, is naturally offended by what could be their coup de grâce. So it is natural that modernist architects shellacked by James Stevens Curl in his Making Dystopia (published by Oxford University Press) are fighting back, and fighting, as is their habit, dirty.

I mentioned in my review of the book last Friday that the usual suspects have pretty much ignored the book’s argument and argued instead against its prose style. Perhaps the most egregious was Stephen Bayley’s review in The (U.K.) Spectator, “Modernist architecture is not barbarous – but the blinkered rejection of it is.” Bayley writes:

It has a ‘Prolegomenon’ (yes, really), abundant Latin quotations, nearly 40 pages of preface and acknowledgments, 58 of dense endnotes and 42 of bibliography. Plus a prolix ‘Further Thoughts’ and a turgid epilogue. It is windy, overwritten, under-edited, repetitive and full of clichés. It is a book where ‘much ink has been spilled’.

How can Bayley possibly criticize the extensive documentation of extensive research? To give him credit, he is one of the few to deign to address the book’s theme. But his dismissal of the book’s prose amounts to fraud and is the reverse of what it deserves. Stevens Curl’s prose is engagingly rococo at times, well calculated to engage the reader’s mind with the convolutions of the modernist thinking he describes, the product of which he rightly (and diplomatically) calls “psychotic and “deranged.” Bayley writes:

Aiming his trembling arquebus at some sitting targets, Curl calls contemporary architecture “psychotic” and “deranged.” I have seen Louis Kahn’s India Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, the Farnsworth House in Illinois, Tadao Ando’s Naoshima, Foster’s Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, the Guggenheim in New York and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin and do not find these psychotic or deranged at all. On the contrary, I find them fine, elegant and elevated expressions of the human spirit, at least the equal of the Parthenon or Chartres.

At least the equal?! Psychotic and deranged are words that deeply understate the folly of Bayley’s article, not to mention the villainies of modern architecture.

Anthony Daniels has reviewed Dystopia, “Authoritarianism in cement and steel,” in the Australian journal Quadrant, and he takes particular aim at Bayley, who committed the debating error of conceding modernism’s appalling mistakes. Daniels quotes him, then cuts off his head:

Yes [writes Bayley], modernist principles, misunderstood by unimaginative planners, often led to atrocious results. [The founding modernist] Le Corbusier’s “vertical garden cities” became vertical slums. And there is only a sliver of difference between Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus ideals and a crap council estate.

Even overlooking the vulgarity of expression that seems now to be almost de rigueur in British journalism, this is a very curious passage, for again in essence it admits that Curl is right, although the author does not appear to realise it. Atrocious results, vertical slums, crap council estates: that is the legacy of Le Corbusier and Gropius on a huge scale.

Modern architecture is not merely unimaginative work by architects who misunderstand its principles. The work, from its best on down, is offensive to humanity, and intentionally so. To Corbusier, who is still a god to modernist practitioners, people were just ants, cogs in a machine-age future controlled by the master race – oops, the master builder. Daniels reminds readers of what the modernist clerisy has winked at for decades, that Corbusier had seriously proposed demolishing a swath of Paris, much of the Marais district, to make way for sterile concrete towers. Stevens Curl describes the Plan Voisin, which Corbusier unveiled in 1925 at the international exposition in Paris most famous for its introduction of Art Deco. Corbusier presented

a white box containing a model of the so-called Plan Voisin for Paris, an architectural and town-planning “time-bomb,” proposing the complete destruction of part of Paris east of the Louvre, and between Montmartre and the Seine, and its replacement with eighteen gigantic skyscrapers.

Daniels belabors what you might think is the obvious: “Intellectual, moral and aesthetic blindness can go no further”:

The ideals of the modernists? Totalitarianism and the view of Man as a termite or even bacterium was implicit in everything that they said and every­thing that they did: and again, I do not see how anybody could fail to see a totalitarian sensibility in their architecture. Le Corbusier detested the street because it escaped the supposedly “rational” control of the bureaucratic planner.

Modern architecture is so obviously wrong. While our elites embrace it, our popular culture often seems to reject it. Dystopian films always feature modern architecture, with the technocrat/oppressors inhabiting sterile towers and the oppressed scurrying underfoot amid the rubble of crumbling vernacular habitation. But from Orwell’s 1984 to the Star Wars series, this cinematic insight of movie directors is probably subconscious and unwitting.

Today, if any practitioner in any field, let alone an entire profession, had associated with the regimes and villains that modern architecture has, using totalitarian practices in their professional conduct, normalizing the dystopias inflicted upon society, their career would be over yesterday. Internal revolt would swiftly put a stop to the profession’s methods. Daniels concludes with a bolus of deserved contempt for the modernist absurdity and its fanboys such as Bayley:

Mr Bayley’s review ends, “At least the modernists … believed in life, in optimism, in making new.” That is the kind of thing that apologists for Bolshevism and Nazism said. But one has only to compare intramuros with extramuros Paris, the former with its multisecular glories and the latter with its Gropian, Miesian and Corbusian horrors, to grasp the scale of the modernist disaster.

It can be fun to administer justice to reprobates of this magnitude, as Stevens Curl has done, and it can be uplifting to be bastinadoed by the usual suspects for doing so. In actuality, however, Making Dystopia has been lauded by plenty of critics. One example is from Patricia Craig in the Times Literary Supplement of Oct. 12, which concludes, “This great book, in showing categorically, and cogently, what went wrong, makes an unarguable case.”

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Review: ‘Making Dystopia’

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[Review by David Brussat of Making Dystopia, by James Stevens Curl. Oxford University Press. 592 pages. U.S. publication date Oct. 23, 2018.]

***

Modern architecture has hoaxed the world for well over half a century. Charlatans bred the founding modernist frauds in Europe and exported the virus to America by framing a false narrative of flight from the Nazis. High society here swallowed the story hook, line and sinker, and handed to the “refugees” top academic posts at Harvard, etc., where, with the connivance of industrialists, they applied their propaganda, learned from the left and the right in prewar Europe, to effect an entirely unnecessary and unwarranted capture of American architecture and city planning. They used monopoly power to squelch dissent and to inflict a catastrophic urbanism on helpless populations, first in the West and then around the globe.

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In Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism, architectural historian James Stevens Curl exposes this tragedy and the immoral theories and practices of its proponents. He reveals damning facts about the founding modernists and their proclivities. He drags the truth from hidey-holes maintained by generations of design clerisy quite aware of how bad it would look if their secrets ever saw the light of day.

Dystopia is their worst nightmare. Stevens Curl’s book lets a thousand cats out of a thousand bags.

Published by the Oxford University Press, this volume should inspire a major rethink, a revaluation of values, a revival of old home truths whose outcome, if successful, will rank right up with the transformation of defeated Axis powers into peaceful democracies after World War II, the return to normalcy of post-communist societies in Eastern Europe and (far from complete) Russia, and the awakening of populations around the world to the fragility of the natural environment.

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James Stevens Curl

The fragility of the built environment is only just dawning on human societies. Centuries of architectural evolution addressed the shifting needs of cities with the latest practices and technologies that never required shoving beauty aside. Then, after World War I, it was determined by a surprisingly small coterie of disgruntled architects that comprehensive change in how to build cities was necessary. In the years after World War II, the agents of change captured architecture’s establishment. But modern architecture failed to perform as its founders predicted. In democracies, at least, the public’s deep dislike from the beginning for modernist design should have served as a natural restraint on societies’ embrace of what Stevens Curl properly calls “totalitarian dystopia.”

Yet what does it matter, it might be asked, when enormous numbers of people seem oblivious to their surroundings? They simply do not notice, and anyway are too absorbed with their mobile phones to bother with urban scenery. Their reality exists somewhere else. I think it does matter: ugliness, incessant noise, inhumane surroundings cut off from contact with Nature, a disagreeable and dangerous habitat, and a throwaway society based on advertising and spectacle are inimical to the human spirit, devaluing life and blunting sensibilities.

Unlike many critics of modern architecture, Stevens Curl attempts to recall what has been lost in the headlong rush into a nihilistic recalibration of human habitation. Don’t think merely of the fabric demolished by modern architecture’s rude interruption of the profession’s progress. Think, too, of how practice, benefiting from generations of energy and creativity wasted by modernism, could have achieved higher and higher levels of virtuosity in the arts and techniques of city building. The only losers would have been the tourism councils of cities like Paris that have spent decades feeding off the world’s shrinking supply of beauty. Though no longer monopolies of beauty, they would have grown more lovely alongside every other city and town. Assuming that beauty has net positive rather than negative influences on life and the spirit of place, citizens the world over might have experienced a more healthy culture, one in which peace, comity, and the quest to solve societies’ longstanding problems might very well have been more readily achieved. Instead of fostering an instinctive defense mechanism to tune out our built environment, humane placemaking could have brought more happiness to all citizens.

This is a plausible summary of the magnitude of the opportunity cost of the history that has in fact beset the world, as described by Stevens Curl’s book, and of the importance of trying to recapture what has been lost.

***

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Walter Gropius

The author begins with a concise and yet comprehensive critique of the soundness of the ideas at the foundation of modern architecture. Among its many other flaws, he exposes the fundamental contradiction between Bauhaus director Walter Gropius’s commandment that modernism “start from zero” and architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner’s discovery of “pioneers” or “precursors” to modernist design among the great architects of the 19th century. Either it’s a break with the past or it’s not.

Stevens Curl shows how the influential Pevsner purposely misinterpreted the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau, labeling as pioneers architects such as C.F.A. Voysey who disputed the historian’s analyses of their buildings; tracing modernism back to details of work by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and others he appears to have imagined outright; and ousting from the historical record the work of well-known architects that did not fit in his narrative. Stevens Curl quotes Pevsner’s passage applauding the “world of science and technique, of speed and danger, of hard struggle and no personal security, that is glorified in Gropius’s architecture.” Stevens Curl adds that “Pevsner seems to have been mesmerized by Gropius’s personality and physical presence.” Tom Wolfe’s moniker for Gropius, in From Bauhaus to Our House, was “The Silver Fox.”

Stevens Curl cites Pevsner as having “had the grace to admit in print that Voysey was ‘cross’ with him for ‘having discussed his work as pioneer work of the twentieth century style’ which he ‘disliked.’ ” The author takes Pevsner apart quote by damning quote, yet without seeming altogether angry at him. Indeed, later on, Stevens Curl seems to treat such movement icons as Erich Mendelsohn and Philip Johnson with kid gloves because both were apostates. The lines of Mendelsohn buildings were too curvy for modernist hard-liners. Johnson seemed, later in his career, to make a sport of rejecting successive modernist fashions. But they were modernists after all. Mendelsohn was also treated poorly by some modernists for being Jewish. Johnson, to whom Stevens Curl attributes the leading role in pushing modern architecture in the United States, was close to the Nazis in Germany and fascist groups in America during the late ’30s. He accompanied Hitler’s troops into Poland, seeming, according to correspondent William L. Shirer, more a minder than a reporter. Stevens Curl darkly notes Johnson’s “National Socialist sympathies” and “anti-Semitic tendencies.” Johnson was “titillated by the aesthetics and sexuality” of the Nazis, an obituary quoted by Stevens Curl points out. On the other hand, the relationships of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier with the Nazis and Vichy collaborators get the full brunt of Stevens Curl’s disdain, as does the hand-in-glove relationship of the Bauhaus school and early modernism with Marxist-Leninism.

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Le Corbusier

Among the great contributions of Dystopia is its exposure of modern architecture’s relationship with the Nazis. This has been purposely hidden from the public and scholars. Lately, however, the stonewall has sprung leaks. Stevens Curl makes good use of the pathbreaking Le Corbusier: The Dishonest Architect (2017), by Malcolm Millais, a pair of 2015 exposés, in French, of Corbusier, and Elaine Hochman’s brilliant exposure, two decades earlier, of Mies’s relationship with the Hitler regime in Architects of Fortune (1990). Mies’s attempt to persuade Hitler, through Goebbels, to accept modernism as the stylistic template of the Third Reich says a whole lot more about modernism than does its predictable rejection by Hitler. Anyhow, Stevens Curl makes much of the extensive use by the Nazis of modernist design for utilitarian buildings, a fact implicitly denied by generations of apologists for modern architecture.

To this day, the public remains cowed by convenient and longstanding myths about the founders’ relationships with the Nazis, such as the closing of the Bauhaus, or the supposedly exculpatory need of architects living in the Third Reich to seek employment from whatever clients were available. Stevens Curl sums up part of his indictment:

The National-Socialist Government did not close down the Bauhaus (in fact, it was prepared to let it continue provided certain conditions were met): the decision was that of Mies and his colleagues.

Nor did Mies either encourage emigration or himself leave Germany: on the contrary, he and many other Bauhausler sought accommodation with National Socialism. Modernists like Mies hoped their “progressive” ideas would be eagerly accepted by the revolutionary New Order … .

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Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Although some traditional architects cringe when the Nazi subject is raised, it is vital to slay the Big Lie enabled by these myths, and in particular the notion that Hitler’s embrace of classical architecture means that all who hate Hitler must hate classical architecture and oppose its design and construction in today’s world. That idea, simple but wrong, has colored the thinking of many architects. This particular attitude exemplifies the deconstructivist ideas that have infected modernism, planting doubts that delegitimize the language and institutions of Western culture and society. Most modernists are unfamiliar with these ideas, but merely by erecting a modernist building they have unwittingly helped to undermine Western culture and alienate populations from their cities and nations.

***

As Stevens Curl points out, tradition continued to dominate architecture in every nation through the 1920s and ’30s. H.L. Mencken wrote in 1931 that “the new architecture seems to be making little progress in the United States. … A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier, would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration.” Even Hitler did not really face a “choice” between classicism and modernism; the latter was a newly birthed, experimental niche style, whereas classicism had been the default style for all major civic design in European nations for centuries. Modern architecture was not even officially introduced in America until the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibit on the International Style. The exhibit was put on in 1932 by the aforementioned Johnson, then curator of architecture at MoMA, joined by its first director, Alfred Barr, and architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock.

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Philip Johnson

The natural and appropriate attitudes of Allied governments and publics toward the defeated Nazis were manipulated in a highly successful Cold War effort by the U.S. government of the late ’40s and ’50s to use architecture as a foil against the Soviets. A most riveting chapter in Making Dystopia treats the convolutions of this manipulation. The association of modernism with communism and the left was flipped, using the Big Lie that demonized traditional architecture as fascistic. The goal, in Stevens Curl’s meticulous telling, was to use modernism to illustrate the superior liberalism of American capitalism. In the process, the reputation of traditional architecture attained a bad odor among the American elite. Johnson, MoMA and the CIA were involved in this switcheroo, which sought to paint America as more progressive and creative than the Soviet Union in the fight for the hearts and minds of Europe during the Cold War.

Thomas W. Braden had been MoMA’s executive secretary (1948-49) before joining the CIA in 1950 to supervise its cultural activities, and was a key figure in the important role played by MoMA in the Cold War. Modernism was promoted as the “perfect contrast” to the “regimented, traditional and narrow” nature of Socialist Realism, and when cultural propaganda played its part during the Cold War, the functions of both the CIA’s “cultural apparatus” and MoMA’s international programs were “similar, and, in fact, mutually supportive.”

As for MoMA’s Barr, he is described as “the éminence gris behind Johnson the impresario, the publicist, the advocate, the showman” of modernism:

Barr denounced the art and architecture of National-Socialist Germany and of the Soviet Union, arguing that totalitarianism and realism were bedfellows, but that abstract art was feared and prohibited by such regimes, ergo the Modern Movement was on the side of democracy. This curiously warped notion proved very useful in the promotion of Modernism and its advocates. Intelligent Cold Warriors such as Braden realized that “dissenting intellectuals” who believed themselves to be acting freely could become useful stooges in the international propaganda war.

As this propaganda war was being waged on the international scene, its major tenets, including modernism, machine worship and technocracy were being pushed on the U.S. domestic scene. “Without the massive clout of commerce,” Stevens Curl says, “it is doubtful if Modernism would have been so universally acceptable in the West … By the late 1920s huge American industrial concerns, such as General Motors, had grasped that planned obsolescence would be necessary to sustain mass-production.”

Cheap to build, swift to deteriorate – modern architecture clearly fits the bill. In the ’40s and ’50s General Motors built traveling exhibits to convince Americans that a better and more exciting future, with cars speeding down roads lined with buildings rebuilt with glass, steel and concrete, could replace the humdrum present. The author continues:

[I]ndustrial-strength propaganda was brought into play to represent housing, clothing, food and cars (the “fourth American necessity”) as essentials, and, as the director of research for General Motors, C.F. Kettering, observed, to make people dissatisfied with what they had. Architectural historians have tended to over-emphasize the roles of architectural theorists and historians, architects, critics, and government planners in making Modernism the orthodoxy in architecture and planning: tradition was purged from the practice of design, town planning and architectural/planning education; and artists and craftsmen were put out of business.

***

A review cannot but scratch the surface of the excellence of a great book. Its publication by the Oxford University Press imparts a credibility that cannot be gainsaid. Given its exhaustive scholarship in support of its thesis, it was originally expected by the author that reaction to the book from the usual establishment critics would be silence. And in a sense he was correct: no reviewer has addressed that thesis except by harrumphing or by resort to belittling the author’s prose. One critic found it “windy, overwritten, under-edited, repetitive and full of clichés.” Absurd. (I have decades of experience proofreading and I found zero typos in its 592 pages.) In fact, there are passages with too many lists of architects – often necessary in scholarly writing. Still, Stevens Curl’s occasionally complex sentence structure is well calculated to ease the difficulty of unraveling the convolutions of modernist thinking and the devious maneuvers to put modern architecture across in spite of what he proves are its manifest shortcomings. These maneuvers and their perpetrators, cloaked in dissimulation to mask their character, have been uncovered and effectively explained by Stevens Curl.

The modernist fraud failed with the public but succeeded with the elites. The public did not need to debunk the ridiculous case for modern architecture; it just used its eyes and saw it was ugly. To paraphrase many writers, it takes an expert to believe something as stupid as modern architecture. Well, they did, and the result is a global catastrophe.

So the other big objection of the critical establishment’s herd of independent minds is the author’s undisguised anger at this turn of events. Stevens Curl wields a “trembling arquebus,” writes one critic (admittedly, a great image). The author of Dystopia may be angry but he is not a machine. To show no emotional response to the global cataclysm of modern architecture would be to reveal a lack of judicial temperament. If anything, he is not angry enough. Given his subject, his tirades are almost in the vein of diplomacy. They are entertaining, and glow with the vitality of truth.

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Drawing reflects author’s “death” of psychic wounds sustained in fight against modernism. (By James Stevens Curl, with apologies to Alfred Rethel)

He has reason to be angered by what has happened but perhaps he is too skeptical of the possibilities for a revival of classicism amid a resumption, in a wider social context, of common sense. In fact, at the end of his book he offers a set of extraordinarily sensible reforms directed at architectural education, which is a mess. To propose such reforms is to express at least some degree of optimism. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, schools of architecture will not change until they are forced to change, and only renewed public interest in the local development process, and pressure applied to local developers and politicians – who have good reason to listen to the public – seems the least bit likely to rebalance the tilted playing field for major design commissions, and end classicism’s overreliance on the pocketbooks of rich people. What might bring that about is another matter entirely.

Stevens Curl’s book may be said to unpack some of these issues, but at a much higher level. Against his own pessimism he suggests that “a reaction may come sooner than some predict, and it may not be containable.” Making Dystopia mentions in passing the good work of a growing coterie of classical and traditional architects, including Robert A.M. Stern here and Robert Adam in Britain, and how the craft of building is being renewed by historic preservationists and craft-oriented schools. It is a beachhead, but that is vital. He ought to have written more about why the centuries-ensconced classical establishment, so innocent of modernism’s charges against it, barely lifted a finger in response to the modernist challenge that toppled its authority. To bring about a return of its influence, a broader decline in human affairs will probably need to be reversed:

What is missing from much debate about architecture today is empathy, respect for culture in the widest sense, understanding of history (including religion), recognition of the imperative of Nature as part of humankind’s habitat, and understanding the importance of expressions of gravity and stability in building design to induce calm and ease in those who have to live with the realized works of an architecture that denies gravity, that deliberately sets out to disturb, and that only respects itself.

The world cannot continue long amid a thought system that misunderstands, disregards and attacks the history of human society and culture as it has unfolded over at least two millennia. There are two kinds of architecture – that which respects nature and its regenerative principles, mimicking biological selection, bringing change that reflects best practices handed down from one generation to another, evolving by trial and error; and that which springs anew (at least in theory) from an unnatural lust for novelty that pays little heed to the knowledge gleaned from experimentation and still less to the needs of humans or humanity, a hubristic genuflection before a fake machine ethos that delivered only a bland metaphor for the efficiency it promised – a sort of GMO architecture. A once honorable profession must get back to basics, back to beauty, back to honesty so it can move forward into the future with a healthy boost from the past.

Among the choicest of many choice quotations in the book is Edmund Burke’s advice, from Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790): “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia may be the book that finally focuses a long overdue attention upon that sage advice.

[The following week I posted “More on ‘Making Dystopia.”]

Other reviews:

https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2018/10/expensive-institutionalised-poverty/ – Anthony Daniels

https://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm?frm=189422&sec_id=189422 – Theodore Dalrymple

http://www.archnet-ijar.net/index.php/IJAR/article/view/1828/pdf – Nikos Salingaros

http://commonedge.org/was-modernism-really-international-a-new-history-says-no/ – Mark Alan Hewitt

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Oxford University

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Halloween in Providence

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This Halloween scene, placed on Pinterest by Lenore Allen, may be from a computer game.

Last night’s Halloween trick-or-treat scene near our little house on Providence’s East Side showcased the charms of our more modest nook of the Blackstone neighborhood. On account of its evident friendliness, our district is usually mobbed by families from other neighborhoods. Victoria, Billy and I are usually Halloween grinches and either go to a movie or turn out our lights and hunker down upstairs. Last night, however, at the request of our 9-year-old Angry Bird (“Red”), we stepped out and found a much more friendly, enchanting ambiance than we had expected. (Victoria remained behind, alas, ill abed; she’s much better today, thank you!)

Except for its pumpkin patch and its lack of crowds and paved streets, the image above, from a computer game, resembles our neck of the woods and, no doubt, our sisters east of Hope. (We all “live off Hope,” except for those who live “on Hope,” which is the same.) Our six or eight blocks of bungalows, colonials, cottages, ranches, triple-deckers, Victorians and the like, single and duplex (no manor houses or modernist houses, midcentury or otherwise), are tucked in between Hope and Lorimer Avenue, beyond which lie the much more plush portions of the neighborhood leading to Blackstone Boulevard, Butler Hospital and Swan Point Cemetery. But last night I would not have traded our precinct for any of its ritzier cousins.

We emerged just after dark had fallen. The seasonal but unexpected warmth, after weeks of winter-like cold, had drawn the owners or renters of houses – the “trick-or-treated” as opposed to trick-or-treaters – onto their stoops and porches to hand out candy to all comers. Of these there were so many that lines formed from stoop to sidewalk and beyond. Despite some jostling, the mood was impeccably genial.

The porch has been described by urbanologists as the great mediator between the house and the public. Many of the porches and front yards from which moms and dads (or other couples) handed out candy were decorated to the max, and it was to these houses that families with young children or groups of teens gravitated, eventually ignoring the houses (like ours) with lights out or no one otherwise in evidence.

Billy and I ran into people we know, especially neighbors on their porches, and a family from Billy’s school bus stop, so for the hour we lasted we enjoyed plenty of conviviality. Everyone seemed happy. The streets, though crowded with invading cars, seemed happy. It was almost festive, no, it was festive. It was the classic neighborhood experience, high on sugar. I look forward to next year. Our house has no porch, alas, and our (my) vague plan to build a porch has not advanced. Good porches make good neighborhoods.

Oh well, perhaps next year we will hand out treats from our stoop, maybe even decorate it. In the meantime, to make friendliness a more year-round phenomenon, more people who do have porches should hang out on them more, and not just on Halloween.

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How the Gothic got haunted

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29 Nielbolt St., in the movie It. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Here’s an interesting article, perhaps a day early, on the history of Gothic architecture – you know, with the pointed arches and towers reaching for the sky. All haunted houses are Gothic, are they not? Some say haunted houses are more likely to partake of the Victorian, but those are just some cranky modernists who look down their noses at beauty. Boo!

How Gothic Architecture Lost its Lofty Image,” by Peter Lindfield for the Epoch Times, traces Gothic through periods of popularity and otherwise. It arose in the centuries prior to the Renaissance rediscovery of Greek and Roman classicism in the 1600s, and then again in the second half of the 1800s, when it came to symbolize the resurgence of Roman Catholicism. Religious subservience to Rome was de rigueur in Britain before King Henry VIII and his rupture with the Vatican over his divorce. With the rise of Protestantism, Church of England leaders turned to classicism to express disdain for Catholicism during its period of banishment.*

My knowledge of British religious history does not quite stretch to precisely how Catholics managed to creep back into the fold in England, and neither does Lindfield’s article, but Britain’s alliance with Spain, Portugal and the Holy See itself against the godless Napoleonic France led to a softening of attitudes in Britain toward Catholicism. The longstanding battle between the faiths was reflected in an architectural style war. Eventually, after a terrible fire, Parliament was rebuilt in the Gothic style. Unfortunately, both sides were ultimately defeated by the modernists, in more ways than one, and with only a minimal hope, as of today, for “regression” in the future.

Yikes! What are we getting into!? Let’s get back to haunted houses! Bram Stoker’s Dracula and all those vampires! The Gothic novel! The Castle at Otranto (1764), by Horace Walpole, the English politician, socialite and literatus, is considered the first Gothic novel featuring a haunted house. In my opinion, his estate at Strawberry Hill, built in the Gothic Revival style, has been haunted by its too-pristine 2012 restoration. (See photo below.) Was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a Gothic novel? Well, certainly there was a castle involved, possibly a Gothic one, and the local townfolk chased after the good Dr. F with pitchforks, stirring sentiments that settled down over the years, maybe, into “American Gothic,” the famous painting by Grant Wood.

The photo on top is the haunted house from the 2017 movie It. That’s not the movie that was previewed for next week’s feature on the regular Saturday night TV horror show “Chiller” back in the 1960s. As kids, sitting in the dark, my brother and I watched that preview. It seemed lame. We said in unison: “That’s it?” Immediately the announcer said, “This is It!” But I can find no online mention of a black-and-white ’50s movie called It. So maybe what the announcer really said was “This is it!” And the movie – it now dawns on me – was called The Thing. Still, this really happened! Really! Cue the theremin!

* My friend Will Morgan, an architectural historian and pesky mod-symp, warns me of a certain inaccuracy, not fully explained, in my description of historical relations between Catholics and Protestants in Britain, in particular the extent to which Gothic architecture grew in esteem among the Anglicans during the 19th century. (I ought to have pointed out, as well, that most if not all of the great cathedrals in Britain and Europe were Gothic.)

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Strawberry Hill estate (1749-76) of Horace Walpole after 2012 restoration. (Chiswick Chap)

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