The Conspiracy Against Traditional Architecture

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In 2011 the fashion house Ralph Lauren built a new store at Madison Avenue and 72nd Street in Manhattan. The building was designed in the Beaux-Arts style that is common in New York, having been favored by the architects and developers who built up most of the city during its greatest period of expansion in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It is a handsome construction, thoughtfully built, and built to last out of limestone. It looks like the sort of grand private home that McKim, Mead & White, or one of the other Beaux-Arts architectural firms, might have designed in the Gilded Age.

It is not surprising that such a building would face opposition from the modern architectural establishment, which is rigidly intolerant of beauty, but opposition came also from unexpected quarters. In The New York Times, Christopher Gray described the heroic effort required to get the building approved:

Such archaeological accuracy is rarely seen in New York architecture, and is often regarded with suspicion, viewed as silly or even subversive.

Indeed, when it was under review at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, neither the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts nor the Historic Districts Council supported the application, considering the building imitative. That reflects the longtime preservation ideal that any new building should represent “our time,” usually by being modernist in style.

I am an advocate for both the preservation of historic buildings and the design of new buildings in historic styles. I consider these goals to be in harmony with one another. I support them because they serve the holistic vision of a beautiful and humane built environment. But in practice these two goals are often in conflict. Many heritage and preservation groups vehemently oppose the contemporary practice of traditional architecture.

In England, when the eighteenth-century Clandon Park was gutted by fire in 2015, the National Trust selected an aggressive modernist plan to rebuild it. The burnt-out brick shell of the original building would be left as a standing ruin with ultra-modern Structural Expressionist additions interposed throughout.

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Following justified outrage over the design, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, England’s first preservation group, founded by William Morris in 1877, came to the National Trust’s defense. Matthew Slocombe, director of SPAB, expressed “alarm” at the criticism of the design, in a letter to The Telegraph. Restoring the mansion to its original condition, he wrote, would be “a betrayal” and “a lost opportunity.” He cited Morris’s founding manifesto for the society which condemned the “feeble and lifeless forgery” of restorations during his day.

William Morris is not alive to tell us whether he wanted to see venerable old buildings enclosed in glass boxes or impaled with steel and concrete, but I think it is disingenuous to imply that he did. Either way, we are under no obligation to accept such mutilations.

In fairness, not all preservation groups are on the wrong side of this debate. Christopher Boyle QC, chairman of The Georgian Group, spoke magnificently against the proposed Clandon Park renovation, which, he said, “would actually inflict yet further damage upon it with inappropriate Modernist interventions…The nearest equivalent is the now-lamented devastation wrought on our historic towns by 1960s planners unsatisfied by the efforts of the Luftwaffe.”

Restoration of historic buildings should honor the intentions of the original builders. New constructions should respect the vernacular of their surroundings. And we need both. That is my position, anyway. So why are so many influential individuals and groups opposed to this position? And why is their opposition expressed in such hysterical terms? Words like “subversive,” “alarm,” and “betrayal” suggest a genuine fear and loathing of traditional architecture.

I think the answer to these questions can be found in a piece of architectural criticism published in the United States in 2014. In the summer of that year Union Station in Denver, Colorado re-opened after extensive restoration. The building is a fine example of Beaux-Arts civic architecture and an iconic American railroad station. The earliest portion of the building dates from 1881 with the majority completed in 1914. The restoration was understated, tasteful, and almost universally acclaimed. Almost. The Denver Post published an obnoxious tirade against the restored landmark by local critic Ray Mark Rinaldi. He wrote:

Let’s start with the building itself, the actual architecture. Union Station is a neo-classical mix of styles—European styles. The symmetry, arched windows, ornate cornice and stacked, stone walls have their roots in the glory days of France, England, Greece and Rome, in empires that were nearly absent of ethnic minorities and who felt fully at ease invading, exploiting and actually enslaving the people of Africa, subcontinent Asia and South America.

Yes, that’s all in the past; things have changed. But the $54 million renovation of Union Station doesn’t take that into account. It restores the symbols of an old world with no updates. The gilded chandeliers have been rewired, the marble polished, but there’s no nod to the present, no interior walls in the bright colors of Mexico, no Asian simplicity is in the remix. There are no giant sculptures by African-American artists bonused into the lobby, no murals on the basement walls.

Rinaldi’s vision is crude and naïve, but his goal is shared by influential architects, city planners, and preservationists around the world. That goal is to effect a cultural erasure, in this case against old stock America, but ultimately against all people: to obliterate the vernacular and particular from the built environment, to dispel the genius loci, and to impose a rootless global aesthetic that belongs to no one. These groups are more sophisticated and efficient than Rinaldi. They are not interested in “Asian simplicity” (whatever that is) or giant statues of Africans. Their weapons are the elements of modern and post-modern architecture: glass curtain walls, aluminum composite panels, etc. Modern cities and suburbs have been made interchangeable, if not indistinguishable. London, Shanghai, Toronto, Lagos, Bombay, and New York are disappearing under virtually identical skylines. Whatever was native, vernacular, and lovable about these cities is being erased, if it has not been already.

Sources:

Gray, Christopher. (March 10, 2011) “Stirrings of a Throwback Kind,” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/realestate/13streetscapes.html

Hope, Christopher. (December 6, 2017) “National Trust accused of being ‘worse than 1960s planners’ by hiring architect for modernist overhaul of Grade I-listed Clandon Park,” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/06/national-trust-accused-worse-1960s-planners-hiring-architect/

Rinaldi, Ray Mark. (October 16, 2014) “Did diversity miss the train in Union Station’s architecture?,” The Denver Post. https://www.denverpost.com/2014/10/16/did-diversity-miss-the-train-in-union-stations-architecture/

Slocombe, Matthew. (September 27, 2017) “Letter: Plans for building in Clandon’s burnt-out shell,” The Telegraph.

Wodehouse, P.G. (1937) Summer Moonshine. New York: Doubleday.


One thought on “The Conspiracy Against Traditional Architecture

  1. “…the nearest equivalent is the now-lamented devastation wrought on our historic towns by 1960s planners unsatisfied by the efforts of the Luftwaffe.”

    And that should give you English a good idea of why WW2 was actually a Culture War. Traditionalists lost.

    Like

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