Monday, September 4


A Few Remarks on Classical Architecture Today

Some weeks ago, I wrote here on the cause of the use of good architecture in illuminating the more quotidian and utilitarian bits of our daily lives--whether it be a visit to the car wash, the supermarket, a drive-through at the bank's outdoor window, or a trip to the liquor store in search of that perfect bottle of wine as a gift. I say good rather than classical, or traditional, or traditionalist, or any of that other overlapping constellation of related terms used within the umbrella of the modern classical movement, principally because they are unlikely to mean anything to the man in the street. Also, in this case, such terms of art may not only be meaningless, but misleading. I say "baroque Qwik-e-Mart," and people, not knowing of the simple vernacular Roman barochetto, assume I'm about to dump several crateloads of cherubim on them and create the world's first Esso Station with Corinthian columns. Such is an offense against decorum; it would be equally problematic to design a massive city bank on the lines of a half-timber Tudor hovel.

But there's always a precedent, somewhere, and the past's constant self-referentiality and building upon itself, provides a solution to each problem--a solution which, by its very referencing, is transformed by the situation to become something quite new. As one architectural historian put it, "If nothing is original, then much originality is possible." The classical tradition, defined at its broadest extent to include everything up to the traumatic break with the past that marks some aspects of Gropius and Corbu's work, and even a few bits after that break, includes a good deal of humbler, astylar work, not high-style or even strictly speaking classical in the sense understood by the American public.

Before I go on, I will admit that some will criticize my audaciously vague definition of "classicism" as essentially everything before, say, 1925, and everything after as some sort of modernism. However, it's hard to avoid the fact that the schism wrought by the Bauhaus and all its empty works was deeper and far more traumatic than anything before it. There was always some appeal to historic authority--whether or not you agree it was well-conceived or not--in the innovations of Alberti, of Bernini's gilding and Laugier's primitivism, or even Gottfried Semper's fanciful theories of carpet architecture. Now, an unyielding archaeologism or primitivism never really satisfies, but neither does mere whim: we need both dour Vitruvius and that wonderful exhibitionist Dinocrates in his leopard-skin. (Dinocrates is famous for oiling himself up like an athlete, putting on a Hercules costume and waltzing into Alexander the Great's camp with his wildly imaginative but technically misbegotten plans to terraform Mount Athos into a giant statue of the conqueror, incidentally). The key is balance.

I'm focusing on modernism of the Bauhaus variety simply because it's easy to define and has evident rules and ideals, and because many of its unconscious principles, translated into bottom-line accountancy, still rule the building trades; and their universality in the postwar universe also accounts for much of the death of craft. Postmodernism is more of an elaborate practical joke on the consumer, and I wouldn't even know where to begin with the likes of Zaha Hadid, whose projects resemble nothing so much as a crashed Millenium Falcon. Though the Bauhaus shares with these more contemporary projects an equal desire to constantly re-invent the wheel and a certain ignorance or indifference to ornament.

One needn't slather a facade with Manueline corkscrews and rocaille for it to have ornament--but some sort of meditation, incarnation, expression of the building's inner, unseen self, is necessary. It's not my place here to mediate between the different interpretations of that ornament, which some say is an expression of the building's techtonics, and others call iconographic, and still others say is some blend of both. But the notion of mediation remains; even old Corbu couldn't get away with it in spite of himself. You can't escape history. The more we consider Modernism, the less original it seems in this regard, and the more it becomes just another passing movement no different from the rest, and a rather lackluster one at that. Walter C. Kidney, in his curious, sometimes wrongheaded but also intriguing book The Architecture of Choice, detailing what he terms the "eclectic architecture" of the turn of the last century, points out that "structural honesty" in the modern sense, is largely a chimera:
The modernists, of course, affected to believe that the new constructinal methods and materials should be used "frankly," and regarded any attempt to cover or coax them into conformity with the Styles [sic] as dishonest... As we have seen, though, engineering is indifferent to geometrical elegance; and expedient balance of performance, time and money is what counts... For that matter, not all machinery surfaces were presentable, around 1930, at the Museum of Modern Art. Functional beauty, then, is an occasional coindicence in modern engineering (and often due to the hand of the industrial designer) rather than the necessary result of letting the engineer have his own way. To obtain that beauty infallibly, artistic judgment, not severe practicality, is needed. Moreover, architecture--including that admired by and produced by the modernists--has always presented an edited version of constructional facts. Japanese frame architecture, seemingly so straightforward, abounds in small shams introduced for the sake of finish. The Gothic cathedral dramatizes its structure with shafts, clustered around the piers, that support absolutely nothing and ribs that are often totally unnecessary.
Kidney goes on to mention several modernist "shams" of sorts, none of which are particularly shocking to an old classicist such as myself, but seem to put the lie to the tiresome prayerwheeling of modernist principles, which are really more aesthetic choices than constructional principles, and rather shallow ones at that.

In today's world of insulation, wiring and more, even the remote possibility of modernist "structural honesty" is utterly gone. Sadly, however, while history could have tolerated such adolescent posturing as just another silly fad, Mies, Gropius and co. effectively were not satisfied with shutting out the past, but the universality of their faintly ridiculous idea also ensured the death of craft. It was possible to build a grand and well-detailed structure on par with the productions of the American Renaissance as late as 1959, the date of the construction of Our Saviour's in Manhattan with its extravagant woodwork and monolithic sanctuary columns. (Even the modern churches built then aren't so bad due to that high residual use of craftsmanship, good materials, precious materials, in fact, and also the retention of the orthodox Tridentine liturgical structure of the altar.) Now, it's virtually unthinkable except with an unlimited budget and limitless time. This can change. There's nothing to say we can't undo this cultural hecatomb.

What is needed is a revival of good craftsmanship and handywork, which exists in other countries and even in small isolated pockets here and there. What is needed is to push the envelope, and demand better from contractors, plasterers and the like. Even then, more can be done than we think if we are clever about our design. I am notorious for my extravagant architectural concoctions, but I've also boiled down my hypothetical designs to more manageable productions before. Simplicity is only possible after exploring the complete package of the complex.

It is simply a matter of prioritizing detail on the places where it can't be skimped, or using good materials simply, or using a style--Romanesque, Low Baroque, art deco, or a clever but budgeted classicism--which is suited to a plain interpretation. There are simple baroque doorframes and simple baroque shapes that can enliven an otherwise very austere facade and give a bit more zip to it. Borromini, the ultimate cheapskate master builder, excelled with such projects. The assumption need not be that whole historical eras should be cordoned off because of their budgets. There were poor churchmen in Baroque Rome, too.

A reappraisal of our materials today is also crucial. What makes most of the budget-Bauhaus buildings or botched pseudo-traditional churches even more awful than their predecessors is a simple inability to use good, permanent materials. Many building practices today are designed with a twenty-year lifespan for our buildings, and new buildings get older far quicker than ancient ones do. Good materials are often not cheap, but sometimes building cheap doesn't entail using rotten stopgaps. There may also be new materials worth developing in labs and test facilities which may have the best of old and new alike.

There are also the possibilities inherent in laser-cutting, three-dimensional computer sculpting and other industrial technologies which may place good ornament, even custom-made ornament, within the reach of Everyman, or every parish. I can't speak from experience, but I know such technologies exist out there somewhere, and remain unmined by the classicist. The problem is, the right people aren't talking and putting their heads together. The average builder has very little interest in classical theory, while the high-budget nature of most classical buildings today makes such experiments unnecessary in the current state of things. I'm not complaining--it's just the way things work. But someone somewhere needs to think about such things and get the ball rolling if we're going to make the classical--or the Gothic, or Romanesque, or some new style equal in beauty if not quite the same, for that matter--as hip, as popular, and as ubiquitous as it used to be.

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