Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

2016: 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 I think you’ll 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). [& Konrad Oberhuber predicted this] [& today on the first day of 2023, authoritarian governments around the world are trying to subvert democracy, even here in America—just as they did 100 years ago.]

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, long hair, and marijuana 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, the downside sometimes meant becoming proto-Modernists of the worst sort: depressed, self-involved, and destructively promiscuous.* Nominally-Socialist but obnoxiously superior upper-middle class intellectuals.

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) often don’t recognize the problem, and b) I’m not anti-Modern. I’m an architect educated in the 20th century who’s made more than my share of pilgrimages to the masterpieces of Modernism 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 at Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, the University of Miami, and the Institute of Classical Art & Architecture tell me I’m a very good teacher, but almost no university in the northeast wants to hire me, because most architecture schools are ideologically Modernist. Somehow, they claim this is in the cause of pluralism.

BUT, and this is an important “but,” their ideological exclusivity is increasingly esoteric and unpopular. There’s no question that society in general has turned a corner.

Modernism was the cultural expression of a good deal of the second half of the 20th century, but we’re in the 21st century now, and for most Americans Modernism is just a style—not a lifestyle or an ideology. It’s normal today to work in a high-tech office and go home at night to a new Traditional Neighborhood. On the way home, we might have dinner at a chic new place with Minimal design, and the next night go to a new French bistro with hundred-year-old tiles imported from Paris, replete with Gauloise stains. This particularly applies to Richard Florida’s “Creative Class” and David Brooks’s “BoBos.”

In a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the paper’s architecture critic talked about a new survey of the hipper-than-hip Millennialsin Silicon Valley. “People love gadgets,” said the sociologist who made the study.

”They all want their own computer and a plasma television, but at the same time they also love the traditional look…. I pressed them for reasons and they explained, ‘We’re working in high-tech impersonal settings all day; we want to go home to Grandma’s house.’ That was the exact phrase one used.”

Princeton surveyed its students and found that the overwhelming majority of its students wanted to live in Gothic colleges while at the university. Since Princeton had already built in the preceding decades what therefore amounted to a two-century supply of Modernist dormitories for only a handful of students, they created a new policy for future building.

The center of the campus, which includes all the undergraduate housing, will be a Gothic zone: new colleges there will be Gothic. (Brief clarification: Princeton is switching from a dormitory system to an undergraduate college system in which each “college” will have a dining hall, a library, and other common facilities. The student survey showed that’s what the undergrads wanted.)

The rest of the campus—with classrooms, laboratory buildings, athletic buildings, parking garages and the like—will be the “anything goes” zone. Construction has started on Whitman College, a new Gothic quadrangle designed by the second winner of the Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture, Demetri Porphyrios. At the same time, the university announced a gift of an increasingly ubiquitous Gehry-designed building on the edge of the campus.

Much of the money for Whitman College was donated by Meg Whitman, the young Chairman of eBay (a BoBo). While the Gehry building was donated by the octogenarian Princeton alumnus Peter Lewis, Gehry’s biggest patron. For ideological reasons, Whitman is more likely to appreciate Gehry’s design than Lewis is to like the new Gothic building. Gehry himself ungraciously and publicly criticized Whitman College, as did Robert Venturi, who has designed several important buildings at Princeton.

I say “ungraciously” not only because they are biting the hand that feeds them: why does Gehry feel that it is his role to lecture the students and tell them they must like what he likes? He went so far as saying that an institution of higher learning should not build a traditional building today. (How tolerant and pluralistic is that?)

A decade or two ago, Princeton only considered famous Modernists like I.M. Pei, Minoru Yamasaki, or Charlie Gwathmey for new commissions. But now, Princeton will build a genuinely Traditional building. In that decision, they are joined by colleges and universities all around the country, some of whom are also tearing down or recladding their Modernist buildings. Some are doing that for aesthetic reasons, some because their Modernist buildings require too much maintenance, and some for both reasons. [2023: For the latest update, see Mark Hewitt’s article on the Common Edge website.]

A recent article in the Harvard Crimson said,

“The decades-long debate over whether Mather House or the Leverett House towers holds the dubious distinction of being the ugliest residence on campus may have just been settled once and for all—thanks to the opening of One Western Avenue, Harvard’s newest, and perhaps most hideous, graduate school housing unit.”

The title of the article was, Snap, Yo’ Momma’s Uglier than One Western Avenue.

The architect of One Western Avenue is also the chair of the urban design department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). It’s believed this is one of several actions by the GSD faculty and administration that led Harvard President Lawrence Summers to recently snub the school while deciding what to do about the enormous campus expansion he’s planning on the other side of the Charles River from the main campus.

The new section of the campus will eventually be as big as the old campus is now. To the consternation of the GSD, it seems that every Harvard department except the GSD is represented on the committees studying the expansion. Naturally, the school’s architects, landscape architects, and urban designers think they are the faculty whose advice is most needed, and they publicly complained in the Boston Globe. (To see Globe’s story about this, click here.)

What has brought us to the situation in which the President of Harvard University avoids his own design faculty (rated number one in America) when he wants design advice? Plain and simple, it’s the result of too many bad new places made and endorsed by the faculty, accompanied by an ideological stance among the architectural establishment and its educators that is out of step with the culture at large.

President Summers doesn’t want a polemical statement: he wants an open-minded examination of how to best expand Harvard. He wants to know what will lead to the best result, and evidently feels he won’t get that from his own faculty.

This ideological rift between the leaders of the architectural profession and the rest of society is a new phenomenon. When Harvard brought Walter Gropius from Germany to run the architecture school before World War II, he was embraced by Harvard, Boston, and much of the American establishment. Gropius set up a seminar program for Fortune 500 leaders that led to built results such as Lever House and the Seagram Building on Park Avenue and the Prudential Tower in the Back Bay. The New York Times, the Boston Globe, Time and Fortune lauded them. Harvard itself hired Gropius to build on its campus, and his firm The Architects Collaborative became the largest and most important firm in New England.

Architects like Gropius were in the vanguard of that significant cultural change. Architects now, while saying that they are promoting the new and the different, are actually fighting to maintain the status quo.

New and different were the buzzwords of Virginia Woolf in 1910, and Gropius in 1940. They are essential words in the philosophy of Modernism, which quintessentially sees itself as a force for change in a Traditional world. What is obviously different now is that Modernism is more than a hundred years old, and the dominant philosophy for the last fifty of those, if not longer. New and different today should mean something other than a Modernist monoculture. As expressed by the leaders of the GSD, it’s the same old thing.

Almost a hundred years after the change described by Woolf, we are beginning to change just as radically again. This is not a rejection of Modernism, but it is as different from Modernism as Modernism was from the culture of our great-grandparents in the early 20th century.

This is exactly what most of society wants. Who opposes the change? Professional Modernists. They are the ones afraid of the sort of evolution and change described by Virginia Woolf.

* Why “destructively”? Because it led so frequently to unhappiness and worse.

** Herbert Muschamp, of course.

Harvard’s architects say: How about us?

About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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