Traditional Architecture Group
A Linked Society of the Royal Institute of British Architects

Subscribers Newsletter no.6

10th December 2010


Several issues have been raised in the TAG debates of 9th June 2010 and 25th November 2010. These issues will be discussed in a number of TAG Subscriber Newsletters of which this is the first. It deals with the Modernist side of the argument with particular reference to the contribution of Mr Charles Jencks at the debate of 25th November 2010.

The Discreet Charm of Pluralism
By Peter Kellow
Let us start from a view held by practically all traditionalists. Traditional architects hold that there is a radical difference between traditional architecture and modernist architecture. When it comes to designing a particular building the traditional architect of our time, or of any time before, draws on the past to inform their solution to the particular site and its set of requirements. On the other hand the Modernist architect looks to other material. His or her design seeks to consciously differentiate itself from the past and to do this references what they consider to be facets of the “modern” age and reflects them in the design. In this the design detaches itself from history and, in the eyes of the designer, becomes the product of purely contemporary influences.

It used to be fashionable for Modernist architects also to accept the above distinction between traditionalism and Modernism. Modernists were happy and indeed keen to promote the idea that their work had no connection with the past and tradition and traditional architecture, while it could be venerated in isolated ancient monuments, had no lessons for contemporary architects and the sites it occupied were ripe for expropriation for buildings reflecting the new age.

The Pevsner approved model. Office for Severn Trent Water by Glenn Howells Architects
Building Design Office Architects of the Year 2010

Modernists had a theory to justify their radicalism and this was a simple historicist interpretation of history that relied on the identification of a rupture in the evolution of society drawing a line between the past age and the “modern” age. The rupture occurred around 1900 although its rumblings could be felt earlier and its full unfolding revealed later. Architectural theorists such as Siegfried Gideon and Sir Nicolas Pevsner characterised this rupture in terms of a revision of the principle types of technology available to us and suggested that this revision permeated all aspects of society including architecture. In this way they theorised the rise of Modernist architecture and provided a powerful and influential justification for it.

This theory has now been recognised by the majority of Modernist architects and their advocates as being far too narrow and determinist. A major part of the reason for this must be that Modernist architecture itself has changed and the old theory is now manifestly inadequate to account for these changes. “Avant-gardism” was always an incipient element of the Modernist project but since the 1970s it has become much more fully and openly declared. The result has been a whole variety of undisciplined architectural expression that would have shocked and appalled Giedion and Pevsner and resists being accounted for within the old theory to which they subscribed.

This is then the landscape that a Modernist apologist such as Charles Jencks has to deal with and provides the context within which he must explain why Modernist buildings should be preferred over traditional buildings. The old historicist theory made short work of traditionalism and so how will Mr Jencks refute the case for building in a traditional style? This is the question that the debate of the 25th November 2010 was to answer.

There is in fact only one way of defending Modernism in the new situation and attendees of the previous TAG/RIBA Trust debate on the 11th June 2010 are already familiar with it. On that occasion there were three defenders of Modernism, Stephen Bayley, Patrik Schumacher and Alan Powers.

Only Schumacher resorted to the old historicist arguments declaring that we can align “great epochal architectural styles” with “socio-economic epochs”. His innovation was to revamp the old Giedion style thinking by using it to justify his own “parametricist” architecture style. Technology has changed and so “Parametricism promises a new unified style and epoch style for the global network style we are working in.” The exact connection between the ultra-expressionist architecture of his practice, Zaha Hadid Architects, and the global network was not spelt out.

Schumacher was at pains to mesh up his reading of contemporary history with his own architecture: “I am trying to rationalise, be responsible, for my aesthetic sensibilities, question them, question intuition, and that I can only do by understanding what is historically required what I can define as a vital operative in delivering the next level of our civilisation”. In order to accomplish this bold project he advised that “We should acquire the historically correct taste”. (The latter phrase Chairman, Sunand Prasad, understandably found “chilling”.)

Rather than go into the details of all of Charles Jencks talk (which contained many interesting perspectives) within the space of this newsletter I propose to show how the Modernist speakers (other than Schumacher) at the two debates all put essentially the same argument. This is the only non-Giedion, non-historicist type argument that is ever used to refute the case for traditionalism. It goes like this.

Arguments for traditionalism are irrelevant because the dichotomy betweem traditionalism and Modernism has been replaced by a plurality of styles and none of them has any special merit with respect to any of the others. In the world of today there are no commonly held values and so all claimants are equal. Preference is arbitrary.

This claim that there is no basis whereby any of the myriad architectural styles that have existed and now exist can be said to have any more value than any other is an example of “pluralism”.

Sometimes the word “pluralism” is used to mean the acknowledgment of diversity”. But this means very little and so I use the word in its stronger sense. If you are a pluralist you say in whatever field you are refering to that all varieties of opinion contribute to an overall good and so all are desirable. In the field of architecture a strict pluralist will argue that it is desirable to have both traditional and Modernist practitioners. And so both are equally valid.

"Relativism" although defined differently from pluralism can amount to the same thing. Relativism means accepting that everything has a certain value and you cannot say one thing is better than another. But the pluralist by arguing that everything contributes to the world being a better place is saying they all have value and so the distinction between pluralism and relativism becomes difficult to disentangle. I prefer to use the word "pluralism" - in its strong sense.

Pluralism obviates the need to either defend or attack and thus is a convenient way to deal with traditionalism for it becomes just one style, or a collection of styles, within the whole gamut of styles, traditional and Modernist. The questions it poses loose their force and are of no need of being addressed. Pluralism becomes a wholesale neutralising where everything is accommodated within a uniform, landscape. Within this scenario traditionalists can be represented as special pleaders, unable to accept or comprehend the new world where meanings and values no longer count. For the exponents of pluralism it provides a means of interpreting the world in a dispassionate, objective way. For its opponents it is a cop out that lets in the bad with the good, a cynical superficial posture that encourages the degrading of common values and common humanism.

Let us look briefly at how each of the speakers, Stephen Bailey, Alan Powers and Charles Jencks expressed the pluralist/relativist position.

Stephen Bailey provided the simplest form of pluralism of the three. He said it is all a matter of “taste” and that the conflict between traditionalism and Modernism is false. Thus according to Bailey there is nothing deeper behind the difference between a traditional style and a Modernist style. No style carries with it any special meaning. We simple pick and choose between them in smorgasbord type fashion according to “taste”. The argument seeks to neutralise the real differences between traditionalism and Modernism by trivialising the issue. It is the shallowest version of the pluralism.

Alan Powers had a more sophisticated way of expressing pluralism. He suggested that traditionalists and modernists often seek to battle with each other with a view to reducing the other and drew a comparison with the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. This religion has a “dualist” view of the world whereby there is a battle between good and evil gods or forces. His account did become confused as he slid into representing the dualism of Manichaeism as if it were the same as that of Zoroastrianism which of course it is not. {Under Manichaeism the dualist contrast is between the material world (bad) and the supernatural, divine world (good) not between two omnipresent forces as in Zoroastrianism.} He said that dualism (meaning the Zoroastrian version) has a powerful hold on us and that it is a “tough mental exercise to think yourself out of it”. He has surely got a point that we have a tendency to see the world in terms of good and bad, or desirable and undesirable, elements and in the conduct of our lives we tend to take sides.

But why would we want to “think ourselves out of” this view of the world. Zoroastrianism ranks as one of the world’s great religions and it would be unwise to dismiss so easily the way it characterises the world. What Zoroastrian dualism does is to subjectivise our view of the world and this is where the profound truth that it contains lies. Powers is against Zoroastrian dualism and the way its world view persists because he seeks an objective universal neutral framework into which anything can be slotted divesting it of meaning or value. He reflected the resigned despair that pluralism can lead to saying “There is no plot, [the world] is not going anywhere. …. We are not going to have a shiny future but a dusty weed strewn future and I will be happy with that.” His pluralism has allowed him to dispense with the natural human need to strive for a better world which the wisdom of Zoroastrianism enshrines.

Charles Jencks’s pluralism operates in a different way again although the aim is the same – to neutralise different views and styles and give them all equal value. He abolishes the dichotomy between traditionalism and Modernism by the device of directly equating the word “tradition” with the word “style” . For instance, he said [my emphasis]

“Fischer von Erlach’s treatise of 1721, for Imperial Vienna, includes among his ten or so styles the Egyptian, Islamic, Chinese and even Stonehenge traditions. … But by the mid-nineteenth century about fifteen modes were practiced as minority styles within the larger hegemonic discourse of the Classical, the Gothic and Engineering. “The Battle of the Styles (with an S)” has been recurrent since this time, although the two dominants of the Classical and Gothic parties tried to squeeze out the variety …. This reduction of pluralism to two main modes notably started in the 17th century with the war between the Ancients and Moderns. Then too third, fourth and fifth traditions were suppressed. But in the longer term, by the 1890s, this suppression did not work, and the revived plurality of styles and the new ones proliferated. The eclecticism of the Queen Anne Revival and the birth of many hybrids showed that architecture still had to work with some traditions.”

But the Battle of the Styles was just that. It was not a battle between traditions for all involved were working out of the same tradition – the traditional architecture tradition. Of course there was at that time no other sort of architecture. And this is perhaps the crux of the matter that Bayley, Powers and Jencks do not grasp. As Robert Adam said in his role as chairman, traditions have to be rooted in a community. We might also say “society” or “culture”. An imported or invented style does not represent a tradition – it is just that - a style, without roots or depth. It may be absorbed into the tradition in which it is placed but that means integration into the culture that supports that tradition and that takes time.

As Jencks brought his talk up to the recent past he continued with the equating of style and tradition but added in the new words like “mode”, “brand”, etc, which also seemed to share the same meaning:

“And so it is today. The many traditions (15 styles at any one time?) are even more voluntaristic or worked out with a group. Just as significant is the fact that each one is much stronger compared to the reigning or dominant modes … In effect, these modes are even more personally chosen by each architect than they were in the 19th century (for instance, the minority Eco-Tech group in Britain today). They are more individualised, with brand-name-styles added quickly. Le Style Corbu, the Miesian Style, The Aalto brand, the Bucky mode, the Metabolism manner, the Archigram Trend, etc.”

None of these shallow concepts have anything to do with tradition.

Thus Bayley, Powers and Jencks in different ways all adopt a pluralist position whereby everything has equal value and nothing has any prior claim to validity over anything else. However, of course, this is not the entire story for they all do in fact have a strong personal preference – for Modernism. But here again the traditionalist insistence on a strict dichotomy between traditionalism and Modernism is denied in favour of describing a plurality of Modernist styles. In Jencks’s hands these styles, however superficial and short lived become “traditions”.

In an interesting account of how the proliferation of Modernist styles has been shaped by commercial needs he said;

“It is a Radical Market Pluralism because all these parallel traditions end up minoritisedmost of the time. Even the hegemonic Mainstream Modernism is weak, practiced as a kind of default mode, a commercial and pale imitation of the twenties International Style. Thus today’s hegemon is mid-cult, commercialised and no longer believed in…. It is not a Great Battle of the Styles but a Great Gossip of the Styles, …. This leads to widespread paranoia … because of the existentialist choice. When you have to choose your style, make your own brand, your website, your social network, … It is like choosing a good spouse in the age of high divorce. … In any case, the market pluralism constitutes a kind of manifold traditionalism with many competing approaches competing for media attention. This keeps the quality higher than zero, but rather low. Yes, we have traditions with an S today, and they are as inevitable as variable DNA which comes from the past.”

Bayley, Powers and Jencks use the concept of pluralism to devalue and make the concepts of tradition and Modernism meaningless and this allows them to side with Modernism as a default choice with only the weakest arguments given for supporting it. Bayley said “Modernists are admirable because they wanted to escape the bonds of style” and “Who wants to live in a dead culture?”. Powers said: “I’m for surrealism, I’m for the subconscious I’m for moving around our mental furniture that’s my form of modernism”. Jencks is highly critical of Modernism as it is now practiced but nevertheless sees it as the only option.

Whilst pluralism has been presented here as simply a ploy to sidestepping committal to any particular type of architecture Jencks has a justification for why it is inevitable in contemporary society. He said: “We cannot go back to an integrated culture” because of the “breakdown of culture of religion of any metanarrative”.

But where is the evidence for this breakdown in the culture outside of the world of architecture? There are many senses in which the culture is still highly homogeneous. We would, for instance, naturally say we still have a strong living tradition of democracy and free speech. We have television and sporting events that go out to millions. And if you want an example of a newer British tradition, but an established one nevertheless, look to popular music. Individuals that come to prominence do so via the living, breathing culture and tradition that we have and this culture is not disintegrating. Neither is it uniform for it suffers from many stresses and strains and we may be thankful that it does, but to talk about it as having lost any “narrative” is far from the truth. The wholesale disintegration that Jencks talks about is only apparent if you look at our society through the lens of recent Modernist architecture. Survey after survey show 80% of the general public preferred traditional architecture to Modernist and 80% certainly suggests something very like an integrated culture.

Pluralism serves a further role for Modernist apologists. It can be used to deny the hegemony Modernist architecture undoubtedly enjoys. For Jencks no such hegemony exists as there are so many competing traditions/styles/modes and none of them is dominant. But he passes over the fact that he is referring to exclusively Modernist styles. Collectively Modernist styles enjoy favour in the press, the architectural schools and every major commission and this in spite of their unpopularity with the public at large. From the traditionalist and public point of view this is a hegemony – a hegemony of Modernism.

Pluralism is a unitary view of the world in disguise. It effectively imposes a objective view into which everything can take an equal place even if superficially it looks like a loose arrangement. As much as the abstract historicist theories of Giedion and Schumacher it is a disengaged scientistic instrument. Such positions, as Martin Heidegger said, ultimately lack meaning and therefore “authenticity”, by which he meant their adoption means we are not being true to ourselves. They imply an abrogation of the real nature what it is to be human and what is the real nature of the world. Pluralism pretends to create freedom, but in reality creates a unifying field at a low level. It seeks to make the world determinant but at the price of divesting it of meaning and creating an anarchy of content. This corresponds very much to the modern urban landscape as it is. The space is unitary, continuous, all encompassing and chaotic.

As already referred to, the earlier Modernist attempt at theorising a determinate framework within which history marches was abandoned when the later Modernists departed from the script. Non-committal pluralism is an attempt to provide a different kind of determinate framework. The result is a valueless aesthetic where unbridled egotistic display is the only rhetoric, and irony the only emotional centre. The humanist values that traditionalists seek to promote have no place in this scenario and their serious attempts to shape common values are abhorred. Bayley said he doesn’t want to live in a “dead culture” but although the “market pluralism” that Jencks says we now live under may be animated it has no soul and no centre.

Charles Jencks concluded his talk by telling us “Walt Disney famously said ‘No one ever went broke under-estimating the taste of the American public?’ Traditions can do better than Disney.”

But Disney was someone who didn’t go broke precisely because he understood that the public were not fools and were discriminating enough to make a creative product honed to perfection an artistic and financial success. In fact, it was the journalist, Henry Louis Mencken (1880 - 1956), who said “No one in this world, so far as I know ... has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.” [Chicago Tribune,19 September 1926]. Mencken was a grizzled, libertarian cynic. Disney never said this and never would have spoken of his audience in such a dismissive way

Disney was responsible for great original, subtly crafted works of art of unimaginable technical and creative excellence whose legacy will be permanent. Unlike the architects Jencks defends Disney is both popular and produced enduring classics, something for all Modernism’s world wide destructive proliferation it has only achieved in a very small handful of buildings


Comment received from Prof Lars O Ericsson, Professor of Philosophy, Stockholm University, (19 December 2010)

Thanks for your new essay "The Discreet Charm of Pluralism"! I think it is utterly interesting (and that's not just a phrase). With precision you put your finger on the dilemma of modernism, now that all the Hegelian, historicist ideology has withered away, and the old "Zeitgeist" has been replaced by a lukewarm "pluralism".

I agree that pluralism is not so easy to distinguish from relativism (in practice that is), but that they, on a deeper level, are quite distinct. As far as I can see, pluralism is a concept based on "aesthesis", while relativism is an epistemological concept.

And in spite of the alleged pluralism, it is fairly obvious that modernist architecture occupies a hegemonical position within that alleged pluralism.

Another problem, that I wonder if it was discussed during the conference is this: Has not modernism itself become a tradition by now, so how do modernists manœvre to keep themselves apart from traditionalists?

As far as I can see from your essay, they do that by reducing traditionalism to a style (among others in the pluralist family). But, as you so correctly maintain, traditionalism (in your sense) is not reducible to style.

Style, once more, is a concept based on aesthesis, while traditionalism is a cultural, historical, humanist and technological concept, a concept outlining a definite posture towards what went before when working in the present context, and traditional architecture can, from an aesthetical point of view, take many different forms (or styles).

So thanks once more for your essay which is a great source of inspiration to continue the fight against a petrified, hegemonical modernism.

Comment received from Alex Tait, RIBA Knowledge Communities Support Officer (21 December 2010)

Great essay, There must be a lineage or genealogy of the progression of modern architecture. Nothing can be created without historical influences, I believe Modernism to be a tradition in its own right and there are styles within it that come and go. Tom Dykhoff’s plotted history modernism at the Stirling Prize, was just a small number of these styles that could be thought of as currently significant.

No one feels the need to apologise for the canon of modernist architecture and why should they, the 80%.* of people who prefer traditional architecture probably also enjoy most of these:
(I know Jenks is not overly keen on the use of the word canon due to those it excludes).

Bad architecture does need to be apologised for whether it is considered traditional or modern or any other group (style or tradition).

* Is this 80% of people prefer traditional architecture that has already been built to the contemporary buildings that are publicised by the press as terrible architecture?