Museum of National Identity

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The Museum of the American Revolution, in Philadelphia. (New York Times)

Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a piece on Philadelpia’s new Museum of the American Revolution, by Robert A.M. Stern Architects, back in June that I somehow missed. “An Identity Crisis for American Architecture” cries out for rebuttal.

He asserts that in Stern’s eyes, the museum “had to embody a certain Americanness: It had to look as though it belonged in a group of buildings hugely important to the country’s early history,” such as Independence Hall, as if there was something wrong with that. After noting that Philadelphia Inquirer critic Inga Saffron had called it “stodgy,” but without mentioning that her chief objection was that it was not “revolutionary,” he writes:

It would be a mistake to say that a museum dedicated to exploring the roots of the American Revolution has some obligation to be explicitly revolutionary in its architecture — that it should suggest upheaval, radicalism or rupture in its very shape.

But he reverses himself in the next breath:

But there’s a significant gap between that architectural attitude and the one embodied by Stern’s design, which assumes that the most important questions about national identity have long been settled. What’s really missing from the museum’s architecture, perfectly well-turned but also perfectly complacent, is any noticeable sense of curiosity.

I will assume that by “curiosity” he means “revolutionary” – that is, rejecting the supposed complacency about our national identity somehow revealed by the museum. He, like Saffron, wanted the building to be modernist. He doesn’t want to admit that, but he fairly shouts it between the lines.

Of course, that betrays a misunderstanding of the particular revolution at issue. Both seem not to understand what the American Revolution was all about. Yes, the colonies revolted against King George, but they were reacting to the king’s refusal to grant the colonists the same rights as English citizens. The colonists did not object to English rule or English law or England per se, they objected to being allowed only partial participation in it. That’s what “No taxation without representation” meant.

Understanding this might put a different spin on the idea that a museum about the Revolution necessarily requires a specifically rejectionist attitude in its design.

Twisting the meaning of the American Revolution to fit the modernist narrative fits into a long tradition among modernists. Here is a short list of words that have been stripped of their real meaning by a culture, including architecture, that embraces the modernist project of rejecting American traditions and cultural mores:

Nostalgia means yearning for the good things of the past. It has been twisted to mean wallowing in that yearning to the point of refusing to accept change.

Authenticity means the quality of being authentic, not false. It has been twisted to mean the quality of skepticism toward traditional or conventional attitudes, including buildings designed to reflect those attitudes.

Modern means current, of today, up to date. It has been twisted to emphasize discontinuity above continuity in attitudes, practices and traditions, including those relating to design.

Of course most people who embrace traditional architecture have their own favorites, and reject the idea that buildings that reflect the continuity of tradition also represent a rejection of all change. It is the modernists who, harboring a warped view of tradition, believe that modern architecture represents a stage in progress that need not further evolve and that certainly must not, as they see it, regress.

Which brings us back to national identity. New traditional architecture does not assume that national identity has been long settled. Rather, it seeks to suggest that continuity in our attitudes toward and expressions of national identity is as valid as discontinuity. Tradition is as important as change in national life. They are two sides of the coin that represents our national identity. Tension between them is natural.

Modern architecture is part of a deconstructivist program to deny that reality and to do so in part by introducing new meanings to words, undermining traditions and institutions, and enforcing new mandates in the language of architecture. A natural and inevitable opponent of that program is new traditional architecture.

I don’t think most modern architects today buy into the deconstructivist program or are even aware of it, but it is implicit, and often explicit, in the writings of founding modernists such as Corbusier, Mies and Gropius. All modern architects help carry out that program whether they realize it or not.

It is no surprise that in a free society some will emphasize its ideals, and want to move toward them, and others will emphasize its flaws and want to start from zero. They are in disagreement. So be it. But I really wish people like Hawthorne and Saffron would acknowledge the degree to which people like Stern bend over backward to embrace the challenge posed by modern architecture. (That’s the understatement of the week. Much design by RAMSA, the firm founded by Stern, is in fact modernist.)

Just look at one of the earlier drawings of the Museum of the American Revolution. It originally had a cupola. Those who wished that the design were modernist badgered Stern into removing it. Other aspects of the building also compromise between tradition and change in architecture – in my opinion too much so. Why Hawthorne and Saffron are loath to acknowledge this is understandable, but it nevertheless amounts to rhetorical dishonesty in the discourse of architecture.

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Early elevation of museum featured a cupola, which was removed. (RAMSA)

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Oldest trees in the world

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Trees. Isn’t that next month? Well, we can be thankful that these are not Christmas trees. Some of the trees are, allegedly, thousands of years old. Some of them are said to be older than Christianity. Some of them have developed branch systems of overwhelming complexity, suggesting the articulation of Mother Nature, and why traditional architecture – mankind’s reflection of Mother Nature’s science – beats modern architecture hands down. And beneath them all, beyond seeing, are root systems of equally overwhelming complexity, suggesting the same. Some even have trunks that compel a similar fascination, though their rings are beyond counting. Be thankful for them all. Feel free to discuss them around the table today.

The photo above is labeled “Diksom Forest,” which is in Yemen.

These photographs of trees are from Beth Moon’s book Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time. Moon spent 14 years traveling around the world to shoot the trees, for which she deserves our thanks. Some of her fine photographs appear on the website A New Kind of Human, courtesy of its founder, Gavin Nascimento. He demands credit in return for using “his work,” and demands also that credit to him be accompanied by his list of social media profiles rendered “in the EXACT FORMAT as above.” Okay. Here they are:

Find me also on;

“Me” as rendered above is Gavin Nascimento. The list is a precise copy, errors included. And a happy Thanksgiving to him as well!

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Flirtation and architecture

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The progression from flirtation to seduction may be comparable to the progression between the stages of embellishment in architecture. The parallel may be drawn from an article by the Associated Press on how the French are reacting to the sexual harassment crisis here. In “France wrestles with the line between seduction, harassment,” Thomas Adamson describes the concern of some in France that overreaction might end up “throwing out its Don Juan national identity”:

“France is a country of men who love women,” Guillaume Bigot, who has written about the [Harvey] Weinstein fallout in France, told the Associated Press. “Seduction is a profound part of our national identity … the culture of the ‘French lover’ and the ‘French kiss’ is in danger because of political correctness.”

Leaving aside the dissolution of French culture, citizens in both countries can be forgiven for worrying that flirtation might someday disappear from the workplace. The transitions from yearning to fantasy to the exchange of glances to innocent touching and beyond in shops and offices across the land resemble, in certain ways, the transitions of embellishment in a building façade from the barely articulated base to the gentle stringcourse to the bolder treatments of the architrave upholding the cornice line beneath the edge of the roof.

The gentle and principled embellishments of traditional architecture resemble the modest and controlled gradations of civilized behavior.

Of course, progressions of behavior and of embellishment can both spin out of control. In the workplace the exchange of glances can lead to aggressive touching or worse. In architecture, society long ago stumbled past the gentle embellishments of tradition to the rejection of embellishment altogether by modern architecture, with its discomforting angularity, passive-aggressive sterility, vertigo-inducing gigantism of mass and its rejection of human scale, not to mention its thumbing its nose at the laws of nature.

Sexual assault and modern architecture both reject the idea that no means no. The abuse of authority over victims of sexual aggression in the workplace stretches back a long time, but so has the abuse of the built environment by modern architecture. Architects have known very well since the outset of modernism in the 1920s and ’30s that the public dislikes it by very wide margins. Like the smirk of a boss who has got away with victimizing his secretary, the modern architect treats the public’s dislike of his work as a feather in his cap.

Sexual assault and harassment perpetrated upon an individual is heinous, but so is modern architecture’s aggressive, coercive assault on the built environment. Both sexual assault and modern architecture have gone far enough. It is time to return to more civilized norms.

On one side of this comparison, bad behavior is finally being confronted. On the other side, not so much.

Has this comparison itself spun out of control? Maybe. Or maybe not.

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Journal editorial library RIP

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Providence Journal’s editorial library as it once looked. It was redecorated by Virgin Pulse.

Sad news. Yesterday, I opened the Providence Journal to read, with some pleasure, of Virgin Pulse moving its Framingham, Mass., headquarters into the Georgian Revival building on Fountain Street owned by the paper since its construction in 1934. It was designed by the Detroit architect Albert Kahn. The famous Fourth Floor was added in 1948. It survives, but the equally famous Editorial Library is now history, as the Journal today reports.

The building was sold to local developer Buff Chace in the run-up to the newspaper’s sale in 2014. G.E. Digital has already opened an office there, as a sop to Providence after General Electric decided to relocate its Connecticut headquarters to Boston. The Journal itself is now run from the building’s second story. Chace hopes to erect an attractive apartment building on the Journal parking lot across Fountain.

The story by Patrick Anderson, “Virgin Pulse moves HQ to RI,” has a photograph of what has been done to the editorial library, which was the meeting room for the paper’s corporate officers and editorial staff. When I first came to the Journal we met there every morning. Toward the end we only met there when bigwigs would come chat with us. The editorial staff slowly shrank from a dozen in 1984 to three in 2014, and to a mere pair (an editor and a deputy editor) not long after that.

Anderson’s story concludes with this comment: “Although the stuffy wood-paneled Journal Editorial Board library has been transformed with trendy lighting and furniture, the company is still deciding what to do with the historic art deco auditorium and lobby.” I had hoped that somehow the historic chamber might be saved, but I suppose the reporter’s language reflects current reality. A room of dignified refinement is described as “stuffy,” and the current setup is described, with evident equanimity, as “trendy.” That must be a synonym for “ghastly.” (Last photo)

No doubt even if the library had been preserved intact (doubtful given the corporate sensibility of Virgin Pulse), the room’s portraits of dead white males and its trophy case featuring the silver serving set gifted to the Journal in 1842 would have got the heave-ho. The set was a reward for the Journal’s support – impossible to defend today – for the state’s suppression of the Dorr Rebellion (the good guys, led by Thomas Wilson Dorr) by the Law & Order Party (the bad guys).

Perhaps the shrinking newspaper should have rented the fourth floor instead of the second floor. But that would probably have led to equally ghastly renovations. The Journal had gutted its offices below the fourth floor decades ago in favor of furnishings worthy of an office typing pool.

Speaking of which, columnist Mark Patinkin recently argued that the Journal may have been reduced in size but not in the eagerness of its reporters and editors to get the story and to get it right. Maybe, but the fate of the editorial library pretty much encapsulates the Journal’s sad state, which reflects that of the industry in general.

But at least readers of this blog can see the library as it was in its heyday. The old mahogany walls and shelves remain, suggesting that its restoration, along with the stuffy old books and oil paintings, remains a possibility on some future happy date.

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The Journal building, erected in 1934, with fourth floor added in 1948.

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The editorial library. The staff entered at door to left, the publisher at center door.

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Silver service gifted to Journal by Law & Order Party after Dorr War, 1841-42.

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Once the publisher’s office door, left. Entrance to library through door at right.

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Lobby of the fourth floor, with auditorium at left. Unsure whether this has changed.

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Elevators opening onto fourth-floor lobby. Hall at right led to middle lobby, next photo.

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Middle lobby, with wet bar. Hallway at left led to editorial department and front office.

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Some of the dead white male publishers whose portraits lined the walls of middle lobby.

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Editorial library now looks like this after “trendy” renovation by Virgin Pulse. (Journal photograph withdrawn by Architecture Here and There at request of Journal. It may be seen by clicking on this link to the Journal’s article on Virgin Pulse.)

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Ads to rebuild Penn Station

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Illustration by Jeff Stikeman from ad for Rebuild Penn Station. (National Civic Art Society)


Why didn’t I think of that?

Why didn’t anyone think of that?

Now the National Civic Art Society has thought of that. It has begun an ad campaign to rebuild Penn Station as it was originally designed by Charles Follen McKim of McKim Mead & White, the famous Beaux-Arts firm of the Gilded Age. Penn Station was razed in 1963, a mere five decades after it opened in 1910. It was replaced by a monstrosity hated by all who use it.

“One entered the city like a god,” said the architectural historian Vincent Scully. “One scuttles in now like a rat.”

The Rebuild Penn Station group has proposed a workable plan to rebuild the station according to the original designs, upgrading it with new technologies and tweaking the design to accommodate traveler needs and visitor desires of the 21st Century. Grand Central Terminal, which was saved by the historic preservation movement that arose in reaction to Penn Station’s demolition, is now the city’s second most popular tourist attraction.

Rebuilding and financing Penn Station is more feasible than most people imagine. New technologies make it possible to afford the elegant old forms, much of the granite from the old station remains in New Jersey, where it was dumped, McKim’s blueprints are still available, and the original foundation remains intact. Funds from air-rights and tax-increment packages raised by redeveloping the district around a rebuilt Penn Station, and possibly from federal infrastructure programs, would make the project feasible. The plan could be easily integrated into the expansion of the current Penn Station into Moynihan Station next door, which will only serve 20 percent of the ridership currently arriving and departing the existing station.

But how would people know? Most people don’t read architecture magazines, let alone blogs like this, and most architecture magazines look down their noses at the idea of beauty, let alone the idea of a rebuilt Penn Station, since their definition of creativity is out of date, if not downright old-fashioned. An ad campaign is sure to get more people thinking about the possibilities and asking the questions that need to be answered. Put the ad on commuter trains, buses, Amtrak, sidewalk kiosks – hell, put it up in a blaze of digital glory on Times Square!

The NCAS and RPS are right to keep the ads simple and beautiful. The drawings of a new Penn Station are by Jeff Stikeman. He hits all the right buttons. See the video about the project at the Rebuild Penn Station link above. (I would do yet another poster using the motto “Enter Like a God Again.” Not a soul in New York fails to understand what that means.)

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More on beauty via Expedia

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Mini Me of Fourth Grace spits in the face of Liverpool’s Three Graces. (Expedia)

After posting the Expedia video on Budapest yesterday “Nine minutes in Budapest,” and after noting that the link to the Expedia video continued a chain of links to other destinations, I continued along that chain. Without suggesting that a video visit compares to a personal visit, the videos do seem to be produced in a manner that fosters comparison.

The London video seemed, however, to ignore the city’s many modernist buildings in a way that the Paris video did not, so London was made to seem lovelier than it is, where Paris’s minimal quotient of modernism was not as understated. The same, alas, may be said of the video of Liverpool.

Long ago, in 2005, I attended a symposium, sponsored by the Royal Society of the Arts, that compared efforts to revive Providence and Liverpool, with the famous Three Graces on its Mersey riverfront. At the time, a “Fourth Grace” was to be added. Among the symposium’s panelists was the British starchitect Will Alsop, whose Fourth Grace proposal had been selected in spite of being the least favorite among the Liverpool public of several competing proposals. It was cancelled the year before the symposium. Still, the city fathers did manage to built a Fourth Grace, a National Museum of Liverpool that spat in the faces of the Three Graces just as vigorously as anything Alsop could have done. I did not learn this until viewing the Liverpool video yesterday.

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Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI, in Rome

(The Liverpool museum seems to be a copy of the late Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI museum outside Rome. A smaller building even closer to the Three Graces seems to be a Mini Me of both museums. It is in the image atop this post. It seems to be a museum of music focusing on the Beatles.)

Needless to say, the Liverpool waterfront has been disgraced in the same way so many other great cities have been defaced. Of the Expedia videos, the most beautiful cities are those which have done best to avoid this fate. Paris, Venice, Prague, Florence, Rome, Bordeaux. Most, like Paris, have districts characterized by modernism but they are separated from the beautiful sections that, again, as in Paris, dominate the city. Rome so far has kept modernism at arm’s length. The video of Venice may be the most evocative because it has so little modern architecture. It teaches lessons that are too late to learn in places like Liverpool or London, and which even Paris seems eager to unlearn.

The ancient Romans treated change in their city as an opportunity to add new buildings that strengthened the collective power and virtuosity of what was already there. Many cities took that lesson to heart for centuries, building up to greatness. Civic design sought to climb to a crescendo of beauty, as did each twist and turn in the buildup of a great symphony, or as successive peaks of a mountain range arise to the exclamation point of an Everest. Nature builds its biodiversity through the repetition and evolution of form. That form is the melody of biology. Nature would never insert an atonal passage in a symphonic progression of biological change.

Cities do not grow naturally in quite the same way, but civic leaders over time can approach the model of nature or of Rome or retreat from it. The reigning strategy of urban development today is to embrace retreat. But it need not be so tomorrow. Aside from traveling to city after city, there may be no better way than watching successive Expedia travel videos to examine the do’s and don’ts of civic enrichment.

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Nine minutes in Budapest

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Fishermen’s Bastion terraces separating St. Matthias Church from the Danube below. (Expedia)

Budapest was listed No. 60 out of 80 cities ranked by “elegance” in the survey of the world’s top elegant cities by the international marketing firm Zalando (see my last post, “Beauty vs. elegance in cities“). Tel Aviv, famed for its early modern architecture, was ranked 59th. This tells us all we need to know about the survey. Even the architecture of fabulously beautiful Budapest ranked low – although that of Tel Aviv ranked even lower. The takeaway from that survey was: please don’t confuse elegance with beauty!

So here is one of Expedia’s generally well-done travel videos, on Budapest. Since there is so much beauty, the videographer seemed to feel obliged to speed through the city’s sights and left most of the lingering closeups I like so much on the cutting room floor. Also, I would rather its narrator had spoken English with at least something of a Hungarian accent. That would probably have pleased my dear mother-in-law, Agnes. But at least the video was almost wholly free of modern architecture, except for a few buildings on the edges that the camera was unable to avoid. In the screenshots collected with this post I have featured scenes through arches and colonnades, plus a series of shots of the city’s fabled public swimming pools.

Full disclosure: My wife, Victoria Somlo, is of full Hungarian descent and I am a quarter Hungarian, but my bias is purely aesthetic. I hope we can visit the city someday.

(By the way, the link to the Expedia video of Budapest begins a chain of Expedia videos that takes you to Vienna, Salzburg, Prague, Manchester, Liverpool, London, Paris, Rome, Venice and I don’t know how many others, all exquisitely well made – except, I’d say, for Manchester and Liverpool, whose editors did not leave as much modern architecture on the cutting room floor as the others did.)

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Beauty vs. elegance of cities

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The illustration that decorates the home page of a marketing survey of civic elegance. (Zalando)

My former colleague at the Providence Journal, Froma Harrop, who has a syndicated column and a website called This East Side (about that side of Manhattan; she also lives partly on that side of Providence), recently asked me to contribute an essay about a survey that ranked cities by “elegance.” The idea was, I’ll admit, baffling. As a characteristic of cities, or of anything, beauty is easier to define and measure than elegance. But said I’d give it a try.

The survey, “The Most Elegant Cities in the World,” commissioned by the international marketing firm Zalando, ranks New York City as the seventh most elegant city in the world. The top ten are Paris, London, Vienna, Venice, Florence, Barcelona, New York, Bordeaux, Milan and Rome. The selection and their order may be challenged, of course, except that the survey’s data are exclusively numerical.

There is no descriptive analysis at all, at least not that I could locate. The survey’s introduction describes elegance only in the vaguest terms, insisting, as per de rigueur, that it has nothing to do with money, and then blatantly reverses itself in the same sentence (see below). No, elegance derives from the number of fashion schools, a reputation for being “fashion capitals,” the perception of fashion journalists, the presence of UNESCO heritage sites, the number of museums, the degree of cleanliness, whether a city’s entry point is “accessible,” the quality of its architecture and (a separate category) the look of the city as judged by (an alleged) 2,000 architecture journalists, and other facets of civic quality. Here is Zalando’s definition of elegance:

From the grandeur of the Vienna Philharmonic, to the effortless sophistication of the French Riviera, elegance wears many masks. It’s not just the people, but the cities themselves, with their unique architecture and cultural landscapes, that make a destination elegant. Money can’t buy it, and yet billions of dollars flow through the fashion and tourism industries each year to evoke the quality. The secret is that elegance can be achieved with a simple flick of a €2 scarf, a picnic in a beautiful, clean park, and a glass of good quality red wine. Elegance is a question of taste, attitude, and always showing your best side.

This definition suggests how much more difficult it would be to rank elegance than to rank beauty. It shows how unlikely it is to be reliably assessed and ranked by a group of experts, or people who like to think they are experts, selected by the consultant hired by Zalando. Beauty is assessed through the eye, and has a visual specificity that elegance lacks.

How does one assess the validity of a ranking in overall elegance that places Paris ahead of London in spite of their two-one placement (1.26 and 2.09, with 5 being cleanest) in cleanliness? Isn’t cleanliness next to godliness? It is certainly not vital to elegance, at least not by this survey’s reckoning! The two top elegant cities ranked very low in cleanliness, as did all the top ten elegant cities except for Vienna (4.49) and Bordeaux (4.09). Interesting!

I’ve named only the top ten but they were supposedly hewn from the top 80, which were distilled from the top 400 cities, the identity of the other 320 wannabes being unrevealed, not to mention the thousands that didn’t even make the first cut. I can make hide nor hair of this survey, except that it seems to me that the cities on the way up in the elegance sweepstakes are probably doomed to be on the way down in the beauty sweepstakes.

Froma asked me to pay particular attention to the how the architectural qualities of New York were dealt with. However, I had little more to go on than a set of numbers. Paris ranked 5.00 in architecture compared with New York’s 4.49. All the top ten cities except Paris ranked somewhere between 4.00 and 5.00. There being no other basis for judging the judges’ rankings, which in essence said “Very good!” for the architecture of all ten cities without further comment, I told Froma that I’d rather give it a pass.

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2018 Bulfinch call for entries

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A line of Bulfinch medallions awaiting dispensation at a Bulfinch gala. (Boston Design Guide)

The call for entries in this eighth season of the Bulfinch Awards has just gone out. The awards program, launched in 2010 by the New England Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, honors the best in classical architecture and allied arts in the region. Originally, the call for entries solicited work in New England by individuals or firms in New England. A couple of years ago the call was expanded to include submissions from anywhere so long as the work submitted was in New England.

The mission of the ICAA and the goal of the Bulfinches is to preserve and advance the practice and traditions of classical architecture, which includes the many traditional styles, revivalist and progressive, rooted in the classical idiom. Equally important are the associated arts upon which architecture depends, and the revival of urbanist theories based on those idioms, which constitute its setting. A happier, more civilized society will be the result of progress in advancing these classical practices and traditions.

The program is named for Charles Bulfinch, the famed Boston architect considered the first native-born American professional in the field. It has influenced the quality of work in the region – specifically, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut (minus Fairfield County, considered an appendage of New York City) and Rhode Island.

I personally hope that architects and other artists in Rhode Island will consider fielding submissions. Rhode Island arguably takes pride of place in preserving the most extensive and diverse collection of historic traditional buildings and streetscapes in New England, just as New England holds similar pride of place in the nation. However, if Rhode Island wants to improve its beauty, its economy and its livability, it must produce more new classical and traditional work. This is actually happening more robustly in some other states and regions of the United States.

Over time, the beauty of this state and its region could fall behind little by little, and without realizing it lose an important competitive advantage vis-a-vis other states and regions. Preserving existing beauty is a great and necessary accomplishment, but creating new beauty, here and around the country, is the only way to keep beauty a growing part of our American future. That is what the ICAA, its 15 chapters, the New England chapter, its Bulfinch Awards and other chapter award programs are all about.

Aside from basking in the warm glow of the appreciation of their colleagues, the winners will receive a Bulfinch medallion and recognition at a gala to be held in April at the Harvard Club on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue. The evening before will feature a special reception honoring both the laureates and the Bulfinch Awards sponsors who make possible this program and its celebration.

(The deadline for entries is December 15. Further information about the submission requirements, members of the competition jury and speakers for the weekend celebration can be found in the Bulfinch Awards section of the ICAA-New England website.)

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Lame modernist rebuttal

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Top, buildings by winners of Driehaus Prize (top left), painted by Carl Laubin; bottom, buildings by modernist architects, assembled in poster by modernist architect Rem Koolhaas.

Juxtaposed above are two images designed to suggest the basic difference between traditional and modern architecture. They may be assumed to reflect the general tastes in architecture of the authors of the essays discussed below.

The leftwing journal Current Affairs ran “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture,” a massive, and massively effective, assault by its two top editors, Brianna Rennix and Nathan Robinson, on modern architecture the other day. It apparently hit a nerve.

The website Common/Edge, which pretends to a sort of middle-way stance in the style wars of architecture, has run a rebuttal to “Why You Hate” called “The Politics of Architecture Are Not a Matter of Taste.” It is by Marianela D’Aprile, described as “an architectural worker, writer, and educator based in Chicago.” The description adds that “her work addresses the intersection of politics and architecture, with a focus on Latin America, Left movements, state violence, and public spaces.” Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Her first paragraph contains several curious remarks.

The [Currant Affairs] piece, written in a pseudo-funny Internet lexicon wherein all objects of criticism are “garbage,” is so laden with irony—the poorest of substitutes for analysis—that it is difficult to discern a core argument. Still, I’d like to question the central premise of the piece: that what the authors term “contemporary architecture” is ugly and oppressive, and that liking it is nothing shy of immoral.

What is a “pseudo-funny Internet lexicon”? The piece is funny, but it is also  quite strictly straightforward in its assertions, without any “Internet lexicon” that I could detect. The word “garbage” appears twice in the very lengthy essay, first in a caption below a building that looks like a square giraffe’s neck; the other in a line that refers to popular taste, especially paintings by Thomas Kincaide. In almost every case where a building is criticized, it is described in specific terms that are often downright hilarious but also relate to the particular characteristic of modernism that is being evaluated.

D’Aprile says it is “difficult to discern a core argument.” She then states what she thinks is its central premise, which she manages to describe with considerable accuracy because the authors state it straightforwardly numerous times throughout their essay.

More curious is her assertion that Robinson and Rennix’s essay is “laden with irony.” That is simply not true, not that I can tell. D’Aprile apparently misunderstands the word irony, which she takes to mean anything that causes her to do a double-take, a sort of cognitive dissonance generated by assertions she dislikes and, in her modernist cocoon, has no experience confronting. We cannot know for sure what she really means by irony, but we can guess that she used the word in an attempt to make readers who liked the essay suspect that they might not have understood it. In some leftist circles, traditional architecture requires a trigger warning.

I don’t know that I’d agree that D’Aprile is correct to assert that the central premise of Robinson and Rennix’s essay concludes that liking modern architecture “is nothing shy of immoral.” She does not go on to say why she thinks that. I could find no assertion of it in their article. She probably is channeling her apparent belief that since morality is a religious thing and since most churches are of traditional design, modern architecture must be immoral. (Tell it to the Pope!)

Her rebuttal’s main point is that “elite and ruling classes” had a hand in what Rennix and Robinson consider beautiful, and that fact alone renders both the architecture and their judgment of it suspect. But the wealthy always have a hand in architecture since all but the most modest buildings cost too much for the average person to build. So what D’Aprile considers beautiful springs equally from capitalism, either pre-WWII versions of wealth accumulation, including pre- or postwar communism, or whatever capitalism may consist of today. Robinson and Bennix are not saying modern architecture is immoral, just lacking in thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Mostly they object to modern architecture’s “twisted effort to ‘rationalize’ human beings rather than accept them as they are and build places that suit them and that they like.”

Like many who have responded to my own musings on architecture over the years, D’Aprile seems especially upset at grouping buildings as modernist or traditional. She is miffed that Rennix and Robinson peg as “contemporary architecture” two very different styles of modernist building, Lina Bo Bardi’s Brutalist SESC Pompéia (1982) and Morphosis’s Deconstrutivist District 7 Caltrans Headquarters (2004). But clearly they are both modernist. If I had a nickle for every time a mod-symp twitted me for grouping, say, Corbusier’s Villa Savoye and Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao under the umbrella of modern architecture, I could buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

I suspect that what irks these modernists is how calling a building by its most basic descriptor so clearly reveals the virtually unbridgeable gulf between traditional and modern architecture. So they would rather that discussions of style be carried out in terms of the narrowest possible terminology. Lost in any such discourse, modernists hope, would be that traditional architecture upholds tradition and modern architecture rejects tradition. Modernists seek to obfuscate basic truths over architecture, for obvious reasons.

That’s why the title of her essay refers to both politics and taste. She wants to inject politics into architecture while extracting taste. Being uneasy about modern architecture is a nonpartisan feeling, so she wants to bamboozle those who feel that way into doubting the validity of their own taste.

D’Aprile’s article is no more than a collection of erroneous descriptions and assertions designed to cast aspersions on the moment of rhetorical clarity represented by the essay she condemns. She assumes that readers on the left will take her drift and dismiss the essay by Robinson and Rennix as beyond the pale, and unworthy of discussion in polite circles. I, for one, cannot imagine how they found the courage to publish their thoughts.

So I am glad that Kristen Richards, editor of, plans to pair both articles in her invaluable daily (free) collection of architectural writing from newspapers and magazines around the world. That way, people can read them together, and judge for themselves which essay best illuminates the style wars.

(I posted with great joy on Rennix and Robinson’s essay two weeks ago in “Left vs. modern architecture!“)

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