April 30, 2009

Great Buildings of the Past Century: The National Gallery of Art

It seems to me that a great bulk of my critical writing here is often profoundly negative towards the practice of architecture. Frankly a lot of the blogosphere tends to be that way, and its human nature to complain and in architecture particularly there tends to be a lot less good news going on than bad. I've therefore decided to be a bit more positive and seet out buildings that are really great and give some good reasons why. I've decided to limit myself to building from the last century or so, roughly from 1900 on, I think it might be interesting to see how many great buildings I can find from this era.

The National Gallery of Art - 1941 - John Russell Pope

The National Gallery of Art was one of the last built works of the great classical architect John Russell Pope. Derided by his critics in during the rising tide of modernism as "the last of the Romans" Pope was a master of a sedate and serene classicism that one could adequately call modern.

This modern classicism is typified by Pope's use of the more robust classical orders such as the Doric, and greater ratio of wall to openings than other more Beaux-arts architects. His use of articulations tends to be more subtle, preferring slight changes in plane rather than deep bays and openings like one might find at Burnham's Union Station. Ornament, while not absent, is less used, but only at points of emphasis, and in proportionate manner, and like so much ornament of the interwar years, tends to be more planar and more spartan.

Corcoran gallery

Comparing his National Archives to Ernest Flagg's victorian 1897 Corcoran Gallery, the Archives appears lighter, with broader expanses of stone, widely spaced and small widely spaced acroteria and a shallow simple cornice. The Corcoran's use of deep recesses, heavily sculpted and staccato use of acroteria and festoons on the cornice and particularly the rusticated base give this smaller building a very heavy presence.The National Gallery continues Pope's style to its logical end. No figurative ornamentation is found on the exterior of the building, and only small wreaths in the frieze and small leaf patterns ornament the doors. This points to the idea that Pope saw this building not like another work of art on display, but rather as the frame.

Exterior ornament is limited to architectural detail.

The parti or plan of the building is remarkably clear and orderly. The central rotunda clearly modeled on the Pantheon flanked by block wings, each with long corridors ending at light courts is both pleasing and easily understandable. Comparing this to the often confusing layouts of so many museums its not hard to see why it's considered the best museum in the world. Other details make this building a remarkably wonderful place to view art. Diffuse light streams from above in the galleries, courtesy of the double layer of skylights brilliantly designed to bring in light but not cast shadows or cause glare.

The Pantheon-like central hall.

The building is despite it's appearance also extremely modern in a technological sense. The museum was one of the first buildings designed to be entirely air conditioned. The brilliance is found in that the air vents are placed above the cornices of the interior doorways, concealing this unattractive detail from the viewers standing on the floor below. The returns are tasteful grilles placed behind benches that sit in the halls.

The Pantheon oculus motif, giving beautiful diffuse light.

There is one final amazingly brilliant detail that no one sees, and probably only a very few people even know about is the use of expansion joints on the facade. Most buildings built today need expansion joints, this is due to the different materials that go into a modern building, usually a steel frame with stone as durable exterior material. The problem is when the building heats up the steel and the stone expand at different rates, necessitating some sort of joint to allow the expansion to be absorbed. Without this the stone would crack and fail.

Expansion joints are hid behind changes in plane.

Normally when a building has a long expanse of wall, like at the National Gallery, these expansion joints are simply run right down the front of the building. Pope however, just like he does with the skylights, and the AC vents, conceals this. Here it is concealed behind the places on the facade where the planes slip behind each other. The joint runs from top to bottom of the facade, but BEHIND the folds of the building. Simply brilliant. Without the flexibility of the classical language, this detail would be difficult, if not impossible to pull off, leaving the usual nasty looking line of plastic grout.

The National Gallery is a great example of how to build a truly modern building, with all of the conveniences necessary to its operation and construction, but yet maintain the dignity and beauty of the classical language.

April 28, 2009

Even Security Guards know its Ugly

Today my boss was out and about taking photographs for a presentation on the architecture of Washington DC, and like so many other photographers in DC and the country, was accosted by a security guard for his trouble.

Now for those of us in DC who have a fondness for architecture, this troubling intrusion on our civil liberties is no new news really. A while back some innocent tourists were confronted by private security guards about taking photos of Union Station, a DC landmark.
The Forrestal Building

My boss was taking photos of the monstrous Forrestal building in southwest DC, which you can see is a pretty ugly building. While taking his photos he was flagged down by a security officer and asked for usual sorts of questions and detained while the guard got his supervisor. My boss found the whole incident rather ridiculous, especially when the guard asked to see the photos, to which my anacronistic mentor explained he was taking slides photos, the guard was incredulous.

My good employer raised an interesting question telling his tale to me. Was he being accosted because he was taking photos of a modernist building? Now before you jump all over me for saying I'm accusing the Hegemony of some sort of plot, let me explain.

Consider this: my boss was out all afternoon taking pictures of other Federal buildings in DC, from the Capitol to the Federal Triangle. All of these buildings are "sensitive" to the same sort of degree that the Forrestall building is, they are all Federal office buildings. But one wonders why he, and every other tourist in town takes pictures (for the most part) unmolested till the cows come home. But the second that he begins taking pictures of a massively ugly Brutalist building he's questioned by security?

Maybe its that the security guards know that nobody takes pictures of such ugly buildings and they think that someone who does is a nut of some sort? I know that a lot of security is overzealous to a rediculous degree, but one has to wonder if even they understand how unpopular Modernism really is?

Foundation for Sacred Art Lecture Series

The Foundation for Sacred Arts has been sponsoring a bi-weekly lecture series on the Sacred Arts here in DC for the past month. This Wednesday, April 29th at 7pm Dr. Jem Sullivan will be giving a talk on "St. Paul in Art, the Beauty in Holiness" at the Catholic Information Center on K Street NW.

The Foundation is a new organization (five years old or so) dedicated to seeing a renewal of traditional art and architecture within the Catholic Church. As they are committed to seeing beauty and symbolism in art, it almost goes without saying they reject most all of the Modernist schlock that passes for religious art these days.

I must admit I've been remiss in not posting about this before, but I give my mea culpa and I hope that anyone interested in traditional art and architecture, and religious art to please attend.

April 22, 2009

A Comparision of Houses

This last weekend, I took a pleasant spring day to explore some of the great architecture that is found in the Greater Washington Area. Just down the road in the southern part of Alexandria, amongst the sprawl that has grown about George Washington's plantation of Mt. Vernon, is the little known gem of Woodlawn.

The garden front of Woodlawn Plantation by William Thornton

Built for Major Lawrence Lewis and Nelly Custis, the adopted granddaughter of George Washington, the house is little known outside the area other than to architecture and history buffs. The house was built by William Thornton, the architect responsible for the original design for the Capitol of the United States. Finished in 1805, the house is a prime example of Georgian design in the United States, and in my opinion, one of the most beautiful houses in the DC area.

Now just down the hill, a more striking comparison is not likely to be found anywhere, with an icon of Modernism sitting nearby. One of Frank Lloyd Wright's "Usonian" homes, the Pope-Leighey house sits in a wooded glade, deigning to be equal claimant to the mantle of architecture. Built in 1939 in Falls church, the house moved to the plantation by the National Trust for Historic Preservation when in the 1960s highway construction threatened its destruction.

The contrast between these houses makes for an excellent lesson in the failures of modernism and the sucesses of traditional construction. Now some might argue that comparing a two hundred year old plantation manor to a seventy year old modest suburban house is unfair, but I'll take a shot. The details of each house show fairly well the widely different philosophies of their designers. Woodlawn shows an attention to and understanding of natural forces and how to deal with them. The Wright house shows how the modernist ignores the nature of his materials and forces in favor of a ideological design aesthetic. I think that despite their budgetary differences, the two houses are fairly emblematic of each designer and their architectural philosophy.

Frank Lloyd Wright's "Usonian" Pope-Leighey House

After all, many of the architectural details to be found in Woodlawn were commonly found in traditional houses built by architects well into the 1920s from manors on down to even the most modest bungalows. The principles that Wright exhibits in the Pope Leighey house are fairly consistent with the design mentality of his other houses as well, so I think the comparison is fair at the level of detail.

Woodlawn itself has had some bad times over the 200 years of its existence. The foundation stones are showing a bit of wear, the brick moulds have dried out a little bit, so the shutters have had to be removed, but all and all, for its age the house is in good shape. It was hit in 1896 by a hurricane, but I doubt much of the slate roof has had to be replaced, and the cornices look like they may have had a few coats of paint and maybe gotten replaced here and there. But the structure of the house looks to be intact. (I'm not exactly sure about the history, but I'm just guessing this based on inspection.)
The slate roof of Woodlawn looks great even after 200 years.

The Pope Leighey house on the other hand looks haggard in comparison. The unpainted wood siding is starting to dry out and look rough. The "cornices of flat unpainted boards look to be literally falling apart. Other than the brickwork, which looks decent, and likely was rebuilt entirely when the house was moved in the 1960s, the house's exterior is in rough shape. One detail in particular as you'll see is striking. Frank Lloyd Wright's trademark cantilevered roofs, found here as anywhere, are failing.

The inherent problems of the cantilever, the sag is apparent and problematic.

Looking at this photo, you can see how the cantilever has sagged so far as to separate it from the wall it is next to. Elsewhere you can see how over time, the wood of these cantilevers has succumbed to the trials of time and begun to sag. When snow falls on this flat roof, and has no where to go, the stresses on this roof must be tremendous, and thus the roof begins to fail.

This one detail alone illustrates how the ideology of the cantilever, the flat roof is hardly a good thing. And this house was meant for the working class! (Wright however was never able to make his Usonian houses as cheaply as he promised.) Now all buildings need maintenance, but to unnecessarily compound problems of snow, water and wind are in this case not just stupid, but criminal. This is the sort of architecture that is being held up as the ideal. Thanks Frank. Thanks for giving us a house that after seventy years is falling apart.

Cornices of the Pope-Leighey House are falling apart.

I would be willing to bet any amount that per square foot, per year, the costs of maintenance for Frank Lloyd Wrights house are not only greater but likely outstrip the costs at Woodlawn by a fair stretch. I'd also wager that a house built contemporary to Wright, and of wood and of similar modest budget with traditional details is unlikely to be suffering such calamitous problems.

The side pavilions of Woodlawn could easily be a modest home.

We do a tremendous disservice to our future generations by ignoring the very real problems with modern architecture and its inherent failings and unsustainability. When architects overlook them because of the ideology that everything must be new or innovative is a profound mendacity. Until we expose the falsehoods of the Modernists who say that their architecture is just as sustainable and good as traditional architecture, we will continue to have an intellectual and financial millstone tied about our necks.

April 6, 2009

Prince Charles: A Champion for Classicism

On March 25, His Royal Highness Prince Charles spoke out against a proposal by architect Richard Rogers to build a massive modernist apartment block in a historic district of London. The Chelsea Barracks scheme calls for superblock of glass and steel apartment buildings standing in a rambling anti-urban park setting, ala Corbusier, directly adjacent to the historic and beautiful Royal Navy Hospital built by Christopher Wren.

The Rogers design had a great deal of local opposition, and during an event at the Wren Hospital, Prince Charles weighed in and backed the opposition and also wrote to the chief financial backer of the scheme, the Emir of Qatar, urging him to reconsider the design. Predictably, the modernist establishment went apoplectic. Some accused Charles of "high-handed arrogance" and one architect said that his opinions were a return to the "era of the divine right of Kings."
In one "news" article the Terry design was described as "a classical pastiche," an overused cliche if there has ever been one.

Now I'm not going to comment so much on the designs themselves, I think readers of this blog will be able to predict my sentiments fairly well. (Feel free however to debate in the comments the merits or demerits of either scheme, I'll save my comments on the designs for then.) What I really want to comment on is the vital role that Prince Charles takes in the debates in the UK about architecture.

Prince Charles is no stranger to debates about architecture. Back in 1984, a modernist scheme had been proposed to the Sainsbury Wing for the National Gallery in London, and in an address to the Royal Institute of British Architects, described the proposed addition "like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend." The speech hit the architectural establishment like a sledgehammer, and did more than sink the design, it turned the entire architectural establishment on its head and allowed the door to open just enough to let classicism return to life.

Classicism by the 1980s was left for dead and for all intents and purposes, was dead. The number of architects who practiced architecture with a mind to tradition and beauty probably numbered only a dozen or so in the whole world. From this speech by Charles and further comments and speeches that followed over the years, he raised doubts about modernist architecture and its inevitable march, he raised the question, why not beauty?

Before Prince Charles gave his carbuncle speech, modernist architecture reigned supreme, triumphant and defiant. The few who would question the modernist establishment would have a difficult time even making it through university, and none would be able to rise to a level of authority to be a critic of the hegemony. But in the Prince of Wales, by virtue of his royal birth, classicism had for the first time in half a century a champion who would be listened to. Charles was a real voice for those who before had been dismissed as "nostalgic" and "backwards-looking." Certainly the architectural establishment still sneered at him for his traditional and classical leanings, but to the public at large he could not be ignored.

In the UK today modernism still reigns as the dominant force in architecture, but it has lost its monopoly hold on the culture. Today the work of classical architects such as Quinlan Terry and Robert Adam are routinely seen in the architectural press. Now reviews of classical work are dismissive and downright mean, they are not ignored in the way they are in the architectural press in the United States. To architects working in London, Robert Adam is as recognizable name as Lord Foster, whereas here in the US, classicists still labor in anonymity. I would venture that few architects outside the classical community even know of Allan Greenberg or John Blatteau, let alone recognize any of their work.

Prince Charles' criticism of modernism and patronage of classical architecture has opened architecture up for debate. That debate has been rancorous and uncharitable more often than not, but at least classicism is no longer ignored. I only wish that here in the US, good classical architects be taken as seriously as they are across the pond and not simply dismissed.

April 2, 2009

Gehry Memorial also to include nod to Eisenhower

Ok, so that's not the headline that the Post used to announce this morning the winner of the "competition" to design a national memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower. But given Frank Gehry's "signature" style and propensity to attract attention to himself via his buildings, it might well have been. Today the Eisenhower Memorial commision solidified its previous decision to embrace fashionable names in architecture over beautiful architecture that would be properly deferential to it's subject and not to its builder.

Frank Gehry (Kathy Willens - AP)

The architecture of Frank Gehry is the singular and personal style of Gehry, and as his "signature" or "trademark" it exalts him the architect. Anywhere you go that there is a building by him, people exclaim "we have a Gehry," like it were any other work of art, like Picasso or a Michelangelo.

Many places, especially in Europe, are quite proud however of older buildings by famous architects like Michelangelo and others. These buildings might be fantastically beautiful and new, but even after seeing them as different and wonderful, they still fit in with the towns they are in. In fact many "signature" buildings by great architects in history have to be pointed out to you. This is because as part of a city, architecture has to be a "good neighbor" and not draw too much attention to itself.

Michelangelo and the "starchitects" of his day may be just as well known as the Frank Gehry's of our day, but today "starchitects" build with little deference to the city around them. Today's stars build objects such that their building is a solitary work of art, of genius incarnate. One could as Leon Krier said this week, put all the great Modernist architecture in a park somewhere, and in this park the buildings would make just as much sense as they do in their own environs. A Bernini or Michelangelo building put on a tabula raza would make no sense, as each of them is designed as part of a harmony in a city.

A memorial is however a little different as it's harmony is not just with the city, but also with the subject to be memorialized. The architect in some sense takes a back seat to the memorial. Lets put it this way, nobody comes to see "a Bacon" or "a Daniel Chester French" when we go to see the Lincoln Memorial, but we go to see and remember a great President. A proper memorial gives deference to its subject. Sadly, modernist architects cannot do this, neither by the means of their art nor by their own character. The modernist needs to express novelty and newness and personal artistic genius far too much to be able to defer to his subject.
An Eisenhower Memorial to Gehry will likely be so overbearingly Gehry, that history will likely forget the man memorialized before the man who built it.

A Modest Proposal
Now, I criticize a lot here on this blog, but now it is time for action. I propose a true competition for a counter proposal for this memorial. I am now working to raise money for a CASH prize for the best design for a counter proposal for this memorial. I propose that it be open to young artists and architects under 40 from anywhere in the country. The prize would be small, likely $400 - $500 but the subject is small and would take little time to produce.

I would propose that the design not necessarily be classical, but certainly I feel that classical would be best to express the necessary gravitas and reverence necessary for a memorial. All designs will be considered rationally from all designers.

What do you think? Would you be willing to contribute a design? I will be formulating a program for this competition so your feedback will be taken into account.
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