PRINT February 1976

Beaux-Arts at the Modern

THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART’S major space for changing exhibitions was occupied all fall by work from the Paris architectural academy which ruled—with the most accomplished of hands—almost the entire architectural profession during the 18th and 19th centuries. “Architecture of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts” offered us 200 drawings by more than 50 would-be architects, some of them now become famous, some of them not. Although by students, few of the drawings betrayed any trace of amateurism. Although drawn with narrowly deliberate objectives (the sketch, or esquisse, was meant to convince a jury of professors of the worth of a student’s plan, the projet rendu was its full presentation, and the envoi, undertaken only by a winner of the annual Grand Prix de Rome, was an archaeological reconstruction), all the drawings were nevertheless able to stand alone as objects of intrinsic interest. And although conforming to an apparent strait jacket of conventions, some of them took inspired chances.

The Ecole des Beaux-Arts grew from the 17th-century Académie Royale d’Architecture, and, except for a brief suppression during the French Revolution, it continued almost until yesterday. Although John Russell Pope’s 1943 Jefferson Memorial was perhaps the last important building in Beaux-Arts style, the traditional organization of the school was not dismantled until Paris’s student riots of 1968. Fragile but elephantine (some are 20 feet long), the drawings were salvaged from the dust of the Beaux-Arts’ attics by the Modern’s Director of Architecture and Design, Arthur Drexler, and by three young scholar-assistants, Richard Chafee, Neil Levine, and David Van Zanten.

If it is easy to see these drawings as art, it is not so easy to see them as modern, though perhaps it is healthy that the Modern is becoming a bit relaxed about its name. Indeed, after this issue goes to the printer, Drexler is scheduled to give the last in a series of five Beaux-Arts-related lectures at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (just part of a plethora of subsidiary events trailing the exhibition), and the announced title of his lecture is “Up from Modernism.” We can only guess at what he may say (That the 19th century now looks new? That the 20th century looks old? That one came right after the other, anyway?) except that, presumably, his main point will be that modernism is something to be gotten up from.

But how many are still down there? What, in fact, is the message of this exhibition, and for whom is it intended?

For architects, the Beaux-Arts is not exactly hot news. The most modern of modern architects were parading the streets in 1963 to protest the destruction of McKim, Mead, and White’s very Beaux-Arts Pennsylvania Station (one of a dozen such American buildings, in fact, which Drexler shows us in an interesting little appendix to the main exhibition), and the last devout faith in modernism’s infallible progress toward Utopia must have been blown to bits, along with Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe housing, in 1970. Besides, even the purest of modernists always had, suppressed somewhere in their ids, an admiration for Beaux-Arts drawing; hand-ground ink is in all architects’ blood. Those who were in American schools as recently as 1940 studied under this country’s close imitation of the French system, and they include, to take just a couple of examples, Max Abramowitz and Gordon Bunshaft. Long before he and Wallace Harrison were cooking up the Time-Life building, Abramowitz was reportedly astonishing his fellow Columbia students with the virtuosity of his ornate presentations, and part of Bunshaft’s MIT training was a stunningly rendered 1933 pseudo-Romanesque church, shown, with other work of that time, at last spring’s convention of the American Institute of Architects.

But more surprising is the fact that, although no one ever seems to teach such things, even the rawest of freshman design studios today will unaccountably begin using Beaux-Arts terms. “Do you have a scheme yet?” becomes “Do you have a parti?,” and rather than “We’re working night and day,” they will suddenly say, “We’re en charette,” perhaps not even aware of the reference to last-minute work aboard the carts (charettes) carrying students’ drawing boards to the school for the fateful jury. Even though not one of the drawings at the Modern may have been seen before, most of them had already been visualized with delight, so that for present architects of whatever age Drexler’s show offered as much pleasure and spiritual refreshment—and just as few surprises—as another leisurely thumbing through Le Corbusier’s oeuvre complète.

Nor should it surprise us that the Beaux-Arts tradition is so persistent, for it is a major symbol of an era when architecture had glamour. Architects have grown up considerably in the last half-century, and they don’t have nearly the fun they once did. Floating the perfect blue gray wash on an elevation of “A Town House in Paris for a Rich Banker” is—let’s admit—a pretty elegant pastime compared to calculating minimal kitchen areas for a low-cost housing development. Most modern architects worry a bit about the composition of their plans and elevations, but they also worry—and this is almost a definition of modern architecture—about proper integration of the poor and the aged, about soil erosion, financing, neighborhood stability, natural ventilation, coordination with engineering, accommodation of the physically handicapped, and a thousand other ecologic, economic, and social factors to which a Beaux-Arts architect would never have tipped his beret.

If architects seem to remember only too well their profession’s spoiled adolescence, was the Modern’s show intended, then, for a general audience? Beyond some surprise at seeing such unmodern work within the very temple of modernity, and beyond some opportunity for an architectural history lesson, the show would seem to have furnished nonarchitects only with an excuse for nostalgia—“They don’t build ’em like they used to,” or even just “They don’t draw ’em like they used to.” As Drexler knows, such reaction isn’t worth the effort.

Drexler also knows that any revival of Beaux-Arts building form or ornament (or even drawing technique) is not only silly but impossible. None of architecture’s present clients needs or wants such buildings; few architects, no matter how admiring, remember how to design them; and no construction firm can build them.

So there must be, in this prominent exhibition, in this museum which quite correctly sees itself as ideologically influential, a more specific and less obvious message, and it must be this: that there was a creative force or body of principles operating in Beaux-Arts design of which we have lost sight and to which we might profitably return. The show is far from single-minded in delivering this message; indeed, its interest derives so greatly from the spectacular quality of the presentations that a viewer might easily neglect the content being presented.

That content—beneath the rosy washes and impeccably ruled lines, beneath the Corinthian pilasters and stone garlands, beneath even the distasteful connotations of privilege and authoritarianism—is order. Applied to architecture, order implies considered proportion, clarity of organization, attention to the effects of different combinations of voids and solids, of volumes and shapes, the search for appropriate ornament, and the use of—whenever there is no good reason for asymmetry—symmetry. These are characteristics that have been used, abandoned, and revived repeatedly and that will surely serve us well today, no matter what style we choose to build in. Architectural order is a potent force some of us had begun to neglect a bit, and Drexler is to be thanked for reminding us of it.

So why the perverse eccentricities of the installation itself, based on that most tired affectation of recent architectural fashion, the 45-degree angle? The display alcoves in the spaces left over from the angled corridors were further confused by the decorating gimmick of changing color at each corner; and on these motley walls the monumental drawings were arrayed in asymmetrical patterns, the suggestion of Mondrian strengthened by the fact that each drawing was framed with a stripe of black tape. One could find this installation jaunty or just plain ugly, depending on one’s disposition, but no one could find it appropriate. It may be that Drexler realized that no temporary partitions of painted sheetrock could compete with the grandeur of the drawings, but, in that case, the adaptability of the show’s lessons must be admitted to be pretty limited. Is 19th-century design necessarily vanquished by 20th-century budgets?

Whatever the vagaries of their installation, the drawings have given us something to enjoy and something to discuss. If the enjoyment is universal, the discussion, among architects, is diverse. The director of the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, Peter Eisenman—whose buildings look less like Beaux-Arts work than any others we can think of quickly, but whose sentiments seem to be strongly with architecture-for-art’s-sake—thinks it “the most significant exhibit in architecture in the last ten years,” reflecting “a return to the point where the architect is no longer the multiheaded service he once thought he was, but is doing architecture. There is a growing international attitude,” he believes, “that architecture has a concern for architecture itself—that it is both antifunctionalist and antiprogrammatic.”

Architect Ulrich Franzen, on the other hand, not only finds something slightly scary in the fact that the Beaux-Arts style was the style of tyrants (both Hitler and Stalin were wild about it), but also finds the implied attack on the modern movement a little unfair. “When19th-century elitists were thinking Beaux-Arts,” he says, “some who were more conscientious were beginning to think that the people were of importance. Despite its many failings, one of the important thrusts of the modern movement was, and still is, toward a greater humanity.”

And Peter Blake, Drexler’s predecessor at the Modern, although finding the drawings “dazzling,” fears that “what the exhibition suggests is that architecture (and much architecture theory and criticism) has become wholly escapist. The new generation of architects who know where the problems are and where the action is in the real world don’t feel much like eating cake just now.”

This diversity of reactions is natural, for the Beaux-Arts now seems reprehensible for just the same reason that it seems delightful: its view of architecture exclusively as design. Architecture is no longer that simple. It now must be a business, a technical skill, a coordinating skill, and—most important of all— it must have that understanding of human problems and that concern for their solution that the Beaux-Arts rose so blithely above.

Blake is dead right that cake is currently inappropriate, and a 19th-century sugar frosting on our cereal would choke us even more. Still, even if the Beaux-Arts students and graduates were doing things which most architects today no longer consider worth doing, they did do them superbly well. It shouldn’t be impossible to attend to our own more pressing problems and still profit from this show’s reminder of the organizational strengths of architecture’s naive past. Some dispassionate consideration of the Beaux-Arts does have value, just as Eisenman’s students do presumably learn something about one aspect of architecture even if he does ask them to design buildings without programs or functions. For if architecture is now more than art, it is not necessarily less than art. It can be many things at once, and it is this simultaneity, with all the tensions of combination and compromise, which gives it its fascination and its angst. Casino or shopping center, architecture has always been and is even now capable of being art. Sometimes, at its very best, informed by a passion for architectural order, but in an appropriately modern construction and with an appropriately modern social conscience, it can even still be beau.

Stanley Abercrombie is an architect in New York City.