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January 10, 2003

Free Views -- Jim Strickland

Friedrich --

Lordy, I did that long posting about modernist architecture without providing a single image of the kind of thing any of the new traditionalists are doing. Where's my editor when I need one?

To kick things off, here's a porch and two houses by Historical Concepts, a firm in Georgia. (These are pop-up images, so you can click on them and have a better look.) There's no irony or attitude in sight, just attractive new work in traditional styles.

Jim Strickland is the firm's president. Their website can be enjoyed here. And where do you find coverage of what they build? Not in architecture magazines, but in Southern Accents.



posted by Michael at January 10, 2003


Ah, what a good idea, putting pictures where your mouth is! First house, I like it. Agreed: it's attractive new work in a traditional style. The porch is a porch, can't tell much about it from the picture, but it seems nice enough. But the second house is an incoherent mess. Look at the columns on the second floor: round ones sat atop square ones in the middle of the balustrade. Look at the glassed-in porch area, which is horrible from the outside, with its oversized stairs descending to a tiny strip of lawn. Look at the underwhelming brickwork.

And thanks for the link, which does lead to some pretty good stuff, but which does have more than its fair share of hideousness as well. What's with the obsession with oversized chimneys sticking up like bunny-ears? And don't those double-height columns smell a little pomo to you? Besides, there are some definitely modernist lines here, too.

I guess all I'm really saying is that things are more complicated than Modernism Bad, Classicism Good. There are good and bad buildings of both types, and unfortunately most of the new Classicist buildings that I've seen look as though they've been put up in a hurry by developers with a phobia about architects, who care much more about getting something built fast and cheap than they do about Palladio, say.

Posted by: Felix on January 11, 2003 1:25 AM

My response to this post, as well as to the epic-length screed to which it's an addendum, may be read here.

If I were you, Michael, I wouldn't go within 100 yards of it without protective goggles and asbestos gloves.

Fair warning.



Posted by: acdouglas on January 11, 2003 4:33 AM

Hey Felix, I like the buildings better than you do, and strongly suspect that I'd be much happier living in one of Jim Strickland's houses, goofs of style or not, than I would be living in the Farnsworth House. But your points of criticism are well-taken, and the New Traditionalist efforts certainly need that kind of intelligent criticism and feedback. But why aren't they getting it? I think it's fair to say that it's because they aren't getting recognized as architecture in the first place -- recognition as architecture has to precede discussion of architecture. And why isn't the recognition forthcoming? I can't see any other explanation than this: the architecture elite is, for self-regarding reasons, simply refusing to accept that this kind of work is architecture. There may well be a better explanation, and I'd be happy to learn of it, but I haven't run across one yet. Personally, I'd love to get on with informed and sympathetic discussion of the work of people like Strickland. But someone somewhere first has to admit he's an architect.

Hey AC, I'm looking forward to your posting, if somewhat apprehensively, and am thrilled to see some discussion of buildings/neighborhoods/etc taking place in blogland.

A general question: does it strike no one else as bizarrely as it strikes me, the way that discussion about shelter and building has become segregated into the "Home" section (how people actually live and like to live, or fantasize semi-realistically about living) and the "Architecture" page or section (what a bunch of incomprehensibly brilliant designers are up to)?

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on January 11, 2003 11:07 AM

Bizarre, Michael? Surely you must have heard that a house is not a home. I would assume, in that case, that you're aware of the corollary: a home is not a house.

Posted by: Felix on January 11, 2003 12:00 PM

Michael, when I clicked on the middle photo you posted, with the rocking chairs on the enclosed porch, the first thing I thought of was: the inside hall of a "Cracker Barrel" restaurant! Otherwise, these look like civilized dwellings, even though I'm not has hostile to pomo architechure as you are.

Posted by: Michael Serafin on January 11, 2003 1:05 PM

Hey Michael, It is like a Cracker Barrel Restaurant! In fact, one of the vernacular styles that some of these architects are reviving in the South is what's known as the "Cracker" style -- there was a piece about the revival of the Cracker style (which apparently amazes some old-time Southernors) in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. Maybe the challenge for architects who want to work in this way is how to work within a historical style and not have the results look too much like a theme restaurant.

For what it's worth, I'm not really hostile to Modernist or po-mo architecture, some of which I like OK as buildings, and some of which I like quite a lot as design. I am amazed, though, by the chutzpah, the lack of openness, and the thought-police quality of the official archtitecture establishment -- which, it seems to me, results in many dialogues that ought to happen not happening. Very glad we're having one of those forbidden dialogues here on 2Blowhards.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 11, 2003 2:16 PM

You've expressed your dismay, Michael (Blowhard) that these historical-copy confections of which you're so fond are not acknowledged as architecture by the entrenched architecture establishment. Beyond your wanting them to be so acknowledged because meeting your own set of prejudices, on what possible grounds except the most taxonomically general could they be so acknowledged, and discussed in earnest by professional publications in this 21st century? I see none whatsoever, and you've provided not so much as a hint as to why you think they ought to be so acknowledged.


Posted by: acdouglas on January 11, 2003 4:36 PM

Oops. I wrote, "...discussed in earnest by professional publications...."

That should have read, "...discussed in earnest by professional architectural publications...."


Posted by: acdouglas on January 11, 2003 7:48 PM

Interesting. ACD himself illustrates Micheal's point for him, by way of attempting to refute it. The term "architecture", in this view, must be reserved for what is essentially large-scale sculpture. All other considerations - the fact that buildings are NOT, in fact, free-floating sculptures, but integral parts of civic life, are simply beside the point. Comfort? Functionality? Any aesthetic consideration beyond the profile of the building itself? Bah! Bushwah fluff! Art Must Rule!

I'm reminded of the interior designer hired by Frasier and Lilith on an old episode of Cheers. After he regales them with his ideas for creating a bold open space by expanding the living room into the kitchen, the Cranes gingerly bring up the fact that that they will have no place to prepare food. The designer fixes a withering stare on them, saying: "I design. I don't... eat."

Maybe there is a place for large-scale sculpture in the world. Bilbao has been mentioned, and I'm quite partial to the Sydney opera house. But is that the sum total of what architecture is and must be? If you had ventured that opinion prior to about, say, 1920, you would have been laughed at by any architect in the world. Among the many unfortunate things about the 20th century we should all be glad to put behind us, this definition of "architecture" should be at the top of the list...

Posted by: jimbo on January 11, 2003 11:17 PM

Hey AC, Jimbo's certainly made some terrific points, and better than I could. (Thanks, Jimbo! Nice rant!) I'll try to add a few others.

One's a simple matter of journalistic ethics. You'd think -- or at least I would -- that people covering buildings, neighborhoods and architecture would take their cue from what's actually being done. That they'd be interested in what's happening in their field. That they'd try, if only for a few minutes, to see what people in their own field are doing sympathetically.

There are always many, many things happening in the field of building and architecture, from folk architecture to commercial development to self-build people to theoreticians to egotecture. (And no I didn't come up with the word myself. I learned it from architects who think the whole Koolhaas/Hadid/Calatrava/whoever rotating star system is absurd). Well, a few of the movements that are most visible in building and architecture right now are the various new traditionalisms. Simple fact.

Part of what's interesting about the new traditionalist phenom is that it isn't some populist movement (not that I automatically have anything against populist movements). Another simple fact: it's being led and pursued by people who are every bit as trained, knowledgeable and skillful as the modernist/pomo crowd. Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Alexander, Porphyrios, Blatteau, Greenberg, Krier, Scott Merrill, Simpson -- these people aren't slouches.

What shocks me is the utter lack of openness to -- let alone interest in -- the kind of work these people are doing that the architecture establishment shows. You like the new-traditionalist work or you don't, but there's no question that it's something that many serious, knowledgeable and trained architects are into these days. For that reason alone, you'd think architecture magazines, simply as publications covering the field, would feel an obligation to recognize the movement. But by and large, they don't, except in the most grudging ways.

Here's a comparison: neo-traditionalism in jazz. It's been quite something for the last, what, 15 or 20 years? You like and appove of Wynton Marsalis or you don't; you think jazz is about tradition or you think jazz is about innovation. (And, for what it's worth, I'd argue that the new-traditionalist architects and the jazz neotraditionalists represent branches of some more basic, general movement in the culture. That's for another posting, though.) But what would you think of a magazine purporting to cover jazz that simply refused to recognize the existence of this movement? Or of professors, editors, foundations and critics who reacted to it by sniffing, That's not jazz?

To some extent, and among other things, architecture is what architects are doing. (As jazz is what jazz musicians are doing.) And these days a lot of them are doing this kind of work. What does it mean, what does it reflect, what are they up to? What makes some of it better and some of it worse? These are conversations that ought to be taking place, it seems to me. If they aren't, it's largely because the architecture elite is refusing to let them occur.

As far as I can tell, in fact, they're doing their active best to shut off debate. You'll forgive the cells in my brain that flash "Stalinist thought police" when I encounter this kind of behavior. But I think we can wonder: Why would the architecture establishment want so badly to snuff out recognition of these phenoms? Entrenched interests is the answer I come up with. The architecture establishment has a lot invested in keeping the general public under the impression that the modernist/pomo-ish things that they (and they alone) do is that something prestigious, mysterious, and noteworthy called "architecture." Thus, those who work different styles aren't doing "architecture."

To me, there are architects who work a deconstructionist style, and there are architects who work a classical-revival style. Completely independent of my tastes and preferences, I'm happy to say: They're both architects, and they're both practicing architecture. I recognize that there are people who say that one (the first, inevitably) is making (ta-dah!) "architecture" and the other (the second) is making something else entirely. But I've never run across an explanation for this distinction that didn't finally boil down to a quality judgment. When I hear someone say "Zaha Hadid is doing real architecture, and Leon Krier is peddling kitsch," what I really hear is "I like Zaha Hadid's work better than Leon Krier's." Which is a statement I can respect -- but only as an expression of personal preference. As for the busines about "real architecture"? As far as I'm concerned, Hadid is an educated, skilled, and trained person who is designing and making buildings, and so is Krier. Thus they're both architects, and thus both are doing architecture. Simple matter of definition.

Why should the architecture establishment show such determined resistance to recognizing what's going on? They feel threatened, I suspect. I see no other explanation, though I'm certainly open to other ideas. The modernist architecture establishement seems to want to see "architecture" as a country club whose board they sit on, screening new applicants. And they seem determined to be the people who decide how, why and where the word "architecture" is used -- or rather on whom and what it's conferred.

I dislike that view of architecture, which I find dictatorial and controlling. And even if I were to play along with it, I'd be suspicious (given their fairly miserable record) of the architecture establishment's ability to do a good job of defining and controlling what's architecture.

What's key to understanding the present moment, I'd bet, is that the modernist monopoly on architecture is breaking down. So the establishment is in a state of suppressed panic. What the scorn and disdain of the establishment towards the new traditionalisms represents, I suspect, is the establishment's fear of losing their status and their privilege, perhaps even of being swept away. The new traditionalisms have been quite successful, after all. Despite the lack of acknowledgment from the "real architecture" crowd, and despite having to operate without the sanction and prestige and publicity that the "real architecture" publications confer, the new traditionalists are doing good business. Lots of people (and not all of them rubes) like their work, and have been willing to pay money for it.

Worse, where's the mumbo-jumbo? Part of what people respond to in work that's in traditional forms is that it's comprehensible. Which doesn't mean that it's stupid or simplistic -- it can be the equivalent of good ideas expressed in (or good stories told in) clear English. A lot of what the "real architecture" crowd is selling is "advanced" mumbo-jumbo designed to justify a lot of fancy hyper-aesthetic carrying-on. What might happen if the general public learns that there is a kind of architecture (even "real architecture") that doesn't require gradute study to understand, and that can instead be straightforwardly enjoyed, understood, and used? Eeek! The emperor wears no clothes, the curtains pull back on the Wizard of Oz... And people shake their heads, marvel that anyone ever fell for that kind of baloney, and wander off to lead their own lives and follow and develop their own tastes and interests. Modernist architecture stops being "real architecture" and becomes instead a niche market, a cult taste in the larger universe of architecture generally.

I suspect, in any case, that fears of this sort underlie and help explain the kind of disdain the current "real architecture" crowd views the new traditionalism with. Their control is slipping, their ability to control the discourse is getting away from them, and they're desperate to hold onto whatever they can. But this is interpretation and hunch, and I might well be wrong. (Though I hope I'm not.)

I do have to say that I'm a little surprised by the trust you seem willing to place in the editors of magazines (and presumably in the boards of foundations, and in professors and critics). You're a smart guy, I'm a smart guy -- yet we disagree with each other. Why shouldn't we feel free to disagree with the judgments and opinions of editors and critics too?

Thanks to everyone for stopping by and pitching in here. It's been a much more stimulating (for me, anyway) discussion than any I've seen in the architecture press in a while.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2003 1:04 AM

[Arrgghh! Bloody MT didn't make my paragraph breaks in the above. Here's a more readable version. Please delete the above version.]

I'm surprised at you Michael (Blowhard). The only point Jimbo made is that he didn't read my article, or having read it, discarded whatever was inconvenient to what he wanted to say, and instead imputed to me ideas that would make convenient straw men for his rant. It should be clear (but apparently isn't) I never even so much as suggested anything even remotely like what Jimbo has me suggesting.

As to your points, you try to make a case against the architectural journals because of their, in your view, failure to cover an architectural movement that's taken some hold in the everyday world. In making that case you assume some nefarious or underhanded purpose on the part of the architecture journals for their indifference to that movement. Like all entrenched professions, architecture has its self-serving ideologies which are reflected in the journals dedicated to that profession. But one does not have to suspect such self-serving motivation on the part of the architecture journals in this matter as it's manifest that the movement involved has little to do with architecture, and everything to do with building, plain and simple.

That a fair number of registered architects are now involved in that movement is not, by itself, reason for these journals to pay attention to it except in passing in their business sections. Architects are businessmen too, and most are forced to go where the prospect of making money is more promising at any particular time. It's way tough and the opportunities way limited in the real architecture arena at any time, and only the most gifted manage to survive, much less thrive. For the others, which are legion, they gravitate to where the money is. At the present, one place seems to be the movement of which you're so fond. You even acknowledged as much yourself ("The new traditionalis[ts] have been quite successful, after all. [...] [They] are doing good business. Lots of people (and not all of them rubes) like their work, and have been willing to pay money for it.").

Journalistic design coverage of that movement's activities, however, clearly has no place in the *design* section of an architectural journal, notwithstanding that registered architects, even skilled (as opposed to gifted) ones, are involved, but belongs in such professional journals as are dedicated to residential building and construction from the practitioner's standpoint, and consumer periodicals covering residential building from a less technical and more user-oriented standpoint.

You still have not provided any compelling rationale for why architectural journals should cover this movement's activities in their *design* sections. It seems clear to me that the reason for the lack of coverage is that there's nothing to cover. Nothing whatsoever. It's all old hat; way old; archaic even. The design sections of architectural journals rightly cover new, innovative, and evolving currents in architectural design. The New Traditionalisms simply do not qualify on any design grounds whatsoever.


Posted by: acdouglas on January 12, 2003 10:46 AM

Hey AC

We'll clearly never see eye to eye about this, though it's been fun staking out and clarifying our postions. I'm arguing that it's interesting -- as architecture -- that a lot of skillful, trained, educated architects have, in the last 15 or 20 years, chosen to work not just with but in historical styles. You argue that not only is this fact and their work not interesting, it's not architecture. I'd like to see this phenom and this work discussed and appreciated from an intellectual/aesthetic point of view. You seem to think that's a bad idea, or that the work doesn't deserve it. I argue that the establishment's disdain for this phenom represents fear and incomprehension; you argue that they're making the correct judgment call.

I'm not sure I see anywhere else to go with the conversation, do you? Though I am curious: are there historical-style-revival movements that you have approved of? And, if so, how do you distinguish them from new-traditionalism in architecture?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 12, 2003 5:48 PM

Michael wrote: Though I am curious: are there historical-style-revival movements that you have approved of?

In a manner of speaking, yes -- but only in a manner of speaking. And calling it a "movement" would perhaps be stretching the meaning of the term, but not to the point of breaking, I think.

I refer to the work of Robert Venturi, and the work of those who followed his lead.

Strictly speaking, Venturi didn't (doesn't? I'm out of touch with his building) work in historical-style-revival mode, but his evocation of historical styles, and his manner of accomplishing that evocation in his buildings, are hugely interesting architecturally. That notwithstanding, his designs, in my estimation, evidence a cardinal failure on his part: The aesthetic gestalt doesn't work. He fails in what he called (in his seminal 196? MOMA paper, _Complexity and Contradiction_ ) "The Obligation Toward the Difficult Whole." Consequently, while his buildings are wonderfully interesting aesthetically by analysis, they fail in aesthetic synthesis.

IOW, and not to put too fine a point on it, they suck. But suck or not, they're architecture by anyone's definition.

(Perhaps the single exception to this cardinal failure of his oeuvre of which I'm aware is Franklin Court in Philadelphia. That project holds together beautifully in aesthetic gestalt.)


Posted by: acdouglas on January 12, 2003 6:55 PM

Double take: I trust by "historical-style-revival movements" you did not mean to include the architecture of the Renaissance (15th century) in that classification.

If you did: Naughty boy! :-)


Posted by: acdouglas on January 12, 2003 7:22 PM

A naughty boy I am indeed: I actually intended a reference to just about the whole of pre-modernist Western architecture, which can be seen as a continuous series of revivals, each one adding to the warehouse from which further revivals could draw ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 13, 2003 1:48 AM

In that case, the difference between that and the traditionalist movement(s) you're so fond of is that, for the most part (but not entirely), those prior "revivals" made something *new* of what they borrowed. The movement(s) you're fond of simply make updated historical copies. Nothing new. No new ideas, no new language, no new ordering, no new anything.


Posted by: acdouglas on January 13, 2003 9:25 AM

Oops. I wrote: "...(but not entirely)...."

That should have read: "...(but not entirely, depending on the revival period considered)...."


Posted by: acdouglas on January 13, 2003 9:35 AM

Oops redux.

I wrote: "...for the most part (but not entirely), those prior 'revivals' made something *new* of what they borrowed."

That should have read: "...for the most part (but not entirely, depending on the revival period considered), the best examples of those prior 'revivals' made something *new* of what they borrowed."

I should know by now never to write anything before my morning's first cup of Columbian Plasma. Slow learner.


Posted by: acdouglas on January 13, 2003 10:27 AM

Hey AC

It seems to me that underlying everything we've written is this: that the new traditionalists want to change the terms of the architectural debate, and that you're happy with the terms of the debate as is. They want to move it away from what they consider an over-emphasis on exactly what you seem most to value: design per se and innovation. Stalemate.

I'd be thrilled to put you a room with one of them, and to turn on the tape-recorder. For now, why don't we close off this series of comments? I'll give you (and all other comers) plenty more opportunities to come out gunning with future postings.

Many thanks to all.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 13, 2003 2:50 PM

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