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29 April 2010

Know Thyself

OK, a little test for you “traditionalists” out there. How would you label this plan?

If you said “classical,” you are correct. If you said “modernist” (or even thought it) you are a crypto-Romantic neo-medievalist, or possibly a Modernist. Whatever one thinks of Ledoux, or the Enlightenment—and mind you, you don’t have to like this plan or what it represents to call it classical—it is formally ordered according to the most rigorous, and traditional, classical principles. If you see in this what Sitte saw in the Viennese ringstraße of his day, you are by nature suspicious of formal order of a geometric kind. Period. That’s of course fine, but most great architects from Bramante to Gabriel would recognize this instead as something familiar and generally desirable. Today, so many New Urbanists are suspicious of this kind of formal order that they fear it is somehow proto-Modernist. Which is probably why one of the great urban proposals of the latter twentieth century—John Blatteau’s Les Halles design—has received such scant acknowledgement for its merits; indeed, it is doubtful there has been anything better of the kind since it was submitted for consideration more than 30 years ago. And if you fancy yourself a traditionalist and don’t know who John Blatteau is, I do feel sorry for you.