Classical or Modern – which should we choose?

Jefferson Memorial - classically humanistic building styleWhich do Humanists Prefer? Classical or Modern?

Because my job is to be a professional Humanist I have a Google news alert set for “Humanism” so I can keep up on stories about Humanism that crop up from time to time. Today, a story came up involving Humanism and architecture in Washington DC.

Anyone who knows anything about architecture knows that classicists and modernists don’t really get along and the debate about which style is best is most pronounced in Washington DC because, well, we all kind of own DC collectively and so all have a stake in what is done there.

Obviously, DC has a bunch of beautiful classic architectural buildings and monuments and when new monuments are proposed there is always a debate about whether it should be a classical or modern piece.  But did you know Humanists were involved with this debate?  Neither did I.  Guess which side the Humanists are taking?

If you guessed modern, you’d be wrong. According to this article in the Washington Post Real Estate section the National Civic Art Society is dedicated to humanistic architecture. And by humanistic architecture they mean, classic architecture based on Greco-Roman forms and motifs which are so prevalent in DC. They say that this form was based on the Humanism of the Renaissance and Enlightenment and that it was a “rational antidote to anti-humanistic deism and mysticism of the Middle Ages and Gothicism.” I’m not going to bother to check to see if they are correct in their historical interpretation of this style of architecture. I’m pretty sure they are though because much of the overt symbolism of this style of architecture, at least in the buildings of DC, is based on enlightenment ideals. So it makes sense that this is indeed traditionally Humanist architecture embodying the values and ideals of the Enlightenment in the buildings themselves.  In this sense, yes, humanists would be correct in embracing the traditional classical architecture of DC which represents humanistic values in building form.

The problem is that Humanists are, by our vary nature, not traditionalists. After all, if the National Civic Art Society is correct, the whole point of this humanistic architectural style was to design something new using classical influences to inform it. It was an explicit rejection of, what was at the time, traditional Gothic architecture. In other words, at the time this style or architecture came into fashion, it was modern and not traditional. The irony of this amuses me greatly.

The question though is which style do us modern day Humanists prefer? Do we side with the Enlightenment humanist architects? Or with our modern humanist architects?  I’m not sure I want to take a side in this. I like both styles for different reasons.

When you visit a classic humanistic building in DC, such as the Jefferson or Lincoln memorials, they have the power to move you in an incredibly compelling way. They are beautiful, emotional and thought provoking all at the same time, which is ideally what you want in a building or memorial. So, this traditionally humanistic style does work, some of the time at least. The problem is that sometimes, it doesn’t work. And when it doesn’t work, it’s really stolid and old and in some ways suffocating. It all depends on the architect and whether they are creative humanists or uninspired copycats holding to a traditional style that they don’t understand the underlying philosophy of.

Roosevelt memorial fountainThe National Art Society claims that modern architecture is inferior and ugly. And yes, this does bring up echos of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and it’s interesting that it is humanists making this claim. However, I understand why they take this position. After all, some modern buildings (like the Dali museum in St Pete) are works of art and incredibly beautiful and inspiring and some are duds that leave you scratching your head wishing you had never seen the monstrosity.

It seems to me that, once again, it all depends on who the architect is. If the architect is a creative,


Humanist, chances are that whatever they build will be inspiring. If they aren’t, whatever they build will be a little dull. It doesn’t really matter whether the style is traditional or modern.  If you want inspiring humanistic architecture, you need to find an inspired humanist architect. There can be no subsitutes.

As for me, I am moved by both styles. I love the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials which are in the traditional style. But I am also tremendously moved by the Roosevelt memorial as well, which is most definitely modern (see photo of it’s fountain above). And for me, the most moving war memorial in DC has got to be the Korean War memorial. It’s haunting and modern.

I do understand why the National Civic Art Society is opposed to the design for the proposed Eisenhower memorial. It is apparently a modern piece, the only image of Eisenhower is when he was a boy and it is in the modern style, which Eisenhower himself didn’t really like. Given all that, I think they are correct to complain about it. But their derision of modern architecture on the grounds it isn’t humanistic I think is misled. What we should be looking for is whether the design is moving, inspired and beautiful. Not whether it conforms to a traditional or modern aesthetic.