2 reviews

In the last week or so, there have been two architectural reviews in major newspapers of significant interest.

The first, the first architecture review by new New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, I blogged about already. I stick to my initial judgement that the review is really not so great, even if it’s nicely put together. I miss Nicolai.

The second is by Ada Louise Huxtable, the nation’s first real architecture critic and practically the inventor of the profession. She now writes once every couple of months for the Wall Street Journal. Read on past the break for more.

Her latest piece is, which you can find right here, is quite interesting. In it she examines colonial revival architecture, without the furious insolence with which most in the field would. (I have certainly done so in the past, as in this post.) In explaining her stance, she writes:

As an architectural historian without ideological baggage, I am open to re-examination of almost anything. Postmodernists revived traditional elements to comment on what was perceived as a modernist vacuum; some of the results were pretty bad, but they were thinking within a contemporary context. It can be argued convincingly that it is easier to produce a good building based on a familiar vocabulary than to do so with risky unknowns, and there are a lot of bad modern buildings to prove it. There is a current surge in publications promoting yet another Colonial revival, as if the 20th century’s revolutionary contributions to the arts of design never happened.

As a historian, I champion no one period; I honor the best of any style. As a New Yorker, I admire and enjoy the Colonial Revival houses that add so much charm to the city’s streets. Some of our most splendid buildings are by some of the country’s best architects: McKim, Mead & White; Carrère and Hastings—all in classical revival styles. I never pass the colonnaded entrance of a school or courthouse without regretting that the language of human dignity and worth spoken by the classical vocabulary is so poorly valued or understood.

Well I certainly respect what she’s saying and recognize that she comes at things from a different perspective than I do. This article got me thinking about what a ‘style’ means.

I hold the word ‘style’ in architecture to refer to a classification created to encompass a movement or as a framework of ideas in which to build. At their best, styles are flexible, with enough rigidity to guide architecture by giving architects something to work off of; at their worst, they create conformist buildings borne not of legitimate ideas but of a need to look a certain way just for the sake of looking that way (I often complain about those buildings in this blog).

A style that we should utilize now is one that holds meaning for us. So I would argue that almost all neo-Colonialism holds no meaning now because it’s created out of a shallow desire to relive the past through architecture, but that the revival of mid-century Modernism that has started to grow in certain circles around the country generally does hold meaning, as it was conceived in the 1950s and 60s to deal with and to express many of the same issues that we are facing today.

So no, I do not personally agree with Huxtable’s genial approach to neo-Colonialism. But I do appreciate her thought-provoking piece. Try comparing it side by side with Kimmelman’s first review — she puts him to shame.

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