Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Back to the Drawing Board: Reflections on Architecture

Guest post:

A recent exhibit at the Library of Virginia, Never Built Virginia (January 11 - May 21, 2008), documents architectural designs that never made it off the drawing board. Ranging in designs from prosaic 19th century churches to ugly modern high rises, the exhibit forms an interesting cultural and aesthetic chronicle. There are a few items which stand out, like the magnificent Greco-Roman concept for the Library of Virginia, proposed in the 1930s. Unfortunately it was shelved in favor of a drab art deco structure (not the best specimen of that style) when the library was rebuilt in 1940. The state library has since been relocated to a retro-modern, and not totally ungraceful, building just down the street.

Not all modernism is bad, but a little bit goes a long way. And when we are told that "Virginia's deep-rooted traditionalism doomed many [architectural] schemes" we can be glad. After looking at plans from a few decades ago for the James River area—consisting of angular, massive poured concrete structures—it is fortunate that development was postponed until the recent neo-classical revival, when most of the buildings being put up exhibit tasteful Georgian lines to match the historic downtown.

One of the architects highlighted in Never Built Virginia is Haigh Jamgochian, a 1960s disciple of hyper-modernism. That he is a misanthropic recluse who has a made a career (like so many modern "creative" people) by not actually doing anything, seems appropriate. Admittedly his drawings and models are curious to look at, like the whimsical futurist predictions of old science fiction movies. Jamgochian cites the original Star Trek show as an early influence. But the minute you actually throw up such edifices on real streets, amidst venerable brick, stone and stucco structures, the effect is monstrous. Jamgochian was not very successful in selling his designs, but there are still plenty of disasters scattered about Richmond from the '60s and '70s to damage the landscape. Fortunately, as an established east coast city, enough of the traditional buildings have survived to maintain its character.

Perhaps the most that can be said for classic modernism is its symmetry. Of course symmetry is not enough to make a good building. But it's impossible to imagine good design without it. In that respect postmodernism, with its chaotic fragmentation, is only a further step in the direction of artistic decay in which even traditional elements are haphazardly plundered in the way that barbarians of the Dark Ages appropriated bits and pieces from handsome temples and palaces to construct their poorly made hovels. The effect is to evoke not so much admiration as pity.