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"AMERICA," remarked Gertrude Stein, "is the oldest nation in the world." America's architecture, sadly, bears out the comment. In any American city, amidst the incoherence of unrelated structures our inability to appeal to any potential modern sensibility is conspicuous. The descendants of immigrants and pioneers continue to raise disfunctional monuments in archaic styles.
One of the major historical sites in lower Manhattan is Fraunces Tavern, located three blocks on Broad Street from the New York Stock Exchange. A typical Georgian Colonial tavern, it is the location of Washington's farewell to his troops in 1783, as a sign proudly proclaims. There is one problem. The building was constructed from scratch in 1907.
Uptown, where the ties to colonial New York are not as strong, the problem is different. There, New York's architects began construction in 1891 of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which they intended as one of the great cathedrals of Christendom.
Two decades later, with a change in architectural firms, the cathedral evolved from Romanesque to Gothic. Today it remains uncompleted. The Episcopal Church has decided to leave it unfinished because medieval-cathedral construction costs have become prohibitive and, they add, because the incomplete structure might stand as testimony to the unsolved and unresolved social problems of America-such as those in nearby Harlem.
American architecture has never been able to develop a force and style of its own, expressing the deeper characteristics and needs of the people. Even American colleges-the arbiters and nurturers of taste and respectable culture-reflect this inarticulate need to conjure a non-existent architectural past at the expense of a real and deteroriating present. The modern college gymnasium cannot escape the desire to fit everything into the Georgian or Gothic shells of antiquity.
LACKING an elemental confidence in their nation's flimsy architectural foundations, Americans continue to construct buildings which will conform to their need for a tradition -buildings which, however, bear no relation to the functional sensibility required today. These buildings, consequently, fail to grab the imagination or heart of contemporary America; they remain unintegrated and distant from the world they seek to underpin.
Until popular architecture makes an effort to understand the needs and the spirit of the age, writes Ada Louise Huxtable, "we will continue to have the pious reproductions, the dead reconstructions, the vacuum-packed imitations and the false, nostalgic standards that, at best, evoke only the second-hand suggestion of the artistic glories of some other age, or at worst, throttle creativity and subvert values in our own."
This is not to say that Huxtable, architectural critic for the New York Times since 1963, unreservedly approves the garish technological nightmares produced by the architectural anarchism of modern industrial America.
"Never has so much progressive technology ended up as so many visual tricks," she writes of modern churches. "Never has so much experimental structure been so decoratively misused. Never has the doctrine of free esthetic expression been so abused or engineering advances so superficially vulgarized for effect. There are exceptions, of course, but they are aggressively outnumbered by churches poised like moon rockets, synagogues of country-club luxe in jazzy concrete shells, and far-out flying saucer chapels."
Will They Ever Finish Bruckner Boulevard? is a collection of her Sunday articles, which are sadly often hidden among gardening and coin and stamp collection news. She does not limit her criticism to New York City but attacks "urbicide" everywhere. Washington's Mussolini-classical Rayburn Building she calls "the biggest star-spangled architectural blunder of our time." Centers for the arts in New York, Washington, and Atlanta arouse her ire with their timid unwillingness to assert conscious modernity. Her criticism also strikes forcefully at the destruction of architecturally significant structures; she favors tasteful preservations with a social purpose, not reconstructed kitsch.
Huxtable is not gentle with the high-rise slum housing long favored by government urban renewal. Beauty and function can reinforce one another, she asserts. "It is a social and urban tragedy that those who recognize the urgency of our human problems see their solution only in terms of the total sacrifice of style."
In each article she contends with the faults and merits of a different structure-a method which, unfortunately, emphasizes single monuments at the expense of a feel for the organic whole. Pictures of each building let the reader assess for himself her lucid and perceptive analyses.
Despite a widespread uneasiness with modern technology's starkness, American architecture is beginning to break out of its self-imposed paralysis. The environment, Huxtable concludes in article after article, may still be saved. American architectural style, permitted to mature, may yet lead to its salvation.
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