Latest wrinkle at Notre-Dame

Proposal for a visitors center in former garage beneath Notre-Dame, in Paris. (Bas Smets)

Paris’s mayor Anne Hildago has announced a proposed visitors center in an abandoned garage beneath Notre-Dame cathedral. Since visitors centers are notoriously ugly, this one qualifies as an odd duck. Its location underneath the cathedral’s large plaza hides it away quite nicely, with a colonnaded walkway facing the River Seine’s embankment – relatively bland and unexceptionable.

Bureau Bas Smets, the Belgian firm that won a competition for the plaza refurbishment and visitors center, seems to have modestly refrained from suggesting any of the usual eyesores for the revamped plaza, which apparently will remain much the same except for some new trees placed so as to preserve venerable views of the cathedral.

Dezeen has published an article describing the proposal, by Lizzie Crook. The comments on the article seem ambivalent about the proposal, which leaves me in some anxiety as to whether the leniency of my judgment has been too hasty.

A staircase leading to the visitors center from the far side of the plaza from the cathedral seems way too sterile, and new paving stones for the plaza, described as sized (for some obscure reason) to match the stonework of the cathedral floor, sounds a bit too prone to being monkeyed around with. But at least the below-ground visitors center may serve to deflect graffartists from defacing visible parts of the plaza and cathedral.

This is good news, given that Hidalgo has otherwise done much to destroy the beauty of Paris, including plans for skyscrapers within the Périphérique, the ring road around the city’s ancient center. She has replaced historic benches, street lamps and magazine kiosks with bland modernist street furniture; she has ordered the old items trashed rather than stored pending the resumption of sanity at the Hôtel de Ville, or city hall.

Unaccountably, her plan to gardenize the Champs Élysées seems inoffensive.

The bad news is that the worst ideas for restoration of the cathedral still include a Disneyfication of parts of the interior, with goofy modernist murals and other touristical crap. It is amazing that this proposal remains part of the plan, given President Macron’s decision that the cathedral is to be restored with meticulous attention to its appearance at the time of the fire in 2019. Lest it be forgotten, the interior of the cathedral is as historic and as venerable as the exterior.

The proposed plaza renovations and underground visitors center are to begin construction after the cathedral restoration is complete, according to French authorities, which is, surprisingly, now scheduled “by 2024,” or at any rate in time for the Paris summer Olympic games. Many experts think it should take much longer, and they may still be correct.

Proposed refurbishing of plaza at Notre-Dame, with entrance to visitors center lower right. (Bas Smets)

Proposed entrance to underground visitors center from far end of Notre-Dame plaza. (Bas Smets)

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In Albania, building as bust

The Kanderbeg Building, in Tirana, Albania, designed as a bust of an Albanian patriot. (MVDRV)

Here’s a new idea: the building as bust. I know where you think I am heading, but no, I’m not talking about the inevitable failure of modern architecture, I’m talking about a building designed to represent the head of a specific human being. In Tirana, the capital city of the former East bloc nation of Albania, a building is under construction that will honor the Albanian patriot Gjergj Kastrioti, who revolted against the Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century.

The Dutch firm MVRDV designed the Skanderbeg Building – officially known as Tirana’s Rock – based on a statue of Kastrioti in next-door Skanderbeg Plaza, which takes its name from Kastrioti’s local nickname. The Rock moniker must come from the nation’s Balkan history. The Balkans are a notoriously hard neck of the European subcontinent. (Albania is negotiating to join the E.U.)

Dezeen’s article on the building Quotes MVRDV partner Winy Maas:

“These days, cities around the world increasingly look like each other – I always encourage them to resist this, to find their individual character and emphasise it”, says MVRDV founding partner Winy Maas. “To me, the Skanderbeg Building is an opportunity to do just that. It brings new meaning to existing elements of Albanian architecture.”

Harvard Lampoon Building (1909).

Technically, the building’s design may indeed resist the increasingly monotonous appearance of cities globally, in that most modernist buildings resemble nothing, let alone no one, in particular. But unless one is clued into the joke, the Skanderbeg Building does little to resist the trend. The famous Harvard Lampoon Building (1909) by Edmund March Wheelwright, the only other building that genuinely appears to resemble a human head (generic, in this case), does a much better job of resisting that trend, even if it was built long before the City Ugly movement got under way.

Both buildings are to be distinguished from the often quite distinct, if normally quite accidental, facial appearance of traditionally designed buildings, as pointed out by architect and theorist Ann Sussman.

The Skanderbeg Building looks as if it could have been designed by Frank Gehry (when on his meds) or Jeanne Gang. It is described by MVRDV as a “figurative” (as opposed to an abstract) sculpture, though the firm’s spokesman seemed to be trying as hard as he could to have it both ways:

The subtle head-like appearance of the building is largely achieved with curved balconies on every level. Each one has been sculpted by MVRDV with a unique form, creating protrusions that echo a nose, ears, and beard. The resulting effect is somewhat subtle; people may need to look twice to understand the building’s shape, depending on the angle from which they see it. This expressive approach fits seamlessly into a city that has developed a tradition of mixing art and architecture as part of its post-communist renaissance.”

Very interesting. Which world historical figure will be the next beneficiary of this new trend in architecture?

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Save the Library of Congress

View of the dome of the Library of Congress along with the circulation desk below. (Washington Post)

The spirit of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress trembles as the institution’s leadership proposes $60 million in renovations, including the removal of the circulation desk in the middle of its Main Reading Room.

The D.C. Preservation League has placed the Jefferson Building, which sits across Independence Avenue from the U.S. Capitol, on its annual list of endangered places. The DCPL warns against the renovation plan, which, it says, envisions:

the complete removal of its historic Center Desk, to be replaced by a circular window in the floor (“the oculus”) so that tourists below could look up through it at the Reading Room’s dome.

The principal deputy librarian of Congress, Mark Sweeney, claims that the desk’s removal will not be complete. Instead, as the Washington Post reports:

The plan does not remove the entire circulation desk as preservationists contend, [Sweeney] added. The outer circular wooden structure will remain, while the inner desk, which Sweeney calls the tower, will be disassembled, inventoried and stored.

Circulation desk at Library of Congress. (DCPL)

Yes, but as Sweeney admits, gone will be the tower, the desk within the desk, originally erected when the building was completed in 1897. The tower provides an important part of the desk’s historic character, not to mention its functionality.

Wags no doubt are already wondering whether female librarians will be urged to wear pants suits rather than dresses that might expose them to the prurient observation of tourists looking up from below through the new glass “oculus.”

But, to be just a bit more serious, the Preservation League (and others who oppose changing the circulation desk) are correct to object to this and probably other aspects of the renovation. In the nature of things, these changes will likely be done poorly if they are not blocked. Just because it is the Library of Congress doesn’t exempt it from any or all of the flaws of modern-day architecture, even when it seems to be “historic.”

All such renovations to beautiful old buildings should be opposed on principle. That is the job of preservationists. Tourists in the great library are fine, but they will enjoy the building, and any historic structure, more if it is kept as much as possible in its original state.

As a young man, my brother Guy used to work in the Madison Building of the library nearby, and I would walk through the Jefferson Building on my way to visit him. Occasionally I would use the library for my own purposes, waiting for one of the librarians to roll by with a cart of books or articles for my perusal. My memories of the reading room are fond. I hope time will calm its spirit, at least until the next bout of  proposed “renovations” arrives to haunt the place.

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No, MBS, it’s not the Pyramids

Proposed Saudi megaproject of two parallel buildings 1,600 feet tall extending 75 miles. (Daily Mail)

Mohammed bin Salman, son of Saudi Arabia’s king and the nation’s de facto ruler, has declared that the kingdom will construct two buildings taller than the Empire State Building in a straight parallel line extending 75 miles from the Gulf of Aqaba into the mountainous desert, called the Mirror Line.

The elongated pair of structures will be encased in reflective glass, housing up to five million people, costing a trillion dollars, atop a high-speed rail, with a soccer stadium 1,000 feet up bridging the two buildings, with struts to accommodate the curvature of the Earth, all powered by green energy. This pair of buildings – extending from a new, modernist city the size of Massachusetts called Neom – will be “my Pyramids,” says MBS, who wants them done by 2030.

Engineers beg to differ: it might take fifty years. In short, it might not be built.

The design team for the Mirror Line is led by nutcase American architect Thom Mayne, of the firm Morphosis, which means it should not be built.

Notwithstanding the pampered photos included here, the project imagined by the prince seems more dystopian than utopian. Perhaps this is not out of line with the Pyramids themselves, built by slaves as tombs for their masters the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. High-tech digital spying on Saudi residents and workers is planned, as already exists to monitor people in China. Indigenous Arabian desert communities have already been uprooted, and dissidents who sneer at the intentions of MBS have been arrested – some, it is said, executed.

How did the Saudi petro-visionary gather his breathtaking arrogance? Well, why should he value his authority beneath Khufu, who built Giza! Perhaps the bluster of MBS arises in part from having successfully executed an intelligence agent posing as a journalist – something no American president has surely ever done! – and getting away with it, thumbing his nose at tsk-tsking hypocrites around the world.

Who knows how he managed to conceive such a gargantuan stupidity? Maybe Thom Mayne had something to do with it. He is a specialist and winner of the Pritzker Prize. Nothing like the Mirror Line has ever been built in the world – and with good reason!

Broader view of Saudi megaproject extending straight and parallel into desert. (Daily Mail)

Imagined linear city as idyll amid glass cliffs and vegetation soaring up 1,600 feet. (Daily Mail)

Swimming with the fishes as Mirror Line meets the Gulf of Aqaba. (Daily Mail)

Stark, even terrorizing architecture seems to rebut image of Mirror Line utopia. (Daily Mail)

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Dodge the I-195 fooddoggle

Proposed food pavilion would sit in red circle (on map) west of the pedestrian bridge. (Journal)

Yesterday’s Sunday Journal describes the growing dispute between Providence restaurants and the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, which wants to use state money to finance a food pavilion in the park at the west end of the Van Leesten Memorial Pedestrian Bridge. Restaurateurs oppose using public money to undercut their businesses with a food boondoggle – or fooddoggle.

So far, nobody has any idea what it would look like, but given the commission’s track record, the prospect does not delight the eye.

Investigative reporter Jim Hummel’s report reveals that many local restaurant owners within blocks of the proposed pavilion were never consulted, that funds for the project silently moved through a largely closed budget process, that the 2019 bond did not mention a year-round, sit-down, brick-and-mortar facility, that little or no thought has been given to parking in an area already saturated, that examples of other food pavilions in other cities given by the commission’s director, Caroline Skuncik – New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Newark, Detroit – are much larger and have many thousands of nearby residents and tourists on foot, and that the proposal in Providence has all the earmarks of a boondoggled designed to help insiders rip off the public’s money.

Bob Burke, owner of Pot au Feu, told the Journal:

No one would put their private money into this. This is only an insider deal, that if the state will pay for the building … and somebody gets to come in and fail with the state’s money, it’s other people’s money, And they’re more than happy to take the money and take the gamble, because it’s not really a gamble is it?

Well, maybe it is or maybe it’s on the up-and-up. But even so, that does not make it necessarily the best idea for park infrastructure. Whatever its potential for success, its unfairness is manifest. The commission should think outside the box – which I normally hesitate to recommend, but the current proposal seems totally inside-the-box. Here are a couple of ideas:

A better idea for bringing food and drink to the site might be the “taverna” system popular in Greece and offered by Pawtucket designer Morris Nathanson back when Waterplace Park was new. His idea was not taken up. He described the taverna process to me over lunch at a Pawtucket restaurant (Morris Nathanson is a world-famous designer of restaurant interiors). I described his idea in an April 27, 1995, Journal column called “What to do at Waterplace” (reprinted in a later blog post): Here is the taverna idea:

an established restaurant or hotel sponsors an underused space a block or a mile away, and finds, say, a young fellow who will sell its food and drink to as many passersby as he can attract to tables, often under umbrellas, provided by the establishment. The fellow profits if he can, the establishment gets free advertising, and the city gets additional street vitality, cost-free. And visitors are charmed by the sight of waiters porting meals along the streets.

It could be under umbrellas, or it could be in a brick and mortar facility built by the state – only in this case it would not undercut local entrepreneurs but enable them to serve more customers. No restaurateur would get “free” space from the state. Nathanson thought the city should try this idea at Waterplace, and in fact it still could do so.

Another perhaps an even farther out-of-the-box idea would be to revive the 2015 proposal for a minor-league stadium on the Providence riverfront. Although it crashed and burned after being proposed by PawSox lead owner, the late James Skeffington, who died suddenly during negotiations with the state, the proposal made much more sense than people recognized at the time. It makes just as much sense today, especially as the Pawtucket soccer proposed seems to be fading beyond the horizon. After all, there are many more baseball games than soccer matches in a season.

The commission would have to move the Fane tower proposal to another parcel within the redevelopment district – but this is a feature rather than a bug. That eyesore should be moved back toward I-95 anyhow. (Ditto whatever has been proposed, if anything, for parcels 14 and 15.) As proposed in 2015, a traditional retro ballpark could be built in Innovation Park, on which the tower would encroach. The waterfront already has an abundance of green space. Attendees at games could park for free downriver and ferry to the stadium for free on the state (or city) dime. Sounds like fun!

Bringing in an amenity that would attract new customers downtown rather than competing with existing restaurants struggling to emerge from the pandemic makes sense. Still, it would require a bold and farsighted leader to push the plan here in Rhode Island. And a minor-league ball club would need to step up to replace the (long gone) PawSox – though for nostalgia’s sake maybe a new team could retain that name. With the old PawSox now the WooSox in Worcester, I don’t know whether finding another team is feasible under baseball’s rules.

In any event, the taverna system could bring meals and drinks to the stadium and its surroundings as well, or merely to the existing park.

Well, those are a couple of outta-the-boxers. Rhode Islanders should try them on for size.

A minor-league ballfield, as proposed in 2015, would fit into Innovation Park. (PBN)

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Moholy-Nagy: Hitler’s Revenge

Here, responding to an email thread on classical architecture and racism in which her essay is invoked, is my post from 2016 about Sibyl Moholy-Nagy and “Hitler’s Revenge.” She regrets that the “genius” architects who had fled Nazism inflicted modern architecture on the United States. Thus Hitler’s “revenge” on America for its role in defeating the thousand-year Reich. Recall that Hitler, choosing classicism over modernism as the design template for National Socialism, chose, in the 1930s, a millennial architecture of power over a new architecture then still (and still today) in the experimental stage, with little legible language at all – arguably a sensible choice for a power-hungry autocrat already an artful propagandist.

How this plays into the debate over racism in classicism, I’m not sure, except that the very idea that classical architecture is tainted by racism, or fascism, is ridiculous – maybe as ridiculous as, in Moholy-Nagy’s eyes, how modernism had by the 1960s pre-empted the natural growth of an architecture based on longstanding traditions. The folly of this apparently occurred to her rather late in her career.

In Places Journal’s archive of forgotten (non-digitized) architectural writing, this piece by Moholy-Nagy is one of the few in its series, I think, that pushes back against modernism. Except for Henry Hope Reed, such insight was rare at the time, at least among architects, critics, experts and the like.

At my link just below to “Hitler’s Revenge” in Places Journal, Moholy-Nagy’s essay is preceded by a very strong introduction by Despina Stratigakos.


The journal Places has published, as the inaugural installment in its Future Archive series of forgotten writing of the past century, a 1968 essay for Art in America by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy called “Hitler’s Revenge.”

The essay is introduced by Despina Stratigakos, interim head of architecture at the University of Buffalo, who explains that Moholy-Nagy was the wife of bigshot Bauhaus artist and teacher László Moholy-Nagy, who emigrated to Chicago from Germany during the 1930s. She began her career as a critic after her husband died, and achieved a degree of influence that put her on a par with Jane Jacobs and Ada Louise Huxtable. She has been marginalized since her death in 1971, possibly because she criticized, from inside, much of the work of her husband’s fellow modernists. Stratigakos writes:

Perhaps her combative writing style — and ability to land punches — has contributed to that eclipse; where others lauded, she condemned, and her targets included some of modernism’s greatest stars.

Her writing style or her targets. You be the judge. Either way, Places is to be commended for retrieving Sibyl Moholy-Nagy from the dustbin of history.

Moholy-Nagy was an actress and scriptwriter in Berlin before meeting her husband, who seems to have stifled her aspirations. She later criticized her husband’s Bauhaus colleagues for, in Stratigakos’s words, their “formulaic functionalism: modern architecture stripped of its early spiritual and idealistic aims and transformed into the dehumanized servant of technology and big business. … [and for] kill[ing] off the evolution of the indigenous skyscraper, which had given the nation’s cities a ‘unique American profile.’”

Moholy-Nagy wrote her essay in response to the proposal by Marcel Breuer for a modernist tower over the Grand Central Terminal. This was the plan that sparked a lawsuit ending with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the city’s landmarks commission. Moholy-Nagy cited its “lack of relationship to its environment,” which she saw as a key demerit in the modern architecture that sprang from the Bauhaus. (Back then Park Avenue was still lined with traditional towers; now Breuer’s monstrosity would fit right in.)

She wrote that Breuer’s proposed Grand Central Tower featured “the browbeating symbolism of a negative ideology that was already bankrupt when the dying German Republic unloaded it on America.” Here, she wrote at the outset of her essay, was Hitler’s revenge:

In 1933 Hitler shook the tree and America picked up the fruit of German genius. In the best of Satanic traditions some of this fruit was poisoned, although it looked at first sight as pure and wholesome as a newborn concept. The lethal harvest was functionalism, and the Johnnies who spread the appleseed were the Bauhaus masters Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Breuer. Recoined by eager American converts as ‘‘The International Style,” functionalism terminated the most important era in American public architecture.

Moholy-Nagy recognized the high status given by Americans to the refugees from Nazi Germany. Stratigakos says Moholy-Nagy “wants to alert the reader to a different, less heroic narrative.” I salute the courage of Stratigakos, but she does not know the half of it.

The Bauhauslers not only replanted their aesthetic poison in American soil, they assured that the poison would not be recognized as such, and that any antidote would be difficult to administer. They accomplished this by purging the architecture schools of all but modernist theory, twisting architectural history to impugn the motives of traditional work, crushing the crafts on which traditional architecture depended, and brainwashing professional organizations so to exclude the influence of any but modernist practice and practitioners.

In short, they reorganized the field of architecture along the lines of a cult – or to be more dramatic, along the lines of the totalitarian regime that they fled. No other profession has permitted such an indignity to be perpetrated against it. And though there are cracks in the foundation of modernism’s hegemony, so it largely remains today. Hitler’s revenge indeed!

Hats off to Michael Mehaffy for sending the Moholy-Nagy essay to Pro-Urb as part of a [2016] discussion of post-structuralism in architecture.

Posted in Architecture, Architecture History | 1 Comment

Ah, the gentle old streets!

View down Weybosset Street, looking northeast from outside Providence Arcade. (Photo by author)

Weybosset Street, just as it curves into its merger with Westminster Street, in downtown Providence, surely is the apex of beauty in this historic city. On a fall day in 1984 I emerged for the first time from the Providence Arcade (1828) onto Weybosset, turned my head left and beheld the view pictured above: two sets of building facades facing across the narrow venue, all completed between 1856 and 1927, all between four and 11 stories, all embellished in the high and variable style of that era. At that moment I fell in love with Providence.

Custom House, an even narrower street, hangs a right off Weybosset, which along this stretch is one way heading northeast. It is where I dined en famille at Pot au Feu last night, and is, if anything, even more elegant.

It may be less than a block in length, cut short after its burst of elegance by a sad several acres of parking lots, but Custom House Street merits a spot on the list of a dozen architecturally intact streets in Rhode Island’s capital, in Chapter 11 (“Lost But Not Listed”) of my book Lost Providence (2017). These streets are minimally, if at all, marred by parking lots or modernist buildings. The intact streets include downtown streets first – Weybosset, Westminster, Washington, Custom House, Dorrance, Eddy, Union, Mathewson and Empire – and then Benefit, Hope and Broadway.

It is a partial list; other streets downtown, on College Hill and in other parts of town deserve a place on the list. Most of Chapter 11 is devoted to descriptions of 14 buildings that probably deserve chapters unto themselves as one of the ten best lost buildings had my analysis cut this way or that. Or, as the March 27, 2014, column that inspired the book puts it, “[H]appily, the chief difficulty of identifying the city’s ten best lost buildings was that so very many are not lost at all but survive to grace the streets of our fine downtown.”

The fabric of these streets rivals and in most cases surpasses, in intactitude, those of more famously preserved cities in America, such as Charleston, Savannah, Portland (Maine), parts of downtown Boston, and others. Most of these cities are rightly celebrated for their intact historic neighborhoods, and for intact historic districts within their downtowns, but their downtowns as a whole have been far more blighted with modern architecture and vast parking lots than downtown Providence, which, it should be noted, extends to historic fabric just across the river on College Hill that rivals, in size and quality, historic neighborhoods anywhere in the country.

The website Bankrate recently listed the 20 best U.S. cities to live in 2022. Providence ranked 7th. The citation didn’t mention the city’s beauty, but it did add, curiously, that “[t]his small-state city is poised to become an even bigger draw if plans for a new downtown riverwalk become reality.” Huh? When was this actually written? I haven’t mentioned the extraordinarily beautiful river walks and a dozen charming bridges, designed in styles sympathetic to the city’s heritage, along the intimate, newly uncovered rivers separating downtown from College Hill, but they were built in 1990-96. What could they be referring to? One famous urbanologist saw the river walks when they were new and wrote that they were a century old.

I toot the horn of a great city in spite of its leaders’ concerted efforts over more than half a century to ruin it with the self-same parking lots and ugly modern architecture. Testifying to the resolve embodied in its historical fabric is that in spite of the scores of insensitive development projects erected over the years, the city appears resolutely old. Someday, when our dear planners come, willy-nilly, to understand the good sense of building in styles that preservationists once laid down in front of bulldozers to protect, the city will correct its errors and build a future even more beautiful – and therefore more successful – than its shambolic recent decades.

Custom House Street at its intersection with Weybosset, viewed from reverse direction. (

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Mod dog lives loudly here

Chapel of St. Ignatius, by Steven Holl Architects, on campus of Seattle University. (AIA)

The chapel above has just received the 25 Year Award for 2022, bestowed each year by the American Institute of Architects for the building that, according to the AIA, “sets a precedent” and “has stood the test of time for 25-35 years.” Completed in 1997 by Steven Holl Architects, St. Ignatius, on the campus of Seattle University, just made it under the wire.

Wow. It has survived for 25 years, setting precedent and shedding enlightenment for the full extent of two and a half decades. The test of time. What a marvel.

Most buildings erected in the pre-modernist history of architecture were expected to last a century or more, and have often lasted for many centuries, as have many of that era’s most beautiful and ambitious buildings, especially of a religious turn. Notable cathedrals, for example, were erected up to a thousand years ago by builders without the benefit of today’s technology, or maybe it would be more accurate to say without the burden of today’s technology.

Take a close look at the photograph of St. Ignatius. No disrespect to him. He had nothing to do with it (whatever the designers may say). But it is nothing more than a shed with some bright lights coming from windows on its roof.

According to Holl Architects:

In designing the chapel, the team settled on the metaphor of light as the divine spirit, featured in a quote by St. Ignatius, to serve as the guiding design concept. Within, light is sculpted through several volumes that protrude from the chapel roof, each of which aims to harness different qualities of light for one united ceremony.

Unprecedented? Why would a church choose “the metaphor of light as the divine spirit”? Hasn’t that been done before? Modernism pretends to eschew design cliché, yet the only claim to precedence here is of unprecedented ugliness – St. Ignatius (or, to be fair, Holl) “sculpts” light in various awkward shapes on the roof: The AIA press release describing the Holl design reads:

[S]even bottles of light contained within a stone box is also expressed through its tilt-up construction method. Its integral color tilt-up concrete slab offers a more direct and economical tectonic than stone veneer.

This passage shows that the dogma of modern architecture lives loudly within this chapel. The rest of the press release places you waist deep in the modernist metaphorical fog. If only for its clear modernist intellectual tomfoolery, the Chapel of St. Ignatius deserves this AIA award.

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The stupidest profession

Occasionally I run across a post of mine from long ago that bears reprinting. This one from July 31, 2018,  fits that description, it seems to me, even though I have edited it to fix some badly written parts that eluded me four years ago:


The stupidest profession

Localism calls to mind various “slow” movements such as slow food. There should be a slow architecture movement. The topic of localism was taken up recently by the New York Times columnist David Brooks in “The Localist Revolution: Sometimes it Pays to Sweat the Small Stuff.” He describes localism as flipping the power structure. He writes:

[U]nder localism, the crucial power center is at the tip of the shovel, where the actual work is being done. … Change in a localist world often looks like a renewal of old forms, which were often more intimate and personalistic than the technocratic structures of the past 50 years.

Modern architecture is the epitome of centralized industry. For the most part, it is not shovel-ready. Worse, it is a cult – modernist architects never get out and see how people live in their “machines for living.” More often than not, modernists are unwilling to live in the kind of house or building they are paid to erect for clients. Because they control the architectural media, they understand that nobody will point a spotlight at their hypocrisy.

Classical and traditional architects, on the other hand, mostly work at the tip of the shovel because they have no choice. Modernists have ejected them from the establishment, and use it to tilt the playing field toward their modernist colleagues and keep big jobs out of the hands of traditional architects. So traditionalists’ remaining stronghold is in housing for the wealthy, people who can afford to choose the style of home they prefer, and who hire architects to build it for them. (A board of artist-wannabe suits chooses the architect for most major projects based on reputations burnished by the official critical apparat.)

Moreover, while modern architecture likes to imagine that it reflects science, traditional architecture reflects nature, whose principles science describes. These principles are not understood by modernists. Modern architecture is unnatural, unscientific, and primarily ideological. For example, modernists think fractals are jagged bits that make up the exterior walls of an edgy building. Whereas modernist education and practice is abstract and averse to history and precedent, tradition in architecture is intuitive, handed down generation to generation by practitioners whose understanding of best practices starts at the tip of the shovel.

Brooks naturally did not mention architecture in his column. Architecture has ousted itself from the concern of most people – even educated people – because modernism has created a world so maladroit that ignoring it has become an effective defense mechanism.. Most people can tell an ugly building from a pretty one, but they lack the confidence to assign blame. Few attend municipal design and permitting sessions in anything like the number who attend meetings devoted to other local issues. It no longer occurs to people to point fingers at a building for causing headaches, ennui or lack of happiness, even though the damned things press on us every hour, even in our dreams.

Brooks, speaking much more generally, adds:

Expertise is not in the think tanks but among those who have local knowledge, those with a feel for how things work in a specific place and an awareness of who gets stuff done.

Exactly. “Experts” in architecture are the best example of people who lack local knowledge and whose activities are so obviously contrary to happiness, or even usefulness, that their industry has developed a cult mentality that lets them tune out criticism. Eventually, they have no firm idea that people hate their ridiculous designs, and to the extent that they do have some idea, they treat it as a feather in their cap. Modern architecture is the occupation most extreme in its lack of self-awareness.

All organized human endeavors fit onto a spectrum. Those fields that tilt toward architecture’s end of that spectrum, with the most unhinged lusts, contribute more than their share to the dysfunction of society. As the baby boomers have marched through the bureaucracies, they have carried with them theories of societal development, often ingested through a bong, that prioritize thinking that spurns language and traditions that give structure and meaning to the organizations they now dominate. They never lost their adolescent impulse to tear down.

“Success is not measured by how big you can scale, but by how deeply you can connect,” Brooks says. Political analyst Richard Fernandez of The Belmont Club, a PJMedia website, also read Brooks’s column. In his essay “Ripping it all up,” he suggests that the “‘politicians in Washington’ whom he decries as ‘hurling ideological abstractions at one another’ may be unintended outcomes of a polarizing, reductionist narrative that tore up the fabric that actually made things work.”

I think Fernandez may be on to something, but it strikes me as bad news for architecture and the world’s built environment.

For all of its pretensions, architecture, in its current configuration, may be the stupidest profession on Earth, with its head stuck farthest down into a deep hole in the ground. What that means is that it may be harder to reform architecture than any other field. And that may be true even though – with an abundance of models like Paris and Rome and smaller examples of beauty in remaining historical tracts around the globe – reforming architecture may be the easiest task in the history of the world. Easiest – and, alas, with its head stuck halfway to China, least likely.

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D.C.’s Union Station upgrade

Union Station, completed in 1907 near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (

Last week the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the Federal Railroad Administration released images of a planned expansion of Washington’s Union Station, which sits just east of the U.S. Capitol grounds. The Beaux Arts station was designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham – of “Make no small plans” and 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition fame – and opened in 1907.

The expansion, in the works for at least a decade and still far from breaking ground, would add an expanded train hall and bus depot to the station’s rear, but would not obscure views of the original station from the Capitol complex. Its plaza out front, along with Columbus Circle, would be upgraded and made more friendly to pedestrians. Ultimately, a mixed-use development known as Burnham Place would reach eastward from the station’s addition toward the neighborhood beyond H Street, N.E.

It goes without saying that the architecture imagined by the railway bureaucracy is atrocious, but it would face to the rear of the iconic station. That would preserve customary views of the station from near the Capitol – even if the height of towers proposed for Burnham Place beyond the rear of the station might eventually mar the prospect from that angle.

(No architectural firm has been mentioned in any of the dozen or so articles I’ve read on the project, but at the bottom of a Vimeo video of the project the word Grimshaw appears. Grimshaw is a British firm that does work of this sort, and it may be be responsible (or to blame) for the project’s pre-design-phase imagery.)

So it is tempting to conclude that, all things considered, Union Station, with its original façade unimpaired, is adequately preserved under the renovation plan.

That, however, would be like saying it’s all right that the view, in Paris, up the Champs Élyssés and through the Arc de Triomphe is adequately preserved today because the abominable La Défense development can only be seen in the distance beyond the Périphérique (Paris’s ring road), or, to take a local example, that it’s all right for the Providence Preservation Society to build a modernist glass-and-steel addition on the rear of its headquarters.

No, it will not do. The buggery of Union Station may take place someday, and its expansion may prove less offensive than it could have been if it had been applied to the front or side. Yet if these offenses do not raise any complaint or objection, then the malign forces that are responsible for them will continue to assume that these offenses are not widely considered offensive at all.

Each preservation organization has a duty to complain, at least, and, further, to do as much as it can to protect beauty. That is its job, and it is precisely because so many preservation organizations misunderstand the duties entailed by their jobs that our cities and towns – and the world’s great cities – watch in horror as their beautiful historic quadrants fall prey, increasingly, to ugliness.

I have neither seen or heard from any preservation organization in the District of Columbia expressing dismay at the plan. Hopefully, someone will correct my oversight. Certainly the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts has not appeared to make any aesthetic objections thus far. Tsk tsk! It may correct its laxity, but probably not, since the commission has been neutered by the Biden administration.

So plans to expand Washington’s Union Station must stand condemned. A chorus of boos may, perhaps, change the course of planners intent on inflicting havoc on the Federal City. Even if it does not, planners in D.C. and elsewhere might, next time around, think again of what they are about.

Expansion of Union Station, at rear of historic train hall designed by Daniel Burnham. (Grimshaw)

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