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Architects and Citizenship

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

old penn stationArchitects and Citizenship
By Michael J. Lewis
(February 2014)

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Here are three conceptions of the architect, as mutually exclusive as can be. According to venerable Vitruvius, whose Ten Books of Architecture is the only treatise on the subject to survive from classical antiquity, it is the architect who gives tangible form to the history, traditions, and “moral philosophy” of his civilization. To Richard Morris Hunt, the elegant virtuoso of Gilded Age mansions, the architect is a mere employee, duty-bound to gratify his client’s whims and wishes. But to Howard Roark, the fictional subject of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the architect is an existential hero whose buildings belong to him and not his clients and who would even dynamite his own work if its integrity of vision was violated. In all of literature there is no more arresting portrayal of the architect: the exalted form-giver who recognizes no law but his own titanic force of will.

All these outrageously contradictory portraits are equally valid—such is the paradox of the architectural profession. It is indeed true that the architect is the advocate of the client who engages him, whose best interests he represents as would a doctor or lawyer. And it is just as true that every building is an individual artistic statement. Just as a handwritten signature is the work of a single human hand, so the contours, masses, and volumes of a building must be shaped by a controlling artistic intelligence; it cannot help but express the personality of its creator, although few are as arrogant as Roark. And yet Vitruvius too is correct to recognize that architecture has a civic dimension, that it is the essential civic art. “Moral philosophy” is not out of place in an architect’s tool kit if one recognizes how profoundly the spaces and facades of buildings affect our public life.

All this must be kept in mind when we speak of architectural citizenship. One ought not limit the term to buildings built, owned, and administered by the government, although they bear the heaviest civic responsibility. The buildings of private corporations also have a civic dimension, and one should not presume that they are necessarily less civic-minded than those created by the government. New York City’s Penn Station—McKim, Mead, and White’s late lamented masterpiece—was built for the rapacious Pennsylvania Railroad, and one cannot sufficiently praise its good architectural manners; the federal government created the heartless Madison Memorial Building of the Library of Congress, the most dispiriting of all national libraries.

But even purely private architecture has civic ramifications. The making of any building is a social act that stakes a claim on finite resources of land and space and that can enhance the value of the buildings around it or diminish it. It is the one work of art that the public cannot easily ignore. And unlike other works of art, such as a painting or a symphony, it takes no formal training to read a building. A generous run of windows and an ample sheltering portico is universally intelligible, and so is a massive and sullen wall of Dryvit (that stucco-like cladding ubiquitous in highway strip development), relieved by a lone metal door. Only the most solitary and remote building is without implications for society.