Comparing Italy and Britain

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What makes a good society? Part of the answer is good architecture. Yet the good that is done by good architecture reaches well beyond beauty. Good architecture does much to create the conditions in which health, prosperity and happiness grow. One of the best explanations of this phenomenon is an essay comparing Italy and Britain by British sociologist Theodore Dalrymple, published in the Summer 2001 issue of City Journal. It is called “The Uses of Corruption.” In 2018, I wrote a post on it called “The Uses of Preservation,” which quoted Dalrymple’s thoughts on the latter topic, which could just as well have been called “The Uses of Beautiful Buildings.”

The original essay is worth reading in its entirety. Its insights about public administration are both counterintuitive and profound. Its passages about preservation explain the reasons why good architecture is so important to the good society. And now that the debate over President Trump’s executive order “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” has crossed the Atlantic to Europe, perhaps it’s time to reprint my post quoting Dalrymple’s passages on beautiful buildings – whose importance to national and societal success has gone largely unaddressed in discussions of the E.O. on classicism.

(My post from 2018 links to Dalrymple’s full essay.)


Italy’s public administration vastly surpasses Britain’s in only one area: the preservation of the country’s urban heritage. This single bureaucratic success is crucial, however, for it greatly elevates Italy’s standard of living over Britain’s. The destruction of Britain’s urban patrimony and its replacement by hideous modernist multi-story parking garages and office buildings, while inflating the GNP, represent a lowering of every Briton’s quality of life. …

The official architect and town planner of the city in which I live, for example, wanted—quite literally—to pull down every single local building that dated from before the second half of the twentieth century, including entire Georgian streets and many masterpieces of the Victorian gothic revival. Fortunately, he retired when perhaps a tenth of the old buildings still remained: the rest having by then been replaced by Le Corbusian leviathans so horrible and inhuman that many of them are now scheduled for demolition in their turn, less than 30 years after their erection. The Georgian spa city of Bath offers an even more startling example: in the 1950s, the city council wanted to raze it to the ground and replace it with something more in tune with the times.

Such barbarous thoughts would never have occurred to any Italian, however corrupt or politically extreme he might otherwise have been. As Giorgio Bassani observes of the street of palaces where his protagonists live in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: “[The] Corso Ercole I d’Este is so fine, and such a tourist attraction, that the left-wing council that has been running Ferrara for nearly fifteen years has realized it must be left as it is and strictly protected against speculative builders and shopkeepers; in fact, that its aristocratic character must be preserved exactly as it was.” Never in England.

Actually, Italian municipal policy has been even more enlightened than this passage suggests. Commercial enterprises in old towns and cities must conform to aesthetic standards, so as not to do violence to the appearance of buildings, with the result that the Italians are not, like the British, modern barbarians camped out in the relics of an older and superior civilization to whose beauties they are oblivious. Italian municipalities have also kept their cities vibrant by capping the local taxes of small businesses, thus nurturing a variety of shops that in turn nourish many crafts, from papermaking to glass-blowing, that might otherwise have died. Thus, an uneducated man in Italy can still be a proud craftsman, while in Britain he must take a low-paid, unskilled job—if he takes a job at all. Italian downtowns are not as British city centers are, the location of depressingly uniform chain stores without character or individuality, plate-glassed emporia hacked into the ground floors of historic buildings without regard to the original architecture. The Italians have solved, as the British have not, the problem of living in a modern way in ancient surroundings that, looked at in economic terms, constitute inherited wealth.

The preservation of the aesthetic quality of Italian life, but its utter destruction in Britain, whose streets have been coarsened to a degree unequaled in Europe, has had profound social and economic consequences. Where all is ugliness and indifference to aesthetic considerations, it is easy for behavior to become ugly and crude and for collective municipal pride to evaporate. It seems not to matter how people conduct themselves: there is nothing to spoil. Attention to detail, important in both the manufacture of goods and the provision of services, attenuates in an environment of generalized ugliness. What is the point of wiping a table, if the world around it is irredeemably hideous? To be sure, self-respect can encourage people to make the best of a bad job, but dependency on the state has destroyed the basis of self-respect.

In a world grown richer, aesthetic quality has obvious economic benefits. Given the gulf between the excellence of Italian design, educated by the beauties of the past, and the unremitting tastelessness of British modernity, it is not a coincidence that Italy has one of the largest trading surpluses of any nation, while Britain has one of the largest deficits.

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New England’s “Windy City”

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Wind near the John Hancock building, on Clarendon St., in April 1977. (Boston Globe)

Boston is the Windy City of New England partly because of its proximity to the North Atlantic but also its funnels of street gusts caused by its dreadfully metastasizing skyscrapers. Wind tunnels are raising eyebrows (and skirts) in the Hub, as evidenced by the Boston Globe story “As construction booms, Boston works to slow down wind tunnels.” It’s author, the urban theorist Anthony Flint, of the Lincoln Institute, writes:

With construction booming and several new towers planned, Boston planners have joined their counterparts from London, Toronto, and San Francisco in paying special attention to street-level wind effects around new development. That means heading off problems early in the design process and making modifications to completed projects when the conditions they help create are too blustery by far for those walking by.

Builders have had to confront all kinds of impacts over the years — shadows, glare, noise, heat effects, energy inefficiency, susceptibility to flooding, and seismic activity. Around the world, wind is now moving up the checklist.

I doubt that Bostonians faced nearly as much wind when its taller buildings were designed in classical styles. In 1973-74, when I spent a year at Emerson College, then on Back Bay’s Beacon Street, I used to walk down Beacon in the morning and felt little or no wind at cross streets that led up to Beacon from the Charles River a block away – except at Clarendon, where gusts of wind were strong enough to almost blow me into Beacon. I blamed this on one building, 180 Beacon, then the street’s only modernist tower, with the side facing Clarendon perfectly flat and blank, as I recall, with no windows or any other surface extrusions, such as ornamental embellishments, to slow the speed of any wind off the Charles. The building was replaced in 1996 with a pair of taller towers (rents ring in at  $2,500-$25,000 a month), quite as ugly but with balconied fenestration facing Clarendon. I wonder if these useful obstacles to the wind have served to diminish its blast.

Nowadays, farther up Clarendon, the John Hancock Tower causes extreme wind-tunnel effects. By the spring of 1974, I lived in a third-floor walkup on Marlborough Street, and directly out my window, three blocks away, I could see the Hancock. Panes of sheer glass from its curtain wall were famously popping out and spinning down to threaten pedestrians below. All of the tower’s window openings were soon covered with plywood, and eventually new glass replaced the plywood. By now the neighborhood has more tall buildings, mostly modernist, with largely blank façades. I imagine that this “face-blasting zone,” as Flint in his Globe story calls it (or “eye-poking zone,” as I would call it), has grown only more hazardous and uncomfortable.

Wind tunnels happen because wind travels faster at higher altitudes, hitting the sides of buildings, which act like sails, and rattling down to the street. With nowhere else to go, it finally surges through gaps between buildings, down narrow streets, and around corners … .

And here Flint takes an amusing look backward:

Wind effects in urban environments have been around as long as city builders have reached for the sky. After Daniel Burnham’s 21-story Flatiron Building opened in New York City in 1902, police officers shooed away men hoping to glimpse petticoats uplifted by gusts. Twentieth-century modernism, with its unadorned surfaces from bottom to top, only exacerbated the problem.

Decades of “development” have inflicted an ever-expanding panoply of faceless towers on downtown and near Back Bay’s Prudential Tower. In the hideously ugly innovation district, buildings of tallish and bulky demeanor make for neighborhoods of equally blowhard conditions. For Bostonians, the attacking wind must rank up with the clogged roads as urban cataclysms. Recall from Flint’s story that Boston planners are paying closer attention to potential wind zones. Gee, I wonder why? “That,” he writes, “means heading off problems early in the design process.”

How early?

May I offer a modest proposal? Ornament on buildings of classical design serves more than just an aesthetic purpose. Forget modernist claims that decoration is useless. Put aside the fact that creating beauty helps generate a love that facilitates investments in building repair and maintenance. Classical features play a role that, by design, has no equivalent in modernist buildings. Sculpture and other carving on façades directs rain away from masonry walls; vertical stringcourses and horizontal quoins block rain from invading cracks between sections of exterior walls; windows set deeply into façades help keep rain from entering gaps in window frames. And of course pitched roofs direct rain toward gutters and drains. Rain is the greatest cause of problems in buildings. Ornament not only does its intended job of protecting architecture; it also retards the wind rushing down and across façades.

My modest proposal is that, rather than trying to invent new ways to prevent the wind from exacerbating the multiple, pre-existing difficulties of modern architecture, why not embrace classical and traditional architecture for new buildings in Boston, especially tall ones? The Hub could become the hub again by rethinking urban design and serving as a model for planners in the cities of America and around the world.

Forty miles southwest of Boston is Providence, whose planners have sought to merge dysfunction with ugliness in all new architecture for decades. Let her urban planners feel free to use this idea to steal a march on their rival, and to thereby draw more Bostonians to live in this beautiful city – a city that could easily have an even lovelier future rather than the dystopia that seems in prospect. If it wants to.

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EO: The two paths ahead

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Proposal to rebuild Penn Station in its original design. (Jeff Stikeman/National Civic Art Society)

The draft executive order that is stirring within the Trump administration is forcing classicists in the field of architecture to choose one of two paths forward. The path that goes through the E.O., if it is not already throttled in its cradle, will give a boost to beauty in federal buildings, and open the way to challenge the dominant architectural culture. If this path is blocked, the status quo of modern architecture and its dominance in the field will continue for decades, possibly centuries.

Modernists, whose control of the establishment is threatened by the E.O., recognize the danger to their interests and are fighting it tooth and nail. Curiously, some classicists and traditionalists have taken up cudgels against their own liberation from modernism’s hegemony. They are undermining the unity needed to prevail on behalf of beauty.

Perhaps the most extreme example is the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. The ICAA’s opposition was predictable, since the board that runs it from New York City sliced “advocacy” from its mission statement a year or so ago. No longer may chapters support or oppose relevant developments under the ICAA imprimatur, not even in their own regions. We are muzzled.

Why am I still in this organization, anyway? Why does it even exist?

The ICAA should don its thinking cap and consider the two alternative paths facing classical architecture.

The executive order, if signed by Trump, would represent an unexpected but powerful intervention in a hopeless situation – virtually a deus ex machina that offers traditional architecture a path to recapture its dominance in the field, which lasted many centuries until modern architects ousted tradition from the establishment after World War II for no good reason.

The chief architect of the General Services Administration recently resigned, and for the E.O. to be effective, the president must appoint a sympathetic replacement, and he, in turn, must replace or neutralize holdover GSA officials and managers who refuse to abide by the new dispensation. If that does not happen, the E.O. will be a dead letter.

If it does happen, the GSA will snap its fingers and battalions of fake Parthenons will begin marching down Washington’s broad avenues.

Only kidding.

If the E.O. is signed and classicists at the GSA are able to put it into practice, replacing the virtual mandate in favor of modern architecture in effect since 1962, federal courthouses, post offices, office buildings, monuments and other projects designed to please rather than to offend will begin to rise in the city of Pierre L’Enfant and in cities and towns around the country.

With each newly announced traditional project, in or out of Washington, modernist architecture critics will howl, and each time they do, the average member of the public will recognize how totally ridiculous are the modernist claims that classical architecture is “not of our time” or “copying the past” or “fascist.” They will judge the new buildings by their actual appearance. (As if the average person is stupid enough to believe that a building or its style is responsible for what takes place under its roof!)

Each building that rises up against the backdrop of this “discussion” will help to confirm the public’s natural preference for buildings that look like what they are supposed to be.

The executive order’s provisions would force federal officials to bring the public into the design process from which they’d previously been excluded. The modernist mandate from 1962, written by U.S. senator-to-be Daniel Patrick Moynihan, reads in part as follows:

Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government, and not vice versa. … The advice of distinguished architects ought to, as a rule, be sought prior to the award of important design contracts.

Nothing in there about the public! During the decades since 1962, the built environment has been substantially degraded by modern architecture in and out of Washington. Modernists like to insist that the public is not interested in architecture. In fact, architecture is not interested in the public. Dismay at buildings that spurn conventional ideas of beauty, and the public’s exclusion from the process by which these junkyard dogs arise, has caused the public to tune out the built environment as a defense mechanism against the ennui of experiencing modern architecture – in part because individuals know that they can do nothing about it. That will change.

And once they are included in decisions regarding federal architecture they will expect to be included in local decisions about public architecture, and, at last, private architecture. This will force developers to pay more attention to public taste, and to facilitate the public’s involvement in the development process – because the public votes for the politicians who get money from developers and influence what and how they can build projects.

Once this process gets under way, the architecture profession and its firms will be forced to diversify their stylistic offerings to clients, private and public. That will force architecture schools to broaden their curricula to include classical coursework. It is not widely known that today there is only one [1] major architecture school that offers a classical curriculum: the University of Notre Dame. This will change.

Because classical architecture proudly uses ornament to embellish buildings, the changes described above will reform the largely monolithic character of the architectural profession. A revival will follow in jobs for artists, artisans and other makers creating decoration to replace the blank abstractions of modernism – a tepid sterility which fosters illness, anomie, and a tolerance among citizens for treatment as cogs in the machinery of society.

Because the public has a better (and more sophisticated) sense of taste than most design professionals marinated in modernism, public involvement in their cities’ development process will lead to more attractive buildings, and eventually to a greater affection for government buildings, and maybe, perhaps, respect for government itself.

The late Sir Roger Scruton wrote in The Classical Vernacular (1994) that the classically designed street “is humanly proportioned, safe, gregarious, and quietly vigilant, [and] constantly reminds the pedestrian that he is not alone, that he is in a world of human encounter, and that he must match the good manners of the [street] that guides him.”

The producer of the Star Wars films, George Lucas, reflected at least a subconscious recognition of this phenomenon when he created traditional habitats for his good guys and modernist habitats (such as the Death Star) for his evil characters. So maybe, in the end, classical architecture will help America avoid the authoritarian future predicted by so many elite thinkers. (I ended my last post on this subject, “Parsing classical creativity,” with the hope that classicism could prevent authoritarianism, and then a joke: “But don’t tell that to President Trump!”)

To top off this litany of almost certain results from adopting “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” as U.S. policy – no more a “top-down mandate” than its predecessor – it would make America beautiful again.

Okay. So what if classicists refuse to unify behind the proposed E.O. and it dies for lack of support even among a large swath of classicism’s advocates?

The status quo would prevail, certainly for decades, possibly for centuries. Today, classicists mainly seek to advance by placing more classical classes – not coursework, let alone curricula – in more modernist architecture schools. Recently, classicists breathed a huge sigh of relief that Notre Dame hired a traditional architect/urbanist, Stefanos Polyzoides, as dean of its school of architecture. It became classicist only a few decades ago after a palace coup at the school, and that could be reversed, theoretically, at any time, even though Notre Dame’s is the only program whose graduates can count on getting a job in architecture right after graduation. Meanwhile, Catholic University, in D.C., is looking for a new dean of architecture amid some doubt, apparently, that a classicist will be hired or that the new slate of classical coursework at the school will even survive. Not too long ago, the Boston Architecture College addressed funding issues by simply ousting its minimalist classical program, and even refused to let the ICAA exhibit in its lobby. If the E.O. goes down, more of this is what classicists can expect.

If the E.O. dies, so will hope that classicism can expand upon the slow but steady growth it has seen over the past two or three decades. Today, the classical revival is based mainly on rich people who, like most people, tend to prefer classical or traditional styles over modernist styles. Whether they hire quality designers or otherwise, they hire classical architects to build their mansions. The wealthy have been the source of most classical commissions for decades, but the public doesn’t get to see the work. The ongoing debate between classicism and modernism (which modernists absurdly claim is over) may be said to have begun with ICAA founder Henry Hope Reed’s 1959 book The Golden City, and was given a boost, at least in Britain, by Prince Charles’s 1984 attack on the carbuncles of modernism. By killing off the E.O., modern architecture will retain the whip hand. New traditional architecture that the public can see, such as civic buildings, will remain rare. Such new buildings are important. They teach the public that traditional architecture is not lost to the past but is an equally valid vision of the future.

I’ve placed considerable stock in the recent proposal to rebuild Penn Station using the 1910 design of Charles Follen McKim. It would feature the sort of mechanical upgrading that has been a tradition of architecture for centuries. This is a tradition that most modernists pretend not to be aware of, as if new Georgian houses need to be fitted, still, with lightning rods on the roof and outhouses in the back yard. Anyway, the Penn Station plan, which is already a long shot under the current modernist regime, seems the most obvious prospect for erecting a major traditional building that millions of citizens will see, offering the possibility of a classical revival reminiscent of the City Beautiful movement sparked by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, in Chicago. The new World Trade Center at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan might have had a classically designed rebuild – a traditional proposal was offered by the firm of Franck Lohsen McCrery – but the rules called for “architecture of its time.” Yale just erected two beautiful new residential campuses in the Collegiate Gothic style (designed by Robert A.M. Stern’s robust firm), but how many non-Yalies travel to New Haven to see it?

So, short of some other kind of deus ex machina, what sort of possibilities will arise over the next decades to stoke the dreams of Americans who want their country to be beautiful again? Hope springs eternal, but the options are few and very difficult to imagine. Yes, the federal government is working to extend a set of rail platforms from Penn Station into the old historic post office next door (emblazoned with the motto “Neither snow nor rain … “). It was also designed by McKim, Mead & White, and is now known as Moynihan Train Hall after the creator of the modernist mandate under which America has groaned since 1962. As senator, Moynihan often went to bat for Amtrak funding. The station that bears his name is lovely, but it is certainly not new classicism, not the role model needed to give the classical revival a boost.

If the Trump administration were to back the plan for a MM&W rebuild of Penn Station, would leading classicists oppose it because of its connection to Trump? I hope not. And if not, then why do so many of classicism’s leading lights oppose the E.O.? There is no plausible reason.

Speaking of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, what did he think of his handiwork in writing the 1962 GSA principles mandating ugly federal buildings? Here’s what he had to say in 1970, just eight years later:

Twentieth-century America has seen a steady, persistent decline in the visual and emotional power of its public buildings, and this has been accompanied by a not less persistent decline in the authority of the public order.


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Video of Manhattan in 1911

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A horseless carriage putt-putts and three amused men stroll past the Flatiron Building.

This is, I am pretty sure, the best video of old New York City that I’ve come across. At eight and a half minutes, it is among the longest, with crisp photography and a wide range of locations. Ladies and gentlemen of every status, kids, hucksters and hoboes manage to stroll by, most but not all unconscious of the camera. There are more scenes where people are the focus than in most such films. There are early motor cars, horse cars, trolleys, horse-drawn wagons and conveyances of every sort. At one juncture, the camera, shooting from the rear of a trolley, catches one motorcar attempting (and failing) to pass another. Ahh-ooo-gah! Yes, the sounds of the street are reproduced, too – probably in a studio. Some of today’s most recognized buildings slide by – there’s even a stretch of film, shot from a high floor or the roof of a building, that conveys a strong sense of the Manhattan skyline of the era. The film is slightly colorized, as if it had originally been shot in color (an impossibility?) but had faded – at least that’s the impression achieved. The auteur of the video is Denis Shiryaev of Neural Network Things. So click the button in the frame below and enjoy being transported 109 years into the past.

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Prospect Terrace renewed

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Rendering of Prospect Terrace restoration project. (Bradford Associates)

Landscape architect Sara Bradford led the recent restoration of Providence’s Prospect Terrace, in its College Hill neighborhood near Brown University. Her late husband, RISD professor of architecture and modernist Derek Bradford, was my nemesis as I covered the city’s Capital Center Commission design review panel for the Providence Journal. For years, as a member of the panel, Bradford did his best to keep the sort of traditional buildings I favored out of Capital Center – a new district on acres of parking between downtown and the State House. More often than not, he succeeded.

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Roger Williams memorial. (Wikipedia)

Bradford died in 2017. I was concerned when his widow, who had designed a modernist plaza between Waterplace Park and downtown’s old Union Station, was tapped to design the restoration of Prospect Terrace. I imagined the worst. Kooky, newfangled benches, sleek lampposts that cried “Of Our Time!” God knows what else. Roger Williams would weep.

Sara’s design was carried out and the park reopened on a rainy day last summer. Not long after, I visited, expecting the worst. I found instead that the new benches looked like the old benches, ditto the lampposts and wrought-iron fences. New concrete paths were speckled gently with pebbles, and the area around founder Roger Williams’s memorial was resurfaced with granite pavers. The curbing and gutters along the Congdon Street edge of the park, so hazardous for so many years, were also done up elegantly with granite pavers. Several signs describe the history of the park, one even identifying the array of buildings on view from the terrace.

It was beautiful! Pleasure and relief suffused my entire being!

How easy it is to imagine the pressure Sara Bradford must have been under to introduce some sort of twist designed to assert the park’s independence from the shibboleths of the past. The College Hill community would press for a timeless restoration rather than a timely renovation of the park. After all, the College Hill Neighborhood Association was the project’s leading sponsor. Still, the shadow cast by the design apparatchiks of Brown, RISD, the city’s planning office and the state’s I-195 commission is long and deep. I figured that Sara Bradford would know which side her bread was buttered on.

Thankfully, my anxiety was overblown.

Perhaps Sara Bradford was influenced by another long shadow, that of Roger Williams, who, cast out of the colony of Massachusetts, created Providence and Rhode Island in the spirit of the Independent Man, who can be seen from Prospect Terrace standing tall atop the State House.

In our modern era, tradition is the transgressive principle that fights for independence of mind against a hidebound design establishment. Today, Howard Roark, the renegade hero of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and long the model for modernist architects, would be a classicist. I don’t know if Sara Bradford would agree, but I like to think her Prospect Terrace reflects the better angels of Rhode Island and its capital, Providence.

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Historical view of Prospect Terrace, looking southwest to downtown Providence. (Wikipedia)

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America’s favorite buildings

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For its 150th anniversary, the American Institute of Architects commissioned a double-blind survey of American citizens to discover their favorite American buildings. To the dismay of the AIA, which is modernist to the core, the survey confirmed what everyone already knows – that most people prefer traditional over modernist architecture. I wrote a column about the survey for the March 1, 2007, Providence Journal, where I worked until 2014. The survey has been cited in several pieces reacting to the recently leaked draft executive order that, if signed by President Trump, would encourage federal buildings to be designed in classical styles. Maybe that would improve citizens’ attitude toward their government. Anyway, here is that column, with a link to the survey.


America’s favorite architecture
The Providence Journal

March 1, 2007

IT’S OFFICIAL! Americans prefer traditional architecture to modern architecture. This should surprise nobody, not even architects, but it’s nice to have the obvious confirmed by science.

To celebrate its 150th anniversary, the American Institute of Architects hired the Harris pollsters to ask a random sample of AIA members to nominate up to 20 of their favorite works of American architecture. Of those nominated by 2,448 members, 247 works got six or more votes. Of these, randomly selected sets of 78 photos were shown to 1,804 members of the public, who ranked each from 1 to 5, and winnowed them down to 150 “favorites.”

The top 10 favorites were: 1) The Empire State Building. 2) The White House. 3) The Washington National Cathedral. 4) The Jefferson Memorial. 5) The Golden Gate Bridge. 6) The Lincoln Memorial. 7) The U.S. Capitol. 8) The Biltmore Estate, in Ashville, N.C. 9) The Chrysler Building. 10) The Vietnam War Memorial.

Since the poll results were published on Feb. 7, leading architects, predominantly modernists, have expressed outrage. Some of their favorites didn’t even make it onto the list, such as the Seagram Building and Lever House, or Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Even more galling was that all of the existing modernist buildings on the list were beaten out by, of all places, the Bellagio Hotel and Casino, in Las Vegas, which came in at No. 22.

” ‘The Bellagio – I can’t believe it,’ bellows Edward Feiner.” So writes The Wall Street Journal’s Alex Frangos (“In the Eye of the Beholder: Public, Designers at Odds on What’s a Beautiful Building,” Feb. 7). Frangos caught Feiner, the former chief architect of the federal government, with his modernist pants down. His outrage was predictable: The Bellagio is new classicism, which modernists hate. The only modernist structures to beat the Bellagio were the former World Trade Center (No. 19), for sentimental reasons, and two tourist attractions, the Vietnam War Memorial and the St. Louis Gateway Arch (No. 14). The top “modern-looking building of recent vintage,” as Frangos puts it, was the 1998 Rose Center, of the National Museum of Natural History, in New York, which ranked No. 33. Almost as galling to those galled by the inclusion of the Bellagio must be the Ronald Reagan Building, a neo-classicist federal office building also completed in 1998. It placed No. 79, just ahead of the Philips Exeter Academy Library, by modernist Louis Kahn. No buildings by the pioneer of the glass box, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, made the list. Perfecto!

The National Gallery of Art’s West Building, in Washington, designed by John Russell Pope and finished in 1941, made the list (No. 34). I.M. Pei’s ultramodernist East Wing, finished in 1978, did not. And while Monticello made No. 27, Jefferson’s University of Virginia, in Charlottesville, failed, alas, to make the list.

Two of my favorites, the New York Yacht Club and the Old Executive Office Building (the ornate neoclassical pile next to the White House), failed to make the list. New York, Washington and Chicago had the most buildings on the list. Boston had Trinity Church (25), Faneuil Hall (64), Boston Public Library (90; the original, not Philip Johnson’s 1972 addition) and the Hancock Tower (142). No buildings in Providence made the list, although at least half a dozen of our old buildings are superior to all of the modernist buildings that did make the list.

The list of favorites has been widely criticized as a “Greatest Hits,” based on popularity, not architectural quality. “A classic case of denial,” said classical architect Dino Marcantonio of modernists’ outrage. If popularity alone were key, then how did the relatively obscure Biltmore Estate outrank Monticello? Or how did the St. Regis Hotel outrank the famous Plaza Hotel? Even if popularity was in fact key, so what? As classical architect and planner Nir Buras put it, “The statistics still hold: People prefer/remember/recognize traditional 10 times better than modernist.”

I would say that modern architecture fared far better than it had any right to expect. By my count, 61 modernist works of architecture made it onto the list, although overwhelmingly toward the bottom. Modernists may have reason to be thankful for the curious way the poll was structured by the AIA. After all, the 1,804 members of the public got to choose only after selections by 2,448 “random” AIA members. If the public had chosen its favorites without the AIA members’ getting the first cut, no modernist buildings at all would have made the top 150.

Whether before or after he saw the results of its poll, the president of the American Institute of Architects decided to declare that it was “meant to get a dialogue going.” Good. Since the AIA has worked for decades to thwart the return of traditional design to contemporary American architecture – stacking the deck against the public’s tastes – it’s about time its members started listening.

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At Brown, here we go again


Two houses east of Brook Street to be demolished by Brown. (

Brown University is at it again. It plans to tear down old structures in order to build new ones.’s story, “Brown Proposing to Build 375-Bed Residential Hall – Multiple Structures to be Demolished,” mentions four demolitions and reveals that Brown has hired the New York firm of Deborah Berke Partners to build the two new structures involved. The choice bodes poorly for the allure of what is to replace the old buildings, which include at least three houses of considerable charm.

Three pleasing historic houses, including two east of Brook Street, would be demolished, plus the strip mall just west of Brook, whose loss will break no hearts. The project involves two new buildings, one on each side of the street.

The following from the Berke website is typical, as is the GoLocal assessment:

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New dorm at Dickinson. (DBP)

Among other projects both within higher education and for other clients, the firm’s portfolio features institutional buildings designed to complement urban neighborhood spaces. Recently, it completed a residence hall project at Dickinson College (left); another is currently underway at Princeton University. … The firm also distinguished itself in its ability to design institutional buildings that effectively integrate with their surrounding neighborhoods.

“Complement urban neighborhood spaces” indeed! The firm’s website features exactly zero such buildings in its academic portfolio, the closest being a UPenn guest house in which a carbuncle was added to the rear of a beautiful old building.

GoLocal named the firm’s architect who will handle the Brown project, Noah Biklen, a 1997 Brown grad. He is quoted as saying:

“Already, this project has allowed me to reflect on my student experience of falling in love with both Brown’s campus and the city of Providence,” he said. “It feels both exciting and rewarding to have the chance to help advance Brown’s goal of establishing a new vibrant, inviting residential community that is knitted into the fabric of its surrounding neighborhood.”

Can you believe that!? It seems the best way to knit new buildings into the old fabric is to take a baseball bat and swing it into the face of College Hill. I hope that was something Biklen learned after he left Brown.

The anonymous author of the GoLocal story describes Brown’s goal:

In considering new construction projects and modern adaptations of existing structures, Brown works to balance its commitment to preserving the character of its historic neighborhood with the need to provide spaces that enable the University to fulfill its mission.

In fact, it would be easy to achieve such a balance without courting the snickers that must attend any reading of that obviously ridiculous statement by Brown. Instead of trying to “preserve the character” of College Hill by building structures that reject and erode that character, the university could erect new traditional buildings that fit into their context. Beautifying the school would reduce tensions with the local community. It would also produce better memories for graduates, who as a result might donate more to Brown when they succeed in life.

No architectural renderings for the project were released to GoLocal, it appears, so we’ll just have to assume the plan is to make it all as ugly as sin. This has been the school’s modus operandi for many decades, with only one exception. That was the Nelson Fitness Center, completed in 2012, whose primary donor refused to fork the money over until a better design was proposed. To judge by the new buildings that have arisen since, that experiment must have been deemed a failure. Way to go, Brown!


RAMSA’s Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center at Brown. (photo by anselmmolina at Twitter)

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Parsing classical creativity

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Image from ICAA course catelogue shows infinite variability of classicism.

The proposed executive order encouraging classical architecture for federal buildings in Washington and elsewhere, if adopted by President Trump, would replace Kennedy-era guidelines that have encouraged modern architecture for federal buildings since 1962. Enough time has passed to declare modern architecture a failed experiment in federal placemaking – it fails to promote the national dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability that are the four goals of the JFK guidelines.

To need an “official style” is surely regrettable, but we already have one and the question is whether it is time to embrace a new one. The National Civic Art Society, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that got the ball rolling, is to be commended for its masterstroke in bringing the topic to the public’s attention. Having Donald Trump’s name associated with this initiative is problematic, but no more difficult than any effort to turn federal design back to its traditional roots would be absent a connection to Trump.

Who should be credited is less important than whether the initiative makes sense. The public prefers traditional to modernist forms of architecture by large margins, and this is a democracy, so citizens deserve a voice in the design of their surroundings that they have not had for decades, if ever. This is especially so for federal government structures, which, more than any others, are supposed to reflect the broader civic weal.

Modernists have been unable to articulate a defense of their style for a very long time. They have not needed to. Modern architecture’s representatives in the academy have had virtually total control of architectural education for more than half a century. The architectural media kowtow exclusively to the system of starchitecture that has dominated the field, and refuse to demand an accounting from modernists, whether for individual buildings or for the generally tedious built environment.

Threatened by the proposed executive order, they have hauled out the usual old chestnuts: Classical architecture is to blame for World War I! Classical architecture was the style of the Third Reich! New classical buildings in the modern age are like doctors who still use bleeding to treat patients, or, as a Washington Post editorial put it, “the architectural equivalent of requiring federal workers to wear knee breeches and a tricorn hat.”

Most of those arguments could be knocked over by a barely sentient fifth-grader. But a pair of related arguments is more serious and proponents of the design change in federal architecture must address them directly. These two arguments are that classical architecture stifles innovation and that modern architecture is scientific.

In fact, recent scientific research backs up longstanding assumptions that classical and traditional styles of architecture are closer than modernist ones to nature, and that humans are naturally averse to modern architecture. For example, Nikos Salingaros, a University of Texas professor of mathematics, has identified processes in the development and articulation of traditional architecture that resemble the biological processes of reproduction and evolution. Ann Sussman, a Cambridge architect and design researcher, has used eye-tracking technology to measure the extent to which the human eye focuses in on ornament – especially shapes that bring the human face to mind – and avoids the blank stretches that constitute so much of modern architecture.

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Granoff Center at Brown.

Opponents of a return to classicism for federal architecture declare that modernist innovation – exemplified by, perhaps, Brown University’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, which looks like a gigantic accordion hit by a major earthquake – would give way to the conformity of the classical orders from ancient Greece and Rome. This concern is mere prejudice, springing from a historically narrow definition of innovation and creativity.

Modern art and architecture advance by creative leaps that seek to be unique in the history of a particular medium. Paintings where human characteristics are represented by cubes, for example, or buildings whose massing seems to defy gravity. Each artist distinguishes him or herself from others by qualities that jump out at the observer.

Classical art and architecture, on the other hand, seek to advance by steps that bring greater reach and effectiveness to the methods common to a particular medium, such as, in painting, a new type of brush stroke, a more realistic way of depicting human skin tones, or a new composition for oil colors that dry more swiftly on canvas; or, in architecture, a more coherent method of cornering Ionic columns in a portico, or new techniques for measuring the effectiveness of angles by which pitched roofs shed snow.

The mostly small, integrated advances of traditional artistic endeavor add, year by year, to the virtuosity of each art, and the ability to understand and enjoy them advances no faster, generally, than the capacity of observers to perceive the advancements. In modern architecture the cascading pace of advancement contributes to confusion and ennui in the built environment, whereas in classical architecture the pace is slow, acting as an anchor of stability as the pace of change speeds up in a scary world.

The draft executive order, by slowing down aesthetic change in federal buildings, may contribute to a less chaotic and more orderly constitutional republic, not to mention one whose beauty is more easily comprehended by the broad mass of its citizens. The late Sir Roger Scruton wrote that “the classical idiom does no so much impose unity as make diversity agreeable.”

Given trends in federal architecture today and the look of cities generally over the past half a century, the draft order may have the effect of slowing down the atrophy of our civic life, and an approaching authoritarianism in our governance. But don’t tell that to President Trump!
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Readings on the exec. order

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Washington’s Federal Triangle, c. 1950. Build 1930-1947. Last major classical development in United States. (Federal Triangle Heritage Trail Assessment Study, 2010)

Here is a list of readings, pro and con, from newspapers and magazines, plus original source material, to help readers judge the wisdom and validity, such as they may be, of the draft proposed executive order from the White House on “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” I assure longtime readers that, although this is my third post on the controversy in a row, with another one coming soon (after publication in the Providence Journal), that normal programming will resume.

Here is the list, beginning with the draft executive order:

The draft:

Architectural Record (Feb. 4):
American Institute of Architects/Robert Ivy
Response to AIA/Michael G. Imber, architect
TradArch/Patrick Webb/visual survey (50 states so far)/1962 guidelines:
TradArch/Patrick Webb/visual survey (federal bldgs in D.C.)/1962 guidelines:
Wall Street Journal/Michael J. Lewis (paywall?)/videos on trads, mods:
The New Republic article/Kate Wagner:
The Atlantic/Andrew Ferguson:
Washington Post article/Philip Kennicott:
New York Times editorial:
New York Times/Michael Kimmelman:
New York Times/Katie Rogers and Robin Pogrebin:
New York Times letters:
Fox News/Tucker Carlson/video:
City Journal/Catesby Leigh:
First Things/Catesby Leigh:
Taki’s Magazine/Theodore Dalrymple:
The American Conservative/Theodore Dalrymple:
National Review/Colette Arredondo:
Quartz/Anne Quito:
American Enterprise Institute/Ross Douthat:
Architect/Blaine Brownell:
The Public Discourse/Joel Pidel:
Architexturez/Essays by Michael Mehaffy, Nikos Salingaros, Ann Sussman:
World Catholic Report/George Weigel: Dickinson:
Daily Beast/Jean Baker
Twitter/NYT/Ross Douhat/thread:
The Federalist/Nikos Salingaros:
The Federalist/Sumantra Maitra:
The Federalist/Christopher Bedford:
The Federalist/Carroll William Westfall:
The Federalist/Sen. Mike Lee:
Strong Towns/Charles Marohn:
Wall Street Journal/City Journal/Myron Magnet:
Clusterfuck Nation: James Howard Kunstler:
Witold Rybczynski:
Arcdigital Media/Justin Lee:
CommonEdge/Steven Semes:
David Brussat/“Bring diversity to federal design”:
David Brussat/“Unify in the fight for beauty”:

David Brussat/”Parsing classical creativity”:

David Brussat/”America’s favorite buildings”:

David Brussat/”EO: The two paths ahead”:

David Brussat/”The foreboding of H.H. Reed”:

David Brussat/”Along NYC’s Museum Mile”:

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Unify in the fight for beauty

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The Lincoln Memorial and the Austin, Texas, federal courthouse.

The draft executive order to encourage classical architecture for federal buildings in Washington and elsewhere has shifted the world of architecture on its axis. Patrick Webb, a teacher of ornamental plastering at the American College of Building Arts in Charleston, S.C., describes today’s situation with force and concision. Citing decades of classical subservience to modernist hegemony in the design field, Webb sums up the immediate and potentially profound impact of the draft order, entitled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again“:

We cannot go on acting as if we inhabit the old universe. The genie is out of the bottle. We now exist. The forum of action and the base of power has shifted to the public realm. There we are not minorities, perhaps even equals, and may in fact hold the advantage. New circumstances call for new leadership, one that will press that advantage to its absolute limit.

Let us assume that the prospect of a switch to classicism from what has effectively been a mandate for modernist federal architecture since 1962, at the very least, has not already been stifled in its cradle. What has happened since Feb. 4, when the draft order was leaked to the Architectural Record?

What has happened is that the forces of modernism have coalesced in a high and mighty dudgeon of opposition to the order. In response, the classicists have formed a classic circular firing squad. Although some of the classical opposition seems fired by Trump hatred, most of it seems sincerely based on strategic concerns. Not that most people would want their brand spokesman to be the president of the United States. Understood. Still, classicists must do a deep think, swiftly, and rise above personality. The stakes are too high.

I have scrolled through a lot of emails and commentary from classicists for and against the order over the past few days. Some classicists’ arguments against the order parrot (insincerely, I hope) modernist arguments against classicism, such as the concern with diversity that I mentioned two days ago in “Bring diversity to fed design.” Another said that the order is “a trap” of, no doubt, the let’s-you-and-him-fight variety. I doubt that the order was planted by spies from the American Institute of Architects, but it sure does look that way, given how many leading classicists – or rather leading leaders of classicist or classicist-sympathizing organizations – have come out against it. In the manner of apparatchiks down through history, they’ve got jobs to do. They don’t want to rock the boat, or enter roiling seas, even if their ship is named Classical Architecture. Better to fight another day!

The most ridiculous arguments against classicism are that the Nazis liked classical architecture. Well, it’s not as if they had any real choice in largely pre-modernist 1932. Or as if a building’s style is blameworthy for the lizards within. I like our McKim, Mead & White Rhode Island State House no matter how many scoundrels harbor under its dome. These arguments against classicism are as weak as arguments come, but because modernists have never had to face an opposition press, they have never had to defend them. The classical bureaucracy has had its fill of them, and lacks the stamina for the fight required to knock them down again and again. Which is why the modernists are deploying them against the draft executive order. It works. It would not work if classicists fought back. Consciously and unconsciously, the public is on the classicists’ side.

Today nobody pays any attention to the fact that the Nazis liked classicism, except for modernists who want to heave that dead cat on the portico of classical architecture. In fact, Hitler and the Nazis embraced modernism for factories and other utilitarian buildings, as Prof. James Stevens Curl reveals in his excellent history of modern architecture, Making Dystopia: The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism (2018). As he and others have shown, founding modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe worked with Hitler through Goebbels trying to have modernism accepted as the design template for the Third Reich. Mies pushed but Hitler refused. That says a lot more about how modern architecture saw itself in its founding era than about how classicism’s legacy should be viewed today. But these are the secrets that modernists keep in their deep, dark, locked closets. Read Professor Curl. Arguably the leading American modernist of that era was so enamored of the Nazis that he entered Poland with the Wehrmacht. American journalist William Shirer thought Philip Johnson was not just tantalized by the Nazis but a propagandist for them. And his FBI file confirms that he was. This was long after he had famously curated the Museum of Modern Art’s 1932 show on the International Style. Read The Man in the Glass House (2019), by Mark Lamster, architecture critic for the Dallas Morning News, who is about as far as you can get from a classicist. As for—-

Damn! Damn! Damn!

I had so hoped to follow in the high-minded footsteps of Patrick Webb. In announcing a fourth meeting of the TradArch list in D.C., he writes grandly:

I can promise you this: TAG 4 will not be a lament by victims of what has happened to us. Rather it will be a call to action to reorient ourselves to the world as it is. We’re not weak. We are strong as we have the Good, the True and the Beautiful at our backs.

As the modernists recognize full well.

That explains the vigor of their attack on the draft executive order, but it doesn’t explain why some classicists seem so willing to play, in this ultimate and completely unexpected opportunity, into the modernists’ weak hand.

So, before my own head explodes, I will close by noting, with Webb, that the widespread popular preference for classical and traditional architecture that has prevailed ever since modern architecture was born a century ago gives classicists a big advantage. If we have the courage to fight this battle. So, please, let us unify. If we don’t, there will be no second chance.

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