Classicism in La-La Land

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New $700 million campus for USC is Collegiate Gothic in style. (L.A. Times)(

You’d think that a simpatico of sorts might naturally have developed between classical architecture and the city of Los Angeles, home of Hollywood and its beautiful stars.  Doesn’t beauty love beauty? Apparently not. I suspect many celloid beauties like to boost confidence in their appearance by surrounding themselves with ugly buildings. How else to explain … ah, well, let’s just jump to the nut graf here.

(I hasten to add that the nut graf in a piece of journalism is where the correspondent briefly explains the matter at hand. A nut graf and a nut case are two different things.)

The University of Southern California recently opened a new campus that embraces the Collegiate Gothic style. C.L. Max Nikias, the university’s president, said at a dedication ceremony last week: “And let’s always remember, the looks of the University Village give us 1,000 years of history we don’t have. Thank you, and fight on!”

Well, maybe. But the event generated a critique by L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, who was bound and determined to misunderstand the new campus. Read his “Call it Collegeland: The new USC Village feels like a Disneyland-Hogwarts mashup.” And prepare to roll your eyes. Granted, the college president’s remarks opened a hole you could drive a truck through, but Hawthorne (predictably, I might add) has no intention of assessing the architecture objectively.

Indeed, it does not compare well with Yale’s new pair of Collegiate Gothic campuses in New Haven, by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. Still, the work at USC by Harley Ellis Deveroux is to be commended for its startling audacity, bringing classicism to La-La Land. Now that new classical architecture has a new major beachhead in California, maybe its influence will spread eastward in the usual manner.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. 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. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and 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 invest your prose with even more style and clarity, 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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7 Responses to Classicism in La-La Land

  1. Christopher Hawthorne says:

    Dear David,

    Have you seen the USC Village in person?

    Christopher

    Liked by 1 person

    • Of course not, Christopher, I have not seen it in person. My blog does not have the budget of the L.A. Times. Seeing a building in person does make a difference, I am sure, but I have seen photographs. I am not one of those who argue that nobody who has not been to war can opine on the goodness or badness of war. Likewise, while it is advantageous to see a building in person, it is not impossible to form valid judgments on a building without seeing it in person.

      But of course you know this already.

      If architecture criticism is to be limited only to those who can fly around to see architecture in person, something is very wrong.

      And your next question?

      Like

  2. Daniel Morales writes:

    “Now if we could only teach architects the craft of architectural design to help them succeed in what is a growing call for buildings with character and a sense of place.”

    Agreed. This raises three fundamental questions:

    1. Are our architecture schools recruiting faculty that are capable of teaching this material?

    2. Are young students demanding such courses from the departments where they study?

    3. Are the media helping by promoting the design of healing, human-scale environments?

    Until we can give positive, realistic, and constructive answers to these questions, architectural culture will continue to be stuck in the mud.

    Cheers,
    Nikos

    Like

  3. NS Coleman says:

    David,

    As an alumnus of USC and a student of Classical architecture and methodologies, I’ve had some pretty critical opinions about the the new Village for some time now (and of the large majority of my alma mater’s recent building campaign), and thought I’d add them here.

    First, these buildings are not Classical. A little gothic-inspired cast stone work can do little to hide the modernist developer-driven concrete frames underneath. Rather, all that we call ‘style’ here is more than a thin sheet of pastiche, paraded as the ‘Classical’, topped with fake ‘roofs’ propped on stilts to hide the enormous AC units behind. True Classical structures are founded upon the traditional values of proportion, finesse of detail, and verity of building techniques and materials. I would recommend Demetri Porphyrios’ excellent treatise on the topic, ‘Classicism is Not a Style’, or Leon Krier’s ‘Choice or Fate’ as two resources to compare the true Classical, against which the work at USC will appear little less than a farse.

    Secondly, these buildings do not ‘bring’ Classicism to Southern California. This commonly held misconception has not been helped by the prevalence of Modernism and its theorizing since the post-WWII building boom. Yet, there are many fine examples of Classical architecture that dot the Los Angeles Basin, from the Parkinson Brothers’ City Hall, or Union Station, to Julia Morgan’s Herald Examiner Building, Bertram Goodhue’s Central LIbrary, or many fine examples of the often misunderstood Irving Gill. Even USC’s own campus has its gems, namely Ralph Adams Cram’s Doheny Library, Bovard Auditorium, or Ralph Flewelling’s Mudd Hall of Philosophy. These are fine examples of truly Classical detailing and design methods. Even Southern California’s contemporary Classicists such as Moule & Polyzoides and Marc Appleton do a much more laude-worthy job of bringing traditional form to bear upon Los Angeles and its environs.

    I understand the role this blog plays in its opposition to Modernist philosophies and writings, and I know that you’re responding to Hawthorn’s scathing criticism. However, defending these blatantly subpar structures merely or rhetoric’s sake is a grave error. Los Angeles is not bereft of the Classical, and the many fine buildings we’ve been graced enough to save are decidedly worthy of nation-wide emulation. The USC Village, however, is not one of them.

    Kindly,

    Nicholas

    Like

    • Daniel Morales says:

      I wouldn’t defend these buildings on grounds that they are Classical or even well designed, but I would say they are a lot more attractive than what usually get’s built. At least it tries to bestow character, style, and scale to the campus. I wish the details where handled more confidently and gracefully, but the effort is appreciated. This is what we get from a profession that refuses to embrace the traditions that have informed so many of the places we love. It’s certainly a positive sign. Now if we could only teach architect’s the craft of architectural design to help them succeed in what is a growing call for buildings with character and a sense of place.

      Like

    • Thanks for your civilized comment, Nicholas, and I generally agree with most of the points you make. As I suggested in my post, this is not excellent classical architecture. But as Dan points out it is better than what is usually built. Would you rather have the HVAC equipment sitting right in plain view? Of course not.

      You need to distinguish between the excellent classical architecture that has existed in Southern California from many decades ago and that which is built today. The former is obviously of higher quality, but recall that new classical architecture is recovering from almost a century of being pounded into the dirt by modernism.

      Finally, it is important to understand, as many contemporary classicists do not, that a building that wants to be classical but hasn’t the talent or the money is far better than a building that doesn’t want to be classical. I have no patience for those who believe that bad trad is a greater enemy to the classical revival than modernism. It is not. You have to know who is your friend and who is your enemy. That is very clear here. What bad trad needs is education and encouragement, and defense from hack attacks like those of Hawthorne, however “sophisticated.”

      Like

      • NS Coleman says:

        David, thank you for the clarification.

        Perhaps then my ultimate disagreement is then with the definition of what constitutes the Classical per se. The opinions expressed by both Krier and Porphyrios (and Jacqueline Roberston, Stern, John Simpson, et al) would suggest that mere pastiche of stylistic trope does not constitute the Classical. Rather, the Classical is an entire methodology, an approach to design, material, technique, and detail – a holistic theory of architectural production. Under that (indeed, my) definition, these buildings are not ‘bad trad’, but ‘non trad’.

        I guess I’m too much of a perfectionist. My hope is for the good, the best, the exceptional to lead and guide, not the mediocre. The village is hardly more than that, and USC can do better, as it has proven in the past. I pray it will.

        Like

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