“Norman and Saxon”

“MY son,” said the Norman Baron, “I am dying, and you will be heir
To all the broad acres in England that William gave me for my share
When we conquered the Saxon at Hastings, and a nice little handful it is.
But before you go over to rule it I want you to understand this:–

“The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite.
But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.
When he stands like an ox in the furrow with his sullen set eyes on your own
And grumbles, ‘This isn’t fair dealing,’ my son, leave the Saxon alone.

“You can horsewhip your Gascony archers, or torture your Picardy spears;
But don’t try that game on the Saxon; you’ll have the whole brood round your ears.
From the richest old Thane in the country to the poorest chained serf in the field,
They’ll be at you and on you like hornets, and, if you are wise, you will yield.

“But first you must master their language, their dialect, proverbs and songs.
Don’t trust any clerk to interpret when they come with the tale of their wrongs.
Let them know that you know what they’re saying; let them feel that you know what to say.
Yes, even when you want to go hunting, hear ‘em out if it takes you all day.

“They’ll drink every hour of the daylight and poach every hour of the dark.
It’s the sport not the rabbits they’re after (we’ve plenty of game in the park).
Don’t hang them or cut off their fingers. That’s wasteful as well as unkind,
For a hard-bitten, South-country poacher makes the best man-at-arms you can find.

“Appear with your wife and the children at their weddings and funerals and feasts.
Be polite but not friendly to Bishops; be good to all poor parish priests.
Say ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘ours’ when you’re talking, instead of ‘you fellows’ and ‘I.’
Don’t ride over seeds; keep your temper; and never you tell ‘em a lie!”
-Rudyard Kipling

Two Philosophers, Two Critics

I’ve heard it said (though I can’t know remember from whom) that there are two kinds of philosophers; those who try to explain why a thing is so and those who try to explain that it is so. Aristotle, for instance, took it as a rule that the common understanding of mankind is itself a fact that must be taken into account. St. Thomas bent much of his huge intellect to seeking answers to difficulties raise by faith. On the other hand, David Hume provided a philosophy that no one, including himself, could actually live by and didn’t bother trying (not that this itself doesn’t have value: pointing out where difficulties lie is a legitimate contribution, even if your own answers won’t wash), while much of what is call ‘philosophy’ today consists largely in trying to convince people that their own lying eyes (and brains) are not to be trusted.

The same thing applies to critics. There are the kind who explain why something is good or why it is bad and the kind who try to explain that it is good. A critic of the first type will take a film like, say, Star Wars and explain to you the elements that make it good. A critic of the second type will take a film like The Last Jedi and explain to you why you should appreciate it despite its manifest repugnancy.

The thing is, though the former critic provides the real value, the latter tends to have more influence. This is because they tend to couch their views in context of a larger ideological framework: they talk, for instance, about how a given movie “asks hard questions about society” or the like (jumping off of yesterday’s post, an article I read about Brutalism enthused about its connection to the ‘working classes’), implying or outright stating that this is what the ‘right’ kind of person would like. Those for whom being the ‘right’ kind of person is important, therefore, pay attention, and since they tend to be the ones who are most interested in gaining power and influence, they elevate these latter critics as the arbiters of public taste.

Mixed up in this is the spirit of infidelity that St. John Henry Newman spoke about; the desire to feel that you have broken from the shackles of the commonplace, that you see through what others admire and admire what they are too dense to understand, and the angry wish to say that you admire a thing just because you know that those whom you despise think it’s junk. The whole reason why the works praised by critics tend to be so very ugly and unpleasant is precisely so that few people will admire them and those that do can enjoy the sensation of being in rebellion and with it sense of partaking exceptional wisdom.

At least, that is how I see these things.

An Architectural Fisk

Dipping a little into politics with this one. Kind of.

I recently learned that President Trump has drafted an executive order entitled Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again. Basically, it orders that “classical and traditional architectural styles” should be the default for constructing new Federal Buildings in the future, specifically saying that styles like ‘brutalism’ and ‘deconstructionism’ should not be used.

You know, I think that if I weren’t already, this alone would be enough to make me want to vote for Trump.

Predictably (you know, since it was a conscious action attributed to the Orange Wonder and all), it’s been met with outrage from some quarters. In particular, the American Institute of Architects issued a statement condemning the order.

I was going to do a quick article about this, but I found I had so much to say about the AIA’s tone-deaf and self-satisfied take that it turned into a full-on fisk.

Here is the link to the article, which is reproduced below; their comments are in italics, mine are in bold.

The American Institute of Architects has called on members to sign an open letter to the Trump Administration after a plan to introduce an order that all federal buildings should be built in the “classical architectural style” was discovered.

That sounds to me rather like the AIA is dictating to its members what their views on architecture should be. A rather odd note to start an argument couched in terms of artistic freedom. But that might be reading too much into it: we’ll see.

The AIA released the statement and online petition for the White House yesterday, shortly after the Architectural Record revealed it had obtained a draft of the order, called Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.

If approved, it would update the 1962 Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture to make classical architecture the required style for any US federal courthouse.

Thank God!

A friend of mine, when I mentioned this, said this may be one of the most significant things Trump has done. He’s quite right. The thing about architecture is that it lasts; it’s not like a painting where, when it goes out of style you can stick it in a back room or quietly burn it in the dead of night with certain ceremonies. The building cost $70 million dollars to build and you can’t replace it until you have a very, very good reason to. Worse than that, you have to keep using it. A bad painting you look at and look away. A bad book you put back on the shelf after the third nonsensical chapter and never touch again. A bad building sits there for decades and forces you and everyone in the vicinity to notice it day after day.

Moreover, since buildings last so long, we are in effect giving them to our children; telling them, through architecture, who we are and what we value.

The Middle Ages left us Cathedrals, proclaiming the glory of God. The 19th century left us the US Capital proclaiming its belief in Republican government. We are going to be leaving a series of grey cubes proclaiming that we don’t care a straw about either the past or the future.  

That is why this is so significant; if Trump carries his point, he could ensure at least a partial uplifting of the American landscape for decades to come. Imagine beautiful new buildings actually being constructed all across the nation, buildings that people would enjoy going to work at, that we would be glad to show to our children, which have real character, and which we can picture growing old and venerable without ever going out of style.

We did that once, you know. In fact, we did it for most of our history. No reason we can’t do it again.

Also, as you’ll see from reading the order, it doesn’t say that classical architecture is “required” but that it or some other traditional and publicly preferred architectural style should be the “default” and only be deviated from for a good reason and after due consideration.  

The AIA said that it “strongly and unequivocally” opposed the change, which would also affect federal public buildings costing over $50 million (£38 million).

“A top-down directive on architectural style”

“The AIA strongly condemns the move to enforce a top-down directive on architectural style,” the organisation (sic) wrote in the open letter.

“Design decisions should be left to the designer and the community, not bureaucrats in Washington, DC,” it added. “All architectural styles have value and all communities have the right to weigh in on the government buildings meant to serve them.”

Okay, lots to unpack there. First, if you’re designing a building for the Federal Government, then the government very clearly should have a say in this matter. As the order lays out: how people see federal buildings affects how they view the Federal Government. Now, I have no love for the US Government as it currently exists, but surely the government is within its rights to set guidelines on how it is represented and ought to be allowed to at least attempt to clean up its image.

It’s funny that they add “and the community” and that “all communities have the right to weigh in on the buildings meant to serve them.” In the first place, I doubt any community, when asked, would knowingly choose a brutalist or deconstructionist style over classical ones. When (as we shall see) the present guidelines say to adhere to “the finest contemporary architectural thought,” it recommends adhering to something that just about everyone who isn’t an architect thinks is boring, ugly, depressing, or faintly ridiculous. In fact, the new order specifically points out the simple fact that most of the public do not like the kinds of designs that the AIA are promoting and much prefer more traditional designs.

In the name of the community, we disregard the community’s opinions (this is a common tactic of Progressives, by the way; as long as you claim to be representing the collective, any individual who disagrees with you can be disregarded, even if his views represent those of the majority of common people and yours are held only by a tiny cadre of elites). 

And besides, what is “the finest contemporary architectural thought” but a top-down directive on architectural style from an insular, select group of artists, architects, and critics? Because if you try to tell me that the distorted grey rectangle design arose organically from the community, I will laugh at you.

Also, in the order, it recommends that some proposed designs be reviewed by a public committee, specifically not made of engineers, architects, artists, or anything of the kind, so that, you know, the actual community should have a say in what they work in and have to stare at for the next few decades.

In short, when you read what is actually being said, the White House specifically calls for the local community to have a say in the kind of buildings they want, while the AIA is tacitly in favor of ignoring this in favor of what they think the community should want. 

According to the AIA, “classical architecture” as defined by the White House is derived from classical Greek and Roman architecture. There are some “allowances for ‘traditional architectural style'”, which include Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish colonial.

 ‘Allowances’ seems to imply that the order sets stringent conditions for allowing other traditional styles. In fact, they’re pretty much just broadly encouraged, provided they are aesthetically pleasing and (where applicable) fit the local heritage. What is properly said to be ‘allowed’ is “experimentation with new, alternative styles”, with the proviso that “care must be taken to fully ensure that such alternative designs command respect by the public for their beauty and visual embodiment of America’s ideals.”

That is really the whole point of this order; when you make federal buildings, make sure they command respect and admiration rather than disgust and ridicule, and that they are suitable expressions of American ideals.

Is that seriously so much to ask?

Any references to Brutalism, the controversial style that only dates back to the 1950s, would be banned entirely.

Again, thank God.

“High bar” of new order would limit exceptions

‘Limit expectations’? What exactly do you think people’s expectations for modern architecture are now? Are you aware that it is considered, at best, a joke?

While the guidelines for Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again allow for the inclusion of some other architectural styles, the AIA said that the rules are so stringent they would limit creativity.

Yep, the styles that gave us the Parthenon, St. Peter’s Basilica, Hagia Sophia, Buckingham Palace, the Hofburg, Notre Dame Cathedral, Versailles, the whole city of Florence, and the US Capital Building are so limiting that they’ve only been in vogue for two-and-a-half millennia or so. They pale in comparison to the chance of making a box or another box or a distorted box. 

“The high bar required to satisfy the process described within the executive order would all but restrict the ability to design the federal buildings under this order in anything but the preferred style,” the added AIA.

Yes, that is kind of the point, and God forbid that a high bar be set for buildings representing the nation. And, again, this really isn’t that high a bar: make something people actually want to look at and work in rather than yet-another monument to your own inflated egos.

The existing Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture were written for President Kennedy by New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who architecture critic Paul Goldberger described as “the most architecturally sophisticated Federal official since Thomas Jefferson”.

I wonder what the designer of Monticello would have to say about your Goldberger’s idea of good architecture. In any case, I’m sure that if the senator promoted the kind of architecture that Goldberger liked, he would say anything and everything in his praise.

All I hear from this paragraph is “we are the smart people, you’re the stupid ones, so shut up and do as you’re told.”  

The new order – which is named after Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again – comes in contrast to Moynihan’s guidelines, which call for the “finest contemporary American architectural thought”.

For illustration purposes, here are some examples of “the finest contemporary American architectural thought.”

 

File:Frances Perkins Building.JPG - Wikimedia Commons

Seems to me they’re already having trouble thinking outside the box, as it were.

Now here are some examples of designs that ‘stifle creativity’


40 Plantation Home Designs - Historical & Contemporary

Please get this through your head, AIA; we, the American people, have had half a century of what you consider “the finest contemporary American architectural thought,” AND WE HATE IT.

“Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government”

As far as I can tell, the Government isn’t dictating what kind of designs you can make; only which ones it will pay to have represent it to future generations. You can design any kind of building you like there, Mr. Roark; just don’t go thinking you have an unalienable right to have someone drop a hundred million dollars to let you build it.

“The development of an official style must be avoided,” the guidelines read.

Why? Why should an ‘official style’ be avoided? In fact, seeing as how this is to represent the American government, and to an extent the American nation, doesn’t that mean there absolutely should be an ‘official style’ to convey the message “this is who we are” or “this is what the government looks like and aspires to be”? Again, the order makes this very point: that the classical style was chosen for Washington DC (by Washington and Jefferson themselves) specifically to make a statement of what they hoped the country would be. Unless you are suggesting that there should be no common ideal or no common identity for the United States (which is the same as saying that there should be no United States: an opinion that you can’t really expect the Federal Government to share), then on what possible grounds do you say that an official style should be avoided?  

“Design must flow from the architectural profession to the Government and not vice versa.”

Again, one, the ‘architectural profession’ as you define it has largely shown itself to be incompetent in this regard, and two, when the Government is the one footing the bill and will be represented by the final result, it really, really ought to be the one picking the design. The way you put it sounds like an elaborate way of saying, “shut up and like what your betters give to you.”

Also, to paraphrase someone whom I suspect is a rather more astute critic than Mr. Goldberger (namely Pinkie Pie), what kind of artist doesn’t like beauty? That’s insane!

The order is among a number of political issues that the AIA and the Trump Administration have locked heads over, including the climate treaty withdrawal and his immigration policies.

Those certainly sound like topics on which architects would have special knowledge and interest in.

In particular, the two have been at loggerheads over climate change after the president revealed his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2017. The following year, AIA called on its members to sign an open letter to Trump as a means of voicing its opposition to his climate change policies.

Again, why is the American Institute of Architects directing its members on what they should think about climate change? While complaining that being set guidelines of what kinds of designs will be accepted by a particular client is a top-down imposition? I have no idea how the organization works, but it honestly sounds much more autocratic to tell your members – who no doubt derive professional benefit from being part of your organization and would suffer if that membership were lost – what you expect them to say on given political issues than that the government would set broad style guidelines for its official buildings.

Late last year, it called for Trump to reverse his “shortsighted decision” to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement amid the global climate crisis.

Gottta love the institution that champions things like Brutalism over classical architecture having the gall to call anyone ‘shortsighted.’

Quoth Rifftrax: “And you can burn in Hell if you think this problem can’t be solved with a rectangle. In Hell.”

Read the full statement from the AIA below:

What follows is mostly what we just read. Which kind of makes me wonder why they bothered with the above article rather than just posting the statement. I suppose it was a word count issue (which would also explain the odd digressions into climate change and immigration).  

The AIA learned several months ago that there is a draft executive order being circulated by the Trump Administration for consideration by agency officials that would officially designate “classical” architecture as the preferred style of all U.S. federal courthouses.

We have voiced our fervent opposition directly to the White House and officials in the relevant agencies. Additionally, all federal public buildings in the Capital region would be required to adhere to the same “classical” style (and all other federal public buildings whose costs exceed $50 million in modern dollars). The AIA strongly and unequivocally opposes this change in policy to promote any one style of architecture over another for federal buildings across the country.

The draft executive order defines “classical architectural style” to mean architectural features derived from classical Greek and Roman architecture. There are some allowances for “traditional architectural style” which is defined to mean classical architecture along with Gothic, Romanesque, and Spanish colonial. The draft executive order specifically prohibits the use of Brutalist architecture, or its derivatives, in any circumstance.

Except for Brutalism, there is some language in the draft executive order that would allow for other architectural styles to be used. However, the high bar required to satisfy the process described within the executive order would all but restrict the ability to design the federal buildings under this order in anything but the preferred style.

Again, this narrow ‘preferred style’ being “anything used in the civilized world up until about 1950,” or basically anything that is actually pleasing to look at, with allowances for experimentation provided you come up with something actually good that doesn’t trample on the local community.  

The AIA strongly condemns the move to enforce a top-down directive on architectural style. Design decisions should be left to the designer and the community, not bureaucrats in Washington, DC. All architectural styles have value…

You’ve pretty much disproved that over the past few years.

…and all communities have the right to weigh in on the government buildings meant to serve them.

What strikes me most about this statement is the way it is framed as though the architects who can command multi-million dollar projects and the socially-connected art critics who set the standards of “high-brow taste” are the victims here and the people who prefer beautiful buildings over ugly ones are the ones out of line. I noticed something similar in the entertainment world, where some people get furious if ever ordinary viewers dare to criticize or fail to support a multimillion-dollar corporation’s bad product (e.g. some people actually were angry that Sonic’s design was changed, since it was ‘catering to the fanboys’). This usually comes from those most apt to express their solidarity with the common man and hatred for large corporations and the like. Go figure.

 In any case, the situation, as I see it, is this. For the past half-a-century or more the AIA and its ilk have simply been creating bad work. They have been permitted to do so because of a transitory accident of taste and ideology among those with decision making powers. Now Trump is issuing an order that the Federal Government should no longer accept this kind of work.

Because when you design a multi-million-dollar building that represents the United States of America and will do so for at least the next several decades, it is just possible that your personal artistic vision is not the most important factor.  

Some thoughts from ‘The Infidelity of the Future’

Today at lunch I refreshed my mind by reading St. John Henry Newman’s sermon The Infidelity of the Future. Some of his main points, with brief thoughts:

*The great evil of our time is the Spirit of Infidelity itself.
Has it never struck you as odd that we consider terms like ‘unorthodox’ or ‘unconventional’ to be complimentary, rather than, at best, merely descriptive? It seems to me that one of the basic assumptions of our age is that any established system is, for that very reason, a bad system that ought to be attacked (which, of course, is one reason why we often go to such lengths to pretend that old structures and standards are still the norm). We celebrate people simply for rebelling against established modes, even when those modes were objectively better than their rebellion, simply because we delight in disobedience (well, at least when it isn’t directed against ourselves). Such is the world in which we live.

*Christianity has never, before the present age, encountered a simply irreligious society.
For most of its history, Christian evangelism has been directed at converting people from belief in false gods to belief in the True One. It would be misleading to say that today it is about converting people from non-belief, since I don’t think there is any such thing. Rather, the peculiar feature of today’s superstitions and false religions is that they are mostly materialistic or at least atheistic: where the ancients said ‘fate’, they say ‘social influences’ or ‘genetic determinism’, and what the ancients attributed to the gods, the modern attributes to something like history or evolution. This means the first step is often convincing people that there is a God and that He is concerned about us; very few people today – in or out of the Church – really believe that.

*Evangelization does not primarily come through argument, but by the ecclesiastical spirit; by living the Gospel.
This isn’t to say that argument is irrelevant or that Catholics shouldn’t know their faith, but that the important part of calling others to Christ does not happen through argument, as if God were an intellectual proposition. Ultimately, He calls whom He wills and He works the conversions of hearts. Our part is to model and preach what we believe

St. Cardinal Newman, of course, puts all this a lot better than I do, so I encourage you to go and read his sermon. And whether you do or not, pray!

Ballade of Moderns

(Meant to have a post today, but ran into last-minute problems with my coding project, so instead here’s a Chesterton poem:)
On deserts red and deserts grey
The temples into sand have slid;
Go search that splendour of decay
To find the final secret hid
In mummies’ painted coffin-lid
In hieroglyphs of hunt and play.
Read the last word, my cultured kid,
They all were moderns in their day.

Yes, it was just as bold and gay
To do what Astoreth forbad.
Yes, it was smart to carve in clay
And chic to build a pyramid.
Yes, Babylonian boys were chid
For reading hieroglyphs risqué.
We do but as our fathers did —
They all were moderns in their day.

There are progressives who passed away
And prigs of whom the world is rid,
And there are men in hell today
As silly as old Ben Kidd;
And Webb (whose uncle calls him Sid),
God made him with the flowers of May,
And the blind stones he walked amid.
They all were moderns in their day.

L’Envoi

Prince, still the soul stands virgin; “quid
Times”; we tear some rags away
But shall we grasp her; God forbid.
They all were moderns in their day.
G.K.Chesterton

 

“The Rebel”

I know the actor Nick Adams (who died tragically young, much like his friend and co-star James Dean) from the Toho films he did in the 1960s: Frankenstein Conquers the World and Invasion of Astro Monster. He was the first notable western actor in the Godzilla franchise (and, perhaps not coincidentally, was part of the series’ first, and for a long time only on-screen kiss) and I retain very fond memories of his roles to this day, though I didn’t know much else about him apart from his tragic death of a drug overdose at the age of 36.

Only today I learned that he was the star of a TV show called The Rebel about an ex-Confederate soldier and budding writer named Johnny Yuma wandering the west (the theme song is sung by none other than Johnny Cash). Upon watching an episode – Johnny at Appomattox – I was struck by not only how good it was, but more so by the realization that I had never known just how good an actor Mr. Adams really was. He could project emotion with startling power, especially as he didn’t over play his roles or rant and rave to get his point across. Oh, he shouts and growls and so on, but it seems to all come from inside; more like he’s holding back than overdoing it.

This particular story has him flashing back to the last day of the war: the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. He was an angry, bitter young man, unwilling to admit that the war was lost (“we sore we would fight until we were all dead and then come back and fight as ghosts”), imagining his beloved General Lee being humiliated before the rough Yankee, Grant. In a rage, he determines to assassinate Grant to ensure the war goes on.

As a result, Johnny gets to witness the famous interview between the two great men, changing his perspective on both his enemy and war in general. It’s a moving depiction of one of the seminal moments in American history.

Said moment is one of those in which all talk of influences and societal forces fade away and history unmistakably turns on individual personalities. Had any other man been in either place during that meeting, American history would have been very different. The fact that both Grant and Lee were men of honor; merciful and generous in victory on the one hand and humble and gracious in defeat on the other, prevented the war from dragging on indefinitely.

In any case, Adams gives a powerful performance, mostly without dialogue, of an ordinary soldier catching a life-changing glimpse at history being made.

I’m definitely going to recommend this show: from the two episodes I’ve seen, it’s an intelligent, thoughtful, emotionally powerful show (and the pilot includes a supporting role by the one and only John Carradine) anchored by an extremely talented actor.

It’s one of the many tragedies of Hollywood that Nick Adams never quite had the career he ought to have, but at least we still have works like The Rebel to look back on and admire.

Nick Adams in The Rebel (1959)