Our book today is Henry Hope Read’s wonderful, prickly 1959 classic The Golden City, one long screed against the drift of architecture in his day away from the glories of classicism and into the uncharted function-driven wastelands of Modernism. Read fussed over this book for most of his life (our picture here is of a revised edition issued in 1970), but his main jeremiad was always the same: that modern architecture, forgetting the theatrical (“nay, operatic”) role of all art, has abandoned its own traditions in favor of ridiculous fads or barren utilitarianism.
He wrote, of course, during a heyday of so-called ‘urban renewal’ that cost American cities a great many beautiful streets and buildings, and the delightful fire of outrage kindles every page of his book. He looked at all the shapeless, unfinished monstrosities going up all around him in New York City (although it needn’t have been only there – in Boston, we’ve got a ‘new’ Public Library extension that manages to have four walls, a ceiling, and a skylight and absolutely nothing else … for the purpose of housing great works of literature and sheltering scholars, a less inspiring building would be hard to imagine), and he pined not only for the misguidedness of it all but also for the actual property loss necessary to bring it about:
The saddest consequence of originality is the element of destruction. Visual disorder, too much with us under any circumstance, has been compounded. Chaos reigns supreme as the drive to be original destroys the harmony we have inherited, not only in individual buildings but also in the urban scene and in the landscape. Today, not content with excusing the past, we must strike out at the work of our predecessors and try to crush it. “In order to get organize architecture born,” Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, has told us, “intelligent architects will be forced to turn their backs on antique rubbish heaps with which classic eclecticism has encumbered our new ground.”
The greatest strength of The Golden City (and the book abounds in strengths) is the author’s perception that philosophy must lie at the heart of any change as sweeping as Modernism – well, that and his willingness to chase down and belabor some of the most sacred cows producing those philosophies:
William James is the probably source of the fallacy that busyness with its acceptance of disorder is reality. In defining the nature of his philosophy, pragmatism, he compares it with “the world of concrete personal experiences,” that is, the life “in the street”; the traditional philosophical approach, termed “transcendental idealism,” he likens to “a kind of marble temple shining on a hill.” William James notwithstanding, the marble temple on the hill is as much a part of concrete personal experience as is the life of the street. To destroy the temple is to rob us of aim, and to take away aim is to deny reality with its attendant, mortality.
This isn’t meant to be a fun book, but even so – watching someone with Read’s intellect and passion take a sledge hammer to so many fraudulent institutions does end up being very amusing. Despite the fact that he often drew uproarious laughs at his lectures, Read viewed the process he was charting as a purely tragic one – as he was right to do, since the impoverishment of modern architecture in turn impoverishes everybody who uses it. So there’s heartache, yes, but also smiles when Read offers a kind of pictorial ‘before’ and ‘after’ segment, expanded for the 1970 edition. There’s Port Authority, for instance:
One of the largest bus terminals in the world and the entrance to a great city, it offers a large front of brick and stone trim. There is no sculpture, no sculptural detail, and no ornament of any kind outside and none inside.
Which is naturally compared with Grand Central Station:
An elaborate entablature has as its central feature a broken round pediment, with a clock insert, which supports a colossal Mercury and two reclining figures. Swags and garlands of fruit, laurel wreaths, and voluted keystones decorate various parts of the façade.
And there’s the Great Hall of the Cunard Building:
The decoration is in a variety of classical detail mainly in cream, red, and blue, while placed in the ceiling at regular intervals are murals, with nudes and marine symbols in relief framed by lozenges.
Which is compared with the main lobby of the Secretariat Building at the U.N.:
Hee. Sorry Henry, but I'm chuckling just a bit. You fought the good fight, but fads are stronger still.