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Cecil (on contemporary architecture)


Once or twice a week Cecil Elliott’s name surfaces in the context of the department (teaching and administrative issues) but also the odd connection with cooking, drinking (alcohol, that is), popular culture, politics, and most recently religion. Cecil may have been the most intensely anti-religious person in my acquaintance. It’s one thing to be irreligious — “not religious; not practicing a religion and feeling no religious impulses or emotions” — and another to be openly, actively, and enthusiastically hostile to it. What do you suppose he’d make of Citizen Trump?

I spent part of today tracking down a quotation about architecture that Cecil invoked when he was researching Book Number Three on the history of the architectural profession during the last two centuries. After more than fifteen years, my recollection is faulty, but I think it came from a German participant in the Expressionist movement of the 1920s; someone like Hugo Häring. I’ll paraphrase the heck out of the quote and butcher its ironic snark:

There are but three major divisions in Art: Painting, Sculpture, and Cake Decorating, of which Architecture is but a subsection.

There are a great many architects of the late 20th century for whom Elliott had only scorn. Chief among them may have been Philip Johnson, both notable and notorious. In the 1930s, for example, Johnson flirted with Fascism. I have my own axe to grind about the considerable delay in his coming out, when his admission might have made a difference in the Gay Rights movement. But the thing Cecil despised more than any of Johnson’s many foibles was his stylistic changeability: far more egregious than simply being fickle, Phil ran after every stylistic train chugging from the depot, shouting “Wait for me! I’m your leader.” Miesian, Neo-Neo-Classicist, Post-Modernist, De-Constructivist; he couldn’t make up his mind.

When Johnson got the commission for the building that would house the  University of Houston’s architecture program, he found a nifty drawing by Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, (when Boullée, Ledoux and Lequeue were being rehabilitated by architectural historians).

PJ@houston Ledoux@houston

Modernist that he was — remember that Elliott was one of Walter Gropius’ students at Harvard — the abuse of history as a Post-Modernist grab bag offended him. And when students were even the slightest bit guilty of imitation, he saw a double standard in chastising students for the same behavior that Johnson received adulation. It’s that fine line betwixt inspiration and imitation that interests me at present and brings Cecil’s cake decorating quote to mind.

One of William Halsey Wood’s unsuccessful competitive designs — his scheme for St Agnes’ Chapel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — was an inspired piece of work and far superior to the designs of three other competitors that I’ve been able to locate. It’s futile to second guess the jury of any architectural competition and doubly so when it all transpired one hundred and twenty-five years ago. As with others of his unsuccessful designs, it may well have been budget that bit him in the ass. I’m reacting only to their aesthetics.

While researching another issue with regard to Halsey Wood’s career — his entry in the competition for St John the Divine — I stumbled on another late 19th century competition (which shall remain hidden for the time being), one of whose entries was clearly related to Wood’s concept for St Agnes; the plans are nearly interchangeable. Yet further analysis demonstrates what distinguishes few architects from the majority of practitioners: Wood, like his near-contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright (just a dozen years separate them), was fully capable of absorbing an iconic architectural idea and making it entirely his own. I’m not suggesting that Wood and Wright have more in common than being toward the end of the alphabet. But I am oddly reassured that my interest in rehabilitating Wood’s memory is not entirely misplaced.

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