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December 07, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Aesthetically speaking, it's indisputable that much of what characterizes our age is a have-it-your-way, mix 'n' match, self-expressive avant-gardism. I'm often dizzied by how never-before-seen and one-of-a-kind many new-media creations are. All those "what is it?" websites, those interactive games, those conceptual podcasts ... All those butterflies and special effects ... All those pages full of video highlights, all that play with color, typography, and movement ... All those performance-art/reality hybrids ... It can be really exhilarating.

It can also be a little empty and depressing, in a "so much energy and invention, yet so little impact" way. Much youthful new-media work seems unanchored and solipsistic. Although it's often dazzlingly clever, amusingly original, and mystifyingly accomplished, it seldom makes it to even "One" on the emotional-human scale. It stands in relationship to traditional art the way masturbation stands in relationship to sex -- a necessary and potentially fun part of the scene, but a long way from a full account of the mystery of it all.

(Happy to admit that I'm a seriously-over-the-hill old coot, by the way. I'm nothing if not arthritic and envious. Still, I gotta make do with what's available to me and contribute what I can. After all, it's not like I have any choice in the matter.)

The combination of electronics and contempo upbringings seems to have freed young people to toss their most fleeting urges and inspirations out there with polish and enthusiasm. (With, in fact, immense self-pleasure.) Yet at the same time, something has come unmoored.

The film director Bernardo Bertolucci has spoken about the way young people today live in an "eternal present." All questions of talent aside, young people today seldom go into movies, for example, out of having fallen in love with the medium. Movie history and the evolved language of the movies are nothing to them; as far as the younger movie-set is concerned, "Pulp Fiction" represents prehistoric ages. They go into the field because ... well, something about it kinda appeals to them. It's glam. It's hot. Or maybe they just can't help themselves.

Another example: I doubt that the kids who show up in the media and arts worlds these days are any less well-educated than my cohort was. But there's a difference nonetheless, and it's in the attitude towards the ignorance. People from my generation usually woke up to how ill-informed they were and then made some efforts to fill in a few blanks. When kids today register how ill-informed they are, they show no shame or embarrassment. Instead, they're sort of amused that anyone might be so stodgy as to think that a little background might count for something. It wouldn't occur to them to make the effort to fill in any blanks. After all, why should anything be allowed to come between Me and The Goodies I Covet? They're the cut-to-the-chase generation.

Side note: As young people grow ever more ignorant of traditional culture, they seem to grow ever more avant-garde. Yet it's a new kind of avant-garde -- a primitive kind of avant-garde. Everyone's out there being brilliant, rediscovering the wheel. We sometimes forget that the avant-gardism of the various early modernisms was historically-informed. Early modernist painters were almost all well-trained in the stuffiest academic sense. Jean-Luc Godard, the avant-garde filmmaking icon, is one of the world's most well-educated movie-history buffs.

Upside of the new-media approach: an apparently complete lack of inhibition about being yourself and getting it out there. Life's a multidimensional adventure game -- what an irresistable blast. Why not strap on the iPod, follow your bliss, and let a million cyber-flowers bloom? If we've lost touch with the past, that's the deal we make in order to enjoy an immensely various eternal present. If traditional culture has been abandoned, that's OK because electronics and popular culture have become so expansive that they're a universe unto themselves -- and a convenient and poppy one too!

Downside of the new-media world: an absence of impulse control and depth. Not only does nothing seem to count, the whole making-it-count thang has been forgotten.

FWIW, my small-t theory is that the making-it-count thang hasn't just been forgotten, it has been demonized. Young people sometimes seem offended, even outraged, by the suggestion that experiencing life in anything but a semi-camp/slightly-bemused way is possible. They seem incapable of taking anything in, let alone feeling anything deeply. They're prone to go ballistic when life -- let alone a work of culture (or even a blogposting) -- hits them where they live. Since, to them, the only alternative to "feeling good" is "feeling bad," the person who suggests that "feeling good" isn't all there is to life deserves to be castigated.

Hey, here's a crazy idea: Perhaps, art, culture, and life aren't just about expressing yourself, being cool, feeling good, discharging energy, and going for the button-slamming gusto. Perhaps something is lost when the history of culture is regarded -- when it's thought about at all -- as nothing but a giant trash heap to be ripped-off for your own projects. Perhaps life and art lose something when they're conceived of as nothing but a sequence of effects. Perhaps other people count. Dread thought: perhaps even the hallowed venting/self-pleasure cycle can lose its charm. Where then to turn?

So it makes sense that, at the same time, there's a New Traditionalist movement going on in many of the arts: in poetry, in music, in architecture. After all, perhaps other -- non-electronic, non-cool -- dimensions of experience and culture deserve to be respected, even sought out, learned about, submitted-to, and cultivated.

And that's part of what characterizes our era in culture too: a hunger for connection, roots, and history. In the most simple human terms, it isn't hard to understand that a person who spends his or her day contending with whizz-bang, hyper-diverse, fiber-optic newness might want to spend free time on something entirely different -- something quieter, perhaps, as well as more enriching.

It also isn't hard to understand that someone no longer drunk on youthful energy might want to search out rewarding alternatives to the pursuit of breathless excitement. It's maybe a little less easy to understand but still not so surprising that there might in fact exist people who find something alluring, even sexy (in the large, aesthetico-philosophico-religio sense), about traditional culture. After all, traditional culture can be every bit the infinite playground that electronic culture is.

This co-existence of at least these two urges -- one towards the edgy and the other towards the traditional -- is a simple fact about our current cultural life, by the way. Yet the academic avant-garde and media elites resist accepting it, let alone exploring it.

The urge towards the traditional is seen at best as trivially bizarre -- my! how curious! -- and at worst as evil. Sometimes the opinion-making establishment -- vested as it is in peddling the Utopian excitingness of the new -- can seem as determined to demonize the urge towards the traditional as some kids are to demonize those whom they think are trying to make them feel bad.

One of the most common ways to discredit the New Urbanism, for example, is to argue that any attempt to revive traditional forms of neighborhood-making must necessarily result in -- codeword alert! -- Disneyland. And we all know what that means: a past that supposedly never really existed. Republicans. Racist white people, basically, wishing everyone else ill. Hiss! (Some examples: here, here, and here.) Similar arguments crop up in the poetry and music worlds.

They all arise from a demented set of beliefs about the importance of "being true to materials" and about "authenticity," and from dreamily inane ideas about the importance of "the spirit of the age." What they really represent, as far as I'm concerned, is a form of close-mindedness and moral/aesthetic/political bullying. As we all know, people designing and building today have all the choices in the world -- and what that means is that they must, they simply must, utilize a lot of goofy curves, Krazy zigzags, and glittering translucency. After all and b'gosh, we live in a world of computers and cellphones!

It'd be funny if it weren't so annoying. And it wouldn't be so annoying if it didn't have the effect of blinding us to important aspects of the lives we're leading. Like it or not, these many New Traditionalisms are happening, and have a lot of vitality. Whether or not this development is a good thing -- and independent of what your opinion and my opinion of it is -- it's still a part of the scene. Why quarrel with simple facts? Why not take note of them instead?

Yet the usual response is to huffingly assert that you mustn't -- in fact, you simply can't -- build, or rhyme, or compose in this way. To do so is thought to merit ostracism. Whatever it is the new traditionalist is doing, it isn't Real Architecture. Because, as the cognoscenti know, Real Architecture these days is a matter of zany curves, Krazy angles, and post-Jetsons materials. That's just a settled fact. Working in "revival" ways -- well, I never!

Yet if it's true that we can no longer create in traditional styles, then it certainly must be true that people in other eras were under a similar obligation to innovate, to be true to materials, to fret over authenticity, and to obey the spirit of their age too.

Er, well, hmm. A couple of illustrations.

First up, the Palace of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament.

houses of parliament01

Dig that dignifed bell tower. Gotta love those solemn spires, and those aspiring-to-God ribs. It's all so very timeless, so Gothic, so medieval. What could speak more eloquently of the Justice and the Law that precede our own humble contributions, and to which we can only imperfectly aspire? Can't get more authentic than that.

It's no surprise that the Impressionist painter Claude Monet made a number of famous paintings of the Houses of Parliament that seem meant to underline the pre-modern character of these buildings.

In these paintings, the buildings look like outgrowths of Time Itself, as essential to London as, say, Notre Dame is to Paris.

In fact, the complex was designed around 1840 (by Charles Barry, with decoration by Augustus Pugin), and was built between 1840 and 1870. That ain't hardly the Middle Ages. The first Monet painting above? It was made in 1871. It was of a building that was brand-spanking new.

Quick architecture-history lesson: A fire had destroyed much of the old Palace of Westminster in 1834. The competition for the design of the new building stipulated that it should be built in a Gothic or Elizabethan style as a way of asserting continuity with the past. Charles Barry, the winner, had made his name bringing Italian-Renaissance styles to London, and to the English-country-house scene. Augustus Pugin, responsible for the interiors and much of the detailing, was the author of "The True Principles of Pointed or Christian Architecture," and was a brilliant-eccentric fanatic about medieval and Gothic styles.

The spirit of the age? Well, while England in the mid-1800s was at the cusp of what's sometimes called the Second Industrial Revolution -- an era on a par with our own Information Age -- the period was also a time of great enthusiasm for the Gothic. Steam engines and ironworks; spires and stonework. Innovation and truth to materials? The very goal of the Houses-of-Parliament project was to combine the beauty of the old with the conveniences of the new.

Another illustration: Santa Barbara's County Courthouse. Santa Barbara is an old mission town first settled by Europeans in the 1600s. The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is known for its gorgeous murals, its dazzling tilework, its painstakingly hand-painted ceilings, its paradisal sunken gardens, and an 80-foot clocktower that offers a 360 degree view of the city and its surroundings.

courthouse portrait11.jpg

What a gorgeous and serene thing. But, pre-modern though it may look, the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is in fact a 20th century building. It dates from 1929, a couple of years after Gropius designed and built the Bauhaus. It's modern without being modernist.

Much of Santa Barbara was wiped out in a 1925 earthquake. The new courthouse was designed by the San Francisco architect William Mooser III in the then-popular Spanish Revival Style. There's very little that's "authentic" about the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. It isn't faithful to actual Mission originals. It's a whimsical yet moving mix of the fake and the faithful -- a fantasia on Spanish-colonial and Moorish themes. The building's famous murals, for example, weren't painted by a monk, let alone an Old Master. They were painted by Dan Sayre Groesbeck, who'd made a living doing set designs for Cecil B. DeMille. The buiding isn't even made of adobe. It's constructed of concrete, covered with something-or-other.

Yet who cares? The building works. It's beautiful, functional, and popular. It's often referred to as one of the most splendid public buildings in the U.S., and it has been admired and enjoyed since the day it opened. As a piece of public-showpiece architecture, it's an achievement at least as impressive as Gehry's hyper-chic Bilbao museum.

Ted Marcus has a nice page devoted to the Courthouse here. Arroll Gellner and Douglas Keister published a beautiful book about America's long love affair with the Spanish-Revival. This eclectic-sentimental style took off in the late 19th century, lasted through the 1930s, and continues to entrance homebuyers even today.

It also produced its own giants, most of whom you won't learn about from innovation-centric architecture histories. One was another architect known for his gorgeous work in Santa Barbara, George Washington Smith. Famous nationwide in the 1920s, George Washington Smith today has at best a tiny place in standard architecture-history accounts.

Architects and builders in 1850 and 1929 could plan, design, and build in revivalist ways without being reviled, ignored, or lambasted as evil. Can anyone explain why it is that architects and builders today shouldn't do likewise? Or why we shouldn't take note of -- and perhaps even enjoy -- their work?

The history of architecture as I was taught it was a history of innovations and innovators, all of it leading inevitably to what art had always and everywhere struggled to be and become: Modernism. This tale never made a bit of sense to me; I remained interested in architecture despite it. In fact, I never really "got" the history of Western architecture until I started to understand it not as a history of innovations but of revivals. Only then did all those facts and all that information begin to fall into place. A handy example: At about the same time that Barry was crafting his Gothic Houses of Parliament, Karl Friedrich Schinkel was spearheading a Neoclassical revival in Germany. Fun!

How about those innovations, then? Well, they came along too. They always do. But why make a fetish about this fact? Refusing to get hung up about it can open your eyes to some of pleasure's many other dimensions.



UPDATE: John Massengale links to a piece by the LATimes's Christopher Hawthorne. Some of the tensions I refer to above are discussed by Hawthorne; some of these tensions are exemplified in his article. The almost-but-not-quite accusations of racism are something to behold.

posted by Michael at December 7, 2005


Wonderful piece. One of the best on your site in a while. I saw the Guggenheim Bilbao shortly after it opened and in fact spent a week in the city (there are some good old re-worked Philly or Pittsburgh jokes to be made in there) and I could not help but notice that as exciting as the building was, each time I went to it and re-considered it, my enthusiasm for it wore off, and wore off so quickly. That was what I hardly dared utter to myself let alone anyone else. In high school I was in love with Wright. In college I ended up living about three blocks away from his Beth Shalom synagogue in Elkins Park, PA. His drawings for this building had enthralled me. But the reality of it was sadly disappointing, in spite of the grandiose first impression you get when you first walk into the great interior temple space. The interior is vastly better than the exterior--there the aluminum and fiberglass just looked like fancy trailer park elements grossly out of scale. At the time, because the college had bought it to use as a dormitory, I would walk back from Wright's "mt sinai" to a suburban copy of a famous Tudor house, Compton Wynyates. And more and more I had to say that the Tudor house with its fifty chimnies all different, its grand oak staircase and floor to ceilign casement gothid windows, its heavily decorated ceilings and carved oak paneling got to me. I came to feel that that imitation of traditional historical building elements and style was much more satisfying and its beauty and effects lasted much longer. That particular mansion was torn down but years later I was able to spend three hours walking around inside Compton Wynyates and that seemed like architectural bliss come true. Just down the road a new Ghery dorm at MIT has been finished, but I don't feel too compelled to go take a close look. Were it a new Calatrava, I now think, I would. And the new Simmons Hall on that campus, by Steven Holl, I did look inside to see because while it looks much like a "traditional modernist block" it also feels very innovative.

Posted by: Bob on December 7, 2005 3:49 PM

MB, excellent. The kind of reasoning which you criticize, which is typical of cultural commentary, would rightly be considered an argumentative fallacy if applied to rhetoric or literature. Argument, artwork and architecture should be judged on their merits rather than by comparison to the critic's idea of what should have been.

Posted by: Jonathan on December 7, 2005 7:07 PM

I seem to remember some architectural historian, no doubt in a spirit of mischief, commenting that a good deal of modernist architecture (especially of its more geometrical variants) could actually be viewed as a sort of ultra-puritanical version (revival, if you will) of Karl Friedrich Schinkel-style neoclassicism.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 7, 2005 7:46 PM

Another small point; we seem to have exchanged the authority of tradition for the authority of an elite clique. This is progress?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 7, 2005 7:56 PM

Nice post -- all hits and no errors.

Glad you included the Santa Barbara Courthouse, a true gem. Actually, I'm semi-amazed that in, say 1965, some fool bureaucrat or politician didn't have the bright idea of "modernizing" or "improving" it.

I read in a place or two that, after the quake you mentioned, there was a conscious decision to rebuild the town in Spanish Colonial. This was a very fine thing so far as I'm concerned; without the Spanish-style buildings, Santa Barbara wouldn't be Santa Barbara.

By the way, what's your souce for younger folk's take on art, culture, etc. -- people at your office?, web sites? My kids are twentysomethings, but decidedly not arty: no help from there. And my office isn't arty either. Maybe I ought to be like those 55-year-old record company execs and hire me a 20 year old consultant.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 7, 2005 8:24 PM

Donald, by the Common Law of this Land your consultant's age should be decreasing when your's increasing - you just er um revealed you're 66; she must be 14 to comply. Are you prepared for the art advice from the 14 yo?

And Donald, it pains me to say this post is full of mistakes and questionable logic. Example of latter.
Has it occur to you, Michael, that opinions not necessarily come as a package deal (at least, not always) and it is possible not to be a leftie and still not subscrivbe to New Urbanists theories, American Traditionalists' architecture and fake but pleasant (from a distance) imitations of glory long gone?

I will stop here; I'm too bored with this subject to play a broken record, again. Last time was too many repetitions.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 7, 2005 9:02 PM

Could it be that in the arts, as in politics, labels may confound more than they clarify?

Posted by: Jonathan on December 7, 2005 9:51 PM

Tatyana, when I wrote "no errors" I was thinking of Michael's historical narratives about the Parliament building in London and the courthouse in Santa Barbara; he presented a lot of details that aren't widely known. For example, Groesbeck the mural painter indeed spent many years as DeMille's visualization-guy. I happen to know this because I bought a book about him last year in the Santa Barbara art museum store, but I'm willing to bet that very few (if any) other Blowhards readers ever heard of Groesbeck.

So just what factual errors did Michael make? (Let's leave opinions aside.) He never said that folks on the Left couldn't appreciate New Urbanism; he noted (in a colorful way) that criticisms of the genre actually do get tinged with elitist snobbery that sometimes has an implication that many folk who like New Urbanist places seem suspiciously like Republicans in many respects. This general characterization of elitist behavior rings true to me, though we all would be on firmer ground if someone could link to some actual statements.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 7, 2005 9:57 PM

The second paragraph (on "energy and invention, yet so little impact") struck me as timeless. The exact same words could just as easily have referred to, say, Impressionism. Or jazz music. Or, heck, even classical music.

It also reminded me of a favorite quote:

"Intercourse with a woman is sometimes a satisfactory substitute for masturbation. But it takes a lot of imagination to make it work." - Karl Kraus

Posted by: Glen Raphael on December 7, 2005 10:26 PM

Maybe it's only because I'm also 66, but I love this kind of discussion so much it makes me ache with yearning for more. (How's that for a sexual trope?)

But I don't need right and wrong stuff -- I just want to turn it all over in my mind. I want to remember walking around the Getty at twilight and looking at LA from the parapet. I want to remember finding the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia on a hot June day when the mimosa were in bloom and the place was overrun with weeds -- evidently there was no money for a gardener. Then there's the Maryhill Museum on Columbia Gorge, a would-be mansion that became a crammed and beloved little museum. I want to remember the Frank Lloyd Wright Unitarian Church in Madison, Wisconsin, where the pulpit for short guys like Wright was welcomed by the short minister, and the congregation liked the provisional improvised pews so well, they never did get proper ones. I like the way the roof swooped up from a fireplace (that smoked) to a window wall (that leaked) and the way that when the minister (a newer and taller one than the original) sat down at the organ, two dozen bats flew out from behind the pipes and circled our heads.

I mean, I love buildings that have experiences in them, stuff you can remember if something significant happens to you there. Even the miserable Michael Graves decorated cake of a Portlandia Building (health-threatening to work in because of not having enough air intake -- it's really only a warehouse) with Portlandia herself poising her frog gig over the doorway -- even that building is at least memorable.

Go on -- talk architecture to us!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 7, 2005 11:22 PM

I'm a fan of 1) "modern traditional architecture" (the expression I prefer for what others might call "traditional architecture" or "modern revival architecture"); AND I am also a fan, under certain circumstances, of 2) "avant gardist modern architecture" or "orthodox modern architecture" (which is the expression I prefer for what most people call "modern architecture").

So I think of myself as a modern day eclecticist. Just like many in the 19th Century perferred their churches to be Gothic, the homes to be Italianate, their railroad stations to be Romanesque, I think certain styles and approaches are more suitable for some kinds of buildings and others others are more suitable for other kinds of buildings.

And as much as I dislike so much of orthodox modern architecture, I also have to say that I think our society would be missing something really wonderful if orthodox modern architecture / avant gardist modern architecture never existed. (In other words, if there was only traditional architecture and modern traditional architecture.)

In my opinion, there are two real serious problems with orthodox modernism, however:

1) The attempt, since the beginning of orthodox modernism, of orthodox modernists to shut down or marginalize the "modern traditional" approach to architecture.

2) The widespread inappropriateness of much orthodox modern architecture -- especially in urban environments. (In other words, I think orthodox modern architecture has a much more limited appropriateness than does modern traditional architecture.)

Last spring, I believe, I attended a program where Paul Goldberger interviewed Robert A.M. Stern. And the impression I got was that Stern too is what I would call a modern day eclecticist -- someone who can see the beauty and appropriateness of various styles for various types of buildings (e.g., an avant gardist modern airport terminal, a modern traditional hospital, etc.)

- - - - - - - -

I see myself as an ardent urbanist, and although I am a supporter, to a degree, of "new urbanism," I thought at least two of the anti-"new urbanist" articles that were linked to expressed some of my own reservations about new urbanism also.

While one shouldn't generalize about new urbanists too much, as there is a great diversity of viewpoints in the movement (even among the leaders), it does seem to me that there is actually a strong strain of "suburbanism" in "new urbanism." Shortly after I began reading the posts on the "Pro-Urb" intnernet mailing list (of new urbanists) it occurred to me that "new urbanism" really might be more accurately called "new (sub)urbanism." And, subsequently I discovered that a number of other people, including David Sucher, apparently have made the same observation.)

Now there is nothing necessarily wrong with people coming up with alternative approaches to suburbia (a new suburbanism), but I do think it is important not to confuse new suburbanism with "true" urbanism. (It's still not totally clear to me what the new urbanists themselves see as the differences, if any, between new urbanism and just plain urbanism.)

Also there does seem to be to be a strong strain of gov't control in new urbanism, which seems to me to be one of the things that makes it really more new suburbanism than urbanism -- or really worse than suburbanism in some ways. As sprawl suburbanism has some of the same "anything goes" quality as true cities -- except the "anything goes" quality is divided up into zones and more spread out. Among the new urbanists, on the other hand, there seems to be a strong tendency to want to plan "everything" within the zones too.

And in terms of being leftist or rightist, most new urbanists seem to me to be more leftist (and anti-commerce) than either "true" urbanists (who, like Jane Jacobs, seem to gravitate towards libertarianism) or sprawl suburbanists (who tend to be more pro-market economy in general -- even though they seem to support restrictions that keep their suburbs suburban).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 8, 2005 12:00 AM

Bob -- It's funny the way that some works that are supposed to hit us as important and moving sometimes don't, and the way that other works that don't have the same kind of cultural pressures behind them sometimes really do hook us, isn't it? Makes you wonder about canons and such. I spent 15 years following book publishing closely, for instance. And my take on what was made that was important and moving during those years barely overlapped at all with the general opinion-making-class' take. My guide to 1985-2000 in publishing would have been completely different than theirs. Let us know if and when you visit the new MIT buildings, please. Eager to hear your reactions.

Jonathan -- The whole question of what "works" and what "doesn't work" is an interesting one, isn't it? There are so many different ways in which a piece can work or not work ... And -- as in the theater -- it can even change from night to night. Yet there it is, and it's about as objective as anything gets in the arts. It's owed some respect, it seems to me. I'll be curious to see whether Gehry's Bilbao Gugg still "works" for people in 70 or 80 years. I won't be around, of course, but I'll still be curious.

FvB -- You're suggesting that the elite opinion-makers have usurped tradition's role? (And maybe even God's?) And they like it that way? Rings true to me ...

Donald -- Santa Barbara's an interesting example of a city that seems to have benefitted from ultra-stringent zoning and coding. It really is beautiful. A little make-believe, but beautiful. So maybe it can be said that that approach can work, if only for vacation-retirement-beach paradises? There was some woman who was behind the drive to make Santa Barbara rebuild itself as a stucco-and-red-tile place. I wrote her name down and read about her some, but memory's failing, darn it ... As for my sources where "youth" is concerned, I should probably knock off the grand generalizations. I do bump into a lot of young-creative types as I kick around NYC. But that's an awfully narrow demographic ...

Tatyana -- Point out that factual errors, please! Always eager for corrections. My only real argument in the posting, BTW, is that there's nothing inherently wrong with working in "revivalist" styles or approaches, as many contempo-architeture propagandists would have it. Doing the revival thang can not only be done successfully, but was in fact what most of architecture history consisted of.

Glen -- That's a very funny quote, thanks. Weird, but funny.

Mary -- Those are lovely evocations, thanks. It's always fun to meet someone who resonates to places and buildings. It's odd that some people don't, isn't it? I didn't know that the Michael Graves building has bad-air problems -- fascinating. Many thanks for stopping by and joining in.

Benjamin -- I'm very sympathetic to your eclecticism and like it a lot in principle. Sign me up. My only problem is coming up with uses for which I think modern-orthodox styles have proven themselves appropriate and worthy. Are there building types you think it tends to work out well for? My own experience has been that, despite some scattered nice individual buildings, the style and approach generally have been so terribly destructive that I find myself thinking, Well, if some big guy upstairs passed a law that all new buildings must be in a modern-traditionalist style, would we lose anything? It seems to me that on balance we'd be far better off if people simply stopped building modernist. No that any such thing is likely to happen, of course. I'm with you as well so far as some criticisms of New Urbanism go. What irks me isn't that there's debate about how the New Urbanism is doing. Debate like that is needed. What irks me is the way many architecture-chat outlets still seem to consider stuff like the New Urbanism to be Not Architecture. It's funny the forms that their resistance sometimes takes. My favorite is when they criticize New Urbanists for not solving all the problems that the 20th century (including modernism) created, and conclude that thus it's a failure. Heavens! By standards like that, we're all failures. And it's not as though most of the critics of New Urbanism have proven themselves to be committed or effective urbanists themselves ... Anyway, I'd love to see and read informed discussions, pro and con, of NU developments (or of New Traditionalist poetry or music, for that matter). Some of it's crap, after all. But first the mainstream needs to accept it as an important, worthy, and vital part of the creative scene, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 8, 2005 1:05 AM

P.S. -- I was thinking about the last paragraph of my previous post, and here's a tentative elaboration.

Although one should be careful to not overgeneralize, it seems to me that leftist architects/planners divide into basically two camps:

1) those who are new urbanists and concern themselves with planning (what are basically) suburbs to the nth degree -- with modern traditional architecture being the sole acceptible style (e.g., Seaside [correct name?]); and

2) those who are anti-new urbanists concern themselves mostly with planning cities to the nth degree [gov't subsidized this; gov't sponsored that] -- with orthodox modern architecture being the sole acceptable style (e.g., Daniel Libeskind's WTC plan).

And it seems to me that rightist/libertarian architects would be likely to divide into these two camps:

1) libertarian urbanists (e.g., Jane Jacobs?);

2) basically market-oriented (but with gov't subsidies for autos, etc., however) suburbanists (e.g., Randall O'Toole?).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 8, 2005 1:08 AM

What a hoot -- we hit "post" at the same second.

It's fun working on these taxonomies. I have the impression that there's a distinction, if a fuzzy one, between the "smart growth" crowd and the more traditional of the New Urbers, with the "smart growth" bunch loving laws and outcomes -- being very Al Gore -- and the older-line NUers preferring to work within the market. I've enjoyed Jane Jacobs' critiques of New Urbanism. But, much as I worship her, I've never been entirely clear on her own preferred program, have you? She's so wonderfully idiosyncratic and specific that the only general ideas seem to be that "cities are important" and "you have to work with what's already there, whatever that is," or something like that. But do you think it's entirely fair to align her with outright libertarians? Loose as she is, there has always seemed to me to be a kind of hippie-socialist-conservative streak in her too. But I can't really tell.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 8, 2005 1:21 AM

"Well, if some big guy upstairs passed a law that all new buildings must be in a modern-traditionalist style, would we lose anything?"

I think we would.

In the NYC area, some of the buildings I'd miss would be the Ford Foundation Building, Lever House, the Guggenheim, the TWA Building, the CBS Building, the "Halston" town house [Paul Rudolph], the Olivetti?/Pepsi Cola Bldg. (Park & 58th?), and so on. And for me an even stronger case could be made for many, many enjoyable or even wonderful orthodox modern interiors.

But I agree with the sentiment that, given all the bad orthodox modernism that is out there, one wonders if we'd be better off with no orthodox modernism at all. However, it seems to me the more realistic approach is to look at various buildings individually and praise the (relatively few) good ones and critize the (rather numerous) bad ones.

- - - - - - - - - - -

"What irks me is the way many architecture-chat outlets still seem to consider stuff like the New Urbanism to be Not Architecture."

This bothers me too! And what's worse than the internet chat outlets, to my mind, is the coverage in the mainstream media that seems to take criticisms of New Urbanism/modern traditional architecture as gospel.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

"I'd love to see and read informed discussions, pro and con, of NU developments . . . . But first the mainstream needs to accept it as an important, worthy, and vital part of the creative scene, no?

I agree.

- - - - -

P.P.S. -- By the way, among New Urbanists themselves there is a debate whether New Urbanism is synonymous with modern traditional architecture (which is usually called traditional architecture) or whether it is "style-independent" (although I don't think anyone actually uses this phrase in the discussion).

As a matter of fact, there were a number of posts on the TradArch mailing list (which includes some big names in New Urbanism) during the last few days on just this topic.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 8, 2005 1:46 AM

"I have the impression that there's a distinction, if a fuzzy one, between the "smart growth" crowd and the more traditional of the New Urbers, with the "smart growth" bunch loving laws and outcomes -- being very Al Gore -- and the older-line NUers preferring to work within the market."

In the last few days, I believe, I read somewhere (everything is beginning to blur!) a post that made a somewhat similar overall point, but came up with a very different analysis/matchup.

I'm not sure if I totally understand your matchup (I've never mastered the "red state"/"blue state" nomenclature), but what has surprised me about what I've read on the Pro-Urb and TradArch mailing lists is that most of the "new (sub)urbanists" and most of the modern traditional architects seem TO ME to be surprisingly anti-market and pro-statist -- although a number of them appear to consider themselves to be pro-market types.

In a way this shouldn't be surprising about the new (sub)urbanists since the point of planning is for the gov't to plan. However, since the first modern traditional architecture "soul mates" I found were VERY market oriented (i.e., Tom Wolfe and the people at the City Journal), I was quite surprised to see how left-leaning the "traditionalists" on the TradARch mailing list were. Maybe they are not as left leaning as most orthodox modernists, but to my way of thinking they are surprisingly close.

- - - - - - - -

"I've enjoyed Jane Jacobs' critiques of New Urbanism. But, much as I worship her, I've never been entirely clear on her own preferred program, have you?"

Every once and a while I think I've TOTALLY figured Jacobs out (e.g., the things with which I agree and the things with which I disagree), and then she will say/write something that will make me go back to the drawing board! (She'll adress some of the objections I've had, but will cause me to formulate others.)

But I do see her having a logically consistent preferred program -- although I see it being continually worked upon and elaborated upon ("expanded"). However, I'm not sure if I could put the preferred program in words -- or at least in only a few words. But roughly speaking it seems to me to be problem solving -- looking at both the short and long term effects of that problem solving -- and a belief in the principle that many, many brains acting independently are better than just a few working under a centralized authority.

- - - - - - - - -

"But do you think it's entirely fair to align her with outright libertarians? Loose as she is, there has always seemed to me to be a kind of hippie-socialist-conservative streak in her too."

I agree, and I was thinking of this as I wrote. But, while I wouldn't characterize Jacobs as a "classic" (moderate) libertarian, I do think she comes close enough so that her name could help indicate what direction it is that a rightist/libertarian architect/urbanist might be going in.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on December 8, 2005 3:00 AM

Criticism of Michael Graves' Portlandia building built to such an intensity a few years ago that he was forced to defend himself in an interview. His defense was basically, "Hey, you wanted something spectacular for practically nothing and you gave me a hillside sloping lot -- you get what you pay for."

If you work there, the elevators drive you crazy: it's necessary for everyone to stand in a mob between two banks of elevators while they wait -- which means that this area (which is also the main hallway) has to be shouldered through and there's no room to get off the elevator when it arrives. The security (fire and earthquake) issues were never resolved. They told us that the building would pancake the way the WWT did. When the building inspectors made a huge fuss, they were moved to a different building.

The air problems were partly the fault of overcrowding and building dividers on what were meant to be open floors. As soon as people move into a building, they start making changes.

But, you know, if you stood in an eighth floor window looking toward the river, it was possible to watch a heron fly lazily below on its way to the nesting refuge downriver and then the problems seemed more minor. Anyway, the Japanese tourists LOVED the building!

I was intrigued to find out that Graves' own house is an old storage rental building which somehow was renovated into a simple, graceful, useful home.

Where I am now, the big Adirondack-style railroad resort lodges present a problem. They're wonderfully nostalgic with all the big logs and balconies, but the rooms are cramped, cold and lack modern amenities people expect these days. The buildings are only used in the summer, which is woefully short in the Montana Rockies, so no concessionaire is really motivated invest a lot of money. At least urbs of any sort are not involved.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 8, 2005 6:01 AM

I didn't mean any factual errors, Donald; I trust MB's research. It's opinions (which you don't want to discuss...why?) that irritate me.

I already gave one example of my disagreement. Couple more:

The Parliament was rebuilt in Neo-Gothic style by an architect famous for his Italianate works; why not in his familiar style than? Yes, those were the conditions of the competition, but why? "Spirit of age", I say - that hateful phrase, Michael - but it's true. Whole Gothic-Medieval revival movement happened in certain period and in certain place, and it has underlying reasons, reasdons that tie this style and this building to this city. Whole Industrial Age optimism, belief in logical order of the Universe, Good and Evil duality cohabitation, meaningful connection of human efforts and its guiding divine spirit, even love of allegory - all of it is Gothic. Could Cothic revival (and Dante Rossetti) happen in mid-18th century - or in 20th?

Egyptian pyramids are traditional architecture too, why Parliament wasn't built in this style? Or, for that matter, in Spanish/Moorish style that you admire?
Connection to the roots of the place, I'd say - or in other words, "authenticity" - again, another one of words you hate.

Pseudo Tudor houses next to Spanish Colonials and "French Provencial" with fiberglass columns somewhere in New Jersey suburb look ridiculous and feel fake exactly because a) they have no connection to the land and b) no connection to our time and ideas - and spirit- of our age c) no connection to local materials. Carrara marble framing windows in villages of Tuscany or ornate glazed tiles on walls of coastal Portuguese towns - or green slate stoops in Vermont feel right because they are local. In what style they're applied is separate issue.

Sorry for this jambled sketch; my time is up and I want to go back to my drawings.
Besides, what I say doesn't really count. I said it before and didn't make anybody change their ways. Repeating all the same obvious arguments does seem foolish; I should've just went someplace else instead of commenting.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 8, 2005 2:57 PM

I shall now compare modern architecture with the Florentine Republics.


Then I'll begin.

The problem with the Florentine Republics was that their success or failure depended entirely on the character of the guy in charge. This made politics - and life - a crapshoot.

Sometimes you got the Duke of Urbino or Lorenzo Medici and everything was hunky-dory; sometimes you got Cesar Borgia, and fifteen years of villainy. And sometimes you got a doughy little nonentity and decades would pass without anything interesting happening at all.

Likewise with modernism: Mies van der Rohe, frex, had excellent taste, and his buildings turned out elegant as could be. But get Joe Doakes designing in the International Style and you get row after row of black glass banality.

A system or style that requires extraordinary men in order to be successful is too risky to be adapted, IMO. So I'm beginning to think that any style should be judged by the behavior of its mediocrities. (Let's face it, who are you more likely to run into?) It's sort of like the investment strategy of watching the downside and letting the upside take care of itself.

A mediocre bungalo is less of a disaster than a mediocre modern. If all else fails, plant ivy.

P.S. - The line about "the history of art is not one of innovations but of revivals" gets my nomination for the Blowhards t-shirt.

Posted by: Brian on December 8, 2005 3:34 PM

Brian, how about "you can't revive something you haven't lived through before"?

Posted by: Tatyana on December 8, 2005 3:54 PM

Access to reproducible works is at an all-time high.

I remember from the 80s that access to popular music history was very squinched. I never even heard of something like western swing music and, if I had, I would have had a hugely difficult time getting access to the music other than say a single Bob Willis LP. Now I can easily, get access to huge cheap CD collections for 23 dollars.

The Internet(amazon, abebooks, allmusic, IMDB, netflixs, blogs etc.), Borders, Barnes and Noble, CDs, DVDs, and MP3s have all added to this ease of access. This new access can allow people to follow there interests more ideosyncratically. If I like one Kurusowa film, I can see alot of them very easily, then ozu and other japanese directors rather than waiting a year til another Kurasowa film comes to a repertory filmhouse(if your town even had one).

Posted by: Joe O on December 8, 2005 7:01 PM

I'm rarely very optimistic about these things, but I'm beginning to suspect that the left-progressive-hipster hair trigger use of racism is about to implode from grotesque overuse.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 8, 2005 9:37 PM

Friedrich: Recently Garrison Kiellor published a poetry book that turned out to feature mostly white authors. Can you imagine the kind of mind that would leaf through a Lake Wobegon poetry book counting the minorities and getting ready to rumble? The Best People did just that. Anyway, he published it and of course they called him a racist.

Garrison. Frigging. Kiellor.

They went through the entire routine, too: smirking notice was paid to his plain-vanilla roots, questions were tabled about whether he deserves to remain One Of Us, inquiries were begun into just what kind of a world does Mr. Kiellor want for our children? That kind of thing. Walt Disney may have been mentioned. It reminded me of those times in high school when one of the popular girls wears an unpopular label to school one day and has to be sent to Coventry.

Anyway, if that didn't get the term shelved, nothing will. It is, after all, the poor dumb bastards' last remaining argument. And it's still valuable as a tool of discipline; I think Kiellor grovelled in the end.

Posted by: Brian on December 9, 2005 3:54 AM

Brian, I can totally agree with your assessment on the difficulty of creating good modernist architecture. Classical orders and the rules, proportions, and syntax act as a straightjacket for mediocre designers from producing something truly awful. I took a studio in classical design and learned how to create Greek temple, a Neo-Classical Opera House, and a Baroque church. Once I got the hang of the basic patterns and proportions, all of my buildings ended up looking hardly different from what you would see in Banister-Fletcher despite starting my design from scratch. It's hard to really mess up classicism, unless you foolishly abstract it and exagerrate the elements like so much of bad postmodern architecture. Modernism is a whole other ball game, since there are precisely no rules. Anything goes, thus the standard for what constitutes a beautiful building are more vague. Mediocre architects all think they are the next Mies or Corbusier, and they all screw up really bad. I get the impression that the good Modernist designers look down on good classicist designers, since the former assumes they can't design without the 'training wheels' of the classical orders.

I have further thoughts on New Urbanism, Katrina, and Hawethorne's article at my blog,

Posted by: corbusier on December 10, 2005 4:12 PM

Interesting and engaging discussion on neotraditionalism in architecture... Although I may have a strong personal affinity for modernism, I too can appreciate the merits of traditional architecture. And, as Corbusier has hinted at in his recent blog posting, traditionalism certainly has a place in places like New Orleans that are so entrenched in a historical identity. However, my qualms with New Urbanism and its appopriateness in the post-Katrina context (see this post on my blog Progressive Reactionary) have to do less with the movement's stylistic qualities and more with its political implications. Indeed, I would contend that of course it is possible for left-inclined architects to espouse New Urbanist theories (many of the architects involved in the Gulf, including Duany & co. would certainly call themselves liberals). However, the fact that New Urbanism has become in many ways the default option for the (mostly) Republican powers-that-be in the Gulf states implicates the movement's members as political allies. I guess what I am saying is that there is a certain feedback between style and political context in which both influence each other. In other words, it's one thing to support traditional architecture as a viable style for today (the eclecticist outlook), but once these traditional forms become appropriated by a much larger movement that is overtly political in its mission to reconstruct the gulf coast as a redder version of its former self, the style then acquires a new meaning as a result of those particular political affinities.

Posted by: amarc on December 11, 2005 10:51 PM


Just because Louisiana and Mississippi voted for President Bush doesn't imply that those who actually brought in the New Urbanists for charettes are Republicans themselves. N.O. Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Blanco are Democrats. Most politicians at the city level tend to be Democrats.

Yes, Louisiana will probably be left more Republican than before Katrina, due to the extreme exodus of core Democratic voters that you point out in your blog. From where I sit in Dallas, a major Katrina refugee destination, and from my experience living in South Louisiana, it's clear that many won't be coming back. Not because a political faction will keep them out (Mr. Nagin is currently on a begging tour to bring back people) or that the redesign of the city will marginalize the underclass, but because there was nothing for much of the underclass to do before and definitely after Katrina.

I subscribe to the Joel Kotkin school of urban sociology, which argues that if the city neglects to maintain the basic infrastucture that promotes economic dynamism, many in the working and middle class will leave for greener pastures in the suburbs or in other cities, regardless of how well pretty and how good the quality of life for the richest few is. From the testimony of the Katrina refugees I watch on the local news, they seem quite happy to be in Dallas, where they profit from better schools, lots of job openings, and an improved sense of safety. People don't come to Dallas because it's well planned or designed, but because of the opportunities it provides to outsiders. New Orleans, one the most staunchly Democrat cities in the South, never did that for most of its inhabitants, and the endless examples of the refugees resentment of their hometown is indicative.

Posted by: corbusier on December 12, 2005 12:51 PM

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