Do We Deserve Our Buildings?

An aspect of globalism is the uniformity of our cities. They tend to be identical across the globe with skyscrapers the predominate feature. They’re getting taller all the time, but there’s nothing much to look at on the way up. Beauty of designs is conspicuously absent in these serviceable structures of glass and steel. It’s said that taste and even character are shaped by the buildings in which we work and live. So how do we fare in today’s sameness? Very badly, writes Henry Hope Reed in “The Golden City” a book that was published in 1959 and is getting renewed interest today.

He writes: “Where once the street was crowded with sculptural detail, we are offered a wasteland. Where once towers graced the skyline, slabs now obstruct it.” The reason is that  we’ve abandoned the classical ideal of architecture for a modernism without form or feeling. We have liberated ourselves from what makes architecture worthwhile.

Thomas Jefferson, he writes, set the style. Just as he drew on the Roman past for elements of the new politics of America, so he sought out “Roman taste, genius and magnificence” in architecture. He noted: “There is at Nimes in the south of France a building called  the Maison Carree that has pleased universally for near 2000 years.“ It was to be a model for the Virginia capitol and other estimable works over the years. Just as the past proved essential for the new nation’s politics, so did its architecture.

In his book, Reed contrasts many past buildings with those of the present to show how Jefferson’s advice was ignored in slavery to the new.  It’s almost as if beauty is to be ignored for functionality at all costs. Typical is a picture of the great hall of the Cunard building in New York City designed by Benjamin Wistar Morris in 1921, juxtaposed with a view of the main lobby of the secretariat building of the United Nations designed in the late 1940’s by an international board of architects. Intimacy in the one, anonymity in the other. You want to linger in the one as long as you can, leave the other as soon as possible. And international peace has not been assured.

There are some signs of remedy. The original, much admired Penn Station in New York City was torn down in 1964, a victim to the rage of newness, leading to what the New York Post calls “a subterranean horror show” of congestion. Typically, the city wants to replace it with eight new office skyscrapers at a time of record office vacancies. Instead, architects devoted to New York have offered a plan that would revive the spirit of the vanished station in keeping with the needs of today. The new station would once again be above ground and open to the sunlight through three class vaulted ceilings. An adjoining green park would make it easier to wait for trains. Aside from vastly improving transportation, a reborn Penn could give a lift to a city too often laboring under bad news.

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