A destructive delusion is lifting from our cities.
It is the delusion that we are living in a totally new age in which only the new is relevant, a delusion which says "history is bunk," as they put it at the Bauhaus.
Lifting the delusion is a wave of nostalgia. Among other things, this wave, this sudden historic awareness, has propelled the historic preservation movement to unprecedented importance.
The delusion was based on the half-truth that recent advances in science and technology brought us an age without precedent in which the only constant is change.
Ergo, we said, we must quickly change our cities lest they become obsolete and unliveable. So we ripped out the old streetcars and tried to adjust cities to automobiles with freeways and parking lots. It never occurred to us that we might do with our automobiles what our grandparents did with their horses. They controlled them and kept them from running wild.
We now find that it is the freeways and parking lots that make cities unlivable, not the old buildings we wrecked and the trees we cut down.
We also said -- or at least architects did -- that only the new, abstract style of building has any validity at all. This conceit was understandable 60 years ago at the Bauhaus design school in Germany. At the end of World War I, a new style did promise a new world. It seems hard to understand, however, why two generations should have clung to the myth.
The myth is that a new building, whatever its location or purpose, must express "the spirit of our time," whatever that is.
It did not matter -- and still does not for some orthodox abstractionists -- whether the new building disrupts the harmony of its surroundings as brutally as a fire siren disrupts a chamber concert. Any attempt to accomodate the new building to its older neighbors is deemed an odious compromise. Good architectural manners are taken as a sign of weakness. They show lack of faith in our time and -- the worst sin of them all -- lack of originality.
A new building, says the modern myth, has to show "integrity," it has to be "honest."
The dogma is so deeply fixed in most minds that no one bothered to question just what it is that the building design is being honest about.
Until a decade or so ago, most Americans considered historic preservation nice but not very important. We respected our national shrines much as we saluted the flag. Rockefeller's re-creation of historic Williamsburg seemed to meet the nation's emotional need for a rememberance of things past. Devoted preservationists had their hands full fighting to preserve certified landmarks. Today it is hard to believe that even Mount Vernon was almost bulldozed to make room for a subdivision.
The success of the historic preservation movement was mixed. In 1936, mostly as a make-work measure for unemployed architects, the nation began to register its most important historic buildings and sites. Three decades later, roughly half of these registered landmarks were gone. Much of what remained, remained ludicrously out of context, stripped of dignity.
Pathetic little houses were "preserved" in forests of skyscrapers for no other esthetic or practical purpose than to bear a bronze historic marker. Often old buildings were so badly restored that it would have been kinder to destroy them. In short, what preservation there was often preserved only the shell without conviction or respect.
In more ways than one, America's urban designers have until recently refused to relate to pat architectural styles. what is worse, they do not do it well even when they want to because they lack historic and technical training.
Now, at last, the historic preservation movement is strong enough to attract the problem head-on. There are two new books that should help architects and citizens alike come to terms with the problem.
The first, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and entitled "Old & New Architecture: Design Relationship" ($25, Preservation Press) distills a conference on the subject. Illustrated with hundreds of good examples, it is an account of past experience and diverse views. The symposium argues for more "orderly and deliberate" change in the city-scape, but it upholds the prevailing dogma that imitation of previous architectural styles is nothing short of treason.
We are consoled with the observation that throughout history the latest architectural style has always prevailed. Even the cathedral of Chartres was rebuilt in High Gothic when the Early Gothic church burned down in 1194. And when the Eiffel Tower wen t up in the 1890s, everyone found it offensive. We might even learn to love the FBI building.
In short, this National Trust symposium, like most urban design professionals, is still convinced that nothing can be done about the design of new buildings other than place them into a better relationship to the old. Our only hope is better urban design.
The other book, "Architecture in Context: Fitting New Buildings with Old" by Brent C. Brolin (Reinhold, $6.95) proposes a more radical alternative. Architecture should not be a momument to modernity, Brolin says. It should be designed in the context in which it is built.
Brolin, who is also an architect, teacher and critic (his previous book is "The Failure of Modern Architecture"), punctures the myth that architectural "honesty" requires all buildings to be modern and abstract because only that style can express "the spirit of our time."
Originality, Brolin says, is not an end in itself and should not be confused with art. "Renaissance artists," he argues, "did not wring their hands, worrying that the Madonna and Child they were painting had already been painted thousands of times before. They counted on the brilliance of their execution within the constraints of the given context."
If the great artists and architects of the past had been afraid of emulating past styles, there would never have been a Roman architecture (which emulated Greek styles) or a Renaissance (which emulated Roman styles).
Michelangelo, as Brolin points out, harmonized his New Sacristy of the Florentine Church of San Lorenzo with the work of Brunelleschi a century earlier by working essentially in Brunelleschi's style.
What is bunk is not history, but the notion, invented by the modern avantgarde, that only its style is honest and that "the total man-made environment must be rebuilt in that style all at once.
It did not work.
Therefore, says Brolin, architects ought to forget about originality, "uncompromising personal architectural statements" and that elusive "spirit of our times." The "times," he says, are always "ours." But the decision as to what kind of design represents the spirit always seems to be "theirs," i.e., that of the architectural taste makers.
And that, I think, is the guts of the matter, the solution of the problem of relating old and new. Rather than worrying about style, we should worry about context -- the context of the past, of the surroundings and of the tradition. If there are no worthy historic buildings and no architectural surroundings, if the architect designs a new building or a new city out in the open, his context is nature -- the landscape and the climate.
The old abstract architecture, it turns out, never became truly the architecture of our time because it never became the prevailing architecture It is essentially elitist, egotistical and antisocial. Only a new contextual architecture can become universally accepted because only a contextual architecture can live in harmony with our past.
And that is the only way civilized people can live.