Sunday, June 28, 2009

Letter to a Contemporary Architect

Dear ______,

Here's a bit of a belated response. I'm sorry if I seemed to ignore the fact that you do not see a strict dichotomy between classicism and modernism. I can understand what you mean by saying that much of contemporary architecture is in between these two, or perhaps leaning in other, better directions; it may seem as though this is the case. I was simply disagreeing with you, perhaps a bit sophomorically, trying to make the point that the modernist project is still with us.

Let’s put that aside for the moment and take a look at some of the points you raised especially that of the “advancement of architecture,” particularly with regard to new materials. You are, quite understandably, concerned with the continued development of the art of building and hesitate to take what you see as a step backwards, or to shy away from recent technological requirements and advances.

The discussion began with your assertion that “contemporary architecture does just what Prince Charles wants and tries to address the “natural order” (either in the affirmative or the negative), but they are using the past 1000+ years of mathematics and science to update exactly what the ‘natural order’ is.” You argue, continuing this line of thought, that “to deny that modern building techniques and advances in overall technology have a place displaying themselves in buildings makes you seem like a Luddite.” Very true, yet to imply that this is, or has ever been the aim of classicism is a misunderstanding of classicism and of the point I was trying to make, namely, that the current trend in architecture is one which, owing to several central tenets of its guiding ideology, places a moral obligation on the architect to design his buildings such that they look as though they are using the newest technology available (they may quite possibly be using the most advanced technology as well, but so can a classical building).

To willfully reject the current fashion is to be, just as you say, a Luddite (a move which savours of the same denial of precedent as modernism, and Lauger’s primitivism). Here I would stress the fact that classical architecture is by its very definition that which takes advantage of the highest technology, which best expresses the purpose it is to give shelter to, and which most importantly is capable of being comprehended, compared, imitated and enjoyed. Michelangelo, who you mention, did not try to paint just like the artist 500 years prior to him, and the aspiring classicist has no intention of building like the architect of the 16th century. But we must remember that Michelangelo did not reject the architecture of the previous age.

Looking back at my initial response to the discussion I can see how you think that I would reject all new materials in architecture, but this is not at all what I was saying. It is not the use of new materials that bothers me; in fact they have opened up a vast new set of opportunities for the classical architect, as you hint in regards to the proportions of the orders &tc. Rather, it is the way in which these materials have been used as the point of no return to classicism. That a masonry bearing wall is prohibitively expensive, even if it is the best option, is the argument of one defeated, and is simply a preservation of an unacceptable status quo. It is so because of a mandate to only use high-tech materials, or techniques for the past three generations. Let’s remind our craftsmen of something quite simple! (with the caveat that there are new materials that may be more appropriate) I would completely agree with you when you say that “we need to glean the appropriate lessons of history that architecture can give us, but we need to add in the pieces that have changed to make the building one that correctly addresses today’s society. This doesn’t discount classical architecture as an approach, but I think calls for more to be added to the debate.” Exactly. More needs to be added to the debate (or returned to it). This is the call of classicism and what the best classicists are attempting to do. Unfortunately, we have lost a deplorable amount of ground in the last century, and can’t even, as you attest, build a masonry wall if it were appropriate! More importantly, we have cut almost all our ties to a tradition that might have been capable of synthesizing new technologies and requirements with tradition and meaning, which leads me to my second point: the relativity of beauty.

Architecture must respond to current fashion, but in the assimilation of current styles, or fashions, it is a manifestation of an individual’s understanding or vision of what architecture should be. You find some buildings attractive or beautiful. You have a vision of the kind of architecture you want to build, and which moves you, regardless of whether you are kind enough not to impose it on others. I don’t care if the idea of beauty is a relative one, so long as we continue to be driven by its inspiring power. Classicism does not require a belief in absolute truth, beauty, or goodness, only that we allow for their debate to take place; that there be an open forum where art and architecture are a continued and comprehensible dialogue. You give the example that “I (and many others) find certain pieces of architecture to be beautiful while you (and many others) would likely find the same thing ugly.” I completely agree, but it is not enough to stop there. We have to allow ourselves the opportunity to realize, not just that a thing which we find ugly might be attractive in another’s eyes, but that it might become attractive in our own eyes. We have to be able to ask why a person finds a thing attractive. We may never agree on what is beautiful, but that does not mean that the question shouldn’t be asked. So long as we realize the power of beauty, even if no two people can agree on it, then we must be able to ask each other why we find it so, and in turn be able to answer the question: “why do you think that that which I find hideous is beautiful?” If we refuse to enter this debate than we have denied our own intellects and the possibility of agreement.

Why must we still flee from the rebirth of a tradition that allows for a development of aspects beyond the factual realm? Is it because we are unwilling to encounter them, or because we have forgotten how? Or is it because we do not believe that a man living in the 21st century can agree with a man living in the 20th century, or for that matter that any agreement can be made between anyone at any time? The intent of classicists pursuing the “other modern” is not to return us to 1850, or 1600 for that matter. It is to build an environment capable of fostering an architecture that can be accessibly, debatably and comprehensibly functional and beautiful. Such a system finds tools, such as the five canonical orders, historical precedent, and the accumulated wisdom of the past 3000 years a useful means to understanding, building and teaching an architecture that we can all find attractive and functional. This does not mean that the classical building of today must display the orders, use stone walls, or reject modern materials, only that the architect be willing and able to discuss why his building is good, or beautiful (even if it is only so in his own eyes). The goal of classicism is to compose buildings which are not hideous and dysfunctional now, and which are still not so 500 years from now, a goal which requires a) that the building last long enough, and b) that an attempt be made to understand what people find attractive and useful.