A Jane Jacobs cornucopia

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Jane Jacobs at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village. (streetsblog)

Here is an excellent review of recent books published by and about Jane Jacobs in the past year, which was the centennial of her birth. “What Jane Jacobs Saw,” by Michael Lewis in the upcoming March issue of First Things, includes a new biography, an analysis of how Jacobs’s ideas developed, a collection of interviews and a couple of anthologies, including Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs. I posted on it last December in “Jane Jacobs at Ada Books,” when the volume (co-edited by Nathan Storring and Samuel Zipp) went on sale locally. Of this set of books, Lewis writes:

They face a considerable burden: to explain how a woman with no training in economics or architecture—without even a college degree (though she had taken a course in stenography and shorthand at a business college in Scranton)—could have written the most important book on the city to appear in the last century. … But for all her precocious intelligence, she was a mediocre student, and if her curiosity was not aroused, she became restless and mischievous. She annoyed her teachers with her brazen indifference toward authority in any form—a trait evident in all her writing. It is notable that, to the end of her life, she turned down all offers of honorary degrees.

Her lack of academic credentials was in fact among her chief intellectual assets. She graduated from the school of hard knocks. She learned the nitty-gritty of New York City by poking her nose in its business. When she finally emerged as a thinker about cities, it was not in spite of but because of her lack of a scrap of paper. In fact, her depth and breadth of knowledge was so obvious after her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities that the reigning bigwigs on her subject – such as Lewis Mumford and, of course, Robert Moses – spluttered with embarrassed indignation.

I would not imagine that scholarly Michael Lewis could do full justice to Jacobs’s lack of credentialism, by which she avoided donning the blinders that characterize so much educated thinking. But he does a pretty good job:

[H]er decade spent in the offices of New York’s manufacturers and vendors, and another as a propagandist of American life, stood her in better stead than any technical training. Like all good journalists, she knew how to generalize intelligently, but in her case her generalizations were invariably informed by intimate and detailed personal knowledge about a vast array of enterprises. Those who knew her well were not surprised when she emerged as an architecture critic of unexpected subtlety and virtuosity.

Here is another quotation:

Seldom has a book ever achieved so thoroughly and swiftly its goal. “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” Jacobs wrote in the first sentence, and that attack was immediately successful. Within a year or two it became the conventional wisdom that city planners, heavy with Utopian hubris, had fundamentally misunderstood the city, mistaking a complexly functioning system of order for chaos, which they would replace with the schematic abstractions of the Radiant City.

“That attack” may have been immediately successful but it was not totally successful. A lot of city thinkers are backsliding into support for more Robert Moses-style big projects, most of which give as little intelligent thought to people or cities as Moses’s own work. What these city thinkers really want, I suspect, is a license to inflict more modern architecture on innocent citizens, and the bigger the better. That is the only way they can think of to hit back at the public. That’s about the depth of their thinking.

So it’s time to read Jacobs’s book again. I did last year, and my already-opened eyes were opened even wider at the fecundity of her insight. An excellent companion, by the way, which I am rereading, would be James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere.

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Tour Providence by the book

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Thomas Street, heading toward downtown Providence. (Architectural Digest)

Tomorrow a bunch of us know-it-alls have been invited to the Providence Preservation Society for a private session to suggest changes for a second edition of PPS’s 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture, written by Mack Woodward and photographed by Warren Jagger. I would add Brown’s new Nelson Fitness Center, designed by Gary Brewer, a partner in the New York firm of Robert A.M. Stern Architects. It is a fine building, a take on the city’s traditional industrial architecture, and a rare hint that the school actually desires its graduates to donate money someday. It is curiously disliked by Will Morgan, one of my architectural sparring partners, who wrote the original book’s introduction and who may be on hand tomorrow. If so, he and I will duke it out in the back alley, or maybe in the garden if the snow has melted. A second edition of the book is expected to result from our contretemps, along with the sophisticated cogitation of the other invitees, as early as late this year. On Nov. 6, 2003, shortly after its publication, in my capacity as the architecture critic for the Providence Journal, I wrote the following review:

Touring Providence by the book

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FOR A CITY that rewards the walker at every turn, Providence has waited too long for a comprehensive walker’s guide to its architecture.

The wait is over.

Start walking.

The PPS/AIAri Guide to Providence Architecture ($24.95), dedicated to the late great historic preservationist Antoinette Downing, was the brainchild of the Providence Preservation Society and the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Architects, which are its publishers. Architectural historian Wm. McKenzie Woodward wrote the text. Warren Jagger shot the 441 photographs. Its 320 pages on 80-pound glossy paper are “Smythe-sewn,” so you can crack its spine without breaking its back. Its sumptuous heft belies its compact size, 4 1/2 by 9 1/2 inches. It fits in the pocket of your jacket.

The book feels good in your hand, and its cover aims to please: A photo montage of the Providence skyline and, looming large, the steeple of the First Baptist Church. The old and the new, yes, but heavy on the old. Like it or not, that’s why people love Providence and why a book about its architecture is of interest. The cover aims to please and inform.

Yet nothing in this book could be more pleasing than Mack Woodward’s writing. It is charming, elegant, witty, not to mention informative. Style, history and genealogy mix delightfully. Woodward can be acrobatic, purple, befuddling, cranky, even goofy, but never boring, never shy. He challenges us with crotchety themes, especially his ubiquitous exasperation with “the almighty cube.” (This does not refer to Old Stone Square, which is merely “cubistic,” but to Colonial and revivalist houses, mostly for the wealthy, that make do with only four sides. How tedious!) The author throws down gauntlets on every page, and dares to be wrong. In short, his prose is provocative and the book is fun.

Take it for a walk by yourself or with a friend. You will find that Mack Woodward is there, too, telling you things about a house that you never knew, pointing out details of its design that you never noticed before, instigating an argument with your friend (or with your own preconceptions) – poking you in the ribs, tickling your funny bone, cramming your cranium with fascinating factoids, generally opening your eyes anew. Yes, this is fun!

Let’s say you are taking the “Crest of College Hill” tour. At 45 Prospect St. is the George Corliss House (1878-81), and you read that the Corliss Engine inventor’s second wife despised New England winters. “I will build Bermuda for Mrs. Corliss,” he said. So he built her a “state-of-the-art, climate-controlled building.” It even had another recent innovation, designed to keep bugs out: the window screen!

Then, at 101 Prospect, you read that the Henry A. Dike House (1850-52) is “one of the fussiest Italianate houses in Providence.” Okay. And that it has a “gutsy lattice gate.” Your friend asks: “Gutsy? How so?” You shrug, and recall a house from the earlier “Moving Up: The Lower Slope of College Hill” tour: Sturdy granite blocks planted in front of the Earl Pearce House (1827), at 42-44 Benefit St., “have not proven particularly effective at deflecting wayward traffic” careening down steep Jenckes Street and into the house. “Now that,” you say, “is gutsy.” [I seem to recall that the blocks, actually more like tombstones, have been deflectively effective – getting drivers careening down Jenckes to swerve their cars into the house to the left of the Pearce.]

Fun? You bet! How about fun times eleven!

Eleven tours arranged by period, location and theme (“Pre-Revolutionary Providence: Along the ‘Towne Street,’ ” “Romantic Reaction to Industry: Urban Open Spaces,” “The City Reinvents Itself,” etc.) cover most parts of Providence, with generous nods to the South and West sides, industrial areas and downtown. Inevitably, however, and I believe appropriately, four of the eleven tours focus on College Hill, which has most of the best of the city’s oldest buildings and most of the worst of its newest. The newest, whether modernist or revivalist, generate the most provocative of Woodward’s pensées, and often the most trenchant of his insights.

Here’s one both trenchant and provocative: “It’s oddly ironic,” Woodward writes after criticizing Cathedral Square, by modernist I.M. Pei, “that DePasquale Square, a minor end of a minor street decorated with kitschy street furniture, has gloriously fulfilled the urbanistic expectations that [Cathedral] square, designed by world-class architects, never even approached.” This is neither ironic nor odd – except that so many in architecture should think so.

The one serious flaw in the book, no doubt budgetarily inspired, is that you often come across a series of adjacent houses, compared and contrasted in the text, only to find that just one is pictured, and no telling which. (Perhaps you can try to deduce it from the description: All part of the fun!) The worst is the comparison of the Thomas Hoppin House (1852-55), which gets a big photo, with its neighbor on Benefit, the Tully Bowen House (1853), my own favorite, which is totally unpictured. Good grief! The only serious factual error I detected was about former Mayor Cianci’s 1990 comeback victory, described as a “landslide.” It was a 317-vote squeaker over Frederick Lippitt and Andrew Annaldo. The landslide came four years later over Paul Jabour.

This tour guide is so good that even its flaws are engaging. For readers and walkers alike, it is sure to please and instruct for as long as Providence architecture manages to protect its past from its future.

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Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center, Brown University. (RAMSA)

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A Kunstlerfest in Chicago

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The White City at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. (Pinterest)

James Howard Kunstler’s magisterial book The Geography of Nowhere lays waste to the ideas that laid waste to America, but his thoughts on suburbia – crudscape and all that – come after the book’s “opening monologue” about the history of architecture amid the march of society toward modernity. After approaching the conclusion of the 19th century, he writes that “[t]o understand Modernism, it is helpful to consider what immediately preceded it.” He refers to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, in Chicago, along the waterfront of Lake Michigan.

In terms of architecture, the fair was a culmination of all the historical styles that had paraded through the decades of the nineteenth century, like a series of marching bands, each in its own striking constumes – from the Greek Revival of the 1830s, to the Gothic cottages and Italianate villas of Downing’s day, to the Second Empire Mansardic business blocks on every Main Street in America, the Fifth Avenue chateaux of the robber barons, through every other sort of exuberant confection of America’s post-Civil War industrial boom. The Columbian Exposition was the climax, the grand summing up.

After describing its ringmaster, Daniel H. “Make No Small Plans” Burnham, he continues:

The enormous exhibition halls, designed by a Who’s Who of America’s most prominent architects, were done in a high classical manner that went ancient Rome a few steps further – pillars and arches and domes and spires and cupolas and swag-filled entablatures and capitals dripping acanthus leaves, all of it holding to a single unified cornice line. The buildings, the ceremonial arches, and even the lagoons were studded with statuary. Lit up at night by wondrous new incandescent floodlamps, it looked like the climactic scene of Thomas Cole’s “Course of Empire” series. Fair-goers nicknamed it the White City.

Even the usually skeptical Henry Adams gushed: “As a scenic display, Paris had never approached it,” he said. “The world had never witnessed so marvelous a phantasm.” It was especially amazing, he went on, that such a sublime spectacle arose out of the mercantile banality of Chicago. “One saw here a third-rate town of half-a-million people without history, education, unity, or art, and with little capital – without even the element of natural interest except the river, which it studiously ignored – but doing what London, Paris, or New York would have shrunk from attempting.” …

[Charles Follen] McKim saw that this was an architecture worthy of the forward-looking, rationalistic culture of big business and big industry that America had become at the end of the nineteenth century. It was calming, orderly and elegant. It harked back not only to America’s glorious past, but to our deeper continuities with European culture. Its restraint expressed supreme self-confidence and intellectual clarity, not the dark superstition and medieval hugger-mugger of the romantic styles. Its decorative motifs – arched and pedimented windows, columns, pilasters, garlands, roofline balustrades, quoins, cartouches – more straightforward in the sense that you didn’t have to read the novels of Sir Walter Scott in order to appreciate their meaning.

On my bucket list is a trip back to Chicago of 1893, sixty years before I was born there. Sadly, the fair was fake – not really fake, no, but temporary and constructed of papier maché. They were going to tear it down after its run of six months, but it burned down first. Only the Palace of Fine Arts survives. It was rebuilt in solid material, and remains along Chicago’s lakefront. I sure hope H.G. Wells can be revived to crank up his time machine.

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Is this possible anymore?

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Semur-en-Auxois, Dordogne, France. (Photo by Joel Pidel)

Above is a photo of a town, Sémur-en-Auxois, in the Dordogne, a department of southwestern France. Below is Sarlat-la-Canéda, in the same district. They are both beautiful, and it makes sense to wonder whether there is any hope that towns and villages like this are possible anymore, and if so, whether they should be built.

The photos were sent to the TradArch list by architect Joel Pidel. Not long after, architect and planner Tom Low started sending a series of drawings of his “Pocket Court Project.” The reaction on the list was extraordinarily heartening. Of the painting here he writes:

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Here is a #watercolor version of the sketch rendering of one of the pocket oval greens and cottage designs for the #PocketCourt- Project. The colors, shade, shadows, and textures help accen- tuate the design to another level of detail.  Also the previous posts help document the design process journey with many of the decisions and incremental processes it takes to get there. Also this #handmade design and incremental approach has advantages including elevated creativity, increased efficiency, ability to change scale, and a pace enabling the designer to think things through while in parallel crafting the ideas.

Low credits architect Sara Hines and her recent book Cottage Communities: The American Camp Meeting Movement for his pocket-court imagery. Her book explores “[t]he invention of detail that arose using simple parts with care and imagination, a love of geometry and craft,” and “what secrets can be learned about organizing spaces, human scale, proximity, design, and subtle tricks of planning that sustain the experience.”

Of course, Low’s image is not quite the Dordogne, nor need it be. But it is a start, a very good one, and I am sure others in this country, such as Hines, and elsewhere are thinking outside the box and toward the time when habitation made by hand creeps back into and takes over the heart of the way we design and build today. In the meantime, while the craftsmanship involved is rebuilt, costs may require a more tooled approach to craft.

There are some who say this sort of thing should not be built today, that it is not “of our time.” Well, maybe that’s what’s wrong with our time – not the only thing (by far), but suggestive of our era’s deepest flaws. Is there anyone aside from the modern architects, the major developers and their camp followers who think our built environment is worth writing home about? I doubt it. And they know we are on to them. As they laugh up their sleeves on their way to the bank, they are whistling past the graveyard.

“We can land a man on the moon, so why can’t we …” Well, we can, and will.

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Sarlat-la-Caneda, Dordogne, France. (Photo by Joel Pidel)

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Fond adieu to Horne’s Paris

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The Pere Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris. (whatsfreeinparis.com)

Here are several more passages lifted from the closing chapters of Alistair Horne’s engaging Seven Ages of Paris:

Less felicitous were architectural scandals like the Tour Montparnasse (started in 1959, but not finished till 1973), greatest urban project since Haussmann, and designed to be the highest skyscraper in all Europe, menacing the ascendancy of the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides. Then, opened in 1977, came Richard Rogers’ [and Renzo Piano’s] Centre Pompidou, unhappy child of the first international competition ever held in Paris.

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Tour Montparnasse (Wikipedia)

In this first passage Horne describes the Tour Montparnasse as an “architectural scandal.” He does not mention what I’ve long understood, that it was approved by Paris development authorities under cover of the protests that beset the city in 1968. He says it was “started in 1959, but not finished till 1973.” He must have meant that it was conceived by its developer who then struggled through what one would expect to be a hostile permitting process before starting construction in 1969. In any event, harkening to Guy de Maupassant’s famous line criticizing the Tour Eiffel, Wikipedia states that “the view from the top [of the Tour M.] is the most beautiful in Paris, because it is the only place from which the tower cannot be seen.” In 2008, a poll of editors on Virtualtourist found the Tour Montparnasse to be the second ugliest building in the world, beaten out for that honor only by Boston City Hall.

Regarding the Centre Pompidou, the second-place entry was submitted by a team consisting of Raimund Abraham, John Thornley and Rhode Island’s own Friedrich St. Florian. I have never seen an illustration of the design, but it cannot have been more obnoxious an insult to Paris than the Centre Pompidou. (That is my opinion. In an interview with the New York Times in 1997, St. Florian said he was consoled in his also-ran status by the belief that the Piano/Rogers design was superior.) Horne continues:

Then came François Mitterrand, whose hideous new “people’s opera” at the Bastille (begun in 1985) would dig as big a whole in Paris finances as any of those dug for dealing with the motor car. (“What is the difference between the people’s opera and the Titanic?” went a joke at the time. Answer: “The orchestra on the Titanic actually played.”) A poll conducted among Parisians in 1990 ranked the Centre Georges Pompidou as the first monument they wished to see pulled down, the Bastille Opéra the second.

To end with what beauty can do in the classical style, here is Horne’s description of a section of the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery containing the mausoleums of Paris’s great banking, merchant and commercial families:

Together they present the greatest collection of architectural singularity in all Paris. Miniature pyramids rub shoulders with gothic chapels decorated with gargoyles and lacy pinnacles. A reduced Madeleine [bank as Greek temple] vies with what seems to be a replica of the Panthéon or a tiny Taj Mahal; another caprice is a pyramid supported by turtles and illustrating on its four sides an ibis, a bullock, a car and a sunburst, the whole bombe surprise topped by a giant egg.


Centre Pompidou, in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. (Dezeen)

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The eye, the mind, the heart

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Heat mapping shows how the eye perceives the two buildings. (geneticsofdesign.com)

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so sayeth just about everyone, but how does the mind influence what the eye of the beholder sees? If the eye informs the brain and the brain informs the taste, then there must be something deeper than whim informing people of what they think is beautiful in architecture.

Ann Sussman, who has given much thought to the matter and, in her 2015 book Cognitive Architecture, written with Justin Hollander, has assembled research by scientists and others sniffing down that road, will be speaking next Thursday in Boston at an event sponsored by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. The event opens at 6 p.m. at the College Club of Boston at 44 Commonwealth Ave. Tickets are $25 for ICAA members and $40 for others.

As described by the chapter, Sussman’s presentation will:

review new findings in biology and neuroscience that outline what our brain expects to see, including how it’s hard-wired to avoid looking at blank facades, most quickly processes bilaterally symmetric things – and is preset to look for faces or face-like objects without any conscious input on our part.

Naturally, this is music to the ears of the classical revival, whose advocates (including me) often find themselves without an effective response to the claim that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The answer often emerges as “Yes, but …” – Sussman provides the details for an effective rejoinder to that classic modernist dodge.

Learn more and purchase tickets at the New England chapter website.

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Preservation in Charleston

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Charleston’s Four-Mile House, site of alleged murders circa 1812. (Ronald Ramsey)

Should historic preservation be a quest for beauty or a quest for knowledge?

That was the question at issue on Saturday in Charleston., S.C. Both are valid goals but I argued that beauty should be top priority. The panel, “Unfolding Perspectives in Preservation,” was sponsored by the College of Charleston’s Historic Preservation and Community Planning program along with the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. I was invited to join the fun by my old friend Nathaniel Walker, a Brown doctoral graduate now assistant professor at the college and moderator of the panel, which he organized along with his colleague Grant Gilmore. Walker’s essay “Architecture and Food” will be fondly recalled by readers of this blog.

Impaneled with three academics at odds with my priorities, I gave it my best on behalf of beauty. My interlocutors argued for saving buildings on behalf of narratives that trace the aesthetic, historical, technological and moral roles of architecture as the primary rationale for preserving buildings and other cultural artifacts, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder anyway.

Here is a summary of my argument that I sent to help Nathan introduce me to the audience, though he didn’t actually read it aloud:

David believes that modern architecture is unattractive, uncivil, unprincipled, unsound, unsustainable and hence unsupported by the large majority of the public. This deep skepticism shapes his view of historic preservation, which has lost its way. Preservation organizations need to get back to basics or risk losing relevance – and membership. They must refocus more on the threat to civic beauty that half a century ago changed preservation from a hobby to a mass movement. In cities and towns where most historic buildings have already been preserved, preservationists must concentrate on saving their settings by opposing unsympathetic interventions in historic districts and promoting new architecture that strengthens the beauty of those districts and serves as a model for the rest of the city.

Preservation is not so much about the past as about how we move into the future.


View from the stage at Randolph Hall. (DB photo)

The give and take among the panel was polite, as you might expect of an event in the Holy City (a longstanding nickname). I got a lot of gentle ribbing about fluctuating perceptions of beauty from Robin B. Williams, of the Savannah College of Art and Design (the RISD of the South). He is the nation’s leading expert on historic pavements and their preservation, upon which subject I found much more common ground than on the subject of the nature of beauty. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder’s perception of beauty is a construct of many less subjective factors, including much recent scientific research on how neurobiology pushes the human brain to prefer traditional over modern architecture – that is, beauty over what I call, for lack of a better term, ugliness. (I have written about that often in this blog.)

Whitney Powers is a local architect of the modernist persuasion, involved with local design authorities and community boards. She is president of Studio A Architecture. According to the event description, she “specializ[es] in the adaptation of both old buildings and new design philosophies to serve contemporary Charleston.” However little of the former may be evident in her work, so far as I could tell, she gave, in this discussion, as good as she got, arguing that local community needs outweigh beauty in such service.

Ray Huff, the star of the panel, is head of the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston and an internationally celebrated modernist at Huff+Goodin Architects. He was my chief antagonist, arguing that the classical detailing and ornament that I view as beautiful reminds blacks around the nation (and elsewhere) of slavery. He said he recalls reading on my blog that I oppose the proposed modernist design  of the slavery museum to be built in Charleston. Reluctant to be “shamed,” I reasserted my opposition to the design. I argued that minority populations do not associate classical motifs with slavery. They certainly do associate the plantation houses of slave owners with slavery, but it cannot be that the evil that happened in a particular building typology may be logically blamed on the broader classical style of architecture. Yet that is the argument made with considerable wit, eloquence and a wry smile by Ray Huff, but also many others with less reason than he has to take offense at new classical and traditional buildings.

Are minorities actually reminded of slavery by dentil moldings, roof cornices, rows of columns with Corinthian capitals and that sort of thing? Some are, but most? I kinda doubt it, really. Huff and many others make this argument, and it is not without a degree of plausibility. But I believe that they see the connection more vividly than most people because they study the language of buildings, such as it may be. When the monument to Martin Luther King Jr. was built, however, many blacks applauded but others asked why Lincoln and Jefferson deserved temples but not King. This debate will continue long after Ray, Whitney, Robin and I stepped off the stage at Randolph Hall.

The panel coincided with an art exhibit, “Ahead of the Wrecking Ball,” also at Randolph Hall, by the Halsey Institute of the work of Ronald Ramsey, a native Charlestonian and artistic savant – “a one-man preservation army” – who over decades has meticulously drawn old houses slated for demolition in Charleston. One of these, shown atop this post, is the so-called Four-Mile House, built in 1783 and razed in 1969. “Better Known as Murder & Trap House” is inscribed by Ramsey under the title of his illustration. In about 1812, the tavern’s owner and his wife allegedly killed several travelers who, at different times, had stayed there and then disappeared. They were convicted on one charge of murder and executed.

“Did the Four-Mile House kill those people?” I asked the audience. “No! Other people killed those people.” Ditto slavery. Houses do not own slaves. People do. Maybe that is a simple-minded argument, but that does not make it illogical. Slavery may taint specific buildings that existed before, during and after slavery (including Jim Crow), but that does not mean traditional architecture as a class is therefore tainted. Go down that road and you can argue against erecting a new building of any style, including modernism.

An effort was made to suggest that Ramsey, in his work, valued the old buildings fated to be torn down no more highly than the modernist ones arising in their place. Not likely. Ramsey had no schooling in design, so his natural instinct for beauty was not bowdlerized by the blue-noses of higher architectural education like that of so many proponents of modernism.

I suppose my favorite moment on the panel came as the discussion addressed what to do with midcentury modern buildings, such as those known, for some curious reason, as “Brutalist.” The event literature referred to this as “the awkward topic of modernist structures that have failed to earn public affection.” We were discussing an old bank drive-thru. I pulled out my Nikon camera, held it up and declared that photography was a neat solution to the question of whether to save buildings that have few admirers. They can be razed and replaced by (one hopes) nicer buildings, yet survive as illustrations in books, available to future generations as long as libraries (and the Web) exist. The crowd laughed, but I can’t say I believe many agreed. The feeling, as one audience member said, was that it would not be the same. Still, we cannot preserve everything that is fifty years old – the current requirement. Priorities must be set and beauty, it seems to me, is first, at least, among equals – for the sake of a public already largely turned off by its built environment.

Preservationists ask why we preserve because many preservationists, and especially those with jobs in preservation, have forgotten why we preserve. But it is not rocket science. We preserve because we love and respect beauty above all. Preservation was a hobby before 1950, dedicated to saving actual historic structures (“George Washington slept here”) over decades and even centuries when people tended to believe that a demolished building would naturally be replaced by a better building. When people started to believe, increasingly, after 1950 that a demolished building might well be replaced by something worse, preservation was swiftly transformed from a hobby into a mass movement. That’s the essential truth about preservation. And it is not difficult to understand why we preserve if we understand that truth.

Whether that truth is what emerged at the College of Charleston on Saturday afternoon, I have no idea. Either way, the four of us had a helluva good time, and I happily join my fellow panelists in thanking our hosts for inviting us to discuss an issue that is so close to the heart of Charlestonians.


The panel was held inside Randolph Hall, at the College of Charleston. (Photo by David Brussat.)

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My TB post on style wars

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Here is the January post for my blog at Traditional Building: “Assertively Classical: Thomas Gordon Smith at Notre Dame” was written before the already intense political climate intensified by two- or three-fold after the inauguration of that successful entertainer. The post features Thomas Gordon Smith, the classicist prof at Notre Dame who was profiled in the most recent TB. My post’s concluding fillip on Trump and architecture was sprung on readers in the hope that momentum might plow them through the last couple of paragraphs before realizing their danger. Enjoy!

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And the race is on!

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Part of the historic district of Charleston, S.C. (HarbourView Inn)

Providence. Friday, February 10. 7:45 a.m.

This is a completely absurdist concept for a blog post, but my cab to Green Airport, outside of Providence, will (I hope) pick me up in 45 minutes. So here, to be brief, are images for several proposed buildings in Providence and Charleston, my destination today. Readers play by guessing which buildings are planned for which cities. (Answers at bottom of post.) I will be out of town until Valentine’s Day, next Tuesday.

Whether I manage to post during my trip – I will be on a panel about preservation at the College of Charleston tomorrow – is entirely circumstantial. …

… It is a couple of days later, and after a couple of days at the George IV Inn near the College of Charleston campus, I am staying at the home of my friend Nathan Walker, who as a professor of architectural history invited me down to Charleston to join a C. of C. panel on preservation – more about it later. Now I can finish up this blog, which I failed to complete before leaving Providence because the cab that was supposed to pick me up in 45 minutes arrived in 15 minutes, temporarily aborting this post, which recommences with little left to do but find one more image for readers playing this game to gnaw on below. Not much of a race, it seems.

But here are the four proposed buildings:


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Clearly, knowing which building is which clarifies which city is leading in the sweepstakes for reaching city nirvana first. Both cities are already closer to the finish line than most American cities will ever be, because both were fast out of the preservation gate. But both cities have also allowed modernists to set up obstacles along the way, and are just now trying to negotiate those roadblocks. Charleston brought in Andrés Duany, the leading theorist of the New Urbanism, to reform its development process. Providence has … well, it is difficult to think of what it has done lately to try to put itself back on the path to beauty. It has, in an extremely modest way, watched as “bad trad” poses its weak challenge to the modernist approach preferred by the local design establishment.

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History of Maya Lin’s Wall

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Crowds at the memorial dedication, Nov. 13, 1982. (Wally McNamee, Corbis, via Getty Images)

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Sculpture of soldiers facing Wall. (Library of Congress)

Maya Lin’s Wall on the Mall, dedicated to Vietnam’s fallen warriors, has long struck me as being less than the optimal commemoration of a national tragedy. Its gash in the Mall looks as if it symbolizes a loss in conflict as much as a loss of life. Balancing this, and equally controversial, was a sculpture added, to Lin’s dismay, of three soldiers, by the late Frederick Hart. The architectural historian Catesby Leigh has written an even-handed account of the memorial’s victory in a major design competition, the artist’s relationship to the committee that commissioned the contest, battles between supporters and opponents of the design, changes resulting from those battles, its erection, its public reception, and the inevitable fluctuations in its reputation and its popularity.

Leigh’s lengthy essay, “Anti-Monument,” appears on a new website called Critical Read devoted to the back story of great works of art, or, in its own words, “Critical Read tells the true stories behind works of the fine, literary, and performing arts.” The subjects on its website so far include queer symbolism, contemporary ballet and Salmon Rushdie.

Leigh properly regrets the recent decline of monumental architecture from traditional memorials honoring community to memorials whose goal seems to be more therapeutic. Here is Leigh’s diplomatic summation of the Wall:

[T]he Wall is an inspired work, if not “a work of genius.” In its stark simplicity and contextually astute insertion in the Mall’s landscape, it enabled a minimalist aesthetic that often repels the public to resonate deeply with it while signaling, as Lutyens’s Thiepval arch had done half a century earlier, a widening of the range of meanings and emotional responses that memorials can elicit.

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Pastel drawing by Maya Lin included with her competition entry. (Library of Congress)

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