An architectural language
I find it increasingly hard to get very excited about these style battles, and I suspect a lot of people feel the same way. Thomas Gordon Smith spoke at the conference, and he sounded entirely sane. (As one nationally known architect said to me on the way out of the hall, “The dragon turns out not to be such a dragon.”) He presented Classicism as an architectural language of well-understood conventions, a language that can and should be used inventively. I’ve visited his school and liked the student work.

Photography: © Scott Frances/Esto
Richard Meier’s Phoenix courthouse is another Design Excellence project.

I suppose you could make the analogy with English, another language of conventions in which it is, nevertheless, possible to write original poetry. If you stretch the English language, or the language of architecture, too far too fast, what you get is an uncomprehending public. As Charles Moore put it, avant-garde architecture can be like Esperanto—an invented language understood only by a small international claque of appreciators.

In my talk at the Washington conference, I showed images of some of the recent courthouses the GSA has built. And, in fact, they come in many styles, some of them pretty conservative, including a couple of deep bows to neo-Georgian or Southwest adobe. The latter were obeying another of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s behests: “Specific attention should be paid to the possibilities of incorporating … qualities which reflect the regional architectural traditions of that part of the Nation in which buildings are located.” Of all the GSA courthouses, only Thom Mayne’s in Eugene, Oregon, is anything you could call far-out. And one of the Eugene judges spoke to us, too. He was in love with his building.

I ended the day feeling less than inflamed by the taste war. Do we really have to make a religion out of any one approach?

Modernism in architecture was clearly a religion, in the sense that it was based on an a priori belief system rather than on pragmatic experiment. The world is full of systems like that. Freudian psychoanalysis and astrology come to mind: both systems of belief, like Modernism, in which a single internally coherent system is assumed to govern more or less everything. The more strident aspects of today’s New Urbanism, with its ideology of the so-called “Transect,” can sound a lot like another such belief system. So can Classicism. Or Pugin’s Gothic.

For me, a keystone experience was that of living as a student for three years in a building called Lowell House at Harvard. Lowell House is exactly what Modernists rebelled against: a sort of oversize, underdetailed, cupola-topped version of a British redbrick Georgian country house, a stage set for the lives of students (all male, of course) who were regarded as the cultural descendants of the robed undergraduates of Oxford and Cambridge.

Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell, for whom the building was named, was a bigot who established a Jewish quota at Harvard and, as chair of a blue-ribbon panel, sent the Italian immigrants Sacco and Vanzetti to their needless deaths. You can read Lowell House as the architectural embodiment of his Anglophile bias. Buildings are always message bearers. But I’ve never been able to persuade myself that life would have been better if Walter Gropius had arrived at Harvard 10 years before he did and had insisted that Lowell House be designed in the International Style. Lowell was, and is, a delightful, functional, and beautiful place to live.

An architectural agnostic
There is room in America for different kinds of architecture. Any one of them can be done well or badly. We don’t have to make a fetish of either the past or the future. In any architectural language, old or new, you can be inventive and functional on the one hand, or form-frozen and dysfunctional on the other. Of course, you have to reinvent your language, just as Palladio, faced with new programs and sites, reinvented the language of the Romans he idolized. Or as did Jefferson, when he branded the Pantheon on the University of Virginia. Or Corbu, when his memory of whitewashed shapes on the Greek islands led him to Ronchamp.

I’ve turned into an architectural agnostic. I don’t believe in any set of principles. Or better, I believe in everything. We’re never going to have another dominant style. There ain’t gonna be no common language. The information revolution makes too many options available to everyone. Architects and clients should be able to use any architectural style they like, as long as it’s fresh and fitting and solves the real problems.

You do have to wonder, though, exactly what will be the role of Smith, now the one and only “GSA Architecture Fellow.” I guess we’ll find out. Is he indeed the product of some conservative political move behind the scenes? Should there be, perhaps, an equal-and-opposite adviser with a different point of view?

I’ll end as I began. Another of Moynihan’s Guiding Principles says this of federal architecture: that it must be done “in an architectural style and form which is distinguished and which will reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor and stability of the American Government.”

Four nouns chosen as a poet might choose: You can’t say it any better.