Local Commentary

Editorial: Art Nouveau & Optimism




For a wide variety of reasons, we are enormously pleased with the flowery, Art Nouveau façade of the 800 West Broad building that was unveiled to public view for the first time this week.

But naturally, as reported on Page One of this edition, it has drawn mixed reviews from some in the City with different aesthetic tastes, and sense of what’s appropriate for the City of Falls Church. For example, it should come as no surprise that folks who want Falls Church to retain its “village” character are not greeting this design favorably.

It is notable that the “flower building” and the “village” legacy of Old South Falls Church both have their roots in the 19th century, but represent opposite ends of the cultural, social and political spectrum.

The “village” legacy of Falls Church is rooted in slavery and racism. The Township of Falls Church, in the early 20th century, shed an entire part of its land that predominantly housed African-American families, in an effort to keep it racially pure. The earliest settlers on land now constituting Falls Church were notorious slaveholders. Their rural, agrarian economic model was perpetuated with racial prejudice and injustice deep into the 20th century.

By contrast, the Art Nouveau form arose in the urban centers of Europe and Northeastern U.S. as an aesthetic manifestation of the surging optimism that derived from the breathtaking progress that was the Industrial Revolution. It was matched with counterparts in literature and music, all celebrating the vibrancy of the senses and beauty of the natural world, as humanity was being lifted out of poverty and lack through the applications of science and universal education. Called the “fin de siecle,” or “end of the (19th) century,” period in art and culture, it actually carried well into the early 20th century through Art Nouveau architecture, Pre-Raphaelite art, the visionary writings of George Bernard Shaw and the like, and the music of Mahler, Sibelius, Scriabin and many others. The most progressive, creative forces on the European continent were hop-scotching from capital to capital, sharing bold ideas and stretching notions of the possible, many also spending extended periods in New York, Chicago and other great U.S. cities.

It is sad to report that this era did not evolve into something else. It was crushed and rent asunder by the unbelievably destructive Great War, now known as World War I. The period of civilization’s greatest optimism slammed head on into humanity’s dark side, and it could be argued that we still await a full recovery from that.

Now, Falls Church has two superb examples of the light-hearted, cheerful optimism of that pre-war progressive era, the Read Building at 402 W. Broad and now the “flower building” at 800 W. Broad, and thanks to developer Bob Young, the City has given birth to an architectural revival that can be found nowhere else in the entire region.

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