Modernist Hubris May Hasten Architecture’s “Trump Moment”

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Will the public ever pick up its pitchforks?

Donald Trump confronts modern architecture. (photomontage by commonedge.org)

Donald Trump confronts modern architecture. (photomontage by commonedge.org)

Duo Dickinson has a brilliant essay - "Will Architecture Have Its Donald Trump Moment?" - on the website Common/Edge. He compares the Republican establishment in politics to the modernist establishment in architecture. He compares those carrying pitchforks in the armies of Trump and Sanders to the masses pounding sand as they contemplate the inexplicable horror of the built environment wrought by modern architecture. He begins:

There are two architectures. Not officially, yet, but the perception is real and growing that there is an architectural apartheid. There is an inside(the AIA, academia, mainstream journalism) and an outside(building, client-serving, context-accommodating architects).

But Dickinson says it has little to do with style – traditional versus modernist – and then his essay segues into concern for the average architect and his travails in a field dominated by starchitects and the starchitecture-centered American Institute of Architects.

The entire essay is a deft dodging of the fact that it is indeed all about style. Here is the moment when Dickinson's fine essay trips up on its refusal acknowledge the applicability of his own observations:

Its simplistic to say that its a style split: obviously in promoted architectural aesthetics Elite=Modern,but the disaffection in my profession is more about the invisibility of everything except the cutting edge.

Trump moment

“American Gothic” (1930) by Grant Wood (Art Institute of Chicago)

And yet the fact that the public prefers houses that look like houses, churches that look like churches, and museums that look like museums introduces an impossible degree of distortion into everything about the field of architecture. This makes it harder for the typical practice to operate. Decisions made by architects and firms must discount reality from their business models. Architect wannabes have little alternative to a modernist education, little prospect for jobs at firms where they can use what they were taught, and nothing to look forward to but a widespread dislike of their work, whether they get a job with a modernist firm or with one of the many that build spec housing and spec commercial. Such spec architecture is often "bad trad" because the firms that build it must hire from a pool of graduates who were not allowed to learn how to produce "good trad" – only how to disdain it.

Most architects feel dissed because most people feel dissed by architecture. In politics, there is recourse to an electoral process. No such luck in architecture.

Agreeing to Disagree on the Eternal Verities

Paul Ranogajec and I have gone back and forth since his Forum in the last issue, not just in my reply to him and his latest reply to me, but in a long thread on the TradArch listserv. Here it continues. We have agreed to disagree, but several of his errors in characterizing my blog’s reply illustrate not just that disagreement is inevitable but that it is necessary if classicism is to avoid the muddle of contemporary thought that Paul believes classicists should engage.

Classical Orders

The Classical Orders (“The Classical Orders,” Smarthistory/YouTube)

I am sure Paul admires my “passion” with a ten-foot pole. In his mind, erudition trumps passion all the time. The latest scholarship always overtakes the eternal verities. He bridles at my alleged “us-versus-them rhetoric,” suggesting that for me “it is either modernism or classicism.” I have not said that. I have merely asserted my belief that for both architecture and society classicism’s essential simplicity is “a better operating system” than the complexity and confusion of Paul’s “current intellectual milieu.”

Paul holds an idea of the “timeless classical” as a sort of thoughtlessness, a self-imposed ignorance of the current intellectual milieu. No, it is quite the reverse – a thoughtfulness that has sifted that milieu and found much of it wanting. That is not to ignore Michel Foucault and Martha Nussbaum; it is to treat them seriously, to examine them closely and, with all due respect, to prefer “eternal verities” and “basic human instincts” as better guides for architecture and for society.

I pointed out that modern researchers have found a scientific basis for the popular preference for tradition over modernism in architecture. Paul asks: “Did I suggest that we not look at that type of work?” No, you did not. You did assert, however, that classicists ignore contemporary thinkers, and I brought them up to say it is not so. Even if we do ignore Foucault and Nussbaum (and many others), Christopher Alexander and Nikos Salingaros are no less contemporary thinkers than they are.

My point in objecting to Paul’s original Forum was that, to the extent that classicists prefer maintaining allegiance to their eternal verities and basic human instincts, they are making judgments no less valid for being more passionate, or intuitive, than erudite. Paul’s thoughts are highly intelligent, but wisdom demands more, and nothing he writes has shaken my belief that the “timeless classical” – even as misconstrued by Paul – is the wiser course for classicism to pursue.