New Buildings Among Old

Historicism and the Search for an Architecture of Our Time

by Steven W. Semes

Norman Foster   Hearst Tower, New York   PHOTO COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

One of the most hotly contested battlegrounds in the debate between avant-garde modernists and new traditionalists concerns new construction in historic settings, whether additions to protected buildings or infill projects in historic districts. Traditional architects and neighborhood activists have found common cause in opposing aggressively modernist new construction in such settings proposed by high-profile “star” architects. That such interventions are winning approval from leading preservation authorities is dismaying, but the reasons given for these decisions are even more disturbing.
Robert Tierney, Chairman of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, referring to a recently proposed modernist neighbor for an early twentieth-century Georgian Revival townhouse in Manhattan’s Upper East Side Historic District, declared that such an intervention might be considered “a landmark for the future” and visibly “of its time, of the twenty-first century.”1 Rather than seeing the Commission’s role as defender of the character of the historic district, the Chairman apparently sees its role as promoter of avant-garde architectural experimentation. For Tierney, the architect’s design—the façade features a four-story-high blank slab of limestone and is in every respect except size in conspicuous contrast with its historic neighbors—represents “our time” in ways that, presumably, an addition in the style of the original building would not. Other recent additions to New York landmarks, such as Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower and Renzo Piano’s additions to the Morgan Library, have been similarly justified, despite their jarring contrast with their respective monuments. It is the contrast itself, the difference expressed between “our time” and “that other time” which seems so exciting to these preservation authorities. Guardians of historic centers in other cities, notably Charleston, have followed a similar logic, apparently in the belief that new construction more in character with the historic setting would produce an unwanted uniformity, reducing the city to a “simulated architectural environment” or museum.2
Those who find such project approvals a betrayal of the goals of historic preservation have found that the modernist architectural establishment dominates not only the media but also the rhetoric with which arguments, pro or con, have been framed. While many sophisticated people find the current architectural culture of negation unsatisfying and unsustainable, and might find the possibility of a new traditional architecture attractive as an antidote, the modernist establishment—which controls the current definition of progress—proclaims that any traditional alternative represents a counter-progressive or even reactionary strategy that violates the obligation to embrace “the architecture of our time.” In the end, we seem unable to stop the inexorable destructiveness of a voracious and adversarial architecture that, however inappropriate, claims to be propelled by unstoppable historical forces. Despite brave protests, such as David Watkin’s Morality and Architecture (1977) Léon Krier’s Architecture: Choice or Fate? (1998) and a fine essay by my colleague Samir Younés in a previous issue of this publication, opponents of this juggernaut have scarcely made a dent in the widespread belief that architecture is like the weather—something everyone is free to complain about but no one can do anything to change.3

The roots of this impasse reach back into the nineteenth century, when the complex set of ideas denoted by the term historicism came to dominate architectural thinking. Essentially, historicism is the doctrine that History (with a capital “H”) progressively and inevitably reveals a grandiose design or program, and that each era or time period has a unique and exclusive spirit or set of ideas and concerns proper and exclusive to it within the greater sequence. For Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel, the spirit of the age (zeitgeist) is revealed by developments in art, just as it is by political, social and technological change. An individual artwork is little more than a symptom of its social and cultural context, and the main task of the artist, critic or historian is to discern the spirit of the time and give it adequate expression. For Hegel’s descendant Karl Marx, art and culture could be viewed as either “progressive,” facilitating class struggle and the ultimate fall of capitalism, or “reactionary,” inhibiting or obscuring that process. In both philosophies, art can be judged according to whether it advances or retards the imperatives of a given age, however they may be defined.4

By the turn of the twentieth century, historians indebted to Hegel and Marx (as well as to the evolutionary ideas of Darwin and Spencer) were classifying cultures in terms of temporal periods, which they saw as subject to distinct phases of rise, development and decadence. This historiographic program was perhaps best summed up by Oswald Spengler, whose The Decline of the West (first published in 1918) sees a multiplicity of distinct and unique cultures rising and falling in temporal waves:

Each culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay, and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in its deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained, just as each species of plant has its peculiar blossom or fruit, its special type of growth and decline…5

In this view, each historical period has its own exclusive concerns, methods and goals expressive of the spirit of the age. Those artists or thinkers who did not fit into the period categories, either because they fell outside the phased development of the style or because their work pursued other objectives, were often simply ignored. The historicist narrative, which imposed a definitive shape on history while it prescribed the conditions to be met in contemporary work, entered almost subliminally into the consciousness of modern architects.
“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.” “The new architecture is the inevitable logical product…of our age.” “The architect’s task consists in coming into agreement with the orientation of his epoch.” These statements, respectively from Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier, are, according to Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, “among the cruder outcroppings of a theory of historical determinism, a sort of Reader’s Digest version of Hegel which was abundantly taken in by the architectural and planning professions in the earlier years of the [twentieth] century.”6 Generations of students in architecture schools around the world have been taught these clichés since World War II, largely through the influential writings of Siegfried Giedion and Niklaus Pevsner.7 We are in the province of historicism whenever we hear modernist architecture referred to as “the architecture of our time,” meaning not simply a description of whatever architects are designing today, but a prescription for a style that is presumed to be the unique and inevitable expression of the contemporary zeitgeist.
Since the early 1990s, global confidence in a predetermined—or at least identifiable—pattern of progress in history has largely disappeared from the world of politics, economics and international affairs. The fall of Communism—the political expression of Marx’s determinism—rendered most such purported programs moot. Nothing, it seemed, was inevitable after all, and a diagrammatic historical materialism no longer seemed able to account for the world’s complexity. But while abandoned nearly everywhere else, historicism curiously remains an article of faith among most contemporary architects and critics, who still cling to the idea that every age must distinguish itself from all previous ages by making new buildings look different than any previously built. For many of these faithful adherents, the advancement of technology has taken the place of the old Marxian class struggle as the criterion of progress, but the framework and rhetoric of the historicist worldview has changed little. The challenge for us today is to point out the intellectual bankruptcy on which the entire historicist-modernist claim to mastery over the definition of progress rests. 

 Carhart Mansion,   East 95th Street, New York City,   Zivkovic Associates Architects   and John Simpson & Partners   PHOTOGRAPHER: STEVEN BROOKEFrom the historicist viewpoint, buildings and districts are viewed primarily as documents of their times. By defining what they supposed a given period to have been about and focusing on those buildings that corroborate this characterization and de-emphasizing those that do not, the historicist school concocted a narrative that, in the words of Peter Collins, “substituted the criteria of evolution for the criteria of aesthetic judgment, whereby architectural historians were no longer concerned with whether a building was good or bad, but simply how it was to be classified chronologically.”8 An entirely different picture of history can be painted depending on whether one sees continuities or discontinuities as normative. If ruptures and daring innovations are what define the “spirit of the time,” as Spengler thought, then the historian will emphasize those and ignore the vast preponderance of buildings that continue along stylistic lines established earlier. Valuing buildings primarily in terms of their position within a historical sequence thus results in a sort of temporal typecasting that deprives us of an accurate or complete picture of any historical epoch.
This explains the standard critical approach to two landmarks of nineteenth-century Paris, Henri Labrouste’s Bibliotèque Ste.-Genevieve (1845–50) and Charles Garnier’s Opéra (1861–74). Labrouste is usually celebrated as a progressive pioneer and Garnier condemned as a reactionary, his vast inventiveness ignored. But what is most striking is what these works have in common—a strong commitment to the ongoing development of the classical tradition, a specific interest in ornament and an incorporation of the most advanced technology their rapidly developing building culture afforded them. This is not, however, the way the story is told in the standard histories. Giedion, who claimed that “there are whole decades in the second half of the nineteenth century in which no architectural work of any significance is encountered,” devoted an entire chapter to Labrouste but completely ignored Garnier. Giedion regarded the undisguised use of industrialized materials and building systems as the sole criterion demanded of architecture by the nineteenth-century zeitgeist.9
The historicist narrative fails to explain what we can plainly see because the art and architecture of any moment in history is driven by multiple impulses, even contradictory ones that compete and combine in a continually jostling marketplace of works and ideas. As Peter Collins noted, “it is characteristic of stylistic changes in art that they result from the alternation of antithetical ideas rather than from any evolutionary process developing along a constant path.”10 Developments tend to come from individuals and groups whose innovations succeed over competing versions, not from blind forces or abstract ideas. Despite Pevsner’s claims to the contrary, it was because someone invented rib-vaulting that the Gothic style emerged, not because the spirit of the time required it.11
Like most clichés, the historicist view of architectural progress does contain a measure of truth. There are many instances in which a particular and well-defined line of development, once initiated, is pursued by a number of architects working on a specific problem over the course of a few generations or more. The development of the Greek Doric temple from Paestum to the Parthenon, the succession of Gothic cathedrals from Chartres to Beauvais, the recovery and extension of the classical language from Brunelleschi to Michelangelo, and the refinement of the American skyscraper from Louis Sullivan to Raymond Hood and William F. Lamb are all examples of progress along a clear path of refinement. Two caveats must be noted, however. First, these sequences do not necessarily fit into a grander scheme of development embracing them all, and, second, it would be wrong to see the earlier stages in any of these examples as being necessarily inferior to the later ones. Chronological placement in the sequence of development does not determine the aesthetic merit of individual works.
A corollary to historicism’s emphasis on evolutionary progress is its misplaced emphasis on ideas and meanings, to the virtual exclusion of formal design. When architecture is judged primarily as an expression of the “spirit of the age,” non-architectural considerations, such as the presumed political or social values held by the architects or expressed by the building, can outweigh the physical realization of the design itself. We often hear architects and critics say: “Architecture is not ultimately about what buildings look like; it’s about ideas.” Yet no one can explain how the nonrepresentational art of architecture can express complicated social or philosophical ideas without simply being reduced to a built diagram or logo.
On the other hand, many important buildings have outlived the ideas that supposedly prompted their original construction. What, after eighteen centuries, is now the meaning of the Pantheon in Rome? This structure’s profound appeal to modern people cannot be explained by reference either to its progressive use of concrete or the presumed historical meaning of its form. While one cannot deny the many connections between a given building and the ideas that may have been significant for its designer, or that became attached to it during the subsequent history of the building, neither can we assume that these ideas or associations determined the forms, are given univocal expression by them or will remain important in the future. The value of such a building ultimately rests on its relationship to perennial values that transcend, while still respecting, the concerns of any historical moment.
In truth, only within a style can a specific form become reliably associated with a specific content or idea. Outside of a style, the correspondence between forms and the ideas they are thought to express is accidental, anecdotal or perhaps projected onto the forms by a critic with a vested interest in proving a particular theory. Despite their frequent reluctance to do so, historians and critics of architecture must pay attention to what buildings look like in order to understand how their styles allow their forms to enter into association with the ideas they are believed to embody. The traditional styles do this by promoting the use of what Roger Scruton calls “repeatable form,” so that the ideas are inferable from the forms themselves rather than attached to them by means of verbal formulas.12 Style, not meaning is the key to understanding the aesthetic achievement of historical architecture.
But this inquiry is hampered by the historicist identification of style with the temporal category of period. Each style is identified with the historical moment when it first appears; knowing this allows the historian to use style in dating works, since buildings are assumed to belong to the period in which their style was prevalent. For the historicist, the notion that style might be independent of historical sequence—that one might legitimately build in a particular style decades or even centuries after it first arose, perhaps to sustain a sense of visual continuity in a historic context—violates the legibility of the historical process and confuses the building’s provenance. The deliberate imitation of a style no longer in fashion is therefore considered “false history”; it purports to tell a story contrary to the true history based on the historicist narrative of stylistic succession. This is the source of the modernist revulsion at stylistic revivals, whether in the nineteenth century or today. Subsequent appearances of a style—Colonial Revival works from the early twentieth century, for example—are considered inauthentic and labeled as pastiche. To the historicist, such stylistic anachronism is seen as a form of fakery.
For similar reasons, preservationists today discourage reconstructions of vanished or decayed buildings and often insist on making new interventions “differentiated” from the historic material, so that the sequence of construction of the various parts of the fabric is readily apparent. This is not, in itself, a bad idea. There would be little point in trying to deceive people into believing that some element of a historic building added yesterday is part of its original fabric, and in fact such deception is rare. Subtle distinctions in materials can allow observers to see a restored building whole while, at the same time, noting that it has changed over time—as, for example, in the current restorations at the Acropolis in Athens, where new Pentelikon marble is being used to fill in missing pieces. The more conspicuous differentiations pushed by some preservationists today exaggerate this legitimate idea, leading to jarring contrasts designed to express the difference between historical and modernist architecture, an ideological rather than interpretive stance13
In truth, the historicist equation of style and period is a simple tautology: a building looks a certain way because that was the style of the time; we can identify the style of the time because buildings built then looked that way. But that is not what a style is. A style is like a literary genre that may be employed at various times and for various reasons, persisting and changing in the development of a literature. To build in a historical style is not to pretend to be living in another time, nor is it an attempt to deceive. It is an exploration of the formal language of a particular manner of building that may have application in and relevance to any number of times and places, even far removed from its original appearance. Even the ancient Romans consciously employed archaic motifs in order to make connections across time, while maintaining a consistent style that continually renewed itself over the course of a thousand years. The rehabilitation of the concept of style independent of historical sequence is essential if we are to cultivate wholeness and continuity in our built environment and heal the wounds of a half-century or more of excessive, uncritical differentiation.
Another problem with seeing buildings primarily as historical documents is that an excessive concern for material authenticity can exaggerate the importance of physical fabric alone, at the expense of a proper balance between material and formal design. Old buildings stand before us “imbued with a message from the past,” as the opening words of the Venice Charter put it, possibly revealing in their material presence what a particular past time was really like. From this viewpoint, the primary goal of preservation or restoration is versimilitude rather than, say, integrity as a work of art. For example, the missing columns of the portico at the old Court House in Williamsburg have not been restored because the intended columns were never installed during the colonial period. In the historicist view, restoring the columns would be “false history” because historic structures are artifacts whose value inheres in the aged material itself and the way this reveals actual historical conditions at a particular time. The continuing development of a building after its period of historical significance, or its later completion in the style in which it was originally built, would only compromise our ability to read the documentary evidence the building provides.14
Despite the seeming objectivity of this more archeological approach, it nevertheless betrays a Romantic fascination with the isolated fragment or the ruin as a metaphorical expression of the irrecoverable past. The Romantic cult of ruins is illustrated vividly by Venturi and Rauch’s non-reconstruction of Benjamin Franklin’s house in Philadelphia, where the few surviving brick foundations of Franklin’s long-vanished home and the stabilized ruin of the commercial buildings along the street are presented to the public as if they were religious relics or the precious and inscrutable remains of a prehistoric culture. The presumed outlines of Franklin’s lost structures are limned in steel tubing, like ghostly intimations of a vanished history. The sad consequence of this approach is that it immortalizes the physical evidence connected with a particular moment in time while disregarding the role of the monument in the formation of an enduring sense of place. Such alienation of the physical fabric serves the historicist mission of isolating the past from the present, keeping the evidence of each period safely contained in its officially determined chronological slot and reinforcing the view that historical buildings have nothing to teach us for the making of contemporary architecture.
The cumulative legacy of the historicist biases discussed here has been the decontextualization of historic buildings—they become museum artifacts instead of remaining part of our living world. According to present doctrine, preservation commissions can offer architects working in historic settings only three options: a) strictly restore historic fabric based on physical or other documentation, b) scrupulously maintain in perpetuity the conditions that existed at the time of designation or, c) in cases where “non-contributing” buildings or features may be removed, insert new construction in a contrasting idiom representing “our time.” What is not permitted is to add new elements in the style of the historic fabric based on the architect’s knowledge of that style; to do so would be “false history” and might confuse observers unable to distinguish the new and the old elements. Anything that looks different from the historic fabric is preferred to anything that looks too much like it. Loss of continuity and integrity in historical character is therefore the inevitable consequence of the preservation activity itself, which is clearly a counterproductive outcome. But why should a historic place not continue to evolve as it always has in the past, without the introduction of intentionally alienating forms? Why can’t the construction history be documented by simply carving the date over the entrance or adding a bronze plaque explaining what parts of the building were built at different times?
The historicist answer is that a new exercise in a traditional style is contrary to the progress of history, in which styles emerge and are abandoned in accordance with the spirit of the time. But here the traditionalist can assert that the spirit of the time has changed and modernism can no longer claim to be the exclusive expression of the age. If new traditional design is now an undeniable fact of contemporary practice (and it is), then the whole historicist defense of modernism collapses. Now that modernism no longer has a monopoly on the definition of progress, architects, critics, academics and preservation officials must face the truth: there is no such thing as “false history.” There is only the true history of whatever choices we make, including the possibility that we choose to make buildings today that resemble buildings built at some other time. Looking back a generation from now, we will see that the spirit of our time was characterized as much by a renewal of traditions as by innovation and iconoclasm.15
In contrast to the historicist position, the Renaissance architect and author of the first modern treatise on architecture, Leon Battista Alberti, wrote that it was wise for the architect, when adding to an older building, to continue in the original style, as he himself did when completing the façade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.16 This remained the most common practice among architects until the ascendancy of modernism. If, contrary to modernist practice, we choose to follow Alberti’s example and prioritize continuity in style and character when building in historical settings, our design decisions will be neither true nor false but only appropriate or inappropriate. What a building should look like is a decision based on a number of different values that are susceptible to rational inquiry and aesthetic judgment, including our sense of what treatment is most respectful of the valued parts of any pre-existing or historical context in which we are building. The regulated historic district will be seen as a zone in which the character-defining elements that give the district its identity are protected and new contributions to the built fabric are not permitted to remove, obscure or diminish that character. The city will not become a museum but, rather, a construction site in which the new rises within and amongst the old without loss of character while preserving or even increasing the beauty that has already preceded us. The resulting “architecture of our time” will no longer be hostage to a meaningless theory of “difference,” nor be determined by stylistic prejudice, but will be defined by our commitment to sustaining and extending the historical character of the place.
A number of architects have courageously pursued a counter-modernist strategy over the last several decades. Among the most notable achievements have been Quinlan Terry’s projects in London, the late Christian Langlois’s in Paris, John Blatteau’s in Washington, D.C., and the late Samuel Wilson’s in New Orleans. It is encouraging to note that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the highly accomplished addition to a 1915 Horace Trumbauer classical townhouse at 5 East 95th Street—designed by Zivkovic, Connolly Associates and John Simpson and Partners after a previous modernist design, also approved by the Commission, was abandoned by the owner—as the most visible of a series of recent new classical and traditional projects in historic districts. All of these projects represent confident new designs in the classical language rather than extensions or replications of historic neighbors.17
Williamsburg Court HouseDespite sporadic victories against it, the historicist viewpoint is nonetheless proving hard to dislodge. It is enshrined in the 1964 Venice Charter (promulgated by UNESCO) and its descendant, the 1977 Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which over the last three decades has served as the de facto national preservation policy in the United States.18
A vast institutional and professional infrastructure has grown up over the last several decades in support of the orthodox historicist-modernist ideology and has so far managed to suppress dissenting viewpoints, but this is changing. The outline of a new paradigm for architecture and preservation appears in the Charleston Charter, written in 2005 and disseminated by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, and the Venice Declaration, drafted at a 2006 conference in Venice sponsored by the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (INTBAU), intended as an updating of the 1964 Venice Charter.19 A series of recent conferences and publications by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Civic Art Society and other organizations have called for a reconsideration of current orthodoxy in relating new and old architecture.20
This growing dissent within the architectural and preservation communities represents the paradigm shift now in progress as the grip of historicist doctrine is gradually broken. In its place, a new conservation ethic is emerging, drawing together traditional architecture, new urbanism and historic preservation in pursuit of a built environment that is beautiful, sustainable and just. In the new paradigm, the architecture of our time will be the result of a critical engagement with the architecture of place, seen as a continuously self-renewing field of character and civility.

1 David Dunlop, “Plan for Site of ’06 Blast on East Side is Criticized,” New York Times (August 18, 2007), p. B-2.
2 Quote from Eddie Bello, Preservation Officer for the City of Charleston, writing in the Charleston City Paper (February 2, 2005).
3 David Watkin, Morality and Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), Léon Krier, Architecture: Choice or Fate? (London: Andreas Papadakis, 1998), and Samir Younés, “The Value of Monuments°, American Arts Quarterly (Winter 2007), pp. 40-47.
4 The term historicism has also been used by some contemporary architects and preservationists in an exactly contrary sense—as a label for any architecture that imitates the style of some previous historical period. Pevsner seems to be the source of this error, but the term is correctly used by Karl Popper and Ernst Gombrich, among others, to denote the Hegelian philosophy of history and its application to politics and the arts.
5 Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1932), pp. 21–22.
6 Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter, Collage City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1978).
7 Niklaus Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (Harmondsworth: Pelican Books, 1943, issued in paperback, 1977). Siegfried Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954, first published, 1941).
8 Peter Collins, Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture: 1750–1950 (Montreal: McGill University Press, 1967).
9 Giedion, 1954, p. 290.
10 Collins, 1967, p. 28.
11 Pevsner, 1977.
12 Rober Scruton, The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1995).
13 For example, see James Marston Fitch, Historic Preservation: Curatorial Management of the Built World (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990, originally published by McGraw-Hill, 1982) and Paul Spencer Byard, The Architecture of Additions: Design and Regulation (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998).
14 This is the position taken by Fitch. On the other hand, exaggerated attention to formal design at the expense of the physical data can lead to the opposite error, as in the apparently erroneous reconstruction of the Capitol at Williamsburg. See Carl Lounsbury, “Beaux-Arts Ideals and Colonial Reality: The Reconstruction of Williamsburg’s Captiol, 1928–1934,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (vol. 49, no. 4, December, 1990, pp. 373–89).
15 For an exploration of the political dimension of the elite determination of the “architecture of our time,” see Brent C. Brolin, “Architecture in Context: Fitting New Buildings with Old,” The Harvard Architecture Review, volume 2, Spring 1981 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981).
16 Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, trans. by Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988, originally published Venice, 1478), pp. 318–19.
17 Steven W. Semes, “The Art of Conservation,” Period Homes (Fall 2006), pp. 18–22.
18 For the Venice Charter, see For the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, see
19 For the Charleston Charter of 2005, see the INTBAU Venice Declaration of 2007, see
20 Steven W. Semes, “Differentiated and Compatible: Four Strategies for Adding New Additions to Historic Settings,” National Trust for Historic Preservation Forum Journal (Summer 2007), pp. 14–25.

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2008, Volume 25, Number 2