cats & modernism

suddenly, Mr. Whiskers realized that not even Frank Lloyd Wright could design an adequate scratching post

suddenly, Mr. Whiskers realized that not even Frank Lloyd Wright could design a scratching post that would meet his expectations

A notice came across our desk today that identifies October 29 as National Cat Day (not to be confused with International Cat Day on August 8, which is a semi-legit event sponsored by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who seem like very decent folks), which is founded by someone who calls herself a “pet and family lifestyle expert, animal behaviorist, designer and author” but who somehow does not even have her own wiki.  Unlike most “national” holidays, Cat Day has a sponsor: a kitty litter company.

This is silly, and not only if present company raises an eyebrow to the idea that cats deserve any kind of celebration (dogs, on the other hand . . . ).  Rather, our concern is for the sake of the felines themselves.  Did anyone ask them if they wanted or needed the honor?  We assume their response would have been a collective are you kidding dahhhrling, every day is cat day, before (or while) they sauntered away to poop in the fern.

Still, the pictures of cats in architecture got us wondering.  Of course the picture-story from Architizer features only Modernist buildings, but this time the bias seems only too perfect.  Slinky, sexy and alluring, yet cold, aloof, high-maintenance and unaccommodating: cats & modernism are a match made . . . somewhere.

truth be told, we dig this one

truth be told, we dig this one


I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts

Thomas Jefferson, sculpted by Houdon (1789)

Thomas Jefferson, sculpted by Houdon (1789)

You see I am an enthusiast on the subject of the arts. But it is an enthusiasm of which I am not ashamed, as its object is to improve the taste of my countrymen, to increase their reputation, to reconcile them to the rest of the world, and procure them its praise.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote those lines to James Madison in September, 1785, the two were communicating long-distance about a new project underway: the State Capitol for Jefferson’s (and Madison’s) home state of Virginia. Jefferson was in France, where he had served for six months as US Minister Plenipotentiary.  Although exposure to practices of the French crown left him cold (or, actually, revolted) he was warmed by the glories of architecture, both ancient and modern, available to him in France.  Jefferson had gone to Europe feeling pretty enthusiastic about the arts, but became an even stronger proponent of architecture as a symbol of national health and strength.  In the next decades he turned the three major architectural projects of his life to fulfill the ideas he shared with Madison, designing in a way that not only delighted his own taste, but that promised to provide “models for study and imitation” by other American builders.  For the Virginia State Capitol he drew from the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple that he beheld in Nîmes, where he “gazed [at it] whole hours . . . like a lover at his mistress.”  By 1819 he had realized the “academical village” that he had theorized for at least fifteen years, crowning his plan for the University of Virginia with the Pantheon-inspired Rotunda.  With these two public buildings, Jefferson presented America with fully realized studies of the “most perfect examples” of what he called “cubic” and “spherical” architecture from antiquity.  In the meantime, he had continued to tinker with his own home at Monticello. Originally designed as a fine but unexceptional Palladian villa, it was imaginatively redesigned after the Hôtel de Salm (with which Jefferson admitted being “violently smitten”), recreating très moderne Parisian elegance as best he could in Albemarle County.

Of all the Founding Fathers, Jefferson is perhaps the most foundational: author of two of the country’s signature documents (this one and that one) and provider of the core of the Library of Congress collection.  Elevating architecture among those political, religious, and intellectual endeavors, Jefferson penned the clearest articulation in a president’s hand of the value of architecture to a country.  He put theory into practice by providing “proof of national good taste” and by seeking opportunities to develop that taste among his fellow citizens in the first place.

Read more of Jefferson on architecture here.

PAV 3 det 274

Pavilion III at the “Academical Village”

Tilda Swinton ‘Maybe’ Art



Having already performed the work in London and Rome (1995, 1996), Tilda Swinton brought her performance piece “The Maybe” to New York in March, 2013. It is exactly what it looks like: Tilda Swinton sleeping in a box, in the Museum of Modern Art.

People who think that museums are for paintings and sculptures–among them images of women but not the animate thing itself–may wonder, what is the point?

Is the title meant to state the fragile, uncertain nature of “art” by its identification with a simple adverb modified, incongruously, by an article adjective–making language just as flimsy as the ‘art’ it might describe?

Is it some kind of statement on fame and celebrity and access and voyeurism?

Is it just a crass marketing ploy, the blonde vampire in the transparent coffin, leading up to the release of a movie later this year?

Is it a statement on how not to nap: (1) in public, (2) in jeans and (3) with shoes?

Is Swinton a Tracey Emin fan and this performance is an homage–or rebuttal?–to the Unmade Bed, providing a tidy napper for the earlier, much messier, installation?

And do you need to go back to college and take that contemporary art class to get it?–to understand art, to know if it’s good or not?  Or even, anymore, to be able to identify art when you see it, especially if the sight of a very normal human activity, but performed by a famous person in a box in a gallery, challenges your understanding of “art”?


You only need to know: yes, Swinton sleeping in public (above) is art, while the guy doing the same thing, in a different context (below), is not.  Swinton’s nap is art and that guy’s nap is, instead, just shy of vagrancy, for the same reason this is art and this is not, and why this art and this is not.


Because: a stage, and a proclamation.

Because: modern, and Duchamp.

Now, while you have to say it’s art, you don’t have to say it’s good art.  Because: when the eons-old understanding of “art” was overturned by a French guy with a urinal, traditional judgement on “quality” was necessarily abandoned as well.  While one category of making and consuming was closed to a tight, small circle–one which has become mightily skilled at communicating its sense of superiority and keeping its trade secrets to itself–, another was opened up to a wider audience.  And it is only fair that if the naming makes the artist, the critique makes the critic.

Then again, no one every said that modern art is fair.


not art.

not art.

Habemus Papam, Habemus Piazza


The piazza of St. Peter’s Basilica, 13 March 2013

The first basilica constructed to house Christian worship on the site where St. Peter was buried fulfilled the liturgical needs of the early (make that very early: fourth-century-early) Church precisely.  With the patronage of the first professing Christian emperor behind it, the church was built solidly and was intended to last the centuries.

With proper maintenance, it would still be standing there in its brick-walled, timber-roofed, mixed-up spolia glory.  But Constantine’s big basilica ran afoul of the new developments in aesthetic theory and specifically the revived sense of beauty that was current in the early sixteenth century.  Humanism happened, and what we now call the Renaissance was well underway.  Pope Julius II (1503-13), one of the tastiest popes in history, ordered the destruction of the old barn of a church to make way for something beautiful to modern eyes, something that would be a more appropriate formal setting for the rituals of the Church, given the revived interest in the glorious of ancient Rome and its prominence in Church history.

About a century and a half (and almost two dozen popes, not to mention a gaggle of architects, sculptors and other artists) later, the church stood complete, pretty much in today’s final form: Michelangelo’s great dome rose over the mass fronted by Maderno’s great facade that features the balcony of appearances, while Bernini’s lengthy colonnades swept forward to define the piazza. It is, truly, a glorious setting: one that at once celebrates the power of the Roman Catholic Church and provides a proper setting for its head.

It was to this stage that so many of us turned on 13 March 2013, especially as news of the white smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel spread through the airwaves and over the internets.  Fortunate souls in Rome swarmed the streets in a migration of pilgrims to the piazza, filling it by the tens of thousands.  Around the world the rest of us looked on from a distance, electronically-enabled to be brought visually into the piazza through the medium of whatever screen was most easily accessible.

Almost four centuries ago, the piazza’s architect, Bernini, famously described his design as the “motherly arms of the Church;” the colonnades were designed to “reach out with open arms to embrace Catholics to reaffirm their belief, heretics to reunite them with the Church, and agnostics to enlighten them with the true faith.”  Surely he never dreamt that his concetto would work on such a scale, the piazza embracing not only those who could be physically in the place, but also onlookers from thousands of miles away.

on the balcony

Francis appears

On this Wednesday, the attention of everyone in the piazza–both really, and virtually, there–centered on the new head of the Church.  By all accounts, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, now Pope Francis, is a simple and humble man, as indicated by his choice of name that references the willfully impoverished saint of Assisi.  His walk supports the talk: in his home country he visited slums, rode the bus, prepared his own meals.  On the evening of his election, the image of his silhouetted form, simple white against the dark drapes of the balcony, reinforced his apparent nature, which is emphasized by the difference between it and his environment.  In this way, the architectural setting of the Vatican works in a very different manner than its original patrons intended.  While so many popes luxuriated in the richness of their position (Leo X, pope from 1513-21, infamously proclaimed “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it,” and enthusiastically set about emptying Vatican coffers as only a Medici could do), their material culture works both for and against their church and its head.  On the one hand, the spectacular glory of the place and its piazza is a fitting monument to such a powerful denomination, some 1.2 billion members strong and two millennia old.  However, it is also a reminder of grotesque excesses, the kind that got Martin Luther and his lot all in a lather.


The simple casket of John Paul II, being blessed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at the pope’s funeral.  Ratzinger was elected pope eleven days later.

But that excess can now be turned to new expressive purpose.  The elegance and expense is also a foil for simplicity and prudence, reinforcing the reforms of recent popes.  The statement of poverty made by the casket that held the body of Pope John Paul II–a simple wooden vessel for the one of clay within–, was made all the more powerful by its placement within the monument of Renaissance and Baroque artistry.  Likewise, St. Peter’s scale and majesty made the lone figure of the new pope all the more small and humble, communicating that this leader of millions is, in many ways, very much alone.

It is a simple truth of architectural history that some of its great monuments, from palaces to churches and mausoleums to capitols, were built by people who were not, on the whole, praiseworthy–some of them could barely be described as occasionally honorable.  That is what separates the past (the fact that certain ignoble people built noble things) from history (what we do with those things they left behind).  Goodness or badness of person is not necessarily reflected in their buildings: we are blessed by the wondrous artistic fruits of great as well as corrupt people.  What we choose to do with and to them, and how we maintain and preserve, utilize and adapt, or neglect and destroy, is what articulates our contemporary values.  Likewise, the way that Francis utilizes the incomparable architectural heritage and the traditions of patronage to which he is now heir will say a lot about him.

Initial–at this point, indeed, very initial–speculation about the pontificate of Pope Francis suggests that he will not produce very much good architecture, but he may indeed produce very much good.

the funeral of John Paul II

The funeral of John Paul II, 08 April 2005

patriotic clothing

the terrorists win.

Exhibiting one’s patriotism is noble when it’s done in good taste.  Activities that reveal one’s dedication to a nation’s principles and ideals and better angels are in really good taste.  This includes engaging in well-informed public discourse, practicing proper etiquette in the presence of the flag and festooning one’s house with bunting on national holidays.

Festooning one’s self with bunting on national holidays, however, is never a good idea.  It may be a habit elsewhere too, but is definitely a problem in the U S of A where, especially on Independence Day, all across the fruited plains, Americans indulge in bizarre costuming in the name of patriotism by mis-appropriating the flag in hideous garments.  America’s national holidays already teeter on the verge of caricature.  It’s not MoT‘s mission to get preachy about national pride, but we will humbly suggest that the triumvirate of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day ought not to be the days-off-work that define the start, peak, and end of summer, extolled as excuses to have a barbecue.  Of course you ought to have a barbecue–we’ll bring the brownies–, and it would be great if sometime during the day you did something to recognize the intended nature of the day, but it would also be wonderful if you’d not take part in patriotic-dressing-cum-flag-desecration.

It’s not that the American flag is an inviolate symbol, it’s just that its design is really not amenable to attractive clothing.  There’s a reason stars and two-tone striping don’t show up on a lot of your non-holiday-themed garments (unless you wear a certain kind of uniform).  The color combo of red, white and blue is very, very hard to pull off.  So use them wisely.  If you are compelled to decorate yourself like the flag, consider diminutive stars that may be mistaken as polka dots at a distance.  Choose stripes wisely; seersucker is not a bad option.  Flag pins may be required on politicians’ lapels, but giant star earrings are prohibited.  Finally, you can only choose two of the three colors from the flag.  (Alternately, forego the whole walking-flag thing and dress as your favorite Founding Father: this guy and this guy knew how to put together an outfit.)

These are the rules for flag dressing, which has very few exceptions.  You MAY wear flagoriffic clothes if:

1. you’re a little girl

2. you’re a crazy old man

3. you’re an athlete in uniform

4. you’re a superhero

5. you’re a pop star who is basically a cartoon image of a real person

(and then, if you’re going to do it, do it right)

6. we take that back

America is the home of the free and you are free to wear whatever God-awful clothing you like, but please, consider the tender sensibilities of people who have to look at you.  Honor the men and women who have died defending this country and its flag so it can wave proudly from sea to shining sea, not so you can Old Glorify your bottom or star-spangle your bosom.  Those colors may not run, but if we see them at the picnic, we may turn tail, and we’re taking our brownies with us.

Correction: these colors do indeed run, and jump, and also basically look awesome just poised for action.

Gehry, Ike, and the Language of Memory

proposal for Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial by Frank Gehry

The construction of memorials is a tricky business that has only become more complicated in the last decades, especially in Washington.  Desires for inclusiveness of design and transparency of process, set within the quagmire of federal systems and on the always-contested landscape of the capital, ensures that the process, from inception to completion, will be a long, winding, difficult path.  All of those challenges make it harder, but even more important, that we get it right, especially when we consider what is at stake.  Memorials are, after all, the built manifestation of collective memory; that is their point, and it always has been.  Cultures around the world and through all epochs have left reminders of what was important, both to remind themselves and communicate to future generations.  These messages are carried through art and/or architecture, a means that is mutually understood by artist and audience, ideally in a manner (style, if you like) that is, even without the content, inspiring.

Frank Gehry’s design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial falls short both in content and manner–in part because the two are so at odds with each other.  Gehry’s design, which has undergone at least one major revision, spreads a collection of objects across a rectangular four-acre urban park.  Rows of round piers line three of its sides and support metal screens that bear two-dimensional images of his childhood in Kansas.  At the center of the site, an empty space is flanked by skewed planes defined by thick stone slabs with inscriptions and stacked at angles.  Figural sculptures, representing his adult achievements, will stand in front of them.

now THAT’S a colonnade

In that description, we’ve tried to be as accurate as possible given the modernist language of Gehry’s design.  The traditional components articulate something, but the architectural elements do not say much, do they?  Piers, screens, planes.  They have a relationship to neither their immediate context on the National Mall nor any meaningful tradition of memorial design.  The problem with abstraction (well, one of its problems) is that it cannot fulfill the need for significance that people seek in architecture–that was and is the point of Modernism, after all, to break from the past, which makes it antithetical to the memorial function of remembering.  This is especially significant in a project that has as its primary function the communication of an idea.  With a little imagination (which most people have, even non-architect people, which architects sometimes forget), people will surmise their own meaning within the abstract forms, and this can lead to a world of problems.  Detractors have already latched onto Gehry’s metal screens as being evocative of concentration camp chain link fences (architects might be reminded instead of Gehry’s infamous debut with the material).  Other people understand this element to be symbolic of another metallic “cloth:” the Iron Curtain–probably not a desirable image in a memorial to a significant World War II figure.  Others still might be chilled by the formal similarity of the blocky elements to this earlier monument.  The tall–VERY tall (80′ high)–cylindrical piers have been denigrated as looking like missile silos but also described as “columns” in an effort to make them seem more at home among the tradition of Classical memorials all over the Mall.  (Perhaps the same motivation lead some supporters to refer to the metal screens, ridiculously, as “tapestries.”)  That is silly, since they more closely resemble upended culvert pipes than true columns (if you need a refresher, see Henry Bacon’s work above).  Even more absurd is the suggestion that Gehry’s design is a roofless classical temple, a notion that only illustrates how hollow are the arguments that Gehry’s architecture is at home in the Classical city.

These various attempts to stretch language into impossible meanings is distracting and unhelpful, but it also points to part of the trouble with this design.  Even its supporters scramble for language to describe what it is, which is an essential part of explaining what it is supposed to do.  And it reveals a key problem with this design, which is its desire to do two things.  On the one hand, it is a big expensive project by a name-brand architect who is famous for making up his own aesthetic (which, we think, he should absolutely be free to do when he serves his private clients).  On the other, it’s trying desperately to fit into two contexts that are famously consistent in their language: the federal capital, and the tradition of memorial design.  Gehry’s proposal can’t do either.

Union Station (Burnham, 1907)

Both Washington and its Classicism are flexible systems, but they have their limits.  For well over two centuries architects have been working in that particular language of architecture, exercising its consistency and legibility, but also its flexibility.  It’s the langauge of Thornton’s capitol and Walter’s dome, Cret’s library and Pope’s museum, countless other public edifices and private homes, not to mention all those memorials, the most famous (and beloved) of which are truly Classical.

Grant Memorial (Shrady & Casey, from 1902)

Because of those immediate physical (National Mall) and functional (memorial) contexts, designing memorials in a Classical vein is arguably the right thing to do, and thus the popularity of those that have followed this vast precedent–perhaps most recently and most successfully, the National World War II Memorial (in spite of criticism from the professional architectural community).  Here we are not just thinking about the architectural forms that make up a memorial.  Rather, we are considering the Classical manner of memorial-making, traditionally either a building to go into (Jefferson, Lincoln) or an object to look at and walk around (Washington, Grant).  One of the problems with contemporary memorials seems to be the foregone conclusion that a they must be big, and the unfortunate assumption (usually) that they cannot be traditional plazas, and with that, the preference for walk-through sculpture-garden-events (like the semi-successful memorial for the Korean War).  While enlarging the scale and budget of a project, these big landscapes do not inherently make the memorial more effective.  The Eisenhower Committee (and the countless other committees that will doubtless follow their lead) might learn something by considering the strength and impact of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial.  Its three sculptural groups are positioned on piers and define a fine and simple open room.  They effectively communicate the character of fortitude and calm for which Grant was famous especially in the midst of battle, as portrayed in the evocative flanking groups of Cavalry Charge and Artillery on either side of the central equestrian figure.  The sculpture groups communicate their subject brilliantly, without any screens, scrims, pediments or colonnades.  The team of sculptor and architect understood how to utilize their site and the surrounding monuments to enhance their memorial, while their work contributed appropriately to its setting.  Eisenhower might, likewise, be better served by this traditional approach.

As much as we believe that function, meaning, symbolism, and appropriateness are best served with a Classical design, we’re willing cede that it’s not always the only and best thing to do.  Two cases-in-point come to mind.  The Astronaut Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center (1991) effectively melded a high-tech image into a somber monument that was meant to constantly scan the heavens (its mechanical failure is both regrettable and embarrassing); it told a story and fits is place.  Closer to home, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1981) was not the first project that raised the issue of memorial langauge to the status of public debate, but it did so prominently and recently.  Without rehashing the complexities of arguments about that design, suffice it say, the image of a semi-subterranean, black angle with no recognizable imagery was shocking.  But in its muteness it accepts and maybe encourages different points of view, which is appropriate for that difficult war and its aftermath.  One of the problems of its legacy is that it suggests that the mute-modern approach is generally acceptable for memorials, rather than understanding its qualities in this specific social and political context.

national treasure, indeed!

Eisenhower is a different case altogether.  A two-term president, five-star general, and Allied commander in Europe during World War II are the hallmarks of a heroic figure who ought to be treated as such.  That is where Gehry’s language falls short on several counts.  Although it is not traditional, it is also not the identity-free architecture designed by an unknown architecture student in a competition for the Vietnam War.  It is a monument designed by one of the world’s best-known architects, and we bet you dollars to donuts that people visiting Washington in ten years will ask for directions to “the Gehry monument” rather than “the Ike memorial.”  Gehry is a name-brand architect; that is why he is sought after by clients around the world who want a wow-and-now image.  Selecting Gehry to design a building is like putting Nicolas Cage in your movie.  If you cast him, they will come.  The work of memorial designers, not the designers themselves, should attract attention and visitors; the designers should be invisible–possibly be made famous by a great design (or not, as was the case with unfortunate Shrady), or if already famous, practice in such a way that their ego is subsumed by the project (only Classical architecture geeks who visit Mr. Jefferson’s memorial are distracted by its Popeness), not chosen for already being famous and potentially outshining their subject.

Fred & Ginger (1996)

That is another reason why the Classical language is appropriate to memorial design: we read it as a style, generally; specialists can recognize differences across the decades and between practitioners, but that distinction does not matter in a style that is timeless, and is thus appropriate to communicate timeless values, like heroism.  Gehry’s work is the opposite of that–it is about the spectacle of the moment–, and it should be left alone to do so.  His highly sculptural buildings gain meaning (again, by people who seek for buildings to speak to them) only from other people; he does not engender them with anything.  Other people saw a dancing couple in his skyscraper in Prague (left); after proposing his design for a Guggenheim museum for  Abu Dhabi he spied a consonance between his work and the “domes and things . . . blocky shapes” of Ottoman mosques.  Gehry’s work doesn’t communicate anything more transcendent than the materials available to him at this moment in time; they will age and date and be eventually worn out.  The framework of this memorial will always evoke its decade, distracting from the figural elements that will continue to communicate, albeit in a setting that is hardly supportive of their mission.  Gehry’s idiom is not amenable to the figural additions that are tacked on like afterthoughts; they are post-it notes on a marker board.

In an attempt, perhaps, to put a lid on the controversy, as poobahs like to do, the commission’s “executive architect,” Daniel Feil (awarded a 2012 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture by the AIA–emphasis on the AIA rather than the Jefferson, to be sure), issued this meant-to-be-definitive statement:

Different people like different things.  But this is a design [Gehry’s] that is quite an extraordinary remembrance of President Eisenhower, and that will transform this plot of land.

This is neither an innocent nor a simple statement.  Its bookends are ultimately dismissive: (1) differences of opinion are simple matters of personal taste which aren’t worth talking about (except, we assume, among the professionals who know better), and (2) “transformation,” although it only means “change,” suggests the idea of improvement–highly arguable in this case.  (Construction of a Five Guys would be a really welcome transformation in this neighborhood, too.)  But then consider the stuffing: the design is “quite an extraordinary remembrance.”  Well yes, “extraordinary,” another word which is value-free, but meant to imply a positive idea.  It  simply means unusual, remarkable, sweeping: things that might be said of the design of the QE2 as well as the sinking of the Titanic.  More to the point, what “remembrance”?  The only remembering prompted by this memorial are the afterthought elements–the sculptures littered around and overwhelmed by the huge architectural forms.  They may communicate, but Gehry’s abstractions can only reflect what others see in them; they carry no memory.  They are the surface of the pond, not the well of wisdom.

Memoria is not just a root word taken from a dead language.  Memoria references a canon of rhetoric,  which is about the shaping and presentation of speech.  Memoria is about argument and inquiry; it is the recall of points within a debate.  That is where established languages of architecture are useful for memorial purposes.  We grow up with traditions that seep into our common understanding.  Whether or not a person can articulate the differences between each of the Orders, they usually recognize their general connection with institutions dedicated to the common good, and prevailing, positive values that have been commended since antiquity.  The fact that our institutions sometimes fail us is not a reason to reject this heritage; it is reason to demand that the institutions–and let’s be clear, we’re talking about people who are in charge of them–live up to their promise.  Arguments that these ideals are invalid are cynical at best, and nihilistic at worst.

The Gehry memorial should not be rejected because it is in a modernist style, or because it is too big, too expensive, or will be too hard to maintain.  It should be rejected because it fails to do its job to contribute to contemporary public discourse on its subject and will not share that understanding with future generations.  It communicates a trendy image that is destined to be outdated, which is not just disrespectful of its subject but an indictment of our public attitude toward history.  And if in that way it is indicative of the zeitgeist, it is the emblem of a people who have given up caring about and learning from their own legacy.

See the Memorial Commission website for best images of the proposal

Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (Henry Merwin Shrady & architect William Pearce Casey, 1902)

we are what we build

master plan (April 2012)

What follows is an op-ed piece regarding a proposed development to the former site of the Applied Composites factory in St. Charles, Illinois, as a residential project called Lexington Club (see more about it on the city website).  Although an issue of particular importance to its immediate community, it is a case study for similar developments that are unfortunately being approved all over the country. (image: from this source)

As is true of most places, the history of St. Charles is written in its buildings.  Not only are they the backdrop for the regular festivals and daily activities that draw people to the town and help to keep them here, but they are also symbols of how the city’s people have lived and what they value.  This is an obvious lesson for famous places: from the cathedrals of Europe to the casinos of Las Vegas, travelers can immediately tell what was important to the people of a place by virtue of what kinds of buildings attracted the investment of their time, effort, and money.

Likewise, the buildings of St. Charles tell its story.  From the modest start of the town (visible in two-room stone houses that dot older neighborhoods) to its rise as an entertainment destination (expressed in the extraordinary architecture of the Hotel Baker and Arcada Theater), the city’s growth and values are evident in its buildings.  Beyond these few examples stand hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of structures of diverse style, age, and use, and for all their differences, the great majority of them have in common an obvious concern for quality: quality in design, and quality in construction.  Even when buildings were economical, they prove their builders’ investment in the city, for their own use, and in preparation for the future.

We now call that concern part of “sustainability in architecture,” although that concept has been so obvious to architects and builders through most of history that they had no need to remind each other to do it.  That is not the case any more, and Lexington Club, the single largest development of residential homes to be proposed in the core of the city in many years, does not reflect the values that have long been part of St. Charles’ identity.  The design of the individual houses is a poor reflection of the city’s heritage; they are, at best, cartoons of the houses that make up the majority of St. Charles.  Their minimal variations within the enclave would actually express a dull redundancy across the project rather than connect it to its surrounding neighborhood and the abundance of architectural styles that presently are a hallmark of, and asset to, the city.  The street plan does not follow the traditions of St. Charles’ grid but rather is a low-cost, thoughtless solution that will ensure that the zone is isolated from, not knit into, the existing city.  The building materials are specifically chosen as a cheap alternative to those used throughout the city; the builder has requested a variance from the municipal building code to allow the use of substandard materials inferior to the standard set for residential construction by law.  The very name chosen for the development is isolating: “Lexington” means something in Kentucky or Massachusetts but it has no significance in Illinois; likewise, a “Club” is defined as much by the members it admits as the ones it excludes.

Just as the naming of the development reveals the degree to which the developer has no interest in the city, the choices to make the development an island of second-rate houses express miserly values of cold economy, not the concerned interests of community development.  The developers have little understanding of St. Charles except as one more mine from which to draw profit before they walk away.  They have no investment in the place except for a financial one.  And that is absolutely their right in a capitalist society.  But it is not their right (nor the right of any business) to demand a certain profit margin from the community where they offer their wares.  That is also part of capitalism: there are no guarantees that the public will buy what you are selling.  This is a point that surely the developers are not unclear about, but they have been very cunning with the means by which they have sought city assistance through variances in the zoning laws, TIF financing, and other means, to ensure profits on their investment.  The property is simply not as good an investment as it appeared to be before the bubble burst in 2008, and the developers are eager to recoup what they can.  They have tried to stretch the limits of the law to cheapen the product they are selling below the quality of what is acceptable in the city, ignored the dictates of the Comprehensive Plan and thus the voice of the community, and basically asked the city to offset their own losses.  It is their grasp for a bailout, paid for by the residents of the city.

It is past time to say no to this flawed proposal.  No is an option; no has a proud history in St. Charles.  In 1937, a proposal to build a new post office was encouraged (as the general idea of residential development on the Applied Composites site has been); but the design sent from Washington was met with immediate rejection (as the specific design by the developer has been).  The community at large refused the simple, economical box designed by an architect in a federal office hundreds of miles away because it would detract from the visual quality of the city.  Community leaders stepped forward: Mayor Ival Langum and citizens E. J. Baker and Lester Norris told the feds no, and arranged for the project that was constructed, and still stands, on Second Street: the beautiful Neo-Classical building that, even when the post office facility moved, was deemed valuable to preserve, and now houses a business (Doc Morgan).  The building is a memorial to civic engagement and strong leadership that was willing to say no to a bad idea and worked to make sure a good idea was raised in its place.

At some point the voice of the city must, finally, say no to Lexington Club.  No to a development that will flood an already bloated housing stock, no to houses that are cheap and boring, no to a development that will be physically segregated from the rest of the city, no to architecture that will fail to contribute to the character of the city.  When the parcel of land is developed, it must be done in a way that enhances, not diminishes, the city.  It is the City Council that has the power and voice to do so, to act in the stead of the people who have trusted them with their offices, and vote, not only for the current situation in mind, but also on behalf of the heritage of the city.

One might say of a city that we are what we build.  The diverse and interesting buildings of St. Charles express the many ages and characters of this special place.  The values of Lexington are not ones worth recording in built form.  The city we pass on to the next generations should express our belief in the heritage of the city and our hope for its future; it should not epitomize absence of political will and abundance of greed.

freeman, swine or slave? another reason why William Morris matters

William Morris, photographed by Halliday Sparling (ca. 1890)

In his essay, “The Lesser Arts of Life” (available in its full form here), William Morris distinguished between the “Greater Arts” (those that appeal to a person’s spirit and emotion by the direct path of his senses) and the “Lesser Arts” (those that serve physical needs).  Articulating a fundamental idea of the Arts and Crafts movement, he explained that the Lesser could act like the Greater, if craftsmen were able to infuse the works of their hands with their emotions.  His argument calls for people to consume in a way that increases the opportunity for the Lesser Arts to be enhanced by the spiritual activity of imaginative work.  Morris’ challenge was for his listeners to do with less, and especially less of what was produced by machines: “see to it that these things are the work of freemen and not of slaves.”  At the time, this was a particularly hard sell to the expanding middle classes of the Victorian era, and today is likewise challenging even to those Occupants, denizens of the very upper part of the 99%.

Morris believed that all things in the material world–house, clothes, furniture–could be described either as works of art or “wretched makeshifts or, what is worse, degrading shams of better things.”  The artfulness of a chair, or teapot, or balustrade, was dependent on the degree to which it revealed the distinct trace of a hand guided by a brain, with only the bare minimum interposition of machines.  Tools, machines, equipment, technology were not the enemy in and of themselves–otherwise Morris’ beloved Medieval masons, with their chisels, mallets, borers, winches and pulleys, would be cast out.  His belief was that a man is dignified through the direct activity of brain and hand working together as closely as possible to achieve the desired and artful, end.  A growing problem in post-Industrial Revolution England, it’s only harder given the even greater globalism of the recent decades, resulting in unintended hypocrisy (maybe there is no other kind), even among the most tasty concerns (we have commented on the buzzkill of a social conscience prompted by the Liberty goods available at Target, for example).

Teacups, lampshades, buildings: then and now, they all had to be made, all human artifacts, all the product of work: work that can dignify or degrade the worker.  In any economy, every person depends on another to make things.  To a great degree, the consumer dictates the condition under which those things will be made.  Morris believed that work was a noble, essential part of life; like the Lesser Arts, capable of being elevated to a spiritually fulfilling role, or degraded to the meanest of enterprise.  He hoped for all people to find worthy work, and to balance it by periods of wholesome rest; this simple goal was the end of three basic social structures:

Such rest, and such work, I earnestly wish for myself and for you, and for all men: to have space and freedom to gain such rest and such work is the end of politics; to learn how best to gain it is the end of education; to learn its inmost meaning is the end of religion.

Although Morris found his early audience for his lectures among craftspeople, his real message was for consumers, for every dollar or pound spent propels an economy of dignity or degradation.  Making those choices for the former was not always easy; as Morris pointedly said, it could be “troublous:”

Consider after all that the life of a man is more troublous than that of a swine, and the life of a freeman than the life of a slave; and take your choice accordingly.

This single sentence must have sounded, and felt, like a piercing blow through the optimism of ballooning nineteenth-century consumerism; its sting still bites today.

Photograph from the National Portrait Gallery

Our friend Clio, the History Muse, addresses this essay in this posting