Gargoyles and the Great Tradition

The New York Times published two long articles on architecture yesterday, each addressing a major controversy within the field. I’ll take up each in turn, starting with Robin Podgrebin’s profile of Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture.

The main message of the article is that one of the most important architecture schools in the US is led by an aggressive traditionalist who nevertheless has encouraged a diversity of stylistic viewpoints. Stern’s broad-mindedness is all the more remarkable in light of the sneering attacks on him as the architect of choice for any client who wants to rebuild the nineteenth century. Podgrebin quotes New York magazine’s snarky dismissal of Stern as "an architect who specializes in the best nostalgia money can buy." Stern is unapologetic about his own practice, asserting that "there is a parallel world out there — of excellence." He goes on to claim that "You can’t have a world that is built of only original things, where every shape is different from every other. You can, but then it becomes a World Fair. You can’t have caviar five nights in a row." I don’t see why we can’t have a world of original things. Isn’t that what architects do–create unique objects in the world?

Anyway, only an ideologue would insist on an absolute dividing line between the traditional and the modern, and even though his language lapses into polemics sometimes, Stern is not an ideologue.  His opposition between avant-garde architecture and "excellence" is tendentious, but he has a point about the relentlessly new.  It’s not possible to reinvent architectural language with each new project. As Walter Benjamin pointed out, the shock of the new can become lacerating after a while. Worse, it can give a false sense of progress. It’s entirely possible to be absolutely up to date in one’s design tastes and still be retrograde in everything else.

However, it seems equally problematic to pretend that nothing has changed at all. "Tradition" can mean a lot of different things; it’s a word that gets abused more than the "modern." Stern wants to be known as an architect of the traditional. Does this have any other meaning besides "the opposite of modern"? The term "neo-classical," which is sometimes applied to Stern’s work, is hardly any more specific. Too often it also means little more than the not-modern. There are many traditions–in architecture and elsewhere. Invoking the traditional is an act of inclusion and exclusion. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s merely something to be aware of when someone says they’re a traditionalist. Modernism was a famously exclusionary movement, but generally speaking modernists were more honest in their exclusions than traditionalists. When Stern, or anyone else, says he or she is a traditionalist, it doesn’t mean they’re drawing upon a stable, immutable set of customs from the past as a whole. Furthermore, just as embracing the modern has the fringe benefit of seeming hip and cool, the traditional conveys a sense of responsibility, duty, sacrifice, and excellence. I suspect that the secondary effects of both styles, for a lot of people, are their main attractions.

Finally, traditionalism isn’t the same thing as historicism. A lot of new, custom housing in the traditional style–i.e., nothing too modern or too small–is not only ostentatious and wasteful, but stylistically incoherent. I used to live near a townhouse complex advertised as luxury housing. The Georgian-styled façades apparently didn’t convey luxury strongly enough, so the architect endowed each unit with its own a set of gargoyles. At the same time, the traditional isn’t the same thing as the nostalgic. Building in the Georgian style doesn’t mean someone is nostalgic for tricorne hats and horse dung in the streets. The Georgian can also invoke the time when the middle classes were willing to risk their lives for liberty. In this case the Georgian can serve as a rebuke to people who aren’t willing to risk their tax cuts for our nation’s foundational principles. As for the Georgian with gargoyles—I have no idea what that could mean.

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  1. This is a fantastic topic you’ve touched on. I think the starting point is in one’s definition of architecture. I would argue that architecture should “express the reality of an era”, that although it’s not art it is a diagnostic for future generations to know something about us. The Julius Schulman case study photo is iconic, and evocative, in the way that in an instant it captured the feeling of the era, the post-war boom, the optimism, the transparency that people would embrace, the open floorplan broke down the compartmentalized lives that were being lived. Stern’s architecture expresses the idea that our society is uncomfortable with the present, that in living in traditional homes we will somehow live in the era of that home’s style. Nostalgia is rooted in an idealized past and unfulfilled present. That’s what Stern’s architecture expresses. Perhaps its just a brand, a niche he cultivated early in his career as a designer of high-end architecture for Republicans. Its apogee is the Bush library.


  2. The kind of architecture Stern practices is definitely for people who are uncomfortable with the present. It’s ironic that people with high personal ambitions would seek out unchanging designs. I’ve also never understood why affluent professionals prefer ultramodern sleekness in their cars, but chunky nostalgia in their homes. The only explanation I can come up with is that McMansions and Mercedes are both instantly understandable. There’s an overdetermined obviousness to it all. The last thing a person with a heavily-mortgaged neo-Tudor house wants is to answer a lot of questions.


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