Notes & Comments March 2020
Decline, fall & rise
On “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.”
In his novel Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh guys a fictional Corbusier-like modernist architect called Otto Silenus. “The problem of Architecture as I see it,” Silenus pontificates, “is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form.”
But shouldn’t art—and above all the art of architecture—cater to and celebrate the “human element”? There are certainly traditions of abstract art that seek to minimize or expunge all references to humanity and, indeed, to nature in all its messy mutability. But the main current of art in the West from Athens and the Roman Republic through the Renaissance and the glories of Georgian and Victorian England has embraced and been guided by the “human element.”
So, until the 1950s, did American architecture, particularly official architecture in Washington, D.C., and its satellites throughout the country. Anyone looking at the White House, the Capitol Building, and John Russell Pope’s Jefferson Memorial and Pantheon-indebted West Building of the National Gallery is instantly impressed by their human-scaled grandeur and dignity. Everything about such structures, from their setting and the materials from which they were wrought, to the stately but welcoming proportions of their elevations, is calculated to delight.
The invasion of European modernism into American architecture in the 1950s changed that. More and more, the goal was not stateliness and accommodation to the human spirit, but a chilly formalism or pseudo-formalism that taunted rather than gratified public taste. And the evolution of that modernist impulse resulted eventually in such hothouse perversions as Brutalism, Deconstructivism, and kindred exercises in absurdity. Such developments pushed the merely unappealing into the realm of the minatory and barbaric, with a large dollop of starchitectural narcissism thrown in for good measure. (Indeed, it is an irony that many public architectural efforts to supersede or besmirch the human element actually substitute the human, all-too-human element of the architect’s ego for its proper object: the spirit of our shared civic life.)
Anyone wanting examples of such monstrosities need only visit excrescences like the San Francisco Federal Building, the U.S. Courthouse in Austin, the Ferguson Courthouse in Miami, the U.S. Courthouse in Salt Lake City, the J. Edgar Hoover fbi Building in Washington. D.C., or the Government Service Center in Boston. Each in its own way is a hideous assault on the human spirit. Such assaults have for decades been the rule, not the exception, in federal architecture, and the more celebrated the architect, the worse the results are likely to be. We offer the names Frank Gehry and Norman Foster as corroboration of that observation. Q.E.D.
All this is prolegomenon to the latest bout of hysteria occasioned by the simple fact of Donald J. Trump. In February, Architectural Record published a leaked draft of an Executive Order regarding new guidelines for major (over $50 million) federal buildings in the Capital region and for federal courthouses throughout the country. The new guidelines, formulated in large part by the National Civic Art Society, stipulate that going forward “classical architectural style shall be the preferred and default style” for such buildings.
The general aim is that “Federal Architecture should once again inspire respect instead of bewilderment or repugnance.”
The new guidelines construe “classical” quite broadly. Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish Colonial architecture are explicitly included under the rubric. The authors of the order also acknowledge that the new guidelines do “not exclude experimentation with new, alternative styles.” They merely insist that whatever is built should take careful account of its architectural environment and “command respect by the public.” The general aim is that “Federal Architecture should once again inspire respect instead of bewilderment or repugnance.”
What do you think? We think it is a splendid idea. Why should the public pay for architecture they find bewildering or repugnant? But when we tell you that the draft order is titled “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” you will not be surprised that the reaction against the idea on the part of our Cultural Guardians was swift, apoplectic, and nearly unanimous. The American Institute of Architects issued a statement “strongly oppos[ing]” the proposal. The Los Angeles Times panted to its readers that “Critics have reacted with outrage.” The Chicago Sun-Times moaned that the proposal to favor classical styles was “such a bad idea.” Many commentators invoked the name of Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect, as if Speer’s hypertrophied neoclassical fantasies were comparable to the sorts of appropriately scaled buildings that the draft order envisions.
It was left to The New York Times to bring the hysteria to full partisan boil. In a Critic’s Notebook column called “maga War on Architectural Diversity Weaponizes Greek Columns,” the longtime Timeser Michael Kimmelman warned that “the order provokes inevitable allusions to authoritarian regimes of the past [you don’t say?] that imposed their own architectural marching orders [hear the goose-stepping troops?], and dredges up images of antebellum America [slavery alert!], when classicizing Federal architecture was all the rage. Associations like these might sound extreme; but then, so does the order.”
Does it? For a reality check, it is worth noting that Kimmelman thinks that the National Museum of African American History and Culture is “the most successful new public building in Washington.” In fact, the hulking inverted ziggurats look like nothing so much as a rusted, bombed-out wreck from a low-budget dystopian sci-fi movie. But then Michael Kimmelman is also the chap who wrote that Matthew “Mr. Vaseline” Barney was “the most important American artist of his generation.” When ridiculed for saying that, he grudgingly revised his judgment. Barney was only “the most compelling, richly imaginative artist to emerge in years.”
But let us draw a veil. We think that Marion Smith, the Chairman of the National Civic Art Society, was right when he observed, “For too long architectural elites and bureaucrats have derided the idea of beauty, blatantly ignored public opinions on style, and have quietly spent taxpayer money constructing ugly, expensive, and inefficient buildings. This executive order gives voice to the 99 percent—the ordinary American people who do not like what our government has been building.”
Dominic Green, writing for The Spectator, put it more colorfully but no less accurately when he asked whether now, at last, “the government [will] finally stop giving the concrete finger to popular taste by erecting ugly, expensive and unsustainable buildings with taxpayers’ money instead of fostering a civic architecture that speaks the language of American democracy.” It’s an excellent question.
We think it is a splendid idea.
One of the most oft-heard objections to the new guidelines—apart from ritual excoriations of their supposedly “authoritarian” or “fascist” intent—is the contention that they will impose a sterile conformity on this realm of public architectural practice. That is nonsense. As Myron Magnet noted in a fine comment on the controversy in The Wall Street Journal, “A bad classical building may be awkward or uninspired; it is never hideous. And all is based on human proportions and human scale.”
That last comment is key. As the English architect and architectural historian Geoffrey Scott pointed out in his classic book The Architecture of Humanism, elements like proportion and scale are essential to architectural success. We say that The Architecture of Humanism is a classic. So it is. But recent architectural practice reminds us that although the book is in one sense well known, its fundamental messages seem to have been forgotten. It is the old story of familiarity breeding, if not contempt, exactly, then at least neglect.
The ostensible subject of The Architecture of Humanism is Renaissance architecture. But Scott’s subtitle—“A Study in the History of Taste”—points to the book’s larger purview. Although its subject is Renaissance architecture, its pertinence extends to the practice and appreciation of architecture generally. One of Scott’s main lessons revolves around his distillation of Vitruvius’s principles of good architecture, firmitas, utilitas, and venustas. Quoting the Renaissance poet Henry Wotton, Scott calls them Commodity, Firmness, and Delight—or as we might put it, comfort and serviceability, craftsmanship and solidity, and beauty. These are the principles that must be observed in order to achieve what Wotton called “well-building.” Visit the Hoover Building, or any of the other monstrosities we mentioned above. You will find precious little comfort or beauty in any of them. They may be clever. They may be “challenging” or innovative. But because they lack the animating leaven of taste, they fail.
What is the gravamen of taste? In a word, it is the body. Again and again Scott comes back to the importance of the human body as the indispensable measure in architecture. The needs and dispositions of the human spirit incarnate—which means both a body in space and a body registering, contemplating space—provide the measure of that bedrock architectural value, the appropriate.
Again and again Scott comes back to the importance of the human body as the indispensable measure in architecture.
Scott speaks partly as an historian of architecture, partly as a custodian of the humanist values that were articulated with luxurious richness in Renaissance architecture. Which is why the lasting value of his book is not as an antiquarian relic but as an ever-contemporary inspiration. The humanist values for which Scott enlists architecture are as pertinent today as they were in 1914 when the book was first published—or, for that matter, 1419. All of us have heard trendy architects and their apologists natter on about Michel Foucault, the advent of the “post-human,” and the impossibility of coherence or stability. Recent government architects have had first-class tickets on that gravy train. But that is the twittering of sterility and exhaustion. As Scott notes, “space affects us and can control our spirit. . . . The architect models in space as a sculptor in clay. He designs his space as a work of art; that is, he attempts through its means to excite a certain mood in those who enter it.”
That is as true for us as it was for Brunelleschi or Alberti. And, like them, we possess what Scott calls “the humanist instinct,” which “looks in the world for physical conditions that are related to our own, for movements which are like those we enjoy, for resistances that resemble those that can support us, for a setting where we should be neither lost nor thwarted.”
Catering to that “humanist instinct” in the medium of space is the vocation of architecture. There is an aesthetic component to this project: a component satisfied in the pleasing arrangement of masses, lines, shadows, and spaces. But the essential neediness and incompleteness of the human condition guarantees that architecture can never be judged by aesthetic criteria alone. “Architecture,” as Scott put it, “is subservient to the general uses of mankind.” We approach architecture with what Scott, echoing the famous Kantian formula, calls a “disinterested desire for beauty,” but this desire is tethered by continual reference to the quotidian inventory of physical, psychological, and social imperatives.
For the last several decades, most government buildings have flouted those imperatives, much to the detriment of the people consigned to working in or visiting them. The prescriptions enunciated in “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” represent an alternative as thoughtful as it is generous-spirited. We hope that they will become a reality.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 7, on page 1
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