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Summer 2001
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Why a Classical Lincoln Center Is Visionary
David Watkin
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Last year, City Journal urged that, instead of squandering a proposed $1.5 billion to restore Lincoln Center—crumbling buildings that few admire either for their architecture or their acoustics—the Center’s trustees should tear down the whole complex and build up a new, lasting, architecturally distinguished one in the classical style, which could be done for the same money (some 20 percent of which will come from the taxpayers) now proposed for repairs and refurbishment ("A New Lincoln Center," Autumn 2000). The suggestion, and the accompanying plans by three distinguished classical architects of our day, generated considerable interest but considerable unease, too. Yes, classical buildings are beautiful: as witness most of the buildings New Yorkers love. But could anyone seriously build in the classical style today, especially when a world-class monument is at issue? Wouldn’t it be backward-looking, "pastiche," not in the spirit of the age? Worse, wouldn’t anyone who did it look like a know-nothing philistine, the kind of vulgar plutocrat who proverbially says, "I don’t know if it’s art, but I know what I like"—a person who belongs on the board not of Lincoln Center but of Disneyland?

The current architectural mandarins tell us all this, and they’ve cowed many; in matters of taste, no one wants to appear uncultivated and unsophisticated. But their assertion that the only intellectually and aesthetically acceptable way to build is the modernist or postmodernist way is hogwash, the intellectual equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes. What has their orthodoxy produced, after all, but hundreds of look-alike cities, with their indistinguishable, mass-produced, glass-and-grid high-rises that no one could love or wish to call home? A brilliant classical Lincoln Center would show the world that the way forward from the dead end of modernism, an architecture not of the future but of the past, is to reconnect ourselves with the living, endlessly changing, endlessly inventive tradition of the classical. Such a project, once built, would change the history of architecture; and those who built it would, ten or 20 years hence, look not like philistines but visionaries.

In every age, some genius has come along to blow a great wind of new life into the classical tradition, creating buildings of fantastic excitement that, though of their own age, have grown out of a centuries-old language. Why should we accept the defeatist view that in the twenty-first century we are no longer capable of producing a genius within this tradition, a genius at once creative and civil? Classical architecture has never been of one period but has been reinvented and rediscovered over and over again, from the architects in the ancient Roman world who reinvented the style of the Greeks, to architects from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, such as Alberti, Michelangelo, Bernini, Soane, and Lutyens. Why is there any reason to suppose that so venerable, fertile, and brilliant a tradition should suddenly come to an end?

The style of most public buildings for 2,500 years, from ancient times to at least the 1950s, was classical. Through such buildings in Europe and the U.S., we identify ourselves by relating to the civilization of which we should be proud to be the heirs. Like the English language, the classical tradition provides us with an inherited grammar and syntax of maximum strength and vitality, which provides a sure base for rich experimentation. As the contemporary New York architect and Yale architecture dean Robert A. M. Stern puts it, "Classicism is the only codified, amplified, and perennially vital form of architectural language."

To prove that contention, let us enter, for example, the amazing staircase hall that Michelangelo built in 1524 for his great first-floor library attached to the Medici Church of San Lorenzo in Florence. When we enter, we are daunted by the great height of the room in comparison with its modest footprint. With necks strained by the effort of looking up, we are confronted by three flights of stairs before us. The effect is so curious that it has been described as a staircase that impedes ascent, for the undulating curves of the central flight recall melting wax, descending from above, while the side flights are positively perilous, lacking protective balustrades at their outer edges.

On the side walls of the room, great volute brackets seem to carry the weight of coupled columns, but on closer inspection we find that they are detached from those columns, which themselves, far from being functional supports, are buried into the wall mass. In other words, Michelangelo has ironically dissolved the certainties of a wall, which normally would be clearly articulated with functional columns, and he has replaced it with a piece of linear abstract sculpture. It is a daunting but exciting space, which startled Michelangelo’s contemporaries, the critic Vasari explaining that "he broke the bonds and chains of usage that craftsmen had always followed. In his library of S. Lorenzo he departed so much from the common use of others, that everyone was amazed."

Castle Howard, the house built for the earl of Carlisle in 1701-26 from designs by Sir John Vanbrugh, similarly flung down a challenge to all previous architecture by sporting a tall and insolent dome, which lights an overpoweringly lofty hall. Such domes had previously been reserved for churches—that is, for the houses of God, not those of man. Once again, a famous contemporary expressed the shock of this work, Horace Walpole exclaiming after his visit to Castle Howard, "Nobody had informed me that at one view I should see a palace, a town, a fortified city, temples on high places, woods worthy of being each a metropolis of the Druids, and a mausoleum that would tempt one to be buried alive!" The palatial swagger of Vanbrugh’s Castle Howard is suggestive of its patron’s pride in the lineage of the Howard family and its place in history. It was a brilliant and unprecedented way in which the earl of Carlisle could articulate in stone his family ancestry, his metropolitan connections, his position at court, and his knowledge of Continental architecture.

After Vanbrugh’s death, Robert Adam studied antiquity in immense detail, in search of a basis for reforming modern architecture, which he thought had become lumpish and boring. He and his brother James boasted in 1773 of "the novelty and variety" of their designs, explaining, "We have not trod in the paths of others, nor derived aid from their labors," so that "[t]he massive entablature, the ponderous compartment ceiling, the tabernacle frame, almost the only species of ornament formerly known in this country, are now universally exploded, and in their place we have adopted a beautiful variety of light mouldings and a great diversity of ceilings."

This beautiful passage offers the daring image of an explosion at the heart of the classical language, whose splintered elements the Adam brothers then reassembled in new ways. They achieved this recombination in sequences of spaces of breathtaking beauty and surprise, such as those at Derby House (1773), where they blew open one wall of the groin-vaulted drawing room and replaced it by a pair of columns, darkly silhouetted against light billowing in from the great curved window of the room beyond. The movement and the contrast of light and shade are akin to the effects "Capability" Brown was achieving at the same time in the new art of landscape gardening.

Derby House is demolished, part of its site being occupied by the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square, but we can visit Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields (1792-1824) for a similar experience of novelty and freshness. Once again, a genius has taken the language of classical architecture and updated it to create totally original effects. Imagine the enchantment of dining with Soane in 1813, after one of his many remodelings of his house. Having been lucky enough to have been present at more than one dinner in this room, I can attest to the cries of astonished admiration with which visitors greet it on such occasions. In this glittering, candle-lit space, painted a neo-antique Pompeiian red, there are baffling mirrors above the top of the arched bookcases all around them, which suggest that the room floats beyond its walls. Moreover, mirror-glass panels slide out to cover the whole window wall in the evening.

From here we walk into the adjacent "Breakfast Parlour," where Soane responded to the plea of George Dance, in whose office he had worked, for an "Architecture unshackled[,] which would afford to the greatest genius the greatest opportunities of producing the most powerful efforts of the human mind." The hovering dome in the Breakfast Parlour has been so unshackled that it hovers like a parachute, the real ceiling rising up behind it. This combination of piety toward the classical tradition with a search for novelty finds further expression throughout the house in Soane’s unique technique of sticking decorative fragments of demolished classical buildings onto the walls so as to create a bizarre collage. Soane thus created order out of discontinuity, historical memory being the glue that makes sense of all this fragmentation.

A baffled critic wrote in 1837 of Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields that the whole place resembled "a temporary experiment, trial or model of what was intended to be executed on a large scale." Other critics were harsher, but magnanimity prevailed, and Soane was knighted in 1831 and invited to become president of the newly founded Royal Institute of British Architects.

At the Bank of England, which he expanded continuously from 1788 to 1833, Soane created one of the most spectacular series of spaces in England. One entered through a triumphal arch into a court flanked by screens of freestanding columns, leading into banking halls poetically surmounted by hovering domes. Since the City of London establishment saw the Bank as one of the few public buildings in London to rival those on the Continent, Soane was asked to have it dramatically illuminated to celebrate major victories in the Napoleonic Wars. Foreign heads of state ceremonially visited it, including Czar Alexander of Russia, who was shown round by Soane on the occasion of the visit to London of the Allied Sovereigns in 1814.

In the 1920s, another great English architect, Edwin Lutyens, gleefully appropriated the architecture of imperial Rome, and of such Renaissance architects as Sansovino and Palladio, and transformed it inventively to build giant, exuberant office buildings in the City of London. One of the most powerful is his Britannic House, Finsbury Circus (1920-24), with a breathtaking curved facade that forms an unprecedented sunlit arc, rippling and dancing like a set of symphonic variations in music. Its constantly flickering rusticated surfaces are so joyous, so self-conscious, and so knowing, that Lutyens can break all the supposed rules with impunity: for example, he places the biggest windows, huge arched ones, at the very top, below the main cornice line. Their size is justified because they light the boardroom. Once again, a genius has taken a tradition to which he has expressed appropriate piety and developed it with creative brilliance, so that, with a steel frame enabling Britannic House to rise to great height, it does not deceive us for a moment that we are actually in ancient Rome. It is decisive proof, like so many of New York’s fine buildings of the first half of the twentieth century, that the classical language and high-rise buildings can go perfectly well together.

Lutyens well conveys his excitement at his early discovery of this language in a letter he wrote in 1903 to the architect Herbert Baker, with whom he was to collaborate in New Delhi: "In architecture Palladio is the game. It is so big—few appreciate it now and it requires considerable training to value and realise it. To the average man it is dry bones but under the mind of a Christopher Wren it glows and the stiff materials become as plastic as clay." And that is how the classical tradition gets passed down: one great mind finding the inspiration to create something new by meditating upon how his predecessors creatively reinterpreted their own forebears.

During the fertile 1920s, as well, the Slovenian Joze Plecnik, who has gone largely unnoticed in all the standard histories of modern architecture until recently but is now widely regarded as one of the greatest architects of the twentieth century, was building dazzling classical public buildings in Prague and Ljubljana. He saw himself as producing a new classical architecture to express the newly democratic Czechoslovakian and Slovenian republics that emerged out of the collapse of the Habsburg Empire after World War I. Plecnik saw "architecture as a summing up of civilization, through adaptation of motifs from the past," and his works demonstrate that the classical language is a continuing fount of inspiration, in which forms translated to new contexts can take on new meanings. A typical expression of his belief in an imaginative interpretation of the past, combined with his surprising fertility of invention, is his Vzajemna Insurance Company offices at Ljubljana of 1928-30. Its rich mesh of red brick columns against white stone rises to an astonishing frieze of carved angels linked by swirling ropes, suggestive of the mutuality of the insurance company.

In Prague Castle, where Plecnik was official architect for 15 years, his task, given to him by President Jan Masaryk, was to turn the dilapidated site, abandoned by the monarchy three centuries earlier, into the symbol and headquarters for the new democracy. For this task, he believed (as did architect Thomas Jefferson), only the architectural language inherited from the democracies of classical antiquity was adequate. In the castle’s great hall, Plecnik’s stairs cascade down in the light-filled space as though frozen in the moment of descent. The rich composition also incorporates columns so slender that they could be described as minimalist; but though stripped down, they are serious classical statements, incorporated into a legible and coherent classical framework, unlike the trivial jokes of postmodernism. With dreary predictability, when the communists took power, they excoriated Plecnik’s work as conservative and excised it from the architecture textbooks.

In our own day, Quinlan Terry turned to the Georgian tradition of the urban neighborhood for inspiration in his Richmond Riverside of 1986-88, a large mixed residential, office, and shop development in greater London, which seems when you visit it like an ideal vision of an old town blessed with a rich architectural heritage. Through the use of his travel sketchbooks and the pattern books in his office, Terry conducts an entertaining dialogue with the past, so that, in his words, "many of the buildings pick up the characteristic details of English and Italian architecture, in particular Palladio, Longhena, Sansovino, Hawksmoor, William Chambers, and the Gothic revival of the 19th century." Richmond Riverside also shows that traditional forms can suit new functions. It has been as popular with the general public as it is unpopular with the architectural establishment. Richmond Riverside has the spirit of play that recalls those eighteenth-century architects who provided clients with classical and Gothic plans for the same building, so that they could choose which style they wanted. It is gleeful but sophisticated architecture that almost cries out, "Look at me! How many references can you get?" (See "A New Order for Office Buildings," Spring 1996.)

What is so remarkable about architects like these is that they show how the classical language of architecture is not a straitjacket that prevents the expression of the individual but a liberating force. Though classical, their work is also so varied that it would not be taken for the product of any other moment than that at which it was created. It is not a re-creation of the past but a confidence-inspiring declaration that we can make use of the rich inheritance we have received from the past, even while we add to it, re-adapt it, take it a step further, and make it wholly our own, like Brahms’s great variations on a theme by Handel.

By contrast, modernism condemns itself to express newness, the future, or, as Sigfried Giedion depressingly put it, "the eternal present." Yet in the twenty-first century, modernism, no longer new, can represent nothing more than the shock of the old. We should realize that we have the inestimable privilege of being able to conduct a dialogue between the ancient world, idealized as it has always been, and the creative present. A dialogue: we are not ventriloquists’ dummies who cannot speak for ourselves. Amazingly, we can talk to Michelangelo in Laurentian Library, to Palladio, to Soane—and be inspired, not absorbed, by them.

What a richer, more life-affirming vision this is than the tired old modernist idea of yesterday. Take, by way of comparison, a recent New York Times article by Herbert Muschamp, condemning Friedrich St. Florian’s National World War II Memorial to be built in Washington. Muschamp rejects the monument’s classicism, preferring instead the Washington structures of I. M. Pei, Maya Lin, and James Ingo Freed, structures that, he claims, "have challenged the status quo." That, he says, is what an American architecture must do, since "our political system is great because it enables authority to be challenged." Classical architecture rests on the idea that there are "universal laws"; we modern Americans demur, focusing on "the relative and the complex." In place of classicism’s "yearning for the timeless and eternal," we choose "irony or ambiguity."

This strange mix of the generation of 1968’s perpetual challenging of authority and the cool detachment of fin-de-siècle postmodern hip can find no meaning beyond the rejection of all the meanings mankind has cherished hitherto. It is a sterile and unnourishing idea, which at last devours even itself: for in his unquestioned assumption that there is inherent merit in permanent revolution, in perpetually challenging the status quo, Muschamp forgets that modernism is the status quo. What more appropriate challenge to it can there be than classicism, by which we can reenter the centuries-long human dialogue on which modernism arrogantly and indignantly turned its back.

The architectural establishment’s insistence that we must follow "the spirit of the age" is not a perennial idea but a relatively recent one, adopted by the modernists and their sycophants in the academies to force us to build in only one way: their own. But great architects for half a millennium have paid no heed to this notion. The beautiful Piazza Santissima Annunziata in Florence, for example, has Brunelleschi’s famous Foundling Hospital of 1419 on one side; on the opposite side, to create harmony, San Gallo built a copy of it a century later: the same facade, but completely different interiors. It would now be condemned as "untruthful" and "not of its own time!" An even more distinguished scheme that would be condemned if proposed today is the whole south side of the Capitoline square in Rome, built by Rainaldi in 1644-54, based on Michelangelo’s design of over a century earlier, in order to create harmony. That would not be allowed today, when something "frankly modern" would be demanded, for no amount of historical evidence or philosophical argument has so far entirely shifted the depressing effluvia of yesterday’s modernist belief that, if you add on to a historic building, you must be "truthful" by not harmonizing with its existing style. In keeping with this belief, New York’s Harvard Club proposes to build a cliché glass box in place of the two nineteenth-century stables it will tear down between its beautiful McKim, Mead & White building and Warren & Wetmore’s breathtaking New York Yacht Club next door.

Fortunately, the man in the street does not share this worship of the new, his most popular cities being those like Paris, Rome, Venice, and Prague, whose centers are not wrecked by new buildings reflecting "the spirit of their age." Also, contrary to existing histories of architecture, the bulk of twentieth-century buildings, certainly up until 1950, were not modernist but classical. To walk with unblinkered eyes through cities such as Milan, London, and New York is to be dazzled by the sheer inventiveness, the quality in style and materials of the countless twentieth-century classical buildings. One of the most harmful effects of modernism was that it not only damaged our present but obliterated memory of the past.

The folly of this blind worship of the new is clear in a comparison of two twentieth-century cities on the Indian subcontinent: New Delhi of 1912-31, by Edwin Lutyens, and Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh of 1951-59, founded in 1951 as the administrative capital of the Punjab. Lutyens, one of the most brilliantly inventive masters of space, volume, and planning in the history of British architecture, studied existing Indian traditions with great detail and respect. He managed to incorporate these at New Delhi into a noble, timeless, and humane classical architecture, admired by subsequent inhabitants of Delhi down to the present day. Indeed, Indians don’t view the Viceroy’s House, with its titanic dome and great Moghul garden, as an unacceptable symbol of imperial domination; they continue to use it happily as the residence of the president. Its cliff-like walls of pink and cream Dholpur stone, with their pronounced inward inclination, incorporate chujjahs, the immense down-swept cornices familiar from Mughal and earlier Indian architecture. These cast deep shadows to protect the walls from the heat of the sun, some of those by Lutyens projecting as much as eight feet. His surrounding avenues of domestic architecture have the low density and lavish planting that he derived from English garden cities.

At Chandigarh, by contrast, Le Corbusier showed an insolent disregard for India’s traditions and even its climate. He ignored the way in which existing Indian towns had responded to the tropical climate and the largely pedestrian movement patterns by providing narrow streets and inward-looking houses organized around courtyards. He made no provision for traditional activities and customs such as the bazaar, traveling vendors, and, most important, the multi-functionality of spaces. His government buildings at Chandigarh, wholly isolated from the rest of the city, are functionally disastrous, their vast scale allowing a terrifying level of heat and glare. No less horrible are their exposed concrete surfaces, soiled, inhuman, and repellent.

Chandigarh owes much to Le Corbusier’s passion for novelty, which coincided with that of Prime Minister Nehru, who declaimed, "Let this be a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past . . . an expression of the nation’s faith in the future." While such iconoclastic language was understandable in the exhilarating first days of Indian independence in 1947, there is no reason that it should still be the language of the architectural establishment in New York in 2001. Indeed, comparing New Delhi and Chandigarh today, which is lasting, and which looks dated and shabby?

The history of Western architecture is effectively the history of the constant adaptability of the classical language to new purposes. The twentieth century believed that something called "modern man" and "modern materials" had rendered the classical tradition redundant. We are surrounded today by compelling evidence of the falsity of that claim, for the twentieth-century city affords the clearest demonstration of the failure of modernism to provide a humane environment.

This is why the proposal to replace Lincoln Center is so exciting, for it enables us to re-establish the classical language of architecture as the expression of high civic consciousness. Nothing but timidity prevents us from realizing this grand ambition, which would lead building back into its old, ever-renewed, endlessly creative channels.

 

 


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