Small Steps and Giant Leaps (Part 1)

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Before returning to the “Reclaiming Classicism” blogs I want to take stock of where we are at; to look at the big picture of where traditional and classical architecture now sits in the overall architectural world.

Challenges

From what I can see, a traditional architectural renaissance is definitely happening but it is slow and only perceptible to those who are closest to it. From such a low base and against such enormous odds, every step forward is bound to feel tiny… it’s only natural. But it is also true to say that at such a stage of renewal, every tiny step will count as an enormous leap forward in the long run.

As traditional architecture is slowly regrowing it is producing small but fundamental changes in people’s attitudes and these changes are rippling out into the wider world, but it is not always easy to predict how those changes will manifest themselves. Opposition from the modernist establishment is to be expected but their arguments are largely running out of steam. The energy of the conflict is petering out leaving both sides trying to make sense of what happens next. The modernist establishment still holds all the control but it is gradually losing confidence in itself. Some positive dialogue is finally possible as the bravado that modernism typically exudes is fading and the glib slogans they use are looking more and more like the tired gags of an aging showman.

Apparent opposition to this  steady but slow progress from within the traditionalist community is harder to understand though. From experience, such opposition comes from those who have stood back, allowing others to make the hard yards. I can understand that for some people these small steps forward are not enough and they feel that a more radical and confrontational approach should be taken, but to want to use this new energy only to vent and expose modernism’s hypocrisies and prejudices is pointless. We have to move on from this form of incrimination because it will waste energy and will get us nowhere.

And if we didn’t need any more evidence of a classical architecture renaissance, we have those jumping on the bandwagon; modernists in classical clothing if you will. There are those who pose as experts and supporters but their understanding is wafer-thin and self-serving. The corrupting influence of these plastic classicists is far more insidious and cancerous than any modernist could hope to be. They adopt an interest in classicism, like they might adopt a sick puppy, only to dump it as soon as the next new fad comes along.

Outrage

As I wrote earlier, small steps at this formative stage can have long-term repercussions, some good and some bad, so it is a vital time to not lapse into negativity. Unfortunately the positive message and example being set by traditional architecture is in some cases being subverted by interests that want to capitalise on the trans-formative energy it is generating. For example there is a small movement on social media that is clearly taking up the important issue of identity that traditional architecture embodies and using it to justify social division. But let me be clear, traditional architecture does not need this dubious form of recognition in any shape or form and should reject it out of hand. To accept such support at this formative stage would only sow seeds that would destroy the very thing they claim to be trying to save. Traditional architecture by its very nature has the goals of social harmony and civic integrity at its very core and so it is incompatible with any fundamentalist viewpoint.

But it’s easy to get caught up in negativity and outrage; we all have certain unconscious biases that can stray into lazy prejudice if we are not careful. We all have had that experience of a colleague, or a neighbour or maybe even a family member spreading casual prejudice about some person or group they have a grudge against. We are put in this horrible position of not wanting to call them out in case of causing more offense, but we feel like we are condoning their views out of politeness. The phenomenon of turning a blind eye is what allows all kinds of prejudices thrive, and we must guard against getting swept up in it.

Outrage and negativity is being continuously stoked by the media because it has become a commodity, used to sell everything from cheaply produced news-stories to questionable political viewpoints. As architecture struggles to redefine itself, it is finding itself vulnerable to being used as a pawn by all sides in a political game it can never win. To really move forward we have to avoid falling into the trap of cheap and distorting outrage, because to give into it is to allow ourselves to be potentially exploited by others and therefore to lose control of the narrative.

At a time when a great wrong is being done, outrage is understandable and indeed necessary, but outrage should only be a last resort and not a knee-jerk reaction. The outrageous damage that modernism continues to inflict on the architectural profession is very real and must be pointed out. But to point it out most effectively, is to lead by a new example. This opportunity has been hard won by those on the front line of traditional architecture over many decades. A new generation of traditional architects need to take up this opportunity to call out the wrongs and to not give into fighting old wars that have long ended in stalemate.

Renaissance or Revolution?

At this stage, we have to ask ourselves are we looking for a renaissance or a revolution? The slow and steady approach is right because it resonates with the approach needed in architecture itself. Too much well-meaning urban generation, conservation and environmental campaigning relies on instant marketing because it has become the tool of choice for every campaign for change. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that if we can sell our message to enough people then change is going to be instantaneous.

Contemporary architecture has become consumed by it’s own marketing, and so traditional architecture must also guard against falling for its’ own hype. We have all become far too accustomed to being treated as consumers rather than civilians but this is an incredibly sad state of affairs where packaging has become more important than content. By all means we should showcase our work but we must resist the pressure to conform to what is expected. We have too much too lose if we go down that slippery slope.

We have to be realistic. The power we have as traditional practitioners is tiny in the grander scheme of things. But it is important that we acknowledge that there are things that we can change and the things that we can’t. Too often we try to control things out of our reach while ignoring the very real powers they have at our fingertips. Power and control even in the most limited fashion is always twinned with responsibility and that can be scary. This is why sometimes we may feel more comfortable in trying to change the world and failing, rather than trying to change what’s right in front of us and succeeding.

It was Rainier Maria Rilke who put it best in his “Letters to a Young Poet” written in 1906 http://www.carrothers.com/rilke8.htm. He talks about real change only happening when times are at their most tough, when we need to be “lonely but attentive”, and not at the times further down the line when everything seems to be changing in a blaze of glory. The real difference is how we react at those insecure times when the past is behind us and the future has yet to take hold. When things are toughest and when we feel most alone, do we react with negativity and fear, beating ourselves up, turning on each other and descending into despair? Or do we accept that although we can’t control much,  we have certain tools at our disposal, no matter how modest they seem, and we should use these tools to the best of our ability.

We all know that foundations have to be laid with great care and attention, and the foundations that we are setting down today are for something far bigger than us, something that we may never see. But that doesn’t mean that we should lose faith or give into hopelessness.

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