Partying with the Bulfinches

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Yale residential colleges that won a Bulfinch last night. (Robert A.M. Stern Architects)

On Saturday evening the region’s classicists held a big bash at the Harvard Club of Boston, after two lectures by eminent classicists that morning and afternoon. The lectures will soon go onto the website of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. But there was no secret taping of the table talk of classicists around Table No. 10 at the evening gala banquet.

The gala to celebrate the 2018 Bulfinch laureates pulsated with joy last night. The evening was a delight, and I heard more than one attendee gush that it was like the Oscars. Masters of ceremony David Andreozzi and Sally Wilson, chapter prez and veep respectively, moved the graphically sophisticated awards presentation briskly forward. The winners thanked the chapter for their awards and their associates for inspiration under the chandeliers that illuminated the filet mignon and shrimp that slid gently down everyone’s throat as good wine sparked conversation among attendees who, now and then, had to guess what their table-mates were saying.

Such is the hubbub of a successful party in the glitzy nonprofit world, increasingly the measure of success, on top of or, indeed, in place of actual accomplishment itself. Or is that merely as it always has been – old hat, that is: traditional, or even classical. Huh? Come again? I didn’t quite catch that! Oh, yes, I agree! This was a great night for the chapter!

Much of the talk was of classicism and how it is defined – a ticklish subject among classicists from time immemorial, or at least from the outset of the organization itself, which has debated the topic for decades. At Table No. 10 sat the lecturer of the morning, Christine Franck, who has occupied posts of leadership at the national level of the ICAA for decades. She, with me and my fellow chapter board member Robert Orr, were joined at table by Melissa DelVecchio, Graham Wyatt, Kurt Glauber and Jennifer Stone of Robert Stern Architects, leaders of the design team that created Yale’s extraordinary pair of new residential colleges, which opened last fall. It was an honor to have been seated at their table. They received a Bulfinch for a project that, until Penn Station is restored to its glory, may reasonably be considered the major achievement of the classical revival in America to date.

The classical revival? Classical? How does that word relate to the word traditional? Each has a different meaning for everyone, or so it seems. Is the classical revival going to peter out if it lacks a more precise definition of the classical? Is the ICAA going to suffer such a fate? Does the ICAA really need to decide whether, say, the Gothic is in or out of what we define as classical? Maybe. Or maybe not. After all, the Yale campuses are Collegiate Gothic in style. Yet who will say they did not deserve a Bulfinch? Still, can anyone deny that a more precise definition of classical would be helpful?

I’m not sure that I endeared myself to my table-mates by suggesting that to tiptoe around precision might be the better part of valor. For readers of this post, I’m sure the question was untangled with more erudition in the day’s lectures by Christine Franck and Aric Lasher, president and director of design at the Chicago firm of HBRA, who was project designer of the recent, and extraordinarily classical, temple of a federal courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala. His lecture was titled “‘Lies that tell the truth’: Negotiating the subjectivity of expression in contemporary practice.” Now that’s a topic that tantalizes the hell out of me.

I missed Christine’s 10 o’clock (a.m.!) lecture, and arrived in time, that afternoon, to catch Aric’s concluding remarks. And so I totally agree with laureate Ronald Lee Fleming, who was granted this year’s award for august patronage. In his acceptance remarks, he urged the chapter to make an even higher priority of these Bulfinch lectures. Thankfully, the chapter videotaped both lectures, and I will be the first to connect readers to them as soon as they arrive online.

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New federal office building and courthouse in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (HBRA)

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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3 Responses to Partying with the Bulfinches

  1. Milton W. Grenfell says:

    I should have said in my second sentence, “… art pertaining to a classical period, or style.”Classical music in the classical style is still being written. Ditto architecture.

    Milton

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  2. Milton W. Grenfell says:

    Let me offer some help with definitions. Classical, like many words, has more than one definition.
    One definition is art pertaining to a classical period, such as the music of Mozart or Hayden. Another, is the best and most enduring of an artistic tradition, ie, the entire corpus of classical music, of which the classical period of Mozart is a subset. Similarly, there is the classical architectural tradition which encompasses the Parthenon, Amiens cathedral – and the Taj Mahal- “the best and most enduring of an artistic tradition.” And there is also in architecture, the classical style, which only includes buildings using the Greco-roman architectural language.

    All best,

    Milton W.Grenfell, arch.

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    • Thank you, Milton. You “slipped up” in that second sentence by embracing, in an innocent moment of thoughtlessness, the musical version of the fallacy of the architectural historian by suggesting (and then correcting yourself) that only architecture (or music) produced during the “classical period” (of music or architecture) qualifies as classical.

      Thank you so much for helping me make the point I was trying to make several blog posts in ago in “Pevsner’s archiperversity”! That is, of course, that a style assigned to a “period” is perfectly valid outside of its assigned period. The modernists of architecture don’t want the rest of us to be thinking such incorrect thoughts. I wonder if the modernists of music feel the same way.

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