May 17, 2007

Educational Edifices

By the way, perhaps I'm just being naive, but most of the vast amount of new construction on college and prep school campuses going up these days looks pretty good stylistically to my eyes, in contrast to the 1950-1980 Modernist eyesores nearby.

Awhile ago I visited the Claremont Colleges, which consists of a few lovely Spanish Mission buildings from before the War, when everything went to hell architecturally, a whole bunch of bland-to-bad postwar buildings, and a few extravagant new buildings. There was one incredibly awful building, a brutalist concrete nightmare from the 1970s that looked like they dug up Hitler's Bunker and reassembled it above ground in the San Gabriel Valley. Not surprisingly, it housed the Art Department. If Claremont had an Architecture Department, it would probably be located in something equally calamitous, maybe a building inspired by the basement of the Lubyanka secret police headquarters in Moscow.

Anyway, most of the brand new campus buildings I've seen in the last couple of years look rather impressive, although maybe in 30 years they'll look just as bad as the postwar stuff. But I don't think so, since they are typically designed to fit in stylistically with the pre-Depression buildings on campus. While the postwar buildings were intended to be both a sharp stick in the eye stylistically, and cheap to build, the dominant aesthetic theme of the new edifices appears to be: Just like the old buildings on campus that you love, only much, much more expensive.

Perhaps the evident costliness of the construction makes them even more appealing?

In Tom Wolfe's novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, the old aesthete drops in a bombshell of a paragraph cynically summing up what he's learned from his lifetime's obsessions with architecture and status about why we love beautiful buildings. Poor Adam Gellin, the much put-upon undergrad intellectual, has fled from the gay rights rally he was intimidated into attending into the gothic majesty of the Dupont U. library (Dupont is more or less Duke U., which has perhaps the most extravagant architecture of any American college):

"He stood in the lobby, just stood there, looking up at the ceiling and taking in its wonders one by one, as if he had never laid eyes on them before, the vaulted ceiling, all the ribs, the covert way spotlights, floodlights, and wall washers had been added ... It was so calming ... but why? ... He thought of every possible reason except for the real one, which was that the existence of conspicuous consumption one has rightful access to -- as a student had rightful access to the fabulous Dupont Memorial Library -- creates a sense of well-being."

This might be a little too reductionist even for my taste. First, it seems to take as a given that elegant conspicuous consumption is even more conspicuous than crass conspicuous consumption, but you need a cultivated a sensibility for that to be true. I suspect that It's also hard to say how crucial the "rightful access" clause is since I generally haven't broken and entered into too many architectural landmarks. Switching from architecture to golf architecture, I snuck onto the exquisite 15th hole at Cypress Point, and I recall, 30 years later, feeling pretty good, but I suspect I would have been ecstatic if I'd been there rightfully, playing the course rather than just skulking about, so perhaps Wolfe is onto something in pointing out the multiplicative force of aesthetics combined with status.


My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

3 comments:

Jeff Burton said...

Visited your alma mater lately? One thing I enjoyed about it when I was there was the sense of open space, right in the middle of Houston. It feels crowded now.

Mark said...

when everything went to hell architecturally, a whole bunch of bland-to-bad postwar buildings, and a few extravagant new buildings. There was one incredibly awful building, a brutalist concrete nightmare from the 1970s that looked like they dug up Hitler's Bunker and reassembled it above ground in the San Gabriel Valley.

That pretty much describes the Air Force Academy, which was designed and built in the 50s. Between the 50s and 70s the big idea was "a city within a building," so you wound up with buildings that could (literally) fit several full size fottball fields under their roof. It sounded nice in theory, but logistically it was hell.

He thought of every possible reason except for the real one, which was that the existence of conspicuous consumption one has rightful access to -- as a student had rightful access to the fabulous Dupont Memorial Library -- creates a sense of well-being

Actually, that's long been my take, too. We underestimate the psychic value of public access to architectural masterpieces. Such access reduces the envy that results when all such splendor is in private hands.

Dave said...

I'm just glad you found and posted the passage, Steve. After you alluded to it yesterday, I started leafing through my copy of I Am Charlotte Simmons trying to see which one it might be.