MessyNessyChic, a blog about libraries and books, recently featured the old Cincinnati Main Library, built in 1874 and demolished in 1955, less than a century later. The period photographs show a building of subtlety and sophistication. The four-story facade on downtown’s Vine Street is pragmatically built up to the sidewalk (like Chicago’s Harold T. Washington Library), and gives nothing away about the extraordinary space within. It is a “room full of books” what better image for a library than that? The architect was James W. McLaughlin (1834-1923). Born in the city, he apprenticed with a prominent local architect, James Keys Wilson (1828-1894). In addition to the library, McLaughlin also designed the city’s art museum and zoo. The most prolific Cincinnati architect of that period was probably the British-born Samuel Hannaford (1835-1911), who designed the city hall and the Music Hall. By the second decade of the twentieth century, there seems to have been a sense that outside architectural expertise was required, especially for the new building type: the skyscraper. Cass Gilbert was brought in to build what was then the tallest office building outside New York City, Delano & Aldrich designed a soaring moderne slab that anticipated Rockefeller Center, and Paul Cret was consulting architect on the beautiful Art Deco railroad terminal. Since then, this trend has continued as many civic buildings have been designed by imported stars: Michael Graves, Cesar Pelli, and Zaha Hadid. This sometimes makes for good buildings, but one can still look back fondly to a time when local architects produced splendid designs like the old Main Library.
There was a Q and A after my Landmark West! lecture on New York’s Upper West Side. One person wanted to know what I thought about the exceptionally tall residential towers that are radically changing Midtown’s skyline. One57, Christian de Portzamparc’s skinny 75-story condominium, under construction on West 57th Street is an example. I’ve written about this new trend. The current phenomenon is a function of globalization and real estate, and has little to do with architecture. But, then, that was always the case with Manhattan. As late as the 1940s, the high-rise real estate development projects of numerous entrepreneurs produced a memorable skyline: animated, varied, and quite beautiful. But that skyline was a happy accident; there was no master plan, no rules, no grand design. This time around, I’m less sure of the outcome.
I am speaking at an architectural conference in Charleston. The participants are architects who design custom houses, and many of the presentations highlght the difference between traditional and modern design, since so many custom houses fall into the first category. At one point, a member of the audience (somewhat impatiently) points out that if this were a meeting of fashion designers, or industrial designers, the distinction would not arise; the implication is that we would be discussing only “the latest thing.” Of course, I thought to myself, that’s because fashion and consumer products are so fleeting. There is no tradition of the laptop; when a new model come along, the old model is out of date, soon obsolete, finally discarded. The cars of our youth are long gone. What our grandparents were wearing a century ago is of no concern except to historians, it is what people are wearing today that interests us. But houses have a useful life that is measured in centuries. Old houses are a part of the present. This means that domestic traditions change slowly. The symbolic hearth goes back to the Middle Ages; Americans have built porches of one kind or another ever since Mount Vernon; the front door has been a potent symbol for a long time. Old houses are cherished, so little wonder that for many people, building one’s house means participating in—and adding to—a long tradition.
I collected stamps as a boy. Mostly I was imitating my father. He collected only Polish stamps, and his collection begins with the outbreak of the Second World War. The earliest stamp is postmarked “Warszawa 1940.” It is not Polish but German, and bears the stern countenance of Paul von Hindenburg. The stamp is overprinted Osten, meaning East, that is, occupied Poland. My father’s collection includes poignant stamps issued by the provisional Polish government in London, as well as military stamps of the Polish II Corps in Italy, where he served in the SOE. Most of the stamps date from the postwar period and are rather dull in appearance. They portray Polish heroes: Copernicus, Chopin, Madame Curie, and equally predictably, Karl Marx and Stalin, for Poland was then in thrall to Soviet Communism. The album is homemade, the pages, carefully ruled in pencil, have space for every stamp, and include the date of issue, denomination, image, color, and the Stanley Gibbons catalog number. My father was an engineer and he liked everything just so. The entries are in Polish except for the colors which—unaccountably—are in English: “dull purple,” “deep green.” Perhaps it is an early sign of an émigré’s cultural dichotomy. I suppose the collection, which peters out in 1954 shortly after the family emigrated from Britain to Canada, was a way of keeping in touch with the homeland from which he had been rudely separated by the war. Or maybe it was just a way of introducing some small order into a disordered life.
In a New York Times op-ed on the failed political career of Michael Ignatieff, the intellectual who had a short-lived stint as leader of Canada’s Liberal party, David Brooks argues that academics are ill-suited to be politicians.“In academia, you are rewarded for candor, intellectual rigor and a willingness to follow an idea to its logical conclusion,” he writes. “In politics, all of these traits are ruinous.” Candor, intellectual rigor? This rosy view of the academic world is obviously that of an outsider, for academia is rife with obfuscation and intellectual fashions—and with politics. Teachers woo the electorate (the students), who annually vote (fill out teaching evaluations) on performance. Assistant professors wangle for promotion and tenure (tenure is like a safe political seat); old professors just wrangle. There are endless committees since, like the House and the Senate, university departments are self-administering. The university administration (White House) tries to steer the faculty (Congress); the faculty stymies these efforts whenever possible. When I watch House of Cards, the plotting and back-stabbing remind me of faculty meetings and search committees, although in the ivory tower nobody actually dies. As Henry Kissinger, who was a Harvard professor for almost 20 years, observed: “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”