Wild wood Scottish palace

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Atholl Palace Hotel (1878), near site of 3rd Earl of Atholl’s wooden palace for King James V.

Here’s a passage from Three Sisters, Three Queens, Philippa Gregory’s historical novel set in Tudor England and, mainly, Scotland that unfolds – or unravels – as Henry VIII breaks with the pope over annulling his marriage to Katherine of Aragon to make way for Anne Boleyn. Here, as the book nears its conclusion, that has just happened. The dowager Queen Margaret and her son, Scotland’s 18-year-old King James V, are traveling with their retinue in the wild north of that country, then independent, in 1530.

“I did not know, for instance,” the [papal] ambassador begins in his careful French – then he breaks off for we have come out of a forest and into a meadow beside a wide, deep river and before us is a complete palace of wood, planted in the meadow like a dream house. It is an extraordinary sight, three stories high with a great turret at each corner, flags flying at each one, and even a gatehouse and a drawbridge that is a tree trunk. ”’

“What is this?” the ambassador asks me in bewilderment.

“This, says James, grandly, hiding his own surprise, “this is a summer palace that my loyal friend John Stewart [the Earl of Atholl] has prepared for us. Please come this way.” …

Inside it is more dreamlike than ever, for the ground floors are nothing but the meadow, richly planted with flowers. Upstairs there are bedrooms in each of the four corners of the palace, and each bed is built into the wall and planted with chamomile, like a scented bower, and thrown with furs. The great hall for dining is heated in the old way with a fire in the center, and the floor is beaten mud swept to perfect cleanness and polished with the passage of many feet. The high table is on a platform, a few carved wooden steps leading up to it, and the interior glows green with the light of the best wax candles.

I look around with delight. “Come and see your room,” the countess says and guides me up the wooden stairs to the chamber that overlooks the river and the hills beyond. Every wall is hung with a tapestry of silk, and every tapestry is a woodland or meadow or riverside scene so it is as if every wall is a window to the countryside beyond. The windows themselves are wooden-framed and made of perfectly clear Venetian glass so that I can look out at the river and see my horse grazing in the water meadows, or close the shutters for warmth.

We go down to dine. The fire is lit and the smell of woodsmoke mingles with the scent of roasted meat. They are cooking every sort of bird and three kinds of venison. … “This is truly very fine,” the ambassador says to me in an undertone. “Very unexpected. What a treasure house in the middle of nowhere. This Earl of Atholl must be very, very wealthy?”

The talk is of the situation in London, and of what Margaret would say to her sister-in-law, “Katherine of Arrogant,” who has failed to provide an heir to her (Margaret’s) brother, Henry VIII, the king of England. For three days, James and the ambassador hunt, fish and swim while Margaret looks out of the window. Then they depart.

As we ride away the papal ambassador looks back and exclaims “Mother of God!”

We all turn. Where the palace had been tall and turreted there are plumes of smoke from the greenwood and the crackle of fire. Little cracks of gunpowder going off under the walls tell us that the first has been set to destroy the summer palace. …

“We should go back! We could soak it from the moat!” the papal ambassador cries. “We could save it!”

James lifts a hand. “No, it has been fired on purpose. It is the tradition,” he says grandly. “It’s a great sight.”

“A tradition?”

“When a Highland chief gives a great feast he builds the dining hall and when the feast is done he burns everything, tables, chairs, and hall. It will never be used again: it was a singular experience.”

“But the tapestries? The silverwear?”

James shrugs, a king to his fingertips. “All gone. That is the beauty of Highland hospitality: it is total. We were guests of a great lord; he gave us everything. You are in a wealthy kingdom, a kingdom like a fairy tale.”

I think James is going a bit far, but the ambassador crosses himself as if he has just seen a miracle. “That was a mighty sight,” he says.

“My son is a great king,” I remind him. “This shows you the esteem of his people.”

I don’t doubt for a moment that the countess took down the tapestries and all the valuables. They probably took the windows out before they fired the wooden walls. But it is a great sight and it has done its work. The papal ambassador will go home to Rome and tell the Pope that … Scotland is a great country, it can ally with whom it chooses.”

In certain ways these passages, which are based on fact, make us wonder, with all the progress that has led to our day, whether we have advanced or regressed, at least in our architecture, and perhaps in other ways. These are the richest, noble families, yet today, despite recent losses on Wall Street, the stock market has added some $7 trillion to our nation’s wealth, almost half of the entire U.S. GDP ($18.5 trillion) of 2016, in just a year. Our economy and the world’s probably add something like the entire value of 16th century Europe every day. (Maybe I exaggerate – or perhaps understate the case.)

In any event, in comparative terms, James was the ruler of an impoverished land. With our profound wealth today, can we moderns not take a better stab at human settlement?

(I could not find a photo, of course, or even a painting or drawing of the wooden palace, so the Atholl Palace Hotel, built in 1878 as a homeopathic institute, will have to do. The Atholl earldom’s historic seat since 1457 was at Blair Castle, built circa 1269, see below, also near the town of Pitlochry.)

(My post “Q. of Scots takes Edinburgh” took several engaging passages from near the beginning of the book.)

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Blair Castle, near Pitlochry, Scotland. (Pine Trees Hotel)

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Talk the talk on buildings

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McMillan Plan for national mall, conceived before decline in civic arts. (Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lost Prov to debut in Boston

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The Algonquin Club, 217 Commonwealth Ave., Boston. (Wikipedia)

After a dozen or so events last fall to promote my book Lost Providence, I thought maybe I could relax and live, if not like a king then maybe a duke or earl, off my royalties. Ha ha! Those familiar with the good work of History Press and Arcadia Publishing will get the yoke – their imprint is for people who write for love (usually of this or that place), not money. But the love keeps on coming in. More people want to hear about the book.

The next event will be in Boston two weeks from today, on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 6:30 at the Algonquin Club (217 Commonwealth Ave.). It is sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art’s New England chapter, on whose board I have the honor to sit. The Algonquin Club was completed in 1888 to the design of McKim Mead & White, the great Gilded Age firm of architects. Charles Follen McKim, of the firm, was a member of the Algonquin, which may or may not prove he designed it. His colleague Stanford White designed Rosecliff, the Newport “cottage” where the Preservation Society of Newport County hosted a lecture on Lost Providence in September. I look forward to addressing the guests of the ICAA at the Algonquin Club. To speak for such a group in such a building excites me beyond expression. Reservations are $25 for members of the ICAA and $35 for nonmembers.

But wait! There’s more!

On Wednesday, Feb. 28, the Johnston Historical Society, will host a Lost Providence lecture at the Museum Barn, 101 Putnam Pike, in Johnston, R.I. The lecture begins after the Society’s regular  7 o’clock meeting, at about 7:45 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

On Tuesday, March 6, the Barrington Public Library will host a Lost Providence lecture at the former Leander Peck School, designed in the Elizabethan Revival style by Providence architects Martin & Hall and completed in 1917 next door to the Barrington Town Hall, completed in 1888, same year as the Algonquin Club. The library’s address is 281 County Rd. The lecture begins at 6:30 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

Still in the works is a lecture at Fitchburg State University, in Fitchburg, Mass. It may be closed to the public, as was my Jan. 18 lecture at the Hope Club, sponsored by the Colonial Dames of Rhode Island, or open only to students at Fitchburg, or it may not happen at all. We shall see.

At any rate, if you have missed all the lectures thus far, there are others popping up on the calendar like … well, I’ll let someone else suggest an appropriate flower. At each event, the book will be on sale for $20.

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Barrington Public Library, next to Town Hall in Barrington, R.I. (picclick.com)

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Stern’s 250 W81st tops out

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From the website of 250 West 81st St. by Robert A.M. Stern Architects. (RAMSA)

Robert A. M. Stern’s latest Manhattan apartment building at 250 West 81st St., on a corner of Broadway, recently topped out. That means the top of the building’s steel structure of girders has been achieved. It is 209 feet tall, or about 18 stories by my count, based on the drawing above. I am entirely pumped about this building (“The New Classic Upper West Side Apartment House“). The renderings, by Williams New York, paint a gorgeosity of beauty, if I may be permitted to thus describe its appearance.

Cityrealty.com’s article from last June 12, “Construction begins on new Upper West Side condo,” confirms the building’s height as 18 stories, includes more details on amenities within the building, and notes that its predecessor was a three-story retail building whose demolition was completed last winter. It was a very attractive building, but the replacement of an attractive building with an arguably more attractive building, or at least a larger building of equal allure, reflects an admirable return to the status quo ante – that is, the situation before, say, 1950, after which it became conventional to worry that any building demolished would likely be replaced by something worse.

So this is progress. The big question is how long will it take before New Yorkers in the vicinity forget that the new building wasn’t erected decades ago? Will 250 West 81st become, in the public eye, just another survivor, admirable as that certainly will be? People will eventually get used to a lovelier neighborhood, just as they have been forced to accustom themselves to uglier neighborhoods, forced to turn that smile upside down.

To better encourage the construction of new traditional buildings like 250 West 81st at a higher rate requires the construction of a major building that nobody will confuse with a building that has always been there. Buildings like this are mother’s milk to a society that yearns for a revival of its civic pride. This building will help, but a bigger boost would arise from rebuilding Pennsylvania Station as it was originally designed (with updates, of course, in technology, transportation, commercial amenities, etc.) in 1910 by McKim Mead & White. You can see plans for that project at Rebuild Penn Station. After that, it’s Katy bar the door for the classical revival.

At first I thought 250 West 81st was done and these were photographs, but no, they are two renderings by Williams New York. Below that is a photo of the building torn down for the new project.

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The building demolished to make way for the much taller 250 West 81st. (CityRealty)

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When is a folly not a folly?

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A folly on the grounds of Bellevue House, in Newport. (David Brussat photo)

What’s in a name? I’ve always loved a folly, but some follies are not as useless as their definition suggests. The London Times has an article about follies called “It’s not bonkers to be fond of a folly,” by Norman Miller. The leading exponent of follies in Rhode Island – or at least the one with the most follies on his property – is Ronald Lee Fleming, whose Bellevue House, on the avenue of the same name, is in Newport.

The follies in Miller’s article seem no more useless than the follies in Fleming’s garden. Fleming’s follies are not as useful as Fleming’s Bellevue House, but that hardly makes them useless. The definition of folly in the Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, by James Stevens Curl and Susan Wilson, is:

Eye-catching, usually a building in a contrived landscape, often otherwise useless. It might be in the form of a sham ruin, Classical temple, oriental tent, Chinoiserie pagoda or other charming fabrique set in a Picturesque garden. It might provide seats and shelter from which an agreeable view can be enjoyed, but more often simply demands attention/gives pleasure by its eccentricity. … [T]he folly is more than whimsical: it encapsulates creative longing, often in the realms of fantasy, with many allusions, far removed from the prim, joyless Modern Movement.

In short, no, they are not useless, any more than decoration itself is useless. At least a folly provides seating and shelter; beyond that it offers additional reason to love a place and to commit time, energy and resources to its perpetuation. By this standard, modern architecture is useful only in the narrowest sense of the word, and that is why so few people have any affection for it.

My post “Library of place in Newport” describes the work in progress that is Fleming’s Bellevue House and its magnificant grounds. From there you can click to an earlier post, “Flemish park on Bellevue.” Both have quite a number of photos and they give a good idea of how many and what sort of follies enliven Fleming’s estate.

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“White tower with curves”

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Last year’s proposal for a single tower, pared down from an original three. (Fane)

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Providence awaits its “white tower with sculptured curves.” That’s how developer Jason Fane, of New York City, now envisions his “iconic” building of 46 stories (no pics yet) as described to Providence Journal reporter Mark Reynolds in “Land sale gets OK for 46-story tower.”

Actually it’s a preliminary OK from the I-195 commish. But fugeddabout squeezing the word “preliminary” into a headline.

What happened to the last version of what were once three slick brown multi-slabs sporting patented Minion spectacles? But now it’s a white tower with sculptured curves. And Fane still wants a pair of these suckers. What are we to make of that?

Hope Point Towers?

Hope not.

White tower with sculptured curves? Isn’t that kinda sorta racist or sexist or both? Tough call these days. But still, sounds quite sexy to me. Sort of like the Absolute Towers, also known as the Marilyn Monroe Buildings, in a suburb of Toronto, designed by MAD Architects. (That is not a joke, at least the name is not a joke.)

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Site plan for the proposed Hope Point Tower on I-195 land. (Fane)

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Shaping a Canal St. ethos

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Proposed 131 Canal St. viewed from east on Thomas Street. (DBVW)

Even as a new apartment tower arises on Canal Street, another of similar size and design, just south of it along the eastern edge of the Providence River, faces a harder slog through the city’s development process. It may be too late to avoid further degrading the historical character of the old neighborhood known, in the 18th century, as Cheapside – the city’s first commercial district. But there remains an option, other than outright denial of permission to proceed, that could mitigate the damage.

Last Monday the Downtown Design Review Committee viewed early renderings of the proposed new 15-story, 227-unit building. An article in the Providence Business News, “DDRC” reviews initial renderings for proposed College Hill apartments,” by Mary MacDonald, describes the project:

According to the design documents, the portion of the new building facing North Main Street would be only three stories, designed to complement adjacent buildings. The main section, between the Congdon & Carpenter building and the Edge College Hill building now under construction, would be 7 stories and 15 stories. The larger height is proposed using the development rights from the historical building.

MacDonald’s diplomatic description does not hide the fact that this new building is trying to eat the more venerable structure, part of which dates back to 1790. The design of the main tower fits into the context only of its adjacent brother and predecessor, called Edge College Hill and now under construction. Each building has a slightly different version of the cheesy junkyard cacophony of fenestration common to recent cheap-o development. Their colors are dreadfully off-key for their neighborhood. North Main is the city’s oldest street and must not be purposely insulted.

Yet, it may be argued that when complete, the two new 15-story towers will not be so bad. They both fill asphalt parking lots. They may not totally sully the character of the neighborhood, or block cherished views any more than the 1990-vintage One Citizens Plaza tower’s 13 scary stories already do. The Citizens tower is known as the Darth Vader Building because it blocks the view, once open, to the State House from downriver. That’s all we need. More Darth Vader Buildings!

Taking a more forgiving tone, perhaps the developer of both new buildings, Vision Properties, of Conshohocken, Pa., should be applauded for letting the architect, DBVW, refrain from entirely stomping upon the history next door. The Congdon & Carpenter Building, owned by Capital Properties (which mismanaged the development of its own land in the nearby Capital Center district), is the city’s oldest industrial building and site of the 3 Steeple St. restaurant of yore, and, to this day, New Rivers restaurant.

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Massing of proposed 131 Canal St. (DBVW)

The design documents for the proposed new tower show 15 stories overshadowing the Congdon & Carpenter from behind, but stepping down from there to seven stories and then to only three stories facing North Main and Steeple, where it juts out to only partly block the lovely gabled east-facing façade of the C&C (where the appalling Andre the Giant/Buddy Cianci billboard used to be). The architecture of these lower reaches of the new building seems to suggest an effort to sympathize with the traditional style of the historic buildings in its vicinity. (See larger image below.)


But not good enough. The taller portions of the building add to the negative impact of the worst elements of the area’s development in recent decades, and the architects’ effort to fit into what remains of its historical setting might not be performed very well. It should look like a very high quality façadectomy – the word for putting a new building behind the façade of an old building. And, to top it off, it looks as if the view of the State House dome from the corner of Benefit and Angell streets might be entirely blocked.

Fortunately, it seems that the height and bulk of the building both depend upon a certain lawyerly s-t-r-e-t-c-h of air rights transferred from the C&C’s owner to the new tower’s developer. If suspicions raised by the Providence Preservation Society are correct, the developer hopes that city officials will “wink-wink” their attempt to flip the small floorplate of the old building into a right to build much larger floorplates stacked atop the larger building.

(Greater City Providence has a more detailed explanation of what the developer is up to in its story “15-story ‘Edge College Hill Two’ on Canal Street site,” by Jef Nickerson.)

If the city can stiffen its civic cojones, it should substitute its “wink-wink” with a stern tsk-tsk, directing the developer to return to the committee with a design that drastically diminishes the height of the tower and drastically sharpens the design of its three-story effort to fit in along North Main and Steeple. Part of that should be to step its building even farther back from Steeple to expose more of the east façade of the C&C.

Vision Properties has withdrawn its proposal. Let us hope that if it returns to start over with a re-do, it will respect not reject its historical context.

City officials have done a deplorable job protecting Providence’s primary competitive advantage over other cities, its historical character. Even they must recognize that this must end, and be turned around, or else Providence will be no more attractive than, say, Houston or Charlotte – except without the business friendliness of those two cities.

If we keep on keepin’ on, our beauty will disappear both slowly and suddenly – slowly enough that few will be alarmed, but suddenly enough that there will be no turning back once calamity reveals itself. How the city oversees this development on Canal Street will indicate whether it has the vision to save Providence from mediocrity.

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Proposed 131 Canal St. viewed from the southwest on Memorial Boulevard. (DBVW)

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Larger image of massing diagram for 131 Canal St. (DBVW)

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Modern architecture is crazy

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Le Corbusier, born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, was a pioneer of modern architecture. (AP)

Among the most recent revelations of science in the service of architecture is that three of the most eminent founders of modern architecture suffered from mental illness. Le Corbusier was on the autism spectrum while Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Architect/researcher Ann Sussman, who has done much of the heavy lifting in this narrow field, argues that illness made them, as she says, “literally unable to process visual stimuli normally.” This affected their architecture, and, to the extent that their architecture led architecture’s departure from tradition, it helped shape the nature of that departure – which came to dominate the field in the 1950s and still does today, despite widespread skepticism among the public toward the result.

Sussman’s theory has not shattered the world of modern architecture, any more than has Malcolm Millais’s latest book, Le Corbusier, the Dishonest Architect. Revelations of this magnitude about a field’s fundamental narrative would have triggered a big rethink in any normal industry. But unlike every other field of human endeavor, architecture has developed a filter, cult-like in its rigor, to shield practitioners from alternative thinking.

So the architectural establishment has merely ignored and most architects have not even heard the bad news about their field’s most revered founders.

The first major response that I’m aware of to Sussman’s revelations comes from the website CityLab, associated with Atlantic magazine. “The Perils of Diagnosing Modernism,” by Darran Anderson, the author of Imaginary Cities, attempts to rebut “The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture,” an article on the Common\Edge website by Sussman and co-author Katie Chen. “Their questions and tools are useful,” writes Anderson, “but there’s danger in mistaking one piece of a puzzle for its entirety.”

This is a powerful rebuttal of Sussman’s headline but a weak rebuttal of her theory, which does concede that mental illness is just one factor in the development of modern architecture. In the first paragraph, she states:

History holds that modernism was the idealistic impulse that emerged out of the physical, moral and spiritual wreckage of the First World War. While there were other factors at work as well, this explanation, though undoubtedly true, tells an incomplete picture.

I believe that Sussman gives the factors of idealism and war’s wreckage too much credit for the rise of modern architecture, but she certainly has not tried to replace those factors with that of mental illness. After conceding the plausibility of Sussman’s theory, Anderson proceeds to argue that even if they do exist, the manifestations of mental illness she identifies are countered by other aspects of the founders’ work and writings. He goes on to argue that modern architecture predated Le Corbusier. He concludes with a ringing defense of the ideals of modern architecture.

The following examples focus on Corbusier rather than Gropius (Anderson does not mention Mies). “Le Corbusier,” he admits, “was emotionally remote and aesthetically austere.”

Yet this distance was always balanced with a desire to connect, having once said, “I felt [on a visit to Italy] an authentic human aspiration was gratified here; silence, solitude, but also daily contact with mortals.” Most comfortable being guarded, he nevertheless repeatedly placed the utmost importance on “enjoying the life-giving force of love and friendship.”

Not exactly a party-hearty kinda guy, to be sure, and yet a reading of Millais’s book on Corbusier would raise doubts about the balance Anderson claims to see. Millais writes that Corbusier’s record as a husband and friend was one of disloyalty, and his attitude toward intellectual and professional partners and his treatment of clients was one of betrayal and dishonesty. Deeds are usually stronger evidence than words.

Anderson then continues his defense of Corbusier’s architecture against the charges of austerity and remoteness, two major autistic indicators.

He lived an ascetic life and admired the lifestyle of the monks of Mount Athos—there is certainly something of the monastic cell to some of Le Corbusier’s designs. Yet these weren’t stark prisons so much as attempts to create sanctuaries amidst the clamor and chaos of modern life. “Where order reigns,” Le Corbusier wrote in Towards a New Architecture (1923), “well-being follows.”

It is fair to suggest that those used to traditional houses and apartments might consider Corbusier’s versions to indeed be akin to monastic cells and even prison cells. Certainly a reconceptualization of traditional habitations was not required to give people the ability to avoid the “clamor and chaos of modern life.” Next, Anderson chides Corbusier’s critics for taking his austere “machine for living” quote out of context.

When it is [read in context], it reveals a more humanistic side, “A house is a machine for living in. Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion. An armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on.”

C’mon now! As if contemporaneous traditional houses did not feature such qualities. Leaping from a line in Corbu’s writing to the idea that his dwellings are humanistic, or at least more so than typical houses, is an exercise in self- deception. Actually, the “machine for living” quote out of context reflects the truth of Corbu’s sensibility better than the quote in context, which amounts to a lie. Another Corbusier quote from Anderson’s piece states that

“To be able to think, or meditate, after the day’s work is essential. But in order to become a center of creative thought, the home must take on an absolutely new character.”

Why does creative thought require a house of “an absolutely new character”? The fact is that it does not. Corbusier merely asserts with consummate dash and absurdity that it does, and that’s enough for Anderson (and countless other acolytes) to swill the Kool-Aid without an ounce of critical analysis.

Anderson’s defense is peppered with such assertions, which will sway most architects, readers of CityLab and others familiar with the Corbusier myth. The many thousands of books and articles about Corbusier ignore or slide by his flaws. But most historians and scholars of the modernist movement are aware of the blemishes of his record and character; however, it is professional suicide to refer to them publicly. A few books have been published in recent years about Le Corbusier’s Nazi sympathies. They are ignored by the popular and architectural press. Corbusier remains spotless to most architects and the reading public, and continues as architecture’s most treasured icon.

Likewise, consider Anderson’s assertion that modern architecture was being developed before Corbusier and Gropius arrived on the scene.

In Europe, the transition towards minimal architecture had been going on for so long there had already been generational schisms, backlashes, and synthesises. There were already architectural masterpieces in this spirit including Victor Horta’s Maison du Peuple (1896-99), Josef Hoffmann’s Sanatorium Purkersdorf (1904-5) and Stoclet Palace (begun in 1905), and Adolf Loos’s Steiner House (1910).

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But his examples can be used to make the opposite case. For example, the Maison du Peuple (1899) by Victor Horta, is not minimalist or orderly. It has large windows. Indeed, it could be used to argue that modern architecture takes liberties with history by arguing that it was first to make use of large windows. The Maison du Peuple is a good example of a common practice among modernist historians. Take a traditional building with a feature that eventually figured in modern architecture and claim it as a precursor of modernism when in fact it is merely a traditional building that has evolved to include large windows. Part of this process is to ignore great swaths of traditional architecture that does not fit into the modernist narrative. The modernists like to pretend not to notice historical evidence that traditional architecture has always evolved with advancements in technology.

Other examples adduced by Anderson of pre-Corbu modernism can arouse the same sort of skepticism. So no, modern architecture did not spring fully formed from the heads of Corbusier or the other founders. But Corbusier, Gropius and Mies did pull together into a movement the largely inchoate set of trends toward greater simplicity, more glass and less ornament. Gropius and Mies led the Bauhaus school (Mies even tried to get Hitler to embrace modernism as the design template for the Third Reich). And whatever may be said of his architecture, Corbusier’s flair for self-promotion surely helped to sell the movement for over four decades. And all of what they did was influenced by the psychology of their minds, including the extent to which they were mentally ill.

Adolf Loos certainly preceded Corbu et al. Anderson did not fail to yoke him into his rebuttal of Sussman and of traditional architecture.

In Ornament and Crime (1910), [Loos] announced, “Soon the streets of the town will glisten like white walls. Like Zion, the holy city, the metropolis of heaven. Then we shall have fulfillment.” There was a logic to his messianic proclamations; he recognized that times were changing fast and architecture needed to adapt. It made little sense to spend time and effort carving details into stone on buildings whose function would soon change.

Arguably the function of buildings would change, but that does not mean they needed to change. To argue from result to cause is poor logic and, in this case, the most circular of reasoning. And it is debatable that the function of buildings actually changed. Architecture’s role as protective enclosure for human activity remains essentially the same. Yes, late in the history of architecture, the need for train stations, airports and some other types of building arose, but as early versions of the former demonstrate, they did not need to be designed in a modernist style. Think Penn Station!

(Has there ever been a traditional or even a classical airport?)

And yet even in this piece by Anderson the perfervid attack on decoration – one might say on beauty itself – plows on and on.

World War I had a colossal impact on architecture, as it did every aspect of Western life. We may now view the prewar imperial societies with a nostalgic, pastel Wes Anderson filter, but there was little enthusiasm or money to begin building palaces or carving heraldic symbols for regimes that had sent millions of young men to be mutilated in the trenches.

Again, architecture if not necessarily its function did change – not after World War I so much as after World War II. Modern architecture was a novelty throughout the 1920s. Traditional architecture continued to flourish. Architects embraced embellishment for decades after Western societies had (rightly) decided to blame themselves and their political systems, and not their architecture, for the mass slaughter of the conflict. Most people and most societies were happy to stick to the traditional reverence for beauty.

Anderson may not be aware that even broader scientific research, led by mathematician and theorist Nikos Salingaros at the University of Texas in San Antonio, has found a neurobiological explanation for the public’s preference for traditionally styled buildings. The pleasure we get from ornamental detail is hardwired into our brain by evolutionary changes that stretch back to early man’s need for detailed environmental cognition to stay alive. Modernism’s ban on decoration flies directly in the face of our intuitive requirement for more, not less, information.

As late as 1931, in the The American Mercury, H.L. Mencken wrote,

The New Architecture seems to be making little progress in the United States. … A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier, would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration.

Alas! How sadly wrong was the Sage of Baltimore!

Again, architecture did change, but there’s no evidence that it had to change. What happened was that bad architecture, founded on shaky principles, pushed its way into an established industry because niche elements of society in several Western countries embraced the fallacy that change – a rejection of hundreds of years of successful practice – was necessary in architecture. There is no evidence for this, let alone proof.

Were Corbu, Grope and Mies mentally ill? It would be difficult to prove. Given the very dubious quality of modern architecture’s founding ideas, it would be equally difficult to disprove. Sussman’s theory does not necessarily prove that the leading men of modern architecture were mentally ill, but she did not need to prove that modern architecture is crazy.

Just look around you.

For all its erudition, Darran Anderson’s critique of Ann Sussman’s theory fails to pass a smell test that everyone can see.

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Two attacks on the East Side

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New SquashBusters facility at the Moses Brown School, on Hope Street, in Providence.

These two really ugly new buildings on Providence’s storied East Side reveal a thoughtlessness and lack of consideration on the part of two highly respected private schools. People walking or driving by Moses Brown or the Lincoln School must wonder how such eyesores could possibly have been foisted upon their lovely streets – Hope Street and Blackstone Boulevard, top and bottom, respectively, both at very prominent locations. Did either of these schools ask, or even care, what their neighbors might think?

The two carbuncles are, top, a set of squash courts and, bottom, a STEM (or STEAM) facility. Neither use requires a design that punches either historic neighborhood in the face. The architects are not to blame, ugly as their work looks. They just follow orders. The boards of the two schools, both Quaker, are to blame. Maybe they are not criminals, though they ignore local zoning ordinances protecting historical character. It may be more accurate to call them sinners. They have sinned against beauty, and betrayed their city, their neighborhoods, and their own institutions, which boast campuses that are otherwise lovely. Shame!

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New STEAM facility at the Lincoln School on Blackstone Boulevard/Butler Avenue.

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Don’t maul the Mall, cont.

Master plan for southern end of Mall and Smithsonian. (BIG/Smithsonian)

Master plan for southern end of Mall and Smithsonian. (BIG/Smithsonian)

The good news out of Washington is that the Fine Arts Commission has expressed reservations about the latest iteration of the Bjarke Ingels Group plan to renovate the Mall near the Smithsonian’s crenelated, betowered headquarters. Good, but not good enough.

The Washington Post’s Jan. 18 article, by Peggy McGlone, is “‘It’s not good design’: Fine Arts Commission critical of Smithsonian’s plan.”

The concerns expressed this past week do not, apparently, include the silly curling corners of the Enid A. Haupt Garden, or other unsympathetic modernist touches from the BIG grab-bag. Nor does it imagine shifting the proposed visitors center from under the Haupt Garden into its most obvious setting directly to its east, the largely unused Arts and Industries Building. An image of the existing garden and of the garden as now proposed (with its curling corners outside the frame of the second image) are below.

Below this is my original, exasperated post about the BIG plan, from 2014.

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The National Mall in Washington has been undergoing renovation of its famous grass and the soil underneath. Decades of marches, concerts and festivals, not to mention the constant tramp, tramp, tramp of millions of tourists yearly on this hallowed ground of the nation, still largely based on the great classical McMillan Plan of 1901, have hardened and compressed the land. But with a sort of fluffing up of the large part of the Mall that lies under the grass, this is being fixed.

Southern portion of the National Mall. (brightspotstrategy.com)

Southern portion of the National Mall. (brightspotstrategy.com)

Fixed, it seems, to prepare the ground for an invasion by alien forms, invited not by some malign foreign power or interplanetary congress of villains but by the Smithsonian Institution itself. The Smithsonian’s museums, galleries and quaint headquarters building line either side of the Mall from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol. A Danish firm based in New York, Bjarke Ingels Group, has been hired to produce a master plan for its older, southern portion over the next 20 years. At the top of this post is a disarmingly charming nighttime illustration of the plan.

Aaron Betsky praises the BIG plan for Architect, the journal of the American Institute of Architects, in “The Underground Museum Movement.” An early line well describes the work of BIG’s Bjarke Ingels, who has “married OMA’s [Rem Koolhaas’s] unabashed modernism with sculptural daring-do and a cartoon sensibility.”

Modernism popping up in BIG plan. (BIG/Smithsonian)

Modernism popping up in BIG plan. (BIG/Smithsonian)

The Mall and its interlace of spaces linking the country’s greatest national museums will indeed become a cartoon – a Jetsons cartoon – if this plan is carried out. The grand allée of America is our greatest public space. It has hosted many of U.S. history’s finest moments, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. On a day-to-day basis it offers Washington’s visitors, workers and residents alike a pedestrian paradise where flâneurs can sit or stroll as they observe the country’s character and characters tromp by in all their diversity.

Under the BIG plan, the Mall’s grandeur will be lampooned and its essential purpose as a promenade of democracy on which to meet and greet under the blue sky will be trampled. Much of the plan imagines new spaces and connections between museums underground, itself undermining the Mall’s essence. The recent new visitors center, largely underground, for the Capitol offers plenty of reason to avoid digging down to solve an entirely imaginary need for more space for people on the mall. The Mall may need an upgrade; it does not need a reconceptualization, a repurposing, a re-anything.

Smithsonian's administrative headquarters. (news.yahoo.com)

Smithsonian’s administrative headquarters. (news.yahoo.com)

You’d think that going below grade would help avoid one of the predictable hazards of remaining above grade. But no. BIG sees a lot of modern architecture raising its ugly head above ground, up from below. From illustrations provided by BIG and the Smithsonian, most of it is predictable sterile modernist extrusions from another galaxy. The main piece, and potentially least objectionable, is a lawn with cutely raised corners between the Smithsonian administration’s towered, crenellated castle and the round Hirshorn Art Museum.

Had the structures gently lifting the corners of the lawn featured traditional architecture rising from below, teasing visitors with elements of the Mall’s greatest classical buildings, this centerpiece might have mixed beauty and frisson with admirable panache, acceptable to all. But BIG could see no farther than to gild the turd, and so even this mini-mall will cringe along with the rest of the plan’s benighted architecture.

Bad modern architecture has been creeping up and down the Mall for decades. It has been chosen to house the latest national museums. The beauty that once reigned supreme as the nation filled out the McMillan Plan in the first half of the 20th century will suffer further erosion. The conversation among the most civilized structures will be further confused. While the Mall is unlikely to lose its status as the nation’s gathering spot, its sense of place and hence its ability to wreathe the civic life of the capital city in an uplifting grandeur and importance will continue to be diminished.

Corner of lawn viewed between Smithsonian HQ and Hall of Arts & Industries. (Smithsonian)

Corner of lawn viewed between Smithsonian HQ and Hall of Arts and Industries. (Smithsonian)

This plan is not BIG but small, very small, very orthodox, very ugly. Fortunately, in a nation of stretched budgets the plan will depend on big donations from the private sector, and we may hope that these do not materialize. Maybe the Smithsonian will be thrown back on its existing resources. Chief among these is the newly renovated Hall of Arts and Industries, which now stands empty, a waste waiting to embrace a new mission. It is well placed to lead the repulse of this ridiculous alien invasion proposed for America’s most sacred space.

But a building cannot lead a fight, and the Smithsonian cannot be expected to fight against itself. So this looks like a job for Justin Shubow and the National Civic Art Society.

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