Part II – Permanence
Posted on May 14, 2015
America had its own battle with “shabby Chic”. Since our independence, the old world began to wane and America’s influence grew; and with it came the struggle to express the rise and importance of our new nation and its beliefs in an architectural expression- one that represented a new and lasting view of human dignity in self-rule.
Men like Jefferson once more looked back to the Greeks and Romans to bring meaning to our new democracy- the Great Experiment. America’s great painters like Thomas Cole painted grand paintings of the Acadian state, the Consummation and the Destruction of an Empire- a vision for America’s development and decline as a society. L’ Enfant laid plans for a great capital among the swamps of the Potomac to rival the great cities of Europe.
As we sought to bring a civic quality to our nation, the Chicago Columbian Exposition would give rise to the City Beautiful Movement in an attempt to bring great civic structures and planning to our quickly growing cities. Planners such as Edward H. Bennett were in great demand as the need to civilize and refine cities that had grown out of the wilderness grew.
Architects like Mckim, Mead & White and Arthur Brown as well as others like Cram, Ferguson and Goodhue were among countless other local architects that lent our cities each a unique character within a common classic language understood by all. Developers like Earnest Flagg built cities of culture, while benefactors such as Andrew Carnegie sought to build a library in every community.
From this extraordinary collective effort came the core of the great American city; libraries, judicial courts, city halls, financial institutions, churches, post offices, schools and universities were built as monuments to our beliefs and experiences as a society; each expressive in their use; each giving identity to the American city, while bringing beauty and culture to our communities.
Great structures such as Penn Station, the Lincoln Memorial, the National Gallery, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Boston Public Library, Pasadena City Hall, and Rhode Island State House; the great universities like Stanford, Princeton, and Rice; as well as institutions like the Chicago Institute of Art, the Detroit Museum of Art, and the National Gallery gave rise to a civic pride and lent permanence to our common vision of a nation.
The 1960’s saw a shift in academic views towards our cities. As populations were driven to the suburbs, downtowns were deemed tired at best, and at worst, irrelevant. Buildings, great buildings, were torn down in scores and replaced with parking lots, leaving our cities resembling the gapped tooth grin of a crack addict; dysfunctional and beyond caring – no hope of a future.
There was a great line from the movie King of California, when the main character found his orange grove now surrounded by suburbia, “ I used to be in the middle of nowhere. I still am, but now there’s just more of us.” As the great swell of suburbia continues to suck the soul out of our cities, we have at least begun recognize and to rebuild the core of our communities. We once again are investing in infrastructure, great parks, and civic buildings. These new efforts, however, lack the common vision of our forefathers, and as we build anew, we fail to see the future in any recognizable character. Each building built professes a pluralism of confusion, each vying for its own recognition without the recognition of the community as a whole.
Architects no longer recognize cities for their unique character, or even their values as a common whole. There is no longer a sense of who we are, or whom we wish to be beyond the now. As we build these buildings our foundations have been lost, and as we build, pop-culture has supplanted knowledge, culture and a sense of who we are as a nation- as a people. The cities we are investing our future in will not be recognizable for their uniqueness by those of the next generation. There will be no great gift passed down; only, structures of outdated fashion and obsolete technologies. Their inheritance of the City Beautiful will be spent.