Mississippi Architect, April 1964: Say No To Historicism!

Continuing our series of reprints from the Mississippi Architect magazines–produced by the Mississippi chapter of the AIA from March 1963 through March 1965–today’s editorial by architect Edward F. Neal takes a Modernist’s perspective on historicism. Modernists, of course, by definition opposed the borrowing from historical architectural styles and the imitation of old building forms and materials in the modern age. They believed our architecture should be true to its age, and since our age was one of steel, concrete, and glass, our architecture should honestly express the radically different world we live in.

As you may recall from a very early MissPres Book Quotes series, Thomas Wolfe blasted this rejection of tradition in his From Bauhaus to Our House, finding it arrogant and conformist. Decide for yourself what you think!

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Place, Time, Architecture

Try to imagine a street in your town lined “with architectural masterpieces of the world. Side by side you might see the Parthenon, the Guggenheim Museum, the Seagram Building, Notre Dame Cathedral, and perhaps the Taj Mahal. The chances are that the total aspect would be remindful of a Disney extravaganza. At any rate there can be little doubt that each of these great buildings would lose a degree of greatness by being thus situated in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A few years back it was not uncommon to find streets in American towns which displayed an amazing array of architectural types. One might see a motel reflective of the architecture associated with Pueblo cliff dwellings next to a bank inspired by the Temple of Apollo. This combination could even have been viewed from the interior of an ice cream parlor designed in the shape of a chocolate nut sundae.

Fortunately, there has been considerable improvement in the relationship between buildings as our towns continue to grow and prosper, but all of us, architects and clients alike, still exhibit tendencies toward building without sufficient awareness of total environment. However, this is more a product of enthusiasm than selfishness, so there is great hope that we will enrich our towns as we build by extending our vision to encompass the big picture. Sensitivity in this respect can be far more enriching and rewarding than excessive attempts at cleverness.

The process of sharpening vision and sensitivity involves a close inspection of the relationship between buildings. The total effect can be pleasant or unpleasant or somewhere in between. The nature of their materials can clash or harmonize. The spaces in between can be attractive or repulsive. Variation in scale can be complementary or ridiculous. These and many other considerations can elevate good buildings to greatness or reduce them to the mediocre; the architect and his client will jointly share a heavy portion of the responsibility.

——Edward F. Neal, A.I.A.

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This article is reprinted from the April 1964 issue of the Mississippi Architect, with permission from the Mississippi Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. To view the full April 1964 issue of Mississippi Architect in a digitized format, or other articles in this ongoing series, including the pdf version of each full issue, click on the MSArcht tab at the top of this page.




Categories: Architectural Research

6 replies

  1. Interesting to reflect on towns and cities we have visited and their main street architecture styles. Capitol Street in downtown Jackson has an interesting mix of historic and modern from the King Edward to the Old Capitol. Thought I would die when the only green grassy spot left on Capital Street was filled in with new creation at the corner of Lamar and Capitol. Ugh! No more Sonic Boom or big stage performances. Fiddle-dee-dee :(

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  2. Modernism was born of the confidence that science would lead humanity to an earthly paradise. Associated with it was the understanding of the past as a dark age, a time of ignorance, tyranny, and tradition, it was at best a realm of curiosities to be studied for the sake of science, but certainly not to serve as role models.

    The collapse of the optimism of modernism through its failure to institute the eschaton has been associated with the growing realization that everything that we know and believe in is in some form or fashion part of history of tradition. Repudiating dependence upon history is like trying to transform one’s very nature.

    Which leaves one to ask: What happens to Modernism when it becomes history?

    –j.

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  3. As Mr. Faulkner reminded us in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” Mondernism as a concept cannot escape its place in history any more than all the innovative concepts that came before … just as the “war to end all wars” at the beginning of the 20th century, didn’t.

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  4. Look at the Mercedes-Benz (née ‘Louisiana’) Superdome. Left for dead after ‘the storm of the century’ and since resurrected and glowing like a spaceship.
    http://www.nola.com/arts/index.ssf/2011/11/the_new_mercedes-benz_superdom.html

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  5. I think I could live without the purple lighting scheme. It looks like the building was dipped in poi. As for the corporate logo, it is unfortunate that nearly every public arena must now bear a corporate logo of some kind or another.

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  6. Like the Sears Tower, I refuse to call the Superdome anything but “The Superdome.”

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