The heuristic for my philosophy of art is that it must have some value in at least one of the three categories of beauty, meaning, or difficulty. I’m not making an attempt to universalize this framework as I realize the subjective nature of, at the very least, two out of the three, but it does give me a rubric for a critique which protects me from the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome of post 19th century art. I find it works quite well at detecting hackery and charlatanism: duct taped bananas and discarded t-shirts pinned to walls tend to score very low.
Let’s be honest, there have been horrible writers, terrible painters, insipid sculptors, and talentless composers from the time those forms began, but the rigors and technical demands of the rules of, for example, the sonnet would weed out the people who couldn’t “word good”.
Architecture is special in that it adds a layer of practical function to art in such a way that it is, in my opinion, the weakest link in so called Modern Art. Little things like keeping the elements out, not collapsing, indicating where the entrances and exits are, not endangering environs with excessive heat and light, not popping out windows, and being a library that can withstand the weight of books are all challenges that must be met or “you didn’t architecture so good.”
Here in Springfield we have the two structures which make up the state court system. One of them is well over a hundred years old and absolutely no one makes any complaints about it. It was designed by H.H. Richardson:
The other is less than one third the age of the first and by all accounts it suffers from various structural problems and a huge effort is underway to replace it with a building that perhaps isn’t also the bullseye of a rare illness.
Can you tell where the entrance is?
Nope, it’s to the right of what looks like a cantilevered portico. And you can’t use most of the stairs in winter, they’re just too dangerous so if it snows they add temporary rails and close off a section or two. If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ve seen this building before:
And I don’t hate the newer one. Turns out Eduardo Catalano, the architect of the courthouse, was a much bigger part of my Bildungsroman than I ever would have imagined. You see, he designed all three of Springfield’s most significant 1970’s megastructures: the civic center, Baystate West, and the aforementioned courthouse. While I never spent anytime in the courthouse, I spent hours and hours in the other two. Hockey and shows from the Harlem Globetrotters to Disney programs were part of my formative years:
Baystate West was the downtown mall where my mom worked part time and I would hang out and buy imported records from The Move or Violinski, eat a California Pizza Dog from Orange Julius and then wander around the surrounding streets and in so doing fall in love with what I would now call “urbanism”.
There are two ways to judge those buildings. On the one hand they have stood the test of time much better than the courthouse and continue to serve the community quite well; on the other they have required major remodeling and even reconstruction to minimize the deadening effects of their stark Brutalism on the surrounding streets.
In the case of the civic center it had to be hidden by another building to frame Court Square in a dignified way and hide its monotonous soul crushing expanse of concrete:
As Baystate West was transformed into Tower Square windows have been added on the first two floors on the Main Street and Harrison Avenue façades, splashes of form and color were slapped on to help people find entrances, and an enormous airwalk was removed:
As Catalano buildings go, they’ve fared well. The “masterpiece” which put him on the Modernist Map had to be torn down as it couldn’t stand the test of even a few decades of time withstanding the elements in the harsh climes of Raleigh, North Carolina!
I read on apologia for modernism which claimed that it is poor maintenance that has let modernist buildings down: In the case of the two courthouses it’s the exact same entity that maintained them since they’ve been in existence but only one of them has been able to stand up to that malign neglect…and for over a century longer.
The truth is I don’t hate these buildings, I mean, I’m not dying of ALS so maybe that’s easy for me to say, but they are a part of the fabric of the city I love. If Eduardo Catalano ever becomes an El Greco of architecture, his genius rediscovered centuries later, then Springfield will be his Toledo and all of the fixes will need to be undone and savants will wonder at the callous treatment his works were given. Short of that, these structures will continue to serve whatever purpose they’re put to to the best of their ability which, with the possible exception of the courthouse, I have little doubt will extend long beyond my time on this planet.