Sunday, September 11, 2005

"They don't build 'em like that anymore."

Actually, YES, they DO build them like that; NOW.

This is a photo of Anheuser-Busch Hall—a new building—on the campus of Washington University in Saint Louis, located about eight highway miles west of downtown Saint Louis. This building was constructed in 1995-1997 and is in the traditional style of the older buildings on this college campus. It is also the first of several new buildings on the campus in the traditional style.

This replaces the Modernist-style Mudd Hall, built in 1972. That older building, destroyed a mere 25 or so years after it was built, is not missed, according to the Washington University Law Quarterly:

The old law school building, Seeley G. Mudd Hall, was dedicated in 1972, but it quickly became inadequate, unliveable, and obsolete. Mudd Hall was reportedly an award-winning example of the hopefully now extinct architectural style of "Neo-Brutalism," but its facilities were "not designed for today's needs in legal education." Deficient facilities, however, were only a small part of its problem. In addition to the brown liquid (sometimes affectionately called "Mudd sludge") some classroom ceilings leaked, the building from its first days was cold, musty, and foreboding. The accreditors colorfully described the deficiencies of Mudd Hall as follows: "A population of about 800 people . . . are crushed into 60,000 square feet of space. The sweaty and noisy propinquity in the offices, corridors, and toilets--literally everywhere in the building--reminds one of a Manhattan subway at rush hour. . . ." - 76 Wash. U. L.Q. 1

I recall that building—the stark grey concrete; a bare courtyard devoid of vegetation; no decoration at all except for numerous flyers taped to the walls, long, tiring ramps going places where level floors would suffice; no detail on a human scale; restrooms seemingly hidden; ugly carpeting; a cold soul-grinding machine.

What is called Modern Architecture ended around 1972; with some saying that its symbolic end was the destruction of the ill-designed Pruitt-Igoe housing project in Saint Louis. Earlier modern architecture had—sometimes—a graceful and even cheerful appearance, but the last products of this style were inhumane. This style loved vast concrete courtyards, devoid of vegetation, and although numerous benches are placed in these spaces, no one would sit and linger; I recall one such courtyard in downtown Clayton, Missouri: stark and empty of all life. The deconstruction of persons' psyches and alienation of their minds from all earlier influence of family, patriotism, and religion, were to be facilitated by these stark and brutal buildings. At this time, money dried up for new construction; the 1970s was a dreary decade of decline; new architecture of this kind was fortunately some of the last made.

Consider the times: in 1972, the radical Left had just won the cultural battles of the 1960s, and universities were the vanguard of political change. The concrete monstrosities of this era were the architectural equivalent of Che Guevara raising the red banner after victory in battle. They had won, and this building proved it. And it was in buildings such as these that the great revolution in American politics and jurisprudence of the 1970s started. Gone was the idea that the Law had to be moral: no, Positive Law gave absolute power to victors, and tradition and virtue would have no part in it. Quickly, the Law changed; abortion was made a universal right. Divorce was made no-fault, causing endless misery for broken families. 'Children's rights' led to sex education and pressure to lower or eliminate the Age of Consent and also facilitated the break-up of families through intervention by the State. Families themselves would be redefined to include homosexual and even possibly group arrangements. The Church was to be eliminated from the public stage. Via punitive judgments, the Courtroom was turned into an all-powerful regulatory agency that effected massive cultural change, and overstepped the democratic legislative process. 'Personhood' was divorced from 'Humanity' leading to euthanasia and infanticide. Could an architectural style influence someone's thinking?

The other structure on campus from the end of the Modern era is the Mallinckrodt Center, a student union; it is also made of plain unadorned concrete; but some years ago, the oppressive character of this building's interior was lessened by large, historical photographs, including an amusing photo of 1920s-era coeds in the Flapper fashion.

It is not insignificant that the new law school had been called the "Promised Land" by Wash U. Law students, in anticipation of leaving the old building behind. The Gothic style is the very embodiment of a warm, rational, artistic humanism that also raises the spirit towards Heaven. Arguably, this style is the pinnacle of architectural development: rationally, it is superbly efficient in producing strong, yet airy buildings; and artistically, it is both beautiful in itself and is a canvas for the decorative arts. Gothic stands between two worlds: the Romanesque and Byzantine, bulky but rich in artwork, and the Modern, plain but technologically advanced—but Gothic alone combines the two in one style. This is not surprising, for the style developed during the High Middle Ages, the era of Saint Thomas Aquinas, where both Faith and Reason, and the love of beauty were regarded. That a building, deeply symbolic of a forgotten, but still felt, Catholicism, can be called a "Promised Land", signifies much; for the Church is the spiritual New Israel.

Washington University was cofounded by William Greenleaf Eliot, a Unitarian minister, and the University still shows its Puritan roots by its utter contempt of pre-Concilliar and post-Humanae Vitae Catholicism. William Eliot's grandson was the writer and prominent Anglo-Catholic convert T.S. Eliot. Perhaps Washington University shouldn't so closely embrace Gothic, which is also known as "The Catholic Style". Good architecture could inspire someone to make a similar conversion!

So Washington University in Saint Louis can still do great Gothic architecture. What about the Church? Why can't she? The University, as an integral part of the Puritan-Liberal Establishment, is secure and it is hard to conceive of any lawsuit that could deprive it of its property. How can improper sexual behavior lead to a lawsuit if the University claims that it promotes universal sexual expression? Certainly, it is immune to the charge of hypocrisy. Besides, its graduates wrote the law and appear before the bench in the courtroom, which is a strong defense. The Church is still alien to American culture. I fear that the risk of making great Catholic buildings again may be too great in this country, due to potential loss in an unjust punitive lawsuit. We must first change ourselves, and then the culture.

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