EARTH DAY reminded me of my old friend Konrad Oberhuber, an art historian at Harvard when I met him, who later became the Curator of the Albertina in Vienna. In 1983 I went on a Fogg Museum trip to Prague with Konrad. Czechoslovakia was the first Communist country I visited,* and I thought the citizens of Prague were the most oppressed people I had seen.
Our group started talking about the mood of the city one day, and Konrad told us about his theory of cycles in history, which enabled him to predict that at the end of 1989 “every Communist government in central Europe” will fall. I had never heard anyone say anything like that. The US Ambassador to the UN, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, was saying almost exactly the opposite, in a theory known as the Kirkpatrick Doctrine which said that it was inherent in the nature of the totalitarian Communist governments in central Europe that they would never voluntarily give up their power unless we forced them to, and that was official US policy under Reagan. But 6 years later, when every central European Communist government but one shut down, Konrad was looking like a genius.
Konrad’s theory came out of his Anthroposophical beliefs (Anthroposophy being the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, a late-19th, early 20th century German mystic perhaps best known today for Biodynamic agriculture and Waldorf schools). Konrad (and Steiner?) said that history repeated in hundred-year cycles, and that different decades had different roles in these cycles. The fifties, he said, expressed the essence of the century. The American fifties, for example, were about the rise of the middle class, the hegemony of Modernism, American prosperity, America as a world power, etc.
Konrad lived in Prague in 1968 during the Prague Spring, when democracy briefly flowered before Russia crushed the popular movement. “They haven’t forgotten that time,” he said, “they’re just waiting and they will rise again”—at the end of 1989, he said. I would like to write a post about hundred year cycles in history, because in my lifetime I’ve seen some. The PostModern Shingle Style revival came 100 years after Charles McKim and Stanford White invented the Shingle Style during their famous sketch tours of Colonial houses up and down the New England coast (see Vincent Scully, The Shingle Style Today: Or The Historian’s Revenge). The trips were made to look at American Colonial architecture for the American Centennial in 1876, but it wasn’t until the early 1890s that McKim, Mead & White began a true Colonial Revival. That was the same time that they started designing genuinely Classical buildings, and it was 100 years before the Institute for Classical Architecture was founded in New York.
The Classical art and architecture of the 1890s became known as the American Renaissance. At the same time, the City Beautiful movement started up, and the World’s Columbian Exposition (the Great White City) was held in Chicago, to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in America. The exposition was planned to open in 1892, but open a year late in 1893. In 1993, the Congress for New Urbanism was founded. The Institute for Classical Architecture was founded in 1991. It later merged with Classical America, which was founded in 1968, during the Prague Spring.
Two more: the 1880s and 1890s were two decades when the largest fortunes in the history of the world were created (many on Wall Street and in American industry). Those fortunes remained the largest in the world until 100 years later, when Wall Street transformed the way it worked and the digital and computer revolutions began. What followed in the early 20th century was the Progressive Era, to reform the drastic changes in American Society at the end of the 19th century. We’re a little behind the times there. There’s plenty of talk, but Big Money is beating the Progressives, so far.
I’d like to write more about this. I’m not 100% convinced, but while I think about it I’ve been making a list of things that happened in the 1960s that seem to be important issues now. I should add that having lived through the 1960s, they seemed like they began in 1963, built to a peak in 1967 (Summer of Love), 1968 (Prague Spring, Paris Student Riots, Chicago Democratic Convention), and 1970 (Woodstock), and ended in 1973 or so. The Vietnam War didn’t end until 1975, but Vietnam demonstrations began in 1963 and the war was one of the major issues in the Presidential election of 1968. Most of the American race riots were 1962-63 and 1967-68.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961
The Silent Spring, 1962
Feminine Mystique, 1963
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1965
The Whole Earth Catalog, 1968
The Population Bomb, 1968
Bicycling magazine, 1968 (1961 newsletter, grew)
Greening of America. 1970
The Limits to Growth (Club of Rome), 1972
Small is beautiful, 1973
Civil Rights Acts of 1960 and 1964
First all-electronic calculator, 1961
Race Riots, 1962-1973
Vatican II (Second Vatican Council-vernacular mass) 1962-1965
Pennsylvania Station demolished, 1963
First Historic Preservation Program (Columbia), 1964
Black Panther Party, 1965
Chicago Democratic Convention Riot, 1968
Paris Student Riots, 1968
Prague Spring, 1968
Classical America, 1968
Stonewall riots, 1969
Think Global Act Local (Friends of the Earth), 1969
Earth Day, 1970
Chez Panisse (locavore), 1971
International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, 1972
Pruitt Igoe 1972
Roe v Wade 1973
First oil crisis, 1973