Un-Modern Architecture? The Problem with the Word “Traditional”
A friend (an academic, and not an architect) recently passed a book along to me that deserves a wider audience than it no doubt received. Hans Ibelings’ UNMODERN ARCHITECTURE: Contemporary Traditionalism in the Netherlands (NAI Publishers; from the Open Library) is a remarkably objective look at a phenomenon (or a fascination, as the series of which it’s part is called Fascinations) he posits as opposed to the subject of his previous book in the series, SUPERMODERNISM. Ibelings is certainly the only non-partisan architecture critic I’ve come across who can discuss the idea of traditionalism today in ways that are both sympathetic and properly critical (modernists and traditionalists tend to be mostly incapable of one or the other). I’ll let the author speak for himself, but suffice it to say he tackles important issues few have addressed to date, namely standards within tradition, traditionalism’s lack of historical consciousness, the problem of nostalgia, and the lack of real continuity in the tradition. Following are some excerpts:
Traditionalist architecture is like organic food. Once, there was nothing else, and the adjectives were unnecessary. Not anymore: it can no longer be taken for granted that something builds on tradition or is produced in an ecologically responsible way.
Breaking with traditions used to be evidence of radicalism. In the course of the twentieth century, however, innovation has become the norm to such an extent that it has become a new tradition. These days it requires more self-will to be a traditionalist than to surf along on the successive waves of what remains of avant-gardism.
The quality of something that builds on previous forms is much more difficult to gauge [than one that aspires to innovation]. For what should it be judged on if it is not innovative? If it is to be judged on what it represents within its own genre, then it is not only a question of the correct application of the rules, but also of the sense of (and talent for) composition, proportions, refinement in colour, use of materials and detailing. And this immediately sets the bar quite high. The imperfections of the unprecedented experiment can be muffled with the mantle of the love of experimentation, but anything that builds on tradition must measure up against great predecessors.
[F]or tradition, both to the traditionalists of that period (between the World Wars) and those of today, consists only of a vaguely identifiable architectonic past. That past encompasses on the one hand ‘ordinary’ architecture, indicated by the word vernacular, and on the other hand what can loosely be described as classic, timeless architecture.
The foundation of contemporary traditionalism in architecture and urban design lies in European post-modernism, which developed starting in the late 1960s. This is true not only of what is now taking place in Europe, but also of what is going on in the United States under the aegis of New Urbanism. Remarkably little attention is being paid to this in the United States. What’s more, the dominance of the United States has even led to the New Urbanism that took shape there in the early 1990s now being exported to Europe. (In this regard, New Urbanism is not much different from Starbucks, which has been trying to find a niche in the European market with an American interpretation of the European café).
Ibelings’ perceptive observations deserve to be read in full, but allow me to make an observation: the crux of his book hangs on the nature of “tradition,” or being “traditional” today, and the paradoxes, occasional hypocrisy, and inevitable shortcomings of that position he charts as well as its appealing aspects. I would say this: “traditional” is an essentially useless word to define what classicists like myself and a few others (Thomas Rajkovich being one) are about: traditionalism only attempts to distinguish itself from modernism, but embodies no standards or aspirations proper to itself. Instead, a humanist approach to the classical language privileges the rhetorical capacity of that language, valuing not only the rigor inherent in great past achievements but the capacity to say something new. If there is a vital cultural future in recovering our past capacity to build well, it is there and only there.