Zoo’s next stop: Houston

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Faces of the Amazon Building, under construction at Roger Williams Park Zoo. (RWP)

Next stop: the Amazon” reads the headline on today’s front-page story in the Providence Journal about the new South American Rainforest exhibit and its clichéd design, so out of step with the historical character of the zoo and its host, Roger Williams Park. “Next stop: Houston” seems more like it.

I am disappointed because every time Providence tries to move into the future, it repeats its regrettable past. That is, it replicates architecture of recent decades that rejects a gentle glide path from its past to its future. It embraces architecture that sees the future as a contrast with the past rather than a continuation of the past. It embraces buildings that most people find alien. With aggressive stupidity, the city embraces placemaking that weakens rather than strengthens its brand.

The two prime examples are most of Capital Center and most of the I-195 land. Brown and RISD are culprits, and so are the city’s medical institutions. They are all run by smart men and women who have been taken in by the folly of a cult, which is what the profession of architecture has become.

The architectural establishment suppresses design diversity, and belittles traditional architecture as illegitimate in our time. Unlike every other field of human endeavor, its operating principles reject precedent – in theory more than in practice, however, as the clichéd zoo building demonstrates. Modern architecture prefers creativity that favors freakish novelty over the subtle refinement of artistic technique. Modernist architects treat the dismay of the public with the result as a feather in their cap.

In a democracy, architecture – the most visible of the arts – should make some attempt to reflect the taste of the public rather than the taste of the editors of the leading architecture journals and members of the Pritzker prize juries. No doubt Washington, Jefferson and Roger Williams are spinning in their graves.

Providence is not alone in committing such errors. The whole world is doing the same. Providence has an opportunity to separate itself from the pack, nationally and internationally. It can do so with a credibility that most cities in America no longer enjoy. With consummate bullheadedness, Providence refuses to do so, hence spurning the economic and spiritual well-being of its citizens.

The rainforest building, whose interior seems excellent (see video), is among what from the map below seem to be upward of 13 new buildings in the zoo’s 20-year master plan. The rainforest building is especially disappointing because its architect, Yoder & Tidwell, has designed numerous facilities at the zoo in styles that mostly fit in. These include its African Pavilion, Anteater Exhibit, North American Trail and Eagle Exhibit, Children’s Zoo, Treehouse, Veterinary Hospital and others.

What happened this time? Well, it is still possible to hope that the rest of the proposed new buildings will lean toward Providence, not Houston.

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Rebuild Aristotle’s Lyceum

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In 1996, as construction workers cleared a site in downtown Athens for the foundations of a new Museum of Modern Art, they found traces of a large structure sitting on the bedrock. A building had occupied this same spot some two-and-a-half thousand years earlier, when it was part of a wooded sanctuary outside the origi- nal city walls, on the banks of the River Ilissos. The excavation uncovered the remains of a gymnasium, a wrestling arena, changing rooms and baths. This had been a place for athletics and exercise, where the young men of Athens had trained to become soldiers and citizens. …

An ancient gymnasium in Athens? Achh! Let ‘er rip. Cart away the sweat-stained artifacts. Build your Εθνικό Μουσείο Σύγχρονης Τέχνης, with my blessing.

But wait. Not so fast.

… [I]t was much more than just a centre for physical improve- ment. The archaeologists soon realised that they had found one of the most significant sites in all of western European intellectual culture, a site referred to continually by history’s greatest philo- sophers: the Lyceum of Aristotle. The world’s first university.

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The passages, from James Crawford’s Fallen Glories, which I mentioned in my post “Rebuild the Roman Forum,” left me filled with anxiety for the fate of the remains of the Lyceum of Aristotle. The vision of its rubble bulldozed aside to make way for a Museum of Modern Art (Εθνικό Μουσείο Σύγχρονης Τέχνης), no doubt designed to poke out the eyes of the spinning shades of the Father of Western Philosophy (a title he shares with his own tutor, Plato, whose eyes would also be at risk) and the teacher of Alexander the Great (ditto).

Thankfully, my expectation, though validated by the history of brutality as the operating system of modern architecture, was too dire. The new building was cancelled, the museum’s art stored at a temporary site nearby, and, even though not everyone agrees that the exact site of Aristotle’s Lyceum was truly identified, the excavation continued.

Alas, nothing was found of notable architectural value farther back than Roman times, and what was found was no more than the lower walls and foundations. Since Greece is no longer an empire and Athens no longer a wealthy city-state, a dig is not a done deal. The history of the site after its discovery in 1996 is described by David John in his Cheshire Cat Blog, with copious text, notes, maps and photos. Fascinating. He expresses an infinitude of frustration (or shall we say patience) at the slow pace of progress. At last, the excavation was complete. Of the results, he wrote in 2013:

[D]isappointingly, the archaeological finds at the gymnasium site proved meagre: only the foundations and lower courses of walls of the wrestling area (palaestra) and library and part of a baths from the Roman period were uncovered; there appeared to be no sign of statues, inscriptions or any significant evidence of the site as the ancient sanctuary of Apollo Lykeios, after whom the Lyceum (Λύκειον, Lykeion) was named, or as a gathering place for philosophers; and unfortunately, no treasures, revelations or “astonishing discoveries.” So far, very little has been published about the excavation finds in English, which can only be taken as a discouraging sign.

David John leaves room, however, for hope that a restoration is in the works:

Several times after this author had heard that the site would be opened he dutifully traipsed along to only to find the same fence screening a closed building site on which nothing whatsoever was happening. In September 2010 a press release by the official Athens News Agency stated that the restoration work was finally – really, really, really – about to begin. However, when I visited the site again in May 2011 there had been no discernible progress.

Restoration? Does David John mean the restoration of the ruins, if such a project makes any sense, or the rebuilding of the Lyceum? The latter, I hope. There was not enough left in the way of ruins for the average visitor, or evidently even a scholar, to feel the frisson of ancient history upon this sacred ground. (Much the same might be said of Penn Station.) Although a pleasant garden has been created next to the Lyceum site, the remains seem to be a perfect example of a ruin that could and should be rebuilt without thwarting what intellectual pleasure a ruin might have aroused. Thankfully, at any rate, the bulldozers of the modernists have been sent packing. That is a victory, in itself, of beauty and history over ugliness and nihilism.

(I am not sure how much is known through contemporary texts or drawings of how the Lyceum of Aristotle actually looked. The closest apparent attempt at a visual reconstruction that I could find is from, I think, a video game, “Call to Power 2: Aristotle’s Lyceum.” That image is on top of this post. Below is an unidentified painting from the schoolworkhelper.net website, said to show the inside of the Lyceum, though it looks bigger than the Lyceum as portrayed by the gamers. Go figure.)

[Numerous gentle readers have informed me that the painting below is Raphael’s “School of Athens,” with the structure comprising parts of St. Peter’s. Was the blogger unaware of this fact, or aware of it and, in the absence of an actual illustration of the Lyceum, making a joke.)

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Interior of the Lyceum of Aristotle. (schoolworkhelper.net)

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Rebuild the Roman Forum

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Model of the Forum as it looked at the height of the empire. (Museum of Roman Civilization)

Last October I described a master’s thesis on how to plan for a restoration of the Roman Forum – center of civic life in the capital of the Roman empire. The author, Eric Stalheim, was the first graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture’s preservation program, run by Steven Semes, the author of one of my architectural bibles, The Future of the Past.

So far as I know, however, nobody in Rome itself has seriously proposed rebuilding the Forum. As of now, it has been a very ruined ruin for many centuries. I would put the chance of its restoration well below that of Penn Station, the hope of all who are interested in the classical revival. On the other hand, it seems as if the Parthenon itself, in Athens, is in the process of restoration right now, though I’m not sure whether this project, which has lasted for a number of years if not decades, aims at anything like a complete restoration of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the rest of the Acropolis.

Even as a ruin the Acropolis – the main civic gathering of the Athenian city-state – is certainly more legible to the average tourist or normal citizen than the Roman Forum, which is mainly some difficult-to-distinguish ruins with a couple partially ruined colonnades standing around. A website called Jeff Bondono’s Page, from which the image above was taken, gives a good idea of what it might have looked like at the height of Imperial Rome.

This post was triggered by a chapter on the Forum in Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings, by James Crawford, of Scotland’s National Collection, in Edinburgh. The book takes famous buildings or sets of buildings from throughout history and discusses how they came to be and what happened to them, using a plethora of sources, contemporary, current and in between. For example, here he cites Goethe on standing amid the Forum ruins:

All history is encamped about us and all history sets forth again from us. This does not apply only to Roman history, but to the history of the whole world. From here I can accompany the conquerors to the Weser and the Euphrates, or, if I prefer to stand and gape, I can wait in the Via Sacra for their triumphant return.

Of course, not all of us have the power of Goethe’s imagination. The best case for not restoring the Forum to its ancient form (pick your era!) may be that even the most exact replica must, because we all will know it is a replica, undermine the possibility of the sort of mental time travel that Goethe could experience even amid ruins.

I would argue that rebuilding the Forum as it was in, say, A.D. 300, before it was sacked over and over again by barbarians and its own citizens, would be a valuable experience for those of us who are not Goethe. Indeed, the best of both worlds might be possible by preserving the Forum ruins as they are and rebuilding the Forum in or outside of Rome. Of course, that might tempt mod-symp ignoramuses to bloviate about the Disneyfication of history.

In the effort to reconstruct the Parthenon, it seems as if parts that cannot be restored using the original stone lying around it, of which there is quite an abundance, new marble is being cut to fit. Although experts say it will blend in after enough aging and weathering, how long will that take? I have my doubts. That’s another argument to let sleeping ruins be.

Much as I like the idea of rebuilding the Forum, I’m not sure what the best course would be. It’s a more difficult question than that of rebuilding Penn Station, whose grand hall was modeled after the Roman baths of Caracalla. Of such a restoration’s advisability, however, there is no doubt whatsoever.

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The Forum and its vicinity as it lies in Rome today. (Wikipedia)

Posted in Architecture, Preservation, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Battering Battersea Station

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Battersea Power Station, 1929-33, on Pink Floyd album cover. (London Musical History)

Owen Hatherley has denounced a large development around the historic Battersea Power Station, in London. I cannot read his piece because it is behind the paywall of The Architects’ Journal. But I do have the next best thing – its description in the vital ArchNewsNow.com, which reads:

Hatherley minces no words re: the “genuinely dystopian” and “grim” development rising around London’s Battersea Power Station that “looks increasingly like satire – devoid of planning, intelligence or character – a tangle of superfluous skyscrapers around parodies of public spaces” (ouch!).

I would like to give Hatherley the benefit of the doubt and assume that he genuinely dislikes the sort of modern architecture he criticizes here for its overabundance and seeming mockery of generally accepted practices of civic revival, and for smothering the beloved Battersea Station amid its ugly glass-and-steel towers. But he probably likes it unless he decides, for one reason or another, as he has here, not to like it. I make that assumption only because there are so few critics on either side of the pond with the sense to dislike it. One of the few trad critics in Britain, Gavin Stamp, died last December.

Hatherley’s article caught my eye because I have a collection of articles by modernist critics who who seem to feel their credibility will be undermined if they do not criticize a modernist project once in a while. Well, wake up! You do not have any credibility except with those who’ve drunk the same Kool Aid. Almost all modernist projects can be criticized in some or all of the same terms Hatherley uses in riding to the defense of the Battersea station.

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who designed the once ubiquitous red Brit telephone booth – which Gavin Stamp crusaded to save – designed the Battersea’s Art Deco exterior. It was perhaps the largest brick building in the world. Scott was “consulted to appease public reaction,” according to Wikipedia – with success as it was popular from the beginning and known as the “temple to power.” It rivaled St. Paul’s in popularity, and was featured on the cover of the 1977 album “Animals” by the rock group Pink Floyd.

So naturally the modernists, who know they cannot just knock down a Grade II listed heritage structure, are building their crap around it. By hiding it they seek to avoid its unavoidable comment on the quality of their work. So sad.


A reader has sent me Hatherley’s article from behind the paywall. The full “This dire Battersley Power Station development is genuinely dystopian” (click on PDF below) may give rise to comments I will add below without changing anything above, unless necessary.

This dire Battersea Power Station development is genuinely dystopian _ Opinion _ Architects Journal

I would add only that the power station and the project are near the new and ridiculous U.S. embassy, which I’ll bet Hatherley has praised. Parts of the project are by Rogers Stirk Harbour. The comments below the article are interesting, including a debate over whether it is, as Hatherley says, a failed development.

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Battersea Power Station’s four stacks rise above recent development. (Architects’ Journal)

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Still allowed to like Meier?

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Dancing House, in Prague, by Frank Gehry. Flirtatious or harassment? (Naked Tour Guide)

I had absolutely no idea, two weeks ago when I wrote my post “Ha ha ha ha! Seriously?,” that its two subjects, Pritzker Prize architect Richard Meier and the late female architect Natalie de Blois, are connected. No, de Blois is not among the five women who have just accused Meier of sexual assault. But unbeknownst to me, I introduced the oppressor and the oppressed into the same post. How was I to know? You can never be too careful.

Aaron Betsky wrote in November wondering when architects would get caught up in the #MeToo movement. Now that the moment has come, his interesting column has been reposted online by Architect, for which he is a columnist. “Waiting to be Weinsteined” makes some interesting points. The article opens with this passage:

“What do you think of Louis Kahn?” one of my students asked last week. “Oh, well, I think he was God,” I answered only half-jokingly and turning away to my next task. “Oh,” she said. “Well, but he was sort of a creep, wasn’t he?” I turned around, faced her, and didn’t know what to say.

Well, Louis Kahn, now Richard Meier, who else? Oh, Lord, please: Frank O. Gehry! He is about as arrogant as they come, and also a creep. Didn’t he say that “98 percent of what gets built today is shit”? Okay, that’s a different kind of creep. I have a special animus against Gehry because he is about to uglify my hometown, Washington, D.C. Anyway, wasn’t his Dancing House, in Prague, caught in the act of dirty dancing, or maybe even frottage?

Harking back to his own 1995 book Building Sex, Betsky adds that

the values of the architecture world are thoroughly bound with notions of masculinity. The glorification of the big, the muscular, and the tall, the suppression of comfort and sensuality as important values, and the complete domination of the architecture world (still!) by men are all wrapped up together. Too many male architects see the world as a supine figure waiting for their brilliant erection to bring it to life.

Oh ho! Betsky lets the cat out of the bag. He refers to modern architecture. No other architecture calls for “the suppression of comfort and sensuality as important values.” No doubt the classical firms of a century ago and beyond were as dominated by men as are today’s. Classical architects were probably just as arrogant* as modernists are today (and with much better reason for it). The rare female architects and office staff were probably just as subject to male “interest” then as now. But back then it was probably far more subtle because it was far more forbidden than today, as of November at least.

As flirtation grows bold enough to cross the line into harassment, or worse, it becomes more desirable to chastise, sanction and prevent. But preventing dastardly behavior originating in the office must not be allowed to throttle innocent behavior. Romance often germinates in the work environment, and to block that off, or to generate a fear of indulging in it, would constitute an assault on the quality of life. In the office, gentle yearnings are among the benefits of employment. Boundaries must be clear, but innocent flirtation mustn’t be punished for the deeds of the sexually irresponsible.

Betsky cannot decide whether knowing of Kahn’s infidelities means he can no longer like Kahn’s buildings. Isn’t it just like the modernists to think that wrongdoing can be blamed on buildings? One of the founding blunders of modern architecture is that the horrors of World War I demanded not just new forms of government but new forms of architecture as well.

Betsky writes:

In an ideal world, we should be able to separate the work from the man or woman who made it, but in the real world, the cult of the “genius maker” so thoroughly defines the way in which any art is made and received that we cannot ignore questions of character when we look. Moreover, the inexcusable behavior of men has too long let them build unabashedly while inhibiting the work and the careers of women.

That’s pretty dodgy. What can Betsky mean? The “cult of the ‘genius maker” prevents us from distinguishing the artist from his (or her!) work? Sexual assault and sexual discrimination are different issues, not entirely unrelated perhaps, but still distant. Neither causes the other, and both are problems that require different programs of redress on the part of the profession.

In short, Richard Meier and Natalie de Blois may have cohabited my blog two weeks ago, but the problems each represents are worlds apart.

Betsky should feel free to erect a wall between his opinion of Kahn and of his buildings. I would not condemn him for allowing Kahn’s behavior to affect his opinion of Kahn’s work, but I would insist that they may indeed be judged independently. Some might be unable to do so, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible, or even especially difficult. To argue otherwise is to fling oneself (and one’s profession) down a dangerously slippery slope. After all, we never do have a full knowledge of anyone’s character, which is more than just what makes it into the news. So in the end we must judge an architect’s work by his buildings, or we must acknowledge that we judge it in blindness.

I may deplore Aaron Betsky’s admiration for Kahn but I will defend to the death his right to that admiration, whatever he said about bricks.

(I would have put the photo of Meier’s building on top instead of below if I could have found any Meier building guilty of the least sexual misconduct.)

(* Read the demurral in the comments below by Milton Grenfell. I would add that those who saw the sexual revolution with clear eyes, at the time or looking back, could see #MeToo’s embarrassingly conflicted discontents coming down the track.)

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Rickmers headquarters, in Hamburg, by Richard Meier. (richardmeier.com)

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Sledding near Dutch Emb.

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My friend Steve Mields, age 12 perhaps, flies over bump at Cal Hill. (See video)

With snow bearing down this evening, ready to whack New England starting early tomorrow morning, thoughts naturally turn to sledding down hills while young. Or, rather, memories of same. My friends and I used to sled at Cal Hill, behind the Dutch embassy in the District of Columbia. Cal Hill, which apparently nobody knew about but us, was a very long and very steep hill with a stone building on top where, I don’t recall but am informed, hot chocolate could be had, and woods at the bottom, requiring sledders to brake hard or abandon ship.

The land was apparently owned by the Dumbarton College for Women then, whose staff never chased us away. Today it is apparently owned by the Divinity School of Howard University.

Sledding at Cal Hill was, in a word, divine. It was memorialized on 8mm film by me one late afternoon, or so it seems in my clip, which runs a bit over one minute. [Trigger warning: violent falls off sleds, stray voice in background discussing baseball, film quality execrable.] Well, some people consider grainy footage to be tantamount to historic, or at least old. However grainy, or rather perhaps blurry, this footage might be considered fun.

See Steve Mields flying down the hill and hitting our hastily built snow ramp. Will he crash? Will he abandon ship? Will he make it over? Chills and thrills aplenty in this clip. If you cannot go out and sled down a snowy hill tomorrow, this may be the best opportunity you will have to recall what it was like. Enjoy!

And by the way, in case lightning strikes and I do go out sledding tomorrow – I have a 9-year-old boy, after all – anybody know the best sledding in in Providence?

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Sources of modern silliness

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Even London’s Crystal Palace, an early modernist icon, had decoration. (Sources)

Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83) wrote some of the pathbreaking works of architectural history that form the belief system of modern architecture today. The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design is one, which I am reading again for the first time in many years. Not too long ago, in “Form, function and Sullivan,” I wrote of an earlier seminal work of modernist design philosophy. Louis Sullivan’s Autobiography of an Idea, published in 1949, discussed “Form follows function,” which arose in his mind more than half a century earlier, after the invention steel framing and elevators led to the skyscraper, in which he played an important role.

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Nikolaus Pevsner

Sullivan himself attributed the concept to the Roman architect Vitruvius, who first (that we know of) enunciated the triad of firmitas, utilitas, venustas – buildings must be solid, useful, beautiful. Wikipedia says Sullivan’s maxim is “often incorrectly attributed to the sculptor Horatio Greenough (1805-52),[1] whose thinking mostly predates the later functionalist approach to architecture.” But Greenough’s linkage of form to function prior to the “later functionalists” is no more and no less what Vitruvius did. And probably lots of other architects and theorists made the obvious connection on many occasions between Vitruvius and Sullivan. It was the modernists who had the idea of using such a vapid platitude as a keystone of their architectural philosophy.

I mention that in order to suggest a parallel with the thinking of many modernist pioneers, which is glaringly evident in the very first chapter of Pevsner’s Sources. “The plea for functionalism is the first of our sources,” he writes, and then piles up quotes from Pugin, Hogarth, Voillet-le-Duc, Scott and Morris that purport to place them in a vanguard pushing for a more functional architecture.

But, though Pevsner and other modernists won’t admit it, Vitruvius stole their thunder a millennium and a half earlier. Utilitas is functionalism, and almost every architect since Vitruvius has placed function on a par with strength and beauty as required of all architecture.

What Pevsner and most other modernists truly mean by functionalism, and how it is different from architecture’s longstanding concern with function, is function without ornament. And even the quotes piled up by Pevsner in the first chapter of Sources fail to support the notion that functionalism requires that ornament be purged.

For example, Pevsner cites Pugin, writing in 1841:

There should be no features about a building which are not necessary for convenience, construction or propriety. … The smallest detail should serve a purpose, and construction itself should vary with the material employed.

Propriety? Eh? Not entirely unconnected with venustas! But even if Pugin did not use the word propriety, the passage would contain nothing that excludes ornament as a feature of a building that serves a purpose.

Indeed, Sullivan’s reputation as a “precursor of the modernist movement” may have arisen after Pevsner wrote Sources. That might explain why Sullivan makes only the slightest appearance in the book. Pevsner probably realized that Sullivan loved ornament, and he may not have had the chutzpah to label him a “pioneer” of modernism – even if he did coin the dictum “Form follows function.”

Only after modernism captured the establishment of architecture did its thinkers and leaders have the balls to treat Sullivan as a precursor to modernism. By then the field had become less a profession than a cult, and the tendency to merely suppress and ignore uncomfortable facts became part and parcel of the modernist discourse.

Anyway, modernists have a most extraordinarily narrow definition of function. If a building’s beauty makes it more likely to be maintained and repaired by the human beings who own it, use it and love it, then its beauty is functional. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Nick Pevsner!

Posted in Architecture, Architecture History | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Ross Award winners of 2018

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The Williamstrip Bath House, by Craig Hamilton. (Photos by Paul Highnam)

The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art has just announced this year’s Arthur Ross Award laureates. Unlike the Bulfinch Awards of the New England chapter (also just announced) and other regional ICAA awards programs, which honor specific works, the ICAA’s Ross awards honor the career “achievements and contributions of architects, painters, sculptors, artisans, interior designers, landscape designers, educators, publishers, patrons, and others dedicated to preserving and advancing the classical tradition.” This year’s honorees are excellent. Go to the announcement to see multiple examples of the life work of each laureate.

By way of introducing this year’s Ross winners, allow me to focus on one building by Craig Hamilton, this year’s choice in the category of architecture. The building is a new bath house on a wealthy estate in Gloucestershire whose manor house, restored in the 1790s by Sir John Soane, had just been renovated by Hamilton. The bath house combines a number of strains that, it seems to me, characterize much of his work since he emigrated to Britain from South Africa.

The Williamstrip Bath House combines a temple front with colonnades (one of four columns and another of six columns) that reach back on either side to a hemispherical bow at the rear of the building. Its classical styling is very restrained, except for the twin columns flanking the temple front. Their capitals are described by Katie Gerfen for Architect: “[O]n the entrance façade [Hamilton] reinterprets Ionic columns at the Temple of Apollo Epicurius in Bassae, Greece, exaggerating the volutes to the point of creating his own chambered-nautilus-like nonce order.”

The capitals surely will strike some as disproportionally rendered. Is this a sin against ye olde classical canon? Is it experimental? Is it creativity? Is it “bad trad”? Sometimes it can be hard to say, but bad trad it is not. Like the rest of the building, the temple front is certainly spare, but it would probably strike Nikolaus Pevsner, say, as criminally profuse in its embellishment.

Never mind. Advancing the classical tradition, the chief purpose of the ICAA, means preserving the canon and promoting its glory through diversification. Craig Hamilton has performed both roles, and his Ross makes perfect sense.

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Chinese Gordon’s Khartoum

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Contemporary photo of central Khartoum. (The Guardian)

I have just completed Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians without finding much if anything to quote about architecture beyond what I conveyed in my post “The special beauty of decay.” Strachey contemplates four Victorians – Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold (headmaster of Rugby) and Gen. Charles Gordon. He digs with an almost unseemly gleeful diligence for the hypocrisy embedded in the character of each.

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Chinese Gordon. (en.wikipedia)

The last, Charles George Gordon, was beheaded after the siege of Khartoum by the forces of the Mahdi (emissary of Mohammad). In the absence of anything especially architectural in the description of the end of Gordon’s life, I looked for an image of the palace where, at the top of its staircase, he received a spear in the chest (or was hacked to bits by scimitar, believe what you will). Not long after, his head was chopped off and stuck atop a pole. I found the palace (see below). I went to the library to find the 1966 movie Khartoum, starring Charleton Heston and Sir Laurence Olivier, but it was out. (You can see the trailer here). But I did find, online, a startling but sad and predictable shot of Khartoum.

Before considering that image, consider the following from an essay on contemporary Khartoum after the civil war that split Sudan and South Sudan into two nations. I wonder whether Nesrine Malik, the UK Guardian columnist and author of “Khartoum: the most selfish city?,” was referring to the Mahdi’s investment of Khartoum in 1885 in the opening line of this passage toward the end of her essay. She writes:

Rebel movements have twice approached and once entered Khartoum, an unthinkable prospect for its dwellers. There is a sense that the hordes are closing in, and that decades of grievances and marginalisation will finally close in and cannibalise a centre of power that has got away with divide, marginalise and rule for too long. Almost 60 years after independence, the model of the elitist city has proven to be a catastrophic failure.

Who knows? But from the photograph of contemporary central Khartoum above, it is clear that the hordes have already closed in. Look at all the bad trad poking up among the earlier modernist buildings! But must one not admit that even the bad trad, in its attempts to at least make reference to Muslim architectural traditions, has served Khartoum by defending it against being invested (that is, in Victorian terminology, conquered) by more typical sorts of modern architecture? Deny it – I dare you!

Interesting also is a story from the Middle East Eye, “New presidential palace opened on resonant date for Sudan,” about the new presidential palace built in Khartoum right next to the old one, where General Gordon died, which was not torn down. The author, who is not named in the article, discusses not only the new palace but the fact that it was financed, as is so much in Sudan these days, by the Chinese, who are heavily invested in Sudanese oil drilling operations. And he points out that the opening came on the same day, 130 years later, that Gordon lost his head.

It seems as if the author was quite unaware that Gordon’s nickname was “Chinese.” That would be worth putting in the article, ya think? Journalists tend to go weak in the knees at any hint of irony that they can pop into their stories. The anonymous author missed a biggie here.

Chinese Gordon was so named because of his prowess in military strategy and tactics and the courage he showed in China during the 1860s when, as a sort of British mercenary, he led the Chinese regulars – the so-called “Ever Victorious Army” – in defeating the Taiping Rebellion.

Internet images and their descriptions of the Khartoum palace in which Gordon died are so confused (or at least to me at 10:38 p.m. this evening) that I cannot tell whether the photo below is the original palace, the palace as rebuilt after the British retook Khartoum more than a decade later, a replica of the original palace apparently built by the Chinese, or the new palace recently also built by the Chinese as referred to above. If a reader knows, please tell me!

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Presidential Palace in Khartoum. (africaranking.com)

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The sinister self-driving car

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Image of data-gathering by self-driving car on highway. (KitGuru)

The Atlantic has a very interesting article, “How Self-Driving Cars Will Threaten Privacy,” by Adrienne LaFrance. It actually ran a couple of years ago, and looks forward to the convenience of life with a self-driving car. The car will listen to your conversations and take your unwitting advice by, say, putting on your grocery list a type of beer you praised on the phone to a friend, or, without having to be told, adding a coffee stop on your way to work. Nice!

But there’s a darker side to all this, too. Let’s rewind and take a closer look at your commute for a minute.

There we were. The car picked us up. We wanted coffee. It suggested Peet’s. But if we’d stopped to look at the map on the screen when this happened, we might have noticed that Peet’s wasn’t actually the most efficient place to stop, nor was it on your list of preferred coffee shops, which the car’s machine-learning algorithm developed over time. Peet’s was, instead, a sponsored destination—not unlike a sponsored search result on Google. The car went ever-so-slightly out of the way to take you there.

The analysis by LaFrance goes into chilling detail about how the desire for profit might cause your car to edit your life.

Still, a lot of people will decide to put up with self-driving surveillance of this sort. We already put up with it online, allowing Google or other busybody behemoths to place ads for things they know we want in the articles we read on our laptops. And who knows what else. Better living through algorithms!

However many billions or trillions that Google, GM, and other corporations (including Uncle Sam) plow into self-driving cars, I don’t think they are in the cards. Our brains function faster and better behind the wheel using intuition developed over many thousands of years than any computer. Maybe computers can do a lot more calculations at once, and maybe they don’t drink and drive, but they can also be relied on to break down in little ways that don’t matter so much on our desktops but might matter a lot more hurtling down the highway at 65 miles per hour. The amazing thing is not how many accidents we have today but how few. Thank your brain.

So I think that after a while, after more serious testing ramps up and demonstrates the beauty of our natural onboard computers, we will shrug our shoulders and admit … no can do. Hopefully, we’ll have some useful things that are spun off by the research, like Tang was spun off by the space program.

But if it does happen – and this is one of many good reasons for it not to happen – what I worry about most is if, one day when self-driving cars are installed, I write a piece describing how we still have not been able to work out the 3D Rubik’s Cube of changes that will be required to reconcile the massive dislocations in technological, commercial, infrastructural, social, civic, economic and other systems that emerge over time because of the self-driving car. Suppose someone at Google decides to get the Ministry of Truth to issue a warrant for my arrest. All they have to do is plug a new itinerary into my car’s computer and instead of driving me to Peet’s, my car (or some corporate fleet’s car) will drive me straight to jail.

Nah. This cannot be allowed to happen.

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