Omigod! Is It 1968 Again?

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Lately I’ve started to feel like Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog Day.” In that movie, Murray found himself living the same day over and over again. For my part, several recent occurrences have given me the sickening feeling that I may be living the same decadesover again. These developments have shaken some personal assumptions that I’ve taken as articles of faith.

Ever since I started The Old-House Journal in 1973, it has seemed that public taste for traditional architecture has been increasing year by year. In the early 1970s, for example, “Victorian” was a synonym for bad taste. But now “Victorian” is a sell word used by virtually every Bed & Breakfast Inn across America. And today’s house plans sold by home design services feature mainly homes based on traditional patterns. Organizations like The Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America have been growing in membership and influence. These – and many other similar cultural trends of the past three decades – had led me to believe that it was inevitable that the desire for traditional architecture would grow with each passing day. Boy, was I WRONG!

It now appears that the appeal of traditionalism may merely be part of the ever-oscillating arc of popular taste. Our culture definitely has a short attention span plus a predilection for NOVELTY; traditionalism may be suffering from its own success. Many younger clients now seem to view traditional architecture as “Your Father’s Oldsmobile.”

I was started on this line of thinking by the dreadful (to my sensibilities) new building shown above. It’s located just a few blocks from my own 1883 brownstone and is on the border of the nationally famous Park Slope Historic District. Such a building might have been put up in the 1960s in the midst of our nation’s Urban Renewal (we called it “Urban Removal”) madness. But such out-of-context structures were rarely put up in the “enlightened” 1990s. Today, however, such Modernist-revival structures are becoming more common – my cultural antenna tells me that some major changes in architectural taste are under way.

Lest you think I am drawing too many inferences from a single building, here’s a partial list of related cultural “straws in the wind” that I’ve noticed:

  • Dwell Magazine – founded in 2001, with a mission of “Bringing Modern Design to Everyone” now has a circulation of 325,000. By contrast, Old House Journal, founded in 1973, has a circulation of only 150,000
  • New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission is becoming notorious for demanding that new construction in historic districts be non-traditional in style
  • A new book from Rizzoli on renovated interiors (Brooklyn Modern) showcases stripped-down minimalist interiors, rather than the restored Victorian interiors that Charles Lockwood featured in his earlier book, Bricks and Brownstone
  • Cultural institutions in the U.S. and abroad continue to look to “starchitects” for ever-more-bizarre buildings in their bid to attract media attention; e.g., check out the new Denver Art Museum by Daniel Libeskind (and pity the poor curators who have to try to exhibit art on all those tilted walls!)

These and other tell-tale signs have led me to believe that our culture is experiencing tectonic shifts that are having a dramatic impact on what we expect from our architecture. Just as I felt in 1973 when working on the first issue of Old-House Journal, I sense that the architectural times are a-changin’. But this time, the change does not favor those of us who believe traditional architecture contains humanist values that help build a more civil society. From now on, we are going to have to work harder to promote the cause of the new traditionalism. This is a topic I’ll be developing in greater detail in future postings.