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America’s Greatest Architect Is A Conservative By: Robert Locke
FrontPageMagazine.com | Sunday, May 06, 2001

ALMOST EVERYONE dislikes modern architecture. For most people, it is simply a truism that our beautiful buildings are almost always our old ones and that 95% of our modern buildings are ugly. "Uglymodernarchitecture" trips off the tongue so easily as to almost be a single word. There are exceptions, but the pattern is unmistakable. When it comes to multi-building environments, what used to be called neighborhoods or cities when we still built these things, the situation is even worse: no more than a handful of any quality were built between WWII and the recent revival of traditionalism. Architecture is particularly worthy of public debate because it is an art form the public can't choose to avoid and therefore has a right to have a say in. It is also the art that creates public spaces, the physical incarnation of our res publica ("the public things") or republic, giving it greater civic significance than other art forms. Therefore it gives me great pleasure to report that this is the only part of the culture war we are actually winning right here and now. Though plenty of others deserve credit, this is in large part the work of one man: architect Robert A.M. Stern, who has spearheaded the return to traditional architecture in this country.

Mr. Stern, 61, is originally from Brooklyn. He was educated at Columbia and Yale. He is now head of Yale's School of Architecture and a practicing architect with offices in New York City. He is not just a boutique classicist (like the exquisite but impractical Englishman Quinlan Terry, who builds only a few buildings a year) but a full-scale commercial architect who keeps busy a staff of 150. His commercial success, of course, may have something to do with the fact that people actually want to live and work in, or next to, his buildings. Local communities have been known to demand that developers use him, or someone like him, as their architect.

Mr. Stern's career has focused on repairing the damage done to our built environment and, just as importantly, to our thinking about it, by modernism. In his early career, he tried to do this with the then-new techniques of postmodern architecture, but he had the honesty to realize that these do not work and in recent years (since about 1985) he has done so using the far richer resources of traditionalism. Though there are other very fine American traditionalist practitioners (Allan Greenberg, John Blatteau, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk) and other deep-thinking and combative theorists of traditionalism (Henry Hope Reed, Leon Krier) he is the one who has gotten the most built and has had the biggest impact on how the next generation of architects is being trained. Because of his work as a teacher, his shadow will last at least a generation.

Stern brings forthright (and surely justified) moral indignation to the practice of architecture in contemporary America. He writes, as many of us must have thought from time to time, that, "the public is entitled to buildings that do not, by their very being, threaten the aesthetic and cultural values of the buildings around them."

This may sound like ordinary reasonableness, but it is the exact opposite of the prevailing architectural ideologies of the past half-century. People just take it for granted that modern architecture produces harsh, alienating structures, but in fact this was the quite deliberate product of the invasion of the architecture schools by modernists who believed in precisely this as a matter of deliberate principle. If one reads the theoretical writings of the people who invented modern architecture, one finds a horror of "petit-bourgeois sentimentality," i.e. anything that is even slightly cozy, gracious, or humane, words that they would have laughed at. I once heard a modernist who was appalled that anyone could take Stern's buildings seriously call his work "architectural comfort food," and I wanted to ask what this person eats for dinner and whether the public is really obliged to share his apparent taste for discomfort.

Stern sees the problem as fundamentally one of values: aesthetic values. The buildings of the past were attractive because they incarnated the right aesthetic values, and these values can be rediscovered, applied, and taught to a new generation. To frame the problem in terms of values, rather than in terms of mere "styles," as critics tend to do, shifts the debate and links it to the more general issue of values versus relativism.

Furthermore, because architecture is the public art par excellence, Mr. Stern sees architecture as embodying certain public values. Public values are not only the high values of republican idealism that are expressed in such buildings as the US Capitol, they are also the common main-street values of community that are expressed in the town square of a small Midwestern town.

Nowadays, that town square is probably empty, the population having decamped to the nearest privately-owned mall, and this is a problem if we take seriously having a basic sense of civic community to underlie our democracy. It is not enough for us to have an abstract, intellectual concept of our common community; we need to have places that enable us to go there and feel it as a real sensation. There's a reason they held that rally in Tiananmen Square, not a parking lot. And of course the same is true of other, humbler, values. Anything less makes us live in either a fantasy world or an abstraction with no emotional substance to give it depth, resonance, stability, and a sense of being shared with others. And it is architects and town-planners who build these public spaces. In response to this problem, Robert A.M. Stern master-planned the town of Celebration, Florida, a prime exemplar of the "new urbanism" movement that seeks to restore public spaces with the deliberate intent of furthering a sense of community.

So what destroyed our traditional built environment? Stern distinguishes between modernism as a style and modernism as a philosophy. Modernism was a mere style (and occasionally even a beautiful one) that upset the aesthetic order of our culture because it arrogantly aspired to be a philosophy of aesthetics as such. Stern has thought through this problem as it pertains to architecture, but his thinking is so profound that it may usefully be studied by anyone concerned with the problem of modernism in all spheres of our culture.

Stern forthrightly endorses one of the principal insights of real conservatives everywhere: that modernity is a disruptive force in our lives, something that must be consciously resisted. He sees traditionalism as a way to tame it. His aim is, as he puts it, "to link up in as many ways as possible with the past in order to ameliorate the impact of the radical changes imposed on our society by science and technology."

This is far more suited to the furtherance of human happiness than the self-confessed mission of the avant-garde to jangle our senses and soften us up for revolution. It is also ambitious enough to give architecture dignity of purpose, to connect it to the larger aims of our culture. (Not to mention being interestingly suggestive of what we should be doing in other art forms.) But since it is incremental, not revolutionary, it is also plausible and honest. It is the classic Burkean conservative view that the maintenance of tradition enables us to accept those innovations that are useful with a minimum of disruption. Though strictly irrelevant, it comes as no real surprise to learn that Stern is openly and thoughtfully a Republican.

Stern does not deny that we are moderns as a matter of simple fact, but he ruthlessly questions whether this means we must submit to an abandonment of what is best in our heritage in the name of a philosophical cult, modernism, that claims to prove that the mere date on the calendar obliges us to do so. The modernist demand for architecture "of our time" is a big tautology, what he calls "zeitgeist-driven pontification." Again, this may seem obvious, but it is shockingly the reverse of what has been taught -- and built -- for 50 years. Frankly, it reflects badly on the weakness of the conservative mind that we have allowed such obvious intellectual nonsense to go unchallenged for so long.

Stern accepts the validity of some modern architecture, but, as he puts it, "I aligned myself with T.S. Eliot and others who want the new but not at the expense of the old. I am a modern, but I think there is a vast difference between the obsessional zealousness of Modernism and the subtle complexities of modernity."

Stern would argue that if he builds in a traditional style today, then that style is ipso facto contemporary, just as the railroad stations built like Roman temples in early-20th-century America were authentically contemporary to the years they were built, not to the first century. The key problem, in his view, is that modernity the fact was hijacked by Modernism the ideology.

As he puts it,"Modernism was an attitude towards the making of things that sought to free itself from any reference to the past, but went further by its rejection of historical values and advocacy of change at all cost."

Modernism began as a not-unreasonable attempt to get back to first principles in aesthetics in order to avoid choking on the excessive richness of culture that had accumulated in Western Civilization by the end of the 19th century. But these first and highly abstract principles, once recovered, should have led to subsequent principles that were not abstract, and from there to a reconstructed appreciation for those parts of our heritage whose value was vindicated by the refreshed critical eye.

But instead, modernism got stuck on its rejection of history and soon discovered that, "having cut the thread of historical continuity insofar as artistic production is concerned, the Modernist had no sources for his art outside the circumstances of its commissioning and the wellspring of his own perceptions. As a result, Modernist art is at once materialistically determined and self-referential."

Its determination by materialism led to the obsessive idea that buildings must be beautiful "in their own right," independently of any ornamentation, which is so hard to do as to almost guarantee failure in most cases. Its self-referential aspect is most visible in the solipsistic withdrawal into the mind of the artist as the only possible fount of creativity, independent of history, context, social meaning, or anything else. But this produces a mess that is not improved by the subsequent attempt to drag utterly irrelevant factors into architecture to fill the giant void it creates.

As Stern says, "It is not enough for buildings to express the architect's tortured soul or psyche, or the painstaking processes of design that lead to the final product, or some abstruse literary theory or compositional game."

All these things play far too big a role these days in "cutting-edge" architecture. Architectural theory has been responsible for more bad philosophy than any other discipline in recent years, surpassing even literary criticism, though infatuated with the same fashionable nihilists like Jacques Derrida. Stern's dry retort to the entire school of "deconstructionist" architecture is unanswerable: "architecture is the art of construction, not deconstruction."

Like any serious conservative (and contrary to modernist myth) Stern has well-thought-out reasons, not mere personal nostalgia, for defending tradition as good for moderns like us.

He writes that, "to be modern we must also cultivate tradition, lest we drown in the placeless materialism of an architecture that without a past would all too easily surrender our humanistic values to those of a continually evolving materialism"

This is the classic conservative position on the problem of materialism in a society that is and ought to be capitalist: do not deny it, but ameliorate it with a traditionalism that expresses values other than those of the marketplace. The answer to the visual domination of our society by the aesthetic values and images of the ruthless economic here-and-now (read "corporate logos everywhere") is recourse to our history and pre-existing national identity. Thus architecture is a patriotic art form, because it draws on national traditions and expresses meanings that restate those traditions.

As Stern unabashedly puts it,"I believe architecture is a story-telling art, a narrative. The story I seek to tell is that of America, or more precisely what it means to be an American."

This is shocking heresy to the thinkers who created modern architecture, or to the pseudo-conservative corporate globalists who spew identical glass boxes onto every continent. They both worship pure, rational, placeless, ahistorical abstraction. In contrast, Stern grasps through the lens of architecture that globalism is one of the central problems of our time. Notice that he explicitly says "American" in the quote above.

He writes that his aim as an architect is, "to protect the specifics of local place and culture in the face of the onslaught of mass communications and mass tourism."

His buildings observe the local and traditional styles of their locales, satisfying our legitimate craving for a sense of place and for attachment to local and specific cultural identities.

Stern is the opposite of contemporary one-trick pony architects who seem principally interested in building a recognizable brand image for themselves by erecting similar structures from Bilbao to Biloxi. They arrogantly ignore local traditions that embody centuries-old cultural identities which sustain entire nations and represent the carefully accumulated aesthetic wisdom of humanity. Modernism repudiated these local architectural traditions and postmodernism regards them as just arbitrary constructs to be deconstructed by those in the know, i.e. toyed with in an attitude of smug superiority. Traditionalism takes them seriously and does not try to destroy, repress, or patronize them. It is thus the philosophy of real freedom, diversity, and equality, values that modernists espouse but do not practice. One of the most fascinating things about Stern's intellectual career is the way he has been able to turn the "pluralism" rhetoric of modern liberalism against the puritan rigidities of modern architecture. On the level of sheer polemic, the opposition has met its match in this man.

As mentioned above, our side is doing well in this part of the culture war. Stern and other traditionalists have been so successful in recent years in scooping up the most attractive commissions that there is a mounting sense of frustration in certain quarters of the avant-garde at their inability to get their bleeding-edge designs built. There is at least one famous avant-garde architect (Bernard Tschumi, famous for his theoretical works, not actual buildings) who had to have the university where he runs the architecture school (Columbia) give him an on-a-plate commission to end the embarrassing fact that he hadn't built a single full-scale building yet. Avant-garde critics like Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times deplore the current traditionalist trend and equate it with the same national dementia that they think put Reagan in the White House.

Architectural modernism lives on, but it is in big trouble. Even its friends admit it has run out of places to go, though they deny that traditionalism can ever be more than nostalgic commercial kitsch with no validity for culturally serious people. Modernism remains trapped in a rut of aesthetic revolution as an end in itself. This may have been interesting 80 years ago, but it has since degenerated into an urge to destroy the organically-developed aesthetic order of our cities and countryside for its own sake. Even worse, for no sake at all, because the dogma has been so deeply internalized as to become habit, reinforced by construction practices, building codes, and the expectations of a public that assumes it can get nothing better. Every aesthetically ambitious building has to scream, "Look at me! Everything else is just background."

But as Stern notes with just a trace of a well-deserved intellectual smirk, "The idea of perpetual shock has become an institutionalized phenomenon in art, not without some jeopardy to the production of meaning."

He observes that the avant-garde has succeeded in creating a culture that is so used to radically-new designs that, "I think it is very hard to be radical in that sense anymore, because the media swallows up new, even contrary ideas so quickly."

In other words, the avant-garde suffered the fate of getting what it wanted: a public consciousness reshaped to experience their endless innovation as normal. But if this is normal, how is it avant-garde ("advance guard") of anything? The result: an aesthetic arms race with a culture that already has such frenzied innovation and such wide-open tolerance that the old scandalize-the-bourgeois move just doesn't move much anymore.

Come to think of it, radical innovation is really rather a quaint notion, redolent of the old European national cultures with fixed understandings of things and real institutions and traditions that actively fought change. This is all gone in early-21st-century America, but the avant-garde keeps rebelling against it as if it were still there. What traditions are left to rebel against in America, 2001? Maybe a very few if one looks hard enough, but flouting them now is so hard to do that it tends to slide into self-parody through sheer weirdness, as in the case of lawns-on-the-roof architect Rem Koolhas. Frankly, there is now more fun to be had poking holes in modernism itself, which some architects, like the elegantly playful Miami firm Arquitectonica, do all the time, and without walloping us over the head with the fact that they are doing so. Now that the tired and outdated cultural trope of endless rebellion is fading, a sophisticated drawing on tradition like Stern's is obviously a far richer aesthetic attitude. He has nearly 3,000 years of western architectural tradition to draw on. You can't beat that with a small bag of tricks from the Weimar Republic jagged up with some trendy references to cyberspace.

The avant-garde mentality was based on the obsessive conviction that tradition is a millstone around the neck of the free expression of individual talent. But in fact, tradition is more like a language without which we can only grunt, because we need the tradition to assign recognizable meanings to things. Too much freedom imprisons the creative artist in its own emptiness. This is how the classic American concept of ordered liberty applies to the problem of aesthetic creativity.

Or as Stern puts it, "to be an architect is to possess an individual voice speaking a generally understood language of form."

That is to say, architecture is dependent on a language that precedes the existence of the individual architect. Although new architectural languages can develop, like spoken languages, this is hard to do, rare, and tends to produce the architectural equivalent of Esperanto, especially if pushed too hard: an empty intellectual game, meaningless to the public. Gibberish, or screaming. For the most part, effective architecture means using the established language, which means that architecture is of its essence mainly a conservative art form.

Stern faces this squarely: "I think of myself as radically conservative... I am, and I think every architect is, a conservative. To build is to establish. In the same sense that you are conserving values, you reaffirm values."

Stern's frank concern with meaning sets him apart from a group of architects, the post-modernists, that he is sometimes lumped in with. Postmodernism, though it rejects the plain boxes of modernism, shares with it an explicit horror of meaning in architecture. But whereas modernism drove out all meanings in favor of pure form and pure function, postmodernism allows them back in so long as they are coated with a thick enough layer of irony that one knows that the building (i.e. the architect) doesn't really mean it. The columns on the front of the building don't signify the continuity of our civilization's values; they're visibly glued on, et cetera. Some of the more pretentious postmodern architects still under the influence of Marxism have even claimed that this irony enables the viewer to possess true freedom of aesthetic perception because it enables him to distance himself from the "commodifying" effects of being taken in by all that "bourgeois consumerist" decoration. So long as the viewer knows it's a con, he's allowed to enjoy being fooled. In practice, this leads to a kind of snide and superior game-playing, in which those in-the-know stand above the poor man in the street. It is a great irony (which is itself an irony, given that we are discussing postmodern architecture. This stuff can make your head spin, as it is indeed designed to do.) that the most elitist royal palaces of the old world were never designed on the supposition that one had to be a member of the elite to find them beautiful. In fact, one begins to suspect that the proudly espoused P.C. egalitarianism of this crowd has somehow led them to overcompensate by inventing a kind of aesthetic elitism to restore their egos. (By the way, didn't irony as a style peak a while ago? Have these would-be trendies caught the hip train, or are they just chasing it?)

Unlike the avant-garde architects who tacitly claim to look down on our culture from a position of superiority, Stern explicitly disavows such arrogance, writing that, "As an architect I have seen as my mission to try to express, to represent, the values of American culture as I see them; not to impose values upon it."

This is a good country; it is enough to give physical expression to the values it already has. Mr. Stern has a razor-sharp eye for the outright frauds of modernism.

As he puts it, "To me, the ultimate vulgarity in architecture is not the fulsome exploration of form, but the false pretensions of minimalism; of loft-like settings with affluent people sitting around on tortured metalwork, debating million-dollar paintings."

This is, of course, the architectural expression of the bohemian bourgeoisie or bobos I wrote about in another FrontPage article. It is worth noting how un-bohemianly bourgeois the impeccably-dressed Mr. Stern is in person (I met him once). The avant-garde loves to throw complaints about "authenticity" at architects of his kind, but this is an argument they can't win, as he is exactly what he pretends to be.

One of the strengths of traditionalism is that it can absorb criticism because it is a broad-based movement whose validity is attested by centuries of achievement, not a brittle ideology that can't afford to be wrong about anything. Even the most ardent architectural traditionalist recognizes that it has some potential pitfalls, namely caricature, crude pushing of emotional buttons, and an amnesiac dishonesty about the subtleties, rigors, and dark sides of the past. Stern has shown, in words and deeds too complex to go into here, that he is aware of these challenges and has met them. He has also, in his PBS series on American architecture, "Pride of Place," sought to raise the public's awareness of architecture as an issue.

But despite his idealism, Stern does not, unlike the modernists, harbor bombastic or utopian ideas about what architecture can achieve. They thought architecture could change the world. Housing projects like St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe, so miserable to live in that it was demolished even though it was still functional, were the result. Stern recognizes that architecture can mostly aspire simply to do no harm and give expression to values that it does not create.

He writes that, "Architecture is the stage on which humanity plays out its ever-changing drama. It is the stage, not the drama; the setting, not the performance."

This self-discipline on his part about the ultimately limited significance of what he does enables him to focus successfully on doing it well. Stern quite explicitly sees being an architect as a responsibility, to the public and to our culture.

Stern's actual buildings ( I suggest you go see one from the list at the bottom of this article) have the classic sign of really fine buildings: they not only look good themselves, but make everything around them look better. They establish a sense of place, reinforce a sense that was already there, or best yet, bring a latent one into visibility. One of Stern's hallmarks is his ability, rare among big-name architects, to design buildings that are quiet, understated, and don't insist on being the most important building in the area. They acknowledge that the neighborhood may have a valid visual order in place already, an order that needs to be reinforced, not disturbed. This is not surprising coming from a man who once headed Columbia's architectural preservation school.

I have two personal favorites among Stern's buildings. The first is 222 Berkeley St. in Boston's Back Bay, one of the most famous 19th-century neighborhoods in all of urban America. This building is 22 stories high, but it looks almost organic, uncreated, in its effortlessly deft symphony of traditional motifs. It is refined without being effete. It does not try to deny being a skyscraper, but acknowledges the right of the buildings around it to set the tone of the neighborhood. It instantly looks like it belongs there, as if it was "born there" and grew naturally out of its Boston environment. It reinforces the atmosphere of the place. It belongs. With the possible exception of Philadelphia, there is not another city in the world in which one could envisage it. This is as it should be.

The second building is the South Quadrangle dormitory at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. This building has an unashamedly luscious yellow-and-white columned classical facade that, while it is well-precedented in Carolina architecture and redolent of the traditionalism and graciousness of the American South at its best, is almost European (one thinks of St. Petersburg) in its sculptural perfection and finesse. It is delicate without being prissy, aristocratic without being bombastic. It, too, seems organic, like a whole in which no part is out-of-place or arbitrary. It has that rarest quality in large buildings, that combination of solidity and lightness that modernists thrash around with concrete and glass trying to achieve but seldom do. It quietly bespeaks idealism to the students who reside in it. Its creamy sunlit octagonal rotunda is almost too good for rowdy undergraduates.

Graciousness, harmony, and poise are of course much harder to achieve than mere architectural noise. It takes a great deal of ego-discipline to do what Mr. Stern does in our age of artistic narcissism, not to mention the brains to realize that mere loudness doesn't make the best music.

Because architecture is a client-service business, and because some purposes demand a contemporary style, Mr. Stern has sometimes found himself required to give his clients modern or postmodern architecture, and he has proved he can do this just as well as architects who do nothing else. His Feature Animation Building for Disney in Burbank, California, graced with an 80-foot wizard's hat from an old Mickey Mouse movie, is one of the wittiest pieces of postmodernism ever built, despite the plodding in-jokes in which this style abounds. His Venetian-influenced Casting Center at Disney World is one of the few postmodern buildings in existence that handles history playfully without making it seem like the butt of an aesthetic joke. And despite being a master of gracious traditionalism, he was also the designer of a building (now demolished to make way for a skyscraper) on New York's Times Square that was quite the flashiest thing in that notoriously unquiet locale, which demanded nothing less. This chameleonism, this ability to distill the inner essence of any style and then produce entirely original new examples of it, suggests a mind that has mastered not merely one or two styles but architecture as such. This is rare, though the best American architects, like Frank Lloyd Wright, Raymond Hood or James Gamble Rogers, have been like this. Under Stern's influence and that of other advocates of contextual (read "well-behaved") architecture like James Polshek, certain elements of the avant-garde section of the architectural profession have learned to behave themselves. We can call this the polite avant-garde and expect more of it, i.e. modernism as a style minus the ideology.

Even conservatives don't always lose.

Note: Stern's website is at ramsa.com. If you peruse it, remember he is a commercial architect and some of his clients haven't let him do his best. His best publicly-accessible buildings are:

1. South Quadrangle dormitory, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC

2. Colgate-Darden School of Business, Univ. of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA

3. 222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA

4. National Advocacy Center, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC

5. Gates Computer Science building, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA

6. Brooklyn Law School, Brooklyn, NY

7. Disney Boardwalk Hotel, Lake Buena Vista, FL

8. 600 Thirteenth Street, NW, Washington, DC

9. The Chatham Apartments, New York, NY

10. Kiawah Island Beach Club, Kiawah Island, SC

11. Aspen Highlands Village, Aspen, CO (under construction)

12. Smith Campus Center, Pomona College, Pomona, CA

13. Public Library of Nashville & Davidson County, Nashville, TN (under construction)

14. Ohrstrom Library, St. Paul's School, Concord, NH

15. Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse, Beckley, WV

17. Town of Celebration, FL

18. Spangler Student Center, Harvard Business School, Boston, MA

19. Disney Feature Animation Building, Burbank. CA

20. Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA

21. Disney Casting Center, Orlando, FL

22. The Broadway Residence, Columbia University, New York, NY

The key illustrated books on his work are Robert A.M. Stern: Buildings and Projects 1987-1992 and Robert A.M. Stern: Buildings and Projects 1993-1998 for his large buildings and The American Houses of Robert A.M. Stern for the private residences.

The best volume of this theoretical writings is Robert A.M. Stern: Selected Works.

Ever the populist, he even has an ordinary house plan available for purchase at http://www.lifemag.com/Life/dreamhouse/stern/stern.html for $534! Take a look at the other house plans by famous architects on the same site and see if you don't find yourself agreeing that compared to his, their designs are either clownish, impractical, or dull.

You can have an impact on the sad but rapidly-improving state of America's public architecture. Get on your local town's case about making traditional design a requirement for any project that wants an easy time with the zoning board, if they don't already, as some towns do. Get your local neighborhood associations to take a similar stand. If your town or school board is in a building mood, petition to get onto the design-selection committee.

The single easiest thing the current administration in Washington can do to prove it is serious about cultural conservatism is to increase the tax credit for historic preservation. (There is a reason European cities are better preserved than ours: these countries have serious preservation tax credits.).

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