“The Art of Classic Planning”

Proposed U.S. Navy Museum on banks of Anacostia River, in Washington, D.C. (Nir Buras)

This comprehensive, fascinating and brilliant volume by Nir Haim Buras, who founded the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, is subtitled “Building Beautiful and Enduring Communities.” So one might well assume that it rejects the planning practices of the past century. In fact, it urges planners to embrace anew the planning practices that worked for thousands of years before the onset of those we suffer under today.

“It’s not good because it’s old, it’s old because it’s good.” I don’t know who said that or whether the motto may be found somewhere in this book. Anyhow, that is the spirit of the planning enshrined herein.

The Art of Classic Planning (2020) was published by Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, containing almost 500 large-format pages and hundreds of color images. Backed primarily by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Buras traveled around the world to research and photograph the urbanism that preceded and ought to succeed the modernist scheme that oppresses the globe today. You can open the book and pop your finger on any paragraph to find inspiration for why such a switcheroo is overdue. “This is truly the mother of all planning books,” writes Leon Krier. At $79 it is costly, but cheap at twice the price. For planners and architects alike, it would be the mother of all Christmas gifts.

In his introduction, Buras notes that

as a matter of habit, we disallow what has worked well before. Most consider classic planning outdated, if they recognize it at all. As specialists, planners also seem to discount that consumers of cities are their peers, equally capable of understanding and judging what makes their cities good places in which to live.

The reader knows from quotidian urban life the pain, inconvenience, and cost of this. Nearly everyone intuitively recognizes something, some quality of older places, is much more beautiful and enduring than what we are building today. Annually, one in seven of the world’s population engages in tourism, and many of them seek places where they can experience that quality. While modern-day planners assure us that we will never build that way again, we swarm through Venice, Agra, Rome, Paris, Athens, and Florence as if in desperation that this is our last chance to experience it.

Buras adds that “there is no need to repeat the litany of negatives that describe contemporary development.” Then, reprising much of British architectural historian James Stevens Curl’s fine history of modern architecture, Making Dystopia (2018, Oxford), Buras proceeds in Part I (“How Did We Get Here?”) with a description of the history of the modernist mistake.

It is difficult to overemphasize the extent to which the past, tradition, and history was taboo to these heroes [Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, et al.]. Wanting to be expressive of the Zeitgeist, they strove to achieve atemporality through “pure” cubist form. While eliminating ornament as “criminal,” they sought the technological expression of form-follows-function.

One of the feats of Classic Planning arises from Buras’s skill at mixing quotation and narrative so as to clarify – one trusts! – the vagaries of modernist rhetorical mishmash. Modernist writing has only grown more convoluted and ambiguous in recent decades as more creative techniques of pettifoggery are required to mask the increasingly evident failure of the modernist project. Here, continuing the above quotation, is Buras’s description of a passage in which the expressionist architect Erich Mendelsohn explains Louis Sullivan’s “form-follows-function”:

Mendelsohn explained that an image of function was created by “functional dynamics,” the “expression in movement” of the forces inherent in building materials “in a free play between form and its postulates of purpose, material and construction.” To Mendel- sohn, a newspaper building, for example, would not reflect its cause – the creative, political, cultural, intellectual, and commercial spirit of the paper. Instead, it would distill the tempo of modern life by expressing a material effect – the mechanical press inside.

It’s easy for a reviewer to become spellbound by Buras’s narrative of modernism’s history. How delicious it would be to quote at length, say, his description of Le Corbusier urban follies, such as the ideas that led to his Plan Voisin to replace central Paris with towers sixty stories in height. But that would take too long in an already overlong review. Let me substitute, instead, his description of how Brasilia, the modernist capital of Brazil that was erected in the 1950s, influenced the design of the government center of New York State:

At its inauguration, Brasilia was branded an Orwellian, Kafkaesque nightmare. Copying its design, the complex of state office buildings at Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York (1959-1976), loom menacingly from their elevated stone podium, obliterating all vestiges of the existing site. … Architect Oscar Niemeyer’s and other Modernists’ reason for their designs to this day is that you had “never seen anything like it before” – that they were unrecognizably foreign, perceptually alien.

Clearly, the search for this ideal vision of modernism would eventually run up against a problem faced by artists down through the centuries – that art based primarily on creativity would run up against artists’ inability to conceive the next level of innovation without slapping function in the face. Corbusier created an organization called CIAM to propagate his ideas. Buras states with a profound simplicity that “the application of its principles destroyed more good traditional fabric in Europe than World War II itself.” Corbusier left CIAM, distraught that the organization’s meetings were increasingly carried on in the English language. (Corbu was a Frenchman born in Switzerland.)

My joy at Buras’s thumping of modernism knows no end, but soon he takes up his own cry that “there is no need to repeat the litany of negatives” and proceeds to Parts II and III of the book, “Classic Planning Fundamentals” and “Classic Planning Applied.”

I just now applied the blind-taste-test theory of book reviewing. Here is the passage my finger landed on. I will conclude with it (I think) because it takes us into the deepest weeds of planning fundamentals in the most charming manner.

Ahem. I find that I must nudge my finger down to the next paragraph, for without it the paragraph I originally fingered might be hard to understand, charming though it may be. First let me add that modern architecture preens at the supposed role of science in its production, but as Buras demonstrates, the practice of classicism in classical architecture and classic planning shows how the mods know diddly about science. (The originally fingered paragraph is on page 156, starting “The physical measures of stress ….”) Here is the explanatory graf that follows it:

This is important not only because people are hard-wired to respond to specific forms of fractals found in nature, but also because stress reduction is physiologically triggered when the eye-scanning fractal pattern matches the fractal image being viewed. … Upon finding [it], the brain releases endorphins, automatically relaxing the person and greatly reducing stress levels.

Okay, we are still in the weeds, deeply. But the idea is that in the Serengeti plain of prehistory, human (and animal) brains were wired to read details in their field of vision to locate information about the existence of food and of danger. Today, in our mostly more pacific environments, these brain functions have evolved from solving problems of survival to those involving the desire for beauty. Of course, notwithstanding modernist theory, beauty and function are not at all mutually exclusive but are, rather, mutually reinforcing. This relates to both architecture and planning. Indeed, a well-planned city or town might be usefully compared, I think, with a well-designed building.

I am sure that Nir Buras, whom I know through my dealings with the ICAA (the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art), would agree. In fact I have little doubt that such a notion is lurking somewhere in the engaging coils of this magnificent book. (Like beauty, the book is also useful. It does not require a degree in nuclear physics to combine the two elements.)

Be that as it may, I intend to turn to it in future posts, perhaps on the matter of how the idea of the picturesque led to modernism. Or to the question of why the author hesitates to fully endorse the ideas of architectural theorist Christopher Alexander, which are linked to architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros’s research on fractals, neurobiology and beauty, with which Buras mostly agrees. Or about the effort led by Buras to bring classic planning techniques to the renovation of the Anacostia River waterfront in Washington, D.C. (See the drawing of the proposed U.S. Navy Museum atop this post. It was done by Nir Buras for the National Maritime Heritage Foundation while in the office of Daniel Lee.)

There is a lot of gold to mine in The Art of Classic Planning. I have not done it full justice here. The book should be the new bible for the planning profession. It should be on the bookshelf and indeed on the desktop or nightstand of anyone interested in cities. And I wish to emphasize again that it would make a classic Christmas present for a friend or loved one, or for oneself.

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Confusion to Trump’s E.O.?

U.S. Supreme Court, a classical design by Cass Gilbert. (billmoyers.com)

“Confusion to Boney” was a toast raised by the British Navy in the Napoleonic era. No doubt “Confusion to Trump’s E.O.” is a toast raised today by modernists fearful of the president’s draft executive order favoring classical styles for federal architecture. The order remains unsigned, however, and the next administration remains undetermined, so confusion does indeed reign over the fate of the E.O.

It is possible but unlikely that a Biden administration would carry out a classical mandate, but it seems the General Services Administration may already have got the memo to proceed anyway, signature or no. As reported in my September post “Animal spirits of the E.O.,” two proposed federal courthouses, in Huntsville, Ala., and in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., are already on track to be built in “the classical style.” Wording in their RFQs could have been lifted directly from the E.O.

This was heartening indeed, yet I was doubtful that it was significant. Classically styled courthouses have recently been built in Tuscaloosa and Mobile in spite of the official decree favoring modernism since 1962. A bill in Congress to block the proposed E.O., should it be signed, has been introduced by Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), but not passed. Still, a recent CityLab article called “Trump’s defeat did not stop his ‘ban’ on modern architecture,” by Kriston Capps, has raised my spirits about prospects for a mandate favoring classicism.

The subhead for this article reads: “The president never signed a controversial ‘Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again‘ executive order. But a neoclassical-only building mandate is still happening.”

Of course, it is not a “neoclassical-only” mandate. It would favor traditional design, and yet would allow local circumstances to guide the selection of an architect. But let’s allow the critic to have his little prevarication.

For, while Capps is a standard-issue mod-symp architecture critic, his article presents a relatively straightforward look at the political forces arrayed for and against the E.O. in particular and a revival of classical architecture in general. And yet I was startled by the degree to which Capps himself seems truly concerned that the spirit of the E.O. may have already become entrenched at the GSA.

[T]he forces that [Trump’s] White House set in motion could outlive his administration: The GSA appears to have adopted a modernism ban, without any authorization in place. What seemed to be a pipe dream for admirers of classical architecture back in February now looks like procurement policy at the federal agency that manages office space and needs for the U.S. government.

Let’s hope he’s correct.

(In that passage, Capps links to a brilliant essay on classicism and the E.O. by critic Catesby Leigh that is well worth reading.)

And it may be that the E.O., whether or not signed by Trump, could serve a prospective Biden administration as a symbol of unity after a terribly divisive election. A survey conducted by the Harris Poll in October found that classical architecture is preferred to modern architecture by ratios of two- and three-to-one among Americans of almost every demographic stripe. For that matter, if Trump manages to overturn Biden’s apparent victory, the E.O. could serve the same purpose of seeking comity during his second administration.

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Africa’s “woke” architecture

Proposed National Cathedral of Ghana, by David Adjaye. (Adjaye Associates)

On Oct. 20, CNN ran a piece describing the 10 most anticipated architectural developments in Africa, titled “Buildings for the future.” Most of the projects are typical of their ilk around the world. They say nothing of Africa or the cultures from which the projects supposedly take their inspiration, if indeed they intend any such reverence at all. Look at the slide show of proposals. The opening passages of the article confirm what the slideshow suggests of the deep gulf between these proposals and any idea of Africa:

Great architecture captures the world’s attention – if it’s good enough, a single building can put a city on the map. Those buildings are symbols of ambition as much as they are of beauty, and when leveraged correctly, they’re a worthy investment, attracting people and opportunities.

All across Africa, daring architectural statements are taking shape in the private and public sectors. From bustling cities to the depths of the rainforest, they promise to bring new life to their surroundings.

(The reference to “the depths of the rainforests” seems accidentally to refer to South America, else the descriptor would have referred to the depths of the jungle – unless that word has now been canceled.)

The platitudes of CNN author Tom Page could be written of architecturally modernist projects anywhere in the world. The only promise they bring to their surroundings is that new life will continue to reflect the neocolonialism that has for more than half a century assaulted the indigenous cultures of Africa – in short, since they won independence from ye olde colonial powers of Europe. What might easily be deemed cultural genocide will continue to animate the pan-national ruling classes of Africa.

Elites in virtually all nations, developed and developing, have bought into the idea that their traditions are worth nothing and their success as nations relies on copying architecture that supposedly embraces successful Western economic practices but in truth reflects, instead, both the egoism of its architects and the financial interests of the global one-percenters who hire them. None of this has anything to do in particular with Africa, or any respect for anything African.

Golden Stool, Asante throne. (ringmar.new)

The first slide shows the proposed National Cathedral of Ghana, in Accra, designed by international celebrity architect Sir David Adjaye, a Ghanaian Brit born in Tanzania. Its shape, writes CNN’s Tom Page, “evokes tented canopies and the Golden Stool, the royal throne of the Asante people.” Maybe it does, but it very much more recalls the swooping form of Dulles International Airport, located outside of Washington, D.C. As the designer of the U.S. National Museum of African American History and Culture, the architect has no doubt flown through Dulles more frequently than he has visited the Golden Stool. (Unless, as you might expect, he normally takes the more convenient but more expensive flights in and out of Reagan National Airport.)

My favorites include Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum, which, writes Page, “overlooks the Giza Necropolis some two kilometers away and makes use of copious amounts of glass to draw museum and pyramids together and, fittingly, leans heavy on triangular forms.” How precious! And there’s also the Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, in Musanze, Rwanda. “The center was made possible when Portia de Rossi, wife of DeGeneres, donated to the Fossey Fund in the TV star’s name as a 60th birthday present (Fossey was a childhood hero of DeGeneres).” … Anyway.

Most indigenous architectures of the developing world feature forms traceable to ancient classicism, either directly or in the sense that they developed over time by dint of trial and error through generations of builders who adapted the latest advancements to longstanding practical, cultural and climatic needs.

Modern architecture rejects that process and the successful cities, towns and villages it created, while seeking an anti-traditional template putting innovation above all and hence recognizable as culturally divergent wherever it appears. It is unlikely that most cultures will resume the design imperatives that benefit their native populations until their ruling classes begin, someday, to respect their own cultures. This article by CNN merely demonstrates how far such cultures, in this case those of Africa, remain from regaining their self-possession.

Dulles International Airport, by Eero Saarinen. (wingsjournal.com)

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Kennedy Plaza is still at risk

Downtown Providence, with its its bus hub at the city center, left of Burnside Park. (Arup)

Efforts by the city and state governments to make Kennedy Plaza ugly have not yet succeeded in making it fail. But the attempt to ruin the central public square of Providence is ongoing. The plaza’s beauty has diminished greatly since its Art Nouveau waiting kiosks were replaced by sterile modernist ones, but the plaza remains an effective main hub for public transit.

Not for long, though, if city and state transportation officials have their way.

They have already added new waiting kiosks in the Jewelry District that look like equipment from a torture chamber (or, less harshly, an ironing board). Now, in addition to ramming through a new multi-hub plan opposed by the bus-riding public, they are planning to “re-envision” aspects of Waterplace Park, the river walks, the pedestrian tunnels under Memorial Boulevard and Exchange Terrace, and other downtown amenities.

According to a news report by SmartCitiesWorld, the engineering firm Arup, hired to design this “single cohesive vision,” said its “placemaking modifications” include:

a cohesive artistic lighting plan; shade structures and two temporary liner buildings at the Providence Rink; a utility plan for Waterplace Park, the tunnels, and Riverwalk between Francis and Steeple streets; a programming plan for the central plaza area at Kennedy Plaza; and a series of modifications to make Waterplace Park and the Riverwalk more accessible and pedestrian friendly. Overall climate resilience in Waterplace Park and along the Riverwalk will also be addressed.

Much of that sounds benign. No doubt these areas can be improved. The river-relocation project of 1990-1996, which daylighted the downtown rivers and created Waterplace, the river walks and a dozen elegant bridges, is almost a quarter of a century old, and is showing its age. For example, there is much spawling on too many of the bridges. Fine. Yet maybe that’s not what this is all about. Curious motives seem to emerge in boilerplate language from Arup:

There has never been a more important time for us to set a new benchmark for inclusivity, equity, respect and ownership of these shared spaces, ensuring that accessibility means access for all, not just for some.

They probably say that to all the cities!

And yet, at a time of exceptionally constrained city and state budgets, what does it really mean?

What is this “new benchmark”? Where in the public spaces now targeted for “improvement” have such values as inclusivity, equity, respect, ownership and accessibility been slighted? Are these parks, bridges and river walks not open to all? Is there some sort of stroll tax levied to enter the grounds?

It is obvious that there are no such constraints on the use or enjoyment of these relatively new urban features, paid for almost exclusively by taxpayers outside of Providence and Rhode Island. If there are constraints in the offing, they are the burdensome bus transfers and walking distances to be required of users by the proposed multi-hub system, especially the most needy users. (My post “Still attacking Kennedy Plaza,” from August, focuses on the multiple hubs.)

More than anything else, the “single cohesive vision” sounds like a perfect opportunity to waste taxpayer money on things that aren’t needed.

Because of the masterful work decades ago by the late Bill Warner, who led the effort to redesign the waterfront, the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island transformed rivers covered up little by little over a century into an urban paradise. This work successfully revived the city’s fortunes. Warner recognized that historic beauty was the capital city’s saving grace, and designed the new waterfront to reflect the legacy of its past. Warner’s accomplishments belong to all citizens, and they must be protected from those whose vision of the future cannot abide its glorious past.

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Scott: The mechanical fallacy

Facade of Seagram Building, with its structural dishonesty. (www.eca.ed.ac.uk)

Perhaps the most eloquent, erudite, evocative denunciation of modern architecture came near the beginning of its ascendancy with Geoffrey Scott’s chapter “The Mechanical Fallacy” from his 1924 book, The Architecture of Humanism. Scott has the modernists dead to rights. The following passages, which address the notion that beauty is the result of structural honesty, are excerpted from A Battle of Styles, a compendium edited in 1961 by Henry Hope Reed Jr. and William A. Coles.

Such [writes Scott, referring to his previous chapter “The Romantic Fallacy”], in broad outline, were the tendencies, and such, for architecture, the results, of the criticism which drew its inspiration from the Romantic Movement. Very different in its origins, more plausible in its reasoning, but in its issue no less misleading is the school of theory by which this criticism was succeeded. Not poetry but science, not sentiment but calculation, is now the misguiding influence. …

In every activity of life … [w]here mechanical elements indisputedly formed the basis, it was natural to pretend that mechanical results were the goal; especially at a time when, in every field of thought, the nature of value was being more or less confused with the means by which it is produced.

… [If] the relation of construction to design is the fundamental problem of architectural aesthetics, … [w]e must ask, then, what is the true relation of construction to architectural beauty. …

“Architecture,” such critics are apt to say, “architecture is construction. Its essential characteristic as an art is that it deals, not with mere patterns of light and shade, but with structural laws. In judging architecture, therefore, this peculiarity, which constitutes its uniqueness as an art, must not be overlooked: on the contrary, since every art is primarily to be judged by its own special qualities, it is precisely by reference to these structural laws that architectural standards must be fixed. That architecture, in short, will be beautiful in which the construction is best, and in which it is most truthfully displayed.” …

In the modern criticism of architecture, we are habitually asked to take this view for granted, and the untenable assertions as well; and this is accepted without discussion, purely owing to the mechanical preconceptions of the time, which make all criticisms on the score of “structure” seem peculiarly convincing. …

[The Renaissance] produced architecture which looked vigorous and stable, and it took adequate measures to see that it actually was so. … Had it remained tied to the ideal of so-called constructive sincerity, which means no more than an arbitrary insistence that the structural and artistic necessities of architecture should be satisfied by one and the same expedient, its search for structural beauty would have been hampered at every turn. And since this dilemma was obvious to every one, no one was offended by the means taken to overcome it.

I was never offended by the fact that the ancients covered columns of rude structural material with marble in order to enhance beauty. But I have long been offended by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s use, in the Seagram Building (1958), of “bronze-toned” vertical beams to cover fire retardant (concrete) demanded by the New York City building code to protect steel girders. This was a lie, but an offensive lie only insofar as it was described as “honesty” – the reflection of true structure. “God is in the details,” quoth the despicable Mies! What baloney!

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Classical Alex Trebek, R.I.P.

Alex Trebek standing next to a classical column. (Internet)

Alex Trebek died the other day. I heard the news in the half-time report of a televised pro football game. Jeopardy! and I had drifted apart of late, but I and my wife, Victoria, watched the show with some fervor for years. My ability to keep up withered over time; even at its height, I was never swift enough to actually pose answers in the form of questions. Still, we kept up with Trebek’s sad bout with cancer and felt the uplift of his occasional progress reports.

I introduced Victoria to Scrabble, and eventually my ability to keep up withered in that game too, and so we have, ahem!, drifted apart. It’s not the losing, it’s the luck, or lack of it, in what tiles you draw. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Perhaps it’s time for us to pick up Hangman again. No luck factor there!

There must be some sort of parallel between successful game shows, game-show hosts, and classical architecture. I will try to reach for one.

Maybe it is the luck factor. There is no luck factor in classical architecture. It has rules such as modern architecture does not. Play by the rules and it is almost impossible to produce a building that lacks beauty. You can break the rules, but only if you know the rules, which requires having rules. For modernists, it’s all about breaking the rules – the rules of proportion, the rules of gravity, etc. For the modernists, except for not having rules, there are no rules. Unless you are a genius (and even if you are one), it’s almost inevitable that you’ll produce a building that lacks beauty.

So maybe it can be said that classical architecture is to Jeopardy! what modern architecture is to Pickup Sticks.

This difference was obvious to Alex Trebek, and he did not fiddle with the rules of his game. He did not try to innovate. He knew his audience was expecting predictability, and that’s what he gave them. Occasionally the stage set would get a little more snazzy – some cynics will say this was Alex’s inner modernist trying to escape – but the rules remained always the same, whether it was normal Jeopardy! with regular contestants or tournament Jeopardy! with contestants from high school and college, or special Jeopardy! pitting former winning contestants against each other. Either way, the rules remained the same.

In 2004, Ken Jennings won 74 straight games of Jeopardy! Jennings was the beneficiary of a rules change (in the show, not in the game itself) that released contestants from a limit of five games on the length of a winning streak. For 20 seasons it was five wins and poof! you were off the island. It would be the height of futility to wonder whether any of those seasons might have produced some mute, inglorious Ken Jennings.

Alex Trebek was no Ken Jennings, but Ken Jennings was no Alex Trebek. Unlike Ken Jennings, who was a classic dweeb, nobody on the planet disliked Alex Trebek. Or so it seemed. After hearing endless encomia declaring the famous likability of Alex Trebek after his death, Victoria was startled to read a thread on Reddit that began:

Alex Trebek really irks me. He comes off as really snobby and condescending on the show when he has the answers in front of him! Anyone else share my disdain for him?

(The next reply went “At least you insulted him in the form of a question.”)

No, Alex Trebek did not jump up and down to induce histrionics in contestants as other game show hosts do. This leads to another parallel between Alex Trebek and classical architects. They are the adults in the room. They know the answers. They know the rules of the game. There is room for humor in the answers to which contestants pose questions, and for wit in Alex Trebek’s commiseration with contestants whose questions are wrong. The game and its rules were a bond with its audience. Never, so far as I know, did Alex Trebek look down his nose at his audience, as modern architects look down their nose at those upon whom their work is inflicted. Like Alex Trebek, classical architecture loves and respects its public, and the feeling is mutual.

So long live classical architecture. As for Alex Trebek, “What is the Latin phrase ‘Requiescat in pace’?

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Fate of E.O. if Biden wins

At left is the Scranton house where Joe Biden spent his youth. (yahoo.com)

I was properly upbraided in a comment on my last post, “Architecture and the ballot box,” for assuming that Joe Biden, if elected president, would not sign a draft proposal to mandate classical architecture for federal buildings. I don’t know how often a new administration has ever taken up an executive order proposed by its defeated adversary, but it is possible.

In his comment, architect Gaither Pratt, wrote:

I disagree with your premise that a vote for Trump secures the mandate for classical architecture and Biden doesn’t. Have some faith in the hard work and advocacy of the people and organizations that got it on Trump’s desk to do the same with a Biden administration.

I had written that Biden seemed a “blank slate” on architecture, and I regret, since he seems on the verge of winning, that the validity of this assessment remains firm. (Someone please correct me if I am wrong.) Still, as Pratt points out, the classicists who engineered the draft E.O. in the Trump White House are unlikely to throw up their hands in despair if Biden wins. No, they will continue to push for a classical mandate, and perhaps even harder since it appears that many classicists are uncomfortable with President Trump.

Perhaps, as president-elect and then as president, Biden will be looking for a way to unite Americans going forward. If so, he could do no better than to embrace classical architecture. A two- or three-to-one majority prefers traditional over modern architecture, according to a survey performed by the Harris Poll in October. The majority is maintained over a widespread set of demographics – age, sex, race, income, education, region and political identification. Granted, polls are in bad odor in the wake of pollsters’ blundering at all levels throughout the campaign – but this poll on architecture only confirms what anecdotes and prior research have found to be the case for many decades.

I have little doubt that Biden, who spent most of his lengthy career in politics as a moderate, prefers traditional to modern architecture. He grew up in a pleasantly trad Scranton, Pa., cape, lived in a 1723 colonial when first elected senator in 1972, and has added more houses to his portfolio ever since, each one quite as traditional as the one before, only larger. (Trump also grew up in a classical mansion in Queens, against which perhaps he revolted to assume his revolting style as a developer, which he may have outgrown as president.)

The big question is whether Biden remains a moderate – not that liberals or even the left wing are necessarily averse to classicism. However, if Biden turns out to be the empty vessel perceived by Republicans, moderates and liberals might play second fiddle to woke party activists and leftists who may staff the new Biden administration, and they are unlikely to put up with a mandate for classical architecture. After all, critical race theory could soon be in the ascendancy: columns and cornices, in that view, are totems of racism and white superiority. However alien that set of beliefs may be to most Democrats and most Americans, something like it has long had a foothold, at least, in the architectural profession, even if most architects know little or nothing of it.

To unite America and to assert his political independence, signing the E.O. (or otherwise mandating federal classicism) could serve Joe Biden as something like the “Sister Soulja moment” that served Bill Clinton. It goes without saying that architecture, no less than America, could stand a return to roots.

House where Biden lived in his early years as U.S. senator. (delaware online)

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Architecture and the ballot box

Classical architecture defines the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia)

Few votes are likely to be influenced by a post on the eve of Election Day, but architecture will be heavily influenced by the vote. If Donald Trump wins, classical architecture will receive a boost. On the other hand, if Joe Biden wins, so will modern architecture.

Trump, after all, has sponsored an executive order that would shift the design of federal buildings from the current modernist mandate toward a classical mandate. Trump has not signed the order, and the order may not reflect the president’s personal taste in architecture. But the E.O. is called “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” a title that speaks volumes. If Trump does sign the E.O., and it is faithfully implemented, its influence will spread beyond federal buildings. The unbalanced market for architectural commissions will open up and shift toward tradition. Schools of architecture will respond to that shift by adding classical curricula. The public’s preference for traditional buildings, which has been stifled for a half a century, will guide architecture back to its roots. That will take time, but over time, beauty will return to the built environment.

Biden is a blank slate on architecture, so far as I know, but the modernists’ dominance of the field will continue if he is elected, since modern architecture is the brand of America’s corporate establishment. Furthermore, there will be no check on the rising influence of critical theory in architecture, which holds that its classical and traditional strains reflect the structurally racist agenda of white power, and threatens to escape the confines of academia. Institutional leadership will find it ever more difficult to resist the idea that columns and cornices are too risky in an increasingly woke cultural climate.

That does not mean that all Democrats are modernists and all Republicans are classicists. Far from it. Architecture ought to be the most bipartisan of fields. Classicism caters to the bottom-up, small-is-beautiful beliefs of traditional liberals, and fits better than modernism into the green agenda. And I’m sure that warm and cozy beats cold and sterile at the ballot box and everywhere else.

In fact, I’d wager that if exit polls taken after voters cast ballots were to ask about architectural preferences, the preferences of Biden voters and Trump voters would be nearly identical: three-to-one in favor of traditional styles. That conclusion was reached by a Harris Poll taken in October, and reached across every demographic category, including party identification. Of course, polling is in ill repute these days. Perhaps there are as many shy classicists as shy Trumpsters.

Who knows? That is one question that will not be answered on Election Day.


By the way, on the subject of voting, readers may vote whether my recent change to a smaller text font, forced upon me by WordPress, should be resisted. I may be able to increase the font size myself. If enough readers vote to approve such an attempt, I will make it, if it is possible.

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Goofy new RW Park “gateway”

Proposed new gateway for Roger Williams Park, in Providence. (INFORM Studio)

Leafing through the November issue of Providence Monthly, I was dismayed to stumble across a short piece, “Gateway to Change,” by Elyse Major, illustrating a gaudy new portal and visitors center planned for the Broad Street entrance to the city’s lovely Roger Williams Park.

Thankfully, the idea is not to displace the current Broad Street entrance or its elegant Gilded Age set of wrought-iron gates matching those at Elmwood Avenue’s primary park entrance. So it’s really not a new entrance at all (at least not for cars) but a new welcome center with a plaza near the existing entrance. You go in on foot beneath a ridiculous “gateway” of 40 thin, parallel trapezoids of bright coloration – a huge xylophone that plucks its palette, or so it is alleged, from the ethnic Latino shopfronts of Broad Street.

The connection is amplified by Cory Lavigne, of INFORM Studio (a woman-owned firm based in Detroit and Chicago):

Borrowing from the diverse cultural vibrancy of the city, color represents the people of Provi- dence. It symbolizes the heritage portrayed through a collection of restaurants, businesses, and homes in the surrounding neighborhoods. It represents families, students, and children; future leaders of Providence. Color stimulates and captivates, drawing residents and visitors alike to the grounds while increasing patronage to local businesses along Broad Street.

Well, no it doesn’t. Maybe it “represents” children, but it infantilizes the city and its citizens. “Symbolizes the heritage”? Rather, it rejects the heritage, and was probably designed to do so. That’s where our culture is headed. Five firms competed for this job, and all but one decided against submitting an entry that sought to fit into either the park or the neighborhood, or any facet thereof.

All but the Union Studio entry, whose visitors center design actually featured the vague suggestion that it was a sort of a building. Who would want anything to do with that? Clearly not goofy enough! So its entry wasn’t chosen. But at least Union Studio is a local firm. For a city that prides itself on being “the creative capital,” Providence seems to have a hard time finding local talent for its building projects.

One of the few silver linings of the pandemic is that cities can no longer afford to throw their citizens’ money at bad ideas that are not needed, like the Roger Williams Park Gateway and Visitors Center. The city’s planning department may already have selected this peacock waste of money, but we can hope that the natural selection of civic survival will render it extinct before it struts off the drawing board and into construction on Broad Street.

Union Studio proposal for RWP gatewey and visitors center. (Union Studio)

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Architecture of the picturesque

Baroque church in Prague that serves as my computer desktop. (Photo by author)

Having just twitted a panel of architects for having “touched on weighty academic matters that would never enter the mind of most citizens,” I beg readers’ pardon for touching on such a matter here.

Many classicists blame “the picturesque” for paving the way for modern architecture. Since I, like most people, think of the picturesque as quaint or charming, I never understood its connection with modernism, although the word “terror” often appears in the discussion. In this connection, paintings of nature as drama – a storm in a tranquil valley – are key. “The sublime and the beautiful,” awe-inspiring vs. serenity, the rational and the nonrational, the Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, Gothic vs. classical styles. Somehow, the picturesque got mixed up in all of this, and, in the words of Nir Haim Buras (Classic Planning, 2020), its “sensibility formulated Modernist thinking regarding design, buildings, and cities.”

I am still confused, but I know a good passage on architecture when I see one, and I recently happened upon a lengthy passage on the picturesque by Geoffrey Scott from his The Architecture of Humanism (1924) in a collection of essays called A Battle of Styles (1961), edited by Henry Hope Reed Jr. and William Coles. The passage struck me as enchanting; however that might relate to the picturesque, I’m not sure. It reads as follows:

Of these two types of aesthetic appeal [the classical and the picturesque], each commands its own dominion; neither is essentially superior to the other, although, since men tend to set a higher value on that which satisfies them longest, it is art of the former kind which has most often been called great. But they do both possess an essential fitness to different occasions. … Fantastic architecture, architecture that startles and delights the curiosity and is not dominated by a broad repose, may sometimes be appropriate. On a subdued scale, and hidden in a garden, it may be pleasant enough; but then, to be visited and not lived in. At a theatrical moment it will be right. It may be gay; it may be curious. But it is unfitted, aesthetically, for the normal uses of the art, for it fatigues the attention; and architecture once again is insistent, dominating and not to be escaped.

I believe Scott had Baroque architecture in mind, not the modernism we put up with incessantly today. Some modern architecture might be said to grant a feeling of repose, but most, especially today, is, at best exciting, even discombobulating – “insistent, dominating and not to be escaped.”

I have referred to Nir Buras’s The Art of Classic Planning. It sits open on my dinner table to be read at leisure. I will occasionally extract a trenchant quote (in fact, the entire book is one long trenchant quote), and eventually, in the not too distant future, will review this volume and its 498 large-format pages. I can’t wait to imbibe his long passage on the picturesque, which I clearly still need to read.

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