Rich building, poor building

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The entrance bay of the Philadelphia Board of Education Building (1932), by Irwin Catharine.

Before retiring the subject of Witold Rybczynski’s review of James Stevens Curl’s new book Making Dystopia, let me return to the critic’s remarks about the failures of modern architecture. One modest observation said so much in so few words, and it speaks to an abiding but rarely noticed truth about the difference between traditional and modern work. Here it is:

There have always been more and less expensive buildings, but in the past, less expensive meant fewer decorative elements and simpler ornamentation. The problem with minimalism is that it does not leave much to work with; a modernist building that is less beautifully detailed and finished simply looks cheap.

There’s so much less room for error in modern architecture – the error by its founders of frog-marching ornament out of building design. Traditional architects tried to respond to the attack on ornament with stripped classical, with Art Deco, and with other efforts to blend traditional complexity with modernist minimalism. The mods were having none of it. They brooked no compromise, rejected the trads’ attempt to negotiate a peace, and took over the design establishment, balling up the world with their tedium.

After the slaughter of World War I, writes Rybczynski, “it seemed to many that life simply could not go on as before.” Well, of course not. The rule of nations by royal families whose members married into royalty across Europe, and who in their consanguinity could not imagine the slide into slaughter undertaken by their governments, had to change. But did societies need to fundamentally reshape buildings and cities? This was far less evident, so far less that the very idea smacks of insanity. Oh, sure, let’s kill thousands of jobs crafting ornament and erect buildings with revolutionary and experimental new structural schemes that would require retraining millions of workers, a whole lot more money, and the abandonment of centuries of experience. The result was foreseeable and inevitable. Rybczynski writes:

The ultimate failure of modern architecture is not that it was incapable of producing beautiful works of individual art. There have been plenty of those, pace Professor Curl. The real drawback is that while the Modern Movement effectively suppressed an architectural language that had taken hundreds of years to evolve, it proved incapable of developing a successful substitute.

Modern architecture has evolved through several phases, each more idiotic than the last. The single consistency throughout the story of architecture in the last century and this one is the failure to develop a successful substitute for building techniques that were purposely abandoned for no good reason. Rybczynski is far too kind to what modernism has accomplished. It has not produced “plenty” of “beautiful works of individual art.” It has produced some, and even they tend not to fit into the fabric of the city, but to disrupt that fabric, or to achieve part of whatever success they may have by dint of their isolation, to some degree, from the city fabric, either by height or by distance. For the most part, they are sculpture, not architecture. Architecture is what was thrown out.

The strength of pre-modern architecture was that it provided a rich variety of modes of expression. It permitted complicated things to be said in complicated ways, and simpler things in simpler ways, analogous to the spoken language, which can be used to write drama and poetry or instruction booklets.

But isn’t this the summary of all that architecture should pride itself on?

Of course it is, and Rybczynski admits it in his description of the work of the architect who built the Board of Education Building in Philadelphia, which in his review he highlighted as emblematic of the relatively modest buildings in his neighborhood that he enjoyed looking at so much:

Moreover, the pre-modern architectural language could be easily learned—it didn’t require immense talent or an inordinate amount of training. Irwin T. Catharine, who designed the Board of Education Building in Logan Square, did not go to the École des Beaux-Arts like George Howe and Raymond Hood (Catharine attended a night school), or win the AIA Gold Medal like Bertram Goodhue. He spent his entire career at the Board of Education, where he started as a draftsman and rose to be chief architect. On his watch—1918–37—Philadelphia built more than a hundred new public schools; Catharine designed them all. He worked in a variety of accepted styles—simplified Collegiate Gothic, Stripped Classical, Moderne—using traditional materials, brick, and limestone, and traditional details. There was usually some ornament, not a lot but enough to please the eye. Nothing earth-shaking, yet almost all of these modest buildings have found their way onto the National Register of Historic Places. This is not so much a mark of architectural prowess as a recognition that such buildings represent something precious that has been lost.

***

[Note: Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 17, the survey results from the poll on classical versus modernist architecture have swung from No (the modernists) leading 92-8 percent to Yes (the classicists) leading 64-36 percent. Please vote. The deadline Feb. 26.]

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The Philadelphia Board of Education Building. (Architect Magazine)

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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2 Responses to Rich building, poor building

  1. Steven Semes says:

    Like many who received a modernist training, Witold is conflicted. Let’s encourage him to continue to evolve on these issues (he’s come a long way already!). His criticism is damning, even expressed in qualified language.

    Like

    • Precisely, Steve. That’s why his piece is so important. Everyone who is in his difficult position ought to be encouraged to continue to evolve, as you say. It is tough, and requires courage. Good on Ryb!

      Like

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