Tomorrow: On to Cleveland

Downtown Cleveland as seen from the Cuyahoga River. (Yuanshuai Si/Getty)

I don’t think I’ve ever been to Cleveland. Pittsburgh rivals the Forest City in my memory as a stop on a bus trip home after, if I recall, dropping out of J-school at the University of Misery, in Columbia, Mo. But tomorrow all that will change. I will be visiting my oldest friend from D.C., Stevenson Hugh Mields, the great humorist, now a resident of Cleveland’s westerly exurbs, near Oberlin College.

Cleveland’s downtown is one of the several center cities in the United States most influenced by the City Beautiful movement. The erection of classical downtowns in the early 20th century arose from the popularity of the so-called “White City” built along the Chicago waterfront for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. I intend to sightsee that influence in Cleveland to the hilt.

One of eight Guardians of Traffic. (Wikipedia)

Soon after I arrive we will visit Progressive Field, the second retro stadium after the Orioles’ Camden Yards, in Baltimore. We will see the Indians – ahem! I mean the Guardians, named, I guess, for one of the city’s eight “Guardians of Traffic” – play the storied St. Louis Cardinals; their name may be at risk now that ornithology has been declared racist.

Steve solicited a list of things I, as a diehard classicist, might like to see. I listed the Cleveland Art Museum, the Terminal Tower, the Old Arcade, the Wade Park District, and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (kidding).

I’m sure I’ve left many notable sites off of my list, and if anyone has any recommendations, please send a blog comment or an email to dbrussat@gmail.com.

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

The vapidity of the modern

Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert with Seagram Building. (ArchDaily)

You know you are being targeted when your clickbait stories include video of a 2001 panel led by Charlie Rose (transcript included) discussing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Paul Goldberger, Phyllis Lambert (a liquor distributor’s daughter who hired Mies to design the Seagram Building in the 1950s) and Barry Bergdoll, a curator at MoMA. Yes, so even the internet is incompetent in its targeting. Here is a segment from that panel discussion that is fun because it reveals how vapid these people are. Well, no. They are intelligent people, I suppose, but they are being forced to discuss Mies, who was vapid himself, so perhaps you  can’t blame the panel for its vapidity. A better word may be incoherence. Enjoy!

15:56 Charlie Rose: Right. Right. Right.

16:00 Phyllis Lambert:  – and he said, he said, ”Yes, but it’s too mechanistic.” He said, ”We have to have our feet on the ground and our head in the clouds.”

16:04 Charlie Rose: Yeah. But can you define this philosophy – we’ve talked around it – that comes from him?

16:08 Phyllis Lambert: A philosophy?

16:10 Charlie Rose: Of – yeah. Did Mies have a philosophy? Did he have –

16:16 Phyllis Lambert: He talked freely about – I think under – it’s, it’s the internal thing. He didn’t talk about it much.

16:21 Charlie Rose: Right.

16:24 Phyllis Lambert: When he describes his buildings, it’s always fairly much a description of how they, what the pieces are. And in the office in Chicago – I mean, all of this – I was speaking to Gene Summers, who was his right-hand man for 17 years. And I said, ”Mies – did Mies ever talk about,” you know, ”his philosophical intent?” And he said no. He was interested in making things clear. He was interested in structural architecture.

16:45 Charlie Rose: Yeah. Clarity.

16:48 Phyllis Lambert: So that there was these two – yes. Absolutely. (crosstalk) There are these two levels that he was – he was on, you know, and, and—

16:56 Paul Goldberger: But they had qualities that he never talked about, but he could convey in the work, that nobody else could. And there’s a serenity to a Mies building that is not present in most sort of imitation Mies buildings, most—

17:10 Charlie Rose: But he wouldn’t talk about it.

17:13 Paul Goldberger: He wouldn’t talk about it, particularly.

17:17 Charlie Rose: He wouldn’t talk about the achievement of—

17:18 Paul Goldberger: Although, although I think when Phyllis—

17:20 Charlie Rose: —Serenity.

17:21 Paul Goldberger:  —talked about his dislike of mechanistic things, he was sort of – that was as far as he could go, to say that. It’s very interesting that the images you showed at the beginning [of the panel] all had figures in them, which is right because, in fact, people feel right inside a Miesian space. They don’t feel that it excludes them the way so many modern spaces do. There’s something about the way the human figure is in that space that feels as perfect as the presence of the human figure in any kind of architecture throughout history. It is as natural and right.

17:48 Barry Bergdoll: Well, I think there’s a connection there. I think the big – if one could say I want to put my figure on a Miesian philosophy, it is the hard one where he takes on this – there’s a kind of crisis of confidence in this issue of the technological, but it doesn’t lead to a retreat from the technological because he emphatically says this, the 20th century, is the moment of a technological transformation of society. It cannot be denied. It cannot be undone. But we need to both struggle with it, transform it and transcend it. And so there’s a kind of – there’s a realism in the sense of wanting to deal with what he will over and over again call the facts of the epic, with this desire towards spirituality, towards a restoration of something that might be either lost or endangered but without nostalgia. And I think that that is one of the reasons why he suddenly seems to be of such contemporary relevance in—

18:40 Charlie Rose: Express that again because I want to make sure I understand.

Well, that’s as good an end point as we are likely to get in this rambling conversation about Mies. But let’s be clear on the need to exclude nostalgia in referring to the restoration of something that might be either lost or endangered.

The passage just concluded was preceded by conversation equally vapid, and followed by the same. It’s hard to criticize because it’s hard to find any assertion within all the goo that one can grab onto, examine and assess. It’s the same thing that enables the Pritzker prize and its winners to float in a cloud of rhetorical gauze – how, one can only wonder, did the jury decide that this whirly-gig of a building was superior to that loopy-doopy building? If you had locked Rose, Goldberger, Lambert and Bergdoll in a room and forced them to discuss the work of McKim, Mead & White without using the word “nostalgia,” would the level of incoherence be identical? I imagine we will never know for sure.

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Steuteville’s public square

The old New Urbanism: Kentlands, Md. (emrisse.com)

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve quoted Rob Steuteville’s writing for the Congress of the New Urbanism. The latest example is my recent post on “Guatemala’s peaceful Cayalá.” In fact, I must admit my topics on N.U. have declined in recent years as I’ve tracked what seems to be its decreasing interest in the importance of traditional architecture for new city, town and infill planning. The CNU charter’s pledge of “agnosticism” toward traditional and modernist styles got my goat a long time ago, and still has me in its grip.

At first I thought that was just what might now be called a sort of “woke equity,” given that CNU was only on the map because of its trad-styled projects, whose popularity was the envy, then, of landscape urbanists such as Harvard’s Charles Waldheim, who seem to favor a sort of natural, streetless urbanism. In a piece on a debate between Waldheim and CNU founder Andrés Duany, Steuteville cites the professor’s regret at CNU’s “hegemony” in planning circles. Waldheim then criticizes New Urbanism’s “retro design tendencies,” in response to which, according to Steuteville, Duany agreed that:

“[O]ur greatest deficiency is first-rate design.” He added that Waldheim “was astonishingly informed” about New Urbanism’s vulnerability on this front. Landscape Urbanism is self-indulgent at times, but it is “ almost universally better designed and better presented.”

In New Urbanism, there’s very little hostility to modernism except that it displeases the market and therefore modernism is generally avoided, Duany added. Devotees of classical and traditional architecture, who gravitate towards New Urbanism, may disagree with Duany on this point.

That was a long time ago, but Duany’s apparent snuggling up to Waldheim was alarming. Steuteville wrote about this debate for the New Urban Network in 2014. I certainly hope devotees of classical and traditional architecture disagree with Duany that there is “little” hostility to modernism in CNU. There should be a lot, and it ought to be more than just a matter of what displeases the market.

In recent years my former role as a devotee of new urbanism has dissipated as its annual congresses have given more and more attention and awards to the mostly rare (I still hope) examples of modernist N.U. projects. After years of turning the other cheek to modernist sniggering at N.U.’s “retro design tendencies,” CNU seemed to be crawling into bed with the devil! In 2014, after attending the latest congress, architect David Rau tweeted to traditionalist colleagues that “CNU is burning!”: “It was upsetting to discover at CNU in Buffalo that New Urbanism has been divorced from traditional architecture. Kaput, the marriage is over.”

In response to Rau’s cri de coeur, I wrote “Modernism invades the New Urbanism“: The post included this passage:

Modernists now appear to realize that their strategy of sneering at the New Urbanism has failed. They now seek to charm CNU leadership away from the traditional signifiers that the public recognizes as New Urbanism, under cover of an appeal to young Millennials starting careers in planning and architecture. Apparently, it is working.

Just a bit of history that some folks might have forgotten. Ever since, whenever I happen to read about the activities of the CNU and the new urbanists, they seem to have lapped themselves in their effort to place distance between the CNU and architecture that people love, and which made people love the new urbanism. Now it’s all about getting with the program on global warming, or developing new methodologies for implementing increasingly abstruse ideas of urbanism, gears within gears rather than old tried-and-truisms about cities, streets and beauty. Anyway, I don’t hear much about the CNU lately, let alone much criticism from the modernists. Hmm.

In 2015, Steuteville replied to my post “New Urbanism’s easy choice,” and his comment was followed up by an array of comments from traditionalists agreeing or disagreeing with my post. The two photographs juxtaposed in that post – the “old new urbanism” on top and the “new new urbanism” on the bottom – pose a stark but easy choice, it seems to me. The same two shots sit at the top and at the bottom of this post. Steuteville raises some of the complexities involved in why we supposedly cannot have the beauty we deserve, but I still think the CNU has become tangled, or lost, in many of those complexities. It was once a bright shining beacon of hope for Americans. Today, well …

Today, I would dearly love to get back on the bandwagon. I hope I am wrong about CNU having strayed from the traditional straight and narrow, and that Rob and Andrés will administer me a good spanking for my apostasy.

While I’m waiting, allow me to join the long line of comments by email praising the work of Rob Steuteville, whose writing remains enlightening even where we disagree – and, frankly, I don’t think we disagree on much. Keep up the good work, Rob! (You will receive this post by email.)

The new New Urbanism? Paseo Verde, in Philadelphia. (phila.gov)

Posted in Architecture, Development, Urbanism and planning | Tagged , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

History wins on Williams St.

Cottage with latest proposed addition (top); cottage with modernist addition (bottom). (PHDC)

For a year or more the vultures circled over an old cottage between Williams and John streets just off of historic Benefit Street. A developer’s plan to add an ultra-modernist addition to a historic cottage at 59 Williams, and then to plop a pair of junkster modernist “town homes” behind the cottage, facing John, at the expense of a woods that had survived since the 19th century, placed the historic character of College Hill and Fox Point at dire risk. Had it proceeded, the development would have proved an irresistible precedent for even worse.

I now learn that the developer has called off his dogs. The neighborhood is safe, or as safe as any place can be in a city whose leadership prefers to eat the seed corn of its history. Two proposed modernist Brown University dorms still threaten to wreck a block on Brook Street between Power and Charlesfield streets nearby. Brown has offered to review the design of the two dorms, but it may take a sterner rattling of Brown’s cage to force the school’s leadership to see reason.

A correspondent sent me word that the plot of land with the woods on it was suddenly for sale for $1 million. Digging down further into the Zillow posting, I discovered that the Williams Street cottage had sold on June 2 for $580,000; the buyer is now seeking to flip it for $1.6 million. That suggests that the renovations recently approved by the city will go forward. But a deep source that I contacted to double-check this news told me that the developer had altogether abandoned the condo townhouse part of the project.

The cottage renovations will be historic in style, and quite easy on the eye. That is because the neighborhood maintained a constant opposition to the modernist design proposed by architect Friedrich St. Florian (with its patently clichéd awkwardly raking roof). The Providence Historic District Commission, which oversees plans for the city’s historic districts, delayed deciding on the renovations for three sessions. This probably caused the developer to ditch the modernism and go with a much more historically sensitive design, no doubt to St. Florian’s dismay. Apparently, at some point, the developer decided to ditch the whole project, including the condos, which was no doubt running far higher in costs than he expected (largely due to St. Florian’s goading the opposition’s tenacity).

There are lessons to be learned here. Members of the PHDC know what their jobs are, but are willing to stray in order to curry favor with wealthy developers and fashionable designers like St. Florian. They must be pressured to permit only those changes that will fit into a district’s historic character – using definitions of aesthetics that would feel proper in the eyes of an average resident of the district, not the kooky fake notions dreamed up by the professional designer class, who are poorly educated in all matters of design, and inflict their folly on citizens who have invested deeply in historical architecture – because citizens trust officials to do their jobs properly. The words “historic preservation” in the title of their organization must be taken more seriously.

In this process of, um, reminding officials of their duty, the neighbors almost managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by bowing and scraping to a designer, St. Florian, who seems to have forgotten why he is celebrated around here. He designed one of the few traditional shopping malls in the United States, which is lovely in spite of its design flaws. And he designed a classical World War II memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., at a time when most designers were testing the patience of American citizens by designing goofy modernist memorials and museums in that sacred precinct.

On the same wavelength, some of the opponents did not realize how counter-productive it was to assert that they did not oppose modern architecture – except in their neighborhood. Such a hypocritical NIMBY contradiction enabled the developer (and St. Florian) to persuade themselves that the opposition was not serious and that if they could hold on long enough, they could make a lot of money by wrecking a beautiful neighborhood.

St. Florian probably did not make things any easier for his boss by using the time between commission sessions to make his designs for the cottage addition and the townhouses more, not less, ridiculous. His opponents can thank the great architect for throwing his doubt of their resolve back in their faces.

It is impossible to know what straw of opposition, or which commission delay, will break a developer’s back and force him to throw in the towel. The neighbors on Williams and John street can celebrate the fact that they did indeed manage to trip over the last straw.

It is possible that I am reading these Zillow tea leaves wrong and that the project will continue, possibly with an infusion of new cash, or with a new developer. Or that I should have done more digging to confirm my information. Neighbors must remain vigilant along Williams and John even as they gird their loins to fight Brown on Brook. However, if they are willing to learn the lessons of their victory – be even clearer that your opposition is to anti-historical design – they will show the next set of brutalizers that they are a force to be reckoned with.

Posted in Architecture, Development, Preservation | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Greenberg’s independence

The epitome of classical Washington (Accounting Today)

In the temporal orbit of Independence Day, we have seen the passing of classicist Thomas Gordon Smith and the trashing of all the values he respected and that we celebrate on the Fourth of July. Leaving aside the latter, I recently happened upon an interview with classicist Allan Greenberg that voices several themes that both would, I believe, have held in common.

Both men were, you might say, radical classicists in that their designs were often less sedate and more colorful than what is conventional or even natural in the classical language. That commonality suggests their independence of dogma (even of beautiful dogma). I hope readers will take in the interview of Greenberg in its entirety. My guess is that Smith’s views would be similar, if less vociferously expressed, for Smith was more gentle and unassuming than Greenberg, who at 83 is a native of South Africa. He obtained U.S. citizenship in 1973.

Here are a few quotes from the interview, starting where I think Smith and any classicist would immediately concur. To begin with, his clear expression of why classicism is relevant and comprehensible in the modern world:

Classicism is the most comprehensive architectural language that human beings have yet developed. I maintain that Classical architecture is still the most potent, the most appropriate, and the most noble language to express the relationship of the individual to the community in a republican democracy. Classical architecture’s fundamental subject is the connection between the individual human being and the community – between citizen and government. It’s no accident that Classical architecture’s birth coincided with the birth of the ideal of democratic government in Athens nearly 3,000 years ago.

Granted, in some circles democracy is now considered a racist den of inequity. But let’s leave that aside for another day. Here is Greenberg’s concise description of how classicism relates to the human form:

A Classical building uses the human figure as the crucial measure of all things. The ancient Greeks used columns and statues of people interchangeably. Columns typically have capitals, like human heads, forming their tops, and they have bases corresponding to feet. The function of the ankle – to transmit the body’s weight through the feet to the ground – is performed architecturally by plinths and base moldings. To strengthen the anthropomorphic quality, the upper two thirds of the column shafts have a slight taper, which creates a widened base, like a person with his feet spread solidly apart for balance and stability. This taper – the term for it is entasis – infuses the column with vitality. Similarly, the three-part division of the human body into legs, torso, and head is paralleled by a Classical building’s plinth, walls and columns, and roofs – in other words, base, middle, and top. …

Tradition is a source book. For a classical architect, the past is a series of case studies, which can teach you different lessons about formal manipulation, about construction, about social, political, and other urbanistic questions – about how these challenges were resolved in the past. The past is not dead. It is active and there for you to study. It is relevant.

An important truth is that modern architecture is incapable of providing a coherent source book for architects, and worse, it treats the past as dead.

The following exchange, part of a 1996 essay by Greenberg refashioned  by Martin Cothran into the form of this interview in 1997 for The American Experiment, is interesting in light of recent events:

TAE: What’s needed for Classicism to really flower again?

Mr. Greenberg: What it needs is a president of the United States who knows about and is interested in architecture. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but the welfare of architecture in the U.S. has, to a large extent, reflected the interest of a great president. Washington designed Mount Vernon and was very interested in architecture. Jefferson was maybe our greatest architect ever. Madison was interested in architecture. For these people, the architecture of Washington, D.C., and the Capitol, and the public buildings was very important. Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt were very interested. So were Coolidge, and Hoover, which is how the Federal Triangle came into being. I think a president who is interested in architecture could make a big difference. …

Before classicism can again occupy a central place in our lives, a monstrous libel must first be undone. Throughout much of the twentieth century, influential segments of the art world have accused classicism of opposing freedom – an allegation that continues to unjustly undermine classicism’s influence.

I will conclude with the following quotes. Greenberg expands at length on the injustice of the current (if thankfully not widespread) notion that classical architecture is fascistic:

A commonplace in the aesthetic education of my generation was the easy dismissal of contemporary classicist architecture as “fascist.” Monumentality, symmetry, mass; the Classical vocabulary of column, arch, dome, and architrave; the use of dressed stone; the sculpted figure – these were, especially in combination, the signals for scoffing. If the offending architecture were safely old, it would be forgiven, but if built [since World War II] it would be linked to Hitler and Mussolini.

The association of classicism with fascism and Nazism extended beyond architecture to Classical painting, music, verse, sculpture, theater, and dance. Even today poets who write in strict metrical form, painters who honor the ideals of harmony, firmness, and utility, actors and directors who tell a coherent story and provoke an audience’s identification with sympathetic characters can be accused of crypto-fascist tendencies by avant-garde critics.

Hitler and Mussolini are claimed to be artistic conservatives who used the vocabulary of classicism, especially in architecture, to express their political ideology. Since the fascists rejected modernist art and persecuted those who practiced it, the logical conclusion was that artistic modernism stood for freedom of human expression, while traditional art meant the suppression of creative impulses and the destruction of personal liberty. Or so went the accusation. …

Certainly Hitler encouraged Albert Speer to create a new Classical architecture for the Third Reich. Mussolini, too, favored classicizing art and architecture. But as Leon Krier argues in his essay “An Architecture of Desire,” Hitler’s choice of style may have contradicted his revolution’s spirit. The appropriate expression for an efficient totalitarian order, presided over by a planning bureaucracy, and predicated on reducing the individual to a cog in the machine, would surely have been Bauhaus or International Style. The fact that Hitler and his lieutenants preferred Classical art and architecture for themselves is no more significant than the fact that they preferred Cuban cigars and French wine: Classical art was the best quality art available. …

By contrast, the frequently harsh innovations of modernist art, which reject the mysterious practices of tradition, suggest that modernism is in fact the appropriate expression of the totalitarian state.

I have long asserted that a primary purpose of modern architecture is to mold and prepare the human psyche to be a cog in the machine, not just of industry but of politics, culture, ideology and broader society.

Amid architecture’s dark hours, it is pleasing to have Allan Greenberg on my side, which perhaps only goes to show how unspectacular is the insight that classicism and modernism are at the opposite ends of the political spectrum. I hasten to add that architecture itself is apolitical; liberals and conservatives alike may partake of its advantages. It may be a relief, as well, that most modernist architects have little if any familiarity with radical aesthetic theories; still, simply by designing buildings as they learned to do as students, they carry forth, without realizing it, the regrettable doctrines of Corbusier and his acolytes.

[The following italicized matter introduces the interview discussed herein: “This version of the interview is adapted from an essay originally published in the Fall 1996 issue of American Arts Quarterly and was published in the March/April 1997 issue of The American Enterprise. It is published here with the kind permission of the American Enterprise Institute.” Martin Cothran, who adapted the interview from the essay, is a tutor at online Memoria College.]

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Kristen Richards, R.I.P.

Kristen Richards smiles while having drink with me at Pub Connolly’s. (Photo by author)

Just a week after losing Thomas Gordon Smith, the pathfinding classicist at Notre Dame, the world of architecture mourns the passage of Kristen Richards, the great impresario of architectural news and opinion, who passed away yesterday at age 69, a tragic victim of demon cancer.

Richards had for two decades published a website compiling newspaper and magazine articles on architecture, landscape design and urbanism, in English, from publications around the world. ArchNewsNow (ANN) went out three days a week, with a couple dozen or more articles each day, sent free to some 15,000 subscribers from every corner of the globe. What’s the latest in design? Which starchitect is up? Which starchitect is down? Even headier stuff than all that. Today, Richards would have had her subscribers mainlining the collapse in Surfside. No writer on architecture could afford to be without her dispatches.

Richards founded ANN with the assistance of her husband, the computer wizard George Yates. Subscriptions to ANN were free, but I had no idea she undertook this herculean task voluntarily, with few ways to monetize her work. Richards’s career before starting ANN in 2002 included founding an off-off Broadway theater, acting, founding an art gallery, publicity, editing (until the end, she edited Oculus, the magazine of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects), and, early on, modeling – she spent three years in Greece in the late ’70s and became a Greek version of the Breck Girl – a poster, which I failed to locate, was published with her obituary in the New York Times.

In his tribute to Richards in today’s Architectural Record, Fred A. Bernstein describes her workday, rising early in the morning to start hoovering material (using software developed by Yates) from publications in 20 countries:

She read every article, decided which ones to bring to her readers’ attention, and then organized them into a daily dispatch, complete with summaries written with lightning speed.

I cannot imagine reading, in a single 24-hour day, the entire oeuvre of a typical ANN, let alone writing not one but two summaries – one short, the other of some depth – knitting together quotes from each article. Bernstein says she wrote “with lightning speed.” That must be the understatement of the week. Trust me, I was in my youth a dictationist for the Associated Press. “Give me dictation,” they’d cry at AP-WX when a reporter called in from the field. But I couldn’t’ve transcribed their stories as fast as Richards summarized the contents of her dispatches. No, Kristen Richards thought with lightning speed.

I think she summarized my weekly Providence Journal columns and, after 2014, my Architecture Here and There blog posts with a wry humor designed (or so it seemed to me) to cause the bulk of ANN subscribers to roll their eyes. Naturally, most ANN content reflected the thinking of the vast architectural establishment, touting the latest works of the global elite of celebrated modernists from Adjaye to Zaha. I can’t stand them and so I’m sure Richards must have felt pressure – not excluding pressure from her own internal editor – to “cancel” my occasional appearances in her dispatches. And she never hesitated to let me know when she thought something I’d written went over the top. Often she even warned me in advance of articles she thought might, um, tickle my fancy.

My wife Victoria and I met Kristen in 2014 on a visit to the Big Apple. She and I had drinks on the sunny roof garden of a Midtown pub. By then, she had been publishing my newspaper columns and then my blog posts for years, and we’d maintained a frequent email back-and-forth during which she often rebuffed, with a gentle digital smirk, my efforts to get her to run my latest defenestration of some modernist ne’er-do-well.

But sometimes she ran them, and often without prompting from me. For this reason, I think I have insight into Richards’s character as an editor that most other writers she favored cannot possibly have. She was open-minded, yes, and diligent, but she was also courageous. No doubt many of my pieces ended up on her cutting-room floor. Still, while it might indeed be self-serving to say so, it must’ve taken considerable bravery to run some of my pieces.

Few editors today would bother to take the risk, and many no doubt would relish the ability to deny me a forum to spout my classical disdain for the modernist pish-posh. But Kristen Richards was a hero and a paragon in my eyes. Her shoes are probably too big to fill – but I truly hope someone out there will try to keep Kristen’s legacy alive and the indispensable ArchNewsNow going. May she rest – at long last – in peace.

Posted in Architects, Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thos. Gordon Smith, R.I.P.

Bond Hall, 1917, UND School of Architecture, 1964-2019. T.G. Smith led 1995 renovation. (Wikipedia)

Classical architect Thomas Gordon Smith died peacefully in his sleep near the South Bend, Ind., campus of the University of Notre Dame, age 73. His many admirers have adorned pages with encomiums to his commitment to classical architecture, to its many centuries of beauty on into a more graceful future, and to generations of students who are now spreading his word through their buildings in, so far as I can tell, every corner of the world.

Thomas Gordon Smith (John Hudson Thomas Journal; photo by Rodney Mims Cook)

Smith was educated at Berkeley during the heyday of postmodernism, studying under Charles Moore, then won a Rome Prize fellowship, which he concluded with his contribution of a façade in the 1980 Venice Biennale’s Strada Novissima, a hallway of “ironic” cartoon façades representing the fad of the moment in architecture. This experience turned Smith’s mind toward the rigorous classicism that was a refugee from the postmodernist movement. By the end of his sojourn in Rome, Smith had, as widely noted in his obituaries, “become fully committed” to classicism of ancient Greece and Rome. However, in a 1982 retrospective of the biennale, critic Paul Goldberger had this to say:

We can see instantly, for example, how the talented Allan Greenberg is in his own way as much a dogmatist as any of the modernist theorists whose work he seeks to supplant. Thomas Gordon Smith, younger than Mr. Greenberg, comes off as a kind of naive or folk classicist; his facade has none of the sternness of Mr. Greenberg’s pure pristine white classical composition, but is instead a rather zestful, splashy and slightly vulgar parade of images, classicism filtered through the lens of California.

Smith’s facade at 1980 Biennale. (Metalocus)

It’s relatively clear why Smith would want to distance himself from all of this.

After Rome, Smith opened his own practice, taught architecture at several universities, and by decade’s end became a professor at, then chairman of, the University of Notre Dame’s department of architecture, whose separation from its engineering school he led, in 1989-90, shifting it from a conventional modernist approach to a novel classical approach. By 1995, the New York Times had described the young school as “the Athens of the new movement.”

One of his early students at Notre Dame, the classicist and educator Christine Huckins Franck, described Smith’s impact on architecture:

A great light has gone out in the world with the passing of Thomas Gordon Smith. He created Notre Dame’s classical architecture program and will forever be the intellectual spirit and driving force of the contemporary classical renaissance.

Today, Notre Dame’s architecture school bestrides the world like a colossus. Some 1,200 classicists formed at Notre Dame have expanded the number of classically oriented architecture firms from a mere handful to hundreds around the world today. It is widely asserted that Notre Dame graduates are far more likely to secure jobs as designers than graduates of the typical modernist academic program. Mark Foster Gage, ’97, writes of the impact of Smith’s leadership:

[H]e’s the person who single-handedly turned Notre Dame into a classical architecture program, and they’ve been pumping graduates into the world with these highly unusual but very sought-after skills for three decades.

In 2006, Smith was nominated by George W. Bush to be chief architect of the General Services Administration, which is in charge of designing the vast federal portfolio of architecture. It is testimony to Smith’s influence that the entire modernist establishment rose in horror at the prospect, and managed to block his appointment. The brouhaha may have served as a dry run for the more recent effort against Donald Trump’s executive order to promote classicism in federal architecture – in a manner not altogether dissimilar to Smith’s transformation of architectural education at Notre Dame.

Indeed, without that transformation it would be difficult to imagine a president daring to turn federal building design away from modernist styles. In fact, the transformation itself ensures that the classical revival is strong enough to absorb the defeat of the Trump initiative and continue in the fight against modern architecture, which remains dominant in the profession.

As Henry Kissinger said, “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.” No sir! Not during the regime change in the School of Architecture at Notre Dame. It would be interesting to have been a fly on the wall in the room where the famously modest and unassuming Smith announced to his modernist faculty that he was changing to a classical curriculum.

Architect Milton Grenfell sheds some light on the dynamics:

[Smith] coming to ND plopped him down into a nest of Modernists. He only got the job because the school was about to fold, and in desperation someone recommended TGS, with his respectable credentials. He was young, bright, published, and his designs edgy – though not entirely in the direction they perhaps wanted.
.
But it was the tail end of the postmodern era, and tossing a few columns around was okay, and even transgressive in its own way. I’m not sure anyone without the charm and graciousness of TGS could have survived the academic modernist snake pit.  But he did, and each year, he hired a few more traditionalists, until most of the mods retired. It was his graciousness –  and intellect – that enabled him to survive, and flourish.
.
Fortunately, Traditional Building magazine published an interview by Gordon Bock of Smith, and his wife Marika of 50 years, as he retired from his Notre Dame professorship in 2016 (he retired from his deanship in 1998). Otherwise, we might not be able to quote Smith himself on this aspect of his many accomplishments. Bock quotes Smith as follows:
.

[T]he conversion to classical [writes Bock] did not meet with instant or unanimous approval. “It’s a five-year program, and students at the upper level just weren’t interested at all,” says Smith, so they kept the program as is for those with only two or three more years to finish. “It was with new people – some of whom were shocked, but others who were responsive – where we began to build up the classical program.”

Bock makes the vital point that not only education and practice in the profession were powerfully influenced by the emergence of a very strong voice for classical design, but potential clients, and indeed all of us as daily observers of the built environment, were suddenly permitted to understand that the beauty of the past was not irretrievably lost. “They’re learning that ‘[t]here’s something out there that we like, and now we can have it done.’”

Today few people understand how traditional architectural practice had by the 1960s come so close to eradication by the modernist architectural establishment. As Marika Smith puts it, in describing some of the more open-minded professors who influenced him at Berkeley:

“His professors weren’t necessarily enthused about some of the ideas he was developing, but it was a much more open school; they didn’t see classicism as something archaic.” Or as Smith puts it, “Even if not interested, some were at least able to avoid the idea that ‘It’s over and you can’t do this anymore.’”

Nevertheless, adds Smith: “One professor asked, ‘What is it you want to do—applied archeology?’”

That attitude still prevails among the architectural establishment today. But public attitudes toward style have maintained a healthy skepticism toward modernism and a strong preference for the classical and traditional throughout the century during which modern architecture emerged in Europe and ousted tradition from its eminence here in the United States and around the world. The amazing thing is not so much that Smith became a classicist in spite of this, but that, amid the clear failure of modernism, the huge preponderance of architects, theorists and educators did not.

Thomas Gordon Smith’s kindness and gentle erudition is characteristic of his personality because classicism itself is kind and gentle. It is a conundrum that a man of such personal modesty should preside over such profound change. All who knew him – and all who did not know him – owe him deep gratitude for his role in reviving a lovely architecture for the world. May he rest in peace.

Posted in Architecture, Architecture History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

Max building fail in Miami

Collapsed sections of Champlain Towers in Florida. (NYT/Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse)

Aside from expressing sorrow and dismay, it is too early to say anything definitive about the beachfront building collapse in Surfside, Fla., north of Miami. The 12-story Champlain Towers condominiums opened in 1981 with 136 apartments. About half of the units were damaged or destroyed. Of the residents, as of Friday evening, four are confirmed dead, 37 have been rescued, 120 have been accounted for, and 159 are still missing, up from 99 yesterday. While many residents were apparently absent at 1:30 a.m. or so Thursday when it suddenly began to pancake, the death count is considered sure to rise sharply.

It is vital to learn the exact cause of this avoidable tragedy.

Most buildings that collapse in whole or in part do so during construction or during or after a hurricane or an earthquake. More than one-half of Champlain Towers collapsed early Thursday morning for no apparent reason. The building had passed inspections very recently as part of Florida’s mandated 40-year safety assessment, but rumors have emerged that 8777 Collins Ave. had been sinking at a rate of one or two millimeters per year, about the same rate as the Leaning Tower of Pisa until it was stopped in the 1990s.

The mind shrinks from contemplating what it must have been like to be inside the building as it began to topple. Most victims probably died instantly in their sleep, perhaps groggily aware for an instant or two of some noise and shaking, as if still in a dream state. Certainly few of those who did not escape survived long enough to guess what was happening. This may be of some comfort to survivors of loved ones now gone.

Several lucky survivors or witnesses have told reporters that “this does not happen in America.” Truly? The mind reels. And yet I can think of no equivalent to Thursday’s disaster. The worst collapse in Florida history, until now, was the five-story Harbour Cay, also a condominium building, which was near the end of construction when it gave way, killing 11 and injuring 23. Coincidentally, this tragedy occurred in 1981, the same year the Champlain Towers was completed.

Across the street from Champlain Towers is Eighty-Seven Park, an 18-story, 68-unit condo building designed by starchitect Renzo Piano, which opened last year. If nearby land was squishy, nearby construction might have aggravated the condition. According to an article on the collapse in The Conversation:

There was also construction work ongoing nearby, and investigators will need to consider whether this could have disturbed the foundations. This nearby construction work could have created ground movement under nearby buildings due to vibrations or deep excavations work.

Obviously no building falls down for no reason, and it’s far too early to assign blame. It is unfair to point a finger at the modernist design of the Champlain Towers, but it is entirely appropriate to wonder whether the differences between modernist and traditional architecture – or, if you prefer, differences between design and engineering practices past and present – might have played a role.

Buildings once were held up by load-bearing masonry walls. Materials were laid on thick to err on the side of caution. Then came structural steel upon which curtain wall was hung, after which the sheer solidity of construction grew more tenuous. Late in this span of time, reliance was placed on computer systems able to pinpoint the stress a structure could sustain – or so it was supposed.

Better able, to be sure, but as engineers relied more and more on computations of exactitude in the performance of materials under stress, the savings involved in attaining such precision became difficult to resist. Modernist architects ever eager to demonstrate their contempt for natural principles such as gravity put ever more pressure on engineers already weary of their usual helping of the sloppy seconds of architecture.

Architects Journal looks at potential causes of the collapse and offers a diagram (below) tracing the order in which different sections of the building collapsed.

Has modern engineering in the service of modern architecture, and in particular modernist skyscrapers, begun to cut things a little too fine? If you live in one of those supertall towers that increasingly mar the skyline in New York City and elsewhere, you might have given some thought to that possibility. This question, however it is phrased, must not be dodged or neglected as the fate of the doomed Champlain Towers is reviewed.

Diagram of apparent order in which building collapsed. (Architects Journal)

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

The architecture of ballet

Ballerina drags world’s problems into ballet. (H. James Hoff)

On Father’s Day we took in “Emergence,” a maskless program by Festival Ballet Providence celebrating the ongoing state of unlockingdown in which American society, at long last, finds itself. It was an excellent show. To my mind, the spare setting in the FBP parking lot beneath a beautiful azure sky did not diminish the performance of four pieces, two of modern dance and then two of traditional ballet. But the setting did recall an essay I had finished earlier in the day by Robertson Davies, the Canadian novelist and jack of all literary trades.

“How to Design a Haunted House” was actually a lecture, or speech, delivered in 1960 to the Ontario Association of Architects, whom he twits for (among other things) the decline of theater architecture. He writes:

Let us begin with the Drama. You people have just about killed it because of the revolution you have brought about in  theatre design. There was a happy day when we had wonderful playhouses, with terrible scenery: now you have given us terrible playhouses with wonderful scenery. … [Regarding the new theaters], they were not temples. … Maybe they had Stereo-Structural Sensualism; there seemed to be an awful lot of naked steel showing in some of them. I am so old-fashioned that it still makes me ashamed when I can see what holds a building up. It is honest, I know, but where is its charm? Such painfully honest architecture might perhaps be called the New Immodesty.

Back to the Festival Ballet’s “Emergence.”  Much as it would fit into my usual narrative, I cannot say that the difference between the first two dances and the last two dances was in the degree of ornament. The dancers were to a last man and woman beautiful in face and physique, and their movements were evocative of— of what? The modernist dances featured purposely stiff, often machine-like choreography, with abrupt movements suggesting displeasure via a concavity or angularity of form in the plasticity of bodily shape, often with blank looks and even frowns on the faces of the dancers. Whatever the meaning imparted by these two pieces, they seemed to repudiate the beauty of the dancers themselves.

The classical dances were, as one would expect, lovely, smooth and elegant. The choreography and the movement of the dancers’ bodies, limbs and faces seemed to exalt their physical and facial beauty. The very expressions on their faces danced just as surely as the movement of their bodies and limbs. For the first time that evening, smiles could be seen on the faces of the dancers. Their movements told a story much more legible than the stories told by the modernist dances, which challenged viewers to construct their own interpretation of the meaning of the piece. Apparently, these interpretations aimed to fill viewers’ minds with the angst of our era.

Obviously, the modernist dances were intended to make the audience think – otherwise there would be no point to them. Neither the choreography nor the dancers’ movements were beautiful, nor were the ideas they seemed to convey. The traditional dances were intended, on the other hand, to cradle the minds of the audience in feelings that had characterized ballet from time immemorial – along with music that accompanied them. The aim of the traditional dances was to give pleasure. The audience knew what to expect of the traditional pieces, especially the romantic pas de deux set to Chopin, and had little idea what to make of the modernist pieces. I am sure that to do the excruciating work of classical ballet well is a much more difficult artistic feat for the dancers.

So in the end, the performance as a whole did end up fulfilling my usual narrative. The difference between classical and modern ballet does reflect the differences between classical and modern architecture. It is easier for an architect to design a modernist building because it need not conform to practices and principles that have evolved over centuries to create beauty – a goal that most modernist architects have removed from their repertoire, so difficult is it to achieve with the tools in the modernist toolbox. Dare I suggest that modern ballet risks accomplishing the same achievement?

A university is likely to receive more donations from alumni if the beauty of the school’s campus grows in the lifelong memories of its graduates. So, likewise, a ballet company will probably win more patrons and donors if its programs favor beauty and tradition over intellect, novelty and their abstractions. In the program guide for “Emergence,” the company director, Kathleen Breen Combes, writes:

These performances represent the wide range and scale of what Festival Ballet Providence has to offer, from delightful and powerful stories, to bold, new works reflective of today’s artistic voices.

Truly. And I am glad that the company has dancers who can dance both styles of ballet. To like one style does not require audiences to dislike the other. But the Festival Ballet’s future compels its directors to approach programming decisions without indulging in fuzzy math or wishful thinking.

Posted in Art and design | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bad language/bad buildings

“Stair Falling” (2010). Performance artist Kira O’Reilly in Ljubljana. (Nada Zgank/Kira O’Reilly)

There is a difference between language and architecture. Language, to riff off the saying attributed to Talleyrand, aims to disguise the absence of thought; whereas architecture aims to express the thoughtlessness of fatuous design.

The critic Theodore Dalrymple, a retired British prison psychiatrist, recently published an excellent essay, “The Degeneration of Public Administration,” in City Journal, about the decline of official language. He describes the clear goals set by Sir Robert Peel in 1829 for the newly established Metropolitan Police Force (in London), and their descent to the gibberish of a contempory police official’s reply to concerns over safety at a park. Dalrymple then describes the more exalted gibberish of a British museum director who empties her museum of its works to make way for an “art installation” that includes performance artist Kira O’Reilly, who throws herself nude and in slow motion down a staircase. Maria Balshaw, in 2009 the director of the Whitworth Gallery at Manchester University, records her own emotions about having curated such a feat, and her experience of having felt the physical danger to the artist – “artistic risk” being among the goals of a museum. Balshaw describes saving O’Reilly with her female gaze. Balshaw exposes her abysmal self-infatuation as a “woke” administrator. Here is how Balshaw, quoted by Dalrymple, describes O’Reilly’s work of art:

And all she did, really, was roll very, very slowly down the stairs in a series of tumbles, choreographed movements that replicated what would have happened if she’d fallen at speed to her death at the bottom of the staircase. But it unfolded over four hours, so bits of it were painfully slow to watch.

No doubt!

This did nothing to harm Balshaw’s career as an arts administrator. She is now director of the Tate Gallery in London. Throughout his essay, Dalrymple simply cannot resist zinging the ironies all of this involves.

In my first paragraph I tie it all to architecture, because that’s my job. But read the entire piece, which has nothing to do with architecture. No: on rereading I find that Dalrymple quotes Balshaw on architectural beauty. He writes:

It is also revealing that the staircase is the only context in which Balshaw mentions the quality of beauty – suggesting that, somewhere deep within her, some faint aesthetic feeling survives.

Perhaps, but she probably has the word “beauty” on her list of mental save/gets, like a star quarterback insisting his touchdown was the result of “teamwork.” Well, of course. He is on a team. (Do pro athletes take courses in how to say nothing of interest to sports reporters?) Actually, Balshaw’s reference to beauty was less likely to have been an auto-reply than an error of omission. She shouldn’t have allowed that save/get to remain on her mental keyboard. Tsk, tsk!

Dalrymple sums up:

The degeneration of the public administration puzzles me because in all walks of life, from plumbers to electricians, locksmiths, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, surgeons, cardiologists, research scientists, and so forth, I meet capable, intelligent, honest, and talented people. The explanation of this strange divergence, I suspect, is ultimately in the way that the humanities, or inhumanities, are now taught in higher education.

My wife and I recently had a delightful encounter with a young pest-control agent, who, after checking our perimeter for ants, delivered a thoughtful and seemingly learned disquisition on the comparative nuisances of ants, spiders and wasps. After he left, we went inside and wondered if he’d been to college.

Nah.

Posted in Art and design | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments