On the Moynihan Train Hall

Moynihan Train Hall is inside the 1912 James A. Farley Post Office Building. (Bloomberg)

News of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Train Hall opening across 8th Avenue from Penn Station in Manhattan is rivaled only by news about the closure of The Vessel, the ridiculous tower of art at nearby Hudson Yards, because of its allure to suicide wannabes. Speaking of suicidal feelings, Penn Station doubtless generates its share. I can never resist historian Vincent Scully’s quote after the original Penn Station’s tragic demolition in 1963. He wrote: “One entered the city like a god; … one scuttles in now like a rat.”

The passageway from Penn Station to the new train hall is akin to a rat scuttle (if there is such a thing). Still, entering from the street through the colonnade of the James A. Farley Post Office Building, designed by McKim Mead & White, and completed in 1912 – three years after Charles Follen McKim’s death and two years after the opening his equally classical Penn Station – is as god-like an experience as one could wish.

Moynihan Train Hall, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the latter-day MM&W. (SOM)

Once inside the hall, the vast former postal-sorting room sits beneath a vaulted glass roof supported by original mammoth iron trusses decried as “beefy” and “intrusive” by architecture James S. Russell in “Can the Moynihan Train Hall Redeem Penn Station?” for Bloomberg CityLab. Russell doesn’t really answer the question. Nevertheless, the answer is no.

Ian Volner’s “The Moynihan Train Hall’s Glorious Arrival” in the New Yorker begs, somewhat, to disagree. It may combine “early-twentieth-century grandeur with early-twenty-first-century sophistication.” But the hall is also “ineluctably airporty.” Yet, thinking more broadly, Volner finds it distasteful that Facebook has leased the office spaces above the undulating glazed roof of the courtyard:

At all hours of the night and day, passengers gliding into the airy elegance of the concourse might be looked down upon by the employees of Mark Zuckerberg, whose windows sit directly above the skylight, surrounding it. As a metaphor for America’s society of digital surveillance, it’s pretty on the nose.”

Indeed! Still, as an aesthetic experience the train hall beats the rabbit— oops, the rat warren of Penn Station. That is a very low bar. To call the Moynihan Train Hall a step in the right direction is to damn it by faint praise, which is precisely my intention. The fact that it is now open does not in the least do away with the need for the proposal, by architect Richard Cameron and the National Civic Art Society, to rebuild Penn Station using the original design of Charles Follen McKim. Volner almost seems to allude to that when he writes:

The realization of the Moynihan Train Hall’s potential — and with it the redemption of New York’s greatest architectural mistake — can’t be truly complete until the late-sixties complex meets the same wrecking ball that clobbered its predecessor.

He stops short of citing the Cameron/NCAS proposal. He quotes Moynihan in a way that seems to pick up and even recast Volner’s thought of “clobbering” today’s Penn Station: “Where else but in New York could you tear down a beautiful Beaux Arts building and find another one right across the street?”

Moynihan is often referred to as the man who, as an aide to President Kennedy, wrote the apparently unintentional mandate for modern architecture for federal buildings. That was 1962. Eight years later, Moynihan said, “Twentieth-century America has seen a steady, persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings, and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority of the public order.”

That is another quote that I cannot resist, and with the one offered by Volner, it suggests (to me) that Moynihan came to regret the boost he’d given to modern architecture. So, yes, I think Moynihan Train Hall is a perfectly appropriate for a U.S. senator who made it his mission to promote public rail. I am sure that while neither of the two articles quoted above mentions the best current proposal by far for Penn Station, the proposal to rebuild it in the image of McKim’s design is one that Moynihan, who died almost two decades before the opening of his train hall, would lovingly support.

And it may just be that a fellow train buff famous for taking Amtrak between Delaware and Washington, D.C., will also find it to his liking.

Upper concourse of old 1910 Pennsylvania Station in 1950. (Getty)

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Why are post offices lovely?

Federal courthouse, 1908 (right), post office 1940 (middle) and State House, 1901. (postcard, 1950?)

I speak out in praise of my friend and fellow Rhode Island architecture critic William Morgan’s “In Praise of the Post Office.” In this recent article for GoLocalProv.com, Morgan writes:

The physical post office is the embodiment of the miracle. More than just a convenient place to buy stamps, mail packages, and peruse wanted posters, the post office is similar to a public library–a temple of democracy. Like a pub in an English village, the post office is a meeting place where news is exchanged, while the architecture of post offices used to serve as manifestations of national pride.

All architecture used to serve as manifestations of pride, national or otherwise. Morgan, whose architectural attitudes are, I think, the exact opposite of my own, loves old buildings but is blind to the ugliness of modern architecture and cannot see the beauty of the classical revival, that is, new old buildings. He comes as close as he ever has in this article to admitting there was once a beauty in architecture that has disappeared. In the case of the disappearance of beautiful post offices, Morgan attributes that to the privatization of the post office under President Nixon, with worse to come:

During the Reagan era it was decided to lease post offices rather than build them, another example of choosing foolish economies over the public good. … Compound this with a national aesthetic blindness, along with the notion that the “postal service” could be streamlined to operate like a discount department store, and it is no wonder that elegance and style became relics of the past.

Whether privatization has helped or hurt the posting of letters and packages in America may be debated, yet it is surely true that a “national aesthetic blindness” has caused “elegance and style [to] become relics of the past.” As Morgan knows, I believe that the scourge of modernism, which he generally supports, is the root cause of this national aesthetic blindness (actually it is global in scope).

Morgan correctly attributes olden postal beauty to a century and a half of postal design by supervising architects of the U.S. Treasury – the first of whom was Ammi Burnham Young, who designed Providence’s 1857 custom house (also a post office for a period) – and the Works Progress Administration under FDR, which hired many artists to paint murals and to commit other forms of beauty during the Great Depression. What followed was the national blindness that Morgan seems to support, in writing that consistently admires tedious modernist work over the beauty of new architecture that harks back to the traditions he clearly adores. The choice in his article of beautiful postal buildings in Westerly and East Providence is exemplary. Yes, he deplores the decline in the elegance of postal facilities. His ideology is insufficient to inflict total blindness on his vision.

Many of the leased post offices of the U.S. Postal Service are located in suburban strip malls rather than on the Main Streets of city and town centers in decline. Still, has not the policy of leasing spared us a generation of modernist postal facilities? I would argue that it has, and that this may be a silver lining in the dark cloud of privatization.

Providence main post office. (Wikipedia)

An exception is the main post office in Providence, the first automated post office in the world, built in 1960 and designed by Maguire & Assocs. Its form is an allusion to the Quonset hut, originally developed in 1940 for the Navy at a construction facility at Quonset Point, in Davisville, R.I. Its functional qualities, mainly ease and speed of construction, do not seem, for some reason, to have favored its continuity beyond World War II. Perhaps that can be blamed on its dysfunctional aesthetic merits, but those demerits still do not appear to have deterred other forms of modernist ugliness in the postwar era and beyond.

Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence features a pair of post offices side by side at the square’s eastern end. The 1908 neoclassical building that is now a federal courthouse was originally a post office. The John O. Pastore Building, completed in 1940, was designed in what seems to be a combo of the Art Deco and Colonial Revival styles, and is now downtown’s main P.O. Both are lovely, and long may they survive, serving the public’s right to and desire for beauty, and yet serving also as reminders of Will Morgan’s eloquent but curious combination of vision and blindness.

Federal courthouse, initially a post office, completed in 1908. (New England Historical Society)

John O. Pastore Building, post office completed 1940. (Wikipedia)

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More trad buildings of 2020

The main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces. (Wikipedia)

Since posting “Best trad buildings of 2020” on the last day of that eminently lamentable year, more buildings for my annual roundup have come to my attention, including several pointed out by diligent readers of this blog. I am publishing them here and at the bottom of the original Dec. 31 post.

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The first, pictured above, is the Main Orthodox Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, dedicated on June 14, 2020. Designed in the Russian Orthodox Revival style, it commemorates what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War. Its steps are said to have been formed from melted down tanks of the Nazi Wehrmacht.

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The Waycroft is a three-building mixed-use comlex in Arlington, Va.

The Waycroft, which opened earlier this year, is a mixed-use residential complex, in Arlington, Va. Designed by David A. Swartz Architects, it has over 400 luxury units in three connected buildings, with a Target on the ground floor. A main building of Art Deco design rises in the background of the picture above, which focuses on a series of traditionally styled townhouses.

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Seminary of St. Joseph’s College, near Charlotte, N.C. (St. Joseph’s)

The seminary building of St. Joseph College, in Mount Holly, N.C., near Charlotte, was dedicated on Sept. 14 of this year. It was designed in the Gothic style by Michael G. Imber Architects.

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St. Mary of Sorrows Church. (St. Mary)

The new church in Fairfax, Va., for historic St. Mary of Sorrows, built around the congregation’s original tabernacle, was designed by McCrery Architects and dedicated last Nov. 15. The stained glass windows, created by Beyer Studio and to be set above its alter, represent the seven sorrows of Mary.

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Best trad buildings of 2020

Tennis pavilion promoted by Melania Trump on the White House grounds. (White House)

Two weeks before President Trump signed his executive order calling for federal buildings to be designed in traditional styles, his wife, the first lady, Melania, announced the completion of a tennis pavilion on the White House grounds designed with the White House itself in mind. It was designed by Steven Spandle, one of three classicists recently appointed by the president to four-year terms on the seven-member U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. The pavilion is not open to the public, and little need be said of it, but it is purely classical and it was completed this past year, this month in fact.

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Addition to Trayne Building on Westminster Street, Providence. (photo by author)

For a moment I feared that Melania’s tennis pavilion might be the only classical or traditional building erected in 2020. Then it hit me: Of course! Buff Chace’s new building on Westminster Street, right here in little ol’ Providence! How could I have forgotten it? But I did not forget it. There it is in all its glory, in the photo by yours truly above. It is considered an addition to the Trayne Building, to its left, but is for all intents and purposes a distinct building, designed in a different style calculated to fit in with the street’s glorious diversity of traditional and classical styles.

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The Corsair, an apartment house in Greenwich, Conn., completed this year. (RAMSA)

As usual, architect Robert A.M. Stern and his firm produced a number of classical and traditional buildings last year, some quite notable. Scrolling through RAMSA’s portfolio is always an exciting and occasionally depressing experience (the firm does not quail at modernism). It takes me down memory lane, all the way back to its Brooklyn Law School Tower, which I defended against an unfair attack by former NYT critic Herbert Muschamp in 1994 (“Squinting at Prof. Muschamp,” I think it was called). A foretaste of projects for 2021 and 2022 includes a housing block, Audley Square, in Mayfair, London, and a federal courthouse in Charlotte, N.C., and the typical host of impressive collegiate structures. Above is The Corsair, an apartment house in Greenwich, Conn., completed this year.

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Maybe I am getting lazy or not rousting my sources into action soon enough, but is it possible that this year’s crop of traditional and classical buildings should be even smaller than last year’s? This year, a major polling organization, Harris, surveyed 2,000 Americans and discovered that up to three-quarters preferred traditional styles, at least for federal courthouses. Then, just over a week ago, the president, as noted above, signed his new executive order to mandate classical and traditional styles for federal architecture. It seems odd that these events should close a year that seems to have boasted very few examples of the styles promoted at the highest levels of government. It is depressing. It is embarrassing. The web is filled with articles glorying in modernist carbuncles that went up this year and are expected next year. Is there a new strain of covid targeting trads? Surely not. But it seems this is the world we live in. Needless to say, any late entries in the 2020 sweepstakes, excluding building renovations, restorations and single-family houses, will be added to this meager post. [See below, added on Jan. 4.]

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Since posting “Best trad buildings of 2020” on the last day of that year, more buildings for my annual roundup have come to my attention, including several pointed out by diligent readers of this blog. I am publishing them both on this new post and at the bottom of the original Dec. 31 post.

***

The main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces. (Wikipedia)

The first, pictured above, is the Main Orthodox Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, dedicated on June 14, 2020. Designed in the Russian Orthodox Revival style, it commemorates what the Russians call the Great Patriotic War. Its steps are said to have been formed from melted down tanks of the Nazi Wehrmacht.

***

The Waycroft is a three-building mixed-use comlex in Arlington, Va.

The Waycroft, which opened earlier this year, is billed as a mixed-use residential complex, in Arlington, Va., with a Target on its ground floor. Designed by David A. Swartz Architects, the complex has over 400 luxury units in three connected buildings. A large main building of Art Deco design rises in the background of the picture above, which focuses on a series of traditionally styled townhouses.

***

Seminary of St. Joseph’s College, near Charlotte, N.C. (St. Joseph’s)

The seminary building of St. Joseph College, in Mount Holly, N.C., near Charlotte, was dedicated on Sept. 14 of this year. It was designed in the Gothic style by Michael G. Imber Architects.

***

St. Mary of Sorrows Church. (St. Mary)

The new church in Fairfax, Va., for historic St. Mary of Sorrows, built around the congregation’s original tabernacle, was designed by McCrery Architects and dedicated last Nov. 15. The stained glass windows, created by Beyer Studio, to be installed above the church’s alter, represent the seven sorrows of Mary.

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Betsky on classical popularity

One of many courtyards within Washington’s Federal Triangle, built in the 1930s. (American University)

Before I applaud modernist critic Aaron Betsky’s kind words for classical architecture in the wake of the Harris Poll confirming its popularity, let me note, also with approval, the even more recent article by critic Kriston Capps, entitled “Why Trump’s ‘Beautiful’ Federal Building Order May Be Here to Stay.”

Capps reiterates his concern that a shift away from modernism and toward classical and traditional architecture may be under way at the General Services Administration, which oversees the design and construction of federal buildings. The GSA awaits appointment of a new chief architect, but already proposals for courthouses are emerging with language influenced by the executive order on federal architecture. President Trump has just appointed four more classicists to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts: architect Rodney Mims Cook, sculptor Chas Fagan, landscape architect Perry Guillot and architect Steven W. Spandle. Capps refers snidely to these classicists as “deeply steeped in yesteryear’s European art forms.” Each will serve a four-year term. All seven commission members are now classicists, including Justin Shubow, who as president of the National Civic Art Society was involved in the E.O. Capps also reports the appointment of classicist Gibson Worsham to the National Capital Planning Commission. Capps adds that the recently opened memorial to Dwight Eisenhower designed by Frank Gehry “could not have survived review with this bunch.”

That’s high if unintended praise for “this bunch.” They will help steer toward a new federal design policy to replace the current policy, which has favored modern architecture for half a century, since the mandate for modernist federal buildings was put into effect in 1962. For the first time since then, federal policy would take its cue from the tastes of the American public.

Hold the presses! What a novel idea!

Even Aaron Betsky, the chief polemicist for the modernist American Institute of Architects (which should be neutral on style), has conceded that this might be a reasonable notion in a democracy. His “Back to the Classics,” in AIA’s Architect magazine, reports on a Harris Poll commissioned by Shubow’s NCAS. It found that up to three-quarters of the public, across a broad range of demographic categories, prefers classical or traditional architecture over modernist alternatives for federal courthouses and other buildings. He writes:

There is nothing magical about the preference for Classicism, which has been giving shape to buildings for millennia. That default collection of columns, pediments, architraves, moldings, and compositional principles add a touch of class to any building, be it a bank or a courthouse, a suburban McMansion or a utility plant. Include those elements or compose your plan according to its system, and you have made any structure convey a message of importance and elegance, much in the way that we might opt for a suit and tie or an evening dress. No other style has been able to achieve the same level of success at communicating that sense of class.

Of course, there is an edge to this admission by Betsky. With his characteristic subtlety, he dismisses the preference of Americans for classicism as a matter of “class,” which can be read in several ways, but which is likely to be read by his readers as “classism.” That’s not classicism, which is a stylistic language, but classism, which is how some groups oppress other groups in society.

Phrases such as “a touch of class” and “that sense of class” probably do reflect something of what most Americans have in mind when they think of how federal buildings should be designed – so as to “convey a message of importance and elegance.” Betsky lets his classist cat out of the bag further down in his essay:

Classicism may be easy to use as a designer and a builder, but it is also the style of the upper classes. The fact that the majority of respondents in the poll across all demographic groups preferred the Classical buildings says more about our dominant cultural values than it does about the universality of the style. If you can afford Classicism, or you can enter into its domain, you have arrived. The various modes of Modernism have never been able to achieve a similar reality.

Then he adds:

But that also means that Classicism serves those in power and, more than just about any style we know, has racist associations, because of its long history with slaveholders and institutions of Black oppression. Our national and state capitols are supposed to represent democratic values, although their very Classicism can convey a message of white, male power. Like any language, however, Classicism has been used in many ways that were indifferent to any moral, ethical, or political message.

That last sentence undermines the narrative that Betsky has attempted to erect, because what happens inside buildings should be blamed not on the buildings themselves or on their styles but on the people in those buildings. This is true of courthouses, state capitol buildings, and every other sort of building, including plantation houses, prisons or Albert Speer’s New Reich Chancellery (1939). In most cases, they are used by people for purposes that change over time and are completely unrelated to what Betsky calls the “collection of columns, pediments, architraves, moldings, and compositional principles” that make up their design.

There is no element or combination of elements on that list or any longer list of classical elements or principles that can be made to say “Invade France” or “Kill the Jews!” or “Oppress blacks!” or “Succor the rich!” The classical language is articulate, but not so articulate as to express the agendas of passing ideologies or the purposes of the inhabitants of any given building, either over time or at any given time. The style of the U.S. Capitol doesn’t even say “America’s legislative branch lives here,” though it supports that interpretation with classical elements that are designed to cause a feeling of, say, dignity in the public eye. Classical language cannot be so particular as to distinguish this or that legislative act or agenda, apart from what baggage legislators, commentators, or others in the public arena might, with no assistance from the design of the building, wish to apply to it. A building in the classical manner gives voice to sentiments far more basic and far more profound than the passing whims of its occupants.

This truth is understood intuitively, at least, by probably 100 percent of the American public, and it is denied by those who believe that their agendas are more important than that truth. Capps believes, for example, that the racial and sexual makeup of a body such as the Commission of Fine Arts is more important than its role in overseeing the maintenance of federal standards of design. Betsky seems to believe, without much evidence, that a particular standard of design in federal buildings will be more likely to produce federal policies that he supports.

Since these arguments are so flimsy, Betsky resorts to a sort of aesthetic classism:

If you can afford Classicism, or you can enter into its domain, you have arrived. The various modes of Modernism have never been able to achieve a similar reality.

The fact is that anybody can enter into the domain of a classical building or a modernist building. The ornamental language of a classical building – in which, for example, the entry may be more easily perceived than a modernist entry – welcomes us more readily than the sterility of a modernist building, which prohibits most of the design cues that signify “entrance,” let alone those which gently engage the attention of visitors. It is not necessarily more difficult for the taxpayer to afford to build a classical building – although modernist industrial shenanigans have created a narrative that causes many to believe that is so.

But maybe I am quibbling. The fact is that Aaron Betsky has acknowledged that it makes sense for the public to prefer classical to modern architecture, and Kriston Capps has reported that agencies of the American government are gearing up to give the public a greater voice in the design of government buildings. That’s good news, and for me it’s enough for now.

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E.O. just signed by Trump

EPA headquarters was preferred to HUD headquarters by 81-19 percent in recent Harris Poll. (NCAS)

I have just now learned that the draft executive order on federal architecture that was leaked last April has today been signed by President Trump. “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” is now entitled “Promoting Beautiful Federal Civic Architecture.” I see no major changes that would affect its purpose of making classical and traditional styles the default design for new and redesigned federal buildings in Washington and around the nation.

This is excellent news. If Joe Biden ends up replacing Trump as president, the executive order will make it easier for him to use classical architecture as a means of unifying the country after a difficult election campaign. If he chooses to reject the executive order or its purpose, he will not be able to do so without publicly rejecting the sentiments of a large majority of the public.

Events at the General Services Administration hint that the old mandate in favor of modern architecture for federal buildings, which was instituted in 1962, has come into disfavor. At least two new federal courthouses have been proposed for construction in classical styles, and at least two such courthouses in classical styles have recently been completed, both in Alabama.

Whoever was elected president – which has not, I think, been factually or legally established – more new federal buildings designed in one of the wide variety of classical or traditional styles will beautify their locations and, as beauty naturally aims to do, raise the spirits of the general public. As stated in the E.O.:

Societies have long recognized the importance of beautiful public architecture. Ancient Greek and Roman public buildings were designed to be sturdy and useful, and also to beautify public spaces and inspire civic pride.

Eight years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote the original modernist guidelines adopted by the GSA in 1962, he wrote:

Twentieth-century America has seen a steady, persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings, and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority of the public order.

That was the result of Moynihan’s guidelines, which asserted that “an official style must be avoided.” But whether it was his intent or not, his guidelines have served as an official style. He wrote them while he was a counselor to LBJ, which means that the guidelines originated, for all practical purposes, as an executive order. It was no more and no less a “mandate” than is Trump’s executive order, and indeed the idea that a mandate somehow reflects an abuse of power is false: it depends on what is being mandated. Laws passed by Congress are mandates, and so are the regulations designed either to carry out laws or, as any old Washington hand will admit, to bury them in the coils of the vast bureaucracy. Mandates characterize every government, not least our own federal government.

Trump’s signing of the executive order follows his signing last summer of an order mandating figurative rather than abstract design for sculpture on federal premises, including U.S. parks and the grounds of U.S. buildings. Where this statuary E.O. originated I don’t know. The architecture E.O. appears to have originated, as do many ideas taken up by the federal government, with an organization devoted to public policy, in this case the promotion of classical design. If some people are reluctant to credit this E.O. to a recent evolution in Donald Trump’s widely deplored aesthetic taste, they may feel free to credit the National Civic Art Society, whose president, Justin Shubow, sits as a Trump appointee on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. No doubt others inside and outside the White House were involved. Shubow and his organization nearly defeated the Frank Gehry design for a memorial to President Eisenhower, and they have also proposed a restoration of New York’s Penn Station using the demolished original design by Charles Follen McKim of the famous Gilded Age classical firm McKim Mead & White.

Whoever is president, if this E.O. is carried out and becomes policy at the federal level, it will eventually have a profound influence on architecture at every level of society. More schools of architecture will institute additional curricula to teach classical in addition to modernist principles and techniques. More classicists will graduate, and they will get jobs at firms that had previously refused to hire any but modernist architects. Cities and towns will be more likely to consider classically designed proposals for local government buildings. Development agencies will allow a more level playing field for projects in classical styles. As more classical buildings are built, the public will learn, at last, that classical architecture is a source of beauty that has not been relegated to the past, as modernists have long insisted, but is available today as a practical alternative to the reigning ugliness.

This is how leadership operates and how society can change to reflect progress in social attitudes. A Harris Poll found in October that nearly three-quarters of the public, as a whole and in a wide range of demographic categories, prefers classical architecture to modern architecture for federal courthouses and other buildings. One startling result of that survey was a column by Aaron Betsky, a polemicist at the American Institute of Architects, that said the general public’s preference for classicism was only natural. He pretty much took it back in the second half of his essay – to which I expect to devote a post soon – but he would certainly not have made such a concession without the publication of a persuasive survey by such a reputable polling organization.

The fate of this executive order is no more or less certain than the fate of Donald Trump’s presidency. The Oval Office could – and looks as if it will – be occupied by Joe Biden, but who really knows? Either way, the restoration of beauty to our built environment is more likely to be achieved if the discourse on American architecture is allowed to proceed without the baggage of American politics.

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Museum of National Identity

A few days ago I wrote “Life preserver for Inga Saffron,” in which I deplored the “loose thinking” of Saffron and other architecture critics. I described that thinking in the following post, “Museum of National Identity,” from November 2017.

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Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a piece on Philadelpia’s new Museum of the American Revolution, by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, back in June that I somehow missed. “An Identity Crisis for American Architecture” cries out for rebuttal.

He asserts that in Stern’s eyes, the museum “had to embody a certain Americanness: It had to look as though it belonged in a group of buildings hugely important to the country’s early history,” such as Independence Hall, as if there were something wrong with that. After noting that Philadelphia Inquirer critic Inga Saffron had called it “stodgy,” but without mentioning that her chief objection was that its design was not “revolutionary,” he writes:

It would be a mistake to say that a museum dedicated to exploring the roots of the American Revolution has some obligation to be explicitly revolutionary in its architecture — that it should suggest upheaval, radicalism or rupture in its very shape.

But he reverses himself in the next breath:

But there’s a significant gap between that architectural attitude and the one embodied by Stern’s design, which assumes that the most important questions about national identity have long been settled. What’s really missing from the museum’s architecture, perfectly well-turned but also perfectly complacent, is any noticeable sense of curiosity.

I will assume that by “curiosity” he means “revolutionary” – that is, rejecting the supposed complacency about our national identity somehow revealed by the museum. He, like Saffron, wanted the building to be modernist. He doesn’t want to admit that, but he fairly shouts it between the lines.

Of course, that betrays a misunderstanding of the particular revolution at issue. Both seem not to understand what the American Revolution was all about. Yes, the colonies revolted against King George, but they were reacting to the king’s refusal to grant the colonists the same rights as English citizens. The colonists did not object to English rule or English law or England per se, they objected to being allowed only partial participation in it. That’s what “No taxation without representation” meant.

Understanding this might put a different spin on the idea that a museum about the Revolution necessarily requires a specifically rejectionist attitude in its design.

Twisting the meaning of the American Revolution to fit the modernist narrative fits into a long tradition among modernists. Here is a short list of words that have been stripped of their real meaning by a culture, including architecture, that embraces the modernist project of rejecting American traditions and cultural mores:

Nostalgia means yearning for the good things of the past. It has been twisted to mean wallowing in that yearning to the point of refusing to accept change.

Authenticity means the quality of being authentic, not false. It has been twisted to mean the quality of skepticism toward traditional or conventional attitudes, including buildings designed to reflect those attitudes.

Modern means current, of today, up to date. It has been twisted to emphasize discontinuity above continuity in attitudes, practices and traditions, including those relating to design.

Of course most people who embrace traditional architecture have their own favorites, and reject the idea that buildings that reflect the continuity of tradition also represent a rejection of all change. It is the modernists who, harboring a warped view of tradition, believe that modern architecture represents a stage in progress that need not further evolve and that certainly must not, as they see it, regress.

Which brings us back to national identity. New traditional architecture does not assume that national identity has been long settled. Rather, it seeks to suggest that continuity in our attitudes toward and expressions of national identity is as valid as discontinuity. Tradition is as important as change in national life. They are two sides of the coin that represents our national identity. Tension between them is natural.

Modern architecture is part of a deconstructivist program to deny that reality and to do so in part by introducing new meanings to words, undermining traditions and institutions, and enforcing new mandates in the language of architecture. A natural and inevitable opponent of that program is new traditional architecture.

I don’t think most modern architects today buy into the deconstructivist program or are even aware of it, but it is implicit, and often explicit, in the writings of founding modernists such as Corbusier, Mies and Gropius. All modern architects help carry out that program whether they realize it or not.

It is no surprise that in a free society some will emphasize its ideals, and want to move toward them, and others will emphasize its flaws and want to start from zero. They are in disagreement. So be it. But I really wish people like Hawthorne and Saffron would acknowledge the degree to which people like Stern bend over backward to embrace the challenge posed by modern architecture. (That’s the understatement of the week. Much design by RAMSA, the firm founded by Stern, is in fact modernist.)

Just look at one of the earlier drawings of the Museum of the American Revolution. It originally had a cupola. Those who wished that the design were modernist badgered Stern into removing it. Other aspects of the building also compromise between tradition and change in architecture – in my opinion too much so. Why Hawthorne and Saffron are loath to acknowledge this is understandable, but it nevertheless amounts to rhetorical dishonesty in the discourse of architecture.

[Christopher Hawthorne no longer works for the Los Angeles Times. He has joined the city’s department of development.]

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Why historic preservation?

Cottage at 59 Williams St. with latest version of modernist addition to its west (at right). (PHDC)

I just got through watching the Providence Historic Preservation Commission grant conceptual approval to the renovation and expansion of a charming little Italianate cottage on Williams Street, just off the city’s historic Benefit Street. It was a most depressing event.

Objecting neighbors cheered that the latest design no longer moves the cottage toward the street by several feet. Members of the commission seemed barely to notice that the addition would not fit in at all. And yet they seemed to agree that the plan, by architect Friedrich St. Florian, was an improvement on previous plans, which had caused commissioners to put off conceptual approval.

This plan was not an improvement. Instead, the project moved even further from aesthetic consistency with its 18th and 19th century neighborhood.

With each iteration, St. Florian’s design has become even more blatantly modernist. At first, the addition was on the left (east) side of the cottage but behind a tall stone wall. Now the addition has moved directly onto Williams, flipping to the west side of the cottage closest to Benefit. It has gotten bigger and bigger, raising doubts about its supposed subservience to the old cottage. The cottage would no longer would have roof tiles but a metallic standing-seam roof, like the addition, which would have a goofy tilted roof, a sort of flat modernist roof on LSD. Its two bedrooms and a two-car garage would be clad not in the cottage’s horizontal clapboard but with vertical board-and-batten slats, like the siding for a rent-a-space emporium. The addition’s large glazed windows make no reference to the cottage’s historical fenestration. The addition contradicts the cottage at every turn. It purposely rejects the neighborhood’s historic patrimony.

If this is built as planned, anyone walking onto Williams from Benefit would see the blank garage siding first and maybe catch a glimpse of the old cottage as they walked between the garage and the tall stone wall, which would block its view as they walked by. Anyone walking west on Williams toward Benefit would not see the cottage at all, only the modernist addition. Is this proper? Can it be the role of the commission to allow this travesty to occur?

The Providence Historic District Commission was created in 1960 to protect the unique physical character, historic fabric and visual identity of the city.

So declares the introductory statement on the PHDC’s website. Most of the commissioners seemed to hint at recognizing the plan’s violation of this goal. Nobody wanted to step forward and make a motion to approve. The long pause just went on and on. This must have been really embarrassing. The pause for a member to second the motion was even worse. Still, eventually, a vote was held and the commission gave the plan its conceptual approval. Only a single solitary brave “nay” vote issued forth to call her colleagues to their purpose: that of our city’s venerable historic preservationist Tina Regan.

Before signing off, commission staffer Jason Martin noted that in coming weeks and months the commission would be tinkering with its “rules, regulations, standards and guidelines.” The public must watch this process closely, lest the protection of the historic character of Providence be frog-marched out of the commission’s official purpose.

If that hasn’t already happened.

Elevation sketch for the Williams Street side of the cottage and its addition, to the left. (PHDC)

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Life preserver for Inga Saffron

Fire set by rioters in downtown Philadelphia last June. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Six months ago, Inga Saffron, the architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote a column, “Buildings Matter, Too,” deploring riot damage to buildings near the city’s fashionable Rittenhouse Square. Saffron herself did not write the headline, and anyway she buys into Black Lives Matter’s false narrative of America’s institutional racism. She remains on the job.

In my 30 years as an architecture critic I’ve written every headline to appear above my byline, both when I was on the editorial board of the Providence Journal and on my current blog. So when I first heard of the tempest involving Inga Saffron last June, I assumed she must have written the headline. I thought that she had resigned. Since then, I have regretted that I did not throw a lifeline to my fellow member of the very small tribe of architecture critics.

I am glad she didn’t need it. The editor who actually did resign, Stan Wischnowski, should not have. He was the Inquirer’s chief editor. Maybe he deserved to resign for the stupidity, cowardice and fecklessness he displayed by resigning, but not for the headline itself, which he did not even write. (The New York Times story on this does not say whether either of the two editors involved with the headline lost their jobs. The Inquirer’s publisher, Lisa Hughes, did not resign but should have – for accepting Wischnowski’s resignation.)

The headline itself falls squarely in the tradition of headlines that pun or play on phrases or slogans in the news or with a long cultural patrimony. “Black Lives Matter,” thus: “Buildings Matter, Too.”

A craven letter of apology by the editors reads: “The headline … suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans.” No, it did not. This accusation was fabricated from whole cloth by those who cynically find it convenient to discover an insult in even the most benign of associations. We’ve all run into people like that.

If there were any offense in such a play on words, then how can it be inoffensive for Saffron to place the destruction of buildings on anything like a par with the murder of black people? How could she even think of discussing the two topics in the same article? Maybe she should have been fired after all.

No. That would be ridiculous. But she probably thinks I should be fired for defending the headline.

Perhaps this is all inside baseball. But modern architecture has bought into the rejection of tradition globally for a century, more so than any major field of human endeavor. The loose thinking of most architecture critics – including Inga Saffron – consigns the world to ugliness and sterility.

These features invite a rejection of humanism and an opening to authoritarianism that threaten to reverse more than a century of historical progress toward equality – progress that is belittled by the false narrative that fueled the Saffron imbroglio.

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Tulip survives London nip

Skyline of London with Tulip, Gherkin, and (I think) other proposed towers. (Dezeen)

Rowan Moore, architecture critic of The Guardian in the U.K., writes that the proposed 1,000-foot Tulip, designed by Sir Norman Foster as a fancy tourist observation deck, should be denied planning permission by the London authorities (“The Tulip’s towering vanity must be nipped in the bud“).

Huh? I thought that Mayor Khan already did that last year. (“Mayor nips Foster’s Tulip.”) As Providence’s proposed Fane tower recently demonstrated, these ego-driven projects are like cats with their nine lives. Apparently, Foster applied for a redo, and might well overturn the mayor’s thumbs’ down. Here is Moore’s description of the proposed Tulip:

Unlike other [London] towers, the Tulip’s object is not to maximise lettable square metres but to create restaurants, bars, viewing galleries and “classrooms in the sky,” all placed in a glass bud at the top of a long concrete stalk. It might also be guessed that the project serves to feed the egos of the Safras [its financial backers] and of Lord Foster, as it would restore the pre-eminence on the skyline that the Gherkin has lost to a clutch of bulky skyscrapers around it.

Moore rejects the idea that the Tulip will revive Covid-dissipated London. The Shard, London’s tallest tower, is at 1,016 feet not much taller than the Tulip would be. But it seems to me the Tulip would be much scarier, with its bulbous top atop a slender concrete “stalk.” A confidence-builder indeed! Think of the tulip craze in 1637 Holland, the first recorded speculative bubble in history. As a building, the Tulip is a speculative bubble on top of a speculative bubble on top of – you could say – a speculative bubble.

Holland survived its crisis but London is buying into a speculative bubble far more sinister than bulbomania. Hundreds of towers have been proposed or approved in London. They are economically and ecologically unsustainable. Eventually, their risky business will catch up with them. Who knows: with Covid, maybe it already has.

My guess is that when Covid exits stage left, the popularity of a view from atop the Shard, or the Tulip if and when it is completed, will have been degraded by the hundreds of towers that have already arisen in London. There’s no telling when the unsustainability of the buildings or their views will manifest itself, but it may be sooner than later.

This Dezeen article on the Tulip has more illustrations. Frankly, if London wants to go the full folly of Dubai, it might as well.

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