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The Brittle Reality of Imitation

February 9, 2020

You learn by imitating. You are inspired by what has been done. Black box, unthinking creation can be absurdly painful.

The recent freakout over “Style” is somehow political, but at its origin this is an aesthetic issue: What is beauty? What reflects America?

I go to church. Every week I am bathed in the first Gothic Revival Building in America, Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven. It has a classic American Congregational Church’s proportions, with a layer of “Gothic” materials and details applied to it. I love it. It is 1816 (plus 1886, 1937, and 2009). But it is simple imitation.

Visual triggers are not inspiration. Mimicry may flatter what is being mimicked, but it is ultimately a xerox. In New Haven, the “Gothic” we bath in every week is a copy of the 19th century British copy of a 14th century Medieval way of building. And in New Haven we have a 2016 copy of the 1930’s version.

The copy of a copy of a copy of a copy, the wrought the “new” Yale colleges designed by Robert AM Stern, is perfectly planned and formed. But in so many ways it’s execution is that of aggregated aesthetic sound bites designed to trigger allusion to the copy of the copy of the copy: what Stern calls the “flesh” of Yale Proper.

Next door the exact same design use, size and budget, the 1960’s residential colleges by Eero Saarinen. They offer another way: a use of Modernist distillation blended in medieval planning.

Many dislike Saarinen’s dorms, but many deeply love them, many who lived there. Architects generally disdain Stern’s dorms but they attract students seeking validation of the school’s credibility. (As if it needs it)

The point is that Saarinen’s extreme efforts to distill may be inspired by Modernism, but mimic nothing, but Stern acknowledges mimicking an single architect, James Gamble Rogers, who acknowledges imitating those who where imitating others. And it shows.

From a distance Stern’s towers look and feel almost noble. The walks and courtyards are so well laid out and proportioned that their style does not matter. The flow of Saarinen’s masses and spaces are wonderfully different, and delight as well.

But up close and personal, Saarinen tries to completely obscure working fireplaces, while Stern used cranes to drop in fully expressive “chimneys” that have no function – which is more hypocritical? When you realize that fully detailed vertical masses are a functionless sham, or, alternatively, fully cloaked and detailed to hide their function, what do you see? Which seems worse? Better?

The point is that mimicry can be silly when it’s designed to trigger nostalgia in Stern’s college, and the rejection of function in favor of aesthetics also finds a home in Saarinen’s non-chimneys. In both places an outcome was desired, and things manipulated and controlled to effect it. By architects.

Everyone knew what these architects would do before they were hired. No one told them what to create. Once our government creates an Aesthetic Code designers either design to that or they do not design.

is that what we want?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Rmartin90 permalink
    February 9, 2020 1:31 pm

    Hey Duo! Years ago there was an older man who gave fascinating tours of the architecture of the Yale campus.  He had worked on the buildings in the 30s and would tell all the “inside” stories and he knew which New Haven notables were represented by which gargoyles. I would LOVE to take a tour of the campus with you and hear your perspective on the various buildings……….and I’d bet lots of other people would as well.  Wouldn’t that be a wonderful fundraiser………..for Habitat or for some other cause dear to your heart? Lorraine Martin

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