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Bad Buildings

Justin Shubow’s “Monument to Failure” (March) comes at a particularly critical time in our fight for America’s heritage. The past decades have been unkind to our nation’s identity, and our architectural estrangement is, fittingly, the most visible sign of this. The decades since the Great War have shown that we no longer live in a government by the people, for the people, but rather in a government by itself, for itself. Given this growing rift between citizenry and bureaucracy, it is, perhaps, not surprising that, first, our government would show such disdain as to bestow on us buildings like Federal Office Building 6 and, second, that it would, fifty years later, seek to celebrate its early acts of ­anti-humanism by conferring landmark status on such symbols. While the battle for the form of new federal projects has largely been lost for the time being, the battle to enshrine such Monuments to Failure is just warming up.

Shubow does an admirable job of pointing out the ways in which the General Services Administration and Landmarks Commission have seemingly conspired to impoverish the lives of the American public, as well as those of the federal employees and officials whose lives are ostensibly committed to the American public: “The bureaucrats—namely the historic preservation officers and architectural historians who work for the government—know better. A building might make the general public’s lives worse, but that is irrelevant.”

I believe, however, that Shubow’s language should be carried one step further. It is the very generalization of the American public and the American government that make such buildings as FOB 6 possible. The language of the human and the individual needs to be brought back into the conversation—the individual American whose perceptions of the government are formed by his architectural surroundings, the individual civil servant whose attitudes toward his profession are shaped by the spaces he inhabits, even the individual craftsman whose responsibility it ought to be to ennoble our governmental spaces.

If it is the individual American who breathes life into our system of government, it is the individual craftsman who breathes life into our public monuments. The buildings that strike the greatest pride in the American pilgrim, and awe in the foreign tourist, are those that most closely represent the ideals of our nation’s founders—buildings that were made of identifiable, contrasting, and yet harmonious parts and pieces, skillfully arranged in recognizable patterns to create varied but cohesive wholes. Surely this is recognizable in our Capitol, our Supreme Court building, our White House, and countless other office buildings and monuments that all conspire to elevate the craftsmen who built these edifices, the officials and civil servants who populate their halls, and the viewer who seeks to learn about America’s core values from them.

These are all buildings that skillfully weave together disparate elements, and were created by individuals whose handprints are evident all through the façades and interiors, bringing stone, wood, brick, glass, and any assortment of other materials into unison. And while it’s these historical monuments that capture our imagination most thoroughly, the edifices that are now being celebrated by the GSA favor the genius architect (as in the much maligned Eisenhower Memorial) and the corporate builder who seeks the most streamlined ­construction methods at the cost of individual craftsmanship and citizen participation.

Now is the time to stem the tide of governmental anti-humanism by reintroducing the human element to the discussion. First, the loss of craftsmanship, and therefore the loss of our ability to express our nation’s values, must be lamented, not memorialized. Second, as the nation’s—and perhaps the world’s—most prolific builder, the GSA must recognize the importance of craftsmanship in its buildings, showing that the individual American has a place in his government. Shubow’s “Monument to Failure” and his work with the National Civic Art Society are great ways to begin this movement, but let’s take it even further now.

Peter Budnik
milwaukee, wisconsin

I was glad to see Justin Shubow’s article about modernist philosophy and its adoption by the preservation movement. It is a conversation that preservation is reluctant to have but would benefit from, as it would ­surely renew its authority in the eyes of a public increasingly alienated from an ­activity that has only recently become a profession.

While it should be noted that preservation, or at least the idea of historic districts, is increasingly under attack from the left (they elevate property values, promoting gentrification), as well as from the right (they infringe on property rights), ultimately the problem preservation seeks to solve, and the reason that historic districts are necessary, is one of supply and demand: We are no longer building charming, walkable, human-scaled, mixed-use places. Most historic districts were built before car-centric planning and anti-traditional architecture made Anywhere, USA, the national standard. With the demand for charming places outpacing supply, historic districts are bound to be the locus of destructive investment and tragedy-of-the-commons economics. This will continue to be the case until there is a comprehensive overhaul of zoning and building codes that favor automobiles over pedestrians and until there is an overhaul of ­architectural education standards wedded to ­abstract architecture and modernist revivalism.

Christopher Liberatos
charleston, south carolina

In his excellent essay, Justin Shubow writes about the monument to failure that is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Building and the efforts of the GSA to secure for it National Register status. As Shubow points out, there is much more going on here than the preservation of a depressingly banal building with few redeeming qualities.

It is difficult to understand how easily the modernist gospel took hold of our collective consciousness. And yet, maybe not so difficult. As children of our Enlightenment-era founders, we have been captivated by the rationality of science and the “warmed-over Hegelian spiritualism” about which Shubow says, “Everything—whether art or architecture, morality or politics—is to be judged according to whether it advances or retards the inevitable unfolding of History.” We were caught up in the beguiling embrace of modernism with its novelty and innovation. It was fashionable; style won out over content.

The avant-garde clearly knew exactly what they set out to accomplish: to redefine the outward and visible signs of our built environment that hold for us an inward and spiritual meaning. At the end of the First World War, Walter Gropius, whose influence far exceeded his talent, wrote in a working draft of the first Bauhaus Manifesto that “architecture was the foremost bearer of spiritual powers and molder of our sensibility.” This indeed was more than the introduction of a new architectural style; it was a stealthy effort to bring down, finally and ­completely, the already moribund classical humanist ­tradition with all its cherished institutions and values. Shubow revealingly refers to former GSA chief architect Edward A. Feiner, who said, “It’s amazing what you can do when no one’s looking.” Precisely!

Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Marcel Breuer, and all the others who gathered at Weimar as the 1920s burst upon the world were embarking upon what is now an almost century-old battle to claim the soul of the world. When we contemplate our great cities, we do so largely unaware that their buildings have been reshaping fundamental assumptions about who we are, and the very nature of our humanity. It is hard to be optimistic about the future when virtually every city and town is being overrun by an aesthetic aspiration to novelty that seems to have locked itself into our psyche as something normative. Winston Churchill was right in his observation that “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Justin Shubow and those others who have contributed articles in this same vein over the past year are the vanguard of what may be the greatest challenge we face—how to recover our collective souls. Let us have more like-minded essays that quicken our awareness of unexamined ­assumptions and provoke us to become warriors in the battle to recover a civic aesthetic that is good, beautiful, and humane.

The Rev. Robert L. Woodbury
whitefish bay, wisconsin

Justin Shubow replies:

I would like to thank Rev. Woodbury and Messrs. Budnik and Liberatos for their kind and insightful letters. To add to their comments about the disturbing mindset of the preservationist establishment, allow me to mention a conversation I had with a distinguished member of the board of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We were discussing the 1968 Robert C. Weaver Federal Building in Washington, D.C., which is the brutalist headquarters of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Modernist architects admire the building since it is an exemplary work of “master” modernist architect Marcel Breuer. In its official history of its mid-century buildings, GSA praised the building as an “outstanding Modern achievement,” and hailed it as “one of the most successful buildings in GSA’s modern building inventory.”

GSA neglected to mention that the building is widely hated by Washingtonians, especially by the people who are forced to work in it. During President George H. W. Bush’s administration, then–HUD Secretary Jack Kemp (a Republican) called the building “ten floors of basement.” More recently, in 2009, then–HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan (a Democrat) quoted Kemp’s words, seconded him, and added, “With its ‘brutalist’ architecture and exposed concrete—despite a workforce that is second to none—the building itself is among the most reviled in all of Washington—and with good reason.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation board member I was speaking with agreed with these criticisms, but told me, “The building is worthy of preservation—but I wouldn’t want to work in it.” Thus, the logic of preservation triumphs over living, breathing people. Hegel said that a great man, a mover of History, “must trample down many an innocent flower—crush to pieces many an object in his path.” Many modernists would apply that to “great” architects, too.

Christ & Coates

May I offer a somewhat different reading of Gaudium et Spes than R. R. Reno provides in his “Public Square” (March)? While admitting the shortcomings of this pioneer document of the Second Vatican Council, the young Joseph Ratzinger nonetheless wrote, “Here, for the first time, in an official document of the magisterium, a new type of completely Christocentric theology appears.” And he continues, “On the basis of Christ this dares to present theology as anthropology and only becomes radically theological by including man in discourse about God by way of Christ, thus manifesting the deepest unity of theology.”

Clearly then, the “signs of the times” are to be read “in the light of the Gospel”: hence, not sociologically, but christologically. Christ is the measure, or, as Bruce Marshall insists: Christ has “epistemic primacy.” That many, in the years subsequent to the council, have not always recognized and followed the pastoral constitution’s lead does not lessen the christological challenge and promise it poses.

Part of that challenge may be to move beyond the rather sterile argument as to whether a theological approach is dogmatic (“deductive”) or experiential (“inductive”). For, if the living Christ of the New Testament is the measure of the human (GS, 10, 22, 45), then all our theological efforts need to be employed in mystagogical discernment regarding what leads to true participation in Christ, “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and of ­knowledge” (Col. 2:3). And, of course, such Christic discernment most assuredly does not canonize either societal or individual “experience.” For all are called to continuing conversion so that, “speaking the truth in love, we may grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15).

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli
boston college
boston, massachusetts

I have read R. R. Reno’s “Coates’s Lost Cause” (March) several times trying to make sense of it. My ­initial knee-jerk reaction was to cancel my subscription. But after the third reading I decided to try to respond with a letter. I am a female African American octogenarian—a convert to Catholicism at fifteen, a professor emeritus at Boston University School of Social Work, and a committed civil rights activist.

What cause is it that Reno sees Ta-Nehisi Coates promulgating? Is it what he calls Afrocentrism? Coates, Reno suggests, may end up as a preservationist. I think a more enlightened view would suggest that Coates is what a younger generation might call an Afro-pessimist. Or he is parochial in his views. I don’t believe Coates was attempting to address a white audience as Baldwin did in the second part of The Fire Next Time. I, for one, have not been that impressed by Coates’s writings and do not agree with some of his views. What I would like to do for Coates, if I could, is to gather a group of African American men (Vernon Jordan and Harry Belafonte, to name a couple). Both of these men could speak to him about Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, Ralph Ellison, and W. E. B. Du Bois.

And who is the “liberal establishment” toward whom Reno is so contemptuous? Yes, Coates has received overwhelming support, namely from Toni Morrison, ­David Remnick of the New Yorker, and A. O. Scott of the New York Times. Some reviewers of Coates’s memoir have given an erudite and critical reading of the text. Here are two I will recommend to Reno: Thomas Chatterton ­Williams’s “Loaded Dice” in the ­London Review of Books and ­Sukhdev Sandhu’s review in The Guardian.
Life is complex—much too complex to divide into black and white racial groups or liberal and con­servative ideologies.

Joyce West Stevens
boston university
boston, massachusetts

R. R. Reno replies:

There’s no doubt that Gaudium et Spes was an experiment in what the young Ratzinger called “theology as anthropology.” This was John Paul II’s firm reading of the pastoral constitution. Yet, as Robert ­Imbelli suggests, the experiment was, well, ­experimental, and thus lacked the clarity that comes from settled church teaching, which may be why ­Gaudium et Spes produced so many wild misreadings in the years after the council. Unlike the dogmatic constitutions on ­revelation (Dei Verbum) and the Church (Lumen Gentium), Gaudium et Spes takes on stable meaning only when read under the guidance of the encyclicals of John Paul II.

Even under that guidance I have my doubts. Gaudium et Spes encourages the expectation that the fullness of Christ and the best of modern culture dovetail nicely, because in both the potential of the human person is more fully realized. I’m increasingly skeptical. Christ’s promise of fullness of life does fulfill our deepest yearnings—but in unexpected ways. Today, the followers of Christ are much more likely to be signs of contradiction rather than fulfillment, at least insofar as the world measures fulfillment. When it comes to Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, the governing word may be “hid.” Yes, in Christ we discover the true treasure of wisdom. In him we learn what it means to live well. But that wisdom is hidden in the cross.

Joyce West Stevens and I agree: Ta-Nehisi Coates does not address a white audience. His goal is to renew African American identity by keeping the memories of oppression alive. The rhetoric of memory dominates Between the World and Me, which is why I found myself thinking of writers such as Allen Tate who also worked hard to renew and preserve their identities against an ­all-absorbing ­dominant culture. Neither Coates nor Tate describes my world. Neither defines identities I want to cultivate or renew, not the least because both require a foundational division of the world into black and white, which, like Stevens, I find simplistic. That said, I admire the preservationist impulse. Loyalty to one’s people and place is a noble sentiment. Reading Coates, I became more and more convinced that his anger buttresses his loyalty, which is the deeper, more enduring, more humanizing contribution he makes to our public culture.


Yoram Hazony’s “The Miracle of Esther” (March) is itself a miracle of close reading and provocative insight. I had never before noticed the change from “the banquet that I have prepared for him” (Esther 5:4) to “the banquet that I shall prepare for them” (5:8; KJV). Nor would I have thought of the effect these words might have had on the king, nor of the political meaning of the text.

Robert D. Sacks has similar insights, drawn from a similar ­technique, in his Commentary on the Book of Genesis. He says that God in the Bible seems to wait to see what man does, and then responds accordingly. Even the institution of law, for remarkable instance, comes from a suggestion made by Moses’s father-in-law (Exodus 18, before God calls Moses to receive the law). Sacks locates all this in the absence, after man is created in Genesis 1, of a declaration that man is good. “Perhaps,” Sacks says, it is ­better that there be “one being whose way is open, and to that extent unknown . . . than a world in which all the inhabitants are known to be good.”

So God watches to see what people do. Lot, rescued from his city, is told to go to a mountain. But he cannot imagine living outside a city, and so begs to be permitted to flee to a nearby city—“a little one,” he says, plaintively. And God “accepts” him regarding this, too. God watches, and God adapts.

And in the end, God’s action in history is precisely as Hazony shows in Esther, namely, action in the human agents of the sacred narrative. Michael Walzer is hardly alone in failing to understand this—in thinking that there is something like a zero-sum situation when we consider divine and human action.

I grow increasingly grateful to my Jewish teachers, who aid this Christian priest in reading the Bible.

The Rev. Victor Lee Austin
new york, new york