Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Present Impotency of the Classical Architectural Movement

The Classical as criminal, taboo
By impotency, I mean quite literally a movement that lacks potency, exhibits no power, and even more troubling: evidences no potential. From this one can take the obvious sexual metaphors; first in the masculine case of a limp member. Admittedly, one can get around alright as a castrated eunuch; however, even with love and passion in the absence of virility there will be no offspring, no subsequent generation. Likewise as a feminine analogy we could say that irrespective of desire if a womb is barren and infertile, the conditions are simply not present for growth or flourishing. So perhaps "movement" is somewhat of a misnomer for what could better be described as stagnation. What follows is essentially an abstract, initial thoughts regarding how Classical Architecture finds itself in its present state as a precondition for assessing the possibility of a recovery of reproductive potential.

Place, Time, Culture

In its long development architecture was very much informed by the location in which it was undertaken. If we can agree that its primary purposes included shelter and storage, then environment (the effects of vermin, sun, wind, temperature, and precipitation) were determinative factors in its development. As communities were primarily local as well as partially or completely autonomous, folks had to make due with the resources of fuel and materials they had readily accessible. The Romans used the term genus loci, the "spirit of a place" to describe the connection of many things, including architecture to location. All Classical architectures as diverse as Greek, Roman, Gothic, Chinese, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Mayan, Indus Valley, etc. were informed by genus loci in their evolution.

Contemporary architecture, including those having a Classical formal aesthetic reject or simply abandon genus loci. With the development of mass industrialisation of raw material extraction, manufacture of standardised building components, and global transportation networks anything, or rather the same thing can be built anywhere. Advances in sophisticated HVAC systems and pre-engineered insulative wall assemblies tied directly to manufacturers through BIM software assure that structures can likewise be built in the same way. We've arrived at what the Classical Greeks might've called an architectural utopia...a "no place" in particular.

Closely related to the architecture of no place is the Modernist neurotic preoccupation of having an architecture "of its time". Of course this is a metaphor for something else. Unlike places which are quite different as you move about the globe, what's the perceptible temporal difference to us between now, a century in the future, or ten thousand years ago? By time what is really being referred to is processes of cultural change that mark one era as different from another from a specific historical point of view. The Modernist term coined for this narrative framing is zeitgeist, a rough translation being the "spirit of the times". Leading Modernist architects took Marx's slogan that "philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it" and applied it to themselves. They were to be the avant-garde, a step ahead of history in not only embracing the international globalisation of industry but pushing industry along even faster in the process.

Any new architecture that continued to feature Classical forms or details was subsequently branded as retrogressive (moving backwards), an anachronism of history, literally existing "out of time" according to the Modernist narrative. Such contemporary attempts at Classical architecture could likewise be accused of being "out of place". By adopting the very same global, industrial infrastructure as their Modernist counterparts, Classically appointed buildings were labeled as inauthentic simulacrums for having abandoned the use of traditional means and methods, utilising local materials. In particular, Graeco-Roman Classical architecture had persisted long enough to be deemed anti-cultural.

Industrial Classicism - Spottswood W. Robinson III and Robert R. Merhige, Jr., Federal Courthouse (2008)

New Urbanism, Classical Architecture, and Traditional Craft

The planning of cities and suburban development likewise was quickly subsumed under Modernist ideology. However, within a few decades it produced such disastrous results in city centres and suburbia that the public at large began to revolt. This opened up opportunity for reevaluation of previous methods of organising urban fabric to see if anything useful might be with great trepidation be selectively gleaned. Even this cautious approach has resulted in a deadlock between the still dominant Modernist and upstart New Urbanist camps. Nevertheless, the field of Urbanism and Planning in general sees itself as demarcated and hierarchically arranged above architecture and construction.

Although New Urbanists claim their planning is based on the principles of how cities and towns have been "built" for the last several centuries, apparently this is only a metaphor for functional concepts such as massing, traffic flow, placement of goods and services. The movement's attitude towards Classical architecture has ranged from ambivalent tolerance to open hostility. Mention by (necessarily) outsiders of traditional craft within New Urbanist circles tends to be received with awkward silences and curious stares. Former triumphs of Classic planning led by architects such as the McMillan plan of Washington D.C. and the Haussmann plan of Paris who had armies of highly skilled craftsmen at their disposal only serve to demonstrate how neutered and ineffective contemporary Classicist architects are in the civic realm whilst the residue of their once upon a time traditional craftsmen colleagues are fading into extinction.

The Academy

Does architecture inform culture or does culture inform architecture? I think most of us readily recognise that there must be a dialectical process going on between the two even if it is not an equitable relationship. After all, architecture is merely an aspect of the greater culture...or is it? Well, let's stop to consider that every culture around the world until quite recently had its own architectural tradition referencing their unique genus loci that we previously considered. Within a few decades all architectural traditions everywhere, hundreds of them have been wholly supplanted by Modernist standarisation as developed by architectural academia in partnership with industry. No culture on earth, no architectural tradition has been spared. Not one. Contemporary architecture sits completely outside of human cultures as a potent instrument of industry that reproduces like mad.

Downtown Lagos, Nigeria

Universities of higher learning were at one point in time not too long ago repositories of culture. To take the case of the US, UK, and Europe, universities were guardians and instructors of the collective wisdom of Western civilisation: the Classical. Until a century ago they saw it as their responsibility to add to this edifice of knowledge if they could and to pass the wisdom along to another generation. Study of the Classical was high culture and included philosophy, poetry, literature, music, art, history, religion, myth, and sometimes even Greek and Latin.

However, beginning early in the 20th century the former studies rapidly gave way to a severely critical presentation of the Classical. Instead of reading texts directly and drawing conclusions, the student was increasingly presented and taught critical texts that may only have included carefully curated excerpts of the original. Training in the Classical languages of Greek and Latin was largely abandoned so that students became more reliant on these academic interpretations of texts or translations without recourse to original sources. At this point in time the Classical is viewed as so irrelevant or potentially dangerous by academia that many universities are gutting their departments dropping any courses related to it. Even a critical exposure to the Classical could contaminate an impressionable mind; the Classical is strictly taboo!

What is Slipping Away

Cadmus sowing dragon's teeth
Classical architecture and architectural education cannot exist in a causal vacuum. Architecture's place is to serve as the external expression within which the narratives in history, myth, drama, poetry and prose can unfold to enrich our individual lives and bind us together collectively as they have for countless generations. The Classical also offers us a treasure trove of philosophical reflections that consider from diverse perspectives man's place in the world as well as his duties and responsibilities to his fellowman. Finally, the Classical seduces us into a world of art, sculpture, music and drama that celebrate and beautify, redeeming even the tragedies of life. There isn't a richer alternative in the world and its our inheritance. So why are we throwing it away with both hands? Did we sow the seeds of our dissolution along the way?

I'll let you know if I find out...

Contributed by Patrick Webb