When we take longer to see beauty than to destroy it

HUGH Stubbins was already a flourishing architect of private dwellings and public buildings when he wrote a series of articles for this newspaper in the 1930s. Since then he has designed the Congress Hall in Berlin, the Citicorp building in New York, and the Federal Reserve building in Boston, to name a very few of his innovative structures. We're delighted he agreed to make this return appearance in our columns.

``If everyone were not so indolent, they would realize that beauty is beauty, even when it is irritating and stimulating, not only when it is accepted and classic. Of course it is extremely difficult -- nothing more so -- than to remember back to its not being beautiful, once it has become beautiful.'' -- Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein touches on a central philosophical issue in the evaluation and preservation of works of art: the relationship of time to aesthetic appreciation -- and the importance of public awareness to their survival.

The meaning of architectural heritage depends on our perception of the past and indeed the future -- the emergence of the one from the other, however unrelated they might seem -- and our recognition of the continuity of human experience. Since in the last analysis architecture reflects human values and purposes, our architectural heritage is a unique expression of the history and progress of man.

We excavate Pompeii from the dust beneath our feet, only to find that we have reinvented the wheel. When our past becomes too oppressive, we try to push it aside or react against it -- and this may take the form of deliberate destruction of architectural monuments. But when the past becomes too tenuous, we cling to it and try to revive it.

We are in the latter kind of period in America today.

Even those societies that have rejected periods of their past as philosophically meaningless or morally unrecognizable finally admit a deep psychological need to reestablish its physical reality. It is interesting and touching to see the countries of Eastern Europe and Russia lovingly restoring the ``follies'' of previous rulers.

In a time of turbulence, when the constancy and speed of change seem to be the only predictable realities, and the global immediacy of human suffering, violence, and environmental destruction assaults our vivid yet strangely detached armchair contemplation of our TV sets, it is hardly surprising that we turn with yearning to the 18th and 19th centuries for the security, stability, the homogeneity we crave but lack today. Not that I am claiming that those were better times. They may have been more illusory, and for the vast majority of people more restrictive, but I think it was an easier era for great works of architecture to be born.

There was time to accommodate to one ``new sensation'' before contemplating the next; values and ideas could be accepted and digested before being overthrown; there was at least the illusion of social and moral stability; and ethical and aesthetic standards acquired the aura of necessary truths or incontrovertible axioms. Dreams could be kept intact, and man could still dedicate his art to the glory of God, the nobility of man -- he could adorn, embellish, perfect -- answering only to his educational traditions, his own artistic conscience, and the aspirations and demands of a clearly definable patron.

The changes that began to be felt toward the turn of the century accelerated with its progress, so that someone like me -- who started practicing architecture in 1935 and was educated in the Beaux Arts tradition -- has been through everything from the Bauhaus, to the new Brutalism, to the recent cult of non-architecture, with the architect as anti-hero, to the current but not widely accepted doctrine that treats architecture as fashion design, delving into the past to resurrect out-of-context details and devising faades as a collage of complex elements making a sort of caricature of the art.

Am I prepared to say, what I sometimes believe, that Louis Sullivan's was the last great architecture? The pressures of our economy and the power of our technology move so fast today that they can sweep away a building while it is still a thing ``irritating and stimulating,'' and before the beauty of it is accepted. The time for acceptance is longer than the time for destruction.

How do we preserve vistas and neighborhoods? And how do we protect our future heritage by eliminating urban decay and the visual blight too often built in from the start?

The answer, of course, is discernment, and that means education. For if we conclude from the drabness of the American city that man demands the ugliness he gets, we would be indulging in cynicism of the kind that paralyzes action and denies hope, and deprives the architectural profession of any reason for being. It is in the education of the public and the professional that we must look for the preservation of an architectural environment that respects the past but does not deny the future. For, if man understands what he is destroying with the bulldozer, the bulldozer loses much of its power.

Architects live and work in a profession for which the disciplines imposed by traditional philosophies and limited technology have given way to whatever discipline the artist is willing to impose upon himself. The great obligation of the profession is to respond responsibly to the opportunities, dangers, and challenges this freedom holds.

Ironically, and as an architect committed to the modern movement, who as a young man held Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe as great architects of our times, I have to suggest that perhaps the architecture of the past stands a better chance of survival at this time, because as a profession we have failed to provide an acceptable modern substitute for the Paris of Napoleon or Georgian London.

True, the kind of pressures within which architecture today is created, the demand for speed, flexibility, the need to involve and consult a widely divergent client/ community/ construction team in the process, the lack of cohesion and consensus in our society, contribute significantly to that failure; but do they make great architecture or satisfying environments impossible? I don't think they do. At least they shouldn't. Let's leave it to history to decide if there were any great buildings in our era.

We should concern ourselves with creating an environment that people enjoy, whether they live or work in it or simply pass by. And a building can have a personality, one that is unforgettable.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to When we take longer to see beauty than to destroy it
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today