Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Rusty Reno asked me why we can’t build like Ralph Adams Cram envisioned. The answer to that question, I think, is the architectural equivalent to what Reno himself said about education: “Fearful of living in dreams and falling under the sway of ideologies, we have committed ourselves to disenchantment.” Hence today, the Cram passage I quoted would likely horrify the same institution at which it was first delivered. It would be defused in a classroom (using critical theory), as quickly as someone would extinguish a fire in the wastepaper basket.

Ethan Anthony, an author and architect who is perpetuating Cram’s legacy today, put it this way: “Cram’s career, like that of his contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, was a constant search for architectural absolutes.” Cram, a Gothicist, thought big: “We are handicapped by the deeds of our fathers, but the restoration must be accomplished, however arduous the effort!” Wright, a Modernist, did as well: He hoped to build a mile high structure that, had it been constructed, would have nearly doubled anything in present day Dubai.

But the Modernist ideology failed (see Glazer ), and we are disillusioned. As Michael J. Lewis explains, architecture now (pockets of resistance notwithstanding) is All Sail, No Anchor . All Wasabi, No Sushi. A delicious Wittgenstein quote (sent to me by Steven Good) says it best: “Architecture immortalizes and glorifies something. Hence there can be no architecture where there is nothing to glorify” ( Culture and Value , 69e).

It’s not, of course, that we shouldn’t sometimes be frightened by full-throated architectural rhetoric. Far from it. It’s just that I can think of those more deserving of our fears than Cram. In The Fountainhead , Ayn Rand created the architect Howard Roark (modeled after Wright), whose Wynard Building was to be “a gesture against the whole world . . . the last achievement of man on earth before mankind destroys itself.” In comparison to that, Cram was a kitten.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles