Henry and ‘the Heterodox’

Henry Hope Reed as a young man examining classical sculpture. (Courtesy of Andrew Reed)

Henry Hope Reed as a young man examining classical sculpture. (Courtesy of Andrew Reed)

Henry Hope Reed was such a perfectionist that his detractors, and perhaps even some of his friends, called him Henry Hopeless Reed. What he sought was too perfect, too unlikely ever to be built. Hopeless.

Since classical architecture is the most practical of arts, this contradiction gave rise to debate at last Saturday’s symposium on the legacy of the late Henry Reed, who died in 2013. Reed, among so many other accomplishments, founded Classical America, which has morphed into the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, whose Philadelphia chapter sponsored the symposium.

Reed and the ICAA, along with the nation’s (and indeed the world’s) only major classicist architecture school at the University of Notre Dame, are often lumped together as Palladiophiles by those who believe classicism is too stodgy in its reverence for the classical orders rediscovered in ancient Greece and Rome during the Italian Renaissance.

Well, call me a Palladiophile any time you want. I think the critics, and in particular Andres Duany, Driehaus Prize-winning leader of the New Urbanist movement, are way out of line. Not even Palladio was a Palladiophile if the term is taken to mean strict adherence to classical canon. He may indeed have commanded others to obey but he deviated when he liked, and so does every classicist, even today. The orders themselves encourage play both within and without their strictures. The important consideration is whether deviation is experimental based on knowledge of the orders or erroneous based on lack of same.

Duany is writing a treatise of virtually Vitruvian ambition, to be called Heterodoxia Architectonica, that “recalls to order” the disparate strands that have branched out from the Renaissance classicism for which Palladio is well known. Duany wants to “recapture” Louis Sullivan, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Jose Plecnik and other classicists of yore whose experimental tendencies laid them open to “capture” by modernist architectural historians, who contended that those architects’ deviation from the canon pointed the way toward modernism.

Let’s take them back! So says Andres, and he is right. But he may go too far if he also tries to “take territory” from the modernists by relabeling as classicist some architects who should remain in the modernist camp. If he tries to do so, his recall to order will be hopelessly confused.

Henry Reed was confused, if not quite hopelessly so, in his perfectionist’s exclusion of Gothic, Romanesque and other styles from the classical camp. Such traditional styles bear much more in common than the differences important to architectural historians. Historians of all kinds are more interested in change than in what continues without change in the human condition, which is its vast bulk. Yet in his otherwise excellent The Golden City (1959), Reed condemned architects who “set about joining different kinds of ornament or devising new kinds. … Oddest of all was the fortress-like work of Henry Hobson Richardson, whose buildings were said to be defensible only in the military sense.” It was sad to see Reed crack a rare joke at the expense of someone he ought to have considered an ally. He even descried a deficit of ornamentation in the canonical Pennsylvania Station itself!

Speakers at the symposium, including yours truly, defended their hero against criticism from proponents of a wider definition for the classical, often invoking the perfectionist label. But to an uncomfortable degree, Reed is guilty as charged. And yet Henry mellowed over time, and even in The Golden City there is evidence that he foresaw that a broader view was required if the classical revival whose founding he led were ever to dethrone his bete noire, the Picturesque Secession, “the Modern,” whose power remains well nigh incontestable in the architectural establishment of today.

“The acanthus that never dies,” Reed says in his hopeful conclusion, “is forever putting forth new leaves.” If I read my acanthus leaves correctly, maybe even Andres Duany can afford to consider Henry Hope Reed as territory that doesn’t need to be recaptured.

The symposium considered the prospect for a more extensive conference commemorating the centennial of Henry Hope Reed’s birth in 1915. By then, one hopes, the Duanian treatise will be a matter of public record, and Henry’s place in the Fifth Recall can be examined, with all due veneration, for its role in the future of the Golden City.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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