Aerial view of Kimmel Studio's shortlisted submission to the National World War I Memorial design competition. 
Aerial view of Kimmel Studio's shortlisted submission to the National World War I Memorial design competition. 
Of the five finalist designs for the National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C., one is classical. This is a remarkable achievement. When was the last time a scheme from Vitruvius’ playbook placed in a major competition? The 1990s? The fact that it’s noteworthy at all—that it’s unusual—is just sad.

It’s no secret among architects that for decades, a civil war of fluctuating intensity has divided the profession into broad opposing camps: traditionalist vs. modernist (even the labels are points of contention). At this stage, after so many years of mutual antagonism, the conflict resembles one of those seemingly endless, utterly fruitless battles of the Great War—Verdun, or the Somme—with the two armies periodically lashing out at one another from behind fixed lines.

If it doesn’t feel like the profession is at war with itself, maybe that’s because it’s so ingrained in the culture. The modernists, generally speaking, hold the academy, high art, big cities, and the commercial and institutional markets. The traditionalists’ turf (again, I generalize) encompasses suburbia, the residential and light commercial markets, and the taste preferences of the British royal family and legions of consumers. Both sides have their proponents in the media. Both claim the high ground of sustainability and social interest. Neither can legitimately say they are winning.

The classical finalist in the memorial competition is the work of Devin Kimmel, AIA, of Kimmel Studio in Annapolis, Md. And by “classical,” we’re not talking about the postmodernized Rob Krier, Hon. FAIA, or Michael Graves varieties. A triumphal arch with its openings walled up, rising from a heavily rusticated, grotto-like base, the design would be perfectly at home in C.N. Ledoux’s Paris or Stanford White’s New York.

There’s no reason it can’t be at home in 21st century Washington, D.C., either. Not that I’m advocating Kimmel’s submission over the other entries: All five have their merits. (Nor am I advocating the outright demolition of the site’s existing 1981 landscape by M. Paul Friedberg + Partners, with later plantings by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates.) But about this I am certain: It would be a shame—a mistake—to dismiss Kimmel’s entry out of hand, to dismiss its inclusion on the shortlist as mere tokenism.

Traditionalist practitioners are sometimes subject to a quiet intra-professional prejudice, which serves no purpose. (Likewise, it doesn’t help the classical cause when one of its outspoken champions employs scorched-earth P.R. tactics, as during the debate over the Eisenhower Memorial.) At ARCHITECT, we prefer to keep the conversation lively but civil, and whenever possible we publish traditional work of quality—as by Duncan G. Stroik, Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge, and Robert A.M. Stern Architects.

I went to architecture school in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It was a fascinating time: a transitional moment, polemically speaking, when debate was rife. Neomodernists, postmodernists, deconstructivists, and high-church traditionalists all had a place at the table. Such a state of peaceful competition—détente, if you will—has always impressed me as optimal, the natural order of architectural discourse. Blindly enforcing orthodoxies benefits no one.