Modern 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.

Lest We Forget


Norwegian Resistance Museum, photo by Jim Eliason

We remember the past in different ways. World War II produced memoirs (Frank, Wiesel, Tregaskis), histories (Churchill, Shirer, Keegan), novels (Mailer, Jones, Heller), and innumerable films and television documentaries. So did the Vietnam War (Dispatches, A Rumor of War, A Bright Shining Lie, The Best and the Brightest, as well as The Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now, and Platoon). Of course, there are also built memorials, which form the focus of wreath-layings and commemorative ceremonies, but our memory resides in many places. So I find the present custom of making so-called visitor centers an integral part of memorials odd, not to say redundant. A museum was to be a part of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., but was wisely removed. Less wisely, Congress has approved an underground “education center” next to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, although that project happily appears stalled. The other night, “Sixty Minutes” showed the 9/11 museum under construction at the World Trade Center site. You would have thought that the vast outdoor memorial would have been sufficient commemoration, but we are also to have a vast underground space devoted to the events of that unhappy day. I once visited the Resistance museum in Oslo, the subject of which was the Norwegian resistance to the Nazi occupation during World War II. It is estimated that 40,000 men and women took an active part in the resistance movement. The museum displays included Sten guns, short-wave radios, and miniature tableaux of wartime scenes, with tiny armored cars being sabotaged, and agents parachuting among cotton-batten clouds. It was informative, charming, and low-key in a laid back Scandinavian sort of way. If we must have a 9/11 museum, I wish it were that modest.

An Age of Anxiety


Every evening I watch the evening news. News may not be exactly the right word. The reports are a combination of speculation about what is about to happen—a presidential speech, a new pope, the Oscars—and spokespeople touting one point of view or another on the issue of the day. Which today is sequestration, or rather “what Washington refers to a sequestration,” as the media insists on calling it, despite the fact that by now it is a term surely familiar to all. But perhaps the most common “news” story is the revelation of a new topic of concern: a previously ignored disease, an unnoticed social condition, an overlooked environmental effect, a looming problem. Journalistic careers are made by discovering the next new trouble: on-line privacy,  bullying, school soccer injuries, cheating on school tests, whatever. Since the evening news insists on being upbeat–at least on PBS– however dire the problem, it can always be fixed, we are told by the earnest experts. Just once, it would be refreshing to hear that a problem was insoluble. “Sorry, nothing can be done about it. It’s just human nature. We’ll have to learn to live with it.”


Jean Beliveau-1

I was in Montreal recently and read in the local paper about the first Canadiens hockey game of the season, which was opened by Jean Beliveau (now 82). In his playing days, Beliveau was known as “Le Gros Bill,” after a popular 1949 French Canadian movie of the same name. Many top hockey players had nicknames: Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Bernard “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, Emile “Butch” Bouchard. The great Jacques Plante was “Jake the Snake.” Nicknames used to be popular. Actors had them, especially the old Western stars—George “Gabby” Hayes, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Alfred “Lash” LaRue, Edmund “Hoot” Gibson, Charles “Buck” Jones, and Woodward “Tex” Ritter, one of the many singing cowboys. Mainstream Hollywood stars used their full first names—Robert, John, James. Today shortened first names are common: Al Pacino, Johnnie Depp, Matt Damon, Tom Hanks. Are nicknames out of fashion? It would seem so. We haven’t had a president with a nickname since Ike, although we’ve had folksy Jimmy and Bill, and we almost had President Al. The last holdout for using nicknames is the Mafia: Andrew “Mush” Russo, Guiseppe “Pooch” Destefano, Joseph “Junior Lollipops” Carna. Some traditions never die.