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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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Reed proceeded to write an anti-modernist broadside, “Monumental Architecture,” that appeared in the Yale School of Architecture journal in 1952. That same year, he and Tunnard were deeply involved with a Yale Art Gallery exhibition, “Ars in Urbe.” This exhibition was devoted to the image of the monumental city in European and American art from the Renaissance onward. The unambiguous message in the catalogue preface was that architects and planners who had “turned their faces away from Rome” needed to reconsider. 

A scenic arch designed by Reed’s close friend John Barrington Bayley was installed at the entrance to the exhibition. A disenchanted alumnus of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where Walter Gropius presided, Bayley had studied at the American Academy in Rome on the GI Bill, and he and Reed had explored the city together. Decades later, Bayley would serve as the principal design architect of a very fine addition to the Frick Collection in Manhattan. 

The most important result of the Tunnard-Reed collaboration was two critical histories of American urbanism, The City of Man (1953) and The American Skyline (1955). Reed served as research assistant on the former, coauthor of the latter. These two volumes provide a superb overview of the artistic, social, economic, and technological forces that shaped the urbanization of this country. Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) focuses more specifically on the complex functional and spatial order our core cities nurtured prior to postwar “urban renewal.” Jacobs gives us the pragmatically ordered modern urbs, that densest of human settlements. Tunnard and Reed give us the urbs transformed into civitas, the civic community whose ideals are embodied in its public architecture, plazas, parks, and memorials. In doing so, they invite us to question Jacobs’s emphatic claim that “the city cannot be a work of art.” 

After three years at Yale, Reed introduced architectural tours of New York City that were notable for the level of background research in social and cultural history they incorporated. Above all, Reed used these tours to explain the indispensability of traditional means of architectural embellishment and civic commemoration. He ardently espoused triumphal arches like the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch in Brooklyn, one of the nation’s foremost Civil War monuments, as civic focal points and “pedestals for sculpture.” 

Reed’s walking tours received ample press coverage and contributed to the explosive growth of the historic preservation movement after the 1963 demolition of Charles Follen McKim’s majestic Pennsylvania Station, whose principal inspiration was the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

But Reed was much more than a preservationist. He was far more concerned with shaping the future than mothballing the past. The Golden City includes a number of architectural proposals and even urban redevelopment plans, including Bayley’s visionary design for a grand opera house on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle (its exterior modeled on the Colosseum in Rome), as well as a monumental public housing complex in Harlem designed for citizens instead of guinea pigs.

Our cities, in fact, would embody infinitely more in the way of long-term cultural and economic value had the Reed-Tunnard-Bayley path been taken instead of our cultural movers and shakers being dragged along the modernist highway to nowhere. That highway recently led to media huzzahs for California starchitect Thom Mayne’s hideous nine-story academic structure, wrapped in ever-so-cutting-edge perforated stainless steel, at Cooper Union in Manhattan. This expressionistic contraption, whose misshapen main elevation features a weird, jagged cutaway, unquestionably qualifies for one of Mailer’s psychotic landscapes. And its astronomical $177 million price tag—over $1,000 per square foot—has inevitably raised eyebrows, as that heretofore tuition-free academy of art, architecture, and engineering founders in a swamp of financial mismanagement. 

And we’re told classical architecture is too expensive!

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