Modern life


ward just

Ward Just

The protagonist of Ward Just’s latest novel, Rodin’s Debutante, makes a pronouncement that drew me up short, it is such a pithy and accurate description of the American polity.

“I think at a very early age I understood the American system, the country so various, so large and unruly, poised to fly apart at any moment. The system was founded on compromise and reconciliation, an infinity of checks and balances but always the willingness to look the other way until the world forced closed focus.”


nyplI am lending my voice to those who are calling for a reconsideration of the plan to demolish the stacks beneath the Reading Room of the New York Public Library. While it is true that these stacks are not generally open to the public, they are an integral part of this extraordinary building, a Beaux-Arts design but truly a machine for reading in. As a writer and researcher, libraries–especially public libraries–remain for me special places. Library stacks, even more than reading rooms, are their symbolic heart. I think that one of the things that drew me to writing was the experience of wandering the stacks of McGill’s old Redpath Library, an Erector set of steel shelves, glass-block floors, and low ceilings, clanging steel spiral stairs, murky light, and the smell of old paper. In those days, entering the stacks was a rare privilege reserved for graduate students. I remember the ever-present feeling of surprise whenever I found the book I was looking for, the mysterious LCCN numbers hand-lettered on the spine. And then discovering something even more interesting farther down on the same shelf.

Sant Francesc



I took this photo in the spring of 1967, in the village of San Francisco on the Balearic island of Formentera where I was living at the time. The wall in the background is the church of Sant Francesc Xavier, an eighteenth century building, fortified against attacks by the Barbary pirates who periodically descended on the island. The mesh above the court must be there to keep the soccer ball in bounds. I assume that the taller figure is that of the local priest, or brother, acting as a referee, as he is the only one wearing street shoes. I took this with a Leica M3, I think. Like many architecture students (I had just graduated) I was a devotee of sports cars (which I couldn’t afford–my first car was a VW bug, though later I graduated to a Mini Cooper) and cameras (which I could). So what do I like about the photo? Volumes in sun and shade–the Corbusian trilogy–boys at play, the moment frozen forever; it is the world of a 24-year-old architect on the edge of life.


Notre-Dame du Raincy, Auguste Perret, arch.

Notre-Dame du Raincy, Auguste Perret, arch.

In an article in the current issue of Design Intelligence, the architect and Notre Dame professor, Duncan G. Stroik writes that the design of contemporary  megachurches, which he characterizes as “non-architecture,” leaves much to be desired. It’s hard to argue with that (see my Slate slide show on megachurches here). But then Stroik goes on to equate megachurches with modernism, whence he elides into the classicist’s standard litany of the failings of modernist architecture. “Gone was the need for human scale and proportions, natural materials, historical elements, and the classical understanding of civic order,” he writes. I am not sure what he means by “natural materials,” but presumably concrete does not qualify, yet Auguste Perret’s all-concrete Notre-Dame du Raincy, an early classic, is a modern reinterpretation of the Gothic. I don’t know that Gaudi had a classical understanding of civic order, but Sagrada Familia shines with his deep religiosity. So does Fay Jones’s Thorncrown Chapel, which incorporates natural materials and human scale.

First Church of Christ Scientist, Bernard Maybeck, arch.

First Church of Christ Scientist, Bernard Maybeck, arch.

Stroik similarly exaggerates when he writes that Wright, Le Corbusier, Aalto and Mies “did very few churches.” It is true that Mies designed only the rather forlorn chapel at IIT, but Le Corbusier built three churches, and Wright built no less than six places of worship: Unity Temple, Unitarian Meeting House, a Greek Orthodox church, Congregation Church, Beth Sholom Synagogue, and a chapel at Florida Southern University. As for Aalto, he designed six churches as well as two funerary chapels (one unbuilt). I have not seen his transcendent church at Imatra, but I have seen Wright’s Beth Sholom, and it is a numinous space. So is the dark cave of Ronchamp. I recently re-visited Bernard Maybeck’s First Church of Christ Scientist in Berkeley. While this exceptional design is hardly a paragon of modernism, neither is it bound by tradition. But it is a moving and much loved place of worship.


VenturiThe book launch of Civic Art, a history of the first hundred years of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, was the occasion for the Charles Atherton Memorial Lecture at the National Building Museum, delivered this year by Thomas Luebke, the current secretary of the commission. In the course of his talk, Luebke made an interesting observation: commemorative memorials in Washington, D.C. have become increasingly influenced by other media, specifically photography. When the Lincoln Memorial was completed in 1922, Daniel Chester French’s statue of the president was the sculptor’s interpretation of his subject (French did have access to a life mask of Lincoln, as well as plaster casts of his hands), and in due course the seated figure became a national icon. When the Marine Corps Memorial was unveiled in 1954, it consisted of a giant statue based on the AP correspondent Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. Instead of creating an original work, the “sculptor,” one Felix de Weldon, simply appropriated an already famous image. The photo, not the memorial, was the real icon. More recent commemorative works, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, have been similarly based on photographs. Likewise the current version of the proposed memorial to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Why does this matter? Memorials that simply mimic another medium lose much of their power; they are more like billboards than sacred markers. Robert Venturi once proposed  that a civic building should be designed as a simple box with a blinking sign on top saying I AM A MONUMENT. One is never quite sure how seriously to take Venturi’s offbeat pronouncements, but the current crop of photographic-inspired memorials suggests just how thin the joke really is.