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Classical architecture’s counter-attack

Reed’s great book exposes the ugliness and illiteracy of Modernism

In the early 1950s the American, Henry Hope Reed (1915-2013), had the temerity to suggest that most contemporary architecture then was fraudulent, empty of intellectual content, ugly, illiterate, and meaningless. Convinced that Classicism embraced an architectural language capable of modern use, he aired his views in The Golden City, courageously published by Doubleday & Company in Garden City, New York, 1959. 

The Golden City by Henry Hope Reed (Monacelli Press)

Reed argued that an architecture based on a ruthlessly reductionist interplay of ground-plan, construction, and materials — what he called “a form of structural dialectics” — is not an æsthetically viable proposition. Furthermore, he explained why we do not admire or like the overwhelming majority of Modernist buildings we see: as Catesby Leigh observes, in his cogent essay:

“When failure is the rule rather than the exception, the enabling dialectic must be rejected. Modernist architecture emerges in this book as the unsightly remnant of an art that, in cutting itself off from its ancient heritage, has effectively dismembered itself… Iconoclastic, pseudo-scientific architecture purportedly enshrining creative genius became morally correct”. 

Reed perceptively saw the new dispensation as a disastrously successful public-relations confidence-trick:

“Originality, the abstract, false progress, fear of the past, and the sense of impermanence have become one, packaged in a wrapping called Modern… The wrapping called Modern … professes not to be a style at all, let alone a fashion. It aspires to perpetuity. What is obviously temporary is made to appear inviolate by means of the label, an… attempt to make fashion immovable, and to transform it into taste, a very different article. Today’s [architects] are under the illusion that they can preserve their hegemony thanks to a name”. 

Quite so, and such self-regarding monsters probably never knew of the cutting remark by Charles-Pierre Baudelaire (1821-67) that “Progress” is a “Doctrine of Idlers and Belgians”. Reed soundly denounced the absurdities of mid-twentieth-century Modernism’s “metahistorical pretensions”: since The Golden City first appeared, Modernist architecture has displayed a “pathological stylistic instability”. As Leigh shrewdly points out, “the unending succession of fads or fashions betrays a common trait — an allergy to emulation of the great works of the past”: indeed that fear of the past is a cardinal expression of current cultural dispensations, “in which the Self is the highest reality”.

Modern architects are constitutionally averse to subordinating their so-called “creative” prerogatives to an overarching tradition with objective, demanding standards of achievement. That tradition has deep roots in the past and in the history of humanity itself: its dismemberment was deliberate, dangerous, destructive, and inhumane. 

Before America swallowed Modernism’s totalitarian rigidities, it was producing a great architecture

The United States of America was the first nation in history to rise to world pre-eminence while its public realm experienced inconceivable degradation. All that is truly frightening, for, before America swallowed whole Modernism’s shallowness and totalitarian rigidities, it was producing a great architecture based on Classical principles: one of its finest buildings was the majestic Pennsylvania Station, New York City (1902-11), a masterwork of ennobled architecture, engineering, and organisation that put the dismal products of the Modern Movement to shame.

That was probably why Georg Walter Adolf Gropius (1883-1969) termed it a “monument to a particularly insignificant period in American architectural history … a case of pseudotradition”. 

It showed up the shoddiness of much of Modernism to a painful degree, notably the enormous, crass, PanAm Building (1958) with which Gropius’s name will always be associated, as it will be with the disgraceful demolition (1963-5) of Penn Station, a particularly low point in American cultural life. America is the poorer for its loss. 

Reed did not realise how successfully cultural élites have mangled the history of architecture,

When Reed wrote his great book, he thought the perversity of Modernist architecture would ensure its demise: what he did not realise was how heavily invested were the cultural élites in fallacious notions of creativity, how successfully and completely they have mangled the history of art and architecture, and how complete is their iron grip on key institutions which permits them to batter public opinion and shape its preferences by bullying and vulgar abuse. 

It is also arguable that he underestimated the power monstrous egos would wield, not least in so-called schools of architecture, where students are terrorised into following the Party Line or else they do not qualify. Independent thinking is forbidden, as is any questioning of the orthodox beliefs of a fundamentalist pseudo-religious cult. 

He founded Classical America to promote a saner approach to architecture than that which dominated the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first, and his creation has morphed into the effective, nation-wide Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, with its fifteen chapters across the country, promoting the return of the Classical tradition. 

Like AW.N. Pugin’s Contrasts (1836, 1841), Reed’s Golden City illustrates similar building-types and objects placed opposite each other: the poverty of the Modernist exemplars when compared with the richness of historic buildings and details is painfully apparent. The head of a cast-iron lamppost of the 1890s, designed for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company under the direction of Richard Rodgers Bowker, compared with the head of a stainless-steel lamp-post (1956) designed by the Department of Water Supply, Gas, and Electricity, City of New York, says it all. The æsthetic superiority of buildings and artefacts that were securely based in Classicism over poverty-stricken, alienating, inhumane structures is obvious.

Intelligent youngsters begin to realise their architectural education has been a con

Although the book was largely, and predictably, ignored when it first appeared in 1959, its re-incarnation is both timely and extremely welcome. For there is a sea-change coming, as some intelligent youngsters, not quite bashed into Modernist conformity or brainwashed into worshipping false deities miscalled Starchitects by reptilian apologists, begin to realise their architectural education has been a con, and seek new paths for their own creativity. 

It is handsomely printed, on decent paper, and the two new essays are excellent, sensitive, and apt: it is heartily recommended for its sanity, its intelligence, and its refreshing absence of cant and humbug.

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