Thursday, May 26, 2011
Photo credits: Houses by Allan Greenberg Architects: photo © Michael Biondo; Barcelona Pavilion: courtesy of Wikipedia; Greenberg at ICAA event by David Brussat
Sometimes the best lectures get you grinding your teeth harder, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I had only an inkling of what was afoot when I arrived with my friend and fellow chapter member (and doctoral candidate in architectural history at Brown) Nathaniel Walker at the headquarters of Shepley Bulfinch Architects, in Boston, to hear America’s second-ranked contemporary classicist (after Robert A.M. Stern) lecture on the relationship, if any, of modernism to classicism.
The lecture was sponsored by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, along with our hosts at Shepley Bulfinch. The lecture was gracefully supported as well by Tischler und Sohn, Hyde Park Mouldings, and Shawmut Construction. The folks at Shepley Bulfinch had laid out some of the best specimens of their extensive library of architectural prints and volumes, partly in anticipation of the interest of Mr. Greenberg, who has an affection for such antiquarian collections.
Not until the Great Man appeared dressed all in black did my neck hairs begin to stand up.
In my post previewing this lecture here, I had joshed that Greenberg might say something like, “So Corbu and Mies do have walls, roofs, windows, doors – and hence are indebted to classical architecture.” Would that he had. It’s all well and good for a classicist to study the work and ideas of modernism’s leading lights; something altogether different for one of classicism’s leading lights to find the modernists so compelling.
The lecture would have been more compelling, however disappointing and maybe even threatening to me, if Mr. Greenberg’s reflections on Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, etc., etc., had held more water.
“Around this time,” Mr. Greenberg recalled to his listeners, referring to a visit to the Barcelona Pavilion, “my obsession with Mies van der Rohe began. I consider him a classicist, not a modern architect.” He praised Mies’s pavilion as an exercise in “the ambiguity of reflections” and mooned over the way its lines of sight and lines of circulation undermine order. He said a lot of things that sounded very much like sophomores sitting on a dorm room rug discussing architectural philosophy at three o’clock in the morning.
But when he put up a slide of a classical mansion upon which he had plopped a modernist addition, my hairs began to lay smugly back down on my neck. “Not to worry,” I said to my friend Nathan. “The great man has ARRG syndrome.”
ARRG is short for Architect’s Reputation Recovery Gambit, whose chief symptom is a desire get back on good terms in with modernist colleagues who might be offended by the success of your classical work. But I had never seen it inflict itself upon such a prominent classicist.
Mr. Greenberg’s passion for modernism – and his decision late in his career to add elements of it to the pallette of his brilliant classical work – caused me to ask him why he had become a classicist rather than a modernist. He talked a lot but had no answer. In reply to another question he said that if you take a building by Le Corbusier and turn it on its head, it is a classical building. Or something like that.
Still, it’s great to see a man feeling passion at the top of his profession. Modernism, or at least talking about modernism, has clearly made Mr. Greenberg feel young again. Good for him! And yet I could imagine that if he had devoted this energy to thinking about how to magnify the virtuosity of his own classicism, he’d be an even greater architect, an even greater model for the young students and architects to whose lot it will fall to beautify the world again.
Why did I value this lecture, and leave with a smile on my face and gratitude in my heart? Because the thoughts of a great man force you to think, and think again, even if they are not necessarily the thoughts the lecturer hopes to inspire. And because I knew that Nathan and I would be taking the MBTA back to Providence. The conversation would be worth every moment of the lecture – and it was. Priceless.