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Modern Architecture in Question

The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts October 29, 1975-January 4, 1976

an exhibition presented at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The Museum of Modern Art’s major fall exhibition, “The Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts,” is clearly meant as an object lesson to architects (particularly to young ones) and a question raiser for everyone. These questions are serious and heretical ones about the doctrine and dogma of modern architecture—the movement that the museum was sublimely instrumental in establishing. They are part of a broader questioning of the whole modern movement reflected in a rising interest in the work of the rejected Academy, the establishment mainstream in all of the arts against which the modernists rebelled.

The Modern’s show is, therefore, an extremely significant polemical and art historical event. It follows the Metropolitan’s eye-opening and ground-breaking display of nineteenth-century academic French painting last spring, which proclaimed the Academy’s return to respectability in powerful, tastemaking art circles, and its assumption of the position of a kind of reverse avant-garde. That show was also a brilliant act of scholarship.

All this is equally true of the Beaux-Arts show. As everyone who follows events of the art world probably knows by now, this is a whopping, more-than-200-item presentation of architectural drawings produced by the students of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century, representing the kind of building (and training) that was specifically rejected (and despised) by the leaders of the modernist revolution.

The concept of the exhibition, the painstaking selection of material from forgotten and neglected archives, the application of rigorous research and a knowing eye, must be credited to Arthur Drexler, the director of the museum’s Department of Architecture and Design; his achievement is an impressive one. His collaborators in organizing the exhibition and preparing its catalogue, which will be augmented by an important, profusely illustrated book of detailed and murky scholarship later this year, are David Van Zanten, Neil Levine, and Richard Chafee.

There is considerable shock effect for the viewer entering these galleries, so long sacrosanct to the modernists’ cause, now filled with huge, precisely and exquisitely rendered classical and eclectic façades of monumental, palatial, and arguably unnecessary casinos, cathedrals, conservatories, water circuses, royal residences, and reconstructions of Greek and Roman antiquities. It is even more of a shock to realize that these frequently superb, if occasionally wildly overreaching, exercises in grandeur were largely the work of students in their late teens and early twenties, responding to a discipline of the hand and mind absolutely unknown today.

While each student progressed individually, his development was rigidly controlled by the concours given at every stage of advancement, and by the expertise with which he executed his competition entries. (The Beaux-Arts system, with its indentured ateliers copied from France, dominated architectural education in the United States from the 1860s to the 1930s, until the advent of Gropius and the Bauhaus. It led to the establishment, in emulation of the Prix de Rome and the French Academy, of the American Academy in Rome—a gentlemen’s club for creative and scholarly research that is only now facing extinction.) The basic solution to an architectural problem had to be set down in a twelve-hour esquisse and then adhered to in the projet rendu, which took three to six months to execute. The architects were relentlessly separated from the boys right at the start by the ability to devise a solution immediately, and then to execute it with the highest degree of skill—a painstaking, perfectionist rendering of plan, section, and elevation in a style and technique formularized over two centuries.

The drawings, just as drawings, in ink and colored wash, are magnificent. They are at once grand and delicate, detailed and abstract. In their finished precision, they parallel the Academy in painting, but the similarity stops with the care of execution. The detail was there not to satisfy a nineteenth-century taste and sentiment for verisi-militude but because these were professional architectural renderings upon which the next step, the production of measured working drawings for construction, would be based—if they had not been student projects. Literal, perspective renderings were disdained as less-than-accurate, unprofessional illustrations of the architect’s intent, and although they were pushed by Viollet-le-Duc during his aborted Ecole reforms, they never caught on. This careful drawing, therefore, does not approach the polished or licked surface (“le fini“) of Academy painting,1 in part because the work was never meant for the public, which judged by realism and finish, but for the professional architectural juries that evaluated them in the endless Ecole competitions. In fact, this is probably the first time that the public has seen these drawings at all, at least in a coordinated display.

A point that Drexler doesn’t mind making with the show is that few architecture students can draw today, any more than they can spell or write; there is no requirement for this level of skill. Modelmaking has become a substitute for draftsmanship. It also frequently substitutes for thinking, and even for design, because it so drastically cuts down the range of conceptualization that can be achieved with the far more flexible pencil in hand. Drexler frankly hopes that this fact will not go unnoticed.

What he hopes most of all is that people will be startled and even seriously upset by the show, which does not—in the museum’s customary fashion—present its historicism as proto-modern, but as countermodern. Because Drexler is hellbent on counterrevolution. “History,” he says, “is written by the victors, and what they leave out is the losers.” In fact, what the architectural modernists attempted to do was to bring history to a halt. Not only was the past rejected out of hand, but the present was to have nothing to do with it. Unlike modern painting, in which a sense of continuity with the past can be traced, however tortuously, from, say, Courbet and the impressionists to cubism, architecture attempted to make the break absolute. The Bauhaus and its successors succeeded in jettisoning history—the Futurists had only hoped to destroy museums and their contents. They were aided by the fact that the industrial and technological revolution made the materials of their art, unlike paint and canvas, totally new; so by abandoning masonry for steel and concrete and a new structural-aesthetic potential, a new vocabulary of forms was made legitimately possible. In one very real sense, this made history and its lessons irrelevant, although they were lessons that the early, Beaux-Arts-trained modernists were never able to forget.

A new absolute was invented—timelessness—and its justifications were ruthlessly edited. For the orderly progression of civilization a false kind of scientistic myth of art-as-technology was substituted, married to the quasi-religious morality of the machine aesthetic. And to make that aesthetic more complex, a new kind of relationship was established with painting. In spite of vows of structural functionalism, both new and old materials were used in building to create a romanticized resemblance to the flat, painterly, geometric abstractions of cubism. Although modernist painting and architecture shared the rejection of the Academy and both contributed to the distortion of the past, only architecture abolished it. But history did not pack up and go away; it stayed, all too solidly, in the cities, and the new buildings violated their historic context with an unprecedented vengeance.

And so the exhibition is first of all a revisionist reconsideration of history. But Drexler brusquely rejects any idea of it as an incentive to revivalism. He does not, however, reject the idea of eclecticism as a next step in architecture, although he claims no clairvoyance about the forms it will take.

It is therefore possible to enjoy the display just as a treasury of nineteenth-century styles and standards—revelations of a now unreal world. The drawings are all competition-winners, from the lesser concours to the coveted Prix de Rome. The consistent theme is the now discarded classical tradition, the underpinning of the French Academy. But the examples cover everything from late-eighteenth-and early-nineteenth-century romantic classicism to the exotic revivals of the later nineteenth century and the final, consummated, official Beaux-Arts style.

Official meant more than establishment. This is all official architecture in a sense we no longer comprehend—it was not just that it was concerned with public buildings, which was how the Beaux-Arts defined architecture, but that it was state architecture, taught, commissioned, and controlled by a central government authority. The Ecole was a state school, an outgrowth and affiliate of the Academy established by the monarchy in the seventeenth century. The Academy dominated teaching and practice. Its graduates went on to do all official, statesponsored construction and private construction simply followed along. Ecole graduates automatically received the prominent or prestigious commissions, and were eventually elected to the Academy, a position from which they continued to dictate style and practice to the Ecole.

The exhibition selection begins with the eighteenth-century work of Peyre and Vandoyer, who influenced so much of the Ecole’s teachings, and goes through a galaxy of nineteenth-century ornate and eclectic modes. The arcades of Louis-Ambroise Dubut’s Granary of 1797, stretching to near-infinity, recall the almost surreal serenity of Boullée and Ledoux (Dubut was a pupil of Ledoux), and they prefigure Durand’s prototypical classical solutions for France’s civil engineers. Charles Percier, later one of the chief architects for Napoleon and the Empire, is present with a student project for a colonnaded Menagerie of a Sovereign in 1783. Louis Duc’s Colosseum studies (1829), Marie-Antoine Delannoy’s Restoration of Tiber Island (1832), and Edouard Loviot’s Parthenon Restoration (1881) contributed significantly to the nineteenth-century’s lust for classical (not to say imperial) antiquities. François-Louis Boulanger’s Library of 1834 could be the work of an ancestor of Louis Kahn (and is, in a sense, since Kahn and other early modernists were Beaux-Arts products) in its “served and servant spaces” and love of courts and walls.

By the end of the nineteenth century, as projects grew ever larger and more elaborate, Louis-Hippolyte Boileau’s Casino of 1897 offered a pastry-fantasy in a facile, painterly rendering of a world perdu. An 1891 railroad station by Henri-Thomas-Edouard Eustache is so supercolossal in scale that it had to be framed on the museum wall, or it could not have been brought into the building. Tony Garnier’s Central State Bank of 1899 symbolizes and synthesizes what had by then become known, internationally, as the Beaux-Arts way of building: the axiomatic French classical manner for the imposing free-standing public monument composed in a calculated, progressive hierarchy of functions, movement, and spaces—composition, marche, and parti.

A single gallery is devoted to two of the most important, realized structures of leading Beaux-Arts architects—Henri Labrouste’s Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève of 1845-1850 and Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera of 1861-1874, each a textbook study of successful nineteenth-century design. Modernists have been able to admire the library for its handsome and progressive metal framing; the Opera, in spite of the brilliant social and ceremonial planning that it displays, has baffled them with its sensuous decorative excess. Two other galleries contain photographs of executed Beaux-Arts buildings in France and the United States. And as a complement to the exhibition, the Architectural League has prepared a guide to Beaux-Arts buildings in New York, available at the museum.

In the final analysis, however, the chief purpose of this show is to serve as the big gun of the re-examination of the modern movement that is currently under way in episodic fits and starts. The aim obviously goes far beyond historical or aesthetic exposition. Its calculated objective is to provoke a far-reaching critique of all contemporary architecture. There has already been much criticism and debate about this subject of course, but most of it tends to be either smugly academic or chicly exotic and arcane in its cultural and historical references. The architect-debaters themselves are given to such gestures as adding naughty paste-on moldings to their safely modernist façades. Most of this has been a tempest in an eyedropper, based on self-indulgent épater la bourgeoisie aesthetics. The one real contribution has been the heretically perceptive work of Robert and Denise Scott Brown Venturi, with its emphasis on the aspects of complexity and contradiction in architecture, and of inclusivity rather than exclusivity in the environment.2

But as important as such a contribution may be, it is still a fragmentary response to a large philosophical problem. In addition to polemical discussion, there is a burgeoning interest in the phenomena of the near past and the modern movement’s near-misses. Books are proliferating on Art Moderne and Deco and the Skyscraper Style and such early figures as George Howe, who, with William Lescaze, designed the seminal Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building. There is bound to be a resurgence of critical analysis of work by almost forgotten or downgraded names, among them Ely Jacques Kahn, Barry Byrne, and Irving Pond. The transitional buildings of Bertram Goodhue and James Gamble Rogers, who have always made the modernists profoundly uneasy, are in for inevitable re-evaluation.

The focus will shift, not always clearly. It is also likely that this aesthetic revival will further obscure the essential contributions of men like Clarence Stein to social planning. The cardinal virtues of the modern movement—clarity, simplicity, and logic, qualities extremely rare in art and life—are going to be compromised and downgraded. They are fragile, easily compromised values at best, the first casualties of confusion, pretension, and perverted creativity. These rational responses are the essence of good and great architecture of all periods and styles, as necessary to the Beaux-Arts as to the Bauhaus. Bad architecture is by nature unclear and irrational (not to be confused with the delights of complexity and contradiction). But elaborate bad architecture, the worst kind of all, is what the wrong kind of theory can produce.

Not the least of the probing will be institutional—the role of the Museum of Modern Art then and now. Indeed the relation of the Beaux-Arts administration in Paris to state and economic power could usefully be examined and compared to the situation in architectural patronage today. There will be a lot of belated bandwagon-jumping. But we have reached a point in history where a kind of flawed perspective is beginning to emerge. And the mirror of hindsight combines revelation and narcissism to a seductive degree.

One lesson always looming implicitly in the Beaux-Arts exhibition is that less has indeed become less. Its primary protest is against the relentless stripping down that has characterized the modernist aesthetic. By demonstrating what the modern movement denied, it forces the thinking viewer to reconsider what Drexler calls the “platitudes of functionalism,” or the modern doctrine of functionalism as a “euphemism for utility.” It is also a euphemism for economy and a rationalization for cheapness when building costs are rising relentlessly—a factor Drexler might consider more seriously. (The non-thinking viewer, as always, will like being told what to think by the Museum of Modern Art. But that brings up another subject—whether trends are found or made by our powerful institutions.)

Drexler’s point is that utility, or the narrow adherence to use and functional structure as the primary source of the building art, has had an unexpected and undesired result: the impoverishment of architectural design. So many of the expressive and stylistic possibilities of art have been rejected by the modernist practitioner either as superfluous hedonism or as a dangerous kind of playfulness that is not essential to survival—a rationale and rejection that are the routine, predictable, joyless accompaniment of all revolutionary doctrine. Not just decoration but sensuosity and symbolism are casualties. In architecture the suppressed (and unsuppressable) instinct for pleasure and experiment has reemerged as a distorted kind of “play” with form—the stretching and torturing of structure into perverse works of object-sculpture with equally perverse structural and functional rationales—the Venturis’ “ducks.” Today’s architect has built himself into a corner.

In fact, the examination of the Beaux-Arts has an almost eerie relevance right now. By the end of the nineteenth century the work of the Academy reached the point where it was increasingly dedicated to forced and fantastic formal invention, while fundamentally adhering to the monumental conventions of the Beaux-Arts style. Modern architecture has reached that same point (it is also today’s Academy) of strained invention within what appear increasingly to be the crippling restrictions of functionalism. The problem here is not with functionalism per se, but the doctrinaire and almost mindless paralysis to which it has been reduced. Today there is also the jarring effect of such architecture on the receiving environment to be considered as well as its place in the history of cities, which are the remarkable survivors of continuing, temporal catastrophes. The barriers to dealing understandingly with the academic past are still great, however; in painting there is the overload of unacceptable sentiment and emphasis on surface, and in architecture the hurdle of a puritan ethic of structure and design.

These questions of art and function, meaning and invention, of creativity and sterility, of commission and omission, are being asked in all of the arts today. But the situation is perhaps unique in architecture. If what is being debated, to a large extent, are the limitations of reduction, or the validity of minimalism, it is above all architecture that has made the philosophy and practice of reduction into a moral imperative rather than an aesthetic exploration. Modern architecture since the Bauhaus has based its claims not just on purity of form but on purity of art and soul and societal mission. Only now are we seeing the death of the architect as a self-conceived superman, or kind of god, in a world that scarcely wants him.

Perhaps he was more of a god when he built palaces and pantheons, but both princely and social roles have turned out to be exercises in futility. The end came to the Beaux-Arts in small things: the design of an elevator, an electric chandelier, a utility pole. They had to be conceived of as a sedan chair, an electrified candelabrum, a torchère or baldachino with wires. The intrinsic failure was the inability to visualize the needs of a newly industrialized society, to come to terms with the kind of construction it would require. This the Beaux-Arts never even grasped. It could not recognize the real substance and challenges of the twentieth century. Modernism is clearly entering another age of problematic transition. Are the answers eluding us now?


Trompe L’oeil March 18, 1976

  1. 1

    See the interesting discussion of le fini in nineteenth-century French Academy painting by Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner in their essay “L’anti-chambre du Louvre ou l’idéologie du fini” in the French journal Critique, November 1974.

  2. 2

    See my review of their Learning from Las Vegas, in The New York Review, October 18, 1973.

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