Today’s reprint of the editorial from Mississippi Architect’s August 1963 edition is especially interesting to me given some of the recent debates here on MissPres pitting Classicism against Modernism. As the tides of architectural styles rise and fall, many today would call the buildings of the 1960s ugly, not beautiful, but Bob Henry’s editorial highlights the desire of Modernist architects to achieve a beautiful building. Their definition of beauty included endurance, and I for one will be interested to see which Modernist works in Mississippi endure as beautiful buildings beloved of their communities.
Breaking with tradition, and because the editorial is fairly short, I’m also reprinting from the same issue of Mississippi Architect an excerpt of a speech titled “What is Quality in Architecture?” by Robert Anshen, F.A.I.A. His comments on the state of architecture in 1963 seem prescient today and are a good counterpoint to Bob Henry’s editorial. While apparently a Modernist, he also seems to be well on his way to Post-Modernism and New Urbanism with his emphasis on context and mixed use developments. Anshen also introduces us, or at least me, to a new word: “presagable.” Hey, say it with confidence and maybe it will stick!
That Ugly Word–Beauty
Beauty is that quality or aggregate of qualities in a thing which gives please to the senses, or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit. Keats said “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”
Prior to the planting of the Washington cherry trees, a practical-minded government official was asked to lend his influence and favor. “What,” he asked, “will be done with the crop of cherries if these trees are brought from Japan and planted here?” And when he was told there would be no cherries, only blossoms, he asked with his unseeing soul, “What good is that sort of cherry tree?”
It is often suggested that beauty and practical usefulness aren’t compatible. Beauty in architecture, it it costs a nickel extra, is equated to waste and the architect who proposes such is likely to be charged with “building monuments to himself” or “dreaming instead of being practical.”
Who would deny that a thing which gives pleasure to the senses, or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit is a thing of tangible value. Beauty is considered worthy of major consideration in the selection of an automobile and a wife. Both are costly and neither endure as long as most buildings.
The architect is the practical artist whose work must solve practical problems and serve practical needs at reasonable cost. I that ugly word–beauty–is neglected, his work can hardly qualify as art. Give beauty its rightful place in the program of building requirements and challenge the architect to deliver buildings well planned, properly engineered, and within budget.
What Is Quality in Architecture?
Architecture of quality today must be, above all, an expression of the most adept, profound, and skillful synthesis of all the knowledge that can be had of the total elements which exist and are presagable at the time of building: a clear expression of the total wealth of our society; not just material, but spiritual, social, technical and moral as well. Quality should involve the conscience of the building toward its neighbors and environment rather than being a thing of quality in itself only.
Yet, here, at a time in America of enormous wealth, not merely that of money, but of extraordinary technological invention, of new and sometimes wondrous materials, and of new and sometimes wondrous uses of the old, what proliferates along the avenues of our great cities but symbols of the architect’s abdication of his responsibilities: the glass box, the dreary imitative towers, the forbidding prisons of Public Housing. And, all across this once beautiful land, the scourge of suburbia, the mindless, faceless malignancy of the “tract”–slums before they are even finished.
Architecture today is at a turning point, standing on the threshold of glorious new development. This is not entirely because of itself, but because of society, which having unleashed the power of the atom, stands before its most glorious future or its most ignominious extinction. Yet architecture, and mankind, has always been at a turning point in history. Today, however, the road is traveled by vastly more people, and lined with so many more buildings, that when the turning point is reached, if the traffic is so heavy and the freeway so contrived that we go forward to the wrong exit, it may take longer than the journey itself to get back on the right road.
There is a right road as distinguished from a wrong road. People in the past built for prestige and to express the power of rulers over the population of the day, secondarily, to impress that power on future generations. Today we have new opportunities for quality, not yet realized, in our warehouses, factories, offices, schools, hospitals, institutional buildings of all kinds, which together express our life much more than isolated buildings do. These are relatively new types of buildings, not prevalent 300 years ago, and they express the great social advances we have made in their purposes, but not in their architecture. Today, most of them mar the landscape with their cheap expediency. The same corporation or government that will spend a king’s ransom on its prestige headquarters building, or principal mall of its capital city will feel unjustifiable the expenditure of proper sums on its “lesser” buildings. From a housekeeping point of view this is like society trying to sweep the dirt under the rug.
We have a tendency to architectural segregation. We hide our “lesser” houses in suburbia–future slums–factories and warehouses are “out of bounds”
in residential areas although today many factories are producers of less noise and tumult and are of greater architectural quality than most residences. To isolate them is a hangover of obsolete planning thinking. We can and should go back to clusters of uses as in medieval towns where living, warehouse, handicrafts were mixed together in a harmonious whole.
The time is past when the individual architect can rest on the laurel of a single successful building done for a “good” client or an isolated series of the same. He must become engaged in all facets of present day life, and attempt to convince every client with every bit of his moral persuasion, whether it be the government, using public funds for public buildings, great corporations, or an individual, that better building may cost most, but that, in the long view, the impoverishment of spirit engendered by the mean, the ugly, or the merely dull–the unimaginative horrors in the name of expediency and economy–are far more costly to the fabric of culture and society.
Excerpts from a speech by Robert Anshen, F.A.I.A., San Francisco,
at the national convention of the American Institute of Architects,
Miami Beach, May 8, 1963
This article is reprinted from the August 1963 issue of the Mississippi Architect, with permission from the Mississippi Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. View the full August 1963 issue of Mississippi Architect in a digitized format, or for other articles in this ongoing series, including the pdf version of each full issue, click on the MSArcht tab at the top of this page.