Among my peers in their twenties and thirties, the word “old-fashioned” seems, well, old-fashioned (unless, tellingly, it’s referring to the cocktail). I rarely hear it anymore. More commonly, to describe something that seems to belong to an earlier time – a rotary-dial telephone, a tabletop Ms. Pac-Man game, a handlebar moustache – the word of choice is “old-school.” As far as I know, this term has its current provenance from hip-hop music, referring to older works from the 1980s, before the genre became completely mainstream. Urban Dictionary, the anarchic oracle of contemporary slang, identifies “old school” as “Anything that is from an earlier era and looked upon with high regard or respect…. Typically, they are highly regarded and sometimes the very thing that started it all.” Compare a definition of “old-fashioned” from Apple’s dictionary widget: “(of a person or their views) favoring traditional and usually restrictive styles, ideas or customs: she’s stuffy and old-fashioned.”
This change in usage can’t be a coincidence. I think of a twentysomething friend of mine whose father is a modernist architect, a devotee of the International Style. He builds the kind of buildings that only architects can love, eminently functional buildings that appear to most people (including his daughter) as merely ugly: what Jane Jacobs famously called a Great Blight of Dullness. When I visit their house, I see at a picture of him on the wall from the 1970s: a dashing, handsome young man, decked out resplendently in the fashions of the age. Once upon a time, it was the trend to be modern.
Moreover, it was the trend for good reason. In the 1970s, “old-fashioned” meant a world where a woman’s place was in the home, where “sodomy” was illegal, where races were segregated – a world that not so long ago had produced the Nazis. When I see the picture of my friend’s father I think of Pierre Trudeau, the dashing, flamboyant Canadian prime minister who legalized homosexuality and contraception and promoted the now-dominant view of Canada as officially bilingual and multicultural – having grown up under the conservative Catholic fascism of Québec’s Maurice Duplessis. Trudeau was one face of Québec’s “Quiet Revolution,” the drastic move within one generation from a church-dominated authoritarian society to a libertine egalitarianism. We owe a debt to the modernists of the ’60s and ’70s and their rejection of the old-fashioned world.
But the 1970s were also the era of Jane Jacobs’s urban criticism, and most notably of Pruitt-Igoe, the 1950s modern St. Louis housing project praised by architectural critics as a grand breakthrough – and demolished as unlivable less than 20 years later, in 1972. While Pruitt-Igoe became the symbol of failed architectural modernism, all over the world there was an increasing reaction against modernism’s blandness, sterility and simple ugliness. By the end of the ’70s, the trend was to historic preservation. The modest but pleasing buildings of the early twentieth century no longer seemed old-fashioned. Though the word wasn’t yet used this way, they seemed old-school.
Architecture is the realm where it’s easiest to pinpoint what went wrong with modernism, and why it ended. But the move from “old-fashioned” to “old-school,” from rejecting the old to embracing it, entered far more realms of human endeavour. Above all, we hear little these days of the “secularization thesis,” taken for granted in the early ’70s, which assumed that people were embracing scientific rationalism and moving away from “religion,” whatever that is. A first straw in the wind was the Iranian revolution of 1979, seen as an atavistic aberration by the prevailing intellectuals of the time, but embraced by a young French philosopher named Michel Foucault. Foucault’s philosophy centred around a critique of modernity, which led him to endorse the Ayatollah Khomeini as a reaction against the modern world – for a while at least. You can almost hear him looking at Khomeini and saying “Man, that dude is old school!” Foucault, of course, went on to become one of the best-known philosophers of his generation; and the Iranian revolution is still with us, and inspired many others to embrace what they saw as an older variety of Islam.
I’m not a great admirer of Foucault’s philosophy, but I think I understand the impulse that led him to endorse the Iranian revolution. In Foucault and Khomeini there’s a cautionary tale: to turn the clock back before Trudeau, before the International Style, would be disastrous. And yet I think that my generation feels more acutely the things that are missing from the modernist world: not merely in art and architecture, but in ideas and values. My own intellectual story is a break from the eminently modern philosophy of utilitarianism, turning to much older Buddhist views. Even on gender, where the accomplishments of the modern day are least ambiguous, there’s still something to be said for the values of traditional masculinity. No longer old-fashioned, the old now looks old-school.