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Classical American

What today's architecture owes to Henry Hope Reed.

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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Over half a century ago, Henry Hope Reed, who died in May at age 97, launched a permanent campaign to restore the classical tradition to its rightful primacy in American public art and architecture. The Golden City (1959) provided the polemical and pedagogical foundation for this campaign, presenting incisive photographic comparisons of the nation’s rich heritage of traditional buildings and other public embellishments with their threadbare modernist counterparts. Flagpoles and lampposts were not overlooked.

The book’s title might ring a little sentimental to our irony-saturated ears. It was likely inspired by the Wordsworth sonnet “Composed upon Westminster Bridge”:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples
    
lie

Open unto the fields, and to the sky;

All bright and glittering in the smoke-
     less air.

Wordsworth may have been one of his favorite poets, but Reed was no Romantic. He was a rigorous formalist whose aesthetic outlook was shaped by the great works of imperial Rome, the Italian Renaissance, the Paris of the Louis, and the American metropolis of the turn of the last century. He always insisted that “man is a decorating animal.” And he meant by nature, not by temporary historical happenstance. In the midst of an iconoclastic juggernaut, he sought to redeem the art of architecture from a functionalism better suited to the airplane, diesel locomotive, or grain silo. His humanism was anthropologically sound. 

Reed believed that the arts of form should play a formative role in the progress of civilization, shaping an ideal background that would enrich everyday experience. Contemporary endeavors should emulate the great works of the past. Even before the dawn of the 20th century, however, elite opinion had begun to take a very different view: Architecture, especially, was now regarded as the byproduct of particular historical circumstances. It was incumbent on creative “genius” in the guise of a Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier to divine the essence or “will” of a given epoch, along with a new vessel of forms to give it expression.

It was also Reed’s countercultural conviction that, as the United States got richer and richer in the postwar period, it was natural to expect the quality of its public architecture—its courthouses, concert halls, museums, office buildings, and hotels—to get better and better. The opposite, in fact, transpired, as “the new world-order of the machine” (as Walter Gropius called it) found expression in starkly abstract and generally repellent architectural forms. Writing in Esquire in 1963, Norman Mailer lamented the advent of a “totalitarian architecture” that “destroys the past,” leaving its victimized public “isolated in the empty landscapes of psychosis.” The United States thus became the first nation in the history of civilization to rise to world preeminence while its public realm deteriorated precipitously—from the Orwellian precincts of our “re-developed” core cities to the meandering postwar suburbs with their modernist bubble-diagram zoning.

A lifelong New Yorker, Reed became fascinated with the nation’s urban environment around the time of his graduation from Harvard in 1938. He took to making road trips to scout out cities and towns with another Harvard man, Wayne Andrews, who would become an architecture historian at Case Western Reserve. Because a hearing impairment rendered him ineligible for military service, Reed found himself working as a reporter in Omaha during World War II. This allowed him to explore the Midwestern cityscape, including many an old river town along the Mississippi or the Missouri. 

After the war, Reed’s vocational itinerary led him to Paris and the École du Louvre, where he studied the decorative arts, and from there to Yale, where an extraordinarily gifted urban planning professor, Christopher Tunnard, took him on as an instructor and research assistant. The Canadian-born Tunnard had enjoyed considerable success as a pathbreaking modernist landscape architect in England before migrating to the United States, where he began to entertain serious doubts about the flat, blank façades and simplistic planning the new orthodoxy was inflicting on American communities.

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