Why Architecture Is Obsessed With The New

I served for a decade on the jury of the Richard H. Driehaus Prize, awarded each year to the architect who best represents the values of traditional and classical design. As Martin C. Pedersen observed recently on his website Common Edge: “The Driehaus is architecture’s traditional-classical design version of the Pritzker Prize. Although it comes with a hefty $200,000 check—twice the size of the Pritzker’s honorarium—and previous winners include such luminaries as Robert A. M. Stern, Michael Graves, Léon Krier, and Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the award still exists in a sort of media vacuum.”

Pedersen is right. The design press pays scant attention to the Driehaus Prize, probably because its readers—the architectural mainstream—have little interest in traditional/classical architecture. Never mind that this approach accounts for countless private residences nationwide, as well as academic buildings, public libraries, concert halls, a federal courthouse, and a presidential library. One building that should have penetrated the media vacuum is 15 Central Park West, a luxury apartment building in Manhattan whose record-breaking commercial success gained it renown among real-estate mavens; the stately limestone façades consciously recall such prewar classics as the Apthorp and the Beresford.

But popular acclaim counts for little in the closeted architectural world. As the New York architect Peter Pennoyer, this year’s Driehaus winner, told Pedersen, “There is a deep-seated interest—if not delusion—in the idea that the avant-garde, the cutting edge, the next new thing is what we should all be concerned about, at the exclusion of history, tradition, community, and context.”

The next new thing. Précisément! It was a French book published in 1923 that sparked the attitude that Pennoyer describes. The author was a Swiss-born architect, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who had recently adopted the pen name Le Corbusier, and the book was his spirited manifesto, Vers une architecture (literally Towards an Architecture). The first English translation was titled Towards a New Architecture, adding a word that was not inaccurate, for despite including illustrations of ancient temples and Hadrian’s Villa and referring to Donato Bramante and Raphael, Le Corbusier’s book was determinedly forward looking in its message. “We do not appreciate sufficiently the deep chasm between our own epoch and earlier periods,” he proclaimed. “If we set ourselves against the past, we are forced to the conclusion that the old architectural code, with its mass of rules and regulations evolved during four thousand years, is no longer of any interest; it no longer concerns us; all the values have been revised; there has been revolution in the conception of what Architecture is.” Stirring stuff.

All the values have been revised. Le Corbusier made it sound as if the modern era, propelled by the Great War, represented an epochal moment, which it did in many ways, but he didn’t count on one thing: how rapidly things would change in the modern age. The ponderous Farman Goliath biplane that he featured in Vers une architecture was out of service in less than a decade, and the majestic Cunard ocean liner Aquitania, whose white superstructure served him as an architectural model, was decommissioned in 1950. Le Corbusier often used his own Voisin C7 automobile as a prop in photographs of the villas he had designed in the Paris suburbs—the boxy car and his boxy architecture were all of a piece. But less than a decade later, Gabriel Voisin introduced the C25 Aérodyne, a streamlined beauty that wasn’t boxy at all. Where did that leave the “new” architecture? Having cut itself off from the old rules and regulations, as Le Corbusier put it, it had no choice but to keep changing with the changing times.

Regularly reinventing architecture is exciting, but it faces a number of challenges. Architecture is an art, hence creativity is important, but it is an applied art, which makes it fundamentally empirical—that is, ruled not by theory but by experience. What works is worth repeating; what doesn’t, isn’t. As a result, building design has traditionally depended on rules of thumb: the dimensions of tread and riser that make for a comfortable stair, the pleasing proportion between the width of a room and its ceiling height, the shapes and details that ensure a roof doesn’t leak. The skill of the architect lies in knowing when to innovate and when to stick to the tried and true.

Architects rushing to discover the next new thing tend to undervalue the tried and true. Willfully ignoring experience and implementing untested new solutions can be risky, as I. M. Pei, a talented architect, found after he designed the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The exterior of the new wing, completed in 1978, is covered in pink Tennessee marble to match the old gallery. There is nothing particularly novel about using marble as a cladding. The ancient Romans covered the brick Pantheon with marble, and more than a thousand years later, John Russell Pope designed basically the same system—thick, self-supporting walls of marble—for the main building of the National Gallery. Pope concealed the necessary expansion joints behind moldings and pilasters, but Pei wanted the surface of his walls to be smooth and unbroken, so he used thin marble panels and supported them individually on stainless steel hangers that were embedded in the concrete structure. Only 33 years after the building opened, the panels started to show signs of buckling, and the entire marble skin—some 16,000 panels—had to be removed and reinstalled on new hangers, at a cost of more than $80 million. The debacle was in sharp contrast to Pope’s enduring building next door.

Ignoring the past often means ignoring the good ideas of one’s immediate predecessors. In the past, copying masters was a valuable part of architectural design—Andrea Palladio copied Bramante, Inigo Jones copied Palladio, Christopher Wren copied Jones. Now copying is taboo. For example, the work of early Scandinavian modernists such as Sigurd Lewerentz and Alvar Aalto, who humanized their stripped-down modern designs with interesting handcrafted details, was ignored by later generations. Similarly, when Louis Kahn produced the sublime skylit vaults of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, his ingenious solution was highly praised, but it was never repeated. As a result, instead of a considered evolution, modern architecture has been marked by a succession of fresh starts, some real and many false.

Reinventing architecture faces another, less obvious challenge. When Le Corbusier presented his Plan Voisin—a fictive proposal to rebuild the center of Paris with high-rise office towers—he took it for granted that the new would entirely replace the old. But of course, real cities consist of both new and old buildings. The old buildings are not historic relics but functioning places where people live, work, study, and in the case of old concert halls, listen to music. For most people, old buildings are as much a part of modern life as flat-screen televisions and smartphones. Le Corbusier maintained that the old architectural values need no longer concern us. But the contrary is true: the old buildings are often cherished, not primarily—or at least not only—because they are old, but because they are, well, beautiful.

It was perhaps inevitable that a reaction to ahistorical modern architecture would emerge at some point. This happened in the 1980s, and the reaction was largely facilitated by the architectural movement known as postmodernism. Although short-lived, this facile flirtation with history opened the door to a more serious reconsideration of the past. This included not only the American Renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which is a touchstone for many classicists, but also the work of inventive masters such as Bertram Goodhue, who designed the Nebraska State Capitol; Ralph Adams Cram, who was responsible for Rice University; and Raymond Hood, the lead architect of Rockefeller Center.

It turns out that there are advantages to reconnecting with history. Without the imperative to constantly innovate, which can lead to risky experimentation and construction failures, architects can rely on time-tested methods of construction, and traditional materials and details. The modern steel frames of the Nebraska State Capitol and the buildings of Rockefeller Center, for example, are clad in traditional limestone. Architects who are free to find inspiration in their predecessors and contemporaries produce buildings that not only work but also gain the affection of the general public: libraries and courthouses that don’t look like flashy casinos, academic buildings that cannot be mistaken for workaday office buildings, and places of worship that don’t resemble utilitarian industrial plants.

It would be inaccurate to say that people don’t like modern architecture. After more than a century, it’s an accepted feature of contemporary life, almost a tradition. Office workers expect their workplaces to be sleek; shoppers expect high-fashion boutiques and automobile showrooms to be minimalist exercises in bare concrete and industrial details; and museumgoers expect galleries to resemble artists’ lofts, and museum cafés to have chic furniture and Zen-like décor.

But there are limits. It’s okay to have a minimalist kitchen or bathroom, but a living room shouldn’t look like an Apple store, and a house shouldn’t look like an upscale health spa. Nor should a college campus be mistaken for a suburban office park. Many colleges and universities, especially those built in the early 1900s in the prevalent Collegiate Gothic style, have enthusiastically embraced traditional design—you can’t have too much of a good thing.


In this house on Long Island, Thomas A. Kligerman blends traditional materials with minimalist details such as the knife-edge eaves and the porch’s skinny double columns. (Richard Powers)

Is traditional/classical architecture simply a reactionary movement, as its detractors maintain, led by bow-tied anti-modernists seeking to turn back the clock—the architectural equivalent of historical reenactments? Well, yes, in part. Traditional/classical architecture does represent a reaction against the ahistorical attitude that has come to typify mainstream architecture, and it definitely has looked to the past for inspiration. But which past?

In a famous 1959 lecture, Philip Johnson told his Yale audience, “We cannot not know history.” Yet with a few exceptions, today’s classical architects have been highly selective in choosing exactly which history to know. In the debate over President Trump’s executive order privileging classicism for federal buildings, for example, both critics and supporters assumed this meant fluted columns and garlanded entablatures. Indeed, it does sometimes appear as if classicism stopped with the richly bedecked buildings of Charles McKim and Stanford White. But as my friend the Greek architect Demetri Porphyrios pointed out years ago in an influential essay, “classicism is not a style.” The mannered classicism of Michelangelo was very different from the earlier classicism of Bramante or the later classicism of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Prussian classicism of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Altes Museum in Berlin (1830) was more different still, as was the stripped classicism of Paul Philippe Cret’s Federal Reserve Board Building (1937). A reason that classicism takes different guises, apart from the unstoppable imagination of architects, is that despite its ancient Greek and Roman roots, it inevitably reflects the taste of its own time. Schinkel was affected by his interest in Gothic buildings, just as Cret was influenced by the art deco movement, and even by the International Style. Could one imagine a 21st-century classicism that broadens its language to incorporate elements of the modernist past? That’s a tall order in our bifurcated time, when architectural correctness mandates that you belong to one camp or the other.

“I’m actually getting sort of tired of correctness,” architect Thomas A. Kligerman told me. “I like both/and, the adventure of either/or, bringing seemingly disparate things together.” After receiving a graduate degree in architecture from Yale in 1982, Kligerman spent seven years with Robert A. M. Stern Architects, a practice that specializes in traditional/classical design, before founding his own firm with John Ike, another Stern alumnus. A decade later, they were joined by Joel Barkley. Over the next 23 years, Ike Kligerman Barkley, based in New York, gained a national reputation for its exceptional residences. Architectural Digest, which featured many IKB projects, praised the firm’s work as “timeless, considerate architecture and buildings with soul.”

In 2023, following an amicable dissolution of the partnership, Kligerman continued on his own. Despite having been a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome and being a devoted watercolorist, he has an unusual approach to tradition. Some of his work is modern with traditionalist overtones, and some is traditional with modernist overtones. An oceanside house on Long Island’s East End appears at first glance to be an example of the popular shingle style, which originated in the late 19th century in summer houses that were built up and down the New England seaboard. But in Kligerman’s hands, this old American chestnut takes an unexpected turn. The walls and large protective roofs are shingled, but the house combines this traditional material with minimalist details. Instead of a fascia board at the eaves, the knife-edge recalls the skinny hovering roof of the Barcelona Pavilion (designed for the 1929 International Exposition by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich). Skinny, too, are the double columns of the porch, which are wood, and the railings, which are steel; in the manner of the Mies Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois, both are painted white. This unexpected aesthetic blend is the architectural equivalent of fusion cuisine.

Another Kligerman residence, this one by a lake in Connecticut, is not shingled but uses an old Victorian technique: board-and-batten siding. Board-and-batten is often associated with Carpenter Gothic, and there are other hints of that 19th-century vernacular style: gables that recall stylized classical pediments, a window bay supported on decorative console brackets, and verticals between the windows that resemble simplified colonnettes. “I saw this house as having a high/low quality,” Kligerman explained to me in an email, “simple, barn-sided boxes stained a lowly brown with flourishes of high gloss black, classical pediments and details.” This undramatic house reminds me of the midcentury modern houses that architects such as William Wurster and Joseph Esherick built in the San Francisco Bay Area. Their casual layouts reflected the casual lifestyle of their owners, and the modest architecture intentionally stayed in the background, so much so that Frank Lloyd Wright once described Wurster as “that shack architect.” Kligerman’s elegant design is hardly a shack, but it has a similar unprepossessing, throwaway quality; the stark simplicity of the interior could be described as modern—or Amish. Thus the house is a conversation, albeit in hushed undertones, between tradition and modernity.

Ever since Palladio, architects have used houses as vehicles for exploring new ideas. I don’t know whether blending tradition and modernity will be the next new thing, or whether the gulf that exists between the two camps will be—or can be—bridged. In any event, Kligerman’s new-old houses remind me of what Duke Ellington once said of another art form: “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.”

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