By David Brussat
Thursday, Aug. 25, 2010
Illustrations: Above, the Massachusetts State House, designed by Charles Bulfinch, photographed in 1863; below, the State House today; Charles Bulfinch; Thomas Bulfinch; the Bulfinch Hotel; the Flatiron Building; the College Club of Boston, on Commonwealth Avenue, where the New England chapter of the ICA & CA is headquartered
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The first annual Bulfinch Awards will honor New England architects worthy of the legacy of Charles Bulfinch, the first native-born professional architect in America. He was arguably the nation’s first starchitect – but one who strove to instill beauty in its built environment.
Trolling online for tidbits about Bulfinch, who designed the Massachusetts State House and the first dome of the U.S. Capitol, and fathered Thomas Bulfinch, the renowned scholar of classical mythology, I discovered the Bulfinch Hotel, in the Bulfinch Triangle section of downtown Boston. I called up its Web site to find out whether the hotel’s architecture might cause Bulfinch to spin in his grave.
The Bulfinch Hotel, with its triangular plan, looks like New York City’s Flatiron Building – a classical skyscraper. It’s hard to know what Bulfinch would make of a classical skyscraper, or for that matter any skyscraper. But it’s clear that today’s glitzy vertical monoliths would set Bulfinch spinning much harder than either the Flatiron Building or the Bulfinch Hotel.
Bulfinch was born in Boston and lived from 1763 to 1844. Newport’s Peter Harrison (1716-1775), widely considered America’s first professional architect, emigrated from York, England, in 1740. Harrison designed the Redwood Library, in Newport, 13 yearsbefore Bulfinch was born. Bulfinch died some half a century before the skyscraper was invented.
Since Bulfinch was the great popularizer of classical architecture in America after Thomas Jefferson chose it as symbolic of democracy, and is considered something of a purist, I suspect that he is destined always to spin, at some speed, in his grave. Needless to say, all modern architecture accelerates his spin.
The mission of the Bulfinch Awards is to “recognize the best work of individuals and firms to preserve and advance the classical tradition in the New England region.” In bestowing the first Bulfinch Awards at Bulfinch’s State House on Nov. 3, the judges must strive to give the prize to designers whose work will slow down Bulfinch’s rate of spin.
That shouldn’t be too difficult. The awards’ sponsor is the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America, whose mission is the same. I am on its board, and participated (albeit minimally) in the Bulfinch committee’s discussions of categories, eligibility, jury selection, judging criteria and location of the awards ceremony. The heavy lifting was done by the committee chairman and chapter vice president, William Young. Those who contemplate entering can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Entries, which have to be received online by Sept. 15, must be projects that were completed since July 2005 in New England, and designed by architects living in New England and firms headquartered here. The categories are: residential (restoration, renovation, sympathetic addition), residential (new construction), civic/institutional/ecclesiastic, commercial, landscape architecture, artisanship, residential interiors, and community design.
Particulars required of all submissions may be found at the ICA & CA Web site, whose address is www.classicist-ne.org. Entries must be submitted in Word and pdf format.
Five professionals or academics in the classical tradition will judge the submissions, and the winners will be celebrated at a reception in the Doric Hall of Bulfinch’s State House.
No modernists need apply, of course. The Bulfinch Awards honor classicists no less than the Pritzker Prize honors modernists – though, typically, the Pritzker’s mission speaks grandly of “significant contributions to humanity and the built environment” without noting that classicists need not apply. No matter. Unlike the Pritzker, the Bulfinch and its notable allies, the Driehaus and Ross awards (sponsored, respectively, by Notre Dame’s School of Architecture and the national ICA & CA in New York), have something to do with beauty.
Architects interested in beauty, which is to say classicists, should consider entering. Many would also find the ICA & CA a useful and congenial collection of fellow travelers.
It will be interesting to see whether the Bulfinch judges lean, in selecting winners, toward purist interpretations of classicism or toward more creative interpretations that build upon the past to advance into the future – as indeed all art, for most of history, had tended to progress. I will report back after Nov. 3, when winners are announced. I trust the results will give Charles Bulfinch’s revolving spirit a break.
David Brussat is a member of The Journal’s editorial board (email@example.com). His blog at projo.com is called Architecture Here and There.