New Traditional Architecture 1: A Frankfurt Reconstruction

The New Traditional Architecture Facebook site is interesting, not least because of its European (often Central European) focus. While Putin seems to be revisiting WW2, as Hitler needing Lebensraum rather than Stalin resisting an invader, this site often engages with the failures of post-WW2 reconstruction in Central Europe. It is a site for enthusiasts, with a very simple ideology, summed up in a post on 6 April 2022: ‘what bombs could not destroy modernist ideology did’.[1]

It is the creation of Michael Diamant, who has also created an atlas of New Traditional Architecture.[2] Diamant tells us a little about himself on the website and more in this particular post. [3] He studied planning, and his interests are in ‘urban sociology, architecture, city planning, demography, history and social anthropology’. He lives in Stockholm and speaks Swedish, English and some German. He states that he comes ‘from a family background that lost almost everyone and everything’ in WW2 and is aftermath.

The post in question deals with a proposal to restore a tower in the Old Town of Frankfurt called Lange Franz to its pre-war state (Figs 1–2). In it Diamant sets out his historical framework, which is that, in spite of the fact that ‘in the late 1930s Germany initiated the most destructive of wars with the most cruel of intentions … German history is so much longer and richer than the Nazi period.’ He then refers to reconstruction projects in the last thirty years that ‘restore some of the country’s lost grandeur.’ This phrasing is not as political as it sounds: he is referring to buildings.

Fig. 1. Proposal to reconstruct the upper parts of the tower ‘Lange Franz’ and another in Frankfurt.

His attitude to memory is that: ’while we shall not forget why they [the buildings] were destroyed in the first place’, by reconstructing them we ‘bring back beauty and heal history’.[4]

Fig. 2. ‘Lange Franz’, Frankfurt, in 1924 and today..

There is a certain naivety in these statements, but the core ideas are worth exploring. ‘Beauty’ is what old buildings have, which Modernist buildings do not. And ‘history’, meaning the suffering and destruction that occurred in the past, can be ‘healed’ by restoring the architectural body to its state before its injury.

The preoccupation with restoration to a pre-WW2 state is a particularly European preoccupation, for obvious reasons. ‘Modernism’ becomes code for the ugly buildings erected in Europe, both in the capitalist west and Communist east, since 1945, and specially during the 1960s. In many ways Diamant wants to revisit the task of reconstruction faced by his grandparents’ generation, and do it differently.

Although referring to ‘history’, there is not much history on this site. There is no attempt to understand why the post-war generation reconstructed Europe in the way they did, and the believe in social progress that underpinned this and the Modernist project. In 1945 people did not want to return to the world of 1939, because it was that world that created the rubble of 1945. That world was divided by class warfare, with Fascists and Nazis, Communists, Capitalists and Royalists traditionalists at each other’s throats.

Medieval towns were a part of this. The most evocative mental image I have of pre-war Germany is Thomas Mann’s Dr Faustus, written in America in 1943–46 as Allied bombs were destroying the world that Mann describes. Mann’s retelling of the  Renaissance myth of an artist who sells his soul to the devil evokes for me magical, but troubled, German cities, where medieval and Renaissance townscapes are overlaid with nineteenth-century bourgeois culture, where trams ratted below old towers and historicist apartment buildings, and where the Devil could still claim men’s souls.

In the rubble of these cities, Modernism gave visual form to a better, more socially equal, future. It was optimistic at a time when pessimism was pointless because things could not be any worse than they already were. For that generation the old cities were compromised. To reconstruct them as they were was to be sucked back into the evils of the past, into an endless cycle. And they were right. The future, in (West) Germany at least, did turn out to be better, and Modernist architecture was part of this.

Having mentioned Thomas Mann, it is worth also mentioning Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited, written at about the same time as Dr Faustus (it was published in 1945). It is also a book about the end of an old architectural order which indeed did almost occur, not by bombs, but from the social egalitarianism that came to a head in the twenty years after 1945. When writing Brideshead, Waugh believed that the age of great country houses was ending, based on the then widespread belief that no-one would ever be rich enough to maintain them, let alone live in them. Their future was either institutional use or demolition. But starting in the 1970s the conservation movement, which was strongly nationalistic, moved to save such buildings, and tourism gave them an economic base, and those not owned by the National Trust often moved back from institutional to private use. By the twenty-first century society was spectacularly unequal once again, and grand country houses were being built again by the super rich (sometimes Russian oligarchs). Such buildings are heroes of the English stream of New Traditional Architecture. (The American equivalent are often to be found at the private universities where American oligarchs send their children, where traditionalism and wealth are comfortable bedfellows.)

The rich have always been able to do what they like, and for them there is little distinction between buying an eighteenth-century trophy house and building a new one, except that in the latter the plumbing and services will be better.

There is a strong element of cosplay in all this. These oligarchs were not born into these buildings, as were Sebastian and the decayed English aristocracy of the 1940s and 50s were; rather, they are peasants who made a pile so big they could choose which of the great periods of (Western) art  they would like to inhabit.

But the less wealthy young have no difficulty in inhabiting a fantasy past. The other day I was waiting for a coffee and I was trying to understand the clothing of the woman standing near me, wearing long skirts, a cloak, boots and suchlike. I had learned recently of  ‘Cottage Core’, and I deduced that this must be ‘Medieval Core’. I looked it up and, sure enough, there is such a thing. Millennials, or perhaps it is Gen-Z, seem to have a play-acting view of history. Shows like Bridgerton have abandoned any pretence at history; apart from the ethnically blind casting, there is no attempt to portray realistically the world in which it is nominally set. Jane Austen adaptations do attempt this, and succeed because that clean, genteel world is attractive to us, but such programs, we are now told, are a thing of the past. But, as a recent newspaper article pointed out, most of the Bridgerton characters would have had syphilis; much of London had it anyway in 1810, which was a very good reason for locking up your daughters, and the very modern sexual promiscuity of the characters would have meant that they would have had it too. We are now a long way from the gritty realism prevailing in the 50s and 60s, Bicycle Thieves and so forth.

Arguably, then, New Traditional Architecture is all cosplay. It is an attempt to turn cities back into film sets, or to make damaged cities better tourist towns. We have completely lost the association between old buildings and squalor. There is an old working-class pub in Carlton (Melbourne) that recently was for a while had been reinvented as ‘the Shaw-Davey Slum’. For millennials and Gen-Z, a slum is a place that is merely picturesque, lacking even the mild horror the term held for my generation, let alone the intense horror of the early twentieth century generations of social reformers who had experienced at first hand the squalor and poverty of the poor parts of old cities.

In Melbourne in the 1950s blocks of narrow nineteenth-century terrace houses were demolished because they were considered to be slums, and replaced by mass produced concrete high rise buildings. The terrace houses that were not demolished are now worth 2 million dollars apiece, and the high rise buildings are where the social problems are to be found. All it required to transform slum to millionaire’s row was a few generations of gentrification that led to a reduction in population and internal reconstruction (and better sewerage). This happened through the efforts of the Boomer generation bored with the quarter-acre blocks of their parents further out, long before house prices went silly.

An interesting novel in this regard in Margery Allingham’s The China Governess (1963) This deals with a 1960s housing estate in East London in the early 1960s, and what happens when the residents of the pre-war East End slums were rehoused there. It tackles, novelistically, the question of whether the criminality of the pre-war ‘Turk Street Mile’ lives on in a clean new housing estate. The least sympathetic character is the  progressive councillor behind the project, and the building Allingham has most sympathy towards is an Elizabethan half-timbered house that somehow survived both war and social reform.

The China Governess already in 1963 signals the social failure of high-rise post-war housing estates, and anticipates the mindset of the protagonists of New Traditional Architecture. Because of its refusal to address social issues, New Traditional Architecture’s anti-Modernism can imply a hostility towards 1960s social housing, invariably Modernist, on both side of the Berlin Wall, and its pro-Traditionalism means that the palaces of oligarchs and the urbanism of autocrats get plenty of mileage.

(There is a counter-narrative to this, which is successful social housing that did not pursue the Le Corbusian high-rise fantasy but occupied a middle ground between tradition and modernity, the traditionalist examples being mostly English, the Modernist ones mostly Scandinavian. Interestingly, in his TV show, Railways Journeys of Britain, Michael Portillo, a member of the Thatcher government that privatised council housing, presents positively the council housing estate of Chadwell Heath in the London borough of Barking and Dagenham, built in the years after WW1.[5] In this program an historian points out the neat brick architectural detailing and the fact that each house has a front garden (with a privet hedge) and a back one. (My next book will be titled ‘A Short History of the World According to the Privet Hedge’. Because of associations with such housing estates privet had been despised for generations, until Paul Bangay discovered it was in fact a very useful hedge plant for the houses of Melbourne oligarchs in Toorak.) There is an interview with a resident of Chadwell Heath, originally from Dubai and his visually impaired daughter, both of whom stress the good social environment that the estate provides.)

The supporters of New Traditional Architecture, then, are disposed to condemn the reconstruction efforts of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations for failing to reconstruct things exactly as they were before the war. But it is because of that (Modernist) reconstruction that those streets are clean and uncrowded, and everyone has a clean interior with good plumbing. It is only because this can be taken for granted that it is possible to perceive those old towers as being beautiful and desirable. And indeed in 2022, when there is enough cash available to splash on urban decoration, this building would undoubtedly look better with its towers recreated.

The problem with this debate is the unhelpful polarisation between Modernism and New Traditionalism, as I will discuss in the next post. It is more useful to redirect the discussion to a more substantive polarity: architecture as historical revival versus architecture considered in terms of psychology. Between architecture of the past as a resource, rather than something to return to; and architecture that is truly responsive to human psychology, rather than to an architect’s ambition. In Figure 3, the contrast between the old tower and the buildings beside and behind it needs to be framed in terms, not of Traditionalism versus Modernism, but of variety versus monotony, humanity versus inhumanity, of what ought to be done versus what can be done.

Fig. 3. ‘Lange Franz’, Frankfurt, in 1924 and today, showing the urban context.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/groups/Klassisknyproduktion/permalink/2523704377843404. 6 April 2022.

[2] https://newtrad.org/atlas

[3] https://newtrad.org/aboutme/.

[4] ‘In the late 1930s Germany initiated the most destructive of wars with the most cruel of intentions. Tens of millions of lives and 100 000+ buildings and artifacts of immense value destroyed later, it was finally over for one half of Europe. The other half had to wait another 50 years to get free from either Soviet occupation or communism. But German history is so much longer and richer than the Nazi period. I say this coming from a family background that lost almost everyone and everything. Since the 1990s a wave of reconstruction initiatives have sprung up to restore some of the country’s lost grandeur. While we shall not forget why they were destroyed in the first place, lets be a part of their reconstruction to bring back beauty and heal history.’ https://www.facebook.com/groups/Klassisknyproduktion/permalink/2523704377843404. 6 April 2022.

[5] Great British Railway Journeys, series 12, episode 7, first broadcast in the UK on 4 May 2021.

This entry was posted in All Posts, Architecture, Baroque architecture, Comment, Country Houses, New Traditional architecture, Restoration and Conservation, Town and Village, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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