A stroll through Sept.’s TB

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Renwick Gallery near the White House in Washington, D.C. (Traditional Building)

Traditional Building now sends out twelve issues a year to subscribers, most of whom are, I suspect, either architects or those involved in businesses that offer building services and, especially, products to embellish residential, commercial or institutional building projects, including renovations and restorations. It may be the only journal of its kind, at least in the United States, and September’s issue, overseen by TB’s new editor, Nancy Berry, tickled my fancy in a number of ways.

First off, as always, the advertisements are a delight. For years I wrote a monthly blog for TB, and one of my first posts expressed my astonishment at the variety of every element of a traditional building as expressed in the ads. They are an education in the diversity of classicism. The journal’s recent expansion from eight issues a year suggests that classical architecture is undergoing exponential growth in building anew and preserving the old.

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Tuckpointing mortar of brick. (TB)

TB deftly mixes in-depth articles on projects of new construction or preservation with articles on esoteric aspects of design and construction. Examples in this issue include pieces on the long history of concrete (it’s not just Brutalist!) and on tuckpointing, the evolving of techniques by which a mason applies mortar between bricks. Such articles are not of interest only to practitioners but offer paragraph after paragraph of “architecture porn” or, as in these cases, “construction porn” – deep dives into method that can often mimic poetry. There’s this passage from “Nip & Tuck” by Susan Turner, in part a description of the Irish version of tuckpointing called “wigging”:

Wigging points the joint with the mortar color of the raised band. Once set, a colored stopping mortar is applied adjacent to it. The difference between the two is in longevity. In tuckpointing, the ribbon will weather first, leaving the brick-colored mortar joint. In wigging, the stopping mortar will weather first leaving the contrasting ribbon color.

What does it mean? Hard for we ignoranti to be sure. Where’s my builder’s dictionary? But don’t tell me it isn’t fun to read!

Christine Franck’s essay “On Columns, Classicism, and Creativity” could not help but capture my attention. As in any field, there are constant battles between architects who dedicate themselves to the one true word (that is, a strict reading of the classical orders), and those who consider the one true word as a launch pad for creativity – not rejecting the orders, as modernists do, but making them sing a more rococo tune). She writes:

Through their attempts to understand Roman classicism, Renaissance architects codified a classicism free from “barbarous invention.” Yet in a mere century, design transformed from Rossellino’s chaste work in Pienza to Michelangelo’s ebullient designs for St. Peter’s. This oscillation between rational and emotional classicism would continue for centuries before being nearly exterminated.

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Phillips Collection, in Washington. (TB)

What really caught me off-guard, however, was the juxtaposition of two successive articles about two of my favorite places in D.C., where I grew up. One is the Phillips Gallery (now called the Phillips Collection), a neo-Georgian old manse on Mass. Ave. near Dupont Circle. Its most extraordinary painting is Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party.” I once encountered a Rhode Island state representative in the gallery whom I’d twitted in “The RISDICIAD,” a state limerick contest entry about one of our state’s financial scandals, starting in 1990, a probe of which he’d led. He ignored me, whether out of pique at my “poetry” or, more likely, for being a stranger accosting him amid his artistic meditations.

The other is the Renwick Gallery, on Pennsylvania Avenue across from the White House grounds. A Second-Empire masterpiece, the Renwick sits between the OEOB and the NEOB – the Old Executive Office Building and the New Executive Office Building, on either side of Pennsylvania Avenue. My father worked in both as a management analyst for the OMB – the Office of Management and Budget. The OEOB, a magnificent pile of Edwardian columns and balconies, is now called the Eisenhower Building. The NEOB is still called the NEOB, which is appropriate, given what it looks like. Opened in 1969 (which tells you all you need to know about its appearance), it is also called Federal Office Building #7. In the article on the Renwick’s elegant new blast-resistant windows, the NEOB can be seen looming up tediously in the background. The Renwick, which graciously but alas only partially blocks views of the NEOB from across Pennsylvania Ave., was saved in 1962 from demolition, in large part thanks to Jacqueline Kennedy. One can imagine what would be there now were it not for her.

If I were willing to test my readers’ patience, I would give an account of my nostalgic reaction to every article in TB’s September issue. Better yet, the whole issue rewards reading straight through. To do so, click on the link to the digital version and you can go there yourself and, aside from learning a lot about buildings, rummage in the attic of your own memory!

As Milton Grenfell points out with such grace in the comments below, “To give credit where it’s due, it should be noted that TB, Period Home and This Old House can all be traced back to Old House Journal with Clem Labine.”

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Old Executive Office Building, now Eisenhower Building, near Renwick Gallery. (Wikipedia)

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Hunting the Bristol baluster

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Linden Place, in Bristol. (discovernewport.org)

Some collections grow slowly. My collections of miniature buildings and of historical balusters are moribund. I have about twenty or thirty of the little buildings (gathered mostly on overseas trips) and two balusters – one from the Rhode Island State House and the other from the John Brown House, both of which had seen better days.

Here I do not count a fake baluster used as a prop in a RISD seminar (titled “On Being David Brussat”), whose purpose was to look down the academic nose at my support for new classical architecture. I had attended, and asked when it was over to keep the fake baluster. It was kindly given to me, but unlike the other two, which serve respectively as a pedestal for our finest table lamp and as part of a sculptural folly at the base of our TV set, the fake baluster is stored in our basement.

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State House baluster.

So I was not going to go out of my way for any but the best of crumbling old balusters. On Saturday I drove down to Bristol to attend a sale of old, unused architectural ornaments swapped out during a recent renovation of Linden Place. I got there early and learned that all of it would be too expensive, so I left without seeing the entire set of items for sale. I was told that the least of the items might run up to $200. My State House baluster, whose granite was in a fair state of erosion, cost only the effort of putting my John Hancock on a list of those who might be willing to lug away one of the massive balusters being retired from the balustrade that surrounds the building. I did not have a car at the time, but the car I borrowed for the job almost suffered a heart attack after I had managed, with a sturdy handtruck, to wrestle the baluster into the back seat. The Brown House baluster, broken into base, shaft and capital, was a gift from museum staff who enjoyed a column from long ago in the Providence Journal in which I described a nocturnal visit to the venerable mansion, during which I had “molested” a baluster in its garden on my way home after an evening on Thayer Street. In “The beauty of the baluster” (Aug. 8, 1996) I wrote:

There must be some quality about the baluster, however, that compelled these [Renaissance] revivalists to use it even after they discovered that, technically speaking, it wasn’t classical. What could that quality be?

I think I discovered what it is on a visit to the John Brown House (1788) on Benefit Street late Saturday night. Balustrades of slender elegance adorn its portico and cornice, but its best balusters are the voluptuous ones between the house and the lawn facing Benefit. These balusters, recently replaced by beautiful Vermont marble molded in Carrara, Italy, are Rubenesque in appearance – soft, sensual objects that are easily touched and, as I found, inevitably caressed. Marble they may be, but after rubbing off the dust they feel as smooth as a woman’s round breast, and just as enticing. Had it been broad daylight, I might’ve been arrested for molesting a baluster!

Perhaps the baluster is the clearest example of the quality that causes people to revere classical or traditional forms of architecture. Columns strain to lift, arches bend to carry, spires reach to glorify – the major features of classical architecture all seem to be engaged in actions familiar to the human body and mind. Such inanimate features of classical architecture as the bays that separate sections of facades, or the mullions in windows and panels in doors, bring the scale of major structures down to human size. Ornament brings life to otherwise flat, featureless surfaces. All of this makes classical architecture more humanistic. That is why most people find it more appealing than abstract “modern” architecture.

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John Brown House baluster.

I suppose I will be forced to suppress that daring gambit of reportorial self-revelation if I ever seek political office.

But we have strayed somewhat from the point of my trip down to Bristol on Saturday morning.

In the end, I did not leave Bristol empty handed. I got what I always get from even a mere drive through the town on its main drag, Hope Street (Route 114). Hope and its environs express the beauty inherent in all cities and towns built before the curious onset of modern architecture after World War II. They are generally expensive places inhabited by the well-to-do. But that is not because they are (leaving aside houses like Linden Place) intrinsically costly to build; they are merely rare because so many old ones are torn down and modernists have browbeaten most people into thinking new ones are inappropriate to build today, however pleasant they may seem. Whenever on some I hope not so distant tomorrow, a critical mass of people are able to shed this fallacy, the world will almost instantly become a more beautiful place.

That is what I took home from Bristol, which I could have taken home from a visit to so many towns and villages throughout Rhode Island.

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Keep Kennedy Plaza central

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Kennedy Plaza before its lovely bus kiosks were frogmarched out of town. (goprovidence.com)

The master planners of Providence and Rhode Island have figured out how to screw up Kennedy Plaza again. In 2015 they removed its four elegant, Art Nouveau-inspired waiting kiosks, replacing them with sterile plasticky kiosks. Now they want to dig a trench between the plaza and Burnside Park, even as they propose to knit the two halves together into a sort of mini-Central Park from which the city’s central transit hub would be evicted.

I described a similar idea in a 1992 Providence Journal column, “Postcard from Providence 1997,” written in the guise of a convention-goer raving about developments in the city five years hence:

The fellow at the next table said Kennedy Park used to be a bus plaza, but was relandscaped as a park after two pedestrians in one week were killed by hurtling buses. Now, he said, the bus routes terminate in a station under the park.

A letter writer informed me that the water table was too high to permit an underground bus station. That means that even a less-ambitious feature such as an underpass may be much more expensive to build than the planners expect. The Journal reports on a plan to reconfigure Kennedy Plaza and build four new bus hubs in or near downtown for riders kicked out of the plaza. All this would be financed with money from the $35 million bond issue voters approved in 2014 to pay for about half of what is now proposed. And the planners say it could be done sometime next year.

Are they kidding? As the Journal’s editorial pointed out, this is the same crew whose recently completed pedestrian bridge cost seven times its original budget while blowing through a succession of moving goal posts in an endless construction schedule.

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Kennedy Plaza at lower right and Burnside Park at upper left. (GateHouse Media)

Worse, however, is that Kennedy Plaza is the most rational site for a bus terminal in Providence. A new shuttle between Kennedy Plaza and Providence Station would provide for at least that aspect of the transit system’s genuine needs, which were inflated in order to justify the 2014 bond issue. A new bus hub at the train station makes no sense, and adding three more bus hubs makes even less sense.

Those three are to be built at the Garrahy Judicial Complex near the I-195 corridor, the Victory Plating site near Rhode Island Hospital, and what the Journal describes as “between Washington Street and Exchange Terrace.” Huh? That’s Burnside Park! Is the Journal’s description wrong? Possibly. Or is the plan merely to hop the buses from one side of Washington Street to the other? Impossible. Even from these incompetents, that’s taking implausibility way too far.

It sounds like they plan to redistribute buses, bus riders and idlers who are not waiting for a bus (the real target of this plan) from one central place to three or four decentralized places. It would make more sense (and cost far less) to have buses pick up and let off riders at bus stops on routes extending in all directions from Kennedy Plaza. This is how buses operate in most cities. But maybe that’s not “creative” enough for the “Creative Capital.”

I think people like former mayor Joe Paolino, long a downtown property czar, exaggerate the anxiety caused by those who while away their idle hours in the plaza. He proposed the ban on smoking to shoo them off and that apparently has not worked. Now he – and others, too, of course – want taxpayers to finance a reworking of downtown’s familiar patterns in order to get insufficiently chic citizens out of their corporate hair.

Isn’t that what the police, God bless ’em!, are for?

But then the city would have to fill its hundred or so unfilled police slots. Well then, fill them! That, along with keeping Kennedy Plaza as a central bus hub (and returning the old Art Nouveau waiting kiosks) would cost a whole lot less and be far more efficient.

And far more beautiful. But then, beauty and creativity are considered mutually exclusive nowadays by young creatives – and their corporate artist wannabe followers. Do they have a right to exercise their will to ugly at the expense of the rest of us? No. Do they have the power to do so anyway? We shall see.

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Reverse landscape of despair

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Townhouses on Ruskin Place in Seaside, Fla. (explore30a.com)

Understandably, an overlooked part of the debate about architecture is the ease of moving back to tradition in building cities and towns.

My blog on Friday, “Modern architecture is killing us,” quoted extensively from James Howard Kunstler’s essay “The Landscape of Despair” in the Daily Caller. It ended with a passage from Sir Roger Scruton, which I introduced by noting that he “describes what societies across the globe have abandoned” – traditional cities and towns – “which we can have back anytime we want, basically just by asking. But first we must realize that it is what we want.”

Just by asking? Yes! And realizing what we want? Yes! Let me explain.

First, reading Kunstler on the way we live in ugly cities and towns, it must be clear that we want something else, and why not something that works and is beautiful, too? It is Scruton’s belief (and Kunstler’s too, I’m sure) that the traditionally designed buildings, cities and towns that we have largely lost had a gentling effect on the human condition. People are happier and behave in a more civilized manner when their surroundings do not cause feelings of abandonment and despair. History seems to demonstrate that. Despite all our technological advances over the past half century, life has grown more coarse and less civilized at all levels. However we might explain this, the ugliness of our built environment, with the individual and collective anomie it fosters, must surely contribute. Kunstler’s description suggests that the contribution is devastating.

So yes, I think it is fair to say that what we want is to have back what we abandoned, that is, the generally attractive traditional settings in which we once lived our lives.

The harder question is can we get it back just by asking?

That overstates the case, but I believe we can. The photo atop this post is of a row of townhouses in Seaside, Fla., a beach community designed under the New Urbanist umbrella – which is (or maybe was) a modern effort to revive the beauty and practicality of pre-World War II communities. I chose it because it is remarkably charming, but its charm is, as a practical matter, within reach. There are many other models of gracious living, such as almost the entirety of Paris, that today are available only to the wealthy – not because they are unfeasible at lower income levels but because so few are built or remain from older times. A historic district is merely a neighborhood built before World War II. Their prices are bid upward astronomically. To build beautiful is not unnaturally expensive, but the industry encompassing development, design and construction has evolved so as to favor the quick buck for shareholders at the expense of, rather than to provide for, the needs of people who use and occupy the “product.”

So, yeah, let’s “just ask” industry leaders to do the right thing!

Seriously, this requires finding a key, a tipping point that will shift the market paradigm. That has been done in history many times before, from the horse and buggy to the cell phone. In U.S. cities and towns, anxiety over modern architecture and urban renewal was easily leveraged into a mass movement – historic preservation. It will not be easy, merely easier (a lot easier) than solving most of the problems that face society today.

Making peace instead of war, avoiding climate catastrophe, feeding the hungry, reducing disparities of income and class, educating the young, ending mass shootings and inner-city crime – these challenges will not be resolved until society agrees how. In architecture and planning, agreement that beauty is preferable to ugliness already exists to a degree that, in a democratic society, should enable a paradigm shift. How to incorporate beauty into our built environment is already well known and widely desired. The majority who equate traditional settings with beauty and modernist settings with ugliness is sizable enough that action can be mobilized. But most people tune out their built environment because it is so bad and seems so hard to do anything about – so hopeless. Just imagining a reversal of our landscape of despair is hard enough. Still, we need only realize that we have the power to bring real change in our built environment.

How to activate that realization is the next big question. Trying to improve education in architecture and planning is vital, but could take decades without a timely intervention from outside academe. Such an intervention, pushing us to a tipping point, might well take the form of a shift in the approach of architects and planners to, say, climate change, going from “gizmo green” to the design of houses that harness nature to regulate indoor climate (windows that open and close, for example), as we did for centuries before the thermostat age. Or it could be that a major publicity campaign to rebuild the original Pennsylvania Station might spark a public reaction that pushes New York politics to a tipping point, which could generate new traditional projects nationwide and beyond. Or it might be a discovery that public participation in the local development process can be fun. Direct action to rattle developers at design hearings. Abbie Hoffman might come out of retirement (or the grave) to write another book, Steal This Hearing!

Or maybe something else. There are many possibilities. That our landscapes of despair must change for the health and well-being of society, and the planet, is clear enough. Here is a very brief video by Roger Scruton on Poundbury, a new town built with traditional techniques. Scruton explains the simple desires that Poundbury satisfies. “The details are restful to the eye,” he says. Let us continue to discuss suggestions toward that end.

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From video of Roger Scruton in Poundbury. “The details are restful to the eye.”

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How modernism is killing us

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Suburban strip malls epitomize “The Landscape of Despair.” (Courtesy of Jim Kunstler)

In my post on Tuesday, “Alien spaceship in Alberta!,” author and iconoclast James Howard Kunstler tagged Edmonton’s new Deconstructivist library as August’s “Eyesore of the Month.” (The name pegs the style as accurately as that of Brutalism.) Well, as they say, ugly is as ugly does, and that building certainly does not stop at merely searing the eye.

“What you’re witnessing,” wrote Kunstler, “is western civilization incrementally losing its dignity, along with its heart, soul, and mind.”

It turns out that Kunstler had just that same day published “The Landscape of Despair: How Our Cities and Towns Are Killing Us” in the Daily Caller magazine. He paints a vivid portait of one possible explanation for the mass shootings in America: how ugly places destroy the human spirit. “[W]hat is uniformly overlooked about the current scene,” he writes, “is the physical arrangement of daily life on the American landscape, how it affects us in unreckoned ways, and what a tragic fiasco it has become.”

While the phenomenon Kunstler criticizes is destroying cities as well, here he aims his barbs primarily at suburbia. He notes that audience members at his frequent lectures wonder at how every crudscape boulevard, no matter how ritzy the surrounding suburbs, looks the same. The second complaint is always “It’s all so ugly!” Yes it is, he adds. But it’s even worse:

What you’re seeing out there in all those clownish burger sheds, unvarying big-box stores, office “parks,” and boring tract houses is not mere ugliness. It represents something much more profoundly malign. This immersive ugliness is entropy-made-visible. Entropy is the force in the physical universe that drives things toward stasis and death. Entropy is what you want to steer clear of as much as possible. Living in an entropy-saturated environment is not good for you. Your brain processes the message that it sends out — this way toward death! — if perhaps only subliminally … and the mind revolts.

He continues:

It is a powerful message. It must make Americans deeply depressed and anxious. Being immersed in suburbia, we barely register the pain it inflicts on us. It’s monotonous without being tranquil. The illegible cacophony of signage distresses your neurology. There is no reward in being there. The entire ensemble functions as a kind of uninvited punishment. It is literally disorienting in the sense that it might be anyplace.

Indeed, it is nigh on to everyplace! Kunstler notes that anyplace is an abstraction that lacks the required specificity of home.

This is what has disappeared over the past three-quarter’s of a century of modern architecture and planning, which has only recently experienced a burp of resistance as traditional building has struggled to reassert itself, with a huge assist from historic preservation – a mass movement that emerged suddenly after little more than a decade of urban renewal. Normal citizens were literally “scared straight” by the prospect of modernist houses and developments looming over neighborhoods in which they’d invested their lives and their fortunes. Kunstler describes what has largely been lost but could still be revived:

There are well-established methods for the design and assembly of human habitats that are worth living in, but you get very little of that in the USA. Even our “best” cities have become demolition derbies. What is especially absent, as I have averred to earlier, is artistry consciously applied to our surroundings. You can lay some of the blame for that on the dogmas of modernism, since the schools of architecture are marinated in it, especially the hatred of ornament, which means we’re forbidden a visual language to communicate our connection to nature (that is, everything in the universe). In fact, modernism has amounted to a campaign to explicitly denature the human project. …

The neurotic reaction is the wish to scrub any signs of dangerous human expression from the buildings we live among. Along with that, we have erased anything that might amount to charm, the quality of being grateful to be alive in the first place. A life without charm is a zombie existence spent in places not worth caring about.

The eyesore of the library in Edmonton, Alberta, darkening the spirit of its downtown square, is only the latest manifestation of this zombie culture in our cities. Only a few American cities have more than a smidgeon of cultured architecture remaining. My post of a few days ago, “City hall as happening place,” shows the same dark phenomenon as Edmonton’s library cavorting around in happyface. What of the public realm, indeed the very town halls where the public’s business is transacted? Kunstler keenly regrets that the typical town official can’t begin to imagine that it matters a tinker’s damn what town hall actually looks like.

But it does matter. Because every crummy town hall in America on a boulevard of chain stores damages the public realm and what it represents: the common good. The public realm is the physical manifestation of the common good. When you dishonor the public realm, you will dishonor the common good, and that is exactly how it has gone with us for the past several generations. And that damage has now manifested in grotesque crimes against the public in the public realm.

It’s not incidental that some of our worst buildings are the giant centralized schools, designed as if they were aircraft assembly plants or insecticide factories. They are ill-conceived in too many ways to count. Their size alone creates an alienating zone of estrangement in which students are ciphers rather than persons. This manner of supposed education sets off some of the worst tribal instincts in the kids, who desperately need to identify with something. And there is always a leftover cohort of kids who either can’t identify with others in such a bewildering setting, or are rejected by the tribes and cliques that self-organize as a defense against estrangement. … Is there more than a tiny chance that some of the kids subjected to this alienating environment, and these pressures, might grow homicidally enraged at those around them?

The only way I can hope to convey any real sense of the depth of sensibility that characterizes Kunstler’s description is to urge readers to read the whole essay. But he continues, getting down to the nub of the issue:

Then consider the milieu outside of school: a tract house in some dreary matrix of identical houses physically separated from the civic and commercial infrastructure of the “town” (if you can even call it that) by the zoning laws. If the two-parent household is intact (statistically unlikely), both parents are liable to be at work when that alienated kid is delivered home by the yellow school bus. He’s too young to have driver’s license, and anyway none of the family cars are available, so he’s stuck there. At home, the kid has access to movies and TV shows that valorize acts of extreme violence, or he can play video games in which he gets to play the “shooter,” which can amount to tactical training for mass murder. When that gets boring, he can divert himself with free online porn and self-pleasuring, which afterward only tends to re-emphasize his aloneness, lack of connection, and desperate longing for affection and meaning. He knows he did not create this socially impoverished environment and all its punishments. Perhaps the kid has been able to score drugs at school, another layer of reality distortion. After a dinner by himself of microwaved burritos — mom and dad have long commutes — he listens to some “death metal” music or some rap about being a violent gangster. He falls asleep immersed in grievances and fantasies about avenging them.

Aren’t you a little surprised that we don’t have more school shootings?

The question answers itself. But wait, there’s more:

We’re entering a new age of greatly reduced expectations and activities brought about by resource and capital scarcity. The colossal matrix of suburbia itself has three plausible destinies, none of them mutually exclusive: slums, salvage, and ruins. The furnishings and accessories of suburbia are already in trouble. The mortgage train-wreck of 2008 signaled the beginning of the end of single-family home suburbia. (The young generation, locked into the college loan repayment treadmill, may never be able to buy a house.) The collapse of “brick-and-mortar” retail is the next shoe to drop. Ultimately, Internet retail will follow, since it is based on the absurd proposition that every item bought in this land must make a long journey by truck to its destination. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Eventually, new systems of downscaled regional and local commerce will self-reorganize emergently. The next mall will be your old Main Street.

Kunstler sees this degenerative trend in retail (which may take longer to unravel than he sometimes seems to think) matched by our school systems, which will devolve into various systemic iterations of home schooling – and perhaps not a moment too soon.

This brings to mind Kunstler’s deft series of “World Built by Hand” novels, which depict our world – including the strangely enchanting aspects of its revival – after the pyramid scheme of crises he describes and deplores has already toppled civilization as we know it. They are a very effective sort of non-science fiction, all of which I have read and enjoyed.

I must not conclude without a shout-out to Prof. Nikos Salingaros, the mathematician and design theorist at the University of Texas (San Antonio), who addresses with equal vigor, from the perspective of neuroscience, how ugly modern architecture causes both sick cities and personal illness, physical and mental, among their occupants. Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, sez Mother Nature.

But I do want to end this extended blog post on Kunstler’s longstanding analysis of society’s miasma on a more positive note. This passage is from Sir Roger Scruton’s 1995 book, The Classical Vernacular: Architectural Principles in an Age of Nihilism – one of my bibles. He describes what societies across the globe have abandoned, which we can have back anytime we want, basically just by asking. But first we must realize that it is what we want:

The classical idiom does not so much impose unity as make diversity agreeable. The London street in which I live contains houses of every shape and size, arranged behind façades that stand politely beside one another. The porticos are identical, as are the window frames – each being cobbled together from standard parts. No house obtrudes into the path of the pedestrian, but each meets the pavement with obvious signs of welcome. The windows, crowned by moulded architraves, have that kind of half-smiling look which permits you to glance into them; the flight of steps softens the approach to the door, and provides a useful area of neutral ground between the public and the private. … The classical wall, which is humanly proportioned, safe, gregarious, and quietly vigilant, constantly reminds the pedestrian that he is not alone, that he is in a world of human encounter, and that he must match the good manners of the wall which guides him.

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Alien spaceship in Alberta!

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Library of Edmonton, Alberta. Jim Kunstler’s “Eyesore of the Month.” (kunstler.com)

Imagine if the charming little spaceship that landed on the Mall in The Day the Earth Stood Still had looked like this. Full global fright would have been the instantaneous and immutable reaction. Sorry, no negotiation over a meeting of the world’s great minds for peace. Blast away! Movie over!

Actually, this is the downtown library of Edmonton in the peaceful Canadian province of Alberta. Why have the Mounties not surrounded it and called in air strikes from the Royal Canadian Air Force? Don’t ask me.

But here is what the indefatigable James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere, World Made by Hand) had to say about the building, which is the August “Eyesore of the Month” on his blog Clusterfuck Nation:

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This replaced original library (below).

Behold the renovated Edmonton, Alberta, downtown main library … or is an alien invasion under way? It’s hard to imagine a more aggressively menacing building than this intergalactic war-wagon. Message: Surrender, you miserable earthlings! Your way-of-life is over. So it goes with the unending quest for cutting edge novelty in the mind-fucked precincts of contemporary architecture.

This humdinger cost $84 million (Canadian).

See below, the original Edmonton Library … and below that, the miserable interim replacement that the current “skin-job” renovation covered up. What you’re witnessing is western civilization incrementally losing its dignity, along with its heart, soul, and mind.

Kunstler is correct that western civilization is losing its dignity, along with its heart, soul and mind. This loss is being replaced by aggressively menacing buildings like that. What something looks like has meaning. Such buildings signify the descent of once-flourishing societies into soulless machines, with the cogs, or humans, transformed into unthinking automatons.

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Career & Technical Academy. (Studio Jaed)

Providence is lucky to have only one single such building (so far); unfortunately, it is the Providence Career & Technical High School, completed circa 2009 at a cost of $90 million (U.S.). A year ago, on the first day of school, a boy was shot dead there. Cause and effect are surely very attenuated in that case, but not quite so much as we may suppose. This architecture is called Deconstructivism. No joke.

Its antidote in architecture, and perhaps in some way its antidote to current trends in society, is more than adequately represented by the design of Edmonton’s original library:

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The stately capitol of R.I.

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View between dome (right) and tourelle from roof of Rhode Island State House. (Photo by author)

In whole or in part, the design of the Rhode Island State House (1901) can be read at many levels, directly or intuitively. The volutes of the Ionic capitals on the four cupolas, or tourelles, surrounding the dome suggest the scrolls on which early Greek democratic principles where written. The dentils, or teeth, underlining the cornices of both the dome and one of its four tourelles may to some suggest the grinding of citizens’ teeth at the behavior of the inmates of the capitol. On the other hand, the dentils and the volutes may truly be no more than timeless classical forms designed to evoke no deeper meaning at all. (Remember to duck at incoming from the academic classicists!)

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Dome of the R.I. State House. (Etsy)

The four tourelles may be said to be the dome’s Praetorian guard. But maybe that’s not quite correct. Too authoritarian for the Ocean State. Maybe they just represent Rhode Island citizens looking reverently upward at the dear dome and the Independent Man at its summit.

Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White, the nation’s leading architectural firm of the Gilded Age, designed the Rhode Island capitol. He did not leave a manual for the use of Rhode Islanders hoping to penetrate more deeply into meaning of the building (at least not so far as I know). Books that assign meaning to classical forms trace their significance to Greek and Roman mythology, but whether they manage to divine true meaning remains difficult to discern.

The Ionic column, for example, is said to reply to the masculine, soldierly Doric column, with the volutes or scrolls on the Ionic capital representing the curls of a Greek lady’s hair style. But others attribute the volute to the horns of a ram – a somewhat less womanly interpretation, to say the least. Maybe the four volutes atop each column capital foreshadow future four-wheeled vehicles. The dome itself boasts a colonnade of columns known as “composite” – a mixture of the Corinthian and the Ionic. A mixture of the male and the female? Well, maybe. But that’s a matter for another day.

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The Independent Man. (RI.gov)

What is the Independent Man, once called Hope (a decidedly feminine name for a decidedly masculine figure), who stands on top of the dome, doing with that spear? Not much, it appears. Nevertheless, among the politicians who toil in the chambers below, do sticklers to the party line blush when they look up at him? Do sticklers to the party lines of opposition and reformist factions blush with equal radiance? For they too are members of the state’s many competing herds of independent minds. Is our dear Independent Man proud of that rumble over which he presides? Or is his spear a weapon to keep them in line? Or to punish them?

Symbols of justice often take the form of a blindfolded Lady Justice holding up the scales to weigh her product in the balance. Does her blindfold signify her inattention to facts or to the truth? Of course not. It means that she is impartial, meting out justice evenhandedly, regardless of the wealth and status of petitioners for justice in the legal system. In most systems this impartiality is debatable, but it is ever and always the ideal striven for over time.

Whatever their symbolic meaning, the ornamental forms of the classical canon result in beauty, which might be deemed necessary to the evocation of stature, dignity, respect, esteem, pride, grandeur, regality, nobility, majesty, lordliness, magnificence, honesty, gravity, godliness, sobriety, righteousness, or whatever citizens were supposed to look up to as the symbolic meaning of their societies’ most imposing architecture at this or that stage in the long history of the formal development of classicism at its highest levels.

These forms have been used so long to evoke valuable qualities that they have come to be seen as intrinsically beautiful in almost every land where they prevail (or once prevailed). Cynical expressions of degraded meaning (as suggested here and there above) would scarcely fool observers into doubting their instinctive respect for the more laudable symbolism of these forms. Is there a connection between feelings of respect and feelings of beauty? In the broadest sense the answer is certainly yes. Surely, reader, you must agree!

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Rhode Island State House, designed by Charles Follen McKim. (mikedooleyphotography.com)

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Tenn. Tuxedo & P. Purebred

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The image above of the Rhode Island State House (Charles Follen McKim, 1900), set against a classical metropolitan backdrop in its role as City Hall, is from the 2007 film Underdog. That year I wrote a column for the Providence Journal called “Have no fear, Providence is here!” It ran exactly 12 years ago, the day before I married my own Polly Purebred, Victoria Somlo. Linked below is that column, which I reprinted as a blog post on Oct. 20, 2015, with an intro I wrote while “under the weather,” as I am, coincidentally, today.

https://architecturehereandthere.com/2015/10/20/underdog-ciampa-ri-movie-sets/

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How to create great streets

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One of three photos that rotate slowly on home page of Create Streets’ website. (Create Streets)

Headquartered in London, Create Streets seeks to teach Britons and their place-making institutions how to make better cities and towns. Its mission does not hesitate to include beauty in its remit. Its founder, Nicholas Boys Smith, is now co-chairman (along with Sir Roger Scruton) of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which proposes to bring beauty into British housing policy. The main concerns of Create Streets’ activities and research are reflected in the commission’s newly issued interim report.

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A second Create Streets image.

In Great Britain no less than in the United States, the revival of beauty as a factor in architecture and planning faces opposition from organizations that have spent the last half-century or more ignoring or denying the relevance of beauty in place-making. Beauty has been for decades the topic that dare not speak its name. Even as beauty has managed to creep back into the discussion, a definite tiptoeing through the tulips remains as a supposedly practical strategy for getting along and remaining relevant in a realm of scant design diversity.

Yes, beauty is the focus of a new commission of the British government, and the word is used regularly in its interim report. However, the building types used conventionally to “build beauty” for centuries, described with words like “traditional” and “classical,” are not named but only hinted at in lame euphemisms and roundabout formulations. Of course, the report is the work product of a government commission, so bureaucratese is hardly unexpected.

A certain squeamishness afflicts even those organizations most explicitly interested in beauty, however, especially if they promote traditional and classical architecture. One example is the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art in the U.S. Another example is the Congress for the New Urbanism, also in the U.S., which, to judge by its mission statement and the images on its website, has largely abandoned the traditional streetscapes that forged its early, lightning-swift transformation into a popular urbanist movement.

Even Create Streets has succumbed, to judge by its home page’s rotating images. Two of the three shots, top and middle in this post, are unabashedly traditional. The third may or may not be a photograph. It suggests a street in Amsterdam, with buildings scaled to create intimacy along a canal. Except that each design appears stiltedly pro-forma. Their creepy sets of mechanical “originality” and interlocking formulae face off across the canal. The façades conspire to create a brooding animosity. What’s with the lowering sky? It is as if the website designers were under pressure to include a modernist example, but despaired of finding a photo of an actual great street, so they made one up. Perhaps. Whether this is a photo or a render, the buildings collectively undermine the intimacy promised by their obedience to the dictates of scale and diversity, never mind the principle of beauty. How exasperating.

The understandable human reluctance to confront modern architecture head on makes it difficult for proponents of beauty to use words or pictures to articulate a cohesive message. Some will argue that such evasion is merely a temporary measure to facilitate progress. Eventually, however, this “can’t we all just get alongism” must be overcome if beauty is to be achieved rather than merely advocated.

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A third image on the Create Streets opening home-page screen is decidedly modernist.

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Renoir’s “problem nudes”

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Detail of “Bather With Blonde Hair” (1903) by Pierre-August Renoir. (Clark Art Institute)

I have not seen “Renoir: The Body, The Senses,” an exhibition at the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, but an online correspondent sent me a titillating review of it by Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker, which is entitled “Renoir’s Problem Nudes.” I have absolutely no idea why my correspondent sent it to me (nevertheless I shield h/er identity), but it seemed like it might be some sort of challenge, so much so that I replied [trigger warning] “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-inch pole.”

Still, this is a blog about design, mostly architectural but not exclusively. An Impressionist nude like Renoir’s “Bather With Blonde Hair” sits somewhere between a classical nude and a modernist nude, between a Titian nude and a Picasso nude. In architecture, an Art Deco building sits somewhere between a Wren and a Gehry. In both realms of art, a minor revolt against tradition precedes a major revolution, also, naturally, against tradition. Schjeldahl seems to view Renoir as the subject of a “purge” by “the more politicized precincts of the current art world.” The Clark exhibit has teed up Renoir as a stand-in for sexism. Art radicals are invited to swing away. He writes:

Everything in Renoir that is hard to take and almost impossible to think about, because it makes no concessions to intelligence, affirms his stature as a revolutionary artist. He stood firmly against the past in art and issued a stark challenge to its future. You can’t dethrone him without throwing overboard the fundamental logic of modernism as a sequence of jolting aesthetic breakthroughs, entitled to special rank on the grounds of originality and influence.

In that passage Schjeldahl presents Renoir as a revolutionary when he was, as an Impressionist, more of a hesitant dissident, dancing on the walls of the compound, as Tom Wolfe put it in another context, eager to be in the Salon even as he thumbs his nose at it. His nudes didn’t have the same sort of problems as a Picasso nude, with both eyes to the left of her nose or her breasts wandering around somewhere in the thoracic zone. Even Picasso’s nudes were natural compared to the nudes (if you can call them that) of the Cubists, who themselves were modest compared with some of the nudes who emerge after abstract painting went around the bend, at which point it was hard to recognize the body, let alone whether it was clothed or not. A similar progression in architecture, with a brief Art Deco/Stripped (but not nude) Classical period, followed the painting revo by about two decades.

I assure readers that this post is far less titillating than Schjeldahl’s New Yorker review, which itself must give way to the comments that accompanied my correspondent’s email, which shall remain under a cloak of censorship. Aside from the titillating, there is much fascinating material in the review that goes completely unacknowledged in this post.

Although I suppose it doesn’t make me any less sexist (to be a man is to be sexist, right?), to at least put my relative modesty on display, below is the sort of nude I prefer. It is by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and is less sugary than the Renoir (to use the word Schjeldahl uses), with a more intelligent face. Is it entirely classical? I don’t know, but it’s classical enough to trigger my appreciation.

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“Odalisque in Grisaille” (c. 1824-34) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. (Wikipedia)

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