By David Brussat
Wednesday, November 3, 2010 (delivered)
[ICA & CA New England Chapter President] John [Margolis] kindly asked me to say a few words about Charles Bulfinch, the Bulfinch awards, their purpose, and the purpose of the ICA & CA, nationally and through the New England chapter. First, I am happy to see so many people have come to the State House this evening. It is good that so many people are interested in this award. These are the inaugural Bulfinch Awards. I would like to think that the quality of the winners and the size of the audience here to celebrate them indicate that there will be many more, and that their influence would make Bulfinch spin a little less rapidly in his grave.
I don’t think there was any debate over what to call the awards. Bulfinch is a natural. Some people from Rhode Island might have preferred to name the award for Peter Harrison, who is often considered America’s first professional architect — but he was born in England.
In many ways, Charles Bulfinch as a man and as an architect represents what classical architects and classical architecture aspire to accomplish. He was not only a genius at molding European classicism to the needs of Boston and America, but during his tenure as a member of the Boston Board of Selectmen from 1791 to 1795 and as its chairman from 1799 to 1817, he helped to lay out the streets of Beacon Hill and improve the cow pasture we know as the Boston Common. He oversaw the transformation of Boston’s civic center, its architecture and its infrastructure according to classical ideas of design and urbanism. It is difficult to overestimate his impact on Boston, then and now.
Charles Bulfinch was born in 1763 and died in 1844. He was the first native-born American to take up architecture as a profession. When he was growing up, most of Boston was erected by carpenters and masons. As a boy of 10, Charles drew a classical column of vaguely Corinthian style on an empty page of one of his school books. But we know little of how he became infatuated by buildings and their design.
After graduating from Harvard in 1781, Bulfinch thought of going into medicine like his father, but he did not need the money. His father was wealthy and his mother, an Apthorp, was the daughter of Boston’s richest man. In 1787, when he was 23, he married his first cousin, Hannah Apthorp. There is a painting of Charles, by Mather Brown. Young Bulfinch looks as if he must have been quite a refined young swell about town, a thoroughgoing popinjay — but there was a deepness to him that perhaps the artist did not capture.
We are sitting in Bulfinch’s most famous building, which he proposed in 1787, again, at that tender age of 23. At that time, he was not a professional architect. He was a rich boy who toyed with architecture as a hobby after taking the Grand Tour of Europe. Europe was his architecture school. And when he returned he went into practice, so to speak, but not for money. In addition to volunteering his original plan for the State House, he offered plans for the Connecticut State House in Hartford, plus three churches, two monuments, a theater, a hotel and a dozen private houses. He described this brief period in his life as “a season of leisure, pursuing no business, but giving gratuitous advice in architecture.”
His plan for the State House was accepted by the Assembly, but not until 1795. The building was completed in 1797. It cost almost quadruple what Bulfinch had estimated, some £32,000 rather than his projection of £8,000. Not exactly the Big Dig, but in a 1795 letter to the General Assembly he wrote: “My own experience … has convinced me of the fallacy of estimates in general, and especially in buildings of a public nature.”
His opinion might have been influenced by his experience with the Tontine Crescent, a row of townhouses in Boston set along a bow, as in Bath, England. He built it between 1793 and 1795. He had investors in the project, but not enough of them. It was the first project on such a scale in Boston, the first introduction of monumental town planning. But it bankrupted his family, exhausting the fortunes of both himself and his wife.
The experience was not lost on him. The Tontine Crescent fiasco turned Bulfinch into a professional architect. As his wife put it, “My husband made Architecture his business, as it was his pleasure.” And yet, until 1817, he probably didn’t earn more than a thousand dollars a year from fees. According to official records, Bulfinch was paid $600.91 for designing and overseeing the construction of the State House. Another source says it was $1,400. Either way, it was chicken scratch. As a selectman, he served with no salary.
So, as an architect and as a public official, he did not make a mint — a fact that may endear him to many of you. In his career, Bulfinch suffered several financial reverses from projects that went sour. In 1811 he spent the month of July in prison for debt. He stayed at the Massachusetts State Prison in Charlestown, which he designed himself, and probably for chicken scratch. In 1817 he was appointed by President Monroe to complete the United States Capitol after it was burned by the British in the War of 1812. That’s the building he is most famous for, of course — at least outside of New England. He was paid $2,500 a year for 12 years, during which he lived in Washington. He said those years were “the happiest years of my life in pursuits congenial to my taste, and where my labors were well received.”
[Note: Many sources say that Bulfinch spent that month in prison for debt, and that he had designed the prison where he stayed, but no sources I could find identify the prison, and yet the only prison he designed, apparently, was the one in Charlestown, so I have leapt to that conclusion.]
It’s hard to know what Bulfinch would make of the way Boston looks today. We classicists are forced to imagine that he is spinning in his grave. His architecture was known for its ornamental austerity, but today any ornament that decorates a surface is a crime in the eyes of most professional architects. Bulfinch would be guilty as charged.
Look at this room that you are sitting in, added since Bulfinch’s day. Look at the artful curvature and the ornamental detail of these fine railings! Luxuriate in the voluptuosity of those Ionic columns! Yet this space is relatively astringent compared with the next room over, called Memorial Hall. For most architects today, this set of rooms, and indeed this building as a whole are valid only because they are 200 years old. A similar building erected today would be denounced far and wide, up and down the profession, as invalid.
But such a word, invalid, would be too tame for today’s critics. They would insist that a new building like this was a travesty of architecture, a slap in the face of art, a crime against creativity, a work of the most sublime and regrettable dishonesty — not to be countenanced. The schools of architecture should not teach it, the journals of architecture should not praise it, the juries that hand out prizes for architecture should not reward it and the committees that hand out commissions should not hire those who create it. And by and large they do not. They lock it out and throw away the key. …
So is Charles Bulfinch is spinning in his grave? You bet!
After these speeches, go to see the exhibit of the winners of the Bulfinch awards in Doric Hall over there. On your way, note the variety of the grandeur that takes you through Memorial Hall, Nurses Hall and on into the spare elegance of Doric Hall, which was designed by Bulfinch, and is the chamber most untouched by restoration of the State House interiors. Gaze around you and look through the windows at the tall modernist buildings that scrape the sky on the other side of the Boston Common. Now — take those buildings and imagine a new, updated renovation for these spaces in here.
Imagine the graceful wrought iron staircase railings replaced by a plain pressed-steel railing. … Imagine the Ionic pillars replaced by the sort of decoration-free posts that are favored today. … Imagine the gorgeous marble floor covered with wall-to-wall carpeting, or worse, some inlaid abstraction designed to impress you with the artist’s refusal to be inspired by anyone who ever designed a floor before. And since we’re imagining that sort of thing, take away the pillars, take away the posts, and imagine a ceiling designed to give you the impression that it’s about to fall down on you. There. You are imagining the Zeitgeist of how things are supposed to look today, the sort of flapdoodle that generally wins an architect a Pritzker Prize.
Yes, Bulfinch is spinning in his grave. But there are indications that he may not have to spin forever.
Why? Because we are here handing out awards to artists and architects whose work flies in the face of everything that conspires to spin Charles Bulfinch in his grave.
These awards honor those who work in the clay of a tradition that came very close to being lost. Back in the middle of the last century, architecture schools did indeed throw out the classical curricula that taught students how to design in ways that touch the heart of humanity. The architecture profession did indeed stop using the artisans who knew how to appeal to the eye, and to tickle the humors of the soul — throwing those artists out of work, crushing their crafts, driving their shops and studios out of business … and then complaining that nobody can afford that sort of thing anymore!
And yet, here we are, handing out the Bulfinch Awards! Here is proof that the tried and true ways of art and architecture have not been successfully eradicated.
And here I want to put a bug in the ear of next year’s Bulfinch prize jury. Notre Dame school of architecture professor Steven Semes has written a book calledThe Future of the Past. What a masterpiece it is! It is my new bible.
In his book [buy it here], Professor Semes writes: “At the heart of the debate we can identify two conflicting views of how buildings relate to history. On the one hand, there is the view that historic buildings are primarily to be seen as documents of their time, deserving of preservation because of their historical significance but having little relevance to how we design buildings and cities today. … On the other hand, there is the belief that historic places are or ought to be living entities that not only can grow and accommodate change without losing the character that qualified them for preservation in the first place, but can also provide models for new work in other places and times.”
The idea Mr. Semes presents is essentially the same as the one that says just because democracy was replaced by communism for several decades in much of the world does not mean that democracy is of interest today only as a “document of the past.”
Some nations fought to take their democracy back, and they got it. The same thing can happen with architecture. The traditions that served society so well for centuries are not invalid just because modernism dominates architecture today. It would be just as silly to say that real cheese grown organically on a farm is invalid today because for 50 years we have had … Velveeta! Give me a break! Classicism and tradition are as legitimate for today’s world as democracy, and as tasty, fulfilling and nutritious as a good brick of Vermont cheddar. But we cannot wait around for it to be handed to us on a silver platter by the modernists. We have to go out and take them back. That’s what the ICA & CA is trying to do, and the Bulfinch winners are showing the way.
There’s a passage in The Future of the Past in which Professor Semes shows how upside-down today’s thinking about architecture is. He writes: “Critics often praise a new work by saying ‘And here the architect calls into question what a door can be’ – or a window, a bathroom fixture, or a building. This calling into question what might otherwise be taken for granted exerts a strong fascination [in] contemporary culture, but it precludes the formation of a stable visual language or set of models, without which there can be no consistent criteria for judging the merits of new designs or sustaining a formal tradition.”
I often wonder what criteria are used by the judges of the Pritzker Prize to award a medal to the likes of Frank Gehry, or Daniel Libeskind, or Zaha “Ha-ha!” Hadid. How do you choose between the zig-zag style, the whirly-gig style or the slash-and-crash style? I don’t know if there is any way to choose based on reasonable criteria. I think it’s more a matter of which architect has been mentioned the most times over the past year by the architecture critic of the New York Times.
Having already gone so far as to compare modern architecture to communism, or even to Velveeta — let me venture to suggest that compared to the jurors of the Pritzker Prize, the Bulfinch jurors bring adult judgment to their job. They treat a building not like a new toy from FAO Schwartz but like … a building.
In each Bulfinch category the work that was judged bore a stronger degree of likeness than of difference. This birds-of-a-feather quality is a strength, not a weakness. As Professor Semes wouldput it, the buildings judged here are consistent rather than oppositional. If you put them on the same street, they would shake hands instead of elbowing each other and kicking each other in the shins. Traditional buildings sing along with Mitch. Modernist buildings snigger and chortle. The ICA & CA wants to make cities into symphonies again.
The Bulfinch jury did not have to learn a new language just to judge one building against another. Classical architecture is the language of the built environment, familiar from centuries of common use. Throughout our lives we see more architecture than almost anything else. As a species, our ability to judge buildings is not learned but natural and innate. We understand buildings as we understand words. We know that C-A-T means cat without knowing why those letters have that meaning. The introduction of letters and words with obscure sounds and meanings into the language of architecture has eroded the public’s undestanding of and comfort in its environment.
The Bulfinch jurors comprehend that a winning entry is not necessarily the one that handles the transition from a wall to a cornice to a roof in a way nobody has ever done before. Rather, the judges are looking for who does it the way we’ve all seen it done before, but better — using the familiar tools of architecture with a virtuosity and a spirit that nobody has ever seen before. That’s a much more difficult job than choosing this year’s most fashionable toy from the
toy box. For classicists, novelty is secondary to beauty. There is so much more to the idea of creativity than doing something so completely new and so completely different that when you see it for the first time you have to say “Wow!” Or more likely, “Huh?”
The keynote address for the 2008 Driehaus Awards handed out by Notre Dame was delivered by Andres Duany, the guru of the New Urbanism. By the way, that year the Driehaus went to an Egyptian architect who wants Egyptian architects to embrace the architecture of Egypt, of all things. Anyway, Mr. Duany told his audience that the modernists have “explored every shape that could be hyper-cantilevered, crashed, randomized, slashed, perforated, upturned, bent, dematerialized, dissed or otherwise transgressed.”
Duany put his finger on why most of the public does not like modern architecture. He went on to thank today’s modernist architectural establishment for its “strategic ineptitude.” He said: “We thank them for how much they concede by sticking to irrelevant ideologies; by their fascination with the transient, the unworkable, the uncomfortable, the unpopular, the expensive, the unbuildable, the useless, the repellent and the unintelligible.”
Of course, the degradation of the profession of architecture over the past half a century, and the attempt to snuff out the techniques and craftsmanship that went into buildings for ages,means that the education of the architect has to be built up again. That is the most critical mission of the ICA & CA. Somebody has to keep the torch lit for beauty, and for standards in the quality of design. Somebody has to re-educate practitioners saddled with virtually worthless degrees. And somebody has to teach the public to have confidence in its own judgment, that it’s perfectly all right to dislike the sterile, cockamamie buildings we get nowadays.
And that mission is what links today’s Bulfinch winners and others who do classical work to Charles Bulfinch. He turned a relatively backward Boston into a city so beautiful that even half a century of attacks by modern architecture have not been able to totally ruin it. We are on Beacon Hill, whose beauty survives. The Back Bay survives. But there’s so much stuff and junk like Boston City Hall. That buildingshould be torn down. There are huge clunkers like the Prudential tower and the Hancock tower — whose windows were popping out back in the 1970s when it was new. Okay, so it looks like a razor blade if you look at it from just the right angle. Wow. I’m impressed. And those are just the modernist buildings inflicted on us by previous generations. Our own generation is behaving just as badly. There are all too many reasons for Bulfinch to spin in his grave.
So the job of the ICA & CA at the start of the 21st Century is actually somewhat more difficult than the job that faced Bulfinch at the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th. All he had to do was to get things built amid a Boston economy that was devastated by the Revolution and the British occupation. It might have been difficult to finance a glorious renaissance of European classicism in colonial Boston. They said “Show me the money, Mr. Bulfinch, show me the money.” But there was no profession of architecture, let alone a hidebound architecture establishment of stylistic mossbacks and starchitect wannabes standing athwart history and yelling “Stop, Mr. Bulfinch! Don’t you dare try to make Boston beautiful!
Bulfinch just went ahead and did it. He did so with such monumental creativity that it’s surprising that the modernists have not kidnapped his reputation like they did to poor Louis Sullivan and turned him into a “precursor of modernism.”
So here we are this evening in the State House of the great commonwealth of Massachusetts. Yesterday there was an election. We all withstood months and months of political campaigning, some of which ostensibly was about the issues. Well, why didn’t we hear any politicians telling us how they were going to fix the broken architecture of our cities and towns? Why no pledges to cut that tax on our daily existence called ugliness, or create new jobs in the manufacturing of beauty? Why wasn’t that an issue? One of the jobs of the ICA & CA is to make architecture an issue.
Yesterday’s elections are over, but tomorrow’s elections are yet to come. Maybe the Rose Kennedy Greenway will become a political issue around here. And there are probably eyesores that could be turned into campaign issues all across the nation. But first the public must demand that politicians tell the architects and the developers that there needs to be some hope and change in the way things look. The voters have the power to make the politicians force the architects and the developers to listen.
Maybe it sounds like I’ve been drinking some sort of Kool Aid, but nothing is more likely to help the public feel a desire for a revival of beauty in the world than proof that beauty doesn’t have to be old. It can be new. It can be built today. That’s what the Bulfinch winners have done — and in fact that’s what the Bulfinch losers have done, too. They too are designing beautiful things, and making the world a nicer place to live in. Maybe they will be winners next year.
Until then, I thank you all for being here to support the ICA & CA [whose national web site ishere, and chapter web site is here]. I thank everyone who has put their fine work on the line to be judged. There is courage in that, a sort of bravery to design buildings that speak beauty to power. Together we can reverse the tide. If we try, we will succeed. And when we do, all of the world’s architecture prizes will be Bulfinch Awards. And Charles Bulfinch will finally be able to rest easy in his grave.
Thank you very much.