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America's Greatest Architect Is A Conservative

Robert Locke

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Robert Locke writes about how the ideology of modernism has affected architecture. He examines the work of one of America's leading architects who "ruthlessly questions whether...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."

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.

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.

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."

Read this entire article on the Front Page Magazine website.

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