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classical component

Post #519 • April 18, 2005, 11:19 AM • 21 Comments

Catesby Leigh, Science, Pseudo-Science, and Architecture, for Tech Central Station (via Artsjournal).

The history of modernist architecture is thus like a highway whose exits are abstract theories about what contemporary architecture should be. Instead of a home for architecture such as it knew when tradition ruled, each exit leads to a dead end. So the architect gets back on the highway to nowhere and heads for the next exit, and the next dead end. The result has been an extreme stylistic instability involving recurring discoveries of new modes of artistic dysfunction. You can't make a city more beautiful on these terms.

Hey. Sounds like the art world.

The folks down at TCS are libertarians, with whom I feel increasing sympathy these days. Libertarians tend to be pro-technology, and so do modernist and postmodernist architects, so I see it as a bit of a curveball to find someone in the former camp writing against the latter.

Back when I taught Art History 1, I explained to the class that we are basically Greek. That is, if you live in the Western world, speak a language derived from a European people, find pitches separated by fifths harmonious, and think democracy is generally a good idea, you're Greek. As you trek along the path of art history, once you come across the Classical period, suddenly everything starts looking strangely familiar.

This happens because Greek culture infuses ours, but I also think that the Greeks were able to codify and manifest something eternal about being human. Greek sculpture, architecture, and what little we have of surface imagery just oozes eternality. Greek art conveys the message that humans, bodily, are mighty waves on an ocean of eternity. Leigh continues:

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.

Unsound ideas run up against physics and fail. Leigh ends with a dig against Gehry's "leaky new computer science building at M.I.T." (Although he doesn't mention the speedy deterioration of structures by Wright, whom he professes to like. Too, the classical and Roman structures we enjoy today, are, let's face it, the ones that are still standing up. The other ones have removed themselves from the canon. It may be that technology will come forth that will reinforce the leaping curves of Gehry and prevent his buildings' surfaces from roasting their neighbors like they were in a tanning booth. We can only imagine how many churches fell on their parishoners before all the bugs got worked out of high masonry.) But I don't think it's unfair to note that it was a physicist who landed one of the hardest blows against postmodernist excess: Alan Sokal, whose hoax has lain like a thorn in the side of pomo ever since.

Physics, which is a Greek term, is the study of matter and energy and their interactions. The Greeks thought deeply about these things, and got a lot of it hilariously wrong but got a lot exactly right in the process, both in their science and in their art. While I don't favor a wholesale or aping return to their forms (cough Albert Speer cough), something classical in us has to be addressed as we move forward with our creative productions. I say that even as I admire the Richard Diebenkorn monograph that I just picked up on the last day of the big educator's discount sale they have at Borders periodically. I've said that aesthetic response has something to do with our biology. The Classical Greeks felt that to their marrow, although they couched it in spiritual terms. I suspect that when we get the whole picture one day, so will we. Even the libertarians are feeling it.




April 18, 2005, 7:09 PM

Nice post, Franklin. Deserves lotsa comments.

"high masonry" is good.

Hey, Speer was in the service of evil, but , like Der Fuhrer's speeches and Goebbels propaganda, it shows what can be accomplished when there is a clear purpose and focus. If the good guys work up the same intensity as the bad guys they can do wonders, but sometimes it seems we only get up off our butts when a serious bad guy like Hitler comes along to challenge us.

I used to spend summers in a place that was so poor a hundred years ago that no one tore down the old houses. These houses were all built on a simple, boring, plan with the same boring old materials at hand, the same boring colors, the same boring everything. The only variations derived from how to get the most house on a small lot. There were no architects, only builders.

Walking through the streets on a summer evening was intoxicating. The sameness, the feel of structures built for no other purpose but creating room with limited means for people with limited means using plans that had evolved for hundrerds of years was balm for the soul.These house are now worth millions. I can't afford to go there any more.

I also recall going for a visiting artist gig to a midwestern university doiing a lot of new building where architectural planning was chaos. They tried to put me up in a dorm room which was so ghastly somehow, proportion or something (I never figured it out), that I asked to stay in a motel. The campus was uncomfortable to look at and be in.

They had just built a new art building which was hideous and on which the architect had installed a "skylight" because he thought that's what artist's needed, in Paris or somewhere, i guess, and so the place was a sauna and everyone went to the old 1930s art building next door to work.

Yes, architecture can get to you. We are not doing ourselves much good, in the long run, making buildings that look like third rate AE sculpture.



April 18, 2005, 7:40 PM

"Unsound ideas run up against physics and fail." Well put. That's true of every worldly pursuit, of course, not just architecture.

You can call it libertarianism, but TCS is more free-market capitalist than anything else (and has a paid agenda, I think; which doesn't make its opinions any less valuable or correct, but puts them in context).

Libertarianism at its edges can be surprisingly ideological as well. It applies the "small government" hammer to every nail, even when it might not be the better approach. It's admittedly correct in my opinion more often than not -- arguably far more often than not -- but this is only because we live today in a Western-based civilization with an educated, individualistic, empathetic, wealthy and generous populace in the aggregate, which, in Winston Churchill's words, does the right thing eventually. In its purest forms libertarianism won't back off from trying to apply its strict rules to every case, but in its every-day form is not a bad way to think.

You might also consider using the term utilitarian (which I think also has strict politico-philosophcial connotations) or empiricist (which I hope doesn't). What works works. One person I know has said he's liberal to the point of trying new things, and conservative to the point of keeping what works. Similar to what you said about neutrality the other day, I'll take empirics over ideology any time.



April 18, 2005, 8:02 PM

"libertarianism won't back off from trying to apply its strict rules"

"libertarian..strict rules"...Isn't this what we call an oxymoron, Hovig?



April 18, 2005, 8:50 PM

wow. when i see greek architecture i think of the fabulous things that can be accomplished with slavery. i suppose that's one eternal embodied by the greeks that appeals to western conservatives, particularly in the US.

and while free market capitalism and libertarianism has done wonders for the (ever decreasing) american middle class (not to mention the already very rich) i think you'd be hard pressed to find many members of the world's destitute that would find solace in churchill's assertion that we get around to doing the right thing eventually. why, that's just swell, ain't it: eventually.

it's easy to get nostalgic about how the greeks appealed to something transcendent about humanity as manifested in architecture, but every repressive regime in history has used a harkening back to a golden past as a tool to further its own agenda (see the nazis, the nationalists in spain, naploean's france, saddam's iraq, and even the good ol' USA with its current preoccupation with a (global) frontier). frankly, and to come to the point (if there is one), alot of architecture scares me in that it is the will of the status quo made manifest in so called public space.



April 18, 2005, 9:09 PM

and p.s.: the nazis thought they were doing something good. they thought they were building a utopia.they thought they were the good guys. just like we do. there was, and is today, a segment of undesirables in the population that was keeping the utopia from being realized. and the germans were told, and we are told today, that once these undesirables are out of the way, peace and prosperity forever. well, guess what? bullshit.



April 18, 2005, 9:26 PM

Craig, our present American society is not comparable to Nazi Germany. Saying so, even implying it or hinting it, is just plain ignorant. You should know better. Go read some history, and get off your high horse.

Until recently virtually all regimes were oppressive. Does that make the products of their artists and craftsmen bad products? Think about what you are saying before you say it.



April 18, 2005, 9:31 PM

Craigfrancis, I have been down this road and it leads nowhere good. Disagree with conservatives, but do not demonize them. The various sides of the arguments depend on each other for existence, and contain each other if only slightly. (Go ahead and demonize nazis. That's okay.) Actually, at one point I would have linked libertarians and conservatives too - via John McCain, I guess - but you'd have to hang out with the Green party to find anyone who's more opposed to foreign wars. It's a complicated world out there.

The Greeks got slavery wrong, they got women's equality wrong, they got certain ideas about reality wrong. (Well, they didn't get slavery as wrong as we did. Greek slaves had more social mobility.) And yes, they got pulled on to create some of the previous century's greatest human disasters. Again, no idea is so great that it can't be implemented badly.

Nevertheless, we owe it to ourselves to figure out what they got right and how they did it. The art sure works for me.



April 18, 2005, 9:40 PM


i'm very familiar with history, old pro, but i bet my history lessons were profoundly different than yours. the thing liberals and conservatives alike are in denial about is what things in our society (our, not your) ARE comparable to past fascist regimes. that's not to say of course that there are people being burned and gassed in chambers in ohio or manitoba or whatever, but that the current tools for manipulating a given populace through public monument and architecture remain frighteningly constant.



April 18, 2005, 10:06 PM

Craigfrancis: You begin to sound like as ideological as OP and J... F's point made sense. Answer it.



April 18, 2005, 10:16 PM

sure bibi. i agree with franklin that we have much to learn from what the greeks did right and that obviously they've been used to prop up extremely dubious regimes to an extent in the past. we have just as much to learn from what went wrong. there.



April 18, 2005, 11:05 PM

Oldpro - If there's an oxymoron, I don't think it rests with my description above. Libertarianism, with a small "L," is an ill-defined term which average people use when they want to casually say they favor smaller government and more individual liberties, even when it would go against social norms. It's also a slightly deceptive way to really say "I don't want society to place limits on me and my own specific personal beliefs."

The Libertarian Party, with a big "L," is a well-defined political group, and as such is just as ideological as any other. The fact that libertarianism works very well in the developed Western world does not mean it works for everything, and anyone who insists as much is, by definition, an ideologue at worst, or a partisan or advocate at best. Everything according to a libertarian (with whatever size "L" you want to use) can be solved with smaller government, including such things privatizing all roads (by which I mean all roads, not just the ones with route numbers). There's nothing wrong with this -- sometimes ideology is the only way to advance the edge of social progress -- but to say libertarians are non-ideological is something I've found untrue. In my experience with Internet discussion groups, I've found as many libertarians who refuse to place limits on privatization as I've foud members of other movements who refuse to place limits on their own ideologies. The only difference is that there are fewer of them than of others.

Personally I think libertarianism gets it right pretty often, and I also think the libertarian solution usually has a good chance of being right -- free markets are great ways to find optimal solutions -- but it doesn't mean ergo libertarianism the solution to every problem, and anyone who insists in the absense of evidence that the private solution is the best one -- "the absense of evidence" being the operative term here -- is being ideological, period. I alway try to be open to any solution which survives the collision with "physics," despite its source.



April 18, 2005, 11:13 PM

Oldpro - Forgive the follow-up, but I've seen more than one debate which tries to define the libertarian solution to a given social question. If you have to think about something on a philosophical level, if you're engaged in a tought experiment in an attempt to create a definition based on subjective inferences, you're by definition being ideological. The empiricist says let the best solution win, despite its label or source.



April 19, 2005, 1:35 AM

Hovig: I have no axe to grind here, and I am not particularly political nor do I know much about libertarians large L or small l. I just thought they advocated leaving people alone and letting them do what they want to do. Maybe I'm wrong.

Bibi: Please cite one instance, just one instance, one only will do, out of anything I have written on this blog in the past year which is "idealogical". It has been my impression all along that I have been carrying on rather recklessly AGAINST ideology in any form it comes in. The only ideology I have is that you need to look at the work and form an opinion and get what pleasure you can out of it. If that's ideology, maybe we ought to go look the word up,



April 19, 2005, 1:44 AM

Craig: imagining vast conspiracies taking place behind closed doors by shadowy powerful persons is called paranoia. I have been around a long time and been in and out of hundreds of situations involving all kinds of people, including the shadowy powerful types, and the one thing I have learned is that there are good and bad things that go on, and good and bad people at all levels, and that in a functioning democracy such as ours, with its self-corrective mechanisms, it is hard for anyone to get and keep that kind of power. I despise and fear some things some people do and regret when they are in a position to do harm, but luckily we are in a system where it does, in fact, work out as well as it can. Nothing's perfect.



April 19, 2005, 2:49 AM

craigfrancis? When will your utopia arrive? What will it be like?



April 19, 2005, 8:54 AM


talk about politcal otherness causing paranoia.

uh.... i didn't say anything about conspiracies. i talked about commonalities. uh... vast conspiracy? did i write that? i remember talking about tools by which a given populace is manipulated.... does that equal conspiracy? does anyone actually read these posts or do they just skim until they get to a point where they think they can just paraphrase? old pro i offer you a thousand congratulations on being around "shadowy powerful types" i guess but that still doesn't address what i had brought up in my earlier posts. a functioning democracy? maybe i am the political whacko you guys seem to think i am, but i'm sure there are plenty of folks you could find in your very own miami that wouldn't be so sure about how functioning our democracy is. old pro, if you're so into research, try proportional representation in any search engine, as (believe it or not) a social conservative and economic liberal, you might find it interesting.

beware's comment(?) requires almost too much energy to respond to given his c+ average in grade 8 world history, but here goes: too many question marks.



April 19, 2005, 1:09 PM

Reguarding this country, check out John Massengale if you give a...



April 19, 2005, 3:59 PM

Craig, I know there are people all over the place bemoaning how the "populace is being manipulated" and the like; talk is cheap. This alleged manipulation requires something that amounts to a "conspiracy" - go look up the word.

We do have a functioning democracy and it isn't perfect, but, to get back to your original point, in terms of our art (or the Greek's art), so what?



April 20, 2005, 5:53 PM you see your utopia coming anytime soon?



April 20, 2005, 7:12 PM

who said:

the greatest lesson of history is that we do not learn from it.



April 20, 2005, 7:22 PM

George Bernard Shaw:
We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.

George Santayana:
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.



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