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


  1. Does looking at classicism as a style ensure an inferior building? Architecturally I think the Renaissance ended with modernism in the 1930-40's but I think those who think about style more than motivations might say different. I'm curious what you think.

    1. When I lived in Chicago and was still shackled by the concept of style I concluded that the Renaissance ended in 1927 when Holabird and Root presented the plan for a skyscraper apartment building (not built), perhaps 40 stories or more and much above anything else, on East Lake Shore Drive, so tall its details would not have been discernable from the ground and therefor an “inhuman” height and the end of humanist architecture. I commented on something to that effect a few weeks ago on the tradarch list when tall buildings were being discussed. Since my Chicago days I have other indices and a variety of other dates.

  2. Bill, thank you for this. Your efforts in this area have been extremely helpful and important. Publications are essential in propagating knowledge about architecture as something other than points on a time-line. Sadly, though, architectural publishing has been almost completely wiped out. The mainstream publisher of my three books has dropped architecture entirely and others have limited themselves to coffee-table monographs on interior decorators or private residences. Only a few remain in the market outside of university presses. The internet has an increasing role to play, but cannot substitute for the fine architectural monograph. We need to come up with a solution to this problem. Thank you for this beautiful sentence:"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." This is what all of us should be about. It is the only way architects can contribute to the construction of beautiful, sustainable, and just cities.