Traditional Architecture: An Expression of the Divine

Naming Prince Charles as one’s favorite Royal is rather like choosing Ringo as one’s favorite Beatle: there are no wrong answers … except that one. The Left still hold him personally responsible for Diana’s death. (It was, of course, his fault that she ran off with Dodi Fayed. And he probably got Henri Paul drunk, too.) Meanwhile, the Right sees him as too ready to apologize for the crimes of radical Islam—too infatuated with multiculturalism.

The latter’s altogether more reasonable; but, still, I have a great deal of respect for the Prince of Wales. England is measurably lovelier for having him around. If any green and pleasant land sprouts up between the dark Satanic mills, we have Charles to thank. Read any serious work on British architecture and you’ll invariably find a reference to his war against the Modernists.

Take one by Hugh Pearman from a recent issue of The Spectator, “The architectural trads are back—we should celebrate”:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Mainstream architects have tended to be a bit ambivalent about the trads, sometimes to the point of hostility. There are various reasons for this. One is that it is a style or approach beloved of Prince Charles, and Prince Charles is for ever associated with his ferocious 1980s attacks on modernist architecture, and subsequent manoeuvrings against big modernist projects.

For that, Britons—indeed, the West—owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude.

However, Mr. Pearman then makes an altogether more specious claim:

Another is classicism’s unfortunate association with totalitarianism. Hitler and Stalin famously loved this stuff, and to this day there’s a dark corner on social media where a thin, poisonous trickle of neo-Nazism still oozes through the discourse on traditionalist architecture, especially in Germany and America.

It is indeed a thin trickle—so thin, in fact, it’s hardly worth mentioning. At the very least, Mr. Pearman ought’ve given an equal hearing to the Traditionalists’ ambivalence toward Modernism, which stands more firmly on the same ground. Albert Speer, for example, is far and away our most prolific Modernist.

And, sure: Stalin dabbled in Hellenic themes for some prominent memorials and government buildings. But his greatest contributions to the Russian cityscape were undoubtedly those sprawling collectivist suburbs—the “arrogant proletarian lumps deliberately defying all concepts of beauty and grace,” forming a veritable “festival of concrete.”

The Mods aren’t bashful about this association, either. Quite the opposite. As Anthony Daniels wrote in “The Cult of Le Corbusier:

French fascism is alive and well, and its current headquarters (as I write this) are not in the offices of the Front National but, appropriately enough, in the ugliest building in the world in the most beautiful capital city in the world, the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It is here that has been held the completely uncritical exhibition to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Le Corbusier, the fascist architect, under the title Le Corbusier, Mesures de l’homme.

Not a word about his fascism has been allowed to obtrude on the almost religiously respectful thoughts and impressions of the visitors who troop through the exhibition with solemn or pious expressions on their faces, as if regarding something holy, though what is exhibited is often so extremely bad and incompetent in execution that it should evoke derision and laughter rather than the abject mental genuflection that it does in fact evoke.

Le Corbusier was indeed an ardent fascist, but “religious” is the key word here. The politics of architecture are hazy; what one finds more commonly is that orthodox Christians are Traditionalists, whereas atheists and agnostics tend towards Modernism.

Take the viral video of Leftist students scattering before a Eucharistic procession at the University of Sydney (my alma mater). It was posted by Architectural Revival, the most popular Traditionalist social media page in English. 9,999 Trads out of 10,000 see their cause as a spiritual renewal of the West.

And, surely, it’s not a coincidence that classicism’s decline coincided with our spiritual decline.

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There’s always a whiff of the fear of death about Modernism—something completely absent in Traditionalist works.

Look at all the cathedrals built, in essence, anonymously. The men who created our greatest architectural masterpieces didn’t see their craftsmanship as a means of working their immortality. That process took place inside the Cathedral, in communion with the Church though the Sacraments. In the meantime, it was enough to use their God-given talents to give him glory. They were confident in their art, and in their Christ.

Modernists, on the other hand, are like those weird loners who shoot up their schools. “I’ll get them to notice me,” they growl, “one way or the other.” Blighting a landscape just happens to be quicker and easier. You can spend a lifetime tilling the earth, or an hour salting it. Either way, you’ve left your mark.

But why choose the path of destruction? Essentially, it’s a lack of perspective: a metaphysical impatience, born of despair. The loner’s 16 and have never had a girlfriend, so he thinks his love-life is basically over. It’s the same with the Modernists. Many of them no doubt could’ve been great classicists, had they taken the time and effort to master their craft. But they can’t stand waiting. They can’t risk dying without leaving their mark. They need to be famous now, even if it’s effectively infamy.

You see this theme carry through in every creative media. Take poetry, for instance. Read the major works of T.S. Eliot from beginning to end. Follow him from the youthful nihilism of “Prufrock,” to the terrible revelation of “The Journey of the Magi,” to the glorious affirmation of the Quartets. The language becomes softer and the symbolism less fitful.

As he makes peace with God, Eliot also makes peace with his own genius. Had he never converted to Christianity, he’d be a footnote of High Modernism, like his mentor Ezra Pound. (It’s worth mentioning that Pound ended his career as a propagandist for Mussolini.)

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Really, it’s just basic math. Classicism is associated with Christianity because it evolved while Christianity was the undisputed faith of the Western world. Its fruits stand as a cruel reminder to non-theists that the world used to have meaning, and that our lives had purpose. Church spires rose high above the townscape, pointing toward a Heaven that once bursted with saints and angels. Now the sky’s empty, except for the dark, cold stretch of infinite nothingness.

What are we to do? Why, it’s simple: tear them down. Break the mocking finger. Silence the bells that clamor into the void. Then build something else in their place—something ugly and chaotic and meaningless. Give it harsh angles to defy the smooth arches of our hollow firmament. Make it out of concrete so that it, unlike us, will never crumble into dust. Make it abominable, because there’s no One left to decry abomination.

Modernists laugh at the God that isn’t there, only because they wish so desperately that he was. The moment they stop laughing, their universe will fall silent. They’ll be left with only an icy wind moaning across eternity. Death will come to take them away, and then—nothing.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is an ariel view of Oxford University.


  • Michael Warren Davis

    Michael Warren Davis is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021). He previously served as editor of Crisis Magazine and U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald of London. His next book, After Christendom, will be published by Sophia Institute Press. Follow his Substack newsletter, The Common Man.

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