The Latin word decor is often translated into English as “comeliness,” “elegance,” or “grace,” and the same associations exist for a derivative term, “decorum.” Thus the definition of architecture by a distinguished Victorian practitioner, George Gilbert Scott (1811-78), as “the decoration of construction” might strike a materialist cynic as meaning the mere prettification of construction.
But as used by Scott, a key figure in England’s Gothic Revival, “decoration” had much weightier significance. Decor entails the idea of appropriateness or fittingness. As applied to architecture, it concerns endowing an edifice with an appropriate beauty and dignity. “Decoration” as conceived by Scott and countless other traditional architects involves the humanistic transfiguration of construction. Which might not be a bad definition for the idea of architecture which has done the most to enrich the human habitat, in a wide range of styles, across the ages.
Ancient Greeks and Romans saw hierarchy as inherent in nature, and as an indication that it had been framed with a moral intent. And insofar as it entails the articulation of hierarchy through design—meaning some buildings look, and should look, more important than others—decor is a natural, and moral, principle. The United States Capitol is our nation’s most important civic building, and it looks it. It is, of course, a classical edifice. The classical architectural canon, the wellspring of the Western world’s humanistic architectural heritage, comprises an enduring vocabulary of forms as well as a flexible syntax that allow a building’s design to articulate its institutional, social, or cultural significance.
When we speak of traditional, humanistic styles, from the cosmopolitan Gothic and Baroque to humble regional residential vernaculars, we mean modes of building involving forms and proportions whose arrangement resonates with us as embodied beings. In its most elevated manifestations, the humanistic tradition reflects man’s unique status as the point of intersection between the realms of matter and spirit. The Capitol’s dome, whose origins lie in sacred architecture, thus has an other-worldly resonance.
But ancient assumptions underlying the tradition have increasingly run afoul of elite sensibilities. The greatest architects have aspired, instinctively or consciously, to endow their buildings with a metaphysical dimension, as harbingers of a heavenly or eternal realm. The very persistence of classical and Gothic forms, especially, has helped them to do so. But what happens when our high-end architecture reflects the abolition of the art’s metaphysical dimension? When God has found His “impious mirror image,” in the late Allan Bloom’s immortal words, in modernity’s deified Self? When trend-setting architects are preoccupied with the more or less pyrotechnic advertisement of their “creativity,” all too often at a distinctly inhuman, not to say monstrous, scale?
Two Parisian monuments can give us a pretty good idea.
The Arc de Triomphe was designed when Napoleon’s star was in the ascendant. Construction began in 1806 but was only completed 30 years later, having been interrupted during the Bourbon Restoration. It brilliantly marshals the classical idiom in paying tribute to French victories during the Revolution and the ensuing Napoleonic wars. The sculpture adorning the arch, especially the large groups fronting the east-facing piers, is of high quality, with François Rude’s Departure of the Volunteers of 1792 ranking among France’s best-known monumental works in its own right. Higher up there are relief panels with scenes from the wars as well as a figured frieze running around the arch. Elsewhere sculpted allegorical figures appear. Ornamental motifs are abundantly and skillfully deployed. The arch very powerfully incarnates French national identity, while serving as the mighty focus for the intersection of a dozen avenues. For non-admirers of the Corsican potentate—not to speak of skeptics of the modern France laïcité has wrought—experience of the monument is likely to entail conflicting emotions. But deep emotions all the same.
Two and a half miles west of the Arc de Triomphe, and on the same east-west axis extending from the Louvre, is the gigantic Grande Arche de La Défense (1989). It is over twice as tall and wide as the Arc and several times as deep. It is one of the grands travaux which earned France’s Socialist president François Mitterand a reputation for pharaonic pretensions. But the historic figure Mitterand was really emulating was Louis XIV, during whose reign the Louvre’s majestic East Front, much admired by Thomas Jefferson, and the vast palace at Versailles were erected. Under Louis XIV and his minister Colbert, French architecture achieved a rigor and brilliance that was not fully eclipsed until the aftermath of the First World War.
Alas, most of Mitterand’s modernist travaux bombed. A famously witty director of the Paris Opera defined the rather discombobulated Opéra Bastille, like the Grande Arche completed in the bicentennial year of the storming of the fortress-prison, as architecturally indemerdable. (Don’t ask.) The new National Library, four pairs of glassy skyscraping slabs joined at 90-degree angles at the corners of a park to suggest open books, was universally bemoaned.
As for the Grande Arche, it was originally dubbed La Grande Arche de la Fraternité, but that commemorative theme fell by the wayside. Approached by an enormous flight of steps, the arch is almost perfectly cubic in its dimensions. It is not an arch in the conventional sense, however, as the opening is not arcuated. All its principal lines are straight. On its east and west fronts, surfaces slant inward from its outer corners. The rectilinear sterility is relieved by a couple of bizarre tents, dubbed “The Clouds,” in the lower part of the structure’s huge opening. The tents are fabricated of fiberglass sheets and feature a disorderly multitude of truss rods and cables. Four elevator capsules within a skinny, erector-set-like armature on the opening’s south side take visitors to the roof.
The Grande Arche is largely clad in glass; its inwardly slanted surfaces were originally faced with Carrara marble panels. Its piers contain offices, while the roof volume running athwart the arch includes exhibition space. Around the time it opened, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher got stuck in a bathroom stall when the door handle broke off. Things went south from there. The roof had to be closed for safety reasons in 2010. The marble panels started to fail and were replaced with granite ones during a lengthy, expensive restoration campaign that only ended in 2017, before the building was even 30 years old. (Stone cladding problems also emerged at the Bastille opera house.)
So what to make of the Grande Arche? A preposterously presumptuous send-up of the Napoleonic monument might be one answer. The Grande Arche doesn’t seem to symbolize much besides modernity’s inflated sense of its own importance. It thus parodies the classical idea of decor. It’s not entirely clear that the Grande Arche even qualifies as architecture, as opposed to a picturesque feat of structural engineering involving pre-stressed concrete. Its design certainly entails no trace of a humanistic transfiguration of structure. There is no figurative or ornamental detail to allow the structure’s scale to resonate with us as embodied beings. We don’t experience it as a monument for the ages; it rather reminds us of modernism’s tendency to generate structural commodities that depreciate sooner rather than later.
If there is an aesthetic impulse to be divined in the Grande Arche it has to do with the quest for the sublime, a sublimity grounded in magnitude and nothing but magnitude. The structure’s gigantism was seemingly intended to induce a sense of shock and awe, an exiguous secular substitute for religious experience. Pedestrians on the steps up to the Grande Arche’s podium thus assume an entomological significance.
The conurbation known as La Défense, where the Grande Arche serves as the centerpiece, is a major business district. Development there got underway during the Fifties. It has evolved, or metastasized, into a remarkably cacophonous plethora of ill-shapen, glassy buildings, with a Corbusian holdover or two in the form of a Brutalist concrete pile. Lots of assertively idiosyncratic public “art” is scattered about.
It goes without saying that this sort of cultural dysfunction is not alien to our shores. The gigantism of the Grande Arche finds its counterpart, mutatis mutandis, in the two vast watery abysses at the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. These voids, into which titanic sheets of water pour on all four sides, mark the Twin Towers’ footprints. This fundamentally inartistic design concept marks another modernist attempt to achieve sublimity through essentially quantitative means. As for meretricious architectural pyrotechnics, they seem to afflict virtually every American city these days. The nation’s corporate, academic, media and cultural elites welcome them. The morbid gigantism we encounter in the new towers erected at the World Trade Center site or the huge Hudson Yards development west of New York City’s Pennsylvania Station paradoxically signify, through their abject dehumanization of architecture, what C.S. Lewis would have seen as another indicator of modernity’s abolition of man.
The modernist dispensation has not served our nation well, even if some of its worst productions garner fulsome accolades. The daunting task facing today’s growing ranks of traditional architectural practitioners is mounting an effective challenge to this dispensation. It won’t be easy because architecture is an elite art and the elites dominating our most conspicuous architectural endeavors are deeply entrenched. As Bob Dylan put it decades ago, “Pumps don’t work ’cause the vandals got the handles.”
Catesby Leigh is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He writes about public art and architecture and lives in Washington, D.C. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.