‘Architecture of our time” seems to be the favorite phrase of modernist architects and preservationists alike. It would seem to sweepingly dismiss all forms of tradition as mere nostalgia, and suggest that there exists some style of building that belongs intrinsically to nowadays.
But the history of architecture is not some forward-moving progression of styles, each one more “modern” than the last. Rather, it reveals an endless vacillation between innovation and revival. Like politics, art is a reflection of ourselves, and we, of course, never really change — not in the long run. As soon as we tire of something new, we long for something old.
The most famous architectural revival was the Renaissance. And this was no mere fancy of architects, foisting a nostalgic whim upon content medieval people. Rather, it was an expression of an entire culture that turned away from medieval values and reveled in the rebirth of Rome-like power and order.
This was neither the first nor last such revival. During the Greek Revival of the early 19th century, not only did buildings look ancient Greek, but sculpture, dress — everything really — was similarly restyled. In the late 19th century there arose Victorian architecture in all its eclectic medievalist glory. The Victorians delighted in modern industrial production but also feared it, and their most modern buildings — the great train stations — flaunted the new steel framing whilst dressing it in Gothic ornament. Victorian architecture is full of tension between old and new — a perfect expression of the cultural and social upheavals.
In the 20th century, the modernist “International Style” of architecture almost completely supplanted tradition. Again, this was no conceit of architects, but rather a natural expression of the spirit of the time. The middle of the last century was the era in which mankind tried to make all things new. Eugenics, communism, fascism, nuclear war — all had a chance to try reshaping the world and all were ultimately discredited. Only their architectural expression — the modernist style — survives as the “architecture of our time.”
But is it really still of our time? Have we not finally moved on to something else by now? A quick walk down King Street reveals several interesting developments. Facial hair is back — award-winning beards, muttonchops, moustaches which curl at the ends — oh, the Victorian glory of it! And look at the all-plaid shirts, suspenders, bow ties, and hats! People haven’t dressed like this in eighty years. The new restaurants all have antique Americana themes ; names like “Prohibition” and “Union Provisions” promise interiors with old-timey dark woods and polished brass. And what do they serve but heritage food and archaic spirits in handmade barrels?
So it seems, then, that we are in the throes of an all-out cultural Renaissance. Everything old-fashioned, traditional and handmade has become new and exciting again. The pendulum has swung, as it has countless times before, and it is likely to stay tilted towards tradition for at least as long as it takes for the hipsters to grow old and die and for their grandchildren to think of something else. It seems the only people who have not noticed are the architects and preservationists who still think the architecture of our time is the architecture of sixty years ago. No, modernism, as a cultural phenomenon, came and went, and there is no reason for the very odd style of architecture that it spawned to outlast it. It is time again for traditional building to be revived — not to copy old buildings — certainly not to make the 19th century happen over again just like it did last time. Rather, it is time for architects to really consider how to make tradition a living style once more — to reflect us and our time as much as it reflects the past. I do not know exactly what this will look like, but I know it will be authentic, and very good. The contemporary fashion in clothes, food, drink, etc., is all about quality, craftsmanship, the human touch, a real feeling for the good and the natural.
Architecture reflecting these values will not be cold modern structures with a superficial veneer of ornament. It will be truly traditional — honestly built with authentic and local materials, and beautified with simple, meaningful ornamentation.
Andrew Gould, a designer with New World Byzantine, lives in downtown Charleston and specializes in infill housing and Eastern Orthodox Churches and writes regularly for the Orthodox Arts Journal.