Paul Cret the Modern Classicist
Posted on October 12, 2018
When approaching the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, the first thing one notices is the Tower, which stands at 337 feet. It has become an iconic landmark not only for the University but for Austin itself. It is well known across the city for its familiar orange lights, displaying the outcome of a football game, or reflecting a black light in recognition of solemn news. Less well known is its architect, French-born Paul Philippe Cret, a student of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
Paul Cret was an established architect in Philadelphia, and he also taught at the University of Pennsylvania until his retirement. Many of his students, including Louis Kahn, would become great architects in their own right.
Although a longtime professor, Cret would go on to design multiple buildings throughout the United States as well as memorials in his home country of France.
Paul Cret’s work exemplifies his understanding of the Beaux-Art building type. For example, his Pan American Union Building, located in Washington, D.C., is considered to be one of the city’s most beautiful classical buildings. In collaboration with artists–including Gutzon Borglum and Isidore Konti–Cret symbolically blended North and South America designs and motifs.
The building is square in plan with an interior patio. The main entry is triple-arcaded with classical details, iconographic sculpture, and ornamental bronze representing Meso-America.
Paul Cret continued to collaborate with artists when he designed the Folger Shakespeare Library with John Gregory, a New York sculptor who created the bas-reliefs of Shakespearean scenes.
Traditionally, one associates sculptural panels to be associated with the frieze in classical architecture, but Cret understood that by bringing them down to the ground level, they would be more easily seen and interpreted. The Shakespeare Library’s exterior is a combination of Beaux-Art classicism and Art-Moderne with Tudor elements on the interior. It exemplifies Cret’s understanding of classicism and his ability to marry distinct styles and influences into a unified and coherent whole.
In 1933, the second Chicago’s World Fair illustrated a shift in the style and culture of America. This fair was known as “A Century of Progress International Exposition”, and it was an “attempt to demonstrate to an international audience the nature and significance of scientific discoveries, the methods of achieving them, and the changes which their application has wrought in industry and in living conditions.”
This fair was different from the World’s Columbian Exposition’s, known as the “White City,” held 40 years prior and can be distinguished by its architecture. The Great Depression devastated the American economy. In the mid-1930s, Americans were optimistic that the country was on the rise and that the future held new and brighter things—prosperity, economic growth, and change. The 1933 World’s Fair reflected that sentiment. The architecture was bold, colorful, and much more modern than the classical World’s Fair of the 1890s.
The fair also came at a time when a divide was forming within the architecture community between traditionalists and modernists. Many architects believed that classical forms—like those typical of the White City—were out-dated and inappropriate for modern times. The twentieth century called for a new modern architectural language.
As a classically trained architect, Cret understood the value of proportion, symmetry, and traditional architectural details. At the same time, he was a pragmatic designer, and he aimed to adapt those forms to the needs of the modern world. To achieve this, he used traditional building types ornamented with austere, stripped-down classical details.
We can see this unique style in his memorial to American soldiers post World War I near Chateau-Thierry in France. It has a double colonnade of square fluted piers rising above a long terrace, podium, and steps. The central, wider bay is solid and frames a stylized American eagle on one side counter-balancing two heroic figures representing the United States and France on the other. The sculptor was French-American artist Alfred Bottiau.
Paul Cret envisioned that his stripped classicism would become the typical style of government buildings in the twentieth century. Its simplified but recognizable details, massing, and scale spoke to the traditions of the past while adapting its forms for the modern world. The Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building is another example of his work in this style located in Washington, D.C. The four-story building, with an exterior of Georgian marble, is the shape of an ‘H’ in plan with courtyards to either side of the central mass.
Paul Cret’s work–spread across the east coast, Midwest, Texas, and Europe–is remarkable in its ability to adapt classical forms to the needs and demands of twentieth century life. His had a unique perspective that marries a classical understanding of design, ornament, proportion, and artistry with a wide variety of local architectural and cultural influences to create distinct buildings and spaces–each specific to its purpose and place.
In America alone, ten of Cret’s buildings are on historic registers. Each of these is uniquely suited to its purpose, place, and meaning. The next time you find yourself in Austin and you see that University of Texas at Austin tower shining orange, remember Paul Philippe Cret. He designed iconic buildings and memorials, which can still be visited today, not only in Texas but across America and in Europe.