About a year ago, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown was completed, replacing the Yorktown Victory Center – a quotidian slanty modernist version of colonial (it is brick) – with a classical, quasi-Palladian building of considerable merit. Today, Virginia senior architectural historian Calder Loth sent its main entry portico as his Friday photo of the week on TradArch – in black and white to highlight the detailing on a dull day.
The conversation about the photo among the classical discussion group wandered around, shifting between the building at hand and generalizations about other serious attempts, occasionally imperfect, to achieve beauty through classicism. One such comment was especially engaging, coming in response to a note of regret expressed earlier by another commenter, who said the new history museum’s could use dentils, or some other element of detail, to punctuate the horizontality of the building’s long cornice. Which inspired Joel Pidel to comment thus:
Compositions are quite flaccid these days. There is little “movement.” It’s just kinda “there.” For background buildings, this is generally okay, but it still could be improved. There’s a rationalizing tendency in contemporary classical architecture that needs to give way to a more artistic logic and sensibility, which we seem to have lost with regard to composition. Center this, align that, clean lines, full entablatures, canonic proportions, et al. Often missing from the composition are interruption, overlap, syncopation, scale changes, rhythms and rhythmic changes, elision, omission, compression, tension, simultaneity of “readings,” foreground/middleground/background planes, etc. And of course, there is the issue of ornamentation that accentuates/highlights surfaces and allows the eye to feel and move along them, or focus on them as ornamental objects rather than patterns. We could use any number of historic and contemporary classical buildings to illustrate this, especially those with obvious historical precedents which are themselves not as successful as the original.
[Even after decades of classical revival] we don’t “see” very well, still, and our sensitivity has to be heightened through more thorough, more careful “looking” at and living with the masterpieces (to the extent possible). We have to return to understanding how things “move” by establishing relationships between the parts within the whole, in an analogous way to how our eyes move around a painting. The painting itself doesn’t move, but we come alive to it because of the composition, where our vision can be both moving and at rest simultaneously.
The building was designed by Westlake Reed Leskosky, a modernist firm based in Cleveland. And hats off to them for taking a dip into classicism – an experiment that most modernist firms refuse (are afraid?) to indulge. Although I think Pidel was speaking more generally, the firm’s relative unfamiliarity with classical work may be evident not so much in excessive horizontality as in the extent to which its proper horizontality is largely unrelieved. Dentils running along its cornice might have offered a pleasing rhythmic counterpoint, as suggested by the first commenter. Still, the main portico itself seems, to me at least, to provide plenty of relief.
The museum has a Palladian feel – one commenter described the architects as having sought to capture Palladio’s Villa Emo in the rear-view mirror. Its major departure from strict Palladianism, however, is its lack of symmetry. The main portico is way to the right, with a smaller entrance in the middle, and a secondary frontage set back to the left. But this is how classicism expresses creativity – a venial sin if a sin at all.
I applaud the American Revolution Museum for replacing its modernist facility with one more in keeping with both its setting in Yorktown and its mission in history. Not to put too fine a point on it: Revolutionary!