My forthcoming book, The Humanists versus the Reactionary Avant Garde
, is very close to publication. Here is one last preview of the book before it is published:
Anyone who cares about architecture constantly runs into
catch phrases that are used to dismiss traditional architecture. Any
architecture that learns from earlier styles is “nostalgic,” it looks like it
belongs in a “theme park,” and it is not “of our time.”
These catch phrases get in the way of developing
architecture that responds to the real needs of our time, so we should make it
clear that they catch phrases are hollow.
Before 1920, the word “nostalgia” referred to a medical
condition found in soldiers who were so traumatized by battle that they had a
pathological desire to return to home. The word was first used in 1920 in its
current sense, to mean a generalized longing for the past. The current sense
became popular because the modernist movement of that time needed the word.
If you look at the writing of that time, you will see that
modernists were willing to use wildly utopian models of the future, but they
criticized people who used any models from the past. The best-known futuristic
model is the communist ideal of an industrial workers’ utopia, a favorite of
intellectuals of the early and mid twentieth century. Architects. We have seen
that city planners used equally extreme futuristic models, such as Le
Corbusier’s radiant city.
In reality, it is obviously best to choose on a case-by-case
basis whether to use models from the past or from the future, thinking in each
case about which model does the most to enhance our well-being—rather than
automatically rejecting the past in favor of progress or automatically
rejecting the future in favor of tradition. We should not let an empty catch phrase
like “nostalgia” stop us from thinking about which model is best in any given
For example, New Urbanists have designed neighborhoods laid
out like the old streetcar suburbs because they think it is better to live
where you can walk to shopping and other services, rather than living in a
sprawl suburb where you have to drive every time you leave home. But New
Urbanist developments also use up-to-date heating, air-conditioning, and
kitchen equipment, unlike the original streetcar suburbs, which used coal for
cooking and heating and had no air conditioning.
They are not nostalgic for the days when the streetcar
suburbs were built, when coal was the main fuel and when women did not have the
right to vote. But they do see that we can learn some things from those days,
if we think about them in enough detail to avoid what was bad but learn from
what was good about them. They see that they can get the best result by learn
how to build walkable neighborhoods from past models, and by using the most
advanced technologies when they are appropriate.
Theme Park Architecture
Avant gardists often say that traditional architecture looks
like a “theme park.” They are right that today’s traditional architecture
sometimes looks artificial, when the architects are using traditional styles
decoratively without really believing in them, but they do not notice that
their own avant-gardist architecture also looks artificial, because they use
futuristic styles decoratively without really believing in them.
They forget that the original Disneyland included
“Tomorrowland” as well as “Main Street, USA.”
The modernists chortled when Disney Corporation built
Celebration, Florida—a New Urbanist town was built by our most famous theme
park-developer. But a few years later, we also got Walt Disney Concert Hall in
downtown Los Angeles, a Frank Gehry building that looks like a shiny
Which of these two is more like a theme park? By definition,
a theme park is built to lure tourists with experiences that they cannot get
Celebration was designed as a Victorian town because that is
the sort of place where its residents want to live. Its architecture is
sentimental, but it was not designed to attract tourists like a theme park.
There is one architect today who is famous for his ability
to attract tourists. When he built the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, its
bizarre design attracted so many gaping tourists that it revitalized the city’s
economy. After that success, cities all over the world wanted similar buildings
to stimulate their economies by attracting tourists—and Los Angeles got him to
design Walt Disney Concert Hall to revitalize its downtown by attracting those
gaping tourists. There is no doubt that Frank Gehry is our most successful designer
of theme park architecture—but many other avant gardists are trying hard to
Sometimes our neo-traditional architecture looks something
like a theme park, but our avant-gardist architecture looks even more like a
theme park. Most of our traditional neighborhood developments are
“historically themed,” while most of our museums and cultural centers are
“themed” in the avant-gardist style.
By contrast, some buildings inspired by classical styles do
not seem to be “themed,” because the classical vocabulary is so central to the
history of western architecture, and because the architects believe in what
they are doing. For example, the projects by Quinlan Terry and David Mayernik
mentioned earlier do not look like theme park architecture. They simply look
like they belong in London and in Italy. Likewise David Schwartz’s Schermerhorn
Symphony Center in Nashville does not look “themed”: classicism is so engrained
in our history that it simply looks like a civic building should look.
Architecture of Our Time
As another common catch phrase, avant gardists claim that
only modernist architecture is “of our time.” But this architecture does not
respond to the needs of our time: the last thing we need in our time is to
ignore human values and to adopt every flashy technology purely for the sake of
being new and different.
The modernism of the early and mid-twentieth century really
was of its time. This architecture was appropriate to a scarcity economy that
needed new technology to bring prosperity. It was the appropriate architecture
for a culture that wanted to throw away any limits to progress and to build its
way out of every problem.
Since the 1970s, though, there has been a change in
sensibility as our culture has moved beyond this sort of technophilia.
This change in sensibility has occurred in our attitude
toward food. Imagine people saying that they eat mass produced white bread and
McDonalds hamburgers because they are “of our time,” while artisanal bread and
food made from locally grown ingredients are just examples of “nostalgia” about
how food used to be made. Everyone would see that they are wrong to think that
we should decide what to eat based on which foods are modern, rather than on
which foods are the healthy and tasty. And everyone would see that they are
even more wrong to think this modernist approach to food is “of our time”: it
actually was common during the mid-twentieth century, but we have moved beyond
it since the 1960s and 1970s.
This change of sensibility has occurred in city planning.
Imagine people saying that they support building new freeways that slice
through urban neighborhoods, because freeways are the transportation “of our
time,” while people who want walkable neighborhoods are just “nostalgic” for
the way people used to get around. Everyone would see that were wrong to decide
what sort of cities to live in based on what is modern, rather than on what
sort of neighborhood is most livable, convenient, healthy, and sustainable. And
everyone would see that they were even more wrong to think that this modernist
approach is “of our time”: it actually was common during the mid-twentieth
century, but we have moved beyond it since the 1960s and 1970s.
This change of sensibility has happened across the culture,
but the architectural establishment has missed it. The change began to occur
among serious postmodernist architects, but the reactionary avant garde
rejected it. As in other fields, everyone should see that the architectural
establishment is wrong to think we should decide how to design our buildings
based on what is modern, rather than on how livable and how attractive the buildings
are. And everyone should see that they are even more wrong that this modernist
approach is “of our time,” when it is actually a step backwards to the 1950s