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…

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