Reactionary modernism strikes again

EU urban development policy is taking a big step backward by embracing an outmoded ideology governing new construction in historic contexts

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Under the new Article 16, the faithful reconstruction of, say, the campanile in Venice after a collapse (as happened in 1902) would be forbidden as an “extension” of the “monument” of Piazza San Marco. Instead, a “contemporary” insertion would be required – perhaps like this Madrid building?

Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros

Imagine the following scenario. It is 1902, and to the great shock and distress of the citizens of Venice, the beautiful campanile tower in its Piazza San Marco has just collapsed. That very evening, the city’s communal council votes to approve 500,000 Lire for the prompt rebuilding, “com’era, dov’era” — “as it was, where it was.” Future residents and visitors alike may now continue to enjoy this beautiful structure, which had also been restored and added to many times previously.

But then a bureaucrat from far away steps up to speak. “Our standards do not allow this! Our funding policies require that ‘a project shall use contemporary design’ — which means that you may use only current styles of which we approve, and you may not use the traditional styles of Venice. That would be a ‘falsification of history’, a ‘mingling of the false with the genuine’, and we decree that this would have harmful consequences!” The project does not go forward, and something entirely “contemporary” is built instead.

The first part of this scenario did in fact occur — the campanile was rebuilt, to the delight of citizens and visitors for over a century since. The second part of the scenario is in fact what would occur under a current EU proposal governing new construction in historic contexts that would restrict funding for such projects unless they are “stylistically correct” — that is, unless the authorities deem them to be suitably “contemporary” in design.

The last few phrases of the scenario come verbatim from a document written by a group of modernist architects in 1933, one that was deeply influential upon architectural theory — to the great detriment of cities and their inhabitants (and their broader heritage) ever since. Their ideology still haunts current policy, and drives the current proposal. We will come back to examine this point in more detail later.

Meanwhile, the current provision at the EU is “Quality principle/recommendation number 16” of the “European quality principles for EU-funded interventions with potential impact upon cultural heritage.” It states:

“When new parts/elements are necessary, a project shall use contemporary design adding new value and/or use while respecting the existing ones.” (Emphasis added)

This is a subtle but radical provision. In addition to prohibiting the reconstruction of the Venice campanile, it would decree, for example, that the reconstructions of historic Warsaw, Dresden, Potsdam, and many other cities obliterated during World War II, would not be permitted. Individual buildings, too, could not be reconstructed, except as “contemporary designs” — which is to say, again, only those particular styles that the authorities deem to be “contemporary”. To make this determination, civic and political authorities of course defer to architects with a “contemporary” stylistic agenda. That might mean, for example, something like a swoopy new spire would be mandated for the reconstruction of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral. The reconstruction of the beautiful spire destroyed by the 2019 fire, or any other traditional design for that matter, would be forbidden.

This provision surely warms the hearts of those architects who would prefer to build their own contemporary novelties, without competition from other architects who may be more skilled in traditional design. However, for the citizenry at large, for city leaders, and for those in other disciplines, Quality Principle Number 16 ought to be deeply troubling, for several reasons.

First, there is the sheer value of economic development in places like, for example, the rebuilt historic center of Warsaw. Tourists come to such a place to revel in its atmosphere and its beauty, and to dig into its history — whereupon they may learn, through appropriate interpretive materials, all about the postwar reconstruction (a historic event in its own right). A prohibition against creating such an economic as well as cultural treasure — forbidden purely on stylistic grounds — would carry potentially enormous negative economic impacts. In some cases, these impacts would be felt most by remote communities that can ill afford to do without the appeal of reconstructed heritage (suitably identified as such).

Warsaw’s beautiful and popular Old Town, a major economic engine of the city. The district was entirely rebuilt after the German army leveled it in World War II.  Such a reconstruction (an “extension” of a “monument”) would be forbidden under the new EU standard. (Image courtesy

Second, there is the troubling spectacle of experts arrogating to themselves the exclusive right to dictate what kinds of environments regular citizens may occupy and enjoy. Human environments must accomplish many goals, only one of which is to tick professional boxes of what some group considers as historic “authenticity”. They must also delight, comfort, support, and adapt to human need. One of the ways we ensure they do so, particularly in a democracy, is to involve the citizens in the shaping of their own environments. By contrast, there is something fundamentally undemocratic about experts dictating “a project SHALL use contemporary design”. Of course, it is those same experts who then deem what constitutes “contemporary” design.

Third, this proposal betrays an appalling fallacy in thinking — namely, that every period of history is “authentically” represented by one and only one style, which is “contemporary” to that period. Therefore, under this logic, every new act of building must be fully legible as to its period of creation, offering up the one and only correct semiotic expression of its historic identity.

This is complete nonsense. History is not a line but a fugue, with revivals and recreations and novelties all mixed up together. Nor is there one authoritative source of the “correct” expression of a given time and place, but rather, there are almost always multiple competing claims to expression of a given time or a given culture. That is an essential part of history, and we do ourselves no service by oversimplifying history to a neatly linear one-track scheme. Historians today acknowledge this complexity and multiplicity, and are focused on providing interpretive materials to allow viewers to sort out these complex and often competing narratives for themselves.

Where, then, did the impetus for this stylistic dictate come from? The answer is all too simple: from ideological architects, who believe that modernism (and its postmodern variants) is the one and only authentic architecture of our time. Curiously, it was also the architecture of the 1930s, 1950s, 1960s… and apparently, all future time too. One thing is certain: anything like revival or reconstruction of what existed before 1930 — or even any new construction building on traditional pattern and precedent — is a cardinal sin.

This philosophy was perfectly summarized by the enormously influential Athens Charter, purportedly the outcome document of the 1933 Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne conference, but written mostly by the architect Le Corbusier and published a decade later. Here is Le Corbusier’s pronouncement, in Article 70 of the Charter, on new construction in historic contexts:

The practice of using styles of the past on aesthetic pretexts for new structures erected in historic areas has harmful consequences. Neither the continuation of such practices nor the introduction of such initiatives will be tolerated in any form. Such methods are contrary to the great lesson of history. Never has a return to the past been recorded, never has man retraced his own steps. (Emphasis added.)

Anyone acquainted with architectural history knows that this is, of course, the sheerest nonsense. Never has a return to the past been recorded? The Renaissance did not happen, Jefferson did not recapitulate Palladio, did not recapitulate Vitruvius, did not recapitulate the Greeks? Le Corbusier’s is a simpleton’s view of history, a single straight line in which everything moves forward, always forced to be new, always different.

We can be thankful that history is far richer and more complex, and that it exhibits the ready capacity to compound, to learn, and to evolve over time. Like natural systems, our human systems are able to build on what came before, not simply discarding it (in the modernist Walter Gropius’ tart phrase, “starting from zero.”) A biological analogy for that severe restriction might be that evolution may not use the rich genetic material of pre-existing organisms, but must always start over again with, say, amoebas.

But among architects, the 1933 Charter of Athens was a profoundly influential document, and it is difficult to over-state the impact it has had on the human environment ever since. Its application has been profoundly negative, as many scholars have documented. The idea that everything must be radically new, must be stripped of all ornament, must avoid ALL associations with the forms and patterns of the past — the enormity of that restriction is hard to grasp. Again to use an analogy from genetic evolution, this would be like saying to a dolphin, “your dorsal fin looks far too much like a shark’s, yet you are from 300 million years later — that fin design is old, outdated, and traditional, and therefore it has to go!” Perhaps the dolphin might adopt a swoopy fin too…

Those who are not associated with the architecture profession, as we are, might find it bizarre, then, that such an ill-considered ideology shapes human society, to this day. As one theorist observed, “modernism’s alchemistic promise, to transform quantity into quality through abstraction and repetition, has been a failure, a hoax: magic that didn’t work.” And yet this outmoded ideology, almost a century old, persists in some corners, as we see now. It persists in the status quo thinking of many architects and even some officials and members of the public — and it even persists in some legislation.

One place where this ideology persists is in the 1964 Venice Charter on the Conservation of Monuments and Sites, used by many governments to shape their legislation regarding conservation. Modernist architects are fond of quoting Article 9, which calls for new work to “be distinct from the original composition and must bear a contemporary stamp.” They interpret this article to mandate a “contemporary design”, i.e. a modernist or neo-modernist insertion. But a 2006 conference of heritage and conservation professionals concluded that the goal of legibility is only one goal, which needs to be considered in relation to others:

This goal must be dynamically balanced with other needs, including the need for coherent and enduring human environments. Thus, new work may be distinct from the original composition while still harmonizing with that composition. A contemporary stamp may be provided in a number of ways, including interpretive information or identifying marks or characteristics. It is not necessary to create a striking juxtaposition, which may violate the mandate to preserve the traditional setting or the relations of mass and color [as called for in Article 6].

This is a crucial point that is conveniently overlooked by modernist ideologues. Most importantly, Article 6 of the Venice Charter flatly states:

Wherever the traditional setting exists, it must be kept. No new construction, demolition or modification which would alter the relations of mass and color must be allowed. (Emphasis added.)

This article flies in the face of the mandate for “contemporary” insertions, which often violate the scale, mass, form, color, etc. (The crucial question not usually asked: why this stubborn insistence on breaking every form of harmony?) Article 6 also clearly opens the door to sympathetic new construction in a similar traditional form that acts to “preserve the traditional setting” and the “relations of mass and color” — assuming that the new work can be differentiated through some kind of “contemporary stamp”. This could be literally – as in the photo below –  a date stamp!

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This building in a traditional character, located in the historic Nob Hill District of Portland, has a literal date stamp on its front showing its construction in 1992.  No one would be fooled as to its historic origins. (Image: Google Maps.)

It must be noted here that, although the current standard is an EU one, this is not merely a European problem. After all, Europe has historically been enormously influential in imposing its urban and architectural theories on  the rest of the world, not least in its invention of the modernist “International Style.” The decision-making economic/political classes in other countries are unfortunately still swayed by these ideologies, as evidence shows – to the great detriment of local architectural and urban cultures. This is all the more ironic since, having ousted former colonial powers, many national governments continue to uncritically follow fashionable ideologies from power centers elsewhere.

The broader issue is this: will non-architects, and others not specialists in conservation, continue to allow an outmoded century-old ideology to cause the degradation of cities, even (especially) in their most historic and most beautiful cores? Or will we see a continued (and increasing) uprising of citizens, activists, non-architect professionals, and other concerned leaders, demanding that architects and other specialists raise their game, and create a new generation of more humane, more historically rich human environments? The current controversial standard poses an important and timely test of that question.

The full EU proposal can be viewed here:

An ongoing series of essays updating notions of historic preservation and heritage for our times is published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

Building Tomorrow’s heritage. I. What historic structures can teach us about making a better future

Building Tomorrow’s Heritage. II. Lessons from Psychology and Health Sciences

Building Tomorrow’s Heritage. III. Correcting “Architectural Myopia”

About the authors: Michael W. Mehaffy received his Ph.D. in architecture at Delft Technical University and has had five appointments in university architecture departments in five countries. He is currently a senior researcher with the Centre for the Future of Places at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. Nikos Salingaros is a professor of mathematics and architecture, and an award-winning architectural theorist

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