Sin and Architecture

"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