By John Lobell
From: Skyline, February 1980
Among the last public buildings in this country in the classical style were John Russell Pope’s National Gallery and Jefferson Memorial, both built in the late 1930s in Washington, D.C. They were received with a mixture of indifference and hostility as artifacts of a bygone ear. But the MoMA show, “The Architecture of the Ecole des beaux-Arts” in 1976; the recent Brooklyn Museum show, “The American Renaissance, 1876-1917” (to travel to Washington, san Francisco, and Denver during 1980); and the small show at Columbia’s Low Library on McKim, Mead, and White in December 1979 suggest that it may be time to rethink the place of classical architecture in America.
It is now apparent that there are, and have been since the late eighteenth century, two fundamentally different notions of modern architecture: integrated or organic architecture, and decorated construction. Or, in the language of Venturi et al ., ducks and decorated sheds. Integrated architecture culminates in the work of Wright, Mies, Le Corbusier, and Kahn. It is an architecture in which the aesthetic or appearance of the building is a consequence of the expression of its spaces, structure, and materials. In decorated construction, the aesthetic or appearance of the building is a consequence of the expression of its spaces, structure, and materials. In decorated construction, the aesthetic or appearance of the building was applied as a Gothic, renaissance, or other revival skin which ignored the spaces, structure, and materials of the building.
The history of modern architecture is usually characterized as the rise of integration and the decline of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century eclecticism, or decorated construction. In the light of integration, decorated construction was rejected as dishonest, or false, seemingly the consequence of an unsure age. But in the 1960’s this approach reappeared in the Palladian and Shingle-Style motifs on Robert Venturi’s buildings and was subsequently theoretically advocated in his books. Decorated construction is now widespread, and a careful examination of the pat forty years suggests that it may never have really disappeared. A lot of so-called integrated architecture may have been decorated construction, or at least constructed decoration.
Once the door is reopened on architecture as decorated construction, any form of decoration is likely to walk through, and many anticipate a new age of unbounded eclecticism. But of all possible systems of decoration, none can really compete with classical architecture and ornament. It has a 2,500 year tradition; it is the Western tradition.
Most of America’s architecture has been classical, that is, within the Greco-Roman and Renaissance-Baroque traditions. But the term American Renaissance is used to describe the period beginning in the 1870’s when Hunt and other who had studied at the Beaux-Arts began designing Fifth Avenue mansions for the Vanderbilts and others of the new rich. The American Renaissance was characterized by collaborations between architects, sculptors, mural painters, and craftspeople to create an overall effect to rival the European high Renaissance. Three-quarters of a million people attended the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair, and millions more attended it and a dozen others of similar splendor throughout the country during the next decade. The skills acquired in the professions and the appetite acquired by the public led to the creation of much of the civic architecture which still serves us today: buildings which are typically well-sited, well-proportioned, generous in circulation, ennobling and uplifting in effect, and serviceable to the programs of their institutions. The old Pennsylvania Station, Grand Central Station, the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Municipal Building are just a few in New York City. The urban design expression of the American Renaissance can be seen in the Columbia University campus, the Burnham Plan of Chicago, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, the Commission[‘s plan for Washington, D.C., and dozens of other City Beautiful projects.
While often spectacularly successful with the public, this architecture was not liked by the “avant-garde” among architects, artists, or critics. It had originated with the robber baron classes, it referred to European empires, and it was not explicitly responsive in style to industrialization. The most often stated criticism was that these buildings were not flexible enough to be responsive to modern institutions, but we now know that they have often proved more flexible than the “modern” buildings that have succeeded them.
The American Renaissance (dated by the Brooklyn Museum show from 1876 to 1917) is not given much attention in the orthodox history of modern architecture. In his Space, Time and Architecture, Sigfried Giedion manages to leave it out entirely, and with it all of America’s public buildings. Giedion has a strong chapter on the development of the skyscraper in Chicago, ending with the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. He does not show a picture of the Exposition, but quotes Louis Sullivan’s remark that “the damage wrought to this country by the Chicago World’s Fair will lat half a century.” He does not quote Henry Adams on the Fair: “Chicago was he first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start there.”\ In light of the recent renewal I=of interest in classical architecture, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to reread Henry Hope Reed’s The Golden City , and look into Classical America. On hearing about an organization called Classical America, one might think that its purpose is the study and preservation of classical buildings. While its concerns do include study and preservation, its primary concern is the promotion of building in the classical style today . Classical America sponsors classes and lectures. Henry Hope Reed is an architectural historian, Curator of Central Park, and member of the board of directors of Classical America. The Golden City was first published in 1959, and reissued by Norton in 1970 with a new foreword by the author. The body of the book presents the contribution of classical architecture to the American landscape. It begins with thirty-two facing pages, the left side showing a classical building, the right side a modern example of a similar building type. One is forced to admit hat in almost every case, the classical example is the superior building. Reed’s argument is that the Greco-Roman tradition, as interpreted by the Renaissance and Baroque, and again in neo-classical architecture, represents a 2,500 year tradition that was and remains the basic vocabulary of Western culture. He does not feel that he is advocating the return to an outdated style, but rather the use of a living vocabulary, one which has proved its adaptability and continued relevance.
In an appendix to The Golden City Reed gives his own account of the rise of modern architecture, which he calls “Picturesque Secessionism.” Reed traces the lineage of the “rationalism” which characterizes modern architecture from Laugier to Viollet-le-Duc to Sullivan and Wright. His analysis is very much the one widely held today, but it was exceptional for 1959, when it was first published. Particularly striking is his repeated remark that modern architecture is over–bold for 1959, although widespread today.
Most convincing to me in reed’s analysis of modern architecture is his description of the role of romanticism in modern thought. Reed points out that prior to the 1830’s the artist was like anyone else with a job to do. The romantic vision developing after that time set the artist apart as a “bohemian” and later as an “avant-garde,” and the criteria for art became progress and originality. These romantic notions are so fundamental to our modern point of view that we find it hard even to perceive them. In architecture, progress has been used to justify radical stylistic changes, even when the progress is not there. Mendelsohn’s Einstein tower, built in masonry to look like concrete, is only one of dozens of obvious examples. The importance of originality can be seen in the tendency of both history books and current magazines to represent examples which introduce new ideas rather than examples which are excellent. The predictable result is incoherence in the urban environment.
Reed is uncompromising in his advocacy of the classical, which for him must include an integration of sculpture, mural painting, and ornamental crafts with architecture. He rejects the stripped classicism of Paul Cret’s Folger Shakespeare Library as unnecessary and unacceptable compromise, and similarly criticizes Pope’s National Gallery for its lack of sculpture, particularly on the pediment. He prefers the central façade of New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Among Reed’s favorite modern classical buildings is Arthur Brown, Jr.’s San Francisco City Hall of 1915.
Reed and other contemporary advocates of classical architecture are careful to distinguish between the Beaux-Arts I particular and classical architecture in general. The Beaux-Arts refers to a system of training, and to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which many classical (and non-classical) American architects attended, but it is not only the source of classical interest. The Ecole was actually extremely rational in its approach, and an architect like Labrouste, who is in the lineage of modernism, is as much a product of its education as is Charles Garnier of the Paris Opera. In fat, for the period covered in the American Renaissance show, 1876-1917, America can boast more successful classical buildings than France, which became caught up in the rationalism of iron construction.
Most interest in classical architecture today is focused on systems of ornament. Although ornament is obviously important in architecture, so is the plan, and classical architecture probably has as much to offer from the wisdom stored in centuries of refinement of the organization of the plan as it does in systems of ornament. One of the most impressive things about the large Beaux-Arts drawings is the poche of the plan, often showing a confident handling of the site and a sensitive play of solid and void. The functional requirements of plan are also often carefully addressed in classical schemes because of an understanding of the limitations of close-fit functionalism. Thus, many classical buildings have an entrance, entrance hall, grand stair, galleries or nodes rather than corridors; and large, medium and small spaces. If each of the elements is handled well, a building which humanely serves a variety of uses can result. The plan of Pope’s National Gallery is one of the clearest organizations of entrance, transition, circulation, and gallery spaces I have experienced in any building.
To assert the current validity of classical architecture, one would of course have to show its current use. There are examples, mostly residences and additions to existing neo-classical buildings. Two recent additions are the 1977 wing of the Frick Collection by Harry Van Dyke with John Barrington Bayley and Fredrick Poehler, and the 1977 wing of the Morgan Library by Platt, Wycoff and Coles. The subtle Palladian motifs in Venturi and Rauch’s early work have blossomed into obvious classical ornament in such recent work as the Brant-Bermuda house, 1975; project for a Jazz Museum, 1976; project for a week-end house, 1977; and project for a house in Absocon, 1977 (all published in L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui , no. 197, June 1978).
Perhaps attracting the most current attention is John Blatteau, a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate who is now teaching at Penn and is President of the Philadelphia chapter of Classical America. Blatteau, who presented a 1976 project for a classical pavilion in Fairmount Park to a packed house at the Architectural League of New York, is now with the office of Ewing, Cole, Rizzio, Cherry and Parsky, in charge of design for a 100,000 square-foot hospital in Bayonne, New Jersey with a classical façade and lobby. Blatteau explains that in a large building, the percentage increase in the budget for a classical façade is small.
Will we see a re-emergence of classical architecture? I suspect that we will. If a dentist did to your teeth what modern architecture has done to our cities, you would sue. Architects and the public at large are growing tired of the incoherence and shoddiness of much modern design, and classical architecture offers a security and coherence which many now seek. It is also a lot of fun. The games with space and historical allusion that can be played within the classical vocabulary are infinitely superior to those possible within the modern vocabulary.
Does this mean that we should return to a classical architecture? That is, of course, a difficult question, the answer to which depends on where you stand to make such a judgment. It seems to me that you must stand where you can view culture as an organic whole. You may hold that our culture is a continuation of the Greco-Roman. In that case you may agree with Scott, in The Architecture of Humanism , that classical architecture allows us to relate to it through the empathy we have for the column. If you accept this humanist point of view, then it seems to me that the classical tradition has provided a more viable architecture than have the personal classical vocabularies of Mies and Le Corbusier.
On the other hand, you may hold with Spengler ( The Decline of the West ) that western European culture from the Middle Ages through today is fundamentally different from Greco-Roman culture, and is characterized by an experience of the flux of infinite space and time. I hold with Spengler, and as attractive as I find the classics, I suspect that my soul finds its home in the spatial complexities of the Gothic cathedral, Frank Lloyd Wright, and our technological and spiritual futures.