Does the New Traditionalism Have A Point?
Out of the mainstream media focus a small but growing corner of the architecture profession is beginning to attract students and create an alternative aesthetic to what is now overwhelmingly taught as objectively “correct” and lauded by the design press and the academic institutions.
The dominant aesthetic canon of Modernism has been the accepted baseline of education, journalism and institutional recognition for several generations. In this era where diversity and inclusiveness is said to be valued, anything allusive, decorative or even vernacular was not often taught or written about. Until now.
Led by the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art and architecture schools at Notre Dame, Catholic University, University of Colorado Denver and Andrews University, the aesthetic pedagogy of “Classicism” or “Traditional Architecture” has become a vital alternative to the “correct” and “settled law” of “Modernism.” Beyond this cadre of alternative aesthetes, new programs are envisioned, including one in Charleston, and gatherings are larger, better attended, and funded.
“Traditionalism” is gaining new schools (Catholic University), institutions (UC Denver’s Center for Advanced Research in Traditional Architecture), and awards programs (the Palladio Awards). This growing group can be dismissed as a compartmentalized niche, but they are not a passive or apologetic alternative. Traditionalism as a coherent alt-aesthetic is not just screaming at the Emperor’s new clothes.
Architectural culture, as defined by the vast majority of professors, journalists and “thought leaders,” has a clear bias against traditional styles. Editors privately tell me that they cannot justify giving awards or exposure to non-Modernist work, no matter how creative. This hostility has helped spawn a vibrant counterculture. Clem Labine is a lifelong preservationist who pioneered the historic preservation press: he founded Restore Media and Traditional Building magazine that sponsors the Palladio Awards, giving design recognition to traditional architects, on a level of national exposure once limited to Modernist works in almost all other national awards programs. In response to the practices of their members who create work that is decidedly not Modernist, many local AIA chapters also have created categories for separate “traditional” architecture awards.
Rather than Traditionalism being a parallel style, Notre Dame professor Steven Semes says, “We don’t teach the classical because we think every building should have columns, but because whatever else an architect does, knowledge of the classical provides the best foundation.”
The Traditional architectural alternative is part of a larger reality. America has felt the failures of Modernism up close and personal, but there are new controversies seized upon by this neo-traditionalist movement to advance their cause.
The Traditional architectural alternative is part of a larger reality. America has felt the failures of Modernism up close and personal, but there are new controversies seized upon by this neo-traditionalist movement to advance their cause. There is a hard PR effort to demolish the mid-century modern Penn Station/Madison Square Garden and simply rebuild the classicist McKim, Mead and White-designed original (this time, with escalators). The National Civic Art Society has mounted a campaign to against Frank Gehry’s competition winning design for a new Eisenhower Memorial in favor of a traditional salute to Ike. A director of the Institute, architect Milton Grenfell says of the Gehry design “In terms of beauty—frankly, most modern artists don’t even think of the word.”
This vitalized movement happens at a time when “Making America Great Again” is a fresh, if unsettling, cultural influence. Catholic University’s new program uses a similarly history-focused design pedagogy focusing on “an architecture that today strives and succeeds to commemorate the very truth, goodness and beauty that forms its foundation.”
Beyond ideas, traditional architecture has always had a sizable share of the building market, both high and low. The soon to be opened Franklin and Murray residential colleges at Yale by Robert A.M. Stern rely on history to create image. These “College Gothic” buildings are designed in the early 20th century mimicry of the late 18th century Gothic Revival mimicry of a pre-Renaissance style of building. (In other words: a homage to a homage to a homage.) Hogwarts need not be just in movies and books. Yale raised a record $500 million to build them and they cost a staggering $700,000 per bed to build.
But more, the growing traditional/classical architectural enclave is playing well with the green and New Urbanist movements, two ethos that harken back to an age before consumerism and the eventual corporate co-opting of the Modernist ethos. Notre Dame’s architectural dean, Michael Lykoudis, calls this retro-rationale the “Original Green” (borrowing from Steve Mouzon’s blog). As Lykoudis notes, early designs “had to go with the energy resources naturally available to heat and cool buildings.”
Irrational and defensive as it seems, the anger against Modernism is real and often absurdly extreme. For the zealots it’s not that Classical or Traditional architecture is preferable to most building designs, it’s that all Modernist buildings are seen as bad manifestations of elitist imposition and “fake news.”
The noise and rancor of these “Style Wars” is reductionist nonsense. Professor Steven Semes offers up some valuable perspective on how exactly we might learn from the past: “The relation between form and technology has been completely reversed since we were in school. With digital representation, 3D printing, and virtual reality capabilities, the idea that ‘the machine’ has any bearing on the shapes and forms that architects design has gone out the window. Anything is possible, so to avoid chaos, one might look to a well-established, visually rich, and culturally resonant tradition as a framework. I see a great opportunity to explore highly innovative new classical expressions making use of all of this technology and encourage my students and colleagues to pursue this.”
It’s hard to argue that embracing history hurts architecture, if it expands creativity beyond the straightjacket of tradition – Modern or otherwise. This revived movement may be compared to a “separate but equal” approach of creating a distinct set of rules and criteria for direction and judgment, but it’s really about architects who feel that they are the oppressed and ignored minority rising up to speak truth to power. Rejectionism of any sort is inherently reactionary and shallow. I long for a time when “Good” and “Bad” is sufficient architectural judgment—no style screed necessary.
Featured image: Schermerhorn Symphony, designed by David M. Schwarz Architects, via Wikipedia.