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When it comes to new buildings, does traditional architecture still have place in the modern world?Very much so, says Myron Magnet in a fantastic essay for City Journal. By way of evidence he shows us two new buildings in the heart of New York: 

  • “[The] first is a gemlike house at 5 East 95th Street, just east of Central Park, by celebrated London architect John Simpson, designer of the enchanting Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Completed late in 2005, it looks like an independent townhouse but is, in fact, an extension of the landmarked Beaux-Arts mansion at 3 East 95th Street that Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer designed in 1913…”

The original plan was to replace an ugly 1950s annex with a modernist extension, but the developers had a problem with this:

  • “…no gilt-edged buyer would pay millions to live in an apartment that started out a Beaux-Arts Dr. Jekyll at one end and turned into a glass-loft Mr. Hyde at the other.”

Note that the objections were commercial not architectural. The planning authorities had no problem with the idea of sticking a glass box onto the side of lovely old stone buiding. Indeed, as Myron Magnet explains, this is what they would have preferred: 

  • “Whereas the developer’s original plans for a lackluster modernist extension to Mrs. Carhart’s house sailed through the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, Simpson’s design met stiff resistance. It’s an architectural shibboleth that an extension of a historic structure must be sufficiently differentiated from it that no one can mistake the new work for old…”

Exactly the same thing applies in this country, the justification being the same – to prevent the form of the original building from being obscured by new work. But if that’s so important, then why don’t planners and architects ensure that modern buildings are extended in a traditional style?

In any case, it is more than possible to extend an old building in a way that both preserves and complements the original form – as the work of architects like John Simpson demonstrates.

Perhaps what the modernists really can’t stand is that traditional buildings are still so popular. There was a time when they could deal with this by simply knocking them down, but now this is no longer allowed the next best thing is to destroy the practice of traditional architecture. 

To extend or otherwise modify an old building in keeping with its original style is to learn from it and, in the process, hand on the skills and the knowledge required to continue building in that tradition to a new generation. Therefore, the real effect of ‘glass boxes for old buildings’ isn’t to highlight traditional architecture, but to cut it off from the land of the living.

For a hardline modernist, this is how it should be – “building new structures in historical styles is inauthentic because it produces buildings that don’t express today’s zeitgeist.” And yet, these days, modernism is itself a historical style:

  • “How do buildings designed in the modernism of the 1920s or thirties or even fifties express the spirit of the twenty-first century?”

Furthermore, the ultimate test of any architectural tradition is its capacity for being rediscovered and reapplied:

  • “…has not the architectural vocabulary that developed from the Greeks and Romans to the Europeans of the Middle Ages and Renaissance allowed every age to express its vision of the good life with its own distinctive accent and emphasis? No one would mistake a Michelangelo or an Inigo Jones building for one of John Soane or Edwin Lutyens: each is classical in the spirit of its own age—as is John Simpson’s. And each is beautiful.”

The true horror of modernist architecture is that it lacks this capacity for rebirth and renewal. Having placed function above all other considerations, it advances robotically in response to technological change, but remains without life.

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