Hypocrisy and the CorbMiesian Revival

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CorbMiesian Revival architecture rises amid the palm trees south of 5th street on South Beach.


   Modernism’s core hypocrisy can take down some really good guys. Richard Campanella is apparently one of them. By all accounts, including from my close friend Ann Daigle, he is well-loved and highly respected in Louisiana and beyond. I’ve read a number of his pieces, and they’re very professional, well-researched, and even-handed, except when it comes to one core point: the continuation of a much-loved character of architecture at a later time, once it has fallen out of favor. The problem isn’t whether it’s OK to revive an old style, but for which characters of architecture it is permitted and for which it is forbidden, and why there should be a difference. To be frank, Greek Revival and Colonial Revival are reprehensible to most architects today, while CorbMiesian Revival and Brutalist Revival are the hottest things going. I’ve illustrated this post with CorbMiesian Revival examples from South of 5th on South Beach (my adopted hometown), and 1111 Lincoln Road, which may be the best example built to date of Brutalist Revival.

CorbMiesian mid-rise tower south of 5th street on South Beach is composed of steel and glass.

CorbMiesian Revival architecture is still

mainly steel and glass, but the steel is now

allowed to be stainless rather than painted.

   In short, if it’s Modernist, you’re a hero for bringing it back. If it’s not Modernist, you should be banned from the company of thoughtful architects. Hypocrisy incarnate. Let’s look at how Richard unfortunately falls prey in his post New Orleans' historical revival architecture: A look to the past for inspiration? Or solace?

   But this late-20th century brand of historical revival was different. It was more emphatically neotraditionalist -- that is, purely pastiche, lacking an underlying philosophy and seemingly motivated mostly by nostalgia.

   Campanella acknowledged prior revivals of Greek and Roman architecture in New Orleans, but he’s clearly put off by recent traditional architecture. I can’t read his mind, but this seems perilously close to disrespecting it because it’s a present-day threat to Modernism. In his meticulously-researched piece on post-Katrina architecture, he shows how New Orleans residents have chosen traditional characters of architecture <even if poorly executed> over Modernist characters of architecture <even if superbly executed by nationally-known masters> by a margin of 14 to 1. <These are my insertions not found in his piece.> Why would people choose mediocre traditional buildings over masterworks of Modernism? More on this later. And if you haven’t noticed already, “pastiche” and “nostalgia” are insults thrown around regularly by Modernists at those who have not joined their clique. To be clear, I consider Campanella to be an unfortunate bystander who took up these terms from his architect friends, because according to his CV he didn’t go through architecture school.

Tilted pilotis on CorbMiesian Revival building reflect major conflict in Modernist architecture between the necessity of uniqueness and the desire to revive dead Modernist styles.

Le Corbusier’s pilotis are still a favorite method of supporting upper

levels of a building, but in order not to be a straight-up copy, some

of them are tilted today. This is not accidental. When my son was in

architecture school, his professor told him “if you do not tilt or break

your columns in some way, I will fail you.” It’s really amusing to

witness Modernists being conflicted between reviving historical

Modernist styles and the Necessity of Uniqueness.

   For families in the market to build a new house, pattern books increasingly featured historical designs, making their selection convenient, and builders streamlined their construction, which lowered their costs. Historical revival became de rigueur in both old neighborhoods and new subdivisions, and features like faux Creole hipped roofs and Victorian turrets started popping up region-wide.

   When have pattern books ever not featured traditonal designs? Traditional designs are those which have been proven to work. Most people like proven things. Only a few (including me) are willing to take risks to explore new stuff. Calling them “historical” rather than “traditional” is an attempt to relegate them to the past. If people living today choose them fourteen to one, what’s historical about that? That’s a contemporary and present-day fact.

Curvy CorbMiesian Revival building reaches skyward with irregular profile

CorbMiesian Revival architecture can be

rigorously rectilinear or completely curvy.

Corbusier was more well-known for his

curvy buildings, but Mies occasionally did

them as well.

   Also, what is a “faux Creole hipped roof?” Richard, you’re a great researcher, so you surely should know what a Creole roof accomplishes. A hipped roof is one where each plane of the roof supports their neighboring planes, which is inherently stronger in a hurricane. Creole roofs often have a slope in the 8:12 to 9:12 range, which hurricane experts today tell us are in the sweet spot of being too low to easily fail in overturning and too high to easily fail in uplift during a hurricane. One exception is the Creole cottage, which may be up to 12:12 because there is living space within the roof, and those upstairs walls reinforce the roof. Meanwhile, the trademark flat roofs of both Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, grandfathers of today’s CorbMiesian Revival, have the absolute worst failure rates in uplift stress. 

   The “bell-cast eave” that often occurs at the permiter of the building in many Creole hipped roofs? It unlocked the mystery of living traditions because of its utilitarian purpose: torrential rains coming off a steep roof would dig a trench in the yard, whereas rains broken by a shallower eave come off in more of a spray than a sheet of water. Simply put, there’s nothing faux about a Creole hipped roof. It’s a roof shape proven over centuries to perform very well in the region. One of the great Modernist conceits is that “nothing that came before us is worthy of us.” I think that’s a Wright quote but can’t find it at the moment. In any case, the pell-mell rush to discard anything old also turns out to discard anything proven. Is that what we really want?

   Contemporary designs, meanwhile, usually entailed commissioning an architect, which might slow the process and raise the price, while possibly limiting the home's future curb appeal to only those who liked modern architecture.

CorbMiesian Revival building composed of curved concrete floors supported by tubular columns.

Beyond the all-time favorites of steel and glass, concrete is a common

building material in CorbMiesian Revival architecture as well.

Concrete floor slabs can easily be formed into curves.

   Agreed on all points. And because your own research shows that those who like Modernist architecture are roughly 1 in 15 (1 to 14), who in their right mind that didn’t like Modernist architecture would choose to build something so hamstrung in the market?

   Neotraditionism won further ground when the New Urbanism movement, which sought to recapture the intimacy and walkability of pre-automobile neighborhoods, extended the retro aesthetic to entire developments and fortified it with a social policy argument.

   Let’s be clear. The New Urbanism has always researched the things that people love most from the beginning, and began doing so at a time that nobody cared to even ask the question “what do the people love?” New Urbanists then had the audacity to actually build lovable homes and businesses. The Modernists will never forgive them for that, because it lays bare the greatest failing of Modernism: their core precept (the necessity of uniqueness) necessitates unlovable architecture almost all the time because they’re required to dispose of every characteristic of buildings that has ever been proven lovable in human history. Yes, there is the one-in-a-million Eiffel Tower which becomes deeply loved by a people and even by the world. But for each of those, there are countless tons of dreck put up that people get rid of as soon as possible. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last.

1111 Lincoln Road, arguably the best Brutalist Revival building built to date in the US, glows against a clear evening sky

Here's 1111 Lincoln Road, which is arguably

the best Brutalist Revival building built

so far in the US. 

   And this gets back to one of the foundations of this Modernist hypocrisy: the assumption that the architects know and the people don’t. This “retro” slur that Campanella unfortunately uses is common as well… another way to consign anything non-Modernist to the past, and banned from ever being built again. But the people know how to value what they love most, and have no problem at all signing earnest money checks for more-loved characters of architecture (even if poorly executed) over fabulously-executed examples of unlovable architecture. The proper contrast isn’t retro vs. Modernist, but lovable vs. unlovable.

   The rebuilding after the Katrina deluge of 2005 formed an experiment of sorts in which the architectural tastes of thousands of New Orleans families might be further revealed. With such bad memories behind them, would families opt for a refreshing contemporary look?

   Richard, look at your own work! All signs, as you noted, pointed toward a break from tradition, for something new! But your own research painstakingly shows that this was not the case, by a margin of 14 to 1! Why is that so? If all the signs point to one conclusion yet the evidence points overwhelmingly to a very different reality, does that not suggest that our foundation assumptions are very seriously wrong?

   With various levels of flood risk at play, would they opt for sustainability?

   What is sustainability? Is it Gizmo Green? Something you can buy from Home Depot? Or is it building things that can be sustained in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future? If the latter, then it’s essential to know the people, the things that they love, and why. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last. Architects really must develop enough humility to earnestly listen to regular people if they are to have any hope of actually accomplishing this.

1111 Lincoln Road Brutalist Revival building, with raw concrete aglow in late afternoon sun as cars sit silently inside

Brutalist Revival buildings are built primarily with concrete;

steel is mostly used for accessory items like the guardrails on

1111 Lincoln Road.

   We may conclude that, for better or worse, most folks wanted the new New Orleans to look like "olde" New Orleans -- despite that, from the 1720s to the 1970s, local society had a completely different sensibility, importing new ideas and experimenting with the latest design thinking, as if to say "we are confident about the future." Only when that confidence nose-dived in the late 20th century did the architectural eyes of the average New Orleanian turn backward.

   Richard, you’re asking the wrong question here, and coming to the wrong conclusion. It’s not “olde” versus new, historic versus modern, or any similar chronological divides. Rather, when people’s lives are severely disrupted, it’s a known fact that they turn to things that are known to work. It’s absolutely no surprise that the people of New Orleans chose what has been proven in the region to work for centuries versus the hodgepodge collection of Modernist styles du jour. Why is this even in question?


   ~Steve Mouzon


   PS: I’m speaking in New Orleans at the CityBuilding Exchange March 8-10. We’re arriving early. I’d be delighted to buy you a coffee or whatever else you’d like to drink and talk about these things if you’re interested. Ann speaks very highly of you.


© The Guild Foundation 2017