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