Bring Back Beauty: A Call to Revitalize Campus Architecture and Intellectual Life

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Over the doorway beneath McCosh arch, there is an inscription that reads: “Here we were taught by men and gothic towers democracy and faith and righteousness and love of unseen things that do not die.” I wonder if, a century from now, a similar inscription will grace the concrete slabs inside the arches of Bloomberg or 1927-Clapp Halls.

Somehow I doubt it. Contemporary Princeton architecture, notably excepting Whitman College, is symptomatic of academic illiberality—the modern trend of scholarly disciplines growing ever more insular, self-referential, and disconnected.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s day, it was commonly understood that architecture had pedagogical purposes that transcend the physical function of providing shelter. In a very real way, gothic towers can teach, as the McCosh inscription says. In an early short story called “The Spire and the Gargoyle”, Fitzgerald describes a fictional young Princetonian who realized “a deep and almost reverent liking for the gray walls and gothic peaks and all they symbolized in the store of the ages of antiquity.”

The spires of campus impressed upon this unnamed protagonist the “transiency and relative unimportance” of egos, of students and faculty coming and going, of academic minutiae divorced from the eternal. “There was something pure in the slope of the chaste stone,” Fitzgerald wrote, “something which led and directed and called. To him the spire became an ideal.”

Fitzgerald’s description—semi-autobiographical—exemplifies an integrated conception of architecture. A gothic tower is not built merely to keep out the elements and provide a venue for lectures or a place for dormitories; such a structure is also art, and as with good art, it is made to convey something, to inspire, to direct the mind towards noble things.

Fitzgerald writes in the same story that his character “had learned that Gothic architecture with its upward trend was peculiarly adapted to colleges, and the symbolism of this idea had become personal to him.” Architecture, a form of art that, as Roger Scruton observes in The Aesthetics of Architecture, is characteristically used: we live, worship, eat, sleep, socialize within the structures that we build.

Our manner of interacting with this art renders us especially susceptible to the meaning it conveys, considerably more, perhaps, than a painting we see once or twice at a museum. Like Fitzgerald’s character, Princeton’s campus ‘becomes personal’ to many of us; it has the power to affect us, to shape us intellectually, morally, spiritually.

This said, there’s something of a chicken-egg relationship between architecture and culture. While architecture forms us in various ways, it is we who build buildings. What we build is thus a reflection of our culture, even as it shapes our culture. Princeton President James McCosh, the nineteenth century figure responsible for the erection of the exquisitely high Victorian gothic Chancellor Green Library, Witherspoon Hall, and Murray-Dodge, once wrote, “I viewed [Princeton’s] edifices as means to an end, at best as outward expressions and symbols of an internal life.”

In his day, as in that of Presidents Patton, Wilson, and Hibben, the internal life of the University was vigorous, liberally-minded, aimed at the true, the good, and the beautiful. If what McCosh says is true, what are we to make of the culture of the ‘60s and the Goheen administration that gave us New South, the E-Quad, and Wilson College?

Something went wrong. The problem, I propose, is much broader than architectural theory. It’s an academic problem. When architecture is over intellectualized, when it is driven by technical expertise divorced from considerations of beauty and the common man’s experience of such, architecture becomes perversely self-referential. It becomes a big inside joke.

This reflects the state of much elite modern academia: highly specialized experts clumping together into pseudo-intellectual cliques. So many ivory towers: disconnected from one another, disconnected from reality, disconnected from the common man. Architecture as a discipline, set apart from history, philosophy, literature, or theology and aimed at some exclusive excellence and innovation of its very own, is horribly illiberal—its language becoming almost entirely inaccessible to the ordinary person.

For a university, illiberal architecture is especially perverse. Where minds are to be opened to ideas of goodness, truth, and beauty, where the edifices erected are especially pedagogical in the way suggested by Fitzgerald and the McCosh inscription, to plant a structure that is nothing more than a temple to architectural ‘expertise’ and total originality is to go against a university’s fundamental purpose. How ironic it is that Princeton’s Architecture Building (also courtesy of Goheen and the 60’s) should be a prime example of architectural insularity—and downright ugliness.

In May of 1999, freelance architectural critic Catesby Leigh published a delightfully polemical article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly lambasting modern Princeton architecture and calling for a return to more traditional styles of building that aspire to beauty. It was he who suggested that Princeton follow the example of Demetri Porphyrios ‘74, the architect responsible for the Neo-Collegiate Gothic quad at Magdalen College, Oxford. In 2007, Porphyrios completed Whitman College in the same style. Leigh’s article surely had something to do with it.

Leigh argued that modern architecture’s boxy, rectilinear characteristics represented a revolutionary rejection of tradition: “The tyranny of the straight line in so much of Princeton’s early modernist architecture … is a profoundly revealing symptom. Far from being grounded in human instinct, modern architecture arose as the rationalized expression of what was taken for a new epoch in human history in which Western design would start with a clean slate.” Forget history, it seems to say, let’s innovate.

Modern architects tossed aside the age-old balance between straight lines—representing reason and order—and curves—which embody beauty and romantic charm. Nineteenth century poet and critic S.T. Coleridge referred to this pleasant fusion of line and curve as the melding of “confining form” and “the free life.” Modernity, suddenly unconcerned with nature and beauty, cast aside this naturally beautiful synthesis in favor of complete novelty—creating something new for its own sake.

Leigh’s essay elicited an enormous response. “First,” Leigh recalls, “there were the normal people—students and alumni alike—who tended to be supportive of my critique. Then there were the architects.”

For instance, Stephen Kliment ‘57, architect of the Computer Science building, penned a snarky letter to the PAW accusing Leigh’s “tunnel-vision architectural criticism” of blindness to more important “functional issues”. Kliment wrote, “I would suggest to the author that he go find a laptop computer with gargoyles, a microwave oven in the shape of an ogee arch, and a multiplex cinema held in place by flying buttresses.”

Leigh responded in kind: “This gentleman has my deepest sympathy. He’s spent his professional life thinking about architecture, and he’s reached the conclusion that a building should be designed according to the same criteria as your kitchen toaster.”

Another academic, architecture professor Thomas Colbert ‘76, skeptically mused, “Should the world become a giant Disney theme park?” His worry was that Leigh’s architectural traditionalism demands that we abandon “the very idea of authenticity in our own physical environment … in the name of historical continuity.”

An architectural progressive, Colbert saw “the history of architecture [as] one of inventiveness and innovation in the face of evolving social needs and technological imperatives and possibilities.” Tellingly, Colbert hopefully anticipated continuing “innovation in architecture as much as in any other discipline.”

This is precisely the problem. Colbert’s progressive attitude towards architecture as a discrete discipline is a plain example of architectural illiberality. Kliment likewise demonstrates astonishing narrow-mindedness—which is rather ironic, given his characterization of Leigh’s criticism as architectural ‘tunnel-vision’. These modern architects (the type hostile to Leigh) fail to see architecture in the way that an ordinary human being does. These experts, high and mighty in their ivory towers, are woefully disconnected from the reality of human experience. Their architectural introversion gives rise to overly-intellectualized monstrosities, buildings both novel and unsightly.

Consider Bowen Hall, the bizarre edifice across from the Princeton Charter Club. Its architect, Alan Chimacoff, explains that its design reflects the academic discipline it is to house: Materials Science. He notes, for instance, that its greenish granite matrix “stands for the simple periodic arrangement of atoms.” Taken as a whole, Chimacoff teaches us, Bowen Hall makes use of “purposeful ambiguity, where dissimilar or incompatible ideas and materials are brought together in ways that make them seem interchangeable: the inclusive or plausible oxymoron.”

The result: a deformed structure, the incoherence of which is the architectural equivalent of Jacques Derrida’s philosophical obscurantism. Throw a bunch of semi-related ideas together and pretend that they coalesce into something greater. Too bad it doesn’t work.

Criticizing Bowen Hall, Leigh calls the building “an example of contemporary architects’ rather frantic search for novelty, as well as ways of compensating for a pathologically abstract vocabulary.” In sum, he writes, “Bowen’s design is excessively intellectualized, and its masses fail to resolve into a whole.”

For the sake of architectural ‘innovation’, Chimacoff focused on abstraction instead of beauty. Bowen Hall is, to put it charitably, aesthetically displeasing, and its ugliness derives from its total inaccessibility to ordinary mortals like us, who do not belong to the educated class of architectural elite.

This is not to suggest, however, that beauty is democratic—something identifiable according to a majority of individuals’ inscrutable preferences. Nevertheless, beauty is broadly accessible to most people. This is because beauty is something consonant with our common human nature; it is something for which we yearn, for which we have a natural longing. We know beauty when we see it. The modern architect refuses to look for it.

“So what to make of contemporary Princeton architecture?” Leigh asks towards the end of his article. “The bottom line is that it’s in a rut and has been for some time. The modernist habit of reinventing the wheel has long since degenerated into a parody of itself. At the same time, ancient architectural conventions continue to be profoundly relevant to what we build today. Those architectural conventions exist, above all, for the sake of beauty. And beautiful forms have an emotional resonance that corresponds, however mysteriously to the highest human intentions, to our sense of “ought”. What Princeton is building now, however speaks of “is”. This is architecture stripped of its ideal content, architecture whose spiritual horizons have narrowed to the point of utter inconsequentiality.”

Leigh’s point brings us right back to Fitzgerald: the ideal of the spire. Something about beautiful architecture is morally educative. It inspires us and revitalizes our spirits, its towers and finials pointing heavenwards. In living and learning in and among the many wonderful (often gothic) edifices of our alma mater, we feel a certain call to something higher than ourselves: some sort of moral purpose.

But among Princeton’s modern buildings—particularly those in the so-called ‘International Style’ and ‘brutalism’ of the 60’s—there is oppressive banality, lifeless rectilinear forms, each sullenly like the next, ironic fruits of the misguided quest for architectural novelty.

Going forward, then, Princeton must renew her campus by returning to architectural first principles—and one in particular. Vitruvius, the Father of Roman architecture from the first century BC, famously defined three Architectural Virtues: firmitas, utilitas, venustas. Stability, utility, beauty. A good building will stand firm with constancy, it will serve its function well, and it will manifest a timeless aesthetic that elevates all that is noble in human soul. All three virtues are certainly necessary for good architecture. But the greatest of these is beauty.

Zach Horton is a senior from Dallas, Texas. He is majoring in the Philosophy Department and can be reached at thorton@princeton.edu.

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