Sunday, September 27, 2009

In Defense of Architecture

(Sacre Coeur)

I can already hear you questioning the need to defend architecture. But the seeds of this blog post were sown a few weeks ago during Mad Men (of course) when the team at Sterling Cooper was debating the tearing down of old Penn Station to make room for the soon to be (then) latest incarnation of Madison Square Garden. Lovable "hippie" Paul Kinsey attempts to defend it while the proponents of the razing invoke New York's very own doyenne of architecture, the amazing Ada Louise Huxtable, whom they bemoan as cranky and against the project. And let's face it, architecture and design can be showcases for the best and sometimes the worst of human aspirations.

That started the wheels turning. I had the honor of working with and meeting Ms. Huxtable while working on her book, On Architecture, which was published by Walker & Co last fall. One of the great pleasures of sifting through her volumes of critiques, columns, and books was the broadening of my appreciation for different eras and styles. Because her critic's eye is so well honed, she's able to persuade even the staunchest anti-modernism preservationist (me) about the values of modern architecture. When I expressed my surprise to her that I was really drawn to some of these buildings that I'd always pooh-poohed, she replied that it was what good critics did. They made you think, consider and reconsider. (As an aside, her post-9/11 pieces--from the WSJ--on the WTC and what to do with the space are striking when coupled with her writings on the construction of the Twin Towers in the early 70s.)

E.G: They wanted a photograph of Richard Meier's Hartford Seminary (photo below) for the book. I offered to go to take it myself since it was just up the road and I love taking pictures. I had seen some images of the building in other books and it looked like an oddly shaped igloo formed of ice bricks, so I wasn't expecting much. It was a beautiful spring day and when I got out of the car to wander the grounds for different angles, I found myself recounting some of the comments Ms. Huxtable had made about the design and about Meier's work. No one was more surprised than I was to find that I really liked and appreciated the building. It didn't move me the way Sacre Coeur did, or the Opera Garnier, but I found something in it to like and began to see why it was so highly acclaimed.


And to say that I could appreciate the lines/design of buildings like the Hartford Seminary is no small matter. I'm an architectural traditionalist from way back. I love the history and aesthetic of Beaux Arts, Classical Revival, Federal, Victorian Craftsman, and Prairie School structures. I've been a part of as many losing battles (the old Soldier's Memorial Field bathhouse: a WPA built colonial revival structure that looked like a smaller version of Mount Vernon!) as I have winning ones (the old Chateau Theatre, now a Barnes & Noble) in my work with preserving the built past. It's hard and often thankless work because there are always people who want to tear down the old and put up the new, with no thought at all for the historic importance of the building or even the city/site. And not every building is worthy of saving, or even structurally sound enough to save. But there are so many occasions when short sighted city councils bow to the whims and desires of greedy developers with shallow promises.

Then the other day I read a really good piece in the UK Telegraph by Simon Heffer on "Letting Beauty into Our Towns." (read the full piece HERE, you won't be sorry, and read some of the comments on the piece as well, interesting takes on the British aesthetic.) He referenced John Ruskin and his Seven Lamps of Architecture, which made my heart beat a little faster, I must say. (Invoking Ruskin is like waving an Hermes scarf at me or shaking an ice-filled martini mixer in my presence--it gets my attention! Ruskin was complicated and difficult--consider his feud with James MacNeil Whistler--but he is also to my mind the father of the modern preservation movement. No less than Tolstoy called Ruskin "one of the rare men who thinks with his heart." The Seven Lamps was an extended essay that was expanded later into The Stones of Venice and both books are well worth searching out for anyone with architectural leanings.) Ruskin aside, though, Heffer makes some very interesting points about the unfortunate bleak structures that were built under the mantle of modernism. Heffer is specifically pointing to the loss of the Euston Arch as the time when the "floodgates of modernism" were opened wide, which made me wonder what that watershed moment was for the US.

Surely there are bad buildings that have been built in every style, in every era. And clearly art and architecture are very personal visions. What pleases my eye may not interest you. But I think a case could be made for the loss of old Pennsylvania Station in NYC as our Euston Arch moment. The building erected in Penn Station's place is the completely unattractive behemoth of Madison Square Garden. While MSG has brought sporting entertainment to the Big Apple, not many would call it interesting to look at. In the years after MSG was built, so many office buildings of the 60s and 70s were glass and steel skyscrapers with no interest or ornament and surely no soul. Minimalist modern gone bad. Obviously not all bad architecture started with MSG nor did the preservation fights end with Jacqueline Onassis' heroic battle to save Grand Central Terminal. It's an ongoing struggle to keep important structures part of our communities.

Next time you're in a city, any city...look up. See what there is to see, what pleases your eye and why. It's fascinating to see how buildings have evolved right along with our society and values. There's something to be said here about no longer young dogs and new tricks,'s surprising what we can begin to appreciate when given the opportunity to learn more about a place or thing.  I'm coming around to some of Modernism's masters (a steps, you know) and can only hope that they'll have people fighting for their preservation in the coming decades as those architects and styles are indicative of our society--for better or worse.

Here are a few of my favorite buildings (my photos, as well)...I'd love to know what buildings/spots you love--what place do you photograph or sketch from every angle because it fascinates you?

(Grand Central Terminal)

(Paris Opera--Charles Garnier)

(St. Paul, MN --Landmark Center, St. Paul Cathedral in background)

(Classic white-steepled NE church)

(the stables @ Mayowood, where I first took riding lessons!)

No comments: