The Acton Institute’s film “The Birth of Freedom” is a treat to watch again and again. But there is a rather dramatic effect towards the end of the film when the relationship of The Cathedral at Notre Dame and the cubist Grand Arche, located in the Parisienne arrondissement La Defense but dedicated to humanitarian “ideals” rather than military victories, are contrasted with musical and cinematic styling that borders on being overdone. That is until you enter the world of National Public Radio et al as I did recently when listening to a broadcast of “Arts Alive” on KUSC, the station of The University of Southern California. (Some readers might want to think “Pete Carroll” to get their bearings.)
“Arts Alive” is a very nicely produced weekend program I listen to regularly prior to The Metropolitan Opera Broadcast and as you would discover if you tuned in, is mightily eclectic in the scope of its subject matter. The specific program I’m referring to here aired on December 26th. One of the guests was an alumnus of USC who had attained a degree in “planning and urban design” and a reputation as a star in the world of architecture. His name is Thom Mayne. The six minute interview starts 17 minutes into the program.
If you’re old enough and an architecture “groupie” you may have watched and remembered a PBS series in 1979 titled The Shock Of The New. Time Magazine’s then art critic Robert Hughes hosted the programs and a lasting impression of one of the episodes is the filming of the explosive destruction of some habitation à loyer modéré apartments in France that I recall had been the creation of a star from another era known as Le Corbusier. It seemed, according to the narrative, that no one liked living in an urbanist’s idea of habitat and so in order to make way for something else, the “creation” was deconstructed with the help of dynamite. We’ve seen that repeated with “public housing” in cities everywhere but it’s hard to stop urban planners when OPM (other people’s money–read taxes) is available.
Writer Eric Felton notes the passing of a Chicago building by skyline legend Mies van der Rohe in a recent Wall Street Journal essay in which he pleads that modern buildings need more ornamentation. But ornamentation needs to represent something. Gargoyles had a function you know; to spurt rain water off roofs and remind non believers of the hazards of the world outside the church.
In his article Felton quotes Steven Semes, academic director of the University of Notre Dame’s Rome Studies Program, where he teaches the classical language of architecture. “There’s a head-heart problem” in modern design, Semes says. “In their hearts, most architects love old buildings for the same reasons everyone else does—they are welcoming and have ornamentation that rewards the attention you give to them.” But their heads are stuffed with “all those lectures from architecture school telling them these things are bad.”
The local event that seems to have inspired KUSC’s interview of Mr. Mayne is the completion of his monumental building design for the 7th district regional headquarters (there are 13 other districts) of the state government agency responsible for building and maintaining the “freeways” and highways in California, affectionately known to residents as Cal-Trans. Mr. Mayne’s company website features this sample among other completed projects and you probably should take a glimpse in order to fully understand where I’m going with this commentary.
While you’re at it, you might want to get some sense of the manner in which Mayne’s Cal-Trans design relates to the neighborhood with this perspective. The Cal-Trans building beyond the local church in the foreground contains 2.1 million square feet under roof, including exhibition and retail space, warehousing, auto shops and garages; but also includes a wellness center, day care and play areas. All supposedly aimed at serving the city’s “public” who will be attracted in throngs to this urban wonder.
As he explains in the interview, Mr. Mayne’s interest in the “reconfiguration of densities” will surely fulfill the projected need for public spaces incorporated into the Cal-Trans box. Or maybe not. Mr. Mayne spends lots of time bemoaning the public’s tight purse and lack of seriousness, and their confused and ambivalent attitude toward their municipal buildings; at the same time chastising the public who pays his fees with comments that they–at least this crowd in Los Angeles–don’t admire “intellectual pursuits.” How do you suppose he spells arrogant?
Embedded in his dialogue is Mayne’s belief that architecture illustrates the culture of the time, and that’s not incorrect. But because he’s not getting big enough budgets due to society’s misallocation of resouces to stuff like missiles and munitions, Mayne contends that he’s been prevented from adding his version of the Pantheon to our cities. In this comment Mayne and his work becomes a cartoon of that which he criticizes and illustrates why those closing scenes in Acton’s movie “The Birth of Freedom” are so relevant to freedom’s story and substantiates why ornamentation has been striped from our civic structures and replaced by the disordered shapes and angles of the modern urbanists like Mayne and Frank Gehry.
Because with the absence of moral tradition in our culture, there’s no there there. A building celebrating a culture void of values and tradition inevitably will be a box, with or without the decoration. And the glass curtain walls, even with something “grotesque” at every corner, will serve nothing more than to reflect us and what we’ve allowed ourselves to become and that will include what too many of us have stuffed into our heads.