Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Subjunctive Nature of Beauty


Venus and Adonis
Luca Cambiaso - circa 1569
Contributed by Patrick Webb

"Were beauty under twenty locks kept fast, yet love breaks through and picks them all at last" - Venus and Adonis; William Shakespeare

I learned a good bit of Spanish and French growing up and went on to study Italian and Portuguese as an adult. There are many things to appreciate about the Latin languages but one I've always been particularly fascinated with is the extensive use of the subjunctive as a tense, mood or more amply described as a means of expression. It survives in diminished part in contemporary English; however, I would contend that the best examples be found in the Middle English of the Canterbury Tales or the Early Modern English of Shakespeare, the King James Bible and similar works.

The subjunctive frame of view exists outside of time, quite literally the subjunctive aims at underlying meaning. As such it lends itself to verbal expression of opinion, suggestion, desire and the transcendental. For good reason then it survives in English poetry where the conventions of language themselves are transcended, the use of words to push beyond the limitation of the "indicative" that is the proclamation of mere objective facts. As such it can be incredibly useful to express psychological states, conditions and behaviours such as pain, ecstasy and the oft subject of subjunctive expression: beauty.

English, Science and Beauty

English has evolved over the past 300 years into the unquestioned language of science. There are numerous factors attributed to this shift, much of them surrounding political and technological developments. Of interest, there is a correlation between the ascendancy of English as the lingua franca of science and the diminishment of the subjunctive in writing and particularly speech. Of course, this correlation does not necessarily entail causation. Nevertheless, my sense is that they may very well be related phenomena. Every aspect of the modern world has become more scientific, more rational and empirically rigourous which drastically has transformed the way we think and express ourselves. This is especially evident in the English speaking world. We tend towards the indicative, we live our lives, organise our societies according to objective facts. For the 21st century, that well describes the methodology of a now worldwide scientific community.

Science is largely an empirical endeavour, at least in its daily routine. That is to say the practise of science is about measuring the world. What matters? There is a bias in empirical study quite literally towards matter, the material. Matter itself (along with radiation and force) is quantifiably measurable. Science essentially makes the claim that what it can measure is the best representation of reality. Although the claim is symbolic, often it is conflated with reality itself, science as soothsayer. Interestingly, the etymological root of the ostensibly distinct English words "magic, matter and measure" is Indo-European, specifically the  Sanskrit "Māyā" (माया) which binds all of these meanings together such that the supposed subject and object of measurement is intrinsically wrapped up with the concept of illusion.

This pursuit of a scientific classification of beauty has been attempted for the past couple of centuries and continues today where an initial question inevitably arises, "Is beauty real"? The scientific method automatically attempts to determine reality-potential by asking, "Is beauty measurable?"  It's been a frustration too as will always be the case when applying scientific methods to anything immaterial. The first challenge science faces is one of categorisation and objectification, "What is beauty?" The next, "Does this defined object we're calling beauty exist and what do we mean by exist?" Scientific study of beauty has been abandoned repeatedly under the justification that if it can't be defined and measured beauty can not be "real" and therefore not an appropriate subject of scientific inquiry. Other scientists have sought a work around by proposing various limiting definitions of beauty, extractions which are perhaps verifiable through statistical analysis though none have seemed to capture what beauty is exactly. Within the field of psychology it has been proposed that beauty might be relative, each individual has or develops his own conceptual framework; whereas some sociologists have posited that beauty may be a mass phenomenon, something that can be witnessed in differentiation of tastes across cultures and through time. I find it fascinating that when I'm reading Shakespeare or contemplating a Renaissance painting e.g. I experience beauty completely but when I try to express the experience verbally, attempt to quantify it or subject it to logical analysis my results are desiccated; I'm incapable of expressing my experience in scientific terms or even get very far linguistically. Yet, I continue to act in the world "as if" beauty were very much real.

Beauty and Pain

Is pain real? From a scientific perspective that's a difficult question. It has many of the same challenges to scientific analysis previously raised in regard to beauty. But we sure as hell act as if it is real. In fact, it may be the defining trait of human existence, certainly a primary motivating force. No, I don't think we're ready to deny pain just because we can't clearly define or objectify it. Pain as a word can encompass entire ranges of experience. There are certainly psychological pains (loss, sadness, etc.),  conceptions of abstracted thought. Likewise we can perceive pain through our senses: visual, auditory but noteworthy amongst them being tactile pains, those associated with our sense of touch.

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
Gian Lorenzo Bernini - circa 1652
Even restricted to touch, pain as an experience defies easy classification. There is the pain of pressure from a squeeze or impact. The pain of burning from searing heat. The sharp pain of a razor's incision. And even the incredible sensitivity immediately following the climax of orgasm. We're unclear if the latter is pleasure or pain; yet we moan, pull away and even scream as if we were in agony. Although we might tend to think of pleasure as the opposite of pain, I think this may be not quite right. Pain's opposite might not be pleasure but beauty and strictly speaking not its opposite, rather pain's counterpart. Together they are the ontological fundamentals, foundational aspects of what it is to be human. Not referential to anything else they are like the bedrock of the soul, manifestations of a subjunctive will that lies beneath conscious thought. Although they can be temporarily masked from consciousness with great effort by abstraction and self delusion both pain and beauty remain ever present.

Why dull the pain or deny the beauty when you can feel potent and alive as you imbibe it all in? The traditional arts of painting, sculpture, music, craft, theatre etcetera are proven, effective means for revealing beauty and pain as the human expression of the subjunctive, underlying, ineffable experience of the foundational realities that transcend conscious thought.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

One Photo Says it all About the Current State of Public Art and Architecture


Contributed by Michael Rouchell


In the background, barely visible among the urban clutter, is a bronze statue of a soldier on a granite pedestal. It commemorates the American soldiers that fought in the Spanish American  War. It represents what once was considered "public art".

Right next to it is a street car stop shelter that is too close to the statue, and obscures it  completely if you are approaching from the other direction. The shelter is completely over  designed; it appears to be a simple structure trying to be more complicated than it has to be. As  if it couldn't be any more complicated, there are solar panels added to the roof, perhaps to  please the green energy promoters.

In the foreground is a recently installed "piece" called "Endless Picnic" by Bob Tannen. It  consists of wooden picnic tables stacked on top of each other and is supposed to represent our  culture of festivals and cuisine, while giving nod to Constantin Brancusi's "Endless Column" part of an abstract Romanian World War I Memorial in Romania that no one around here would  be familiar with. There's a sign that explains the "art" for those that aren't part of the art  cognoscenti.

It saddens me that our public officials were duped into thinking that this is a work of "art". What  talent it takes to neatly stack wooden picnic tables! Perhaps an out-of- control SUV will one day take out the "Endless Picnic" but in the mean time we will have to wait for it to slowly  deteriorate. What's even sadder is that several genuine works of public art -- the kind that  requires the talent of a sculptor to make -- are threatened with permanent removal because of  political correctness, while more of these kitsch pieces are added to our public spaces.


Contributed by Michael Rouchell

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Traditional Classical or Not: Accept or Reject?

Robert E. Lee Taylor, Lambeth Field (former football field), 1911-13

Contributed by Carroll William Westfall 
Professor Emeritus 
School of Architecture 
University of Notre Dame

What standard must be met to be considered part of the classical tradition? A canon holds clearly accepted examples that act as models for current practice. There are also many variations, some are more successful than others, but should they also be considered models? 

I offer here a contribution is to stimulate discussions in further contributions, visual or verbal or both.

The question is usually guided by a style identified as classical and exemplified by canonic examples. Beyond style there is another meaning for the term traditional classicism. It links traditional with classical and passes judgment about quality relative to some standard that belongs to architecture as the highest achievement of the art of building, a judgment that pertains as much to the Gothic style as to the Classical style. It might even be stretched to reach a modern style if has managed to make a distinction between the art of building and architecture, a topic that falls within the range of what I am proposing here. 

Rendering a judgment about whether or not a particular example ought to serve as a model for traditional classicism needs more than words, but because images to do not speak for themselves words are also needed. To that end let me offer some images and these words as the framework for my comments: 

A traditional building is one that draws on the accumulated experience with the art of building that is familiar to the architect and to those who see and use the building, an experience that has been constantly revised by innovations to address then-current circumstances, past and present, with architecture used to designate the achievement of excellence in using that tradition.
I leave the standards of excellence to the discussion of the examples. 

Here I offer two examples of the columnar orders, the most conspicuous element in traditional classicism, and I focus on the top where we find the most easily identifiable elements in each of the five classical orders.

In the art of building the orders developed vernacular practices that identify the tectonics involved in transferring horizontal loads to vertical supports and the many other tasks involved in building something that is stable, useful, and delightful to behold. The art of architecture has celebrated and clarified those tasks to provide convincing expressions of stability and to the building’s task with ornament concentrated at the joining of materials to provide a convincing representation of the task being performed. This role draws on many techniques, among them proportioning and using the fall of light to reveal profiles where materials meet one another and the surrounding air. 

It also draws on traditional associations carried by each of the five orders. While there is no one specific association for each, they do fall into commonly suggestive ranges--for example, Doric equals strength. 

Here are two distinctive treatments of the tops of a Doric order for consideration.

Capital, staircase return, Castle Garden
Prague Castle, Joze Plecnik 1920-34
ACCEPT: Here we have an ingenious interpretation of the various structural roles of the canonic Doric order within the tradition that interpreted it as the imitation of vernacular wooden construction. All the expected parts are present: column shaft, echinus, abacus, and the three parts of the entablature: architrave, frieze, and cornice. The entire assemblage’s treatment is appropriate in the stair landing in a passage that makes the transition between two genre, the formal palace court above and palace garden down below. The materials doing the most rugged work are set apart and given an appropriately rough surface. Mutules carry the two stones steps while the beam projects into the open. Its let-in reveal, although rare in the canon, celebrates its structure role. The limitation of profiles to the ring within the let-in necking acknowledges that because it is within the staircase the sunlight will never penetrate, a further sensitivity to the most important aspects of the classical tradition that here are given exquisite and original interpretations. 
Castle Garden
Prague Castle, Joze Plecnik 1920-34
REJECT: Here the limit beyond which the forms of familiar elements must not go has been exceeded. While it is a clever interpretation of the classical, its models mere willful originality. Its acceptance within traditional classicism would encourage others to take similar liberties and undermine the canon’s role as guide to traditional classicism.  








ACCEPT: Here the baseless Doric is rendered in modern materials and stripped down to its bare essentials: it is up-to-date classicism. A slight reveal where the column shaft meet the capital is enough to show they are separate pieces. The missing abacus finds compensation in the echinus’ curling up to meet the beam where a simple band on top makes an adequate representation for the cornice that is consistent with the other abbreviations. 

VMDO with HOK, John Paul Arena, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, 2004-06   

REJECT: There is no understanding of what architecture demands from the art of building. It probably responds to the client’s demand for a continuation of the Doric, the Order of masculine exertions, in a colonnade for an athletic facility at a university with Jefferson’s famous colonnades. It lacks the required expression, celebration, and elaboration of tectonics and attention to proportion and the role of light and is more about the architect than about the tradition of the classical. We can only guess what it shows about the architect? Did the architect think that the client would think it is classical but his modernist colleagues will see it isn’t, and is that why he placed exposed aggregate exactly where the beautiful trace of the echinus’ shadow would fall? Is this what an architect trained in modernism thinks satisfies the canon? Or is this an ingenious way to use modern technology and materials to “do the classical”? Or is it cynicism, or ignorance, or simply a lack of talent? Modernist often complain that the classical is now verboten because it is fascist, but did the architect know that Italian fascist buildings usually lack an abacus? Or is this quite simple something more random than studied? 

VMDO, Colonnade at Scott Stadium, 1998


Contributed by Carroll William Westfall 
Professor Emeritus 
School of Architecture 
University of Notre Dame


Thursday, November 17, 2016

Counter Proposal: Hampton Inn Elysian Fields Ave, New Orleans

Contributed by Michael Rouchell 
founding member of the Louisiana Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art

Proposed Elevation Rendering
Image courtesy of Alecha Architecture
INTRODUCTION

The historic Faubourg Marigny neighborhood is located immediately down river from New Orleans’ Vieux Carre historic district.  A few weeks ago, a hotel project was announced for a prominent site on Elysian Fields Avenue, a scenic, tree-lined boulevard that extends from the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.  The renderings depicted a standard, suburban-styled Hampton Inn.  The design of the exterior is typical of a recent design trend where the facades are broken down into various mini-facades, each given a different architectural treatment, color, material, and cornice height, and each is offset from the other to create an irregular street wall.  The problem with this design approach is that each mini-façade is incomplete, lacking an entrance, or compositional focal point.  The overall building scheme appears to be more of a collage rather than a coherent, architectural composition.

Proposed ElevationsImage courtesy of Alecha Architecture

In response to neighbors’ desire to have a more traditional design, Architect, Francisco Alecha said there's a "tension between making it look like the neighborhood and making it distinctly clear that it's new."

"The building should not pretend to be old," he said. "It would be deceiving."

The building will be reviewed by the New Orleans Historic Districts and Landmarks Commission (HDLC), and more than likely the current design will be discarded or revised in favor of something more modernist.  The HDLC is not one to force an architect to design a traditional design that “pretends to look old” and would more likely persuade the architect to design a modernist design that fits the neighborhood.  The problem is that a modernist design at such a large scale would never fit in with the neighborhood.

Proposed Elevation Rendering
Image courtesy of Alecha Architecture

THE SITE 

The site is located on Elysian Fields Avenue, and is bounded by Decatur Street, Marigny Street and Chartres Street, and is one block from the Mississippi River. Elysian Fields Avenue runs north and south, from Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River at Esplanade Avenue. Esplanade Avenue forms the downriver boundary of the Vieux Carre’.  The site is industrialized because of its proximity to the river.  The block that is across Decatur Street, and nearest to the river, has a large electrical transformer sub-station.  This block of Decatur Street is very industrial in character, whereas Elysian Fields Avenue calls out for something more formal in character.  Towards the rear of the site are smaller residential, wood-framed houses. 

Without the use of a survey or plot plan showing the exact dimensions of the site, I had to use Google Earth’s measuring device to scale the site.  It appears that the site is approximately 115 feet fronting on Elysian Fields Avenue and 310 feet on Decatur Street.  The other site dimensions are unknown, and for the purposes of this exercise are unimportant.

THE COUNTER PROPOSAL 

The building is configured into an elongated “L” with the short leg of the “L” fronting on Elysian Fields Avenue, and the long leg of the “L” facing Decatur Street.  The width of the building is 65 feet wide to accommodate parking on part of the lower level, and the column bays are 30 feet wide.  A 30 foot wide column bay supports two 15 foot wide rooms above, and creates 3 parking spaces.  The rooms facing Elysian Fields Avenue are approximately 16 feet wide, which allows for a 7 bay façade on Elysian Fields Avenue.  The 7 bay façade is easy to divide into a tripartite composition by allowing the center 3 bays to project forward slightly.

Counter Proposed 1st Floor Plan
Image courtesy of Michael Rouchell
Counter Proposed Typical Floor Plan
Image courtesy of Michael Rouchell

All of the facades are stucco finished, with the façade facing Elysian Fields Avenue given more detailing and the side facing Decatur Street being treated more utilitarian. The Elysian Fields façade has a water table, a cornice at the second floor line, quoins at the corners, and is topped by a simple cornice. The well appointed façade treatment wraps the Decatur Street side for the first full bay.  From there back the façade is reduced to simple, flat bands that echo the cornice and water table lines on the front.

The entrance is defined by 5 arches between Tuscan columns and pilasters located at the center of the Elysian Fields façade.

Counter Proposed Elevations
Image courtesy of Michael Rouchell

The design shows a more hierarchical approach to design, where the façade facing Elysian Fields Avenue is more dressed up, with the entrance area having the most traditional details, and the sides and rear are more utilitarian.  This is a more common way of designing buildings that have limited budgets and allows more money to be spent on the front and the entrance, where it is able to make the most impact.

CONCLUSION

This counter proposal is intended to demonstrate how easy it is to incorporate traditional design into a project to make it fit within a traditional neighborhood.  Often, such design solutions are immediately dismissed as being too expensive to execute, or requiring building skills that are unavailable today.  To the contrary, a traditional design can often be the simplest solution, and with a hierarchical approach to design, a modest construction budget can be had.

The façades shown are a first pass at the design, meaning that there have been no revisions or refinements.  If further developed, this proposal could be developed into a really fine looking hotel building that fits within its historic neighborhood.    


Contributed by Michael Rouchell 
founding member of the Louisiana Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Importance of Publications

Contributed by Carroll William Westfall
Professor Emeritus 
School of Architecture 
University of Notre Dame

Benjamin H. Marshall, Chicago Architect
by John Zukowsky and Jean Guarino
     The reviews of Léon Krier’s Architecture Choice or Fate by Patrick Webb and of Henry Howard: Louisiana’s Architect by Michael Rouchell recently remind us of the important role that publications play in promoting and propagating classical architecture.
      Over the last few decades a number of monographs have made available the work of several important architects from the first few decades of the previous century, mainly in major east coast cities.
      Every major American city and many minor ones had architects in those decades who produced superb classical public and private buildings that the nation’s new wealth and social order called into existence. Classical architects would be well served if they were better known.
      Attention to them so far has come mainly from preservationists who categorize them according to the criteria that can lead to their designation as landmarks. This is a valuable undertaking, but it carries with it a peril and a deficiency.
      The peril is that in the currently dominant practices in preservation the designation will describe a style that was of its time that must be distinguished from any alterations or additions that are made in our time or some later time, a peril that lies beyond the scope of this comment.
       The deficiency is that the buildings are treated as treasures locked away in a past and irrelevant to the concerns of present-day architects. Paying attention to them will inhibit the creativity expected of them.
       Publications of those achievements is perhaps the best way to remedy this deficiency. Beautifully produced books and other outlets including this web site can enlarge the audience of the general public, architects, and potential clients about how satisfying a well-done classical building can be.
      The situation is vastly improved since 1972 when I arrived to teach in Chicago. I quickly learned that Chicago’s architecture groupies formed a cult that knew about the World’s Columbian Exposition that Louis Sullivan hated, Richardson’s long-gone Marshall Field Warehouse that had inspired Sullivan, and Sullivan’s role as the lieber Meister of Frank Lloyd Wright while the more professionally-minded knew about their predecessors among the short-lived but seminal Chicago School of Architecture and Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago.
      The day after arriving in the “city of broad shoulders” I paid a visit to the icons of architectural history, but at Sullivan’s Old Stock Exchange all I found was the hole in the ground where its basement had been. Its destruction was for Chicago what Penn Station’s demolition was for New York. More personally, for the first time I realized that among the icons I had learned about when completing my doctorate with its focus on architecture and art from the Renaissance to the present day were some buildings that are mere objects of commerce. “Chicago doesn’t talk, it builds,” was the slogan in the architecture community.
John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium
designed by Marshall and Fox
circa 1926
      I became involved in the preservation movement that was documenting a wider corpus of buildings. Meanwhile, Post Modernism was taking hold, which led architects to take a more direct interest in old buildings. In 1979 the Chicago Architectural Club was revived, and it underwrote my expenses to explore the work of Benjamin Howard Marshall (1874-1944), the architect who had built the most opulent and extravagantly classical buildings in Chicago. There had recently been so little interest in him his papers had been sold to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. The result was my brief article on Marshall in The Chicago Architectural Journal [II (1982), 8 27].
      A decade or more later Jane LePauw and her husband Didier who had long lived in Paris were so impressed by Marshall’s superb understanding of French École des Beaux Arts design they launched the Benjamin Marshall Society. Under Jane’s leadership the Society sponsored the publication of Benjamin H. Marshall, Chicago Architect with John Zukowsky and Jean Guarino as authors. Lavishly illustrated, its Acanthus Press publication in 2015 was underwritten by the Society and by Richard H. Driehaus who had bought and restored an excellent auditorium by Marshall; it is the site of Driehaus Prize festivities.
Murphy Memorial today
      Intrigued by this American classicism I took an interest in the virtually unknown Alfred S. Alschuler whose firm was the era’s second most productive. I wrote an article about his work and its place in the cultural, urban, and architectural climate in Chicago that was filling in the pieces in the Burnham Plan, but when it was published in Threshold: Journal of the School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Chicago [5/6 (1991), 90 102] where it would be truncated without my agreement into a mere review of Alschuler’s work.
      The then Dean had promised me that I would have an opportunity to publish the other half, but nothing came of that. In the meantime I had moved in 1982 to the University of Virginia where I published the excised half as "The Classical American City in Image and in Chicago," in Modulus 23 The University of Virginia Architectural Review [(1995), 52-71.
      Living and working next to Thomas Jefferson’s academical village gave me additional insight into two questions I had formulated in Chicago: Was Burnham’s plan Renaissance or Modern? and, When did the Renaissance end in architecture? I developed sensible, unpublished answers that were merely the exercises of an historian. The scales fell from my eyes when I realized, prompted by Demetri Porphirios and Léon Krier, whom Dean Jaquelin Robertson had brought to Virginia during my first year there, that classicism is not a style and that history and practice are the same endeavor. Ever since then I have sought to provide a pathway back and forth between old buildings and new ones that allow architects to contribute to the common good rather than merely stroke their narcissistic egos and flatter the narrow band of people who flutter around the work of starchitects.
      So why are publications important? Only if people know the alternative can they seek it. So find the Benjamin Marshalls and Alfred Alschulers in the cities all across America and let the people know about them.


Contributed by Carroll William Westfall
Professor Emeritus 
School of Architecture 
University of Notre Dame

Friday, November 4, 2016

Book Review: Architecture Choice or Fate

Contributed by Patrick Webb
first published on Real Finishes February 24th, 2016

Architecture Choice or Fate
by Léon Krier


So, I'll confess to being a voracious reader and I've been offering book recommendations for years; however, I thought it time to offer a little more insight into why I find these resources valuable beyond the brief blurb with the addition of proper book reviews on this blog.

Initially, a word on the author Léon Krier. Curiously we've never met although I've been one degree of separation via dozens of colleagues. He is a very accomplished traditional urban planner and architect in his own right. However, I believe his legacy is being defined by his insightful books, lectures, essays. Along with Christopher Alexander, I firmly believe Léon will be remembered as the most accomplished architectural theorist of the 20th century (Sorry Le Corbusier, your ideas might have spread like a Utopian plague across the developed world but I'm only considering agents of positive change). If there is one advantage that I would tilt in Léon's favour is that his ideas are simply explained, accessible even to the architectural novice. Architecture Choice or Fate is laid out in this easy to understand language accompanied with humorous illustrations that effectively convey the spirit of his message.

Several chapters of the book are devoted to laying out how traditional architecture and town planning is entirely compatible and more importantly socially beneficial in the modern world. I would like to focus on two chapters of particular personal interest treating with a critique of Modernism and his appeal for traditional craft.

Critique of a Modernist Ideology

The "Zeitgeist", literally translated from German as the "time ghost", more or less understood as the "spirit of an age" has been from the outset a guiding principle of Modernism. Implicit in this idea is the principle of obsolescence, in the author's description "Architecture that claims to be exclusively of its age...has its sell-by date engraved into it." And what is the interpretation of the spirit of our "Modern" age? Mass production, revolution and continuous warfare? Must our architecture embody industrial uniformity or alternatively reflect fear and uncertainty? Krier's informed opinion humanises the matter: "Authentic architecture is not the incarnation of the spirit of an age but of the spirit, full stop."

The Universal Usefulness of a Modern Craft Industry or the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The mere fact that Léon concludes his book with a chapter of the inherent value and necessity of traditional craft for any architecture that would be considered worthwhile, that recognition gives him high marks from me. Very few architects, even so-called traditional or classical architects, will acknowledge the material value or embrace the moral responsibility of an architecture that uplifts the human spirit not just in its appearance or use but in the vast multitudes physically tasked with its creation. Here he chastises two establishments who have suppressed traditional craft skills. First, the academically led institution of Historic Preservation that treats traditional architecture as an irreplaceable relic and in cultist adherence to the precepts of the Modernist principles laid out in the Venice Charter wastes funds and energy fetishising over ruins falling to dust. Léon offers a humane counter-perspective: "The value of ancient monuments does not reside in their material age but essentially in the quality of the ideas that they embody. An identical reconstruction with the same quality materials, forms and techniques that were used in the original has more value that an original in ruins...Unlike a painting by one irreplacable artist, a building is not usually a totally personal creation."

He further continues to unveil his criticisms against industrial ideology and their influence on public education policy in the Western world: "Neither the state nor industry will in future provide enough jobs to employ the utterly dependent, disoriented and confused masses released for work after fifteen years of obligatory theoretical and impractical general schooling. Ideally the goal of obligatory schooling should be to make people independent and reliant on their individual gifts and vocations rather than transforming them into dependent, passive and depressed masses...The supression of traditional craft skills represents a catastrophic impoverishment of human self-expression, a limitation of human capacity for independence and liberty."

There are of course several other chapters regarding town and city planning as well as traditional architecture that offer comparable insights. The entire work is characterised by a concern for the human spirit. In conclusion I would heartily recommend Architecture Choice or Fate as a masterfully organised, beautifully illustrated, and at under 200 pages an easy and manageable read that should be an obligatory addition for every craftsman's personal library.


Contributed by Patrick Webb
first published on Real Finishes February 24th, 2016

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Contemporary Traditional Architecture and the Need for Including Its Instruction in Architectural Education

Contributed by Anthony O. James 
Buffalo, NY

Figure 1: SmartDwelling I, Stephen Mouzon, 2009
Contemporary Traditional Architecture

When traditional architecture is mentioned, the first thing likely to come to mind for many people is the old farmhouses they see on drives through the country. That is certainly one definition that makes sense; however, contemporary expressions of traditional architecture go far beyond that. I have chosen to call such expressions “contemporary traditional architecture.”

The adjective “contemporary” clearly indicates that this type of architecture is current; it is the “traditional” adjective that needs further definition. Traditional in this context means the designer is drawing on forms, materials, and stylistic influences that have gone before, whether from the local region or elsewhere. Another description is that of architect Stephen Mouzon, author of “The Original Green,” who describes what he calls “living tradition” in the context of sustainability as “the collective intelligence behind . . . sustainable buildings and sustainable places.” Historic buildings and places, or new buildings and places designed using lessons learned in the past, represent this living tradition. 

When used today, this kind of design does not myopically look back at the past as some golden age (although examples of such can be found). Rather, it looks to the future, remembering the lessons of the past, and building on them. A design by Mouzon was widely touted when it was illustrated in a Wall Street Journal article titled “The Green House of the Future,” April 17, 2009 (Figure 1). Another example is the 2002 design by Robert A.M. Stern Architects for the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee (Figure 2). This building responds very sensitively to its context, without copying any building that came before.

Figure 2: International Storytelling Center, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, 2002

Where does contemporary traditional architecture fit in the broader scheme of contemporary architectural design?

For the past several generations, architectural education has, for the most part, emphasized the new, the radical. The point is often made that if a building is not “of our time” it is retrograde and irrelevant, giving in to popular taste, and thus suspect. There is no sense of continuing a noble tradition, updating it through creativity within a framework of tried and true design methodologies. In the words of Roger Lewis, a Washington Post architecture commentator, “Today almost all practicing architects in the United States are, in the broadest sense, modernists. . . Their talents and aesthetic tastes vary widely, but few [architects] design buildings replicating architecture of the past or buildings festooned with historic motifs and ornamentation borrowed from previous centuries.” (Washington Post, May 18, 2012) The emphasis is rather on personal expression and seeking something so new and creative that no one else has ever thought of it before.

Creativity is, of course, a good and necessary thing. But if a client is looking for a traditional design today, what do they ask for? Where do they turn? How do they find an architect who is conversant in designing forms and details they will be happy with? comfortable with? proud of? Will the architect say, “What do you mean by traditional architecture?” Should they look for architects who call themselves classicists, because that title seems to indicate an architect may have an understanding of tradition? But what, after all, is tradition? Is there such a thing as “new traditionalism”? or has it never died?

The argument can be made that tradition has in fact died, that there is no longer an unbroken line of designers following in the footsteps of their fathers. And in a broad sense that is true, which leads to the coining of the term contemporary traditional architecture. But there is a very small cadre of practitioners who have followed in the traditions of their predecessors, and continued to design using the lessons of the past. Don Swofford in Virginia and F.L. Bissinger in Pennsylvania come to mind. But a more sizable group brought up on modernist principles, has rebelled against those limits, and seeking a source of harmonious design, found it in tradition. Robert Stern is perhaps the best known of this group, although he also embraces modernism for certain projects where the firm deems it appropriate, and when dean of the architecture school at Yale, encouraged the presentation of a wide variety of views.

Some may find the questions listed above provocative; others may find them irrelevant. It depends on the architect’s point of view. In all likelihood, however, questions of style will remain relevant to clients. Some clients look to their architect to lead them in matters of design and taste. Others already know what they are comfortable with. Institutional clients may have a stylistic given, for instance a desire to link to a style that already defines a campus, projecting stability and longevity (Figure 3), or a look that says “I am Up-to-Date/Cutting Edge” and thus my school/organization is, too (Figure 4). These options can be seen as a battle between the traditional and the avant-garde, although in architecture today the avant-garde is practically mainstream and the traditional is side-lined and often ridiculed as a “pastiche.” Roger Lewis, in fact, starts the article quoted above by stating “The nation’s capital is the only American metropolis where debates still break out periodically between architectural traditionalists and architectural modernists,” and then goes on to belittle the traditionalists. Buildings like MIT’s Stata Center usually get the attention and the press, while buildings like the new law school at Washington University usually fly under the radar.

Figure 3: Washington University Social Sciences and Law Building
Kallman McKinnell &Wood, 2008
Figure 4: MIT Stata Center, Frank Gehry, 2004













A further pairing of educational examples is likewise striking (Figures 5 and 6): Quinlan Terry’s Downing College Library, Cambridge, UK (1992), and Will Alsop’s Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto (2004).

Figure 5: Downing College Library, Quinlan Terry, 1992

Figure 6: Ontario College of Art and Design, Will Alsop, 2004















What does the past have to teach us?  

The past is a rich mine of inspiration. There is much we can learn from the architecture and building traditions that have gone before us. Architects can draw from ideas of beauty, harmony and proportion that have stood the test of time and create designs that will be accepted, even loved, by clients, and the general public.  Such acceptance will contribute to the longevity of such buildings in the future.  Just as the greenest building today is the one that already exists so in the future the greenest buildings will be those that are adaptable enough to accommodate future space needs but also “lovable” enough to be objects for future preservation.

Sustainable construction techniques and design ideas that have served past buildings well and lasted for centuries have not been out-dated by the latest technology. The 1970s (or 1990s, or even 2010s) office with fixed windows becomes a stifling box during a power outage. Natural ventilation, use of local materials, appropriate solar orientation, flexible planning, all these are hallmarks of traditional architecture of the past, and all are certainly appropriate for contemporary design.

The “lovability” variable, however, is not necessarily seen as important, or even understood. Yet, when a building is lovable, it is less likely to be torn down and thus becomes greener; it becomes a more sustainable design. A building that today has all the latest high-tech energy-saving equipment will, in the future when its equipment becomes obsolete, the appearance of the building is no longer popular (if it ever was), and people would rather have it torn down, no longer be sustainable design. Instead, it becomes an example of conspicuous waste should it be demolished.

Why Should We Consider Teaching Contemporary Traditional Architecture?  

Gary Brewer, a partner at Robert Stern’s office, wrote in a post to the Traditional Architecture listserve that “Practicing architecture always has a way of balancing grand intellectual theories with an on-the-street pragmatic reality of what it takes to actually build.” And what are some of the aspects of that pragmatic reality? Some things are what we might expect, such as “value engineering,” financial realities, building code issues, or building material considerations.

But another factor architects often face, is client desires and expectations. A client may desire a design they are comfortable with, which may mean the style of building they grew up with, or what they think is appropriate to their context. And often that means something traditional. Unfortunately many, if not most, architects who come out of architecture school today are not sure how to approach such a design.  Thus, we get many “sort-of-traditional” buildings that really are extremely awkward, if not down-right ugly, buildings that have not learned from the past. Many, many examples could be cited. A local example is the new fire station in Clarence Center (Figure 7).  Its context is a historic village, and the client’s desire was to have a design that related to the village; however, how to accomplish that goal seems to have been a mystery to the designer. Thus, we have parts that do not relate well to one another, squat proportions one place and elongated features elsewhere, ambiguous detailing (what exactly do those bands at the top of the piers represent?), and a general lack of unity.  The designer may well have benefited from having a course in traditional design in school.

Figure 7: Clarence Center Fire Station, designer unknown

Figure 8: Illustration from
Best Western Design Manual
The hotel building type has a long and distinguished history, but those lessons seem to have been lost over the past 50 years or so.  Design guidelines for many hotel chains today show egregious examples of not learning from the past when they attempt to describe how to design a traditionally styled hotel (Figure 8, an illustration from the Best Western chain’s design manual). Several examples from the Homewood Suites chain illustrate the same problem, which seems to be ubiquitous in the industry (Figures 9 and 10).  But is it entirely the industry’s fault? Or do the architecture schools bear some of the blame?

Figure 9: Homewood Suites, Slidell, LA

Figure 10: Homewood Suites, Tallahassee, FL

Pitched roofs, chimneys, sash windows, dormers, pilasters, cornices, etc., figure into the design vocabulary in these buildings, but these elements are used awkwardly, without an understanding of the traditions from which they come.  The resulting buildings would not make anyone’s list of favorites.  Retail buildings, such as shopping centers and malls, are another building type where clients often require a traditional style, but the results are similar to those in the hotel industry. This problem is not just limited to the United States and Canada, as the Versace store in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Figure 11) shows (although this may have been designed by an American architect). Here clumsy proportions, extraneous details, and an awkward and out of scale entablature overpower the attempt to relate to the historic architecture in Jeddah. Even a well-respected architect such as Charles Moore, when designing a delightful set of Post Modern columns for an addition to the Williams College Museum of Art, topped them with a bland, ill-proportioned stucco box that cheapens the whole design (Figure 12). Religious buildings are another arena in which poor traditional design is often found.

Figure 11: Versace Store, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Figure 12: Williams College Museum of Art Addition, Charles Moore, 1986

Figure 13: Russian McMansion
Much residential design in the United States is not done by architects, but by unlicensed architectural designers and builders, who often buy their plans from plan services or out of catalogs. The examples of poor traditional designs found in such sources are appalling. This problem is not limited to North America, either, as “McMansions” exhibiting the same awkwardness, poor proportions, and cartoonish detailing (Figure 13) can even be found in Russia.
Figure 14: American McMansion

Figure 15: House on Cape Cod

Albert, Righter & Tittman, 2006  
Residential design is a rich field for the exercise of traditional design as so many residential clients prefer that. The unfortunate part of that dynamic is that there are so few architects working today who are really knowledgeable in how to design a satisfying, literate, well-detailed traditional home. The woeful tale of “McMansions” spreading across the suburbs of America (Figure 14) has become part of popular lore, but the logical cure for it, traditional design carried out by knowledgeable practitioners, seems beyond reach because the majority of architects and designers apparently do not have the knowledge or education to carry out such design. There are firms today, however, who can do an admirable job when a traditional design is requested. Albert, Righter & Tittmann of Boston is one such (Figure 15). Archer and Buchanan of West Chester, Pennsylvania, (Figure 16), and Bobby McAlpine of Atlanta (Figure 17) are two more.
 
Figure 16: House in Devon, Archer and Buchanan

Figure 17: House by Bobby McAlpine

The case for teaching traditional design can thus be made on several fronts, including most importantly sustainability and numerous client requests for traditional design. Just because the public seems to favor traditional design in numerous surveys may not be sufficient cause to pursue and promote this approach, but certainly its other benefits, including its sustainability, beauty and lovability are.

 
Contributed by Anthony O. James 
Buffalo, NY