Wisdom of the Bulfinch

This year's Bulfinch winners standing on the Grand Staircase of the Statehouse. (Photo by David Brussat)

This year’s Bulfinch winners on the Grand Staircase of the Statehouse. (Photo by David Brussat)

Last week I attended the fifth annual ceremony at Charles Bulfinch’s Massachusetts Statehouse honoring the awards named in his honor by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. The usual crowd of people was there along with their impeccable taste (they are classicists, after all!).

The winners gave elegant little lectures describing their victorious efforts, and the hors d’ouevres were, as usual, delicious in the extreme. The highlight of the evening (at least for those in the audience who did not step forward to receive a Bulfinch Medal) was the lecture by chapter member Aaron Helfand, of Albert Righter & Tittmann. He sought to answer the running question “… Is This Really Classical?” that probably pits classicist against classicist these days more than classicists against their modernist antagonists. In fact, I don’t think the word modernist was mentioned once by Aaron. Here are the first few passages from his talk, which may be read in its entirety here.

The Parthenon of Athens (top) and the Pantheon of Rome. (barnesandnoble.com)

The Parthenon of Athens (top) and the Pantheon of Rome. (barnesandnoble.com)

This year, as in past years, the awards recognize a remarkable variety of projects. The range in scale and type is to be expected; the awards invite submissions in a wide array of categories, from houses, to institutional and commercial architecture, to landscape design and craftsmanship. What may be more surprising is the stylistic range that is represented. One might well ask: Is the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art straying from its purview, perhaps, in celebrating Gothic academic buildings or Shingle-Style houses? While it is easy to point out the contrast between an understated shingle house and one featuring, say, a Roman temple-front, I would like to argue for the relevance of such buildings to our mission, the promotion of the classical tradition in New England.

 The use of the term “tradition” here is important, because it explains how an idea as disciplined as Classicism can remain flexible enough to ultimately connect projects as diverse as those we celebrate tonight. To state that classical architecture is capable of evolution is not a radical thought.

 The Parthenon and Pantheon may lay equal claim to the “classical” label, yet no one here would confuse a Greek temple with a Roman one.

 The connection between the two is not a matter of precise replication, but rather of Roman admiration for Greek architectural traditions, and their enthusiasm for engaging with and expanding those traditions in an artful and innovative way.

 As an example, the Romans did not abandon the Greek columnar orders just because their engineers were able to span greater distances using the arch. Rather, they fused the two forms together, and the resulting motif, at once traditional and novel, was so successful that it became the basis for emulation and expansion in its own right.

 That spirit of evolving tradition did not end with the fall of the Roman Empire.

Entire lecture by Aaron Helfand: 2014 Bulfinch Awards remarks – podium format

Illustrations for Helfand lecture: 141112 – Bulfinch Awards address – slides

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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