Saturday, April 16, 2005

Who needs more Gearyesque Starchitects?

I love classical architecture because it moves me, but I told myself it was a fustiness on my part. Despite my art history classes, it hadn't occurred to me- before this article- that the discoveries the Greeks made with engineering, proportion, and human perception are so integrated within their forms, that my reponse to them is not an inexplicable nostalgia for a time I've never known, but a contemporary response from unchanging (so far) characteristics of being human. Phew! and Duh!

Catesby Leigh wrote this meaty article for Tech Central Station about modern architecture and why so much of it fails to inspire. He identifies the monumental, heroic forms as more than a regressive set of "traditional" (a damning word in design) elements, but a harmony of structures that resonate with our very nature.
(I've excerpted two fabulous paragraphs, but there's plenty of good stuff left.)

Indeed, far from being an extension of science or politics or some gospel of progress or other, classical architecture forms part of the emotional life that is, as the philosophers say, prior to our intellectual life. In that sense, it is like music. Its development has of course been influenced by particular historical circumstances, but its essential qualities and normative achievements utterly transcend them. That is because classical architecture is, first and foremost, profoundly engaged with our embodied state. It is an expression of man's instinct to compensate for his mortality by projecting his body into abstract, monumental form. We tend to read architecture in terms of our bodies, whether we're conscious of it or not. But classical architecture is uniquely anthropomorphic. Its proportions, its masses, spaces, and abstract lines, its sculptural decoration and ornamental motifs -- all are symphonically, dynamically calibrated to human perceptions and, as the English critic Geoffrey Scott emphasized nearly a century ago, to our unconscious physical memories of bearing weight (think of the columns supporting a pediment), of rhythmic movement, of serene repose...

Because modernists tend to know little or nothing of traditional design, and at the same time feel threatened by its enduring appeal, they often caricature it as a simple matter of "copying" or "mimicking" old buildings. The truth is that traditional architectural idioms are characterized by an organic complexity akin to that of the human body itself. Designing in the classical or Gothic manner takes a great deal of skill. You couldn't copy even if you wanted to, because the sites and programs of different buildings are rarely identical. And yet the architect can always emulate -- that is, strive to make a building worthy of comparison to one whose beauty has inspired him. But emulation is a challenge. Because traditional design revolves around enduring, objective forms and conventions, it provides the norms by which success or failure can be reliably measured. A classical architect can't mask his incompetence by indulging in novelty for its own sake, as modernists too often do. His inventions must have a sound esthetic justification.

The rest of Leigh's article also includes descriptions of the impact upon viewers of Chicago's White City from the Columbian Exposition of 1893 as an example of the power of well-executed classical forms. (Let's hear it for the home team.)

If you want to read a rich and engaging narrative of the construction and compromises by the brilliant minds behind the World's Fair, as well as the synchronous murders by perhaps the country's first documented serial killer, read Erik Larson's wonderful non-fiction "novel", The Devil in the White City.

There, chew on that until tomorrow or Monday.

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