Don’t make it blight, Brad!

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5012 N. Derbigny St., in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. (theadvocate.com)

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Brad and wife in better days. (The Blast)

Actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation erected several score of goofy homes in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans – poor, depopulated and hardest hit by Katrina in 2005. Pitt brought in squads of modern architects to teach the hoi polloi what kinda machines for living their betters covet, even if they don’t actually all live in one. Brad and wifelet Angolina Jolie had a $6 million townhouse in the ritzy French Quarter before they split up.

But many of the Make It Right houses have turned out to be moldy, not to mention fugly, and, while green and edgy, are not exactly affordable.

One of the houses may be demolished only seven years after it was built if a permit is issued by the city on April 30. The Lens, an online Gulf Coast news site, wrote about 5012 N. Derbigny St. in “Blighted Make It Right home to be demolished after standing vacant, half-repaired for two years.

Philadelphia architects KieranTimberlake gave it a flat roof, natch, but before another architect could replace it with a sloped roof, its owner had moved out. (A sloped roof can be cool as long as its slopes don’t meet in the middle, like a gable.) So the roof was leaking – surprise, surprise! – and mold was setting in, stinking the place up and driving the sickened family out.

At a hearing on the house last week, the city tried to put a cork in the controversy:

Hearing officer Lee Phillips made it clear that the hearing was about code violations, not issues between the property owner, the neighbors and the developer. He said the hearing wasn’t ‘the Jerry Springer show’ and his role was to decide whether to impose a fine, not to decide who was at fault for the leaks.

The cutting-edge design of these homes has sparked a local activist movement to confront Pitt and Make It Right. This may not be the first Make It Right house to head south, and it won’t be the last. Problems are cropping up at other Make It Right homes, according to a WDSU-TV story, “Brad Pitt Make It Right homes riddled with problems, say some residents.”

And while Pitt is to be commended for trying harder to do good than most celebrities, he can be blamed for pigheadedness. Instead of building Ninth Ward residents a new neighborhood they never asked for, why did Pitt not try to rebuild the one they lost? It would have been a lot more helpful.

But how much fun would that be? Brad might have some idea, but nobody asked the Ninth Ward.

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Typical Make It Right houses in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. (joevare)

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Pevsner’s archiperversity

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Bottom half of book cover; Max Berg’s 1913 Centenary Hall, Breslau, Germany. (Thames & Hudson)

What are the sources of modern architecture? I recently completed Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Sources of Modern Architecture and Design, published by the famous German-turned-Brit architectural historian in 1968. Rarely have so many underlinings arisen in protest against so much dubious archihistori-ography. It’s hard to know where to begin. My post “Sources of modern silliness” looked at earlier passages in the book as I was reading it. The rest lived up to the promise of its early pages. A few weeks later, I still am trying to make heads or tails of Pevsner and his sources.

Modernists love to say that their style of architecture reaches back to the glass and iron of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace in 1851. Pevsner’s book looks at how artistic styles such as Arts & Crafts and Art Nouveau got tangled up in the strands that nourished modern architecture’s purity of line and expungement of ornament. Sounds kind of dodgy to me. Arts & Crafts caused machine architecture? Art Nouveau caused the purge of decoration from design? I don’t think so. How could this sort of thinking even happen?

Good question. Pevsner writes of the “new style with its reliance on unmitigated right angles”:

The secret, if you are bent on banishing ornament, mouldings, curves altogether, is fine materials and the play of proportions.

Alas, we all know how that worked out.

Pevsner’s thinking seems to be plucked from a strategy of architectural history that is designed to give modern architecture some links to the past, so as to defend it from the charge of unhinged novelty. That is, Corbusier and Mies led modern architecture’s break from classical tradition just as William Morris and Charles Voysey, leaders in the Arts & Crafts movement and that of Art Nouveau, broke from artistic tradition a few decades earlier.

That seems to be the tie-in. But neither Arts & Crafts nor Art Nouveau were quite as detached from broader trends in art as Pevsner tries to suggest. The history of art and architecture was, up to that point, the history, essentially, of creating things by hand. The emphasis on curvature in both the Arts & Craft and Art Nouveau – work that could not be performed by machines – was revived by the Baroque Revival during the late 19th century in all of the arts, but especially in architecture. Pevsner ignores this. Much of it may have been about resistance to the linear qualities of the Neoclassical Revival also under way then, yet it was not really a rejection of broader trends in art or architecture. Rather, it was more an attempt to toy with the curvaceousness of the Baroque, and to carry it into a variety of art forms. Pevsner’s hatred of curves and love for straight lines made it difficult for him to articulate with any success his attempt to jam the square modernist peg into the round hole of late 19th-century artistic conventions.

Yet modern architecture has managed to sell the idea that modernist design rejects the past even as it celebrates its roots in history. How? Well, the two concepts are not wholly irreconcilable, in fact they are an inevitable pairing. But everything has roots in the past. There is nothing truly new under the sun. This truism does not rehabilitate the fallacy of modern architecture’s love/hate relationship with the past. Modernism’s roots in the past, slender and tenuous as they are, do not expiate its rejection of the past.

Historians of modern architecture divide the historical styles into “periods” – such as Gothic, Baroque, Neoclassical, Beaux-Arts, Victorian, Eclectic (a period of revivals) and others. This  enables them to pigeonhole this and that building into a period, or rather a prison cell, at which point modernists think they can throw away the key and argue that buildings of this or that style cannot be built outside of their own period – that is, cannot be built today. At least not without forsaking their “authenticity.”

That is because each style, according to Pevsner and others, reflects its era. How they figure that out when real historians cannot peg the meaning of real periods in history, I don’t know. But if built today, the authenticity of any building that doesn’t look like a slab of glass is undermined. Yet the periods can be subdivided endlessly, which kind of ruins the game. The fact is that architecture does not evolve by distinct steps, and each style is to some extent intermingled with the styles before it, after it and all around it.

Trying to place a building into its proper period is like trying to place one’s foot onto a dot beyond three other tangled up players of the game Twister.

Indeed, throughout Sources, Pevsner constantly pauses to reflect upon the clay feet of his pioneers. He regrets that Morris, Webb and Shaw had not “felt as strongly about the necessity of an original style,” got defensive over Gaillard’s “half-concealed sympathy with the classical past” and mourned Voysey’s “strong period flavor.” He complains that Wagner’s “buildings of those years were less radical,” his subway stations were “a kind of Baroque Art Nouveau,” and his “office buildings and flats are simple, but in their fenestration not untraditional.” Pevsner is pissed off that Lutyens “turned away from the progressive developments and led the retreat into the grand manner.” Macintosh, he says, stooped to “perfectly harmless Ionic capitals.” Even Sullivan himself “loved ornament.” Boo-hoo!

After all, Pevsner could not entirely divorce his favored architects from the artistic milieu in which they worked. The buildings just don’t fit well into the periods they have been assigned by architectural historians.

Periods actually have no real use but to uphold the fallacy that this or that style cannot be built today. They can and they are. Periods are no more than a cynical invention designed to lock in the validity of modern architecture. Intellectually, periods are baloney.

Modern architecture actually has no real ties to the past; its rejection of tradition was an intellectual conceit based on such stupidities as blaming the horrors of World War I on buildings. A dome on a building may symbolize a crown on a king, but you still can’t blame the building for what the king did. This and other phony excuses were hatched by architects seeking a shortcut to a great career. Modern architecture erupted into vogue in the 1920s in Europe, and by 1950 had captured the establishment there and in America lock, stock and barrel. But today it has lost its mojo. Today it must stand on its own, without the bodyguard of lies that has served it for a century.

These hopeful ramblings are my attempt to cobble together an explanation for the puzzling phenomenon of modern architecture. Some readers no doubt have their own ideas of how modern architecture managed to replace a tradition that worked well to build everything from houses to cities. I invite them to share their reaction to this post.

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Video: Restored in Frankfurt

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Restored Huhner Markt district in Frankfurt, Germany, with backdrop of city center. (YouTube)

Leon Krier has sent a brief video, 57 seconds in all, of the recently completed restoration, in Frankfurt, Germany, of that city’s Huhner Markt area, Almost as pleasing as what the video reveals is what it replaces – in Krier’s words, “a concrete monster.”

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The “concrete monster.”

At the start of the video, looming on the horizon beyond the market district that has been restored, is central Frankfurt, a dastardly collusion of skyscrapers typical of others in Europe, America and elsewhere. The contrast with the fine-grained urbanism of historic Frankfurt inspired me to think along what might be called Krierian lines. I thought of how central Frankfurt would look today if German authorities after World War II had not embraced modern architecture, and its cities had been rebuilt properly. New ways to perfect traditional buildings and invent novel forms of ornament, new structural and massing possibilities, and new technologies and materials to enhance usefulness and reduce cost would have created a Frankfurt visually more graceful and more delightful to experience – just as the old Huhner Markt has now been rebuilt.

Begone, glitzy egotecture! Hello, humane architecture!

To engage in such a fantasy requires imagining that modern architecture itself never got beyond fad status. The fad of modernism arose in Europe between the wars, whereas in America it arose after the second war. A complicated strand of influences and events enabled modern architects to topple tradition from an establishment it had dominated to the exclusion of any genuine rivals for hundreds if not a couple thousand years. The process was different on either side of the Atlantic. How this tragedy came about is a thrilling and, I think, largely untold story, maybe worthy of my next book.

Look at the video and think of what could have been and what could still be. Around the world, every “concrete monstrosity” that reaches its obsolescence should be demolished and replaced by architecture inspired by the hundreds and thousands of years of accrued experience of architects and crafts people improving best practices and burnishing, generation after generation, the virtuosity of buildings and the urbanism that enables them – and enabled them for centuries – to live together, enhancing the daily experience of every human being. It might take a few decades, but we can do that again.

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M. Laugier’s pilasterphobia

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A pilaster embedded in a wall of the Pantheon, in Rome. (123RF.com)

An Essay on Architecture was published anonymously in 1753 by the Abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier, who soon after quit the Jesuitical order, enabling his name to appear on the next edition. It’s the most amazing book. In Chapter 1, “General Principles of Architecture,” Article 1, “The Column,” he describes the foundational feature of the classical canon and then launches into a sort of Two Minutes’ Hate against its little brother, the poor pilaster. Laugier has it in for the pilaster, oh boy does he!

A pilaster is a column that instead of standing free is partially embedded in a wall. It is usually squared off, whereas columns are usually round. Pilasters are there mainly to give a sense of structure to a wall, creating rhythm but not actually doing any heavy lifting as the columns do. Pilasters are often matched with real, disengaged columns, so that a colonnade might have paired pilasters and columns marching in orderly rank and file into the distance (at least for the length of the wall). Sounds pretty tame!

Here is just a bit of the nasty stuff Laugier pitches at the pilaster:

On entering the nave of the Chapel of Versailles everybody is struck by the beauty of its columns, by the picturesque vista through its intercolumniations; but as soon as one approaches the apse, there is not a person who does not notice with regret the stupid interruption of the beautiful row of columns by a depressing pilaster. One can, therefore, be quite certain that the use of pilasters is one of the great abuses that have found their way into architecture. … The pilaster is a frivolous ornament which has been put to all sorts of uses; it has even been married to a column which, it seems, is there as its inseparable companion. Has there ever been a more ridiculous match? What does the engaged column mean behind a free-standing column? Honestly, I do not know and I defy anybody to explain it.

Well, leaving aside the contradiction in terms of the phrase “frivolous ornament,” even if it is “merely” decorative, the pilaster for that reason serves a necessary function. Laugier seems to dispute the idea that pilasters can stand in for columns along a wall if columns cost too much. But better a row of pilasters than a blank façade. Far better.

Laugier takes sharp aim also at the pilasters of the Maison Carrée, in Nîmes, France, completed in 2 A.D., which has a porch of columns but whose temple façades are lined with rounded pilasters. These supposed abominations were not so offensive as to put off Thomas Jefferson, for whom the building served as a model for American classicism. In fact, he incorporated a squared-off version of them in his capitol of Virginia at Richmond, which was modeled after the Maison Carrée.*

The abbé also launches blistering attacks on pedestals at the base of columns, spiral columns, columns with non-standard entasis (swelling), and various other features that arise when an architect dares to tip-toe beyond the principles of Vitruvius.

British architects feuded for centuries over whether the Gothic or the Neoclassical styles were preferable – indeed for one side the other side represented no less than the devil incarnate. The Gothic represented Roman Catholicism, supposedly, whereas the Neoclassical represented Anglicism. Obviously irreconcilable, if true, eh wot? Off with your head!

In Providence, H.P. Lovecraft cheered the demolition of a Gothic courthouse built in 1877 with a Neo-Georgian one built in 1926-33. For Lovecraft, a confirmed nativist (today we would say racist), the Gothic brought to mind the immigrants flooding into Providence from Ireland and Italy. He hated them for eroding the city’s colonial feel. Lovecraft’s idea of the “modern,” however, included the Neoclassical and the Beaux-Arts, which, he wrote in a 1929 letter to the Providence Journal, represented “the uniformly modern, commercially efficient, and showily sumptuous at any cost.”

That was before actual modern architecture raised its head in Providence. Now the threats to our beauty are real, and not just in the capital of Little Rhody. Before modernism, disputes raged over mere bagatelles. The point here is that drastic disagreements over design go back many centuries, if not further. Surely if architecture had no flaws, we would have to invent them.

Oh, how I wish that we could return to the day of such simple, unfounded hatreds! How refreshing in comparison to the style wars of our day!

***

* Calder Loth, a former Virginia state preservation officer, offers intriguing information touching on whether Jefferson liked pilasters or not:

Jefferson considered half-round pilasters like the Maison Carrée in one of his early designs for the Virginia Capitol. However, he omitted them in his final design as shown in the Fouquet model that he sent from France to Richmond to guide the builders.  They also do not show in his final design drawings.

Nevertheless, the Capitol’s builder, Samuel Dobie, took it on himself to add the pilasters.  What Jefferson thought of them when he finally arrived back in Virginia and saw the Capitol we don’t know. He never commented on it.

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Maison Carree, in Nimes, France. (Wikipedia)

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Model sent from France by Thomas Jefferson for the Virginia Capitol, in Richmond. (Calder Loth)

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Virginia State Capitol today, with pilasters and, added c. 1906, wings for House of Delegates and Senate Chamber.

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Chicken, egg, preservation

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Illustration of ruins as restored to original appearance. (Eric Stalheim master’s thesis)

Steven Semes is head of the new master’s program in historic preservation in the School of Architecture at Notre Dame, about which I wrote last year in “Preservation at Notre Dame.” Semes writes in the latest issue of Traditional Building that “teaching preservation at Notre Dame is a natural extension of its curriculum,” which emphasizes how to design contemporary classical architecture. In his article, Semes adds that:

learning how to design new traditional environments is relevant to the care of existing historic buildings, districts, and landscapes. While all of us have grown up in the age of Modern Architecture, few preservation professionals are experts on the design of pre-Modern buildings. … The best conservation practice requires the architect to identify, draw, analyze and restore the multitude of elements, both utilitarian and aesthetic, that make up our architectural heritage and, when called upon, to add to the heritage in ways that promote harmony and continuity of character rather than contrast and difference for its own sake.

All true. At Notre Dame, preservation is a logical extension of its classical studies. However, looking at the whole situation of the built environment in the world today, it could with equal validity be asserted that Notre Dame’s classical curriculum is a logical extension of its preservation curriculum.

The design and construction of new traditional buildings come before their preservation, of course. Every building starts out new. But it also comes afterward. If preservation of old buildings is worth the effort – as it certainly is – then so is preserving the setting of old buildings, which can require the construction of new buildings that fit into the setting alongside the old and preserved building or buildings.

The historic preservation program’s first master’s graduate, Eric Stalheim, a native of Iowa, spent time in Rome, as all UND architecture students do. His master’s thesis explored the benefits and limitations of the reconstruction of ancient ruins, a topic that has animated this blog in recent weeks. His thesis is a vital part of the broader goal of reconstructing large parts of today’s world that are in ruins – not ancient ruins but modern ruins.

Parts of Rome are sites of ancient ruins treated as historical parks and largely sequestered from the public. It is Stalheim’s contention that some of these could be reconstructed and integrated into the everyday life of the city. Likewise, modern ruins – that is, city districts where modern architecture dominates, degrading beauty and utility – could be transformed over time and reintegrated into city life with a program of new traditional architecture. Even places without much to build on by way of historic buildings or districts could benefit from such a program. The result, by razing modern ruins and building civilized communities on their sites, would preserve a methodology of urbanism that has been under deadly attack for decades, and forgotten in almost every school of architecture.

The preservationists at Notre Dame’s newest architecture program – its deans, faculty, staff and students – may not all want to take civic regeneration quite this far, but at least in South Bend (and Rome) the idea is not beyond the pale of scholarly consideration. That’s progress.

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Update: Vandals versus Paris

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A skyscraper as seen on the horizon, center right, beyond Ile de la Cite and Ile Saint Louis.

Mary Campbell Gallagher, founder and president of the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris and U.S. liaison to SOS Paris, has issued a shot over the bow of the vandals at the city’s gates. Her shot, in the form of an essay in Traditional Building, is called “Stop Skyscrapers in Paris: Skyscrapers Are Threatening the Beauty of the City of Light.”

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Cover of book due out soon, edited by Mary Campbell Gallagher and illustrated by Leon Krier.

It makes sense to oppose the skyscrapers, but the truth is that the vandals penetrated the city decades ago. The Pyramid at the Louvre by I.M. Pei and the Centre Pompidou by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano are only the most well known. The Tour Montparnasse is the only actual skyscraper inside the gates. Hatred for the dark, forbidding, modernist tower suffuses the Parisian population.

It would be interesting to know what people really think of the Pompidou, the Pyramid and many other modernist buildings whose existence merely proves that height is not the only facet of architecture that hurts Paris.  In her paragraph on Paris’s zoning code, Gallagher quotes passages that seem to address these issues in a most contradictory manner:

The zoning law of Paris, the Plan Local d’Urbanisme (PLU), aims “to preserve the urban forms and the patrimony coming from the history of Paris, all the while permitting contemporary architectural expression.” It specifies building heights and materials for façades, among much else. Permission may be refused if a building may “undermine the character” of its surroundings.

Keeping in mind that the city loosened longstanding height restrictions in 2008, the code seeks to “preserve” historical character while “permitting contemporary architectural expression.” As if to admit that it recognizes the incongruity of these two aims, the code asserts that permission for a project may be refused if it “undermines the character” of its surroundings.

All who know much of anything about architecture recognize that modern architecture could in theory be designed to avoid undermining the character of its surroundings. But most of them also recognize that in practice, modern architecture rarely seeks to fit into its surroundings. Modern architecture is transgressive, and almost all modernist architects agree, consciously or otherwise, that it should be so.

“Paris City Hall, developers and star architects say that Paris needs skyscrapers to be modern,” or else, they say, Paris will become a museum, not a living city. This is false, of course, as any third grader can easily see. If it were true, it would be necessary to concede that Paris was a museum for centuries until modern architecture gave it life. That is obviously ridiculous.

Gallagher counters the “ville-musée” bugaboo as follows:

But opponents of skyscrapers, including French preservationist association SOS Paris and, more recently, the International Coalition for the Preservation of Paris, ICPP, which I founded, strongly disagree.

Hmm. Does that mean that the opponents of skyscrapers are okay with modernist building designs so long as they are not skyscrapers? I hope not, and I do not think that could possibly be true. Or why did SOS Paris sue to save the famous Samaritaine department store, whose stretch along the Rue de Rivoli is being given “a block-long undulating glass façade, opaque, seven stories tall, without doors or windows”?

Of course Samaritaine is a focus of attention for SOS Paris because it is a preservationist organization. The funky façade on Rue de Rivoli was designed by the Japanese firm SANAA, which wanted to demolish the historic façade, thus undermining the character of arguably the second most famous of Parisian streets. That’s reason enough to complain about the completely idiotic project. But some preservationist organizations have drunk the Kool-Aid and are okay with modernist buildings’ coming to dominate a city’s fabric as it changes over time. They do not care about protecting the urban settings of the buildings they have rescued. Is SOS Paris one of them? Again, I hope not. Such organizations are, in fact, the ones who treat cities as museums, with each style pinned, catalogued and protected inside a glass case. They do not believe that continuity is as important to a city’s character as change. They do not understand how cities live and grow best when they are designed to elicit, over time, the love that pays for their repair and maintenance.

Let’s try this thought experiment: Choose your preferred Paris of the future: 1) a Paris with no skyscrapers but a growing number of low-rise modernist buildings replacing old buildings, or 2) a Paris surrounded by skyscrapers, encircled, shall we say, by La Défense, but with no more modern architecture within the périphérique – or, better yet, with all existing modernist buildings replaced by new buildings designed in the variety of traditions that make Paris famously beautiful.

I think I’d much prefer the Paris behind Door No. 2.

You really only see La Défense if you are looking down the Champs Élysées through the Arc de Triomphe or are on top of the Eiffel Tower, or from the aforementioned Arc looking down the Avenue de la Grande Armée. From street level an encirclement of Paris by La Défense-like projects would not be too obtrusive, whereas more low-rise modernism would kick you in the face whenever you were near it. So boot the vandals back outside the gates. Best would be a Paris whose leaders recognize the error of modernism, whether short or tall, inside or outside of the gates.

Meanwhile, along with Mary Campbell Gallagher, I urge readers to spread the word around the globe: Skyscrapers are threatening the beauty of the City of Light. The world needs to know that.

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La Defense seen from the Arc de Triomphe, with Tour Montparnasse at right. (author photo)

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Hand-to-hand fight for 195

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Rendering of Spenser Providence project for east end of the I-195 corridor. (Piatt Assocs.)

The Battle of I-195 East did not erupt last night but the night before.

The I-195 Redevelopment District Commission planned to hear two new proposals vying for land up for grabs east of the Providence River. But the meeting was postponed at the last moment. A day before, however, the Jewelry District Association hosted the same two developers hoping to topple the Carpionato Group’s plan for the same land.

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On this map detail, Parcels 2, 5 and 6 are the three largest on the east side of the river. (I-195)

The first of the new submissions at the JDA meeting was the Post Road Residential proposal. The developer was unprepared to present its plan. Illustrations of the design were not revealed, at least not in any cogent manner. Prior projects that were illustrated showed its claim to “a high level of design” as risible. It is suburban schlock. The developer said it “connects” with Fox Point “in a very pedestrian manner,” words that seemed to express more than was intended.

The second proposal, called Spenser Providence, was much more enticing. The developer and its architects, Piatt Associates, did their homework and did come with illustrations. A drawn man walked his drawn dog engagingly through images of the drawn setting. The historical character of the neighborhood was consulted and was reflected in the illustrations that it presented to the meeting. They attempted to reproduce the fine grain that makes Fox Point so enchanting, and largely succeeded.

{Piatt submitted, in 2003, an attractive complex of interconnected buildings around a courtyard at Waterplace; a pair of ugly towers went up instead.)

Too bad one of the presenters promised that the Spenser project would not consist of “slavish historical buildings.” That’s what they should be – not in those words, of course, but in a spirit of respect for the history of Fox Point and the beauty of its vernacular architecture.

The “slavish” bit may have been a throw-away line designed to placate the commission, whose members seem to know or care little about Providence, its history, or why respect for that history would be good for its economy. Any project acceptable to the commission should strengthen the city’s brand, not weaken it. In fact, that is the law, but neither the commission nor the city planning office has shown any interest in protecting historical character as commanded by city zoning. (Chapter 513, Article 6, Section 600 [Page 49]) The number of cranes on the skyline means little if the result undermines the city’s own competitive advantages, as it is now doing in spades.

After the presentations, attendees at the JDA meeting were surveyed about the three projects, each vying for overlapping stretches of the same land. The Spenser proposal’s 24 “preferred” votes got more than thrice the support of its rivals combined. That the Post Road proposal got four “preferred” votes to the Carpionato’s three is surprising. The Carpionato proposal, despite recent diminishments, remains equivalent in design quality to Spenser Providence. Perhaps Carpionato’s reputation for poor follow-through on past proposals in Providence played a role in its lagging popularity.

The Jewelry District Association has put together a string of meetings that have kept citizens aware of what’s happening in and near its neighborhood. Whether the JDA advocates (or should advocate) particular projects or even particular principles of urban design is hard to say, but either way, its work is in the highest tradition of civic engagement. Its meetings are noble, free and open to the public.

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A part of the Spenser plan that picks up on Fox Point’s slapdash historic development. (Piatt)

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Scary skylines of the future

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Ministries of George Orwell’s Oceania, from 1984. (WAI Architecture Think Tank)

The March edition of my blog for Traditional Building, “Modern Architecture and the Administrative State,” arose from some chilling passages quoted in an essay from the Claremont Review of Books called “How the Ruling Class Rules,” which was a review of Paul Moreno’s The Bureaucrat Kings: The Origins and Underpinnings of America’s Bureaucratic State. Theorists of government from the past were prescient about the future, invoking horrors that can easily be translated into modern architecture. Facebook, anyone? Here is a quote from my TB blog:

Tying together some passages Moreno has selected builds up to an eerie parallel between the direction of bureaucracy and the direction of architecture. Hegel promoted the “organized intelligence” of the “rational state.” Dewey called it the “social intelligence.” Kafka warned that “every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.” Marx called bureaucracy the “circle from which one cannot escape.” Weber foresaw in rational control the “polar night of icy darkness” and the “iron cage,” culminating in “the shell of that future bondage” and “the disenchantment of the world.”

The shell of that future bondage sure sounds like the glass and steel exoskeleton of corporate modern architecture.

It seems, however, that today’s dystopian architects prefer a rectangular motif more than the pyramidal motif that caused Orwell’s hair to stand on end. Film directors have been good seeing bad things in the future, too, as my TB post also suggests.

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Headquarters of the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, outside D.C. (pressfrom.com)

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L’Apogée, here we come!

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View of Biltmore Hotel in the 1950s, before L’Apogee. For 11 years I lived five floors up behind the windows facing east in the Smith Building, just left of City Hall. (goprovidence.com)

This afternoon’s meeting of the Downtown Design Review Committee was cut short when one applicant, the developer of a second ugly building on Canal Street next to the first one now under construction, begged off till next time. In its place came the really big news:

L’Apogée will be reopening! Under another name, perhaps, but who cares!

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Outdoor elevator at Biltmore. (latitudecrossing.com)

Mike Abbott and Glenn Gardiner of Northeast (formerly Newport) Collaborative Architects let the cat out of the bag in a presentation that focused on the need to build an 18th-floor vestibule for the glass elevator, which now only stops at the 17th floor. They almost mentioned the new restaurant as an aside. And it is probable that few people in the room, on the committee or in the small audience, had ever heard of, let alone dined at, L’Apogée.

Soon to return to the Biltmore hotel, then, is the top-of-the-town restaurant that graced what was then the top (and almost the only) downtown hotel in the capital city of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Opening in the mid-‘9180s, it closed several years after my 1984 arrival.

L’Apogée was on the 17th and 18th floors of the hotel. The adventurous could reach the restaurant via an elevator in a glass tube, erected during a mid-’80s restoration in the crook of the hotel’s two wings. Or those with acrophobia could just take one of the main bank of indoor elevators. The restaurant, which was in the north wing, shared two floors with the hotel’s grand double-height ballroom. On the 17th floor of L’Apogée was the main dining area and, up a set of stairs on the 18th, was the restaurant bar.

Shhh, but my first Providence romance was sparked at that bar, so I have fond memories that transcend its delightful views. I was living in the hotel for two weeks at the paper’s expense while apartment-hunting. (Sorry, but except for the fact that she was a delightful view, no more gossip!) Before that, I stayed at the Biltmore twice for interviews before getting an offer. Yes, the Journal was a friendly place in those days. Indeed, it owned the hotel.

After it closed, I returned often to take photographs from its massive arched windows. The north wing had the best views of the construction taking place during the river-relocation project, and often I would put those photos atop my Thursday architectural column in the paper. Plus, any visitor from out of town could be sure of a city overview from this perch.

But there was a real sadness to being up there, because the ghost of dear L’Apogée was always just behind my shoulder as I snapped shots from the empty, forlorn former restaurant space. For years, as the city revived itself from its long slumber, I wished and wished that a new top-o’-the-world restaurant would be the cherry on top of its revitalization.

Divine Providence! The Renaissance City! But it was not to be.

We did get a rooftop restaurant elsewhere downtown at the Providence G – which is great – but it could never hope to fill the shoes of L’Apogée.

Now we will finally get it back, even if under a different name. The Biltmore has a new owner, Graduate Hotels, which intends to call it the Graduate Providence. Five nearby univesities have students whose parents will want to stay there. I hope they will abundantly, but I’ll still call it the Biltmore.

And why not? The owners say they will keep the glowing red B-I-L-T-M-O-R-E sign. Bless them for that!

The renovation is supposed to be finished in the spring of next year. Will the new restaurant open then? I don’t know. But I do know that I will be among the first to reserve a table. I’m sure a lot of people are looking forward to this eagerly, but none more eagerly than your hungry correspondent.

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View of State House to the north, over Waterplace Park, from 18th floor of Biltmore. (Trip Advisor)

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While we’re still on Corbu …

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Exaggerated visualization of how King Minos’s palace might have looked. (John Good)

Came across a passage in James Crawford’s fascinating Fallen Glory, a collection of mini-histories of famous buildings, many ancient, and the societies that grew up around them and their implications for societies today. The chapter “Modernism’s Labyrinth” follows archaeological digs in Knossos, the ancient Minoan city on the Mediterranean island of Crete.

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Theseus slays Minotaur, Jardin des Tuilleries, Paris. (Wikipedia)

It seems that Arthur Evans found what he thought was the lair of the mythical Minotaur, part man and part bull (Ovid), that dwelt in the Labyrinth designed for King Minos by Daedalus and son Icarus (before his wax-winged accident) until it was slain by Theseus.

Recent posts have pushed the idea of rebuilding ancient ruins, but the following passage about Minos’s palace frames an argument against it. Evans used a recent material, reinforced concrete, to build what he considered to be a plausible “reconstitution” of the palace, or at least parts of it. He admitted that “to the casual visitor who first approaches the site … the attempt may well at times seem overbold, and the lover of picturesque ruins may receive a shock.”

Here Le Corbusier makes an appearance, which needs no comment. Just read it and let it rattle around inside your skull. Crawford writes:

The result was stark and – to many observers – quite unsettling. Concrete is a utilitarian building material: severe, bold and unashamedly functionalist. It would become a favourite of Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect and self-styled doyen of modernism who came to prominence in the 1920s with a new world view that imagined cities and houses as “machines for living.” It is a great irony that Evans appeared to have “unearthed” this vision for the future in the very beginnings of western European architecture. If you believed the “reconstitutions” of Knossos, then Le Corbusier wasn’t breaking new ground, merely going back to first principles. The English historian R.G. Collingwood was particularly scathing in his assessment: “The first impression on the mind of a visitor is that Knossian architecture consists of garages and public lavatories.” For Collingwood there was “no taste, no elegance, no sense of proportion,” just a building fit for “comfort and convenience – a trade, not a fine art.” It was a review that would have made Le Corbusier proud.

Proud, to be sure, since Collingwood seems to credit Corbu with some degree of concern not just for the convenience but the comfort of the users of his buildings. For that matter, Evans’s reconstruction, however “functional,” far outstrips Corbu’s work in that minor matter known as beauty. Concrete can be fashioned so as to produce beauty, but the architect has to desire it. (A Google search of “concrete beauty” offers almost no evidence, however.)

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Partial reconstruction of ruins of King Minos’s palace, in Crete. (Bernard Gagnon)

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