Reply to Forum: Don’t Turn Classical into Modern Architecture, Not for a Nickel

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Modern Architecture

Left: Columbia University (1900), by McKim Mead & White; right: Walt Disney Concert Hall (2003), by Frank Gehry.

I wish I had a nickel for every time someone demanded that I use more precise terminology in my critique of modern architecture, that I abandon the words “modern” or “modernist” for International Style, structuralist, deconstructivist, Miesian, Brutalist, blob architecture, Postmodernist, parametricist, or some other more specific strain of what they think I am criticizing.

That thought popped into mind as I read the erudite Forum in the last Traditional Building by architectural historian Paul A. Ranogajec. It is called “Time on Our Side: Toward a Critical Tradition of Classicism.” Its seriousness commands a serious reply. I’m not sure I’m really capable of that, but I am inclined to try.

Here is how Paul sums up his case:

[I]f we are to see the classical thrive beyond its current boutique status, we need to think its problems anew in relation to the intellectual milieu we are part of. This begins with a rejection of the timeless classical.

By “timeless classical” he means a classical tradition in architecture that transcends time and which considers modern architecture (or what have you) as a reflection of its era – that is, essentially nihilist and incapable of speaking in language that most people can understand. Classicists consider tradition, in its simplicity, to be not just a better architecture for people but a better operating system for human society than the complexity imposed by “the intellectual milieu we are a part of.”

Modern Architecture

Scene from “Blade Runner” (1982). Director Ridley Scott’s scary vision of a complex modernist future.

I’m not sure that Paul would concede that this is what he means. Indeed, he insists that classicists’ embrace of tradition is the basis of classicism’s inability to advance in a “milieu” skeptical of its value. He admonishes classicists for a “blinkered view of today’s intellectual ferment, fatal to the prospects of contemporary classicism.”

He adds that this blinkered view “purports to show that modern intellectual culture has betrayed the eternal truths vouchsafed by a unitary and, frankly, narrowly conceived Western Tradition. In this, it follows too willingly the views of certain conservative philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Leo Strauss, and Roger Scruton.” This represents a “defensive unwillingness to acknowledge the diversity and constructive value in contemporary thought” that ignores such thinkers as Michel Foucault, Martha Nussbaum and Michel de Certeau. In short, Paul appears to be suggesting that classicists are simple-minded conservatives who ought to show more respect for how philosophers address issues of language and society.

Well, maybe. But as suggested by the increasingly popular slow food, locavore, maker, new and lean urbanist movements, to name just a few such cultural trends, the desire for greater simplicity transcends partisanship. Classicists do not ignore Foucault and his allies; they have examined them and reject them.

When I refuse to stop using “modernism” as an umbrella covering all of its strains, I do so because I realize that my critics pray that I will bog down in the tall grass if I try to adjust my generalities to the specifics of their terminology. That’s what they want. I believe, however, that my generalities speak to deeper truths in the debate over the built environment. Those truths are sharp. Modernists would rather ignore them, and have the power to do so. But those truths are more likely to cut the Gordian knots that bind society’s ability to think and act coherently about the built environment – and so many other vexing problems of our time.

Our time! Modernists think architecture should reflect our time. Classicists think architecture should try to improve the quality of life.

Perhaps Paul will think that is another example of classicists’ refusal to address the revaluation of values that modernists embrace. He would be correct. Classicism’s embrace of simple truths – eternal verities, if you will – is strength, not weakness. It is modernism that is lost in the complexity of its cranky cogitations.

Classicism does not need to join modernism in its confusion, however erudite. Classicism has a more practical agenda. It must find a way for citizens to pressure cities to level the playing field of major commissions for architecture most people already prefer. The way for classicism to rise above its boutique status is not to tinker with the “complexities of concepts of time and history in the multifaceted ways that historians, scientists, and others understand them today."

Where has that got us? No! Classicists must generate righteous anger in a public that feels helpless about what modernism has done to the built environment. We must help the public take that anger to the local planning commission and put our foot down.

Laudable aims aside, Paul’s argument would take classicism where modernists want it to go. They want us to join them in missing the forest for the trees.