Rome Wasn't Built in a Day

In the long view, change fosters tradition.
By David Brussat ,

Rome, they say, was not built in a day. Nor two. Change is the only constant. Keep the faith, and change will bring cities full circle, back to their traditional forms.

Pleasing bromides and adages keep me going as I see my city, Providence, continuing to destroy itself, racing other cities to oblivion. I’ve lately taken to assuring readers of my blog, Architecture Here and There, that modern architecture reaches the end of its shelf life far sooner than traditional architecture. By the time it must be replaced, we will have all come back to our senses.

Painting of Roman Forum as it appeared in ancient times. Wikipedia

Citizens and civic leaders will come to accept what we all, in my view, intuit subconsciously – which is that modern architecture has led us astray, is wrecking our world, leaching into our psyches in ways that pit us more and more vociferously against each other, making it harder and harder to solve problems up and down the echelons of society, from the challenges of private life to the vexing problems facing every city and state, not to mention the dangerous relations among nations.

Modern architects and others in the design community find it more difficult to come to terms with this intuitive wisdom. They have been educated to suppress the natural respect for beauty that all of us learn from childhood. But most people who have experienced architecture hour by hour, even minute by minute, even in their dreams, through youth and into adulthood, have developed a more sophisticated ability to judge their surroundings. Most regular people have come to ignore their built environment as a defense mechanism, viewing it as something whose obvious flaws are beyond their ability to influence. And yet what has gone wrong is, for many, easy to see and understand even if it is difficult to express.

Two factors are converging to ensure that this recognition will eventually bring about a renaissance in our cities and towns.

Addition to the Royal Museum of Ontario, in Toronto, a modernist idea of “scientific” architecture. Wikipedia

One is the mounting evidence from scientific research that modern architecture is incompatible with nature and detrimental to humanity. Recognition that modern architecture is unsustainable environmentally has grown exponentially for years, but new discoveries that the human brain is hard-wired to resist modern architecture and to seek comfort in traditional architecture are relatively recent. Leaders in this field of research are Prof. Nikos Salingaros and architect Ann Sussman. They and others have found that traditional design and building practices embody the principles of nature and are hence actually more scientific than modern architecture, which confuses high technology with science and mistakes its bogus creativity for the scientific method when it does not even qualify as art.

The other factor is the mounting difficulty of defending modern architecture. For decades, its control of the architecture establishment was solid at every level of society, from local to national to global. But as our experience with modern architecture mounts, its failure at every level has become increasingly obvious. The result, as is evident in Traditional Building and other journals, is a growing infrastructure of traditional architecture large enough to vie with modernist firms on the tilted playing fields for commissions, and to challenge the reigning pieties of modernism. Seeing through the emperor’s new clothes has become more and more common.

Traditional architects had a hard time defending traditional architecture after centuries of largely uncontested dominance of the field. In the 1920s and ‘30s a rote defensiveness characterized essays written to counter the modernist challenge in such architectural journals as Pencil Points (which became Progressive Architecture). Its venerable critic Harold Van Buren Magonigle’s long series of startled reaction to modernism, circa 1934, is, I’m afraid, shallow and unconvincing, as if his side had already given up, which it had.

Today the shoe is on the other foot. The screeching of modernists against new traditional architecture is embarrassingly weak. Denial stands in for argument.

Rendering of recast platforms for proposed restoration. Jeff Stikeman for Rebuild Penn Station.

A good example is a 2016 piece on the website Common/Edge about the proposal to restore the original Penn Station by McKim Mead & White. Architect Duo Dickinson writes in “Sprinting to the Past” that the Rebuild Penn Station coalition plans to “literally 3D print an exact clone” of the station in place of the clunker built after the 1910 original was demolished in 1963. In fact, the plan is to reconstitute the original with a design that responds to contemporary needs, using new technology when possible to stand in for original materials and building practices, recasting the original station to address today’s realities in transportation, commerce, finance and even embellishment.

This would require a creativity that Dickinson’s mind can barely conceive. Instead he falls back on modernism’s hoary definition of creativity as exclusively that which has not been created before. So, in denial, he merely states as fact that which he realizes is not true. Modernist dogma has become too stultified to evolve from its outdated mentality.

This sort of intellectual flaccidity is a precursor to the decline and fall of modern architecture. Rome was not built in a day. It did not fall in a day, and modernism will not fall in a day either. But the two decades that ended with modernism in the catbird seat were matched by the two decades it took for popular reaction against it to transform a hobby into a mass movement called historic preservation.

Traditional and classical architecture, embracing science as modern architecture greets its senility, are in the process of mustering an equally swift response to the threat posed by modern architecture to the world.

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