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In a recent article entitled “Why is the Modern World so Ugly?” on The School of Life website, well-known pop philosopher Alain de Botton argues in the broadest possible strokes that very little great architecture has been built after 1900. For a two-part Breezeblock, New York City-based Failed Architecture editors Michael Nicholas, Kevin Rogan and Joshua McWhirter use this article as an excuse to discuss a topic that seems inescapable these days (as much as we’d probably like to escape it): traditional architecture revivalism or “Trad Architecture” for short. 

The text below is a transcript of the interview, some parts of which have been edited to improve clarity.

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Joshua McWhirter: In his recent article entitled “Why is the Modern World so Ugly?” Alain de Botton likens the development of modern architectural aesthetics to a “war on beauty”, in which a supposedly objective standard of attractiveness has been sacrificed at the altar of originality, resulting in built landscapes that not only violate their inhabitants’ supposedly natural sense of organic beauty but also assault their mental wellbeing. So obviously, that argument is filled with a lot of half baked assumptions and intellectual shortcuts. And, Kevin, before we met to have this conversation, you mentioned that this article to some degree represents something of the soul of the larger Trad Arch movement that extends even beyond the kind of sphere of architects and critics and enthusiasts of architecture. So I’d just love to hear more about how this very bad article represents the soul of the Trad Arch Movement.

Kevin Rogan: Yeah, with almost everything in this article, it doesn’t hold up if you think about it for no longer than 30 seconds. It’s a point in our favor, but also bizarrely in trad architecture’s favor, that it is so easy to grasp precisely what they’re trying to say. The problem is, it’s just really stupid. What I would identify as the soul of this article is some sort of idea of progress run amok, and this is indicated in the first paragraph of the piece where he says something to the effect of, if you transported a person into our contemporary world, they would be awed with all of our technological progress but they’d find everything really ugly. It’s not willing to fully commit to being traditional in any sense. And, as a result, de Botton is still extremely tied to a very retrograde and enlightenment view of progress, where everything keeps getting better all the time, except for, in this particular instance. There’s a twofold argument here: one, that humankind is a progressive animal, so to speak; and two, even perhaps before that, there is a certain commonsensical, natural, primitive way that humans should live and the environment in which humans should live, should look like this. For whatever reason, that is represented as overly ornamented: like basilicas, temples, whatever. And so I think this is actually where he departs from somewhat more reasonable and more accommodating perspectives about cities where you have stuff like Create Streets and strong towns and things that say humans should live in dense, walkable areas, if they’re going to live in cities, which, sure, it’s hard to argue with that. But I think where de Botton falls apart is choosing a particular sort of aesthetic regime that indicates the primitive man, and then running with that, where there’s a particular style that was developed for millennia, and that’s it. And anything departing from that is an aberration.

Michael Nicholas: Well, the interesting thing about seeing traditional architecture like that is that it can’t possibly be a coherent style. It’s this amalgamation of all these often contradictory styles. I don’t think if you were to go back in time someone who was building a gothic cathedral would think they were in the same movement as classicism. It’s clearly oppositional, but somehow, under the umbrella of traditional architecture, this has always been subsumed as one coherent, multi-century movement that’s completely legible as oppositional to whatever is happening in the modern world. 

KR: That is what’s so funny about it because it requires such a myopic and half-blind idea of what architectural aesthetics actually are. It’s extremely wild to conflate a gothic cathedral with a Palladian temple, or whatever you want to call it and say these are all expressions of the same general outpouring of untrammelled unalienated man existing on his own. It requires such a bizarre, retrograde nostalgia in order to even make sense that I think this is actually why it appeals so widely because it’s a ready-made aesthetic theory that just depends on how you feel about it.

JM: Even though de Botton and a lot of Trad Architecture revivalists speak of this extremely generalised pre-modern style, there is one overarching unifier here, which is that it tends to go back to this specifically “Western European” lineage of architecture, right? Even in the images that de Botton chooses to use in this article, even if he is speaking in the very general sense of pre-modern architecture globally, all the photos are of European towns, European cultural landmarks, etc. Maybe let’s talk a little bit about this conflation of Trad Architecture, specifically, with “Western culture” and some of the funny and not so funny politics of that.

MN: Well, it’s interesting, because I guess a lot of the work that a lot of these accounts online do is that they’re constantly arguing that there’s no inherent politics to traditional architecture, that Gothic architecture, traditional, whatever, doesn’t have a politics attached to it, which is true to an extent. But I think the actual ideological work that’s being done is the classification of all these different things as a coherent vision when the only thing they have in common is that they were built by Europeans.

KR: Yeah. And that is also really funny, in the same way, that the aesthetic conflation is because it also is nostalgic for a united Europe that never existed. I mean, the producers of these pieces would have killed each other dead in the street, or the sensibly designed walkable street, if they had been given the chance, and for hundreds of years. And so, it’s really funny, because it purports a native united Europe, expressing itself in architectural work that absolutely flies in the face of even what a high school history class would teach you. But, that is what’s so important. Just to touch on the darker side that Josh mentioned, so much of the identitarian movements and free Europa and stuff like that really do depend on this facsimile prestige idea of being European above all, and being from a particular European country, secondarily. If we’re talking about a pseudo-philosophical theory of a return to a natural life, natural life is so far off stage at this point, it doesn’t even matter. To treat it charitably, it’s natural life insofar as I would say it appeals to a pre-capitalist, agrarian European lifestyle. But then pre-capitalist is a far cry from being anti-capitalist per se, because, to go back to de Botton’s ideas of progress, capitalism in a far-right context, has very different indicators and particulars than it would for, say, the left: where, for the former, capital is a globalising destroyer of tradition, rather than any particular sort of economic system.

MN: Yeah, and there’s this progressive veneer to it because the other coherence that this traditional architecture revivalism has is that it’s oppositional to another coherent architectural tradition of modernism. And they love to poke and pick and choose from different early modern texts. And in this case, he draws from Adolf Loos and talks about “Ornament and Crime” as supposedly this document that eschews beauty in all its forms and argues for an ugly architecture, which is more suitable to capitalist cities or whatever financialized development he’s hinting at but won’t actually define. 

KR: Manfredo Tafuri talks a tonne about the transitional phase in which architecture slowly relinquishes its prior ability to orchestrate and administer production to capital. It offers up what Tafuri just calls “the plan” to capital, which then turns it around and uses it in ways that architecture has never dreamed of. And so what he’s really talking about is this shift out of and the slow destruction of what we now call traditional architecture, classical architecture, what he calls “Palladianism”, which I really like. “Already within the 18th and 19th Centuries, this is an architecture free of politics returned “to sublime uselessness”. This is really funny because before that, the entire intention of architecture was to produce a certain amount of utility, which I would argue most Trads now would say is the problem with modernism is that it’s too utilitarian. And they would be kind of right because, you know, nobody loves fibre cement or anything like that. But Tafuri continues and says, “when we observe a piece of Victorian architecture, we are struck by the overwroughtness of the object. All too rarely do we consider that, for 19th Century architects, eclecticism and plurality of expression was the proper answer to the multiple disintegrative stimuli introduced by the new physical environment configured to technology’s universal precision”. So in that respect, the outpouring of late phase, classical architecture, so to speak, is precisely a reaction to an essentially a capitalist machine, which Tafuri always refers to as “universe of precision”, that has already turned architecture simply into the construction of an object. And so he goes on and says, basically, the only way that architecture tries to back itself out of this as a field, as a discipline, is to make those objects so overwhelmingly theatrical and self-contained, that it manages to draw attention to itself (what Tafuri calls “shock” and “shock value” in the form of the avant-garde) and they fail. And you can say pretty clearly, the architecture that de Botton is thinking about is already a parody of Greco Roman classicism and of any number of other things. So what he’s looking for at this point in time is a copy of a copy of a copy.

MN:  Well, yeah, it’s very distinct from the original intentions of, I don’t know, neoclassicism if you want to compare it to that. And it’s like, if Vitruvius had the technology, I have no doubt that he would have wanted to do a Plan Voisin. It’s totally aligned with his philosophy.

KR: It absolutely is yeah.

MN: If anything the neo-traditional movement, New Urbanism, and all of these derivative movements are just a continuation of modernism because they have these high social aims, and it’s maybe for reactionary reasons, but it still shares the same goal that modern architecture had: to change human behavior and have humans aspire to something greater through the built environment, which is essentially just a problem that architects were dealing with in modernity: this big condition where everyone feels alienated, and maybe architecture is something that could give meaning to people’s lives. It’s not any different than the stuff that it’s claiming to be reacting against.

KR: Well, basically, we’ve already touched on this, the traditional architect, his first principle is to subsume everything built before 1900 (using de Botton’s demarcation of 1900) under the broader umbrella of traditional style. So, in that sense, the traditional style becomes just another aesthetic choice that one can slap onto any given building, which is, again, flying in the face of modern architecture, which, you know, form follows function bla bla bla. But to a large degree is a recognition that there is a failure to communicate what a building does, without it being expressed. And so, when we reduce traditional architecture to an aesthetic choice, that can then be applied to any given functional space, let’s say, so we can have a traditional house or we can have a non-traditional house, whatever. It’s already falling into the game of, I don’t want to say modernity, but maybe that is correct because it is at such a rarefied aesthetic level that is completely divorced from anything on the ground. So this is what I’m getting, all it comes down to is what trim profiles you decide to order: if you’re a modernist, you order a flat rectangular one-by-eight, and if you’re a trad you order something slightly more ornate, and you slap it up and call it a day, that’s all it is. And if they wanted to be Trad they would recreate the guild system. If they wanted to be Trad, stone cutters would be able to bring this country to its knees if you looked at them wrong.

MN: Yeah, so basically what you’re saying is that Trads are modernists and we’re the real Trads…

KR: That is correct, that is exactly correct. Yeah, real traditionalism has never been tried. Until our firm opens its doors. Right? Yeah.

MN: So it’s interesting, in the Trump executive order, again, it falls into this trap of being this nebulous, undefinable good design practice that is just an amalgamation of different traditional, beautiful architecture styles. And interestingly, two of the examples that they show of actually good architecture being built in federal buildings now, are the Tuscaloosa Courthouse and the Corpus Christi Federal Courthouse, which are pure pastiche. It’s totally what Kevin was talking about, where you’re saying that it’s just a facade change compared to some of the more modernist buildings because modern courthouses are pretty standard. So, the facade of a building doesn’t matter to the actual function of it.

KR: Yeah, I mentioned earlier also, the notion of utility, as one of the big callings of an architect: to aid and enable in the utility of any given structure,. Which is not just about the arrangement of rooms, but also to communicate various subtextual and cultural things, whatever. And, I mean, all a courthouse designed today is going to communicate is proper crowd control and how to get everybody through a metal detector. It’s not about the sanctity of the law as a function of the nation or anything like that. It’s about getting you into your discreet little courtroom and getting you through weapons check and shit like that. And that’s it. That is the whole utility. So I think maybe that is also a part of out-Tradding the Trads. I don’t think an architect today knows how to communicate something like that in accordance with a universal, and maybe the problem is that universals are mostly gone, or destroyed by Cultural Marxism and Postmodernism and stuff like that. But, you know, even if they were to exist, it’s well out of architecture’s hands. It’s long gone. It’s been gone for centuries. And I think part of what the executive order is about is a recognition on the part of the federal government. So, in the executive order, they referenced the guiding principles for executive architecture in the 20th century, which basically say that “they fucked it all up, they made the architects the ones that were kind of dictating the show. And, you know, charge the government to go for contemporary architects building in their own particular style”. Obviously, no real mention of modernism, or anything like that. But I think what is interesting, and I’m going to get into my being devil’s advocate here for the executive order because I think it’s actually good in the sense that it further debases and deprives architects of their privileged position to top the mountain top of aesthetics. And the reason is that it situates the government as the full-on de facto number one client, for the architect, it reinstates a proper client relationship between the architect and the government, which is functioning essentially as a corporation at this stage, and places the architect is subservient to the government, which is exactly how the practice works. It’s not a good thing. I didn’t particularly enjoy it when I worked in architecture, but it is how it worked. And I think a large part of what pisses architects off is that fact precisely that they have had something taken away from them, they have become once again subservient to a client, and, in order to argue against the executive order in those terms. An architect would really have to argue against the client setup that currently prevails within the discipline. And nobody’s gonna do that. Because if you start arguing against clients, then you’re not going to fucking have any. It’s kind of a masterstroke, not to be like a Trump is a 5G or five-dimensional chess guy (he is a 5G guy), but he’s not a five-dimensional chess guy. But it is kind of perfect because there’s absolutely no way out. And it also collapses back onto the people that are sort of the proponents of a traditional architecture and a traditional executive order, because it is a modernising order, it modernises the discipline, it makes it fall in line with the way it works everywhere else. And so, in that sense, it is thoroughly modern, in terms of reinstating the design pipeline that exists everywhere else, in essence, in form (and all this is is form as we’ve discussed, so all traditionalism is form), it looks reactionary. And, to an extent, it is but insofar as it affects anything in particular, as far as the discipline is concerned, it’s just, once again, architects being pissed that they got kicked further down off the mountain.

MN: Well, the original intent of the 1902 McMillan plan was actually to make D.C. 5g proof. And all of the modern architecture since then is more susceptible to 5G rays. So we have to go back to thick marble walls to protect government employees. 

KR: True, very true. Actually. Yeah. Again, the stonemasons stay undefeated, because if they were allowed to create a building truly out of stone. No way 5G waves are getting through that. Yeah, that’s right. Should we reopen the queries? 

MN: On a serious note, it is interesting though, because the L’Enfant Plan, which is referenced in the executive order as an example of good design is quintessential early modernism. It’s right out of the Haussmann playbook, it’s completely antithetical to the lofty principles that are espoused by it, like DC is a modernist city in its planning and superficially with the facades of these columns, and Thomas Jefferson and Washington design buildings or whatever. 

KR: I did want to say one more thing about the executive order though, and here we get close to a definition of classical architecture, but it’s so funny and just all over the place. So I’m just going to read a little bit of it. This is from Section 3, Paragraph C: “Classical architecture means the architectural tradition derived from the forms, principles and vocabulary of the architecture of Greek and Roman antiquity, and as later developed and expanded upon by such Renaissance architects is Alberti Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Palladio, enlightenment masters, Robert Adam Johnson, Christopher Wren, 19th Century architects bla bla bla, 20th Century practitioners bla bla bla, and then such styles as neoclassical. So classical architecture encompasses such styles as neoclassical, Georgian, federal Greek Revival again, Greco Roman architecture encompasses Greek Revival, Beaux-Arts and Art Deco, which a tonne of people laughed about.

MN: It’s interesting that Art Deco is also included in the Executive Order as an example of neoclassicism or whatever because the foundational movement of the modern preservationist movement was around a Beaux-Arts building in New York City, the original Penn Station, which, again, by any measure is a modern building, it’s modelled on like the kind of great trade halls of Europe.

KR: Just hearing you say that I’m wondering, if I were to build a Tesla charging station, but put a glass roof with like, cast iron beams above it, would the Trads love it? Because, again, it’s pure aesthetics, it’s form divorced from content. And, you know, this is evident in the Berlin Palace thing. This is evident in basically all the discussion of their actual aesthetic intentions. It doesn’t matter what is inside it. It could be a Cultural Marxist factory as long as there’s a clock on the front and some caryatids or something there, they’re down with it.

MN: This speaks to the slippery ideological framing of all these things. Friend of Failed Architecture Antonio Pacheco posted this awesome picture of Philip Johnson and Jane Jacobs, protesting together outside of the old Penn Station asking for it to be saved. And it’s like, it doesn’t matter what it looks like, they just don’t want anything to change.

KR: That picture is really indicative. They love defending Jane Jacobs, pretty much generally she is still St. Jane, whatever. Maybe that is the reactionary core at the heart of all this: beyond progress having lost its way or something like that, over and above everything, it’s an adherence to a status quo, which may or may not have ever actually existed. In the case of Penn Station, it did. But at the end of the day, that’s immaterial. Jacobs doesn’t particularly want Penn Station to say so much she doesn’t want anything to change. Philip Johnson, I’m not even gonna touch, because if he was still alive I’d hit him with the car, so I, I hate that guy. But anyway…

MN: On that note, too, it’s funny because in the School of Life article, and a lot of other people have talked about this too, where they make the kind of “left progressive argument” about how modernism is just the aesthetic of copy-paste developer building, saying like “it’s completely soulless, it’s pure capitalism, where they don’t care about the aesthetic or human ingenuity or the experience of being in a city, it’s just pure function, copy, paste, put it anywhere”. But, if you think about it, McKim, Mead, and White, the architecture firm that built Penn Station were exactly that. They just built these copy paste Beaux-Arts buildings all over the country. And, they had just like a huge firm, and whatever associates were just putting this stuff together, and maybe Penn Station was an exceptional example of it, but I don’t know, it’s exactly what they’re saying modernism is,

KR: Right, architecture for over a century now, at least at the scale of McKim, Mead, and White, at the scale of a large firm, has been more than anything principally concerned with forcing down labour costs in order to attain the largest amount of profit from a payment from the client. That’s all it is. The particular categories and methods by which they have sought to minimise labour and make it shuffle off the stage have changed, but at the end of the day, it’s not really about cookie-cutter stuff. But that is a significant sort of indicator of how it works. Because, to use the Penn Station example, let’s say you have a labour force that knows how to do cast iron, who knows how to do X, Y, and Z. Great, you just have them do the same thing over and over and over, keeps costs low, keeps economies of scale, high good. The fact of the matter is, the choice resides in pure materialism because like, instead of stone and iron and steel, it’s now EIFS and shitty aluminium panels and stuff like that. It’s purely a surface level change. The same machinery is right there underneath the surface. But that is more or less anathema to architectural discourse, which assumes the top little algae layer on the lake is actually the entire lake.