q. i. f.?

architecture & place

Here’s something special, not because it’s much of a drawing but because it’s a first for me: a sketch from life on the subway in New York. The surreptitious sketch is something I liked to do when living around D.C. years ago, especially when I had to go somewhere by Metro. But though I still always have a little blank-page book in my back pocket, it’s taken two years in NYC to finally break it out and let go on the train here.

wait, there’s more.

Writing this from the New York subway — leaning against one of those ugly painted steel columns on the boarding platform at the moment. In a few minutes I’ll be getting on the G to return from my new employer’s office in Brooklyn to the room I’m renting in Queens, which takes an hour, give or take, depending on how you do it and whether the trains are on schedule.

wait, there’s more.

That does look like fun, doesn’t it?

“It’s un-American to think about tearing down housing. But we have a long history of ghost towns.”

“I’m not at all interested in plundering Buffalo,” said [Mary Our Queen Fr. David] Dye, “But the truth of the matter is that otherwise, St. Gerard’s is not going to survive.”
    Mary Our Queen members are energized. “It’s like waiting for Christmas,” declared Patricia Di Rito, who said the churches built in the Atlanta area in the last 50 years “don’t have the beauty” of many churches in the Northeast. “The Civil War destroyed everything,” she said.
    Rodney Cook, president of the National Monuments Foundation, called the idea of moving the church “the cutting edge of preservation in America today.” “If we continue to let buildings that fine linger unused, they’re doomed for collapse and that’s a tragedy all the way around,” he said.
    [Buffalo Council President David] Franczyk laments taking St. Gerard’s out of its architectural context and dropping it 900 miles away, into a sprawling suburb with exclusive country clubs and upscale shopping. Norcross, once a tiny 19th-century railroad stop, is now home to thousands of corporate transplants living in rambling executive colonial homes with manicured lawns. “Where they want to take that church is no place for a 1912 building replicating an ancient church from Europe,” Franczyk said. “There’s no place for it in that kind of milieu.” Once gone, he said, it can never be replaced.

From an AP article, via New Oxford Review’s daily headlines. (Google News page includes, after article, address for the new parish’s fundraising site, where there are photos.)

Ghosts of Shopping Past

The Morning News, via Retrofitting Suburbia on FB.

phone-shot of north tower from Wilson Ave.

Took advantage of a Baltimore Heritage tour offering to get acquainted with the Baltimore Basilica — that is, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the United States’ first Roman Catholic cathedral — today for the first time. I wish I’d bothered to do it long ago. As cathedrals go, around the globe, this one’s not an especially impressive specimen, really. But it’s hardly without architectural or historical interest. In fact I think it probably ought to be acknowledged as quite a fine instance of the problem of the church in the modern world, expressed in the occasion of a building. I’d like to return to the subject. (Also, before long, with any luck, to the building.)

Fitch saw technology, ironically, as the root of the problem with our buildings. He was perceptive about how too great a reliance on technology could undermine its environmental performance. “The sheer ubiquity of equipment for the manipulation of the natural environment,” Fitch wrote, “has led architects, engineers, and planners to behave as if this circumambient environment could be ignored as a factor in design.” He understood that we cannot “tech” our way out of the environmental problems we’ve created.
   If we are aware of Fitch at all today, it is most likely because of his work as a preservationist. He joined the faculty of Columbia University’s architecture program in 1954 and a decade later helped found its graduate preservation program. Fitch’s passion for preservation can be seen as a part of his overall worldview of architecture’s relationship with the environment. Before Fitch, the preservation movement focused mostly on architectural landmarks. But Fitch saw entire neighborhoods and urban precincts as worthy of preservation.

From a short item in the AIA’s weekly newsbrief, ‘The Legacy of [James] Fitch’.

I’ve been looking in, lately, on the sharp young Notre Dame traditionalists at Shrine of the Holy Whapping, mostly to follow Matthew Alderman, a graduate of ND’s school of architecture sometime in the last few years. He writes also for New Liturgical Movement, where his article ‘The Dangers of Architectural Positivism’ appeared a few days ago. The article includes a link to R. R. Reno’s First Things piece of the previous week, ‘The Sledgehammer of Modernism’ — a review, sort of, of a new bio of His Not-Much-Missed Eminence Le Corbusier, Destroyer of Worlds.

I like reading both Reno and Alderman, generally, but I don’t like fist-wavers like these articles, generated it seems to me for little more than a bit of public venting, among sympathizers, over Modernism. It irks me especially that old owl-rimmed Corbusier must be singled out, and his most apparent defects of character linked without nuance to the manifold defects of his vision as an architect & urbanist. Modernism in Reno’s & Alderman’s brief accounts, here, is entirely about tearing down, stripping bare; and Corbusier here, in particular, is not just in error, with his crude postulates about an emerging ‘scientific’ way of intercourse between the design arts and the economics of industrial society — no, he is willfully destructive, cruel, a cold-blooded would-be architectural totalitarian.

I want to poke at this some, perhaps over a few posts. Not because I have any special expertise to bring to bear, but because the subject deserves thought, and this is a good place for that.

Most jarring for me is the rapid turn in these articles to compress Corbusier and his historical moment into some pithy ideological thing, naked & individual. Neither Reno nor Alderman is a fool about development & complexity & personality in history, of course. Far from it. But in the telling here, each seems uninterested in more than the conclusion, the moral of the story. So in Reno’s piece, after a few sentences to establish what we’re talking about, we go not into any sort of look at relationships between ideas and events of the kind out of which something that comes to be called Modernism may have grown, nor into any sort of look at this talented Swiss kid Jeanneret (groomed for a career in watch-case decoration but with a late-blossoming capacity for larger problems) and his apprehension of or attitude toward ideas & events of the world that he was swimming in. We go instead, with Reno, right to the heart of conflict: ‘Modernism in art and literature is best understood as a drive to bring everything into the open.’ And at the heart of conflict we stay, to be exposed to a smattering of those elements of his expressions of opinion and his work useful, for Reno, as examples of Corbusier’s peculiar position in it.

This is jarring, mostly, because Corbusier’s wasn’t a time & place where the iconoclasm we associate with him, the devotion to whatever seems to represent progress & self-conscious purification from falsehoods of the near past, had the widespread appeal it came to have later in the twentieth century, and which in evolving ways it continues to have. Still, in fact, widely assumed in his world — across the strata of culture — to be expressions of what was good & reasonable, were lively, competing traditional theories & practices of the arts. Jeanneret/Corbusier’s own thoroughgoing artistic formation was on the model of the English Arts & Crafts medieval-revivalists, especially Ruskin — a movement cherished by traditionalists today. His propensity as a student, moreover, wasn’t to push boundaries, to go his own way, but to inhabit what he was taught and to bond with his teachers.

Student Jeanneret/Corbusier (m) at work on
Villa Fallet, designed & built by him 1905–07.

Villa Fallet

Watercolor study of marble niche, Florence,
Jeanneret/Corbusier (imitating ruskin), 1907.

Well, so what? Somewhere along the line he changes his mind. Hardly the only case in history of a man starting in one direction and ending in quite another.

But maybe that’s not all there is to be said about Le Corbusier — that he was a rejecter of solid & worthy things that had come before. Maybe if we’re to get what his Modernism (& others’) amounted to, we need to look for less-than-obvious continuities between it and what he appears to have wholly rejected. And flipping this around, maybe if we’re to appreciate the aesthetic & social pre-modern revivalism he was formed in, we need to look at it somehow through the lens of his conspicuous rejection. Of course, there’s already a body of literature that acknowledges questions like these. (Included in it, apparently, is the new biography Reno finds at once uninteresting & such a provocation.) I’m not intimately acquainted with this literature, unfortunately, and don’t know that I’ll be able to change that, much, in the foreseeable future. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to tease the questions out a bit further as well as I can, though.

Some of the domestic spaces and layouts that most affect us aren’t even rooms or sequences of them, but special microenvironments. Indeed, the true heart of a house or apartment can be a nook or fireplace, porch or furniture arrangement that architect Donlyn Lyndon . . . calls an aedicula. The Latin word originally referred to a miniature house or shrine, sometimes imagined as a hearth surrounded by four posts, that formed the ancient Roman home’s spiritual center. A modern aedicula can take many forms, Lyndon says, but it too is always a well-defined place that can accommodate several people.
aedicula requires some serious thinking. As Lyndon explains: ‘It’s a little house within a house that helps you understand the larger one. That marks a place in the home that you care about, or that your life moves around, or where you put the stuff you like best. . . . The aedicula sets up a counterpoint between the fluid, improvised, changeable aspect of domestic life and this thing that keeps saying, “There’s something central that’s always here.”’

From House Thinking (2006), by Winifred Gallagher.

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