Richard H. Driehaus, R.I.P.

“A Classical Perspective” (2012), capriccio by Carl Laubin. Click to enlarge. (Driehaus)

Richard Driehaus, who died suddenly at age 78 of a cerebral hemorrhage at home on March 9, was beloved among architects and historic preservationists for his stewardship of old buildings, especially the relatively unsung treasures of his native Chicago. The Windy City is over-celebrated for its modernist buildings, and yet in their dark shadows survive many historic structures, no small number of which have been preserved by the prodigious Driehaus generosity.

Richard Driehaus (NYT)

He is most well known for having founded the Driehaus Prize, which yearly since 2003 awards a single architect for a lifetime of work in the classical and traditional languages of architecture. The modernist Pritzker prize, often called the Nobel of architecture (a misnomer, as Alfred Nobel intended to reward work that benefited society), comes with a stipend of $100,000. Every year critics like me take joy toying with the fun fact that the Driehaus stipend is twice as valuable (in sheer monetary terms): $200,000. A Pritzker prize can make a career more lucrative in today’s world than a Driehaus prize, but each individual Driehaus laureate could make the world more beautiful than the entire slate of Pritzker laureates all rolled together in one.

To prove it, the painter Carl Laubin was asked by the folks at Driehaus and at Notre Dame, whose school of architecture administers the Driehaus program, to do a capriccio of the work of the first ten Driehaus laureates. That painting sits atop this obituary. At the bottom is a collage of work by Pritzker prize laureates. Although you can compare them to each other, there is simply no comparison. Period.

I saw Laubin’s painting at the 2013 Driehaus celebration of the prize for Thomas Beeby. There, on an unforgivably rare trip to my native city of Chicago (we moved to the District of Columbia when I was two), I met Driehaus after the ceremonies for Beeby and David Watkin, the British historian who won that year’s Henry Hope Reed award ($50,000 for a non-architect who has cultivated the traditional city, its architecture and art through writing, planning or promotion). We had a very brief conversation.

He was clearly a gentle and civilized person, even if he was (or maybe because he was) a financier. By age 13 he had parlayed money from a paper route and his boyhood coin collection (noted in an excellent NYT obit by Sam Roberts) into his own stock portfolio, and from there over several decades he grew a fortune in mutual funds. (His firm now oversees $13 billion in assets.)

Here are several quotations from the Book of Driehaus as set forth by Timesman Roberts in his obituary:

“I believe architecture should be of human scale, representational form and individual expression that reflects a community’s architectural heritage,” he told the architect and urban designer Michael Lykoudis in an interview for the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art in 2012.

Asked whether he considered modernist buildings designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, for example, to be appropriate, he told Architectural Record in 2015: “They’re mechanical, industrial, not very human. It’s like my iPhone, which is beautiful, but I wouldn’t want the building I live in to look like that.” He added: “Architects build for themselves and build for the publicity. They don’t really care what the public thinks.”

“The problem is there’s no poetry in modern architecture,” he said in an interview with Chicago magazine in 2007. “There’s money — but no feeling or spirit or soul. Classicism has a mysterious power. It’s part of our past and how we evolved as human beings and as a civilization.”

It is, naturally, too early to tell whether the Driehaus prize program, or the many other charitable, preservation and art organizations that he has helped over the years, will enjoy support from the Driehaus organizations going forward. The good work already done by the great philanthropist on behalf of beauty in the world stands head and shoulders above that done by most individuals.

But it is not too early to recognize that citizenship does reflect hierarchy, no less in human society than in classical architecture. Citizens are ranked, naturally and inevitably, for the good they do – as a building or the virtuosity and placement of its decorative elements do for the beauty of a street or a city. It is perhaps easier to view this hierarchy on the face of a building. Among citizens, Richard Driehaus must certainly rank up near the apex of the hierarchy of those who strive to bring enlightenment, in the form of beauty, to our human race. May he rest in peace.

Collage of NYC condos by Pritzker prize winners. (6ftsq)

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Save secret park in Lisbon

The Tapada das Necessidades, in Lisbon, at risk of perilous renovation. (Wikipedia)

One of the worst things that can befall a dear old municipal park and garden is for “preservationists” to ride to its rescue. First, it may not be in need of rescue. Second, the preservationists are likely to want to “update” it in ways completely averse to the park’s native personality. That is, if preservationists in Lisbon are anything like preservationists in Providence. (Though that regret is belied by recent, excellent work to renovate Prospect Terrace here.)

“Luncheon in the Grass” (1863), Edouard Manet

Things look bad for Lisbon’s Tapada das Necessidades, which originated in 1742 as a hunting preserve for royalty, and is now the grounds of the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, housed in the Palacio das Necessidades. The Baroque palace was built after the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that wrecked a lot of the old city, including the original palace. In its heyday, the royal garden is said to have inspired Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” (1863), “Luncheon on the Grass,” which is considered by many the first descent of the Expressionists into modernist painting. Or at least that’s what some experts say, though I can scarcely see how by looking at it.

Today, the park is considered a hidden paradise unknown even to Lisbonites (Lisboetas). Here’s a passage from a brief article on a droll website called “Where tto go to,” with the two t’s in the second word rendered as stick people:

As soon as you step inside, you will be greeted by ducks, gooses, abandoned beautiful buildings, exotic plants and trees, and a large playground, picnic area where everyone is at ease.

Elegant bench, with moss, in garden.

Anyway, it does not seem that the Portuguese have done all that much to keep up the park (which may be for the best) and it has fallen into disrepair. But that is no excuse to wreck the place. My correspondent in Lisbon has now furnished me with details of the proposed renovations on its 24 acres, and since part of the plan consists of a tedious modernist building (designed by the regrettable Pedro Reis), a big tot lot to distract children from the park’s natural wonders, and the demolition of the old zoo, it is easy to imagine a host of smaller unnecessary upgrades. For example, renovation of gorgeously articulate park benches bearing such flaws as delicate moss that would need to be expunged, or perhaps replacing the benches altogether with the typical graceless, sterile items, and don’t forget to add arms to prevent people from lying down on them. I am reminded of the Art Nouveau bus kiosks of downtown Providence, now long gone. There are dilapidated little buildings of no discernable use throughout the grounds of this Lisbon park that beg to be left alone. Only the graffiti should be gently extirpated.

Maria Isabel Rocha sums it up beautifully:

As we have seen in other cases, after a time of prolonged neglect, there is an unbridled fury of redoing, instead of recovering and requalifying, for fear of appearing old-fashioned, in the impulse to make modern. The desire to erase the wrinkles of the past, this sterile pretentiousness of change for change’s sake, undoes the sense of belonging and identity. All that remains is the fatuous shine of a few vanities and the nastiness of greed, while nostalgia advances like a shadow over the city, which is increasingly cosmopolitan, increasingly artificial.
.

The Lisbon city council has received and approved the plan but it is possible that popular dissatisfaction could thwart bringing this misadventure to fruition. Portugal is no longer a monarchy, or so I gather. There is a petition that has gathered some 6,200 signatures in just two weeks. As with many cities in the United States (including Providence), Lisbon seems to be unaware that citizens begging for relief from covid do not need their governments to spend extravagant amounts on unneeded projects of use mainly to architects wanting to burnish their portfolios with work that only their mothers could love.

Let Tapada das Necessidades be Tapada das Necessidades!

Park in foreground with Lisbon spread out in distance.

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How architecture evolves

“Grecian and Gothic” – a charming description of this engraving is at the end of this post. (Wikipedia)

Here is a quotation about the evolution of architecture from “The Biological Fallacy” of Geoffrey Scott’s The Architecture of Humanism (1924):

Decadence is a biological metaphor. Within the field of biology it holds true as a fact, and is subject to law; beyond that field it holds true only by analogy. We can judge an organism by one constant standard – its power to survive: a power that varies in a known progression, a power of supreme importance. But even here – where the sequence of immaturity, prime and decay is a fact governed by predictable law – the power to survive is no test of aesthetic quality: the fragile unfolding of a leaf in spring, its red corruption in autumn, are not less beautiful than its strength in summer. And when we have to deal, not with a true and living organism but with a series of works of art, the tests of evolution are even more misleading. For here we ourselves define the unit which we estimate. We have to be sure that our sequence is really a sequence and not an accidental group. We have to be sure that there is a permanent thread of quality by which the sequence may at every point be judged, and that this quality is at each point the true centre of the art’s intention. The mere power of an architectural tradition to survive – could we estimate it – might be a permanent quality but hardly a relevant one; for the successive moments of an art are self-justified and self-complete. To estimate one by reference to another is a dangerous method of criticism.

His next chapter, “The Academic Fallacy,” begins:

“There are in reality,” says architecture’s principal historian, “two styles of Architectural Art – one practiced universally befoe the sixteenth century, and another invented since.” To the former belong “the true Styles of Architecture,” to the latter “the Copying or Imitative Styles.”

Renaissance architecture is imitative. It is more imitative than any style of building that preceded it.

To better understand Scott, let’s recall that he was writing in 1924, or prior to it, during which period there was very little modern architecture on view anywhere in the world. It is considered axiomatic, even today, that architecture evolved to its current modernist inanity by steps that each forecast its increasing alienation from traditional forms that Scott and many others say were already imitative, but that prior forms were less imitative: until we arrive at the complete rejection of imitation represented by modernism. Here is the problem with that:

Almost no architecture is strictly or exactly imitative. It does not “copy the past,” unless as a reconstruction or restoration. Architects may decide to diverge from past forms, and have done so both previous to and since Scott’s line of separation at the Renaissance. At that time, architects imitated the classical architecture of the ancients, using ruins and Vitruvius as their guides. But what about Gothic? What about Romanesque? Did those architects and builders have pattern books to look at, or did they use drawings of earlier buildings so as to copy them? No. Every architect used creativity of one degree or another to build structures that accomplished a set of intended practical purposes, and shaped them or decorated them following their own response to previous forms, which may have hewed near or far from what architects built before them, depending on their genius.

At some point allegedly connected to the so-called Picturesque or Romantic or Baroque period(s), it is said that architects began to incorporate meaning into their forms in ways they allegedly never did before. It seems difficult to point to some work of architecture whose designer actually did this. In every case he can be said to have copied buildings of greater or lesser similarity to the one that he contemplated, or conjured them up in his own mind, inspired by memories of buildings he had seen before, both as to their form or their decoration. Until late in this period, there were almost no schools of architecture.

In no case would any architect, forced by his sense of the purity of form or by a sense of the size of his budget, strive to pare its embellishment in a manner that architectural historians (looking backward) have imagined as looking forward to even more simplicity of form.

Apart from features ordained by the proposed use of a building, including decor that symbolized the user, no meaning adheres to any building that springs from the intention of its architect. Architecture evolves, but only in retrospect, and that retrospective view has raised many fallacies in the study of the history of architecture. Scott’s biological fallacy tells us that the rise and fall of architecture is not the same as the rise and fall of a leaf upon a tree. There is less intent in the latter (except perhaps in the eye of God), but the human intent in architecture is subservient to practical considerations, and the embellishment of its form copies the past but does not predict its future.

However, Scott is wrong that imitation is a sign of decline in architecture (if indeed that is what he is saying). Only with modern architecture did meaning gain an ascendancy, and, in a paradox, that ascendancy represents a notable decline in the quality of architecture as properly judged. This decline was accompanied by a retreat from imitation, from inspiration. It is properly called “anti-architecture,” in the formulation of Nikos Salingaros. It is easy to see in modern architecture the poverty of art and of human imagination that was abundant before its rise. But we can forgive Scott because he would hardly have been aware of architecture’s doom in 1924.

I think I am wandering out into the tall grass here, and I assume readers will kindly identify what I am missing.

***

Here is Wikipedia’s description of the image atop this post:

A Feb. 1st 1816 print (published J. Taylor, London) which exemplifies the contrast between neo-classical vs. romantic styles of landscape and architecture (or the “Grecian” and the “Gothic” as they’re termed here). This engraved plate accompanied Humphry Repton‘s 1816 book Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening.

Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is a famous proponent of the romantic aesthetic, while Edward Ferrars in the same book says “I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight, and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower–and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

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Providence on suicide watch

Proposed mist ring above Waterplace; image does not show raising river walks by 11 feet. (Arup)

Each time news emerges of another plan to renovate Kennedy Plaza, Waterplace Park or other sites in downtown Providence, it gets worse and worse. Now there are plans costing upwards of $140 million to reconstitute Kennedy Plaza, remake Waterplace and demolish the skating rink, using cartoon architecture to suggest that the entire downtown be dedicated to children (as they say) of all ages. Many riders of the city bus system, however, would need to walk farther to bus stops and transfer at two new downtown bus hubs to reach their destinations.

That was the gist of “Splash park, mist ring part of plan for reimagining Kennedy Plaza, Waterplace Park,” an article on the front page of last Thursday’s Providence Journal. “And when WaterFire returns,” it reads, “you’ll gaze up at a giant ring suspended over the basin that sprays mist down upon spectators.”

WaterFire is often cancelled if there is rain. What if the performance stage at the center of the basin leaves too little room to maneuver for the boats that fill the burning braziers of WaterFire with wood or the tour boats and gondolas? Suppose visitors to the park don’t want to get wet? (See image above.)

The plan would raise the river walks around Waterplace by 11 feet to avoid floods in case sea levels rise, leaving the river in a deep gulch likely to reduce its safety and allure. It would link Waterplace to Kennedy Plaza with a “mini-High Line” bridge over the old Capital Grille parking lot. But you would still have to cross Memorial Boulevard because the two pedestrian tunnels from Waterplace to the skating rink – considered unsafe by experts – would be closed. The rink and its turreted pavilion would be demolished for a skateboard park and basketball courts. The rink would be moved to the plaza and rebuilt in a “serpentine” shape. The intermodal terminal would remain but the Soldiers and Sailors monument would apparently be relocated. A café, stage and visitors center with a box roof similar to those over gas station pumps would occupy part of the plaza.

The only admirable part of the plan is that Washington Street between the plaza and Burnside Park would be eliminated. Traffic would circle around existing streets. Alas, instead of extending the park and its greenery to the plaza (a step I urged in 1992), creating a sort of mini-Central Park, the plaza’s hardscape would be extended to the park.

All of this is too much, with too little thought given to how the pieces would fit together, or whether any of it is desirable, let alone necessary at a time when the city’s budget is terribly constrained. But Mayor Jorge Elorza is gung ho:

“We know that the Kennedy Plaza space has been the center of our city geographically, but it has never fully been the center of our city culturally,” Elorza told reporters at a Wednesday briefing. “In our mind’s eye, we have never had that city center in Providence that the other cities that we have all fallen in love with throughout the world have.”

Both halves of the mayor’s statement are wrong. Kennedy Plaza, Burnside Park, Waterplace Park and the skating rink have been the cultural center of Providence for nearly three decades. Thousands go there to enjoy themselves at festivals, concerts, ethnic celebrations and other events throughout the year. The mostly traditional buildings that surround our civic square, the pair of traditional buildings sited inside of it, and the classical statuary scattered within it, provide citizens with a grand place to gather akin to London’s Trafalgar Square, the Piazza Navona in Rome, and the Piazza San Marco in Venice. We could raise it toward the aesthetic level of those places, but instead we seem eager to distance our central square from those and other lovely models shaped by history.

My family and I ran into candidate Elorza in 2014 when he first ran for mayor at a carnival of the Holy Ghost School on Federal Hill. I asked him if he would favor development projects that fit into the city’s historical setting. He said yes. But he has not. So the city grows uglier. Now he wants to make it even worse. He should ask his planning director to resign, and cancel the city’s contract with Arup, the nutty London-based engineering firm that has produced this travesty. Many plans don’t die, they just fade away, like the uber-modernist Downtown Providence 1970 Plan. This one should, too, and the sooner the better. Or poor Bill Warner may never stop spinning in his grave.

Kennedy Plaza with relocated skating rink proposed cafe with gas-station style roof. (Arup)

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St. Florian switches on cottage

Latest design of cottage and additon, top, and, bottom, design as recently as Dec. 14. (St. Florian)

Last night’s special meeting of the Providence Historic District Commission to consider the dear little cottage at 59 Williams St., off Benefit, shows that the city’s process for development projects can work.

Last year, a developer proposed moving the 19th century Italianate cottage closer to Williams Street to enable two or three townhouses to be built behind it, facing John Street, threatening a longstanding wooded area. Residents of the historic neighborhood on College Hill opposed moving the cottage. The commission urged the developer not to move it. It will not be moved. That was the first victory of the neighbors, led by resident Lily Bogosian.

The developer also proposed an addition to the cottage unsympathetic both to it and to the historical character of the neighborhood. The commission sought revisions. Providence architect Friedrich St. Florian revised the addition, adding to its disconsonant appearance. The neighbors and the commission pushed back. St. Florian made it even worse. The commission sought more revisions, and again St. Florian made it worse. The commission sought more revisions. This time, St. Florian changed his approach and submitted not just revisions but a new design for the addition much more sympathetic to the historical character of the cottage and the neighborhood. This was the second major victory of the opponents.

Gone was almost every modernist touch. On the addition, the slant roof gave way to a gabled roof. The single-pane windows gave way to four-over-four windows similar to the cottage’s six-over-six. The addition’s vertical-slat siding gave way to horizontal clapboards similar to those of the cottage. The massing seemed less suburban and more in line with how house owners historically added to their domiciles bit by bit over time. The major changes can be summed up in few words, but their visual impact was compelling.

The switch must have been difficult for St. Florian. While he made his reputation and fortune* with traditional designs for the Providence Place mall and the National World War II Memorial (in Washington), he started his careeer as an academic modernist at RISD with mostly unbuilt abstractions in his portfolio. Since scoring big with his popular downtown shopping mall and his national memorial, he has done some modest local work, mostly modernist in style.

Why did he reverse course on the cottage addition? The pushback from both the neighborhood and the commission was not clear or strong. The neighbors were hesitant to challenge the celebrated St. Florian and reluctant to demand that the addition fit into its setting. Some neighbors were not necessarily uncomfortable with a modernist style, others were worried more about saving the woods; they seemed unaware that introducing ugliness would tend to undermine their own property values and degrade the charm of the woods – which were slated to be eliminated anyway to make way for the townhouses at a later date.

Some members of the commission may have had similar views, but as a body the HDC seemed content to kick the can down the road with minor objections.

Given the lack of clarity in the stance of both the neighbors and the commission, why did St. Florian not keep ramping up his modernism until the commission cried uncle? I would like to think he had a “road to Damascus” moment, but the developer probably was growing tired of the expense. “I’ve never had to go to five commission hearings” for one project, St. Florian exclaimed. The commission gave the project final conceptual approval, pending a subcommittee pondering members’ concern for certain important details.

Almost every commission member had listed major improvements they would like to see in a design whose new direction they all generally approved. These included restoring rather than re-siding the cottage clapboards, including roof brackets; restoring rather than replacing the cottage windows; changing the roof shingles on both cottage and addition from black to an earlier reddish/brownish color; restoring rather than replacing the cottage’s pair of chimneys; keeping the original windows in the cottage’s south façade rather than replacing them with a pair of doorways; replacing the single-pane door with side lights to something more sympathetic to that of the cottage, to name the most important. I would add making the wider clapboards on the addition narrow to match those of the cottage. But the revisions had already come a very long way.

Commission chairman Michael Marino mouthed a conventional modernist piety, saying “I don’t want the addition to have a fake sense of history.” Then what is this exercise all about? Preservationists should emphasize continuity, not contrast, because continuity respects the original architect’s work and preserves the setting in which it stands. Which is what preservation is all about.

The extent of the changes that return the project to continuity from its recent perilous approach to contrast can be seen in the two drawings atop this post. As preservationists, the commission has done its job. But the neighborhood should not rest on its laurels. The townhouses proposed by the developer are still early in the permitting process, but under St. Florian they have gone through the same increasingly discordant versions. Let the commission and the neighbors gird their loins for more good work. Let them be inspired by the photograph below.

*See comment by Stanley Weiss below.

The gracious, modest cottage at 59 Williams St., said to be from circa 1870. (PHDC)

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After Biden nix Trump E.O.

Harris poll on American architectural tastes. Humphrey Building (l.); National Archives. (Harris)

Architecture is a huge field of human endeavor. Along with the planning of cities and towns, and the arts and crafts that enter into civic beauty, it forms the stage on which the human comedy is performed. For millennia, our dear species has botched most of what it has touched with its failure to solve or alleviate many of its problems, from poverty to war to disease and beyond. But until a century ago, few would have argued that the stage upon which these failures unfolded was part of the problem.

At least suffering humanity could look around and see beauty, lots of it and for free. Architecture may be said to have uplifted the soul. Now the queen of the arts has joined the long list of human failures, and the stage set has been taken over by architecture based not on nature or humanity but on machines. Much of the old beautiful world has been replaced by a cockamamie sterility that neglects old problems and inspires new ones. At worst, the new architecture seems to beckon humanity toward an authoritarian future, if not planetary extinction.

With its generally tedious qualities, modern architecture has caused people to turn away from their built environment as a sort of defense mechanism. Local efforts to enable participation in development projects, fostered from above or below, have largely failed to arouse much interest from the public, so our local environments continue to go from bad to worse.

Are we doomed to remain on this path? So it might appear. Donald Trump signed an executive order on Dec. 18 to mandate a return to beauty, at least in federal architecture. His successor, Joe Biden, revoked it on Feb. 24.

But beauty is a widely approved commodity, and even its erosion in recent decades has boosted its premium. Scientific research and academic studies have fortified centuries-old anecdotal evidence that most people prefer tradition over novelty in how we build the civic realm and our own private domiciles. Most recently the Harris Poll showed that classical architecture is favored by almost 75 percent of the public in every demographic category surveyed. The human brain is hard-wired to prefer the characteristics of architecture that have evolved over centuries by natural processes that reflect the reproductive patterns of species in human neurobiology. On the other hand, skepticism of architecture that “starts from zero” is widespread.

Biden’s revocation of the Trump mandate to prefer classical and traditional design for federal courthouses and offices in Washington, D.C., and around the nation does not mean a halt to efforts to bring beauty back into the ambit of architecture. Pressure toward that end remains strong. No party has a lock on beauty or how it can be returned to our built environment. Architecture can and should be a bipartisan or even a nonpartisan issue.

After details of Trump’s draft executive order leaked to the press a year ago, many classicists opposed it out of dislike for the president or for its design mandate, not realizing that it merely switched the existing mandate from architecture that is widely disliked to architecture that is strongly preferred by the public – a factor you’d think would be important in a democracy.

Classicists who opposed Trump’s order suggested alternatives, almost all of them quite reasonable, politically and programmatically. For example, an anonymous source at the time wrote me that the official principles that have mandated a modernist approach to federal design since 1962 could be transformed into a mandate for a level playing field for major commissions – which exists almost nowhere today. He identified a mere three changes in the language of the principles that would be required to do so.

Steven Semes offered a suggestion for a body modeled on the Building Better, Building Beauty commission in Britain that has just issued a set of mandates that, above all, engage local publics officially in the processes that vet and approve local development projects according to local ideas of beauty. The various suggestions for some new body of individuals experienced in the field of architecture to hash out a way forward probably appealed to most attendees at the recent Traditional Architecture Gathering. For example, TAG 4 featured a presentation by Rhode Island traditionalist David Andreozzi, who argued that combining cultural and contextual sustainability would produce an architecture of design resilience regardless of style. New Jersey architect Mark Alan Hewitt, who was also at TAG 4, has, in his upcoming column on the Common/Edge website, a long list of suggestions for the Biden team on the way forward in architecture.

All of these proposals might figure into a rumored effort to engage the Biden administration through a committee that would, above all, bring science to bear on reforming federal architecture. Nikos Salingaros, a mathematician at the University of Texas, has developed many of the neurobiological theories that support the affinity between humanity and traditional architecture. He would be involved in this committee with Mark Hewitt and others. Both were at TAG 4, which was run by Nir Buras of the Classic Planning Institute and author of The Art of Classic Planning. Buras was the anonymous source who suggested the changes, noted above, for the existing mandate on federal architecture. He has produced an extraordinary plan to turn the banks of the Anacostia River, sister of the Potomac in Washington, D.C., into a classical paradise that would serve some of the largely neglected black neighborhoods of the capital.

President Biden himself is a longstanding lover of trains and pitchman for public transportation, including Amtrak. Perhaps, as he seeks to unify the nation, he might be interested in another idea from TAG 4, to rebuild New York City’s crumbling, inhumane failure of a Penn Station in its original 1910 classical style, before it was demolished in 1963. That was the year after the 1962 mandate for modernist federal buildings. Such a project would teach millions of people a day that beauty is not lost to the past but is possible today. Now is the time to harness science to bring beauty and architecture together in the 21st century.

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TAG 4: Classical gears up

Raphael’s fresco of his colleagues as ancient philosophers. TAG 1 participants cut in at lower left. (museivaticani.va)

TAG 4, the fourth Traditional Architecture Gathering since the first, held in in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 for members of the TradArch listserv, happened on Zoom this past Friday, Saturday and Sunday, sponsored by the Classic Planning Institute. Some 600 signed up, of whom about 275 attended, including many from atop the fields of traditional architecture, urbanism, art and craft around the world, to discuss the revival of classical and traditional architecture.

From its roots in ancient Athens and Rome, classical architecture has bred a global set of traditions around the world, rising over hundreds and thousands of years. Within this profusion, the classical language now ranks as both the origin of and grand subset of tradition. Modern architecture, a mere century old, arose not only to challenge but to reject tradition, basing its worldview on the culture of the machine as opposed to tradition’s basis in nature. As many predicted, modernism has been a failure, and unpopular to boot, but it maintains a stranglehold on the field’s establishment.

The TAG 4 conference was a rollicking success, somewhat to my chagrin as a devoted hater of Zoom. I sat through almost all of it, staring at the screen till my bum was sore. Zoom presents problems that shine light on the problems of architecture: facial cues are minimized in Zoom; ornament is minimized in modern architecture. How do we join conversations on Zoom without rudely butting in? How do we add new buildings to the conversation of the street without elbowing nearby buildings? Classical and traditional architecture learned how to do this eons ago; modern architecture has yet to even acknowledge the need to fit in, to be polite, neighborly.

“The classical idiom,” wrote the late Sir Roger Scruton in The Classical Vernacular, “does not so much impose unity as make diversity agreeable.”

TAG 4 was funded by the Driehaus Foundation and run by its founder, Patrick Webb, with Nir Buras and Jaydean Boldt. They enforced a strict set of rules to ensure fairness on Zoom, and yet audience interaction with the panelists was not excessively robust, though the “after sessions” ran up to three hours each. Zoom may be here to stay, but upgrades are necessary. How to revive the sacrosanct courtesy of tradition, in architecture as well as on Zoom, was the underlying and often unstated theme of each panel in the conference.

This recollection of TAG 4 will be a hazy first draft of history. I have no recordings of the sessions and took no notes. In my struggle to join Zoom, I missed the great Léon Krier’s keynote address. I missed Ann Sussman, Don Ruggles, Mark Alan Hewitt and Michael Mehaffy on city beauty in a breakout room because I was afraid of logging off accidentally while switching “rooms” away from a panel on the future, which was, inevitably, inconclusive. Still, I found Zoom logging off on its own several times, and I used a link in an email from Ryan Stephenson to log back on each time. Since I am a monotasker, I did not use the chat room to chat for fear of missing insights from the flow of panelists’ presentations.

So I stayed in the main Zoom room and heard many scintillating discussions of the practice of tradition over generations and the growing body of neurological research that places science at the center of love, so to speak: the public’s natural preference for tradition. On the first day, Catesby Leigh, Bill Westfall, Robert Adam, Steve Bass, Lucien Steil, Nikos Salingaros and others wove together strands of theory that suggest why people prefer tradition and why, unlike modernist buildings, traditional buildings become more interesting the closer you get. Why? Because the nestled scales of generative form produce a wide variety of surfaces and detail-within-detail that characterize traditional buildings and urbanism. Even the doors and windows of houses that seem to mimic the human face bond our neurological synapses to traditional architecture. Eye tracking shows that our brains seek embellished surfaces and avoid blank surfaces. For modernists to reject tradition is akin to rejecting science – a rejection they would fiercely deny but which is obvious and undeniable.

On the second day, Michael Diamant, who runs the blog New Traditional Architecture, described his posts that continually update traditionalists all over the world with photographs of new work around the globe. His online map of new traditional projects is vital, as is his list of traditional architecture firms in scores of countries, with their websites. The information he provides has fueled architectural rebellions against the status quo in Sweden, Finland and elsewhere in Europe, and he has participated in creating a nonprofit to push that rebellion, called Arkitekturupporet or Architecture Uprising. Later that day, several young people in a panel of students and postgrads from abroad cited Michael Diamant’s influence on their decisions to switch coursework from modern to traditional architecture, or to learn architecture without architecture school.

Nicholas Boys Smith, who replaced Roger Scruton on Britain’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (and then was joined by Scruton when the latter was reinstated after his ouster by cancel culture), described his organization in London. Create Streets promotes mandating community involvement in vetting local development projects, following up on efforts toward that end by Prince Charles. Boys Smith and Sir Roger made that the centerpiece of the final report of the BBBBC, Living with Beauty. (I was remiss to not include Boys Smith in my recent post on institutions working to return tradition to architecture and urbanism.) In importance, Living with Beauty might be the equal of the Trump mandate on classicism had it not been canceled by President Biden.

Absent that, to jumpstart the classical revival in the U.S., it is vital to build some new traditional structure of metropolitan scale to teach that beauty is available in our era, not a feature of life lost to the past. The most audacious plan is that of Nir Buras to entirely classicize both banks of the Anacostia River, sister of the Potomac. The plan was proposed dozen or so years ago. Later in the second day, day, architect Richard Cameron discussed his plan to rebuild New York’s 1910 Penn Station (demolished in 1963) in its original classical style by Charles Follen McKim. Yale recently built an equally ambitious pair of new classical (or rather, collegiate Gothic) campuses, designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. It offers a whole new immersive environment of stunning beauty, but in New Haven it is seen by a pitifully small number of people on any given day. A new classical Penn Station, used by hundreds of thousands of people from the around the region and the world on a continual basis, could be a game changer.

(The panel became distracted from the Penn Station plan by a looming threat to nearby Grand Central Terminal – a proposed modernist hotel of 80 stories designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill intended to remind us of the Twin Towers. ArchDaily.com describes the design as “an interplay of solids and voids that reflect Grand Central Terminal’s iconic design to create visual harmony and cohesion between the two structures.” Huh?! That’s a perfect example, familiar to everyone at TAG 4, of the reality-challenged quality of modernist architectural discourse. The hotel must, of course, be blocked.)

It is possible that the recently rebuilt Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and its civic vicinity, in Dresden, and the recently restored Berliner Schloss or Berlin Palace (in spite of its single ridiculous boring modernist façade) are giving new traditional architecture the sort boost in Germany that a rebuilt classical Penn Station would give to the classical revival in the United States. The two glorious German restorations were described by Bertram Barthel, co-chairman of the German chapter of INTBAU (International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism). Many architects are doing fine traditional work in Germany, including Sebastian Treese, the latest Driehaus Prize laureate, who with his wife and partner Julia closed TAG 4 on a very optimistic note.

To close the second day of TAG 4, we saw a documentary to be released this spring, “Built Beautiful,” based on Don Ruggles’s book, Beauty, Neuroscience and Architecture. Both the book and the film thoroughly denounce modern architecture from the aesthetic and scientific viewpoints, but engage in a sort of Stockholm syndrome, reaching out to modernists in the hope that together we can all rise above the style wars to achieve an architecture that solves the world’s problems. The third day’s TAG 4 featured presentations by architects David Andreozzi of Rhode Island and Daniel Morales of the Kentlands, a traditional town in suburban Maryland designed by Andres Duany, the guru of the New Urbanism. Both Andreozzi and Morales took approaches similar to that of the film. Both displayed a deep and eloquent skepticism of modernist work but deplored the style wars, hoping that modernist architects, who hold the whip hand in the field, will put aside their animosity and lie down biblically with the traditionalist lambs in a heartfelt new age of architectural kumbaya.

Not gonna happen, guys – and it need not happen because the key features of their approach are already embedded in the classical/traditional discourse. As demonstrated by the global scope of TAG 4, an expanding segment of the public is already capable of fitting their skepticism toward modernism into the context of both aesthetic and scientific explanations of that skepticism. Only confusion will result from such inside-baseball concerns as rejecting the word “modern” in favor of the more accurate “modernist.” It’s time to move on, and instead of trying to undo modernism’s dastardly theft of the word almost a century ago, use it instead to jujitsu the false discourse of modernism. We mustn’t surrender when the inevitability of victory is in clear sight.

We don’t want Henry Hope Reed – the late author of The Golden City – to spin in his grave. His book, published in 1959, was the first truly forceful riposte to what he called “The Modern.” Reed led the first effort to organize a determined opposition to modern architecture. His movement seems to be in the hands, for now, of the TAG – which sits at the nexus of so many people and groups devoted to reviving beauty in the world. I can feel his smile.

TAG 5 will continue to address these issues. By that time, Zoom will be more user-friendly. By that time, too, the Classic Planning Institute hopes to set up a structure called a Stoa, after the Greek word for marketplace. The final day of TAG 4 was devoted in part to planning the Stoa, debating whether its “stalls” should be arranged not only by subject matter and by organization, but, in view of the many international participants, whether languages beyond English can be more engagingly facilitated. TAG today, tomorrow the world.

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Diamant on trad in Europe

Image of European street scene in Vienna atop blog of Michael Diamant.

Below is a guest column by Michael Diamant, a connoisseur of architecture living in Stockholm and founder, in 2012, of the website New Traditional Architecture. He is expected to participate in the annual meeting of the Traditional Architecture Gathering set for Feb. 26-28 on Zoom. It is sponsored by Nir Buras of the Classic Planning Institute and Patrick Webb of the American College of the Building Arts. Diamant replied as follows to my request, on behalf of TAG 4, for information on trends in Europe.

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In general I see things going more or less the same way as the last year. A handful of very excellent projects, a much larger number of general or mediocre ones. The wheel tracks of each individual country have moved little. Somehow, no country in Europe can have it all, but generally they are good in one area.

Germany: Good in scale and proportion but generally very strict, white and with little or no ornamentation. Problem here is a lack of growth in the number of new classical architects, despite an active countrywide organisation promoting new classical and new traditional.

Russia: The most creative architects here work under municipalities that are bad at upholding regulations. Russian building projects are forced by developers to be over-dimensioned, ruining streetscapes and aesthetics despite talent, creative decoration and ornamentation. But as individual architects they really push things forward and are talented and creative.

UK: Excellent projects in both scale and quality, but quite boring and zero push forward. I fear the 19th century will never end there.

France: The best at tradtional urbanism by far. New traditional architecture is very common but in the form of low quality “construction company classicism.” Scale is excellent and streetscapes are improved, but as individual projects they are mostly pastiche, with typical modern balconies facing the street rather than the courtyard.

Hungary: A world of its own, as always. Many notable classical reconstruction projects and lots of new vernacular projects. Their own new Hungarian organic style (which is not as good as previous traditional styles) is quite popular with institutions. If their organic school would move towards more classical and traditional styles, this is the country where you would see the first complete return of classical instead of modernism.

Poland: Large-scale reconstruction and restoration projects. New buildings are vernacular and mostly private, suburban projects. Has the largest student body in Europe interested in becoming classical architects. May also become the first European country to have classical architecture as a program at university.

Belgium: Excellent new vernacular villas, a few high-quality multifamily projects in villages and the suburbs of larger cities. Dreadful modernist developments in the cities replacing classical architecture.

Sweden: The paradox: few new projects but the best national discourse. Building new classical is debated all the time in all the big newspapers. The new trend is municipalities demanding classical construction in their development plans. While this is good, lack of knowledge and expertise is a huge problem.

Netherlands: Reasonably abundant but very boring. Their best projects are the many urban repairs where they replace 1960s eyesores with traditional-looking designs.

These are the main players, but things are happening all over Europe. The positive thing that has come out of this past year is the increase in many places in knowledge of and interest in traditional design by the public and architects and architecture students. Students from places like Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia have contacted me to learn more about studying classical architecture. A summer school in classical architecture was started in Sweden four years ago and last year a summer school in classical architecture was started in Brussels.

Generally speaking, there will be little improvement in each country if they don’t learn more about what is happening in other countries so they can be inspired. The key is higher expectations by municipalities, I would say.

Regarding the U.S., Latin America, Australia and New Zealand things are of course moving forward. From my outsider perspective, the U.S. builds amazing projects yearly in lousy urban settings or in suburbia.

The dream would be if American architects could start building in European urban settings. In Latin America I would say that the biggest trend is that RAMSA [Robert A.M. Stern Architects] has established itself in Peru with their fourth and fifth multifamily project under construction. This North American thrust into Latin America cannot be understimated. You will problably see RAMSA designing projects (in their New York-style classicism) all over Latin America in the coming years, transforming the luxury market.

— Guest post by Michael Diamant

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Do people really feel beauty?

The Korenmarkt in Ghent, in the Flanders section of Belgium. (ttnotes.com)

I recently received an interesting comment from a frequent visitor to my blog. John the First, as he styles himself, quoted from my January 31 post, “Learn more about classicism,” that “Europeans are surrounded by beauty.” He wrote:

I live in the centre of the city of Ghent, the famous “Korenmarkt” being around the corner, with an overwhelming amount of historical buildings, cathedrals, churches, castles, mini castles and a great deal of former aristocratic residential buildings. Actually in context of the crude aesthetics of modern commerce, the blind rush of mass man consumerist, and the narcissism of tourists, these buildings appear like ghosts from the past. It doesn’t even appear to me that the always in a hurry, eating or smartphoning fastfood crowds notice them and really enjoy them. The tourists are out to photograph themselves with the buildings on the background.

My reply went out almost immediately:

You are too hard on them, John. I had no idea you lived in Belgium. Congratulations. But does someone enjoying the scene need to stand there drooling in front of this or that building? Or may they consciously or unconsciously experience an elevated mood or sense of pleasure deriving from the beauty of where they are that is distinguishable from what they might feel in an ugly, sterile, modernist environment? Even if only one in ten feels the specific joy of a beautiful set of buildings such as you describe in Ghent for a moment or two, the value of the beauty is manifest. And you have no idea whether someone doing a selfie is also enjoying the beauty behind him or her, who chose to take the shot in a place of beauty rather than a place of ugliness, yes?

Yes! Admit it, John, you have not reckoned with the power of beauty.

I am reading the new, 60th-anniversary edition of Henry Hope Reed’s classic The Golden City, originally published in 1959. It is one of my bibles, and a full-throated defense of classical architecture at a time when it had almost died out in America. “The Modern,” as the style was called by Reed with a gentle twist of his lips, had replaced traditional design not just in America but in most of Europe. As I pointed out in my post, with so much of the old remaining in Europe as a model for its architects and city planners, it was baffling that the Europeans had been snookered as badly by the modernists as we Americans, and that their design elites were even more intent upon crushing traditional design practices than their confederates on this side of the pond.

In Europe and America, between World War I and World War II, the traditional design establishment surrendered without a fight. European modernists (those of Great Britain included) rebuilt bombed-out cities in styles that almost make one pine for the ruins. Prince Charles was right to say of London that “[y]ou have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings it did not replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.”

So how did the modernists manage such a thoroughgoing design revolution between the two wars? It’s too complicated a question to address here. Suffice it to say the revolt against beauty was as thorough as it was unnoticed – until Reed. His Golden City begins with a long set of photographs comparing what had been built before and what all too often replaced it in New York City. The photos need no exegesis. (Though of course he provides one, with his patented brio.) Anyone looking at the before and after would agree that a great wrong has been perpetrated not just on New York but on the world. Reed explains:

It is the absence of ornament in the Modern city that most betrays its unreality. The real world is not a desert, unpeopled and solitary; the real world is full of life and of the reminders of life. (“I plead for decoration,” Clifton Fadiman has written, “man is an ornamental animal.”) An essential part of it is reflected in the ornament about us, from the dolphin-headed coffee spout at the Automat to the Statue of Liberty in the harbor.

No doubt this is as obvious to the people at the Korenmarkt in Ghent as anywhere else. Every human being spends a lifetime experiencing architecture on a daily basis, and thus is capable of judging the art of architecture more naturally and more ably than, say the arts of painting or poetry. Only architects have had their human sense of beauty “educated” out of them at architecture school.

The historic preservation movement has saved many thousands of buildings in Europe and America (among all too many losses). But the ancient idea of using the inspiration of the past to build anew has been unaccountably slow to revive in an era where the ugly continues to maintain its stranglehold on the beautiful.

Beauty remains under assault in the world of architecture, but it reigns supreme in the eyes, hearts and souls of everyday people.

Note the lonely modernist hulks shunted by the Belgians to the outskirts. (continenthop.com)

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Wrong building, wrong place

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Proposed 12-story tower in the Jewelry District of Providence. (Pebb Capital)

A friend just sent me William Morgan’s piece at GoLocalProv.com, published today, about the proposed Corso Building, which was approved by the city in 2019 but has recently been downsized from twelve to nine stories. I repled, “I totally agree with Will here but then why does he go —- it up near the end of his piece by writing: ‘Why not some exciting, innovative architecture for what is also called the Innovation District?’ Totally the reverse of what he said in his first paragraph.” I then linked him to my October 2019 post on the same subject, which is below:

***

Mark Patinkin, a columnist for the Providence Journal, wondered in Friday’s [October 2019] paper “Is Providence turning into the city of ‘no’?” He rushes to the defense of a newly proposed building in the Jewelry District that is opposed by the Jewelry District Association and others. Mark, who is famous for his affection for Rhode Island, makes vital errors of judgment that amount to a profound misunderstanding of Rhode Island, its capital city, and why its citizens love it.

Mark, you are in good company, because the Jewelry District Association, the Providence Preservation Society and others make the same error. Here’s how he opens his piece:

Critics are opposing a tall modern building near Providence’s open 195 land. No, not the Fane Tower. That’s 46 stories. Now they’re against one that’s 12 stories. They say that’s too tall, as well.

That’s what we’ve come to. …

Yet this cool new building is even opposed by the Jewelry District Association, which is leading the fight against the Fane Tower. At 46 stories, the tower is admittedly controversial, but for the association to also oppose a well-designed 12-story building makes it come off as a Dr. No Society, against everything.

The opposition is no doubt creating a dilemma for Providence’s Downtown Design Review Commission [DDRC], which has to evaluate the proposal. Part of their job is to listen to neighbors. But their main job is to have a vision for Providence’s future.

The Fane tower is opposed by many because of its height, as is the 12-story building proposed by a group including Michael Corso, a key figure in the 38 Studios scandal. The case against the Fane’s height is solid. In 2014, the city, with major input from citizens, passed a zoning plan that set a height limit of 100 feet. The Fane proposal for a 600-foot limit was rejected by the DDRC, but city council passed a law to change the limit to 600 feet and overrode Mayor Elorza’s veto of that legislation.

The council action seriously destabilized Providence’s development process to the detriment of its business climate. Opponents and a lawsuit are not trying to disrupt the regular development process but to fix it.

Compared with opposition to the Fane tower, the call from the JDA and others to oppose the Corso tower because of its 12-story height doesn’t cut the mustard. Arguing that this is too tall does indeed express what Mark says. It “makes us come off as a Dr. No Society, against everything.”

But Mark is missing the forest for the trees.

Important as it is in opposing the Fane tower and as unimportant as it is in opposing the Corso tower, height is not the key factor in either case. What’s important is much deeper than height. It is the character of the city.

It is the design of the Corso tower, which Mark calls “well-designed,” “cool,” a “jewel,” that matters. The photo atop this post clearly shows the design’s aesthetic problem. The building does not fit. Even if it were half or a third as tall it would not fit. But legally speaking, too, Mark is wrong. Providence’s comprehensive plan and zoning laws for downtown and the Jewelry District demand again and again that “new development [be] compatible with the existing historic building fabric and the historic character of downtown.”

Most people outside of the design process do not really have the language or vocabulary to express why “fitting in” is important. The developers, the designers, the planning bureau staff and most of those paid to frame the debate over how Providence will look believe that the public’s taste and its mostly traditional views on design are not cool, are behind the times and beneath contempt. In fact, the average citizen has ideas about architecture that are far more sophisticated than those of the experts, however intuitive and subconscious the average person’s ideas may be.

So organized opponents of the Fane and the Corso buildings studiously ignore both the popular opposition to design that does not fit and municipal laws against design that does not fit. The JDA supported the new Wexford Innovation Complex, even though its design fits in just as poorly as does the design of the Fane tower. Naturally, developers and the municipal planning department have also ignored these mandates for many decades. And the latter are, after all, beholden to politicians, whose attitudes more closely align with voters than with various architectural experts and municipal planning staff. The result is an official development process that tilts toward confusion rather than clarity, promoting higher developer cost and delay.

Why should new buildings fit into the historical character of an old city like Providence? Is that more important than growing the economy? In fact, it is vital to growing the economy. The reason why starts with a disastrous wrong turn that architecture made a century ago.

Advocacy organizations such as the JDA and PPS buy into a false narrative of architectural history. It divides architecture into a “past” and a “future” that disadvantages styles that most people like and favors styles that most people dislike. It is based upon an error made a century ago by a small coterie of European architects who believed that cities should reflect the character of machinery and break from tradition. Instead of evolving slowly as practices advance from generation to generation, novelty was prized – but only if it embraced a marketing ploy designed to reflect a false-face “future.”

The result has been architecture and city planning that evoke the metaphor of sleek machinery and technology but have failed to provide the promised efficiency or social progress. It is nevertheless protected from criticism by all of the leading institutions of the profession, from the American Institute of Architects down all the way down to the professional staffs of places like the JDA, the PPS and the Downtown Design Review Commission. This closed feedback loop has seriously damaged our society, imposing self-destructive practices on the professions and industries that build our cities.

The long and the short of all this is that most people involved in the development process obey the dictates of those who think any building designed for today has to look like “the future.” In fact, any building built today is of today, neither the future or the past, and it is the duty of planning officials, working with citizens, to define what that should mean.

Or, as Mark put it:

Part of their job is to listen to neighbors. But their main job is to have a vision for Providence’s future.

This, really, is the basic idea behind Mark’s column; it’s just that he does not understand the import of his own words. Given the broken feedback loop, that is understandable. Still, to the extent that the Corso tower’s “cool” new design reads “machine,” to that extent it offends the sensibilities of most citizens of the city Mark professes to love. I am sure that’s not what Mark wants. The work Mark looks back upon fondly that reopened the city’s rivers and restored its old commercial downtown was traditional. He should keep that in mind. He needs to scrape the architectural moss off his back. Mark needs to open himself up to “new” ideas. Today, oddly enough, designing traditional places that people love is the “slow architecture” movement that is assaulting the ramparts of conventional modernism.

Historical character and “fitting in” mean different things in Providence and, say, in Houston. If Providence wants to remain uniquely attractive and open to genuine economic growth based on its physical allure, its elites – nudged maybe by a reawakened Mark Patinkin – must confront their prejudices and act to save the city from a slow ruination now well under way.

***

Below are photographs of the Jewelry District taken this morning [October 2019] near the proposed Corso tower that show the area. It is mostly a mixture of fine old brick factory buildings of greater or lesser size, some smaller brick buildings, and more recent crud, large and small. Although no high-quality historical buildings would be demolished for the Corso, both 151 and, especially, 155 Chestnut, the first two shots below, minimal as they are, add more to the district than would be added by the Corso tower. If erected, it and other buildings of recent vintage have pulled the district toward a mishmash that undermines its historical character.

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And finally, two more views pertinent to the changing character of the Jewelry District:

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Historic mill architecture in Jewelry District. (Norbert iImages)

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View from new pedestrian bridge to Wexford complex in I-195 corridor. (GoLocalProv)

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