Justin Shubow’s recent talk in Boston, the first annual Bulfinch Awards Lecture, was delivered in the afternoon before that evening’s gala, thrown by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art to celebrate the eight Bulfinch laureates of 2016. Shubow drilled down into the flaws of modern architecture as civic art. The president of the National Civic Art Society went on to consider the errors of the Excellence in Architecture program by which the General Services Administration selects architects to build the federal government’s vast array of buildings and monuments.
The program was used to select Frank Gehry to design a memorial to Dwight Eisenhower. The NCAS has taken the lead in opposing the Gehry design, which reflects GSA’s anti-classical biases. Shubow quotes Gehry’s assertion that “life is chaotic, dangerous, and surprising. Buildings should reflect that.” Nothing could be more ridiculous. The Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s skewed view of its own purpose is demonstrated by its willingness to support what is, as Shubow suggests, “a memorial not to Eisenhower but to Gehry.”
But I found the most valuable part of Shubow’s lecture to be his opening passages that get down to first principles. Instead of selecting the juiciest lines from the lecture, I will just reprint those passages from the beginning about why classicism remains the most vital method of expressing public virtue and national aspiration in America:
We begin with the premise that a civilization’s most important architecture is its civic art and architecture since these structures are consciously intended to express ideas and values.
After much of the British parliament was severely damaged by German bombing in World War II, Winston Churchill gave a speech calling for rebuilding the parliament exactly as it was. He famously said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Like Pericles, the builder of the Parthenon in ancient Athens, all great statesmen have recognized the importance of architecture for the body politic, including evil geniuses like Hitler and Stalin, both of whom were architects in their own right. As Mies van der Rohe said, “Architecture is the true battleground of the spirit.”
Excuse me, Justin. I cannot resist an interruption to vent: The spirit Mies himself battled for did not exactly represent the American ideal, even after he emigrated to America in 1937. Prior to departing Germany, he had battled to persuade the Nazis that modernism should be the design template for the Third Reich. But to continue with your opening remarks …
America’s Founding Fathers took great care in choosing the design of the nation’s capital and its core buildings of government. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson personally oversaw the competitions to design the Capitol Building and White House, and influenced the designs themselves. As you likely know, both were also talented architects in their own right. Jefferson advised Americans that “architecture is among the most important arts; and it is desirable to introduce taste into an art which shows so much.”
Jefferson had great ambitions for new American architecture: He aimed “to improve the taste of my countrymen,” “to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the respect of the world,” “and procure them its praise.”
Washington and Jefferson consciously decided that the plan of Washington, D.C., and its most important structures were to be classical in design, the physical manifestation of the American form of government and its political aspirations, including such values such as good order, benevolent hierarchy, and reason. This decision connected the capital to the ideals of republican Rome and democratic Athens.
From our vantage point, we can also say the choices they made evinced the mindset of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason. Believing the classical tradition to be time-honored and timeless, Jefferson expressed his personal desire for a capitol designed after “one of the models of antiquity, which have had the approbation of thousands of years.” He also said he believed that “the noble architecture of antiquity [is] the constant measure of permanent values.”
The Founders invented a national idiom using the traditional vocabulary and grammar from the classical world. The White House and Capitol, the National Mall, and the plan for the entire city – they are universally recognized symbols of the United States that we take pride in.
The founders intentionally situated their day and age within the two-millennia-long tradition of classicism. They recognized its dignity, its aspiration to beauty, its harmony with the natural world and human perception, and its capability of expressing meaning to the citizens it serves. They were founders and framers not just in government but in architecture. They understood the wisdom of the past and adapted and improved on it.
The spirit of the style war between classical and modern architecture flows from the truths above. Shubow also showed courthouse designs (below) that illustrate how much modern architecture is actually designed to undermine the “eternal verities” expressed above and through classical architecture. In spite of the public’s intuitive recognition of modernism’s flaws, such designs still predominate.
The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, its New England chapter, and its allies at the National Civic Art Society all work toward the noble goal of promoting classical architecture and its return to a rightful prominence in the architecture of America and the world.