Not all modernism is bad, but a little bit goes a long way. And when we the exhibit tells us that “Virginia’s deep-rooted traditionalism doomed many [architectural] schemes” we can be grateful. After looking at plans from a few decades ago for the James River area—consisting of angular, massive poured concrete structures—it is fortunate that development was postponed until the recent neo-classical revival, when most of the buildings being put up exhibit tasteful Georgian lines to match the historic downtown.
One of the architects highlighted in Never Built Virginia is Haigh Jamgochian, a 1960s disciple of hyper-modernism. That he is a misanthropic, child-hating recluse who has a made a career (like so many modern “creative” people) by not actually doing anything, seems appropriate. Admittedly his drawings and models are curious to look at, like the whimsical futurist predictions of old science fiction movies. Jamgochian cites the original Star Trek show as an early influence. But the minute you actually throw up these edifices on real streets, amidst venerable brick, stone and stucco structures, the effect is monstrous. Jamgochian was not very successful in selling his designs, but there are still plenty of disasters blotting the Richmond landscape from the ’60s and ’70s. Fortunately, as an established east coast city, enough of the older buildings have survived to maintain its distinctive character.
Perhaps the most that can be said for classic modernism is its symmetry. Of course symmetry is not enough to make a good building. But it’s impossible to imagine good design without it. In that respect postmodernism, with its chaotic fragmentation, is only a further step in the direction of artistic decay in which even traditional elements are haphazardly plundered in the way that barbarians of the Dark Ages appropriated bits and pieces from handsome temples and palaces to construct their poorly made hovels. The effect is to evoke not so much interest as pity.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.