Copy, precedent, inspiration

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William Clements Library, Ann Arbor, Mich. (1923) and Hall Free Library (1927), Cranston, R.I.

My friend and 2019 Bulfinch Award laureate Eric Daum recently revealed in a comment to my blog post “Cranston’s Hall Free Library” that this public library, built in 1927, must have been inspired by architect Albert Kahn’s William Clements Library, at the University of Michigan, built in 1923. They are almost identical. The word inspired is perfectly suitable, whether the two buildings are the exactly the same or merely similar. A crank who knows little of architecture might say, however – and quite understandably – that one architect copied the other’s work.

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Drawing of Hall Free Library

“Copied the past” is a slur that modernists often use to denigrate the creativity of new traditional architecture whether it actually resembles a particular old building or not. Since the past in this case reached entirely four years back into history, the proper word is inspired. Or used as a precedent. Or maybe, instead of one seeing the other’s design in an architectural journal, such as Pencil Points, both architects might have imagined their libraries independently.

That might be the case because each building is a fundamental trope of classical design that might have inhabited the mind of each architect. Both might have been channeling the same internal meme four years apart.

Classical architects of whatever age have never been troubled, as modernist architects are, by the practice of applying previously used architectural forms in their work. But no such “copy” is ever exact, whether the inexactitude is experimentation, a reflection of utilitarian needs, or error.

Note the triple arches of each library’s entrance. The Clements library’s arches seem narrower than those of the Hall Library. The side windows are different, too, the former pedimental and the latter stripped classical – more likely in 1927 than in 1923, since the modernist challenge that gave rise to stripped classical arose, or at least grew more insistent, during the elapsed four years. The reverse might be said, however, of the roofs’ cornices – that of the Hall Library features very classical dentils (the “teeth” below the cornice) and that of the Clements Library seems more stripped, with a more subdued personality. Close examination of the entrance pavilions reveals other variations, but those are the main ones.

(William Henry Hall, founder of the Cranston library, is apparently no relation to its architect, George Frederick Hall. The Clements Library’s architect, Albert Kahn – who is not to be confused with the celebrated modernist Louis Kahn – also designed the Providence Journal building on Fountain Street, which no longer belongs to the newspaper, which now occupies rented space on the second floor.)

Both libraries are extraordinarily beautiful, possibly because both designs arise from a sort of Platonic ideal of perfect classicism. Those classicists of the past and present who insist upon following the classical orders to a tee are often looked down upon by their colleagues who consider the orders as a launching pad for innovation. The result is more likely to be a little bit off than that of their more orthodox brethren. Often but not always, of course.

Either way, both libraries are beautifully inspired. That is enough.

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Assassin’s Creed does Athens

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Ancient Athens, with Parthenon atop Acropolis. (reconstruction by Juan Alverez de Lara)

Here is an eight-minute video on the reconstruction of ancient Athens by game-maker Ubisoft for the latest episode (if that’s what it’s called) of Assassin’s Creed. Previous episodes have invited us into highly realistic reconstructions of Renaissance Venice and Florence and of London during the Industrial Revolution. (See my pair of October 2015 posts “Gaming the Renaissance” and “Into London’s age of grit.”) There have been eleven games in the series thus far since 2007. Such videos may perhaps be the 21st century versions of the historical novels upon which I was weaned. My takeaway on the phenomenon is from the first of my 2015 posts:

Millions of young people play these video games. The games’ allure relies at least in part on exciting scenery within which players confront enemies in situations programmed to reflect historical reality. Players see the beautiful historical architecture on display in 3D and may come, willy-nilly, to expect today’s reality to better reflect the beauty that they have “experienced,” and that classicists believe should inspire the built environment. This is popular culture, the masses putting their money where their mouth is and where their tastes are. Could it be that the beauty of architecture can also battle back into elite culture – and our cities and towns – as well?

[The image above is not from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey but a reconstruction of the Acropolis by Juan Alvarez de Lara at archaeological-reconstructions.com. Ubisoft has figured out a way to prevent the publication of screenshots from videos of their games or of videos about their games. The images I was planning to post are from the videos to which I have linked.]

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Modernism vs. modernism

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Screen shot of opening image of Betty’s hate-modernism video. (ARTiculations.co)

Why Do People Hate Modern Architecture?” is a ten-minute video by Betty Chen, who posts from ARTiculations.com, an art supply shop in Toronto. Chen comes across as favorable to modern art and architecture. Indeed, the next video of hers on YouTube is “The Case for Brutalist Architecture.” That should be interesting. But give her some credit: she wants to explore why modern architecture is so widely disliked, and she seems to have an open mind. She has a fetching, self-deprecating style to her presentation of self on video, though in this video her voice seems somewhat less self-confident than in some of her others. I think I know why.

The defense of modern architecture often seems to involve self-criticism. I have a virtual shelf groaning under the weight of such “defenses.” Chen’s video will go on that shelf. Maybe that’s why she seems more tentative here. She may be saying things she does not really like to admit. Good for her.

She starts out asking why it is called “modern” architecture, a topic of several recent posts of my own. “Makes it kind of confusing,” she says, adding, “I didn’t come up with these terms.” Following a brief and somewhat dodgy history of modern architecture – after two world wars the need for a new architecture was “understandable”? Not so! – she brings in Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to explain, via Learning from Las Vegas, the broad reaction against it and the way forward. “It’s important to recall,” says Chen, “that Scott Brown and Venturi were not calling for a revival of historic styles. Their actual position was that sometimes it’s necessary to look backward at history and tradition in order to go forward.”

But isn’t that precisely what we do when we revive historical styles? Isn’t that how architecture evolved for centuries until the rise of modernism?

Of course it is. If Scott Brown and Venturi had written a book explaining the obvious, they would be hated by the architectural establishment and their books would go unread today. No student in architecture school would ever have heard of them. But they would have been right. And maybe the design elites might have been moved an iota or two by a more sensible scholarly outlook erupting from the Brutalist battlements of Yale, and eventually, someday, won over. The world would be a much happier place, or at least much more beautiful. Oh well.

Of course, in the end, ignoring her own indictment of modern architecture, Chen comes out against any sort of classical revival, and puts her money on compromise – more flexibility, please! – which is sure to make nobody happy.

I actually prefer the clarity of Chen’s many commenters. Though her video was published on YouTube as recently as Jan. 3 of this year, there already are 2,262 comments, almost entirely critical of modernism, to judge by the first hundred or so. Here’s one I like. Morrissey Kuc writes: “Currently live in a European city and i grew up in a modern city in Australia. No contest. modern cities are uglier.” Warms my heart.

Watch the video. Read the comments. Have a blast. It’s modernism versus modernism. Pass the popcorn! A house divided against itself cannot stand, said Lincoln. Maybe not, but some things take way too long to fall.

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Looking askance at modern architecture is vblogger Betty Chen, whose full name was elusive.

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A history of Thayer Street

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A party of Brown students on roof across Thayer Street from Andreas. Note dastardly SUV.

I’ve been invited to read from my book Lost Providence during an open-mic session this Friday, March 22, at the Brooklyn Coffee, Tea & Guest House, 207-209 Douglas Ave., at 6 p.m., $5, in Providence. But I think instead that I will, if my host, Lindsay Adler, will let me, read from a column I wrote about Thayer Street in 1993 for the Providence Journal (where I worked 1984-2014). It dives deep into the old shops that people love to remember. To whet your appetite, I here reprint a post from 2014 about Thayer Street:

***

Life on Thayer Street

My family dined al fresco on Thayer Street this evening. Thayer is the main street of Brown University on College Hill, in Providence. We arrived, sat down, got out our mobile media, and noticed a party under way on a roof nearby. Then we saw Billy’s grandma and grandpa across the street. Turns out they had just finished eating inside the same restaurant, Andreas, where we were eating outside. They came over.

We all enjoyed watching the roof party. At some point it seemed a “Cheese it, the landlord!” alarm went out and a very pretty girl tried to flee the roof. (She and her boyfriend had actually parked their small Volkswagen right opposite our table, bless them!) False alarm. Things calmed down, though the kid in the red sweater gave me the evil eye, I think, for shooting their shenanigans. Then we waved goodbye and they waved goodbye and we said goodbye to our folks and they left and we left, and on our way back to the car we saw a dog on a motorcycle (along with other typical Thayer personae), and went home.

I relay this homely adventure to convey the idea of a great street, which Thayer is. This is life happening in all its facets. It’s where the action is, a living adventure. Victoria took the photo that shows the Brown partiers in their urban context. At the bottom of that photo is the nemesis of great streets: the SUV. Not because it guzzles gas but because it blocks views. I love watching people stroll by on both sides of the street. Any SUV takes away part of that pleasure.

Yes, yes, we drove to Thayer in a car (it was not an SUV, I promise, not by a long shot). But that’s another complaint. Good urbanism in America – that is, towns and suburbs built before World War II and New Urbanist communities (and infill) of more recent years – is so rare that high demand has bid up the price for houses there, and so only rich people can afford to live in such neighborhoods. So we live not on College Hill but a mile or so farther north in the outer reaches of the East Side (which many people think is a synonym for College Hill). The historic districts that are so beloved and hence so expensive are no more than regular prewar neighborhoods – really nothing special about them. Build more lovely traditional neighborhoods (in many places laws must be passed making them bloody legal again) and the prices will come down. I promise.

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Original green preservation

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Centre Place, in Melbourne, Australia, definitely enjoys the “cool factor.” (Reddit)

Steve Mouzon, who with his wife, Wanda, runs an architecture shop in South Beach, near Miami, has come up with an interesting new calculus for making decisions on what to preserve in cities and towns. In 2010, Mouzon wrote an influential book called The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability, and he has popularized the crucial idea that love is the chief ingredient in architectural sustainability. A building, he argues, needs love to generate desire for its survival; it requires the funds for the maintenance and repair needed to last not decades but centuries. And beauty, he insists, is the chief factor generating love for architecture. Genuine sustainability is baked into building traditions that evolved for centuries until the Thermostat Age replaced a more natural sensibility with a machine sensibility. Its inherent unsustainability has led to fake “gizmo green” and bogus LEED tinkering to address the industry’s wastefulness with an impressive fecklessness.

Makes a lot of sense, all of it. So does Mouzon’s prescription for historic preservation, outlined on his Original Green blog in “A New Proposal for Preservation.” He begins with another deep but overlooked truth about architecture’s descent, over the past century, into dystopia:

[The] problem was the fact that a new building replacing an older building increasingly became a downward trade as the twin abilities to build lovably and durably faded from both design and construction. … It was not always so. For most of human history, the new building was reliably better than the one it replaced, mirroring the rise of urbanism from shantytowns to great cities over time.

The phenomenon of downward trade led to historic preservation’s shift in a very few years from a hobby of the wealthy to a mass movement. But historic preservation has been fighting a takeover by modernists for decades – nay, it had largely succumbed decades ago. The field still does very important work in its original task of saving old buildings and neighborhoods, but instead of local lovability, age (generally 50 years) is the more prevalent determining factor. The result has been that saving unloved modernist buildings is now the primary interest of preservationists. It is time for preservation to retool.

Mouzon’s proposal would move away from the 50-year criterion. It would sharpen and diversify the current blunt vocabulary for buildings in historic districts as “contributing” or “non-contributing.” His new categories are: “historically contributing,” “architecturally contributing,” “urbanistically contributing,” “urban fabric,” and “regrettable.” While the latter category has been criticized (not by me; I like it), and “cool factor district” might not necessarily be the best substitute for “historic district,” Mouzon’s proposal offers an excellent starting point for a necessary discussion.

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The illustration atop the home page of Steve Mouzon’s Original Green blog.

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Fane theater of the absurd

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New design of garage upholding Fane tower, unveiled at meeting. (Providence Business News)

Monday afternoon’s meeting of the Downtown Design Review Committee was the city’s first official look, in a public setting, at the design of Jason Fane’s proposed luxury condo tower. The meeting was pure theater of the absurd. It was as if the committee members and the Fane team were on different planets.

DDRC chairwoman Kristi Gelnett told the Fane architect:

I do have to say that six hundred feet in a hundred-foot zone is hard for me to swallow, and it’s way too tall for the location. … If it does happen, I would like it to be not such a complete departure from the character of the city itself.

Clark Schoettle, retired director of the Providence Revolving Fund, told him:

I think anything that can be done that can reduce the scale and height of the building and make it more compatible with nearby buildings would be important.

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Absolute Towers, Toronto; Fane tower.

In the late fall of last year, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza had vetoed legislation raising the 100-foot height limit to 600 feet for the tower, largely because Fane refused to give the city final say in the design of the project. His veto was overriden by the city council, however, so the city’s role will be advisory only. On Monday, the committee expressed regret at the tower’s height and design, but showed no inclination to challenge either. And Fane’s architect, Gianni Ria, of the Toronto-based firm IBI, obliged the committee members by ignoring these complaints, focusing his remarks not on the building’s height or design but on changes in the six-story garage on which the tower – resembling two humans in coitus – would sit. (See “Fane’s Copycat Point Tower.”)

Unlike the garage’s appearance, the appearance of the allegedly “iconic” tower is widely familiar – though its style is by now a modernist skyscraper cliché. Its ilk exists in abundance around the world. But, hey, nowadays the word iconic means nutty, so let’s be nice and allow Fane to call his tower “iconic,” at least for Providence.

As for the garage, images available thus far to the public barely reveal its appearance, or it is masked by trees. Ria showed images of a new garage design that aim to portray a look resembling the Wexford technology center across the street. Whoop dee do! But the new garage design, however sterile, still looks nothing like the erectile blobs cavorting 40 stories above it. We should be thankful for small favors.

Let’s speculate what might have happened if Fane had agreed to Elorza’s demand for final say over the tower’s design, and so the mayor had not vetoed the bill raising the height limit. What would the DDRC have done?

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Detail, Flatiron Building. (NYCgo.com)

It would surely have objected to the design of the tower for its failure to protect downtown’s historical character, as mandated again and again in the city’s comprehensive plan and zoning code. Members would have asked Fane’s architect to return to the next meeting (April 8) with a brand new design. Since downtown’s historical character mainly reflects architectural trends from 1870 to 1930, committee member Clark Schoettle, former head of the Providence Revolving Fund, would urge Fane to consider a redesign “inspired by the Flatiron Building, in New York.” Schoettle could point out that “Mr. Ria actually cited the Flatiron in his testimony as an inspiration for his tower here.”

Only kidding! That would never happen. What would happen is that the DDRC would encourage Ria to make the sort of changes that he described yesterday. And next time, the DDRC would ask Ria to consider moving the entrance curb cut to the garage around the corner, to increase the size of the fins extruding from the lower façade from six to eight inches, and to add some detail to the opaque glass panels on the lower stories of the podium to relieve their monotony. For the city to ask a developer to design a project to strengthen rather than weaken its brand is simply beyond the pale.

Design review panels in Providence are historically uncomfortable asking developers to make more than pro-forma changes in modernist designs.

After all, no official objections of any significance have been made so far to the designs of the Wexford monstrosity, the two dormitories almost finished at South Street Landing, the appalling but gargantuan garage on its other side, or any of the projects in the I-195 corridor pipeline. The Design Review Committee of the Capital Center Commission has never called for any major changes in the projects of that district, unless the designs were traditional in character. The evidence for this skittishness goes back before design review even existed in Providence.

And in fact, how would the design reviewers have any basis for seeking substantive changes in a modernist design? To make such changes, a design needs a coherent architectural language, which modern architecture does not have – even though it is a century long in the tooth.

No, it is impossible to imagine the city making any major changes to the Fane tower’s design even if it had the authority to do so. So Providence is doomed to get uglier and uglier from now on – unless the city, maybe under pressure from its own citizens, decides to get out of the modern architecture business altogether and embrace our beautiful historic character, as the city’s laws say it should.

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Fight the Fane tower design

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Fane tower in context (l.); Fane tower height chart; Fane tower view from downtown. (WPRI)

All who oppose the Fane tower should attend Monday’s meeting of the Downtown Design Review Committee at 4:45 p.m. in the city’s planning department – the modernist brick building at Westminster and Empire streets. The size of the crowd mustered by opponents will have a powerful effect on the tall, ugly building’s future – which will have a powerful effect on the future of Providence.

This will be the applicant’s first appearance before one of the city’s design authorities. Previous appearances have been before the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission, the City Plan Commission, the Ordinance Committee of the City Council and the council itself. The tower’s aggressive height, which violated the comprehensive plan until council gave it a pass, came closest to derailing it so far, but Monday’s meeting will be the first time other aspects of its design will be discussed. No action will be taken by the committee.

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Proposed Fane tower. (WJAR)

The major reason to oppose the building is not its height, the spot-zoning issue, or the lack of affordable housing. While each of those are valid reasons to object, it is the Fane tower’s rejection of the city’s historical character that will have the most dramatic and long-lasting negative effect on Providence.

Fortunately, Providence’s 2014 comprehensive plan mandates that its historical character be protected. Unfortunately, neither the city nor the opponents of the Fane tower appear to understand why it is so important to protect Providence’s historical character. Few have objected to other buildings planned, completed or under construction in the I-195 corridor, even though they are just as disrespectful to the city’s historical character as the Fane tower would be.

The comprehensive plan’s protections are honored by city officials and developers mainly in the breach, and the capital city of Rhode Island has grown uglier and uglier for half a century. Fortunately, the city is so rich in historical character that it still seems more beautiful than otherwise. But that will not last very long if the Fane tower is built. It will encourage even more ugliness. Eventually, Providence will be no more attractive than Worcester or Hartford. By the time enough people notice to call a halt, it will be too late.

Then we will see how big a factor beauty is in our economy and future.

Maybe tomorrow Fane will show up with yet another new design, something far less provocative than the original design, with its three sterile towers, the next with its single sterile tower, and now the latest with its squirmy-wormy look. Maybe a new design will fit in. Don’t hold your breath. The developer has heard little from its opponents to suggest they are serious about their objections to its design other than its height.

So, as they say, any port in a storm. Although protecting Providence’s beauty is the best reason to oppose the Fane tower, people whose opposition centers on other flaws in the proposal should gather at the meeting on Monday. This is not a public hearing, so no one except for the applicant, Fane, will get to speak. But the power of opposition to the Fane tower will be calculated by who shows up at this meeting, and that kind of power is influential at City Hall. So it is of vital importance to attend.

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Fane tower, if built, would occupy Parcel 42, in orange. (Providence Journal)

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Daum’s lovely domed chapel

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The Boch Chapel and Mausoleum, Norwood, Mass. (Photo by Warren Patterson)

The elegant classical chapel designed by the Andover, Mass., firm of Eric Inman Daum, Architect, earned a Bulfinch in the ecclesiastic category, and deservedly so. Too few buildings of any traditional character, and especially of principled classicism, are built even in New England, where you’d think the prejudice against historical styles would be weakest. In fact, new work in the traditional styles is most commonly found in the South.

Eric Daum’s Boch Chapel and Mausoleum, in Norwood, Mass., is not on, let us say, Tremont Street in Boston, or on the Common itself, so as to grab the greatest possible public attention. But aside from applauding Ernie Boch Jr., the auto magnate, musician and philanthropist, for his fine taste in buildings, the public should applaud his decision to encourage the sort of journalistic coverage of his project that most wealthy clients prefer to avoid. The chapel is on the grounds of his estate. Boch will have the enjoyment of it, perhaps second only to the future occupants of its crypt. Outside of the photos here and elsewhere, the public will rarely if ever lay eyes upon it. Too bad!

Daum won this year’s Bulfinch Award, handed out by the New England chapter (on whose board he sits) of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, in the ecclesiastic category. For the ornamental plaster work of the ceiling of the chapel’s dome, the firm of Foster Reeve won a Bulfinch in the artisanship/craftsmanship category.

In spite of its private location, the chapel is in its language public to the core. It is in the Greek-Revival style: “This robust and geometrically precise style,” writes Daum, “was seen to embody uniquely American virtues of honesty, integrity and directness, and was considered to be the first “national style.”

Honesty and directness shine forth from the chapel’s Doric temple form, but that does not mean a rejection of subtlety and nuance. It seems as if every facet of this building proclaims the rhetoric of precedent, at times with a twist. For example, in the building’s primary interior space, called the Great Room, its Doric columns “are a subtle nod to early 20th century Austrian architect Adolf Loos’s Villa Karma.” Loos wrote Ornament and Crime, which, as Daum points out, “served as a rallying cry of the Modernism Movement.

Yet his use of veined black marble Doric columns seems to belie his claim. The brightly veined green marble columns of the [Boch] Garden Pavilion make the statement that the beauty of classical ornament survives the Modern era.

It may be nearly impossible for any work of classical architecture to avoid commenting on modern architecture in some way. Daum’s inability to resist using the marble columns of the Great Room to make a point is much to his credit. Most observers will not know enough to grasp the point unless they read it in Daum’s description of the building. To explain the meaning of this or that architectural feature in any building may heighten appreciation of its beauty, but such esoteric explanations are not in the least necessary for an observer to feel its beauty. The beauty of the Boch temple speaks for itself and, without necessarily aiming to do so, and whether its architect agrees or not, the temple throws a shadow that puts every work of modern architecture into the shade.

There is in Daum’s description of the chapel a piling on of classical arcana that is almost as thrilling to an aficionado of classicism as the piling on of details in the temple itself. Here is an excellent example:

The entry porch of the Boch Garden Pavilion is a three-step crepidoma or stylobate upon which sit four 11′-0″ Greek Doric columns. The shafts were each turned from a single block of granite and are not fluted. The necking, a thin groove around the circumference of the shaft, separates the shaft from the capital above. The remnant above the shaft above the necking is fluted just beneath the echinus of the capital. The historic source of this combination of fluted and unfluted portions of the shaft is the Temple of Nemesis at Rhamnus. The shafts at Rhamnus were uncompleted, but their incomplete form inspired 19th century copies.

A “three-step crepidoma or stylobate“? As they say, it’s Greek to me! But let me attempt a very brief definition. The first is a multilevel platform on which a building stands; the second means a continuous base supporting a row of columns. Got that? By the way, you can catch that partial fluting highlighted in fading sunlight just under the capital of the leftmost column in the first black and white photograph down below.

I find it compelling that ancient architects were inspired to turn incomplete form into a kind of official precedent for future work, whether during the Renaissance or during the Modern Era, as shown by Daum’s use in his temple of that ancient work-stoppage. Did the workers walk off the job at Rhamnus (in Attica, the region of ancient Greece where Athens was located) and leave off at a point where the fluting stopped at an equal distance down from the capital? Or did they leave it ragged and it was evened out by later architects inspired by the famously aborted column fluting, but seeking to reflect their admiration in a more symmetrical manner?

Here is another example:

The entry, through a pair of bronze doors set in a granite surround, leads to a vestibule. To the east and west are a closet and a small lavatory, ahead the granite doorway leading to the central Great Room. The jambs of these doors in the vestibule are sloped inward in the common Grecian motif recalling the Bronze Age Treasury of Atreus, or Tomb of Agamemnon. The lintel is heavy to suggest the weight it supports, and its ends project into the wall beyond.

Maybe Daum should have gone even further, making the lintel seem to groan under that weight, bending downward very slightly (it is granite, after all) toward the middle, like an old shelf bent under its load of books.

The Doric order used in the Boch temple, or chapel, is described minutely by Daum. He mentions how the columns “taper as they rise,” but does not use the word entasis, which is the word used for that taper. Throughout classical history, columns have more or less entasis – or none at all, straight up and down. Two explanations for entasis have come down to us (that I know of), one that it was used to offset the optical illusion of a taper on a column that is actually straight, so that an observer won’t notice the illusion; the other explanation, which I prefer, is that a column’s taper is the architect’s (or craftsman’s) way of expressing the stress of the weight the column carries, which causes it to bulge out like a muscle in a weightlifter’s arm.

This is one of the many reflections of nature and humanity at the essence of classical architecture. I include below a link to Daum’s PDF for those who want to plunge into the character and precedents of the Boch Chapel and Mausoleum. The Bulfinch jury should be commended for recognizing the excellence of this chapel’s design, and, again, Ernie Boch for having the boldness to have it designed in the classical mode.

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Color photos below are by Warren Patterson; black & whites by Eric Daum.

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Hawthorne on architecture

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Salem’s fabled House of Seven Gables, in 1915, the year of Henry Hope Reed’s birth. (Wikipedia)

My recent post “Modern or modernist?” described several nominations to replace those two words for contemporary architecture, or, more accurately, anti-traditional architecture. It did not discuss whether modernist architects would agree to use a new word chosen by classicists. I recalled that the late Henry Hope Reed, a founder of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art (originally Classical America) favored the word “anorexic.” “Picturesque Secessionism” was another of his alternatives, too obscure, I thought, to be useful. In 2014, I wrote a post, “Hawthorne and architecture,” which raised these and other issues. For some obscure reason, I reprint it below.

***

In his masterpiece (and my bible) The Golden City (1959), Henry Hope Reed cites a character, Holgrave, from Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, in describing early attitudes toward innovation in architecture. He has Holgrave, a daguerrotypist, say to his inamorata, Phoebe:

I doubt whether even our public edifices – our capitols, state-houses, court-houses, city halls, and churches – ought to be built of such permanent materials as stone or brick. It were better that they should crumble to ruin in twenty years, or thereabouts, as a hint to the people to examine into and reform the institutions which they symbolize.

By the end of the novel, Holgrave has changed his mind, now favoring the use of stone in buildings because “the exterior, through the lapse of years, might have been adding venerableness to its original beauty and thus giving that impression of permanence which I consider essential to the happiness of any one moment.”

Good for Holgrave! But doesn’t the aging process, even if superior in traditional stone buildings over the glass, concrete and steel of modernist buildings, suggest decay as much as permanence?

Of course. Yet for our purposes, decay and permanence might as well be not opposites but one and the same. A building well along in the process of decay has aged, and age, with its implicit end in death, gets us as close as human endeavor may aspire to permanence, the eternal (leaving aside ecclesiastical theories).

But the late Henry Reed … was correct. Classical buildings of natural materials don’t just age better than buildings of what he liked to call “the Modern.” Classical buildings last longer, almost unto eternity if kept in repair, than modernist buildings because the latter are designed to reflect “the era” and hence, rather than being timeless, are pegged to a specific period in history that by definition reaches its end almost instantaneously.

It is hardly surprising that modernism’s love for unnatural materials should result in an unnaturally short lifespan, or that its aging increases its ugliness rather than fostering a venerable look, as in traditional buildings of natural materials.

Given the widespread love for toying with nomenclature, Reed naturally was reluctant to allow modern architecture’s theft of the word modern to go without protest. Yet he always capitalized it, as do many today. Using such an honorific as capitalization is too good for modern architecture, in my book, but even worse was Reed’s choice to replace “the Modern” with his own appellation: Picturesque Secessionism. I lack the room to explain it here, but the fact that it requires explanation suggests its lack of utility as a descriptive term, especially in public as opposed to professional discourse. But that’s a topic for another day.

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Salingaros on archiCULTure

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Le Corbusier believed his 1925 plan to rebuild central Paris was serious. (Business Insider)

Architecture today, at least establishment architecture, is not so much a profession as a cult. Call it archiculture. That fits. Nobody understands this better than Nikos Salingaros, whose thinking on cults and other subjects helped James Stevens Curl write his bombshell new book Making Dystopia. “Salingaros put it very well,” wrote Stevens Curl in the book, “when he described this process as a ‘rewiring of the students’ neuronal circuits.'”

For that’s what cults do: they replace normal perceptions of reality with false perceptions of reality. Students of architecture are brainwashed. They are taught to reject their intuitive respect for beauty. When they have become architects, the journals they read, the associations they join, the colleagues they meet at their firms or at conclaves of fellow professionals are structured to isolate them (along with individuals and societies who must put up with their buildings) from competing ideas about architecture. When the leading institutions of the field are all controlled by the cult, the job becomes rather easy. And so architecture has for almost seven decades been – as recently described by Sir Roger Scruton – a closed feedback loop.

Now, with the publication of Making Dystopia and the increasingly sustained exposure of the public to unsavory facts about modern architecture – such as Le Corbusier’s plan to raze and rebuild central Paris, and Philip Johnson’s Nazi past – reaction against it has become as intense as it was when Prince Charles attacked its “carbuncles” in the 1980s. Now the cult is beginning to leak: keeping the feedback loop closed has grown more difficult.

Below are passages from “Twentieth Century Architecture as a Cult,” which is Chapter 7 of Salingaros’s book Anti-architecture and Deconstruction, whose fourth edition was published in 2014, though it first appeared as an essay in the November 2002 issue of the journal of the International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (INTBAU). That is almost halfway between Charles’s 1984 attack on modern architecture and today’s attack triggered by Professor Curl’s book – subtitled “The Strange Rise and Survival of Architectural Barbarism.”

Architecture [writes Salingaros] is not set up to be stable to received input in the same way that science is. In science, there exists large-scale and long-term systemic stability. By contrast, contemporary architecture, like any other belief system not founded on rationality and experiment, is susceptible to catastrophic system collapse because it cannot tolerate minor changes.

This is good news, and we can see that this is beginning to happen – in part because Salingaros’s perceptions about architecture as a cult are becoming more evident to the public. Here is how Salingaros sees the end game:

The moment when society decides to abandon architecture as a cult, and replace it with architecture as a field based on logical reflection, the present architectural power structure will cease to exist. A new power structure composed of new people will be supported by a new educational system. [But for now,] establishment architects realize that their continued prosperity depends on prolonging the current system, and are doing a marvelous job of reinforcing its hold on society.

Not for long. Read the entire essay and you will better understand “the strange rise and survival of architectural barbarism.”

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