Sin and Architecture

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"It's
a sin," says my old friend, Francois.

But
Francois refers to neither Alan Greenspan's betrayal of the free
market and the gold standard, nor to George W. Bush's back-stabbing
of free trade. Francois is talking about architecture.

I
only bring it up, dear reader, because my office is less than half
a block from the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. I pass the art
gallery on my way to breakfast at the Cozy Corner, where you can
get a full American breakfast for only $5.99 and chat with Ms. Kim,
the Korean proprietress, for no extra charge. Poor Ms. Kim. Her
little restaurant faces the art gallery.

Ms.
Kim, I should point out, is a woman of some taste and cultural discernment.
On her radio, one is likely to hear Chopin or Sibelius. That may
be why she has so few customers. On an average morning, I can take
a seat in a rear booth, sliding onto the taped, naugahyde seats
like an airplane coming in for a rough landing, and am assured not
only of calm…but Ms. Kim's complete attention. There are no lines
to stand in. There are rarely any other diners.

I
wanted to gauge Ms. Kim's sentiments concerning the Walter's Art
Gallery, but I didn't have the heart to raise the question. For
she could not help but be appalled and disgusted. No sensible person
could feel any differently.

"What's
that?" guests say when they first come to the neighborhood.

"It's
the Walters Art Gallery," we explain.

"Oh,
of course."

Of
course, because what else but an art gallery would want to trap
itself in such ghastly quarters. The typical observation is that
"it looks like one of Stalin's prisons." But such remarks
merely reveal one's ignorance. Stalin's prisons were masterpieces
of grace and beauty compared to the Walters.

"Is
it finished?" out-of-towners naively ask. They don't realize
that the unfinished concrete slab look is very much u2018in' –
in some circles.

"It's
a form of sin," Francois repeats.

Architecture
is no different from central banking, Francois believes. There are
essential rules and principles that must be respected. These rules
are not declared by edict or voted upon. Instead, they are like
common law and common language…vernacular rules that arise out
of trial and era over many, many generations. Of course, architectural
students at the Yale School like them no more than ambitious central
bankers like the gold standard. They are limitations on what one
can get away with.

"It's
a form of arrogance," Francois once told me. "People think
they are so smart they can ignore the lessons of thousands of years.
They think they don't have to learn the rules…that they can invent
something better without even studying or attempting to understand
why things are they way they are."

The
ancient Greeks might have built public buildings to look like giant
sun-baked cakes of mud – with bars! But those were not the
shapes and styles that were preserved, imitated and embellished.
For more than 2,000 years, the classical motif was the template
with which all serious architects began. Thereon, they improvised,
doodled and improved – according to the materials and resources
available to them. But the gold standards – the classical rules
and proportions – were rarely abandoned…and never with much
success.

But
when they built the Walters, they paid no attention to the classical
rules. And now poor Ms. Kim; every time she looks out her window,
she sees the results.

A
year ago, her spirits lifted. She looked out her window and saw
scaffolding. The whole neighborhood seemed to breathe a sigh of
relief. Not only was the scaffolding infinitely more attractive
than the concrete dam-like faade of the Walters, it was taken as
a herald of a change in trend.

Perhaps
the bull market in bad architecture, which had begun early in the
20th Century with Corbusier and continued through Edward
Durrell Stone, whom Forbes credits with having designed one of the
10 ugliest buildings in the world (Two Columbus Circle in New York)
was coming to an end.

Who
designed the Walters, I do not know. But he seems to have been inspired
by another of the winners on the Forbes list of the world's ugliest
buildings. On a trip to London, dear reader, you may have gone to
the theatre at the Barbican Centre. It is a whole area that bears
no resemblance to the rest of London…or to any civilized place.

The
Sunday Telegraph described the Barbican Centre as "a
stern place of massive pillars, rough-tooled concrete, arches and
counter arches." But, typically, the Telegraph understates
the Barbican's grotesque mocheness. All you see is brown concrete
– with the grace and beauty of an aging female weightlifter
and the charm of an armed tax collector.

"You
must innovate," says Sylvie, my French teacher and philosopher,
"but you must also respect the vernacular wisdom of preceding
generations. It is the balance that is important."

Not
until the 20th century would people have dared to spend
$219 million putting up the Barbican Centre. There was enough ugliness
in life already; and no urge to add to it with public architecture.
But the temptation to ignore the lessons of the past became irresistible
in the 20th century. People seemed to come to the conclusion
that bourgeois life – with all its manners, rules, free trade, and
gold standards – was a limitation they would be better off without.
In art, architecture, central banking and politics…people threw
out the evolved wisdom of centuries – and built monstrosities.

Looking
out at the scaffolding, Ms. Kim hoped that the age of monstrosities
was over. After all, the Soviet Union had collapsed. And modern
art is now being laughed at in smart circles. But managed currencies
are still a relatively recent innovation. And concrete can last
longer than the people looking at it.

When
the scaffold came down a few months ago, Ms. Kim was disappointed.
The concrete was still there – with still no trace of style
or charm. But at least, Chopin still issued from the radio in the
Cozy Corner, an echo of the grace on which the sun set more than
100 years ago…and perhaps a reminder of the sunrise to come.

June
1, 2002

Bill
Bonner [send
him mail
] is the president and CEO of Agora Publishing
and the author of the daily e-mail The Daily Reckoning. Click
here for your free subscription.

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