VIRGINIA WOOLF was one of my first posts on Veritas et Venustas, almost exactly ten years ago. I would write it a little differently today, because the ideas I wrote about then have moved forward over the last decade. Visit hip spots in lower Manhattan and Williamsburg and it becomes clearer and clearer that as a group the young are neither anti-Traditional nor anti-Modern. And while 10 years ago I described myself as a Classical architect, today a looser, more eclectic Classicism seems as attractive and viable as the purer Classicism that many of my friends practiced then (hence the name of this blog, and the first post here). My friend and colleague Andrés Duany is working on a book he calls Heterodoxia Architectonica to expand the Classical canon.
“Everything changed in December 1910,” Virginia Woolf famously wrote, and there are tipping points and turning points like that we sometimes recognize. In 1848, democracy swept across the European continent (often forcefully beaten back by authoritarian governments). In 1989, every Communist government in Europe fell within two months after the first breach of the Berlin Wall.
I’m old enough to remember when the civil rights movement turned a decisive corner in the early 1960s to become an idea supported by the majority of Americans. In The Best and the Brightest David Halberstam wrote that the turning point for opposition to the Vietnam war came when Walter Cronkite first criticized the conflict on the CBS nightly news. And I can point to the exact minute when peace, love and long hair arrived at my high school later in the 60s, radically transforming it overnight.
Woolf was talking about full-blown Modernism arriving in her upper-middle-class circles. The most evident sign was an emphasis on individual freedom. For many, this meant an emphasis on greater social and economic mobility that foreshadowed a broadening of democracy. For Virginia and her friends, it meant becoming proto-Modernists of the worst sort: depressed, self-involved, sexually ambiguous and willfully promiscuous. And nominally-Socialist but obnoxiously-superior upper-middle class intellectuals. (Yes, that does sound a bit like the late-late-Modernists a hundred years later.)
Non-architects might wonder why there are so many references to Modernism in Veritas et Venustas (Truth and Beauty). That is an important question, because a) normal people (that is, non-architects) usually don’t recognize the problem, and b) I’m not anti-Modern, as one might reasonably conclude. I’m an architect educated in the 20th century who’s made more than my share of loving pilgrimages to the masterworks like Fallingwater and Bilbao, and I once wrote an article on how to visit the buildings of Le Corbusier scattered all over Europe. With details such as how to stay in the hotel in the Corb-designed Unité d’Habitations in Marseille.
The answer to the question is two-fold. 1) At the beginning of the 21st Century we are at a new tipping point, which 2) the entrenched interests of the architectural establishment are fighting tooth and nail. Having argued for a hundred years that Modernism is the only appropriate expression of the time, they can’t accept that the culture has moved on to become eclectic and diverse.
For me, a Classical architect and a New Urbanist, this is restraint of trade. Representatives of my union, the American Institute of Architects, frequently work against my interests. The architecture critic of my hometown paper, the New York Times, constantly argues against everything my colleagues and I do (and he’s joined in that by virtually every architecture critic in the country.) My students tell me I’m a very good teacher, but almost no university wants to hire me, because most architecture schools are rabidly dogmatic Modernists. Somehow, they claim to do this in the cause of pluralism.
BUT, and this is an important “but,” their position is increasingly an esoteric, unpopular one. There’s no question that society in general has turned a corner.