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Trompe L’oeil

In response to:

Modern Architecture in Question from the November 27, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

Ms. Huxtable’s recent review of the architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts at the Museum of Modern Art [NYR, November 27] is provocative but not convincing. I share her distress at the results of the modern movement in architecture and the failure to meet the objectives set for it. However, it still remains the singular most important statement of architectural principles and objectives.

Ms. Huxtable points out that the exhibition “is first of all a revisionist reconsideration of history.” This is based on a statement by Mr. A. Drexler, organizer of the show, that history has been written by the victors meaning the adherents of the modernist movement in architecture. But partisan history is usually no better than the history ladeled out by the curatorial staff of most museums.

Where is the architecture of Boullée and Ledoux—ignored. Boullée’s “Newton Cenotaph” and Ledoux’s ideal city of 1806 with its “Palace Dedicated to the Cult of Moral Values” are nowhere to be seen. These works are in sharp contrast to the banality of the Ecole. They had ideals; the impossibility of their conception was utopian and as such still had the sense of the revolution about them. The Empire and Restoration triumphed and with them came the system of architecture of Durand. Durand (a pupil of Boullée in name only) published his influential Précis des leçons d’architecture données à l’Ecole Polytechnique in 1800 and again in 1809. This was a textbook of the new style which criticized the Pantheon for being cramped (Durand proposed an alternate at less cost promising that it would be equally magnificent) and proposed a substitute for St. Peter’s. Durand’s buildings are much like the civic architecture of Rome. But as Julius Posener points out:

The Roman style in Durand’s designs was, however, so pale and thin that it had no value as style. And Durand goes out of his way to show that any other simple, straightforward kind of decoration would be equally acceptable. His designs were adorned with porticoes or arcades, the windows had lentils or arches. He even produced a few sheets called “vertical combinations” where the same basic elevation was treated as load bearing, with pilasters, with columns, in the “round arch style,” as the early nineteenth century called it. In short, all forms, all stylistic features had become meaningless and therefore interchangeable. Eclecticism had become the condition almost of a new concept of architectural value. The laws of architecture were supposed to be eternal, unchanging; the styles were seen as mere surface decoration.

It is the architecture of surface decoration that the public is being told to admire in this show. It is for this reason that both Ms. Huxtable and Mr. Drexler can go into raptures about the elevation illustrations. Nowhere in the exhibition is there an attempt to come to terms with architecture as a truly public art; with the idea that there is immanent meaning and value in architectural space. It is not enough to tell us how old the students were when the renderings were completed or to carry on about purity, discipline, and “sensuosity and symbolism.” If the Ecole des Beaux-Arts can stand up to scrutiny it should be proven and not left to the elevation illustrations, the color of ink washes, or the polychrome renderings to try to win the public over. This is deceitful.

I was surprised that any historical retrospective would ignore the increasingly important role of the engineer in architecture. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the education of architects and engineers was undertaken in different faculties or technical schools. Architects remained aloof from the new possibilities that iron and steel (after 1860) offered. If they employed them, as Labrouste did, they were ridiculed. Today we are in the grips of the engineers’ architecture. This rapidly overtook and replaced anything that the Bauhaus had been credited with. The role of the engineer would have added an important dimension to understanding the decline of the Ecole….

John Hellebrand

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Ada Louise Huxtable replies:

The subject of nineteenth-century architectural history is still being explored, recorded, and interpreted. The pioneering overview of Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Nikolaus Pevsner set the groundwork for current studies that are illuminating and synthesizing the period. John Hellebrand’s letter shows how many areas there are for examination, and how interdependent they are. He gives an accurate assessment of a number of these relationships; they could profitably be expanded in a dozen different directions. The Beaux-Arts obviously did not exist in a vacuum, and the Museum of Modern Art has just as obviously isolated it for purposes of emphasis and showmanship.

But I don’t think the quarrel really exists that Mr. Hellebrand has picked. There is no question about the place of Boullée and Ledoux, about the role of the engineer in nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture, and about the nature of the work of Durand and eclecticism (a subject in itself, once it is freed of the modernist putdown) as he has correctly outlined these and other matters. This is the framework for the Beaux-Arts of which scholars are aware that the exhibition clearly does not attempt to give. The museum has simply exhumed the body of the Beaux-Arts quite brilliantly, focusing basic research and restoring the work to public scrutiny. It never intended to put all the nineteenth-century pieces together in total perspective.

Mr. Hellebrand is right that this lack of perspective could distort the visitor’s perception of the development of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture and the relative importance of other contributions. But an exhibition is by nature a glorification of something, and it is a different vehicle from a dissertation. Context and omission are always a problem, even without obvious institutional biases. (The polemical role of the Museum of Modern Art, as I implied, is also a subject for study.) However, it is hard to believe that this show is a real danger to the interpretation of architectural history or that the museum has not done something of value in restoring the work of the Beaux-Arts to the record. For me, it is not only a correction and amplification of the history we have been taught—the art historical studies of my generation either ignored or derided the Beaux-Arts—but it is, in itself, a polemical-historical gesture of some interest.

Mr. Hellebrand is unfair, or inaccurate, in only one respect. I do not see how he can think that the public is being asked to admire only the architecture of surface decoration in this show, or that this is the limit of my response or Mr. Drexler’s concern. Perhaps it is too much to expect the public to read plans, but scholars can do so, and they are all in this exhibition. There is much to observe in the Beaux-Arts organization of architectural space. This was a total architecture of program, planning, sequential, symbolic and functional disposition of spaces, carried out, at its best, with significant skill. It is certainly worth study.

If the public is being had, it is not through the “deceitful” seduction of beautiful rendering. I think we are permitted that pleasure. I tend to agree that there is seduction, but I believe it is of a far more subtle and insidious sort. By deliberate suggestion, the achievements, and even the realities, of the modern movement are being sold short. The failure of a polemic (and what polemic doesn’t fail?) and the shortcomings of the modernist revolution are under considerable critical fire everywhere. But these failures are used here to whip the present (in some cases justifiably) much in the same way as the modernists have used the Academy to whip the past (also sometimes justifiably). And one of the most serious failures and fallacies of the modern movement—the exclusive ideal of the isolated monumental building carried over from Beaux-Arts by the modernists, a concept that was impervious to revolution or modification—is perpetuated by the museum in this show.

History and irony repeat themselves. And the irony doubles when you realize what the Museum of Modern Art is actually saying: this institution, dedicated to the life and art of our time, is insisting that nothing of importance has changed except style, that only the monument is still architecture. It is saying this in the face of a revolution in environmental perceptions that has profoundly altered the art of architecture in our day. And the point is calculated, not accidental. This, to me, is what the show can really be faulted for—by theme, emphasis and implicit denial.

Mr. Hellebrand is correct that the history presented by museums is often suspect. But it can still be extraordinarily useful.

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