Friday, August 12, 2016

Classicism's Status Quo

The Fire of Rome, Hubert Robert - 1765
I want to begin by saying that the use of 'status quo' is not meant to be pejorative, rather a literal recall to the Latin meaning: 'the state of which' Classicism, the contemporary related ideologies based upon Greco-Roman and Western Classical traditions and specifically Classicism as applied to architecture, currently finds itself.

With that clarification in order, I want to use this essay to address a historical question, a contemporary question as well as open a dialogue around the possible future, even resurgence of the Classical tradition, namely:

What became of Classicism's dominance?
What is the status quo of Classicism?
What are the preconditions for a future Classical Renaissance?

The Coup de Grâce

By 476 A.D. the physical city of Rome had decayed into little more than a desiccated husk of its former glory. The sack at the hands of the barbarians was simply a 'coup de grâce', a merciful stroke to end the miserable sufferings of an imploded civilization. Still, Classical traditions simmered in the Eastern empire, among the conquering barbarians, with the church. For a thousand years this was expressed architecturally through broad styles manifesting Classical influences that we now call Romanesque, Gothic and even Islamic. And so, in the 15th century long stirrings began to fluoresce into the recognizable period of Classical Renaissance. The death stroke didn't take.

For four centuries, from the 15th thru the 19th, Classicism again dominated the culture and architecture of Western civilization. However, by the early 20th century she had given out. There was no dramatic finale, no violent conflagration. She had simply collapsed from exhaustion.

What happened? In a word, Industrialization. I know that some of you will protest that Industrialization is inseparable from the progress of science, capitalism, revolution and the philosophies that gave rise to them. I don't dispute that; however, I maintain the position that these and other developments all coalesce into the physical transformation of our world and human culture that is Industrialization. The great intellects of Classical antiquity: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Vitruvius; none of them could have foreseen or prepared us for the havoc that industry would and continues to wreak with human culture. It is completely unprecedented.

The Status Quo

Architectural Classicism, that is to say the contemporary ideologies based on the building traditions of Classical antiquity and the Renaissance, continues to lean heavily for its intellectual underpinnings upon the writings of Vitruvius, Alberti and a handful of other theorists from the Beaux Arts up until the present. Virtually all of them have operated within the tripartite maxim of firmness, commodity and delight. Classicism concerns itself almost exclusively with the formal articulation and refinement of the built environment. That is hardly a criticism, yet at the same time it is no longer sufficient.

For the ancients and Renaissance men, materials and craftsmen were more or less taken for granted. Wood, stone, bricks, plaster and to a lesser degree glass and iron were the materials of architecture and armies of skilled craftsmen supplied them. Similarly, social structures were fixed around a craft or maker economy. The concept of consumable goods applied mostly to food. Architecture was certainly not a consumable even for the very wealthy. There was simply little thought to write about either materials, the craftsmen making them or how their work might contribute to their personal happiness or a better society. It was tradition, it was just how things were and had always been.

However, by the 19th century it became evident that was not how things were to remain. John Ruskin, William Morris and other leading thinkers of the Arts & Crafts movement fiercely campaigned for the constraint of industry to protect the joy that humans experienced in making and the intrinsic social value embedded in traditions. In stark contrast Adolf Loos, Walter Gropius and other leaders of emergent Modernism fully embraced industry and a progressive consumer economy whose surpluses would eliminate what they stigmatized as useless toil. During the same period Classicists largely ignored the social questions and the material qualities of their work, continuing to focus on its formal qualities and further refinements. An examination of period literature reveals that as a collective intelligentsia Classicists had completely missed participation let alone leadership through the most significant transition in human civilization and by the 20th century had become intellectually irrelevant. All that remained were the industrial war efforts to destroy by violence the Arts and Crafts movement, severely diminish Classicism, and lift Modernism to ascendancy in academia and practice as industry's sole hand maiden.

The social, tectonic, ecological and increasingly economical failings of a built environment, now dominated for 70 years by Industrial Modernism, has begun to open up narrow opportunities for at least the consideration of revisiting traditional architectural solutions. Lifted on the crest of Post-Modernism, Classicism has made a small but significant resurgence, particularly in the luxury residential market and likewise has made minor inroads to claiming some presence in academia. Yet, after a couple of decades of growth Classicism has seemed to more or less plateau as a stable if minority participant in the contemporary built environment. What gives?

The Dialogue 

I contend that collectively, as a movement contemporary Classicism still has her head in the sand as far as addressing in an organized fashion the ethical, social, economic, ecology and material questions raised by Industrialization with anything resembling the vigor and coherence of the traditional formal arguments. That being said many individual Classicists are very agitated about the lack of dialogue on some or all of these issues and the stagnation of growth. We cannot look to Vitruvius or Palladio for answers to this current dilemma. Industrialization is unique to our time and we have to address the broad issues it raises on our own. We have to create our own Renaissance.

There are a few, really considered at the fringe of Classicism, that are leading this conversation. Among them I would count myself, bringing a perspective picking up and expanding upon the work developed by the Arts and Crafts movement. Also, I would reference Christopher Alexander and Léon Krier with their respective colleagues. Basically, at these early stages of development I see at least two distinct approaches developing.

First, Classicism's complete embrace of industry, simply displacing Modernism as the preeminent formal language of our built environment without any vigorous attempt at addressing the aforementioned issues, at least for the time being. Emergent advances in automated algorithmic design and robotic production including various 3D technologies are pointed to as means to convert Classicism to the favored consumable architectural product of a global industrial market. Personally I do not favor this approach, at all, not even a little bit as it relegates Classicism to a mere affected style of a rationalized constructed environment, an abandonment of the deeply humanistic germinating power of growth at it's core.

Instead I see Classicism as reasserting its traditional nature. Traditions only pertain to humans, the placing of knowledge in the commons to be shared with successive generations. Local materials and building customs were embedded in the 'genus loci', the Classical 'spirit of the place'. With cheap, proprietary industrial alternatives and construction systems, materials can no longer be taken for granted. Classicism today must build a philosophy around material qualities in addition to formal ones. Furthermore, it is time for Classicism to take the lead in reconciling the seemingly opposite terms of 'ecology' and 'economy'. The Classical Greek root 'eco', 'oikos' (οῖκος) conveyed the sense of home but more than that also of an extended family and estate. Therefore, ecology (logia, λογία) concerns itself with the knowledge of the familial estate needed for the economy (nómos, νόμος), the sustainable management of our living environment, natural and built. This familial consideration concerns itself not just with what things are built but how they are built, who is building them and how that process or hopefully tradition contributes to their happiness as a contributing individual as well as the collective good of human society taking its place in the greater order of the natural world.

Whichever perspective you lean towards or perhaps independently bring to the dialogue the most important thing for Classicism now is that we start talking.

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Contributed by Patrick Webb

1 comment:

  1. A related argument: