Time on Our Side: Toward A Critical Tradition of Classicism

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By discarding the “timeless classical," classicist theory can challenge the vapid exercises in egotism that characterize today’s status quo avant-gardism.

By Paul A. Ranogajec

The talented British classicist John Simpson recently gave a presentation in New York titled “The Timeless Language of Classicism.” To many of Simpson’s classicist colleagues, the title likely seems natural and unremarkable. But the familiarity and ordinariness of the word “timeless” in today’s classicist criticism masks its problems. In its weak form, “timeless” simply means something like “long-lasting.” But in its strong form, which pervades current classicist rhetoric, it means that which truly transcends time. This strong meaning impedes deeper considerations of time and history in relation to classicism. While we rightly reject the dogma that “architecture must be of our time,” classicists seem intent on substituting our own shibboleth, which I call the doctrine of the “timeless classical.”

Contemporary classicism needs a theory able to recognize the complexities of concepts of time and history in the multifaceted ways that historians, scientists, and others understand them today. The efforts at comprehensive classicist theories — Krier, Porphyrios and Westfall come first to mind — have been formative. Although brimming with wit and biting polemic, this work is premised on the wholesale rejection of the current intellectual culture, going so far at times as to see it as the pit of nihilism. This is a blinkered view of today’s intellectual ferment, fatal to the prospects of contemporary classicism.

Demetri Porphyrios’ well-known views can be taken as representative. While his writing has accomplished the herculean task of plotting an intellectual foundation for contemporary classicism, central elements of his theory severely limit its critical edge. Porphyrios asserts that modernism, to which he thinks we remain in thrall, encourages a radical permissiveness necessarily opposed to classical restraint and decorum. He claims that modern thought—all of it, apparently—teaches “that history nurtures no moral paradigms; it simply points to a value-free relativism…. It follows, therefore, that since there can be no enduring values, anything goes.” By contrast to modernism’s unmoored decadence, “the classical … is certainly the enduring and timeless” (emphasis added).

This lumping together of all modern thought and culture into a monolithic Modernism makes no discriminations and sees no complexities. History’s lessons are assumed to be transparent. This 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.

The “timeless classical” leads to bad history and inculcates a defensive unwillingness to acknowledge the diversity and constructive value in contemporary thought. It ignores, for instance, Michel Foucault’s acute diagnosis of the ways that individuals in capitalist modernity are coerced to conspire in their own oppression. It fails to recognize, say, Martha Nussbaum’s retrieval of ancient and modern varieties of relativism and the ways they might support robust conceptions of human flourishing. It disregards Michel de Certeau’s insights into how creative resistance to the imperatives of production and consumption can be forged out of the routines of everyday life. It too easily disdains the work of “postmodern” critics who have thought deeply about how to sustain civic life against the degrading aspects of modernity.

These are but a few examples, mere grains of sand on a beach of immense scale. Avoiding or dismissing all of this thought is not just imprudent, it also leaves classicist criticism unable to understand the ways in which power works in the modern world. Classicism, anemic from the lack of nourishment from contemporary intellectual culture, becomes something merely soothing, a pleasing overlay masking the deadening mechanisms of neoliberal compulsion and hyperindividualism. Without ties to critical concepts and a strong sense of architecture’s historicity, we have no way to talk about how historical circumstances shape the realm of possibility. We are unable to move beyond the by now deep and broad understanding of the figural languages of classicism to also address the material, institutional, and social factors that encourage or inhibit classical ways of building. The “timeless classical” doctrine denies classicists a rich, diverse, and vital corpus of ideas worth bringing into the arsenal.

Contemporary theory, in its best moments, offers salutary reminders to question our assumptions, to not blindly accept claims of authority or the “natural,” to refuse conventional answers to the questions arising from the complexities of social and political life. Classicists are right to note that critique is not a positive program. It can inform such a program, but it is not itself sufficient for action. However, we too quickly reject “modernist” critique, assuming it constitutes the program itself and inevitably leads to the bad architecture we deplore. In more reactionary guises, classicists dismiss critique based on supposedly immutable principles in natural law, presumed biological and scientific imperatives, or the traditionalist political quest to “restore order.”

By seceding from the contemporary intellectual culture and by justifying classicism as that which lies beyond time, we have missed what is timely and urgent. The problem is that the “timeless classical” can only propose a form of return to past views, which are postulated as superior to those of the present invariably and indiscriminately labeled modernist. If we imagine the “classical city” as a return or restoration to some imagined wholeness or to some mythic golden age of the past, the opponents of classicism are right to denounce it. The city must be a new creation because the old city, like the present and future city, was and is a product of imagination, desire, and power, and the particular combination of relations which made it cannot be restored. Classicist’s common language is suffused with variations of restoration and return. These words may be merely conventional in everyday usage, but in our more reflective criticism and theory they come to suggest a genuinely revanchist program that should be opposed.

The paradigm of restoration and timelessness is inherently incapable of acknowledging that some aspects of modernism share the putative aim of “classicism”: supporting human flourishing. With the concomitant lamenting, lambasting, and lampooning of a cartoon version of monolithic modernism, these views foster an almost cultish sense of classicist bonhomie much like the original avant-gardes. But if 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.”

Myths of timelessness and return are related also to the claim that classicism constitutes a continuous tradition from antiquity to the present. On the one hand, the presumption of perennial continuity has the virtue of giving current practice a genealogy. This can be invigorating and motivating, helping architects rival the best of the past. On the other hand, assertions of absolute continuity are not sustained by the historical record. Classicism was made anew each time it appeared. Even more, it only reappeared because it was summoned forth, brought about by a conscious effort to make it serve the present. The historical record suggests not timeless wisdom floating above the fray, but the challenging idea that classicism has critical resonance only when it seen in time. To paraphrase Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past, classicism as a historical reality reveals itself only through the production of specific narratives. The history of architecture tries to account for the dynamics of those narratives at the same time that it produces them. History, then, shows that classicism does not have a past that can be uncomplicatedly retrieved; each generation must seek out the classical relative to what we see in the past.

In an important sense, the formal elements of classicism do exist beyond time as it is normally experienced. The classical orders are not “essentially” Greek or Roman or Renaissance or Beaux-Arts. Whereas the forms go beyond time, the ways in which architects use those forms in actual building—the justifications they use, the social and economic and political conditions that enable, hinder, or otherwise impinge on the creation of those forms in a particular building culture—occur within history. We must guard against conflating the historically specific traditions of classicism and the transhistorical forms that weave in and out of the fabric of classicism’s temporality.

And so we are left with a distorted view of what the good of tradition is. Looking to the past cannot be simply about extracting supposedly timeless lessons. It is about expanding the imagination, opening up new possibilities for the present and future: something like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s hope for an “original relation to the universe.” By discarding the “timeless classical” and by connecting with the vital currents of contemporary thought, classicist criticism and theory might discover unheralded resources within its plentiful, historical variety. What Kristin Ross calls “the figuration of a possible future” is something classicism can offer a world lacking hope. In opposition to the official “seamlessness” of dreary capitalist modernity, and diametrically opposed to the vapid exercises in strident egotism that characterize today’s status quo avant-gardism, classicism’s most profound contribution can be to help realize a broader horizon of possibilities in which civic life becomes an arena for collective action rather than a bureaucratic morass abetting exploitation.

Instead of a “living tradition,” we need to identify and articulate a “critical tradition” that does not blot out the troubling complexities of its own history, that engages current intellectual culture, and that rejects claims of absolute certainty. Reengaging the possibility of an architectural lingua franca means embracing the timeliness of the classical in light of the challenges and opportunities afforded in contemporary thought. Contemporary thought is not uniformly or inherently anticlassical. Like most dichotomies, the classical-modernist split, the myth that just as modernism overcame traditionalism, traditionalism must overcome modernism, is too reductive. What merits this scheme may have in terms of simplicity and presumed moral clarity are fatally undermined by the manifold complications it overlooks. The “timeless classical” obscures our understanding of classicism itself as the timely, critical tradition in contemporary architecture.

Paul A. Ranogajec is an independent art and architectural historian. He holds a Ph.D. from the City University of New York and learned classical architectural design at the University of Notre Dame.