Dish Dallas kitsch

Bo and Patty Pilgrim Chapel, at Dallas Baptist University. (DMN)

Bo and Patty Pilgrim Chapel, at Dallas Baptist University. (DMN)

Mark Lamster writes about architecture for the Dallas Morning News, which owns, at least for now, my employer, the Providence Journal (for sale by A.H. Belo, which also owns the Morning News).* So I was predisposed to be generous in my response to his essay “Kitsch Dallas: Why is the city of the future stuck in the past?” After all, he takes offense at how Dallas Baptist University has stolen the design of Joseph Brown’s First Baptist Church, in Providence, completed in 1775, for its student chapel. Lamster’s looking out for us, eh? Good for him!

John G. Mahler Student Center at DBU.

John G. Mahler Student Center at DBU.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it seems that Lamster isn’t interested in any platitudes that might put a more pleasant spin on his dislike for the school’s copying. He also debunks the Mahler Student Center, which he thinks looks too much like Independence Hall. But Lamster commits so many clichés and his view of architecture is so hackneyed, so lacking in basic fairness, charity and understanding, and so typical of the intellectually flaccid orthodoxy of an architectural commentariat that has not felt the need to defend its principles in decades, that pointing them out rather tersely must be considered a form of parental kindness.

Lamster writes well, and his lead-in to the piece is a great romp. He pretends to be taking a trip to visit famous colonial buildings along the east coast but it turns out his trip is only a few hours and he never leaves the Dallas area, visiting what he calls its “pastiche” architecture, which he purposely (I hope!) misunderstands in order to deplore. Some of the architecture he criticizes is poorly designed and assembled with cheap materials. Easy pokes at bloated targets are his stock in trade, apparently.

Notice how Lamster makes sure to set the subjects of his story’s photos behind embarrassing foregrounds – a basketball court, a parking lot – putting the buildings in their worst possible light. What a cheap shot! That is more a criticism of Dallas, or of the campus, than of the architecture itself. Any new traditional architecture will look a bit strange and uncomfortable set in what most of Dallas offers as built environment. But if beauty is to win back American cities, it has to start somewhere.

He wonders whether Georgian architecture can possibly be patriotic, since it’s named after King George, against whom we revolted. That may cause cognitive dissonance in the Lamsterian mind, but most people who dabble in architecture realize that it was Thomas Jefferson who promoted classicism – not specifically Georgian – as redolent of the experiment with democracy undertaken in ancient Athens.

But “so many of our founders were slaveholders”! So blame the buildings – and furthermore, blame the buildings that have been built since America purged itself of slavery. But how can those buildings have been built, Lamster must wonder, if slavery no longer existed? Those buildings look like they equate with slavery, so how can they even exist? Is there a disconnect here? If so, it passes over Lamster’s head. Oh well, just blame the buildings!

Space requires overlooking a host of howlers, but not this: “As one friend put it recently, you don’t drive a Ford Model T, so why build a Colonial Revival house?” Because you think it’s beautiful perhaps? Classical architecture goes back several millennia, and revival of (or more accurately, the continued use of) past styles goes back just as far. To consider a “revival” style as illegitimate today renders almost the entire history of architecture illegitimate – an illogical proposition, to say the least.

Headquarters of the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

Headquarters of the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

But “it’s not just a question of style. Contemporary design should respond to the ways we live now, taking advantage of the materials and technologies of the present.” Point to a single person who lives in a revival-style house who does not have a refrigerator, or whose house doesn’t use materials, traditional or modern, that have evolved over time since the period of revival.

Lamster reminds me of the people who say hiring a classicist to design a house is like hiring a doctor who uses 19th century surgical techniques or bleeds his sick patients. A third grader can see through these ridiculous arguments. The fact that they are still used regularly illustrates how the critical faculty of critics has weakened, since modern architecture has a powerful establishment that muscles past the objections of people who want beauty in their vicinity, and who like traditional architecture. Who the hell needs to bother trying to win an argument anymore? Not the modernists, apparently. Model T indeed!

Yes, the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s White House on the highway in from the airport tests even my patience, but it does not really look like the White House. It’s an imitation so cheap that even I cannot rise to its defense.

Old Parkland office development.

Old Parkland office development.

Lamster goes on to lambaste perfectly decent new traditional buildings like the Old Parkland. Somehow, he equates it with Jefferson’s academical village, the original campus he (Jefferson) designed for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It bears no such resemblance that I can detect beyond its brick, and a low wing that you can see in the photograph. It could be a “copy” of almost any large classical building of brick. Or to be more accurate, it could merely reflect architectural principles that have been used to design successful and attractive buildings for centuries.

Why – since Lamster had so many juicier targets easier to belittle for those even less knowledgeable about architecture than he is – did he choose to pick on Old Parkland? Probably because his real objection is not to new buildings that resemble buildings of the past (even if they don’t) so much as to new buildings that take up space that should be given to “architecture of our time.” Predictable but not defensible.

Well, I’m sorry if I have wasted readers’ time. I am shooting fish in a barrel. But yes, as Lamster well knows, that is fun.

* A.H. Belo Corp., owner of the Dallas Morning News, sold The Providence Journal to a chain that laid me off the day it took ownership, last September.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Dish Dallas kitsch

  1. Pingback: Shubow shellacks Lamster | Architecture Here and There

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  4. barry says:

    Perhaps you should suggest to Mr Lamster that he redefine “Georgian” to refer to George Washington, though he may denigrate referencing Presidents from a previous era as being stuck in the past.
    My Texas experience is limited, but I did spend a summer in Houston, and before arriving noted a major roadway “Old Spanish Trail.” Thinking of Spanish architecture and oaks drooping with Spanish moss, I was unprepared for its apparently endless jumble of fast food, nartional retail chains, gas stations, traffic lights…

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  5. The Model T was “a piece of junk, the Yugo of its day” (says Time Magazine) but the 1904 Rolls Royce sold for $7.3 million at an auction in 2004, one century after it was built.

    More relevantly, collectors have to take special care driving pre-World War One cars on public roads because they are from the dawn of automotive engineering. Designers back then were learning how to make cars that were comfortable for all drivers and safe at highway speeds. If traditional buildings dated from a time when architects were still working out the practicalities of building design, Lamster might have a point. But that’s not the case. The best historical buildings are superior in terms of commodity, firmness, and delight to the run-of-the-mill of modern buildings.

    And I bet Lamster’s friend would jump at the chance to tool around in a 1937 Mercedes-Benz 540K Special Roadster.

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