Why Classical Architecture Needs a Liberal Arts Defense

The controversial Eisenhower Memorial cleared its final stage of approval this summer, and now about $140 million in private fundraising stands in its way to being erected in Washington D.C. Its designer, Frank Gehry, is both famously inhospitable to his critics and known for putting too much of his own ego into what he creates for public spaces. This has been the case, so far, with his newest design as well.

Worse yet, Gehry (often called a “starchitect”) seems oblivious to the classical foundations on which his profession stands, even while he dismisses them. In 2011 he said, “The Lincoln Memorial is in the form of a Greek temple. What’s that got to do with Lincoln?”

Suddenly there’s an elephant in the leaky, irregularly-proportioned room: The most famous living architect doesn’t understand the history of architecture.

It is always interesting, after all, to think how the intellectual provinces of the West have largely been sired by few known, almost mythic, individuals. Traditionally, this made it quite simple to give classical education a vision. Whereas mathematics would not be the same without Euclid nor medicine without Hippocrates, so architecture is nothing without Vitruvius.

The first-century (B.C.) Roman wrote, “The architect should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgement that all work done by the other arts is put to test.” With that, Vitruvius forever joined the study of architecture, in its truest form, to the liberal arts. The West, and ultimately the United States, grew from the Greco-Roman culture and therefore inherited its architectural elements as well.

Unfortunately, we have lost this ancient wisdom. The tower has neglected its cornerstone, and is now in collapse.

Author Nathan Harden made an observation from his time as a student at Yale University:

“I crossed the street and passed through Woolsey Hall, a colossal neoclassical building with a large rotunda and massive limestone columns. I have always found it to be one of the most impressive sights on campus. It was erected in 1902 and dedicated to the numerous Yale veterans who have died in America’s wars. Their names, ranks, and class years are carved by the thousands onto the building’s marble walls. The dates range across the entire breadth of American history, all the way back to the Revolutionary War.”

Memorials seek to reflect the principles of stability and permanence (compared to Gehry’s avowed reverence for the “chaotic” and the “temporary”). They are, by definition, intended as everlasting reminders where human memory fails. Classical architecture, in this way, conveys to the observer what we typically call “beautiful.”

Contrary to popular belief, “beauty” is not entirely subjective. Levelness, symmetry, proportion, and consistency are generally sought out by the human eye and please the human brain. English philosopher Roger Scruton made a spirited defense of beauty in the arts. Even Alain de Botton’s “School of Life,” to the annoyance of many of its young and progressive YouTube audience, has described the nature of “bad taste” and offered abundant advice on what constitutes a beautiful city architecturally.

This is not to defend the boring as art, either. But when we do celebrate something avant garde, it is rather out of appreciation for the novelty of the object, not that it is necessarily beautiful. This would explain why most office and university buildings constructed in the 1970s — since regarded as an architectural dark age — have been revised or replaced, if they do not still besmirch American streets and campuses today. Their novelty has not stood the test of time.

Conversely, the novelty of a work may offend people at first, but being actually in possession of beautiful traits, that work grows on us eventually. One important example is Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. — symmetrical and composed of sober black stone, even though it is often falsely invoked to defend the novelty of ugly or otherwise inappropriate works (including Gehry’s) today.

That the beauty of classical architecture has endured on its own merits for thousands of years, however, has not been enough to garner it the professional attention it deserves, particularly in a society that is complacent in the debasing of its other liberal institutions as well.

Take a look at business and higher education: As the housing and construction markets recover, there is broad commercial interest arising in the “New Classical” movement, but this demand for new buildings in old styles is practically unmet given that very few firms specialize in these styles, and just a small handful of universities have programs devoted to classical architecture. Is such a revival doomed to fall short?

A final point must be made about this institution as it exists before us already. Everyone has a favorite old building or two, and it can be a profound experience to imagine the history behind those walls, buried and untold — not just how they were used, but how they were constructed. The sheer amount of physical devotion and careful attention to detail — often by a rabble of poor laborers, no less, for little pay — that accompanied the rise of these majestic structures inspires much greater awe in myself, for instance, than the combined ideological zeal of the college students frequently seen protesting beside most of them today, across the world, never realizing. In fact, the comparison is depressing. Harden’s account completes it well:

“Today Yale would never build a military memorial like Woolsey Hall. As I passed through the building, I noticed a faded inscription on the marble floor beneath my feet. It was some sort of poetic tribute to Yale’s fallen soldiers. The gold letters had been worn away by a hundred years and by tens of thousands of footsteps. Now those letters are almost indecipherable. I am sure there are many at Yale who wouldn’t mind if they disappeared altogether. The university continues to enjoy the prestige of an intellectual and spiritual legacy it long ago abandoned. The grand old buildings remain, but all too often, there is nothing grand going on within them. Through architecture, Yale’s past testifies against its present.”

Classical architecture has been the liberal arts made manifest — art, science, mathematics, philosophy, even theology — and beheld by the eye. It is mankind’s attempt to make a mark on the landscape, as we continuously strive to build in harmony with both nature and human nature alike; to never allow our “memorials” to be reclaimed by the elements, nor worn away by our own excesses like gold letters beneath our feet.

Will our past testify against our present?