In Architecture, Historic Revivalism Means Going Forward by Going Back


Reprinted with permission of Wall Street Journal. 1995, Dow Jones & Co. All rights reserved.

Cal Ripken Jr. has the best view of one of the more significant cultural events of the age.

The Baltimore Oriole shortstop is playing in his 2,122nd consecutive game tonight, but even more impressive is Camden Yards, the stadium he usually plays in. (Tonight he's in California.)

Cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago and Arlington, Texas, are building baseball parks that look like the grounds of 70 years ago, and everybody adores them.

Meanwhile, everybody hates the stadiums they used to love, the futuristic megaliths of the 1960s and '70s, such as the Houston Astrodome and Philadelphia's Veterans' Stadium.

Watching Mr. Ripken chase Lou Gehrig's consecutive game record, in throwback park Camden Yards, one gets the feeling that we may be entering one of those periods of historic revivalism, when people move forward by recovering the past.

Revivals happen periodically -- the Italian Renaissance and the American founding of 1776 were two of the grander revivalist moments -- and now the whiff of revivalism is all around.

In economics, the neoclassical school inspired by Adam Smith sets the tone after decades of neglect. In poetry, a formalist school is thriving, bringing back some of the older styles after decades of free-form. And in politics, people on all sides talk of restoring civic institutions and community spirit, a project that leads inevitably back to the ancient Greeks.

Architects were rediscovering sources as far back as the mid-1970s, and some have decided that the past is passe and have thrown away classical references as if they were last year's neckties.

But there is a thriving school of architecture, the neoclassicists, whose members are more advanced in their attachment to the past. They met in Chicago last month to gauge their progress.

"We are in a state of all-out war," the movement's godfather, Leon Krier, declared.

For while the neoclassicists feel the winds of history (and public support) behind them, they are scorned by the architectural establishment.

Feeling embattled at home, they seemed to treasure each other's company at their Chicago conference. Mr. Krier was given a standing ovation before he spoke. Belgian architect Maurice Culot was given sustained applause before his talk, and had to pause for several minutes because he was crying.

Their enemies include the modernists, who built the giant steel and glass towers, the massive public housing projects and the concrete plazas that created what Norman Mailer famously labeled "empty landscapes of psychosis."

But the neoclassicists are also against the more contemporary post-modernists and deconstructionists, who borrow classical forms and add them to their glass and marble towers, corporate parks and other projects -- a fake pediment here, a column there.

The neoclassicists regard this as kitsch, which pilfers indiscriminately from the past, as if it were a toy box, without transmitting any real and universal values.

The neoclassicists believe that the builders of the past created an architectural vocabulary, tested over the centuries, that reflects something universal in human nature.

The buildings they particularly admire -- the Pantheon in Rome, the U.S. Capitol, Thomas Jefferson's quad at the University of Virginia -- communicate messages that have appealed to people for hundreds of years.

The job for current architects, the neoclassicists argue, is to adapt the classical language to immediate needs. "Great

cultures imitate universal ideas while lesser ones copy particular cultures," says Mr. Krier in a rebuke to current conceptions of multiculturalism.

The neoclassicists can certainly be too dogmatically anti-modern, and sometimes their buildings are a little bizarre. You see a building that looks like it dates from 1780, then you discover a neoclassicist finished it in 1984.

But much of their work is beautiful, appropriate and a lot friendlier to humans than the modernist towers they often replace.

Thanks to their patron, Prince Charles, neoclassicists are designing Paternoster Square in London and tearing down a horrible modernist office complex.

Thomas Beeby has designed the new Harold Washington Library in Chicago's Loop, which is controversial but a mixture of classical learning and Chicago toughness.

The neoclassicists are also involved in the new and much praised "urbanist" suburbs -- such as the Disney development in Florida, Celebration -- that are designed to look more like old villages, with common green and active street life, than your normal sprawling American suburb.

There are a lot of Greek-looking columns in their stuff, but it is hard nonetheless to precisely define a distinctive neoclassicist style. What is important is the way they defer to historical authority.

And this is the link between them and revivalist movements in other spheres.

Revivalists put a lot of emphasis on historical continuity and on the slow accretion of knowledge. "Tradition is the bridge between the ideals of the past and the needs of the present," said Robert Adam, one of the speakers at the conference.

Modernists, on the other hand, regard the past as a burden, not a teacher. The power of modernism lies in the "desire to wipe out whatever came earlier," to achieve "a radically new departure," wrote Paul De Man, who was a leading American deconstructionist.

Around World War I, many intellectuals and artists came to the conclusion that they had the power to rip away the confining past and bend history according to their plans. So Lenin tore up the Russian past to create a communist utopia. Artists and writers discarded convention and began their work with a clean slate.

For many architects, the emphasis was on rational planning and sweeping away confusing old idiosyncrasies.

"Is a reasonable urban development thinkable when each inhabitant lives in his own home with garden? I don't think so," said Walter Gropius in 1930. Le Corbusier, one of the most influential urban planners of the century, decided that streets should be cleared so they could be factories for traffic. "Cafes and places of recreation will no longer be a fungus that eats up the pavements of Paris," he wrote.

And if you look at the big developments in American cities -- with oversized plazas and big highways through city centers -- you can see his influence. "There are people who like things as they are. I can't hold out any hope for them. They have to keep moving further away," said Robert Moses, New York's master builder.

Since modernism, artists and some architects have assigned themselves places in the permanent avant-garde, whose job it is to perpetually tear down what came before and to shock the reactionary middle classes.

Modernists thought they could understand and direct history. In much milder form, but in keeping with the spirit of the age, many macroeconomists in the 1960s thought they knew how to fine-tune an economy. The modernist architects thought they could liberate human nature with concrete. These projects were doubtless exhilarating to design, not so great to live in.

Few have that sort of self-confidence anymore. But the various post-modernists, who came next, did not try to tap back into historical authority, but instead decided that there was no authority since little could actually be known and no truths were fixed.

In 1965 Philip Johnson, who went on to design the AT&T; building in New York, was probably just trying to sound with-it when he announced that morality was a sham:

"It's feudal and futile. I think it is much better to be nihilistic and forget about it all. I mean, I know I'm attacked by my moral friends, but really, don't they shake themselves up over nothing?" For many of today's leading academics, the meaning of a building or a set of standards shifts from one moment to the next.

Well, nothing looks so dated as yesterday's vision of the future. ,, Modernism and post-modernism can seem irrelevant fast. The movements produced a few geniuses, but their genius died with them, while the classical style seems to get reborn every century so.

And this may be one of those times. Or, if it is not a neoclassical age, then perhaps it will be at least some sort of historicist one.

In global events, many have noticed that history seems to be thawing, after a century of frozen animation (sometimes with awful results, as in Bosnia). Our international politics is beginning to resemble the politics of the pre-modernist period. That is to say, it is no longer about utopianism (fascist or socialist) or about apocalypse; instead it's just one damn thing after another.

A revivalist period would end a century that had more than its share of arrogance when people thought they could reshape society through revolution (a la Lenin) or understand human nature through science (as some psychiatrists and sociologists did).

The present wouldn't appear as some sort of unprecedented crisis, or as meaningless, and the future wouldn't offer utopia. Rather, we'd just play on, trying to learn from our predecessors and so surpass them -- the way Cal Ripken does.

David Brooks is senior editor of the Standard, a political magazine that begins publication in September.

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