Few of us eagerly look forward to our next concert of contemporary music or our visit to the upcoming Whitney Museum show. And when we turn in dismay from the creations of Karen Finley or Andres Serrano, it’s not for Ionesco or De Kooning that we yearn but for spirits like Oscar Wilde or Jan van Goyen, far removed from the whole modernist wasteland. But if you choose, you can largely tune out modernist music or painting.
Not so, modernist architecture. How can you escape the MetLife (n? Pan Am) Building blotting out the Park Avenue sky or the sow’s ear of the Gulf and Western Building, under transformation by Donald Trump and Philip Johnson into a glitzier sow’s ear? How can you ignore the blank, mechanical grid on facades all over town, fatuous on Sixth Avenue office buildings, menacingly anonymous on the public housing projects in every borough?
City Journal has written before about the physical aspect of cities. Starting with this issue’s story by acclaimed British architect Robert Adam, "Tradition and the Modern City,” urban building and planning will be a regular, not just occasional, topic in our pages. In architecture a revolt against modernism is vigorously under way across Europe and America. Led by practitioners such as Adam, a new generation is constructing traditionalist buildings and neighborhoods: buildings that are human scaled, made of traditional materials, and attuned to their surroundings as well as to the work of three millennia of architects who preceded them; neighborhoods that generate the urbanity and interest that made us city lovers in the first place. City Journal will keep you abreast of what this movement is accomplishing around the world?with a tinge of partisanship, for we find it exhilarating.
As Adam remarks, the same spirit that created the horrors of architectural modernism has given rise to much that is wrong in social policy. It is a spirit that wants to sweep away the past for a brave new world of vast, all-encompassing, technocratic schemes that elite planners will organize so much better than have 25 or 30 centuries of bumblers to date. Let’s hope that the rebirth of traditionalist architecture prefigures a renaissance in other areas of life and thought as well.
In social policy, one tenet that such a renaissance would jettison is the idea that the poor are victims of unfair social forces and so deserve protection from the natural consequences of their own actions. Two related stories, "The Legal Aid Follies" and "Housing Court’s Rough Justice," trace the destructive consequences of that approach. Not only have irresponsibility and crime flourished, as you’d expect, but the people who suffer most are the poor and near-poor who are striving to do right and move up. Their communities have been made hostile and unsafe, and their efforts to become homeowners have been subverted, by the protections given to the wrongdoing of the most dysfunctional. Policy should encourage effort and excellence, not their opposites.
When bad policies like these get built into the very fabric of the law, they generate harm on an industrial scale. A third story, Heather Mac Donald’s fascinating "Law School Humbug", looks at a related development in the law schools. There, theorists envision a kind of jurisprudential slum clearance, bulldozing away what they characterize as a legal structure rotten with racism and sexism. This effort is of a piece with what Roger Scruton describes as the whole tendency of modern thought to demolish the philosophical traditions of the past, "the old tenements where gods and spirits breed," as resting on insufficiently provable foundations. When you do that in architecture, you get cities that look and feel like vast, inhuman housing projects. When you do it in law and social policy, you end up at the outer limits with something like the totalitarianism Theodore Dalrymple describes in his "Beijing Diarist"?or like the rationally planned, brave new political landscape Edmund Burke described in his Reflections, in which "at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows." Better the much-repaired traditional jumble, where men can flourish in freedom.