Talk the talk on buildings

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University Campus UTEC, by Grafton Architects, 2020 Pritzker Prize winner, in Lima, Peru. (Pritzker)

Here is a post of mine from Feb. 7, 2018, “Talk the talk on buildings,” about the incoherence of architectural language. It was originally illustrated by a map of the 1901 McMillan Plan for the National Mall, a fine example of coherence. In reprinting the post, I have provided new illustrations that exemplify incoherence. They are buildings designed by this year’s Pritzker Prize winner. Here is the post:


An essay by Marianela D’Aprile, “What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Buildings,” on the website Common\Edge, gathers together some strands of discourse about architecture that I’ve posted on recently. Most particularly, I refer to a post called “Architecture’s deadly lingo,” about a lecture at Harvard’s GSD, and another, “Modern architecture is crazy,” in defense of Ann Sussman’s theories connecting the craziness of modern architecture with the suspected mental illnesses of its leading pioneers.

A fascinating panel was held [in 2018] by the National Civic Art Society, in Washington, D.C., with architects Michael Imber and Duo Dickinson discussing “Cultural Change and the Future of Architecture.” In the video of the event (an hour and 12 minutes), they danced around the problem of ugly architecture. Dickinson is the most accomplished of artful dodgers, and seemed to want to distract the audience from the myriad problems for the profession that arise from its dedication to designing buildings nobody likes. He sees the problems but doesn’t make the connection. Imber is an excellent architect and tried gamely to inject some common sense into the discussion, but was rumbled over by Dickinson’s Mack truck of bloviation. Toward the end Imber showed signs of Stockholm Syndrome. The segment where they discuss beauty had me wringing my hands in despair. The video of the event is perversely alluring.

Dickinson’s language isn’t as confusing as the random-phrase-generator prose used to introduce the lecture at the GSD, linked above, but in a way it’s more confusing because he is so good at stringing together sentences that mimic common sense but that don’t add up if you do the calculation.

In her essay, which came to me through Kristen Richards’s indispensable, D’Aprile writes that “[t]he desire to want to get rid of this dusty catalog of Buildings You Should Know Because Some Dead Guy Said So, is well-founded.” She wants to hear less about Paul Rudolph and more about Lina Bo Bardi. But then she goes on to complain that the profession’s discourse isn’t about architecture anymore. She cautions us about the dangers of

over-reliance on the canon to teach and practice architecture, which, as we know, can be an enterprise that redoubles many of the negative cultural symptoms of our capitalist societal structure (individualism, self-exploitation, competition; not to mention sexism, racism, ableism). But ultimately, the panelists’ intimations of how to change the state of affairs in the discipline of architec- ture aimed less at expanding or changing the canon and more at getting rid of it altogether in order to replace it with, well, some- thing else, something new, something not architectural at all.

Her thinking is strangely divided against itself. Neither she nor the GSD professors nor Dickinson nor perhaps even Imber, sensible as he may be, seem to realize that they do not discuss architecture because they cannot discuss architecture. Architecture today has no canonical design language with which to discuss architecture. Discussing architecture nowadays is like playing pickup sticks where sticks that are straight are not allowed. To compare one modernist building with another is rhetorically difficult if not impossible. To debate how buildings should help address the problems of architecture, let alone the problems of society, requires a consensus, to some degree, of what a building is and even what it should look like.

Several times in the Civic Art Society discussion, Dickinson and Imber wondered how architects can address the rapid change coming at us faster and faster. I wanted to get up and shout “Use architecture to create cities people care about!” Buildings should serve as anchors of stability people can hold on to and steady themselves in the face of onrushing evolution in our society, politics, technology, etc. Houses that look like houses, churches that look like churches, city halls that look like city halls – there’s a starting point. Why not try to recreate what humans were blessed to have for thousands of years – civic space that leveraged beauty to soothe the savage breast, in order to foster civility in the discussion of diverse viewpoints toward the goal of living together. We’ve lost that, but architects, who threw it away, will not admit it. Without admitting it, useful discussion cannot take place.

Architecture is sick. Maybe it is mentally ill – not because modern architects are mentally ill but because, wittingly or not, they work with tools and ideas that are purposely incoherent. That’s crazy, whether Corbusier was autistic or not. Architects are just part of the problem. The blindness of civic leaders, developers, planners, clients and others, including citizens who accept like sheep what those who design human habitat have dumped on us, share blame as well. But somebody must start to look reality in the eye. Might architects be the most logical candidates for the job? Let’s discuss.

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Urban Institute of Ireland, Dublin, Grafton Architects, 2020 Pritzker Prize winner. (Pritzker)

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Department of Finance, Dublin offices, Grafton Architects, 2020 Pritzker Prize winner. (Pritzker)

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“In the Wake of the Willows”

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Salt marshes along the Westport River, in Massachusetts. (Lauren Daley/Herald-News)

Nightly over several recent weeks – interrupted by a bout of Bell’s palsy – I read to my 11-year-old boy (and his mother) an enchanting children’s book called In the Wake of the Willows, by Frederick Gorham Thurber and lovingly illustrated by his wife, Amy. The author, a Providence native, distant relation to the comic writer James Thurber, and a naturalist living in Westport, Mass., wrote the book in homage to Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic, The Wind in the Willows – which he first read years ago and I read to Billy and Victoria just before In the Wake, which we finished last Friday.

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It was stated in a review of In the Wake by freelancer Lauren Daley for the Herald-News of Fall River, Mass., that its prose was “in an old-fashioned vernacular.” That brings to mind that my former editor at the Providence Journal, Philip Terzian, was often said to “affect a British accent.” Not so. Terzian spoke in full sentences of correct grammar; it only sounded like a British accent to those unused to full sentences or correct grammar. Likewise the prose of Fred Thurber: It is beautiful and energetic, like some if not all literature of the past, but that hardly makes it “old-fashioned.”

I opened the book to this passage at random as an example of Thurber’s delightful prose and narrative power:

A whip-poor-will started up in the far distance, singing its endless, monotonous song; Mr. Rat knew that this would go on all night, minute after minute, hour after hour. Why the repetition?, thought Rat. He did a quick calculation in his head, and the total was rather surprising. You would think that the lady whip-poor-wills would get the message after the first few minutes and say yea or nay; what good would it do to keep going? Maybe the whip-poor-will figured if romance did not come on the first song, maybe the ten thousandth would win her heart. …

The fact that this passage does not ring of Dickens or Thackaray does not condemn its hearty, our-side-of-the-pond modernity. It is not modernist, it is modern, with the clarity and pace of its time. Just because it is about animals does not require it to be cutesy.

My family was well-prepared to measure Thurber’s storytelling prowess against that of Kenneth Grahame, and, given Thurber’s ancestry we were not altogether astonished to find that in his prose, in his story, and in his ability to infuse animals with a human sense and sensibility, the old shoe fit very well on the modern writer. In fact, although I am not familiar with the English habitat of the original Toad, Mole, Badger, Otter and Rat (whose families seem to have emigrated to the Westport area), Thurber, who has spent decades charting Westport’s natural charms, appears to have vaulted past his literary predecessor as a naturalist of flora, fauna, landscape and waterscape. Reviewer Daley writes that Thurber told her:

Every place in the book is based on real locations in our area: The River, of course, is the Westport River. The Beach is Horseneck Beach. The Point is Westport Point. The Inn is the Paquachuck Inn. … Montaup Hill is the Native American name for Mt. Hope in Narragansett Bay. Hen & Chickens Reef is the Hen & Chickens Reef off Westport. The Island really exists, but I dare not aggravate my animal friends any more by disclosing its exact location … suffice it to say, it’s within sailing distance of Westport.

Is it really a children’s book? Probably not more so than The Wind in the Willows. As in the passage above, Thurber deftly manages to suggest in the book that the author is an observer and even a friend, if not an intimate, of the riverside community, who are real animals in a real society, as was the animal society across the pond. Thurber accomplishes the task of blending human character and characteristics into his animal characters. The beasts seem less mammalian in their behavior than, say, Winnie the Pooh. I would hesitate to insist that Thurber tackles such literary challenges with as much vivacity as Grahame. That might strike Thurber as a species of sacrilege.

So, like Wind in the Willows, In the Wake of the Willows is, it seems to me, an adult children’s book. Thurber describes its target audience as ranging from age 12 to 112. He warned me to read the afterword before reading it to Billy. I did, and had no worries. I don’t often get to brag on my child in print, but Billy was not fazed at all by the events of the afterword. I will add, too, that Billy was captivated by the “souls of the innocent” in an early (and spiritual) chapter, and kept joking about them as the story rolled on without seeming (at least in Billy’s mind) to resolve their fate. I came to enjoy his reaction to my plopping the phrase in, willy-nilly, at various points in the book.

So, yes, this is a children’s book that is fun for adults to read, especially to children. In fact, I found Fred Thurber’s prose easier to read than that of Kenneth Graham, whatever that might signify. Maybe the august British author was just pretending to write for children, or just pretending to write about animals. I think Thurber’s In the Wake is the real McCoy.

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Krier on living communities


Illustration of the principle of pluralism by Leon Krier.

The other day, after I’d posted on an official Chinese edict against copycat architecture, “China bans novel archivirus,” I received an email from the great architect and theorist Leon Krier, a native of Luxembourg and master planner of Prince Charles’s town of Poundbury. Krier enclosed for my pleasure his foreword to the Beijing edition of his masterful Architecture of Community (2010). In it, he argues, among many other things, that good architecture is not good because it is traditional but because it respects the value of place (genius loci) rather than of time (Zeitgeist) in the design of livable communities. That reminded me of a motto that I occasionally see at the end of emails to the TradArch list, which goes: “It is not good because it is old, it is old because it is good.”

The Chinese should keep that in mind, or, really, bring back to mind a principle that Chinese architects once knew so well they didn’t need to remember it.

The cartoon atop this post is my favorite example of Krier’s talent for literally drawing the principles of good design, in this case the difference between real and fake pluralism. Which town would you rather live in?

(I dedicate the cartoon, or rather its use in this post, to Kristen Richards, the founder and editor of that priceless institution, ArchNewsNow, which offers a selection, thrice weekly, of news and views on architecture from around the world, for free. She is a good egg – and not just because she puts up with emails from me.)

So here is Krier’s excellent foreword:


Recently, a delegation of developers and planners from Shanghai and Singapore visited Poundbury, the new town I have been master-planning for HRH Prince Charles since 1988 in Dorset, England.

After my presentation, a representative from the Chinese delegation came to me, saying. “You must come to China. We want Poundbury in Shanghai.” I responded that for his country I would of course design a Chinese not an English town. “No, no,” he cut in, “we want English Poundbury. It will have much success.” When I replied that it would be as unsuitable as planting a palm tree in the Siberian tundra, the gentleman shook his head and walked away. After him the delegate of Singapore addressed me: “Mr. Krier,” he said, you must come to Singapore. We want Poundbury with skyscrapers.” When he understood that my skyscrapers would have no more than three to five floors, he too frowned in disbelief and turned on his heel.

This is to say that the present book is not about exoticism, not about the brief thrill of consuming imported alien products, not about promoting trendy European goods for globalized markets, cultures and climates.

The Architecture of Community is about something more fundamental. It is about re-establishing our own traditional forms and techniques of building and settling. The devastation of the traditional Chinese building heritage is causing headlines worldwide. Yet I am less alarmed by the loss of material than by the loss of the ideas which generated and perpetuated it for thousands of years. I am not merely talking about saving historic buildings and towns but saving the technology which created and sustained those forms, made them to be desirable and to be emulated for hundreds of generations. I am suggesting that architects and planners become primordially concerned, not with the historicity of traditional architecture and urbanism but with their technology, with the techniques of building settlements in a specific geographic location with its natural materials.

It is tragic that more and more intelligent minds should at once be spellbound by that undecipherable Spirit of the Age (Zeitgeist) and so indifferent to the Spirit of Place (Genius Loci), the conditions of nature, of local climate, topography, soil, customs, all of them phenomena objectively apprehensible in their physical and chemical qualities.

This book advocates not to respect, study and use traditional ideas because they are historical, but where and when they are relevant for us the living, essential for our well-being. They are repositories not merely of humanity, but of humaneness and ecology.

Human scale, as we now discover when too many of our built environs have lost it, is an unrenounceable attribute of civilization, not an obsolete luxury. We demonstrate here, by vision and example, how human scale can become again the yardstick of modern artifacts, adequate for our bodies and souls, for both our limited physiological capacities and our infinite desires, be they tools, buildings, cities or landscapes.

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Duo vs. the “style wars”

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New Classicism: Schermerhorn Sympony Center, in Nashville, Tenn. (Wikipedia)

Maybe I am a rascal, or maybe I’m going batty in coronaprison, or maybe I would really just like to foster an amicable agreement, among architects, that an architecture that worked for thousands of years is preferable to – and should replace – an architecture that has not worked at all during its three-quarter century’s dominance in the industry.

So here is another post in which I take on architect Duo Dickinson (see my recent “Dickinson vs. Dickinson“). His architectural work is excellent and it is traditional, but his writing, however intelligent, is a guide to how not to think about architecture. He cannot build new traditional houses and denounce new traditional architecture without inspiring confusion. And that’s exactly what he does. So here, from July 6, 2017, is my take on his take:


Architect and commentator Duo Dickinson spends nine-tenths of his essay “Does the New Traditionalism Have a Point?,” on the website Common|Edge, describing new traditional architecture as if it were a recent novelty, a niche phenomenon worthy of a look but without much practical purpose. What’s the point, he asks, as if he did not already know.

After citing chapter and verse how outbreaks of new traditional architecture have been coming on strong of late, Dickinson concludes:

This revived movement may be compared to a “separate but equal” approach of creating a distinct set of rules and criteria for direction and judgment, but it’s really about architects who feel that they are the oppressed and ignored minority rising up to speak truth to power. Rejectionism of any sort is inherently reactionary and shallow. I long for a time when “Good” and “Bad” is sufficient architectural judgment—no style screed necessary.

As Dickinson admits, modern architecture has big problems. “America has felt the failures of Modernism up close and personal,” he writes. And yet “architectural culture, as defined by the vast majority of professors, journalists and ‘thought leaders,’ has a clear bias against traditional styles.”

Nevertheless, after describing valid reasons for the anger of many new traditionalists and a public (let’s not forget them, Duo) that has seen its built environment trashed by modernism for decades, Dickinson trashes those who call for an alternative.

“Irrational and defensive as it seems, the anger against Modernism is real and often absurdly extreme.” “The noise and rancor of these ‘Style Wars’ is reductionist nonsense.” It is “inherently reactionary and shallow.” It embraces a “separate but equal” approach. And anyway, new traditional buildings such as those in two almost completed Collegiate Gothic-style campuses at Yale by Robert A.M. Stern are “Hogwarts.”

And yet Dickinson is one of the few members of the establishment design culture who bother to acknowledge the existence, if not the validity, of a traditional alternative – one that is in its third millennium, has successfully resisted modernism in the private home market for half a century (as people can choose houses and don’t want modernist ones), and has become a movement not just lately but since the 1960s, when modernist-based criticism of modernism led to the postmodernist movement.

Modernism became a movement over a period of 20 years leading up to its capture of the architectural establishment in the postwar years. Preservation changed from a hobby of antiquarians into a movement just as swiftly and about 20 years later, as average people organized to oppose modernism in their cities and neighborhoods. The classical revival has taken longer to become a mass movement, 50 years and counting, because unlike historical preservation, tradition is actively opposed by the modernist establishment.

But as Dickinson seems to sense, tradition has in fact survived modernist extermination, and is rebounding – now strongly enough that critics like Dickinson cannot ignore it. He realizes that tradition is powerful, and is forced to feign confusion at such an easily understood phenomenon.

Dickinson wonders why can’t we all just get along (“I long for a time when ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ is sufficient architectural judgment—no style screed necessary”). Just before he attests to his confusion, he quotes architectural theorist Steven Semes, a professor at Notre Dame and director of its new program in preservation, at some length, even though Semes’s words undercut the last remaining modernist excuse – that “we can’t build that way any more.” This mantra has been used time and again to shut down those who can’t see why buildings must look like machines. Why not revive the beautiful, humane places society once enjoyed? He quotes Semes:

The relation between form and technology has been completely reversed since we were in school. With digital representation, 3D printing, and virtual reality capabilities, the idea that ‘the machine’ has any bearing on the shapes and forms that architects design has gone out the window. Anything is possible, so to avoid chaos, one might look to a well-established, visually rich, and culturally resonant tradition as a framework. I see a great opportunity to explore highly innovative new classical expressions making use of all of this technology and encourage my students and colleagues to pursue this.

C’mon, Duo. Come on over to the light side. The view is much clearer over here.


9 Responses to Duo vs. the “style wars”

  1. Be looking to New York in November…


  2. Pingback: The cat and the bunny | Architecture Here and There (Edit)
  3. Steven Semes says:

    I was happy to be quoted in Duo’s essay, though I am not temperamentally an “ideologue” of any sort. I agree with Nikos about the impossibility of reconciling modernism and traditional architecture on the intellectual or artistic plane, but that doesn’t mean that people can’t recognize as a practical matter that there are multiple ways to make positive contributions to the built environment. In a world that Duo wishes existed (and I wish, too), “good” and “bad” would be judged according to how a given work contributes to the health and well-being of of inhabitants, societies and ecosystems. Then we could talk about what properties make such contributions, including the fundamental principles of mathematics and science that Nikos refers to and has done so much to reveal to all of us. Those principles do not define a style, but they do point in a certain direction. There is a spectrum of views and room for discussion and difference, though terms like “reactionary” do little to foster dialogue. If we could agree on the general principles, then we could have a great time arguing about specific works.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well and truly stated, Steve! Nikos is correct that modernism and tradition are not reconcilable – are not intended, by the modernists at least, to be reconcilable. But we can talk to each other in a civilized way, yes? And seek to identify the fundamentals upon which architecture should be based. And if it is found that an architecture that rejects the past is fundamentally averse to the creation of beautiful species, then, if we are civilized, we can admit that, and all will be well, and we can then get down to the job of judging all architecture as good or bad (or in between) based on how well they apply those fundamentals. I certainly have no objection to that. Nor to if we decide that the fundamentals of architecture command chaos, I suppose.


  4. David,

    Duo is a fellow author over at Common\Edge, and I enjoy reading his intelligent essays. Unfortunately, we have no physical meeting space to discuss things and help each other develop our ideas. Like so many “meeting places” nowadays, it’s a strictly virtual one.

    To answer some of your questions raised by Duo’s latest essay, I need to come back to the fundamental difference between classical/traditional architecture and modernism. They cannot coexist harmoniously, since they use opposite mathematical rules of design.

    Let’s hope that an increasing number of interested players realize this soon. Otherwise we continue hoping for the unrealizable wish of getting along as “separate but equal” styles. The problem preventing this nice thought resides deeper, in mathematics and neuroscience.

    Best wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think the truth of your comment, Nikos, that they cannot co-exist for reasons traceable to mathematics and neuroscience, is obvious to anyone who has eyes. That is so whether or not people are aware of or give credence to scientific factors. Tradition is suppressed by modernism because modernism is fully aware that it would not long survive on a genuinely even playing field.

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China bans novel archivirus

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CCTV headquarters (center right), in Beijing, known as Big Pants. Or is it stomping on the people?

The People’s Republic of China, taking time off from other matters, has issued a decree banning copies of foreign design in its architecture. The decree, as described in the BBC’s “China ‘copycat’ buildings: Government clamps down on foreign imitations,” also bars “weird” design, which was already banned in 2016, and limits building heights to 500 meters (or 1,640 feet). The decree calls for “a ‘new era’ of architecture to ‘strengthen cultural confidence, show the city’s features, exhibit the contemporary spirit, and display Chinese characteristics.'” The BBC adds:

The statement, issued on 27 April but only reported this week, singles out stadiums, exhibition centres, museums and theatres as public facilities where it’s especially important to ban plagiarism.

According to the Global Times, the “fake, shoddy versions” of foreign buildings appear in “many third and fourth-tier Chinese cities.” The government did not say what will happen to existing “foreign” buildings, but does say there will be “city inspections” to check for problems.

“City constructions are the combination of a city’s external image and internal spirit, revealing a city’s culture,” the government statement says. It was unclear how rigorously the decree would be enforced. It was also unclear how architects are supposed to interpret the language of the decree.

One wonders what kind of design would exhibit the contemporary spirit while displaying Chinese characteristics. Doesn’t almost all recent Chinese architecture copy some sort of modern architecture built elsewhere in the world? How would clients and designers manage under a regime in which copying global modernism is banned? China’s architects are encouraged by the decree to “show the city’s features”; how is it even possible to design a building that does not show the city’s features? Any new building becomes a feature of the city automatically, and cannot do otherwise. At this point, does anyone still know which architectural features are characteristic of a Chinese city and which are not?

Perhaps the real intent is to put a stop to districts taken directly, often almost literally (though with little competence), from European cities such as Paris and London. No doubt their popularity embarrasses China’s architectural apparat. Perhaps the decree is intended to jumpstart a new era of copying the past of Chinese architecture – that is, to reverse decades of canceling China’s culture, such as the hutong alleyways that were demolished to make way for the Chinese Olympic Games in 2008. Maybe the cultural heritage of the Middle Kingdom can be resuscitated in time for the Chinese Olympic Games planned for 2022. Not holding my breath.

(Here is a 2013 BBC article with photos of copycat historical architecture inspired by European tourist meccas. Here’s another, by, from last year. Here is a 2006 piece from the UK Telegraph on the removal of the historic hutong alleyway neighborhoods in Beijing, including some right near the Forbidden City. But here is another piece, from a 2018 edition of the Urban Land Institute‘s newsletter, that reports on an effort to preserve one of Beijing’s few remaining hutongs.)

The photo atop this post includes the China Central Television headquarters, designed by starchitect Rem Koolhaas and popularly known as Big Pants. To me (as I’ve said at least a million times) it looks like Big Pants is stomping on the Chinese people. Supposedly it cannot be copied. But maybe I am missing the point. Perhaps the new decree seeks a sort of mau-mauing of pre-existing reality, in which the Chinese state seeks to rediscombobulate “weird” design as a feature of contemporary Chinese character.

It may be that a novel twist on Chinese cultural bat guano is about to escape from the lab. Let’s hope the Chinese do a better job of containing it this time.

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Thames Town, in Shanghai.

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Plečnik capitals you can see

Screen Shot 2020-05-04 at 11.07.27 PM.pngJože Plečnik may perhaps be deemed the Antoni Gaudi of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Or vice versa. Both shifted the character of their principal cities (Barcelona in Gaudi’s case) toward a more animated, innovative and yet entirely classical character. Both architects proved that classicism can be as creative as modernism – far more so, since modernist creativity is mostly of the ridiculous “Look at me!” type. “Plecnik capitals you can see” originally ran March 25, 2015, and “Recapture Joze Plecnik!” the week before:



Here is that page of column capitals by Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik, disambiguated from the shot of many capitals on two pages taken and sent to TradArch by Angelo Gueli yesterday and posted in a cropped and undisambiguated (I think that’s a word) by me. The photos were too small for readers to examine very helpfully with the naked eye. Angelo saw my post and shot each capital on those pages separately and sent them to me. Here they are.

But I cannot let the opportunity created by Angelo’s compassion pass without comment. Now that you can closely peruse each capital, you can see that all of them possess a uniquely expressive character that arises from features that would be purged by modernists, just as Harvard Graduate School of Design dean Joseph Hudnut literally threw out Harvard’s famous collection of classical plasters, causing dumbkopf architecture-school deans around the nation and the world to do likewise, as if they were an unusually idiotic species of sheep.

Let’s shove the nasty modernists aside and focus our attention on enjoying the beauty of the Plečnik capitals. I tried to figure out which of them comes closest to the canonical. It’s a tough quiz, but I suppose the closest must be the sixth, which seems to be a regular column of the Tuscan order but with a large fasces, as I think that scroll-like tubular feature is called, intervening between the Tuscan capital what would otherwise be the entablature above were it not that a coffered ceiling rests upon the fasces, an ornament that derives from the symbol for Roman authority.

Which is my favorite? That’s just as tough a nut to crack. Perhaps it is the second capital with the melancholy face between the two Ionic scrolls. Since, according to Cognitive Architecture, by Ann Sussman and Justin Hollander, our brains read faces as their number one job, maybe that explains my preference here. But I also like the capital forged from four columns arising to their own capitals at the top of a post.

It is almost impossible not to feel outrage at the meatheadedness that has robbed the world of the joy of classicism.

Here I leave readers to luxuriate alone in this heterodoxual display.

[The original post, from 2015, erroneously attributed to Bauhaus founder and GSD faculty member Walter Gropius the destruction of Harvard’s classical cast collection, rather than dean Joseph Hudnut, who actually perpetrated the atrocity. Not that Gropius hadn’t already done quite enough to eradicate beauty in the world.]IMG_6209



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“Building Notre Dame”

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One of the identical rose transept facades at Notre-Dame. (PBS)

PBS has broadcast a brilliant documentary, “Building Notre-Dame,” on the construction, over some 800 years, of the cathedral in Paris. We all know that the building arose as the cutting edge of architecture in the Middle Ages, and that a year after the April fire that destroyed its roof, its spire, and weakened much of its structure, its redpair has been delayed by physical and aesthetic controversy. PBS’s film puts this work into the context of repairs and renovations to the cathedral during and since the middle ages.

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Gargoyle of Notre-Dame. (PBS)

It was discovered, after sixty years of building, at a stage of near completion, that the structure had no gutters, no drainage system. It had no way to collect and distribute rainwater – water being the most dangerous natural enemy of architecture. So they hollowed out the church’s flying buttresses so that 7,000  gallons of rainwater in an average storm would shoot out the mouths of the gargoyles, away from the church walls. Engineering the new water system enabled the walls to be raised by six feet, remounting the roof, reconfiguring the windows and their stained glass in a much larger format, larger than ever, painting the statuary and, eventually, adding architect Eugène Violette-le-duc’s famous spire.

“They kept changing their minds,” says Ken Follett, author of the novel Pillars of the Earth, first of a masterful three-volume series. “They had no sense that they were working in an old tradition. They were working at the cutting edge of technology.” He also has a nonfiction book out on Notre-Dame. Victor Hugo’s fictional The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, published in 1831, stirred up public support to save the cathedral.

It is the conceit of today’s architects that they are applying technology to architecture for the first time. What, did something click with the modern era? No. Architects started to conceive of buildings as machines, which is fine, but decided that they needed to look like machines. This was their mistake. They treated function and design as opposing dualities. Beauty was rightly offended and fled, or was ejected from, the project of architecture.

These are my words, not those of the producers of the documentary. Indeed, the documentary gives one instance of the cathedral builders’ applying the virtue of patience to correct one of their more potentially deadly errors. After the portals and two heavy bases of the towers were complete, it was discovered that they were tilting forward, under the strain of thousands of tons of stone walls and statuary. So what did they do? They waited for the ground to reach compression and the tilting to stop, which it kindly did (after how long the docu doesn’t say; nor does it say whether prayer was involved, but rather gives credit to “chance”). They built the towers straight up from there. It worked. You can still see the tilt of the base today.

The documentary opens a view to the complexity of what must be done to restore the beauty of Notre-Dame for tomorrow. I am sure that what has come before will ensure that history is respected by the principles of repair. You cannot watch this film without shuddering at the schemes afoot among modernists today, but you cannot understand this documentary without feeling confidence that the good, the true and the beautiful will prevail.

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View of the roof and spire, with the saved towers at left. (PBS)

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Dickinson vs. Dickinson

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House by New Haven architect Duo Dickinson, featured on his website. (

Duo Dickinson is an architect in New Haven whose work, primarily private houses, is creative yet overwhelmingly traditional in appearance. I like his architecture very much. His firm’s portfolio and productivity are impressive. However, when writing and speaking about architecture he seems to diss his own work by asserting that all design inspired by tradition misappropriates history. His career seems to embody an inexplicable personality split.

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New theater in Doylestown, Pa.. (Ranalli)

He and I have gone back and forth on this in the comments section of my recent blog post, “Eyed by Ranalli’s theater.” He approves of New York architect George Ranalli’s two projects seeking a “third way” between modern and traditional architecture, and so do I, though I think it makes more sense to revive the traditions interrupted in the 20th century. I applaud Ranalli for departing from his modernism, however rarely he has traveled his third way. Dickinson’s belief that he also seeks a third way is mistaken. Why he insists on that I do not know.

In Dickinson’s first comment on my post, he urged me to visit his website. I did, and at its top was a lovely, rambling, asymmetrical traditional house (see above) that he described as “Too Mod for Trad; Too Trad for Mod.” I wrote back saying the house was in fact too trad for mod but not too mod for trad, and indeed not mod at all.

He replied that I was supposed to look at his whole website, not just at that one house. So I did look at his whole website, and with very few exceptions I found that it was all very creative and yet highly traditional, not bending in the least toward modernism, or at all seeming to advocate a third way. Duo urged me and other readers to watch a video he linked to of a recent lecture he gave to the New Haven Preservation Trust entitled “Lost New Haven: Traveling Through Time.”

I watched it last night. It is 45 minutes, and is very engaging, but to me it was confusing. Dickinson’s eloquence enables him to express confusion in terms that seem, in passing, to be logical and straightforward.

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Yale Art & Architecture Building.

I am not going to address his lecture point by point. But he begins by asserting that history is not a style – an assertion nobody has ever made, and whose meaning, now that he has made it, seems obscure. He admires buildings from New Haven’s past, but scorns buildings erected recently that have been inspired by tradition, yet admires modernist buildings that scorn tradition. He describes the Brutalist Yale Art & Architecture building, by Paul Rudolph, as “incredibly beautiful.” Huh? Just look at it.

To me, this is baffling. He opposes the proposal to rebuild Penn Station as it was originally designed by Charles Follen McKim in 1910. He casts aspersions on Yale’s beautiful new Collegiate Gothic residential colleges by Robert A.M. Stern. Again, Dickinson’s work is traditional, but most of his thinking favors modernism, though occasionally he sniggers at it. Go figure.

Dickinson says he does not care about style, but whether he does or does not care, he cannot escape having a style. His style is traditional. The fact that much of it is also very creative does not mean it is any less traditional. Traditional and classical architecture have featured the widest range of creativity for thousands of years. By the same token, modern architecture can be entirely lacking in creativity; anyhow, modernists like to think that rejecting the past is by definition creative. It is not.

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Project proposed by Mies van der Rohe.

Dickinson looks back wistfully at projects in New Haven by modernist founder Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (“Elysian fields of universal buildings in space”) and postmodernist Charles Moore (“intricate and perspectival that actually deals with words from the Renaissance”). Even he admits these were failures. But of the years of thinking and planning that went into them, he gushes: “It was that level of heroism, that level of ‘we can make things better’.” Not likely. The very names of modernist styles – Brutalism, Blobism, Deconstructivism, for example – seem to affirm their disruptive nature.

Dickinson’s lecture was accompanied by slides, and even though I was not there, I can assure readers that a groan rolled through the audience whenever he showed one of New Haven’s lost historical buildings. And a groan laced with laughter rumbled whenever he showed the modernist building that replaced it. You can hear some of it on the video. Over three decades I’ve been to countless slide lectures featuring the old and the new (and even given a few myself). This happens at all of them.

Such reactions reflect a ubiquitous sensibility that most of the profession, including Duo Dickinson, refuses to acknowledge: the past was dominated by beautiful architecture, which is being replaced all too swiftly by modern architecture, almost all of it ugly. The replacement of the old by the new is inevitable – “make, kill, make, kill, make, kill,” as Dickinson puts it. But the ugliness he seems so willing to accept (occasionally with some regret) is not inevitable at all. Beauty is not necessarily a thing that has been lost to the past; it seems so only because the ideology of modernism is so well and so widely publicized by know-it-alls like Duo.

There has always existed a broad, intuitive respect for conventional beauty; all people feel it at some level. No amount of fancy rhetoric – and Duo Dickinson can serve up the fanciest – can evade this truth. It is a universal fact of history, however eloquently it is denied. Because indeed history is not a style. It is the story of style. All architects should be listening and learning.

Most, alas, are not. Dickinson listens and learns when he builds but when he speaks, his wisdom goes in one ear and out the other.

Will the real Duo Dickinson please stand up!

Posted in Architecture, Preservation, Video | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

Is Wuhan China’s Chicago?

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Introductory art etches architectural opening to Wuhan video. CCTV is left of center. (CGTN)

Wuhan, the Chinese city where the Wuhan virus originated, is sometimes called “The Chicago of China” for its size (pop. 11.8 million), its central location, its setting on the Yangtze River and its historic buildings and its modern architecture. Here is a 28-minute video made in 2018 called “Is this the Chicago of China?” The video doesn’t answer that question. Chicago is 250 years old. Wuhan is 2,500 years old. The CGTN video is, at least in part, a product of the Chinese government, and admits it, so this video is certainly not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Yet who would not wonder about this place now so damned in the annals of history? What does it look like? We’ve seen the wet market and the virology lab, but we’ve seen little else. For those who are curious about its classical architecture and traditional places, the first 14 minutes of the video should suffice.

In its second half, we learn about its opera, its nightlife, its Han embroidery and its 1911 Revolution Museum, commemorating Sun Yat-sen’s creation of the Chinese Republic. Little is said of what came after, but note, amid the video’s introductory art, in creeps the vile CCTV tower (China’s propaganda ministry, designed by starchitect Rem Koolhaas). Why is the CCTV tower even there? It is not in Wuhan but in Beijing. It’s the building that seems to be stomping on the poor Chinese people. The pandemic of recent months certainly cannot be blamed on the city or the people of Wuhan, even though it started there. But what about Beijing, five hours by train to the northeast? We won’t get into who can be blamed for this disaster, except to say that the CCTV tower may be responsible for part of that regrettable story.

To answer the question posed by the video’s title, I’d say no, Wuhan is not China’s Chicago, though both have been sullied by modern architecture.

Below, from the video, backdropped by what could be Corbusier’s proposed Plan Voisin for Paris, is some of what remains of Wuhan’s historical cityscape.

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Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Your face as face mask art

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Face mask designed to activate facial-recognition on wearer’s iPhone. (Architectural Digest)

Years ago, I urged Providence artists to create murals designed to look like the buildings on which they were painted. A façade with no windows could be painted to look like the rest of the building. Humans could be leaning out the fake windows, or a lower corner of the wall could be painted to look as if it were curling up – as on a downtown mural facing the Providence River.

I thought, for example, that the ugly fourth Howard Building should get a facelift with a mural covering up its modenist fenestration with a classical façade. But nobody was listening, and my building mural campaign fizzled.

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Cat face mask. (L.A. Times)

One of the defects of our Covid era is that as cities ramp up the mandate to wear face masks in public, the public grows more and more boring. We can’t see each others’ faces. Not that we can go outside much anyway, but why should face masks make it worse? Instead we see face masks that employ blank, striped, polka dotted, flowered or some type of goofy abstract imagery. Or made to look like the faces of dogs or cats – cute! My own is a bandana cut out of one of my wife’s old nighties. Why shouldn’t our face mask be designed to look like our own face?

It seems that Architectural Digest has just beat me out on this idea with “Design goes viral: Coronavirus face masks that work with face recognition technology.” This article, by Sofya Shatokhina, was published an eternity ago: on March 11. You’d think by now facial face masks would be ubiquitous. But I’ve seen no one wearing masks that look like faces real or fictional, even without the high-tech angle. The article summarizes how to make a face mask whose wearer can log on to an iPhone’s facial recognition program:

The new mask by [Daniel] Baskin displays the lower half of the face, to help create a seamless flow of tech usage. The artist manually translates the 2D images into 3D so that depth sensors react to it, and prints it on the mask.

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Facial face mask. (Arch. Digest)

In fact, masks designed for use by specific individuals need not be facial-recognition friendly. The face on the mask could be tweaked to make it more beautiful than the owner’s true face, as if it were an oil portrait of an aristocrat from Edwardian England. The face mask’s mouth and nose would have to fit into the context of the eyes on the actual head of the person, whether it was a regular or improved version. You could sport a beard as a sort of disguise. You could have your usual frown turned upside down, or vice versa – you decide. The possibilities are endless.

Or, if you find that wearing a mask gives you a pleasant sense of traveling incognito, you could make yourself look completely different. You could even abandon the facial stuff altogether (as is the convention for face masks thus far). You could wear the grille of a sports car, a bumper-sticker slogan, the Grand Tetons, the American flag, or even the façade of a building. You could use an existing building, or your own house, or you could have one designed using the eye-tracking computers employed by Massachusetts researcher Ann Sussman to demonstrate why traditional buildings are so beloved compared with modernist ones, which is because their windows and doors tickle our brains’ hard-wired attraction to faces.

Actually, I think I’ll take a mask with my favorite building printed on it: the New York Yacht Club national headquarters, designed by the firm of Warren & Wetmore and completed in 1899. Its front windows look like the elaborate sterns of 18th century naval galleons. Cover me up in that and I’ll be happy.

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First story of New York Yacht Club headquarters in New York City. (

Posted in Architecture, Art and design | Tagged , , , , , , , | 6 Comments