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11 March 2010

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.

—p. 13

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.

—p. 19

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.

—p. 30

[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.

—p. 47

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).

—p. 55

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.


  1. Hi David,
    I have to disagree. When we were setting up INTBAU we found that the idea of tradition was a crucial watershed that found a resonance in people around the world, who see their own traditions being run over by globalising modernism.
    It's all very well for Ibelings to dismiss tradition in a series of sound bites about Europe and new Urbanism, but what of our members in Nigeria, who see their millennium-old tradition of earth architecture being swept away by bland international modernism?
    The idea of tradition allows us to view history not as something that is past and that we are copying, but as something we have inherited that lives through us and lives by iteration, that we can pass on in turn to our inheritors.
    Tradition today is in its infancy as a built architecture. Ibeling's complaints are as if the Gothic Revival was to be abandoned in 1790 because the results weren't good enough. We will improve over time, and criticism and debate like this will help our current practitioners to improve, and for the next generation to surpass this. It's not true to claim - as Ibelings appears to - that there was nothing for our current generation to inherit: that is to accept modernism's false claim to have eliminated all traditions everywhere. They did survive, weakened, but the majority of all building has usually owed something to tradition. We need to restore tradition to life, and nurture it with care and a bit cross-breeding for hybrid vigour, to again take its place as a mature series of practices in building.
    I would argue that classicism is always simply a refinement of a local tradition. Thus classical it is not a style, but an adjective, representing a refinement and crystallisation of the principals of any traditional architecture. One may speak therefore of a classical period in any style of architecture. But it is always a high-style development of a tradition, and it risks becoming an irrelevant affectation in the absence of a strong tradition of building.

  2. Dear Matthew,

    I fully acknowledge "traditional"'s marketing appeal, but I was speaking more about its value as a set of critical standards--which, I maintain, it simply doesn't have apart from distinguishing itself from "modernism." It simply means too many different things to too many different people. "Classical," too, is a bit of a loose, baggy monster, but by appending "humanist" I hope to make clearer a more specific, broader, and deeper cultural context: one that sees the rhetorical aspect of language, rather than mundane tectonics, as the motivator and measure of architecture's cultural (as opposed to market) aspirations.