Although it says nothing of architecture, an essay by Joseph Epstein on charm causes me to wonder whether architecture can be charming. His essay, “Life’s Little Luxury,” in The Weekly Standard, is discursive, that is, it rambles round, making its point, or its several points, with a just-in-passing manner. Partly he tries to pin down charm by identifying what it is not. When he tries to define what it is, he waltzes gracefully around the difficulty of reaching conclusions about charm. As is his way – I have read his stuff since he wrote under the pen name Aristides, editing The American Scholar from 1974 to 1998 – Epstein finds exemplars from the past or passages from writers of yore, and then toys with them.
In this he is very like my favorite writer, William Hazlitt (1778-1830), whose essays wander around without reaching much by way of conclusion, and yet by the end of it you are filled with what might be called the sensibility of his topic. Although Hazlitt engaged in the vicious literary politics of his age, and would have been hooked by the #MeToo movement today (Epstein himself asked me more than 40 years ago for an essay about Hazlitt’s illicit romantic exploits), his writing was itself gentle, its punches muffled, most of the time, within the mittens of civility. It was charming.
Here is Epstein circling around his quarry:
If one cannot define charm with real precision, how, then, does one recognize it? One recognizes it, as one does its compatriots in inexact definability, pretty much case by case, instance by instance. One recognizes charm when one feels it, sees it. Charming is the song we don’t want to stop playing, the painting that won’t leave our minds, the piece of writing we don’t want to end, the man or woman we wish never to leave the room. Charm, when present, enlivens and lights up a room, makes the world seem a more enticing place. Not quite true that charm, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, for there are levels of sophistication in the realm of charm. Some charm is subtler than others; some more obvious. Not everyone is likely to be charmed by Noël Coward; most people are likely to be charmed by the Marx Brothers.
At a London party in the early 1950s, Noël Coward flirted with my father, which failed to charm my mother, whom, she said, the playwright ignored. I trust Epstein would not disagree that there is always a certain amount of flirtation in charm. It need not be the least bit sexual (indeed today it had better not be!). A charming individual generates an intimacy with his or her audience. In the same way, a charming piece of architecture enchants an observer, deploying the artifice of ornamental detail to beguile the eye.
Epstein snubs architecture, and no wonder. It is no longer charming. New architecture is too eager to argue. It is not relaxed, and it is not ingratiating. In fact, most architecture today is a rejection of what architecture used to be, which was, often, charming. Modern architecture has thrown out the tools tradition used for centuries to produce charm.
I have seen no example of modern architecture that tries to do anything along that line. Modernists prefer to trick the eye with bold masses poised to challenge the laws of nature. A deeply overhanging ledge, seemingly without support, appears to desire that its observers feel a peril, a reluctance to step under the precipice for fear it might collapse. Of course that trick has been tried so many times that people are used to it, and so one of the few aspects of modern architecture that is not simply boring has lost its punch.
I can think of no modernist building in Providence that manages to trick a passerby, let alone flirt with him. In Boston, the John Hancock Tower has a nifty trick of turning into a vertical razor blade standing on end from a certain angle of view, at which angle it appears to entirely shed its three-dimensionality. But much classical architecture in Providence, Boston and other places evinces charm, such as balusters that could be a chorus line of breasts (or of noses, if you insist) – the Providence Public Library* – or a politician protected by a squadron of press agents, as might be seen around the dome of the Rhode Island State House surrounded by its four tourelles.
Epstein might protest that I am confusing charm with grace or even grandeur, to which I can only plead guilty. However you slice it, old buildings have more charm in their door knobs than modern architecture has in its whole beastly oeuvre. As Epstein says above, “Charm enlivens and lights up a room, makes the world seem a more enticing place.” That’s what traditional buildings once did almost by rote. It is a quality that was officially stripped from architecture in the first fifty years of the last century, much faster than it was lost by human beings in the second half. Too bad.
* See the illustration that sits atop this blog every day.