New Traditional Architecture 2: Right Wing Conspiracies and Leftist Divisiveness

An article in the Art Newspaper by Robert Bevan on 7 January 2022 (‘The ugly pursuit of beauty: how traditional architecture has become a battleground for right-wing politicians’) comes out firing on all barrels against New Traditional Architecture as a right wing plot, a favoured by white supremacists and Great Replacement conspiracy theorists.[1]

‘Reactionary ideas hostile to the cosmopolitan, to Modernism, to modernity itself, are in the ascendant.’

He cites Viktor Orbán, dictator of Hungary, Prince Charles, creator of Poundbury, and Donald Trump, the President who decreed that new federal buildings must be in a classical style.

This nexus is certainly real, and is the most worrying part about New Traditional Architecture. But articles like this are designed to increase the polarisation  between ‘traditionalist lunatics’ and ‘Modernism, and modernity itself’, the latter, by implication, being true and real. (While Modernism can be rejected, our existential state of modernity cannot be; therefore an anti-Modernist position is false.)

But this is crudely framed. Orbán and Trump may be authoritarian Fascists, but Prince Charles, the flag bearer of it all, is not (Fig. 1). Because of his situation as king-in-waiting he is necessarily a traditionalist, but by temperament he is a radical progressive. The conservative status quo during his lifetime has been, for want of a better word, Modernism, and it required radical courage to take a stand against it (his ‘monstrous carbuncle’ speech) of 1984, not on the grounds that it was ‘socialist’, but on the grounds that it was not beautiful; that is, ugly. Bevan sweeps all this up into the crude statement that

‘Beauty and tradition have become dog-whistle words to white supremacists drunk on the Great Replacement conspiracy theory that sees a cultural genocide of Christian Europe at the hands of immigrants’.

Fig. 1. Poundbury, Dorset.

The problem is not New Traditional architecture as such, but the polarisation that these players inflame. This polarisation was made possible by the death of art history. Trump’s decree that new Federal buildings should be in a Classical style is a touchstone. In the 1930s stripped classical buildings were produced by democracies (America and Britain), Fascists (Italy) and Nazis (Germany).

Stripped classicism was a stylistic choice shared by all factions. This was possible because of the inbuilt teleological structure of art (and architectural) history: the belief that there was a right and inevitable shift from nineteenth-century historicism to twentieth-century modernism. To its protagonists, and certainly to Nikolaus Pevsner and the post WWII generations, stripped classicism was an intermediate step on the way to a ‘styleless’ modernism that gave us the architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, the architecture (and urbanism) against which Prince Charles was reacting.

Teleological polemicists saw Otto Wagner’s Postsparkasse as being better than his Secession buildings because it was more ‘modern’, and both as being infinitely superior to his earlier historicist buildings which were devoids of even the glimmerings of the modernist enlightenment. Even if Wagner did not get to the point of Mies van der Rohe, that was where he was heading, even if he didn’t know it. But one could equally apply a Vasarian (and originally antique) organic model to this triad, categorising Wagner’s historicist buildings as ‘early; showing promise’, his Secession buildings as ‘high and best’ and the Postparkasse as ‘late, with signs of decadence (too many straight lines)’. This decadence led to Mies van der Rohe, in that same way that, for Bellori, late Michelangelo ushered in the decadence of Mannerism.

In spite of theory differences, both accounts assume that architecture is an entity distinct from politics, which is applied to political ends as circumstances dictate.

Unfortunately, the belief that art and architecture have their own history, that they are entities in themselves, has died. In its place is identity politics. So a building is either right wing or left wing, good or bad, black or white, depending on your social identity and political views. In this scheme there cannot be, for example, good architecture employed to bad ends; it is only as good as the end to which it is put. A statue of a slave trader can never be great art, because a slave trader is a bad man. It cannot even he art historically important (for, say, introducing a new style) because its subject is a bad man. Architecture, as distinct from the ends it serves, no longer exists: it has been collapsed to those ends. Hence the fact that new traditional architecture has been taken up by Orbán, means that it is necessarily bad.

But what if we can still bring ourselves to believe that ‘architecture’ still exists as an independent entity? If so, we could continue to follow this entity through its historically situated phases: historicism, modernism, post-modernism, back to modernism, but add at the end ‘new traditionalism’. Such an historical development transcends political difference.

Looking at things in this way allows us to recognise that many people may agree with Prince Charles on architecture while remaining supporters of a progressive social democracy. It allows us to recognise that it is possible to prefer ‘traditional’ architecture to ‘modernist’ on aesthetic grounds, not political ones. To be sure, ‘aesthetic’ here is not a simple concept, and the aesthetics of new traditionalism invokes of necessity the associations that buildings have and an awareness of history. Conversely, the aesthetics of modernism is ahistorical, and concerned primarily with abstract form, materials and function. But also novelty.

Novelty is important here. The theory of new traditionalism, like that of Baroque artsts, insists on novelty within the boundaries set by tradition. For modernism, novelty is open ended; anything is potentially a modernist form, which is its fatal flaw. One could frame this is much wider terms. We could argue that we all need novelty, but that modernism’s novelty is of the Muskian ‘lets go to Mars because we have wrecked earth’ kind, whereas new traditionalism’s novelty is of the ‘we have a finite world and must innovate within its limits’ kind.

Perhaps, pace Bevan, it is not that  ‘the traditionalist lunatics have succeeded in taking over the asylum’, but that they are the only ones who recognise that it is an asylum.


[1] Robert Bevan, ‘The ugly pursuit of beauty: how traditional architecture has become a battleground for right-wing politicians’, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/01/07/the-traditionalist-lunatics-have-taken-over-the-asylum.

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