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Moynihan Assesses the Role of Architecture

By Daniel P. Moynihan

(The following speech was delivered to the Alumni Dinner of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, held in New York City November 1, 1967.)

For indivduals as for epochs the process of aging is normally a quiet and gradual affair, but the realization of youth having passed comes often as not with a suddenness, even a shock. Most of us, I suspect, mark that moment well and often thereafter in idle passages find ourselves touching the wound it left. My moment, and that of many like me, came with the death of Kennedy, and along with the others, I knew it. About the third day of that long, terrible time Mary McGrory said to me, "We'll never laugh again." And I answered, "Heavens, Mary, we'll laugh again. It's just that we'll never be young again." And I really knew that: knew it in recesses of the mind from which memories rarely return save in just such moments. I found myself at one point before a television camera being asked by a gentle and thoughtful Negro journalist did I think the dreams of the New Frontier would ever be realized, and I replied, thinking of nothing, and looking nowhere, that I was reminded of the passage from the Tempest, "We are such stuff as dreams are made of," and asked did he recall that that passage began with the words, "Our revels now are ended." Which was all I had to say. My mind for the moment stopped, and it was only weeks later, seeing a transcript of what I had said, that I realized I did not in fact know how Prospero began that soliloquy. Not fortune, nor pain, nor yet the fiercest will could have wrung it from me. Only the realization of a youth having passed summoned it forth, which is to say summoned a power that was there but was not being used.

I would like to argue that something of this sort may be happening in the nation at this time. Nothing is more clear than that a certain kind of youthfulness has now passed us. Strangely, it has done so in a time dimension surprisingly human, if not indeed mortal. What has been called, and properly, the American epoch began -- what? -- say thirty years ago when it developed that Europe had lost control over events, and would descend into destruction, impotence and ruin. Thereafter, America would dominate, and for a time command events. And this was so whether we would have it such or not. The fact of American might resided to be sure in its weapons and its wealth: matters to some degree under our control, the results more or less of deliberate decision. But in a far more fundamental way our power was ideological. We were what the world wanted to be like, and never more so than when denouncing the cultural imperialism that jammed the shops and bazaars of the world with American products, filled the air with American music, packed the theatres for American films, the libraries with American books, and increasingly, and not least importantly, the cities with American buildings, surrounded to be sure with American automobiles. This is not over. On the contrary, I would think it only begun in terms of how much further it is likely to go, and how much longer it is likely to go on. It is America, not the world, that has changed. Of a sudden the American Epoch is no longer young. The ease and assurance of youth is gone: the certainty that there will always be another girl, a new opportunity, plenty of energy, plenty of time, and most of all the careless, even at times cruel confidence that it will all work out.

Well, of course, it hasn't. Life has caught up with us as it will with all men, and all peoples. We collide with the realization that things do not always work out, that time is short, energies limited and overextended, options so much more restricted than we had supposed. We have entered a time of trouble, and are young no more.

What hurts so, what is resisted, is the idea that it has come too soon, that our time has been cut short, that our revels, too, are ended. But that only argues more convincingly the case that indeed a period has come to a close.

There is no pleasure to be had in reciting the specifics, and no need either, as they are all too manifest. The idea of a great society has turned from something noble to something that somehow disappoints, and without even the dignity to cease trying to charm. The Negro revolution, once the very embodiment of our dignity and pride, has somehow fallen into the bonds of what the President has rightly called vulgar men, half educated in their utterances, and wholly sincere only in their destructiveness. Worst of all, the great dream of internationalism, the splendid succession of noble deeds and magnanimous gestures that marked the course of American foreign policy--or so we thought, and so surely we intended through the three decades just passed--has degenerated into the nightmare of Vietnam where alone and adamant we persist in a course of destruction as certain of our own virtue as the world is of our madness. And meanwhile, one after another group appears to be withdrawing its consent from the understandings and agreements that have made us one of the most stable democracies in the history of the world. Right and left the conviction of conspiracy mounts, and with it a burgeoning impulse to violence at home as well as abroad. Those of us caught in between, increasingly deprived of self assurance, begin to know the taste of self contempt, and think back to Yeats and the fore-knowledge of this moment:

Turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

What is to be done, as another man asked in a not too different time at the beginning of this century. The failure of nerve among many elements in American society is already evident enough: a retreat into privatism or worse, a surrender to nihilism, the politics, if you will, of Peter Pan, of boys who will not grow up. And it is not good enough. The end of youth is not the end of life, much less the end of the world. It is, or ought to mark the onset of a period of less fun, no doubt, but far more satisfaction and much greater consequence. Poets do their best work young, philosophers late. Nations, I would argue, do it in the middle years, and these are now upon us in America, and it should be with a sense of expectation rather than dread that we greet them. I will argue further that properly used, this could be a time of great expectation. Some years ago the French Dominican, Father Bruckberger declared in the sensitive translation of Gouveneur Paulding that, "Either America is the hope of the world, or it is nothing." I believe that still to be so, and further that that hope is better grounded today than ever before for the very reason that we are being forced to see what threatens us, and being so, forces are vastly more likely to preserve those qualities and strengths which are indeed the hope of mankind.

Thus the thing we see most clearly now is that the great strength of the American nation lies not in its wealth, nor its physical isolation nor even the fact that so many Irishmen came to its shores. Our strength lies in our capacity to govern ourselves. Of all the hundred and twenty-two odd members of the United Nations, there are, I believe, not more than eight or nine which both existed in 1914 and have not had their form of government changed by force since that time. We are one of that fortunate few. And more than luck is involved. In nation after nation that has been rent by insurrection, subverted by conspiracy, or defeated by enemies, it is not luck that has run out, but judgment, and the capacity to live with one another, the ability of the people to pick wise rulers, and of those picked to rule wisely. It is a curious quality of those who suffer least from these disabilities not fully to understand the source of their strength. An Englishman, an expert in guerrilla warfare, put it, I think brilliantly, to a Washington friend about a year ago. The visitor was asked why American efforts to impart the rudiments of orderly government seemed to have so little success in underdeveloped countries. "Elemental" was the reply. "You teach them all your techniques, give them all the machinery and manuals of operation and standards of performance, and the more you do it the more they become convinced and bitterly resentful of the fact as they see it that you are deliberately withholding from them the one all important secret that you have and they do not, and that is the knowledge of how to trust one another."

That is, to be sure, the secret, and nothing has made it a more open one than the strains that are showing in American society by the withdrawal of trust by so many individuals and groups. Clearly it is the task of those concerned with the health of American society to retain that large and still preponderant trust that remains, and to regain that which has been lost. It will not be easy, if only for the reason that the very success of American society so far is producing an ever larger proportion of persons who are trained to be skeptical, enquiring, and demanding of a great deal of information before they give their assent to any individual or policy. It is because we have always had such persons in sufficient numbers that we have governed ourselves successfully in the past, and they are not the less the occasion for confidence on that score in the future. Our students today are not raising hell because they are mindless, but precisely because they are thoughtful. Which is a different thing from being wise, but surely a precondition of wisdom. All in all a good state of affairs for a society that can respond to it. The question is what that response is to be, and how it is to be mounted.

The presumption that this response must consist primarily of policies and programs in the traditional areas of poltics is, I suppose, sound enough and in any event inevitable. But it is also, I believe, inadequate, and left at that will very likely fail. With no very great evidence, to be sure, but with much conviction I will argue that the American policy--the experience as well as the sense of community and shared conviction--has been impaired, has atrophied in our time because of the retreat from architecture and public buildings as a conscious element of public policy and a purposeful instrument for the expression of public purposes.

The concept of private affluence and public squalor in the United States is a familiar one, and correct as far as it goes. But save for a rare person such as John Kenneth Galbraith, it rarely extends to the notion that public squalor includes the penury and squalor of public building and city planning. Indeed, the very persons who will be the first to demand increased expenditures for one or another forms of social welfare, will be the last to concede that the common good requires an uncommon standard of taste and expenditure for the physical appointments of government and of the public places of the city. Even those most vocal in support of governmnt support for the arts will resist, even reject the manifest fact that architecture and urban planning are the two arts which government by definition must be involved in, for better or for worse.

This is not a matter of oversight, but of conviction and it has never been more manifest than in recent months when, in response to what is generally known as the urban crisis, some of the best and most generous minds in public life have responded with proposals to build more factories in the slums, and the respected and revered Episcopal bishop of New York announces that as a gesture towards the poor, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine will not be finished in our time. This is appalling. Three summers of rioting and out goes fifty years of zoning, much of which began with the realization that one of the intolerable facts of poverty was the requirement of living in the midst of every known form of industrial ugliness. Twenty centuries of Christianity and we conclude that in a time of moral crisis we will cease work on the most splendid place of worship ever conceived in the city.

Somehow, somewhere in the course of the development of democratic or demogogic tradition in this nation the idea arose that concern with the physical beauty of the public buildings and spaces of the city was the mark of--what?--crypto deviationist antipeople monumentalism--and in any event an augury of defeat at the polls. The result has been a steady deterioration in the quality of public buildings and spaces, and with it a decline in the symbols of public unity and common purpose with which the citizen can identify, of which he can be proud, and by which he can know what he shares with his fellow citizens. One thinks of the State capital with Philip Hooker's exquisite Albany Academy at the top of State Street, a permanent memorial to the men who got New York started. Next to it he State Capitol itself, and explosion in stone of the exuberance and pride of the men who won the Civil War. Across the way, the State Education Building, not very good turn-of-the-century beaux art, more French poodle corinthian thany anything else, but trying. Behind it the Alfred E. Smith Office Building, an honest skyscraper of the Empire State era, and a good one. And mercifully, far away, the utterly sterile and deadly departmental buildings of the 1950's.

In our time the fear of taxpayer resentment of the costs of excellence in public buildings has been compounded with an almost ideological alarm at the implications of modern design. When President Kennedy took office in Washington, for example, it had been very near to half a century since the Federal government had constructed in Washington a building that was contemporary to its time, and the House of Representatives was soon to begin the Rayburn Building, perhaps the most alarming and unavoidable sign of the declining vitality of American government that we have yet witnessed. And this is the point: good or bad architecture is not an option. It is as fundamntal a sign of the competence of government as will be found. Men who build bad buildings are bad governors. A people that persists in electing such men is opting for bad government.

I believe this is beginning to be seen. It is a matter of significance, I feel, that mayors such as John Lindsay and John Collins, governors such Nelson Rockefeller, and both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson have been actively concerned with the quality of the public buildings by which--like it or not--posterity is likely to recall their administrations. But the subject is still far too little insisted upon by those who realize its import. If we are to save our cities, and restore to American public life the sense of shared experience, trust, and common purpose that seem to be draining out of it, the quality of public design has got to be made a public issue because it is a politcal fact. The retreat from magnificence, to use a phrase of Evelyn Waugh's, has gone on long enough: too long. An era of great public works is as much needed in America as any other single element in our public life. Magnificence does not mean monumental. That seems to be a point to be stressed. I have heard Saul Steinberg quoted as saying that the government buildings of Washington seem designed to make private citizens realize how unimportant they are, and there is much to what he says. But that seems to me simply to define the special requirements of this age of enormity: to create a public architecture of intimacy, one that brings people together in an experience of confidence and trust. The city beautiful is as valid a concept today as it was when George Washington and Thomas Jefferson established it as an American principle almost two centuries ago. It is not a concept to be traded in for anyone's notion of private gain or social welfare. It is not an efflorescence of elite aestheticism, it is the bone and muscle of democarcy, and I repeat that it is time those who see this begin insisting on it.

At a time when there is so much that is brutal, we risk nothing less than our humanity if we fail to do so. The task of this less than allpowerful nation is to show to the world and to ourselves that, sensing our limitations, we know also our strength, and that we will husband and develop those strengths. The surest sign of whether we have done this will reside in the buildings and public places which we shall build in our time, and for which we will be remembered or forgotten in history

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