The Boston Design Center in the city’s Innovation District hosted a panel today, as part of Boston Design Week, on the relevance of classicism in contemporary design. All five panelists agreed that yes, classicism is still relevant. Classicism has a job of healing to do today after half a century with its opposite, modernism, at the controls. Right outside the windows was all the evidence you needed: the Innovation District itself, described by one panelist as the opposite of a humanistic environment.
Unfortunately, the Innovation District isn’t the only evidence. We are sur- rounded by the evidence, outside and inside, and around the world. It is killing us. Classicism is the antidote.
The discussion was put on by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art‘s New England chapter, whose president, David Andreozzi, opened the session and handed it off to its moderator, chapter member Eric Daum, an architect at Merrimack Design. He set the stage for the discussion with a rousing general description of classicism. He said the Roman architect Vitruvius defined its requirements as firmitas, utilitas and venustas – strength, use- fulness and delight. Modernism, he added, holds that strength and use- fulness are enough. Modernists “removed the human from design, and with it the belief that beauty mattered.” He concluded by asserting that classicists
believe that beauty is an essential part of architecture; that beauty is not subjective, but objective, as described by Vitruvius and refined through more than 2,000 years of Western tradition. We believe that people have a positive visceral response to classical design. Because beauty is desirable, it has a positive impact upon property value. But most importantly, beauty and tradition, through a rigorous authentic classicism, connect us to the flow of history, both to our past, but hopefully to future generations through the legacy of the built world we leave behind.
The next speaker, John Tittmann of the firm Albert, Righter and Tittmann and a former board member of the chapter, described how architecture might be said to represent the way a building and its neighbors create a block, blocks combine to form a neighborhood, and neighborhoods con- stitute the major parts of a city. This is the organic flow of a city, a history that fits into the broadest of nature’s schemes – the circadian rhythm of day and night, to which the city must conform. The grid of the hours of man’s activity as an urban creature forms the framework within which cities succeed or fail. When they succeed, their street networks look just like the chlorophilic skeleton of a leaf. Hence their sustainability over time.
Leslie-jon Vickory, the education committee chairwoman of the chapter’s board and an interior design architect at Hamady Architects, picked up the thread. She described how in her work she turns the influence of day and night into the architecture of inside and out. Along the shift from light to dark to light again, the art of interior design is deployed. Her diaphanous sketches of interiors help a client to ponder the character of a room in a house, and to move his or her mind’s eye through what Vickory described as “the place between reality and imagination.”
The next speaker, woodworker Oliver Bouchier, partner in the craft shop of Payne-Bouchier and a former chapter board member, reached backward to establish an even more sensual connection with “the pleasure and satisfac- tion of making prehistoric artifacts.” Ratcheting up from the hewing of rude stone edges, stone spear heads, polished jade and the earliest architecture, such as Stonehenge, Bouchier illustrated the ancient progress of craftsman- ship. That movement over time, he said, was accompanied by an ever more powerful and sophisticated sensuality in decorative creation. The joy of craft, Bouchier seemed to suggest, cannot be reconciled on any level with the ab- sence of feeling, soul and humanity that has overtaken the degenerative machine sterility of architecture in our time.
Finally came architect Ann Sussman, author (with Justin Hollander) of Cognitive Architecture, batting cleanup. Her research, using eye-tracking and other software to measure the neurophysiological response of the mind to pictures of our built environment, demonstrates that humans prefer active surfaces to blank surfaces. This turns out to be the main reason why people generally desire traditional, not modern, architecture. We are hard-wired to dread the stripped-down absence of articulation that characterizes most of modernism. Starting with what we know about mental illness and working back from her neuropsychological evidence, Sussman exposed the flaws in modern architecture’s founding mythology. All three of modernism’s main early pioneers, the Swiss/French Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (“Le Corbusier”) and Germans Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, suffered from mental illness. Gropius and Mies saw action in World War I and emerged with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while Corbusier was autistic.
Modernism’s original ban on ornament was based in part on a perceived need to break from past practices in architecture after the horrors of World War I. Whatever the merit of that justification, Sussman argued, the new style offended the residual desire for detail that arose from early mankind’s dire need for information about his surroundings. This survival mechanism evolved over millennia into today’s deep preference for ornament, the sort of embellishment purged from modern architecture. The brain’s clearest mani- festation of this need and its strongest tendency of all is to seek out facial imagery, very much including the symbolic faces that turn up in the place- ment of windows and doors in the façades of traditional buildings – faces that are rare in the blank walls of so much modernism.
The presentations ended and questions from the audience were invited. As when Sussman spoke to the chapter on Feb. 23 – reported in my post “Suss- man on Corbu’s autism” – an audience member wondered whether she is arguing that all modernist architects are mentally ill. Sussman replied that the idea was not that every modernist was mentally ill but that modernist architecture displays the unfortunate characteristics of mental illness baked into the architectural principles developed by its founders and maintained, cult-like (my characterization, not Sussman’s), by its adherents to this day.
The resulting degradation of the built environment is the most powerful reason for the continued relevance of classical architecture. President Andreozzi closed the event with a reminder that the chapter’s Bulfinch Awards are coming up on Saturday, April 29. Tickets to that event are available through a link on the chapter’s website.
Here are links to Eric Daum’s introduction and its illustrations: