Comment 71573

By Mahesh_P_Butani (registered) - website | Posted November 23, 2011 at 17:49:21 in reply to Comment 71360

"It is in our nature to travel into our past, hoping thereby to illuminate the darkness that bedevils the present." ~ Farley Mowat

Graham, Thank you for your post titled: "Understanding the New Formalism Style".

While we may differ on our read of architectural history on account of our backgrounds, as stated earlier I do admire your passion for documenting and promoting local architecture.

While I recognize that Edward Durell Stone among a few others you mention have produced good examples of New Formalism, however --in my personal opinion-- which has evolved over 35 years of professional interest in architecture & urban design, Joseph Singer's BOE building is not a great example of this short lived style. It does not imply that I am suggesting its destruction.

The BOE, McMaster and the City are the ones on an irreversible path, while I am merely suggesting that we come to terms with it and focus our energies on the proposed use, and worry about its built-form later... in that order.

I will expand on why I feel this way about the BOE building, and you are free to disagree, but do recognize that comments such as the one below destroy conversations.

Most architectural styles in Canada imported from US or Europe were prone to dilution of the original intent and turned into a pale and often limp version of the original style.

This was the context in which most architectural styles evolved in Canada: "Architecture in transition - from art to practice, 1885-1906, by Kelly Crossman". It is important to compare this with the context in which styles originated in other countries in order to allow a clearer understanding of local architectural practices and their responses to styles.

The dilemma of Canadian architecture in my view is that even after a hundred years, it is still in search of its cultural identity and continues to remain enslaved to popular styles from abroad while remaining in denial of its enslavement. A condition entirely self-inflicted by the local architectural profession from its choice to remain culturally self-centered and obsessively insular for over a century.

So what you see as architectural styles here, is in my opinion only poorly rendered formalistic gestures devoid of cross-cultural influences - Gestures which are primarily based on a slavish imitation of form and resulting in its lack of substance - much similar to the beautifully framed generic art prints available at annual art expos, which many people love, and buy, but someone with your or Highwater's appreciation of art and architecture may cringe to place on your mantelpiece.

Meaningful architecture all over the world has always been influenced by local culture, literature, poetry, visual arts, craft, music, philosophy, politics, geography, climate and such -- and contrary to Ayn Rand's Howard Roark, as much as our superficial read of history would want us to believe - most meaningful architectural styles never sprung from immaculate conception. They usually grew from the act of running away from something:

"Modernism was a revolt against the conservative values of realism" ...The poet Ezra Pound's 1934 injunction to - Make it new! was paradigmatic of the movement's approach towards the obsolete."

To truly appreciate New Formalism in architecture, one needs to dig into its namesake period in poetry over a different time-line.

"Formalism arguably began much earlier, with Richard Wilbur, whose first collection, 'The Beautiful Changes', was published in 1947. And formalism in one sense had never been dead. But the New Formalism was rather different, notably in its proselytizing role, its marked antagonism to free verse, and its stress on metrical correctness."

"If the 'New Formalism' was a reaction to the perceived failings of free verse — a slovenly technique, indifference to tradition, a self-centred 'anything goes' attitude — the promotion of an iambic cure brought its own problems. The narrowness of its aims, and the drum-beating of its followers, made New Formalism a somewhat blunting and wrong-footing movement, though there are still many excellent poets following its prescriptions." ~ The New Formalism

New Formalism in architecture was born as a formalistic escape from the trappings of the aesthetic starkness and material austerity of the late modern/international style -- essentially a response to the then wounded Modernist philosophy which had generated much cultural and social alienation in the post-war era.

New Formalism in my view had a close parallel in its approach to generating form with the short lived transitional style of the mid '30's called Postconstructivism - which "converged from opposite directions - neoclassicism and constructivism" and also defined as "neoclassical shapes without neoclassical detailing" -- "Postconstructivism benefited from a natural reaction against both the avantgarde and the eclectics of the past. It was perceived as new, and at the same time allowed grand buildings that were to the taste of provincial elite."

However many adherents of New Formalism in my view cannibalized forms and motifs from earlier styles and applied it far more superficially to buildings. In doing so without rigor, its plans and more importantly its cultural and spatial connectedness to people failed miserably. A detailed study of many buildings of this era confirms that.

This style was not born from an impulse to address the emerging social, human and environmental degradation in the mid 50's to late 60's. In fact the post-war ear was a confusing time in architecture, and there were many divergent paths taken by the leading architects back then.

New Formalism was one such foray which made use of elements from formal classicism with modernist bombast. In doing so, the resulting ornamentation was an afterthought to the essence of form - an appliqué approach of sorts to architecture. Something which most styles such as Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, Art Moderne, the Googie style, or the Mid-Century Modern avoided by making all embellishments an integral element of its design instinct. Something which the garish Post-modern architectural style took to an extreme by turning the very form into an embellishment.

Architects like Stone and Beckett were more successful than others in some of their works. But in the Canadian context - on account of the professions insularity, New Formalism, an already a tricky act, got diluted and a style that was essentially superficial in spirit, was rendered even more superficial with poor handling of proportions and materials and more importantly a total disregard for the spatial aspects of buildings.

It is from this that I sense the total disconnectedness between the BOE building and its surrounds. In my view this building just sits there drawing attention to itself as a quirky bauble would from another era, oblivious of its lack of design rigor, or its lack of a spatial narrative - essential for life to thrive around it.

One can only imagine what our world would be today had the architects of that period focused on more important matters facing civilization back then.

One successful example of this period which in my opinion worked very well was the US Embassy in New Delhi by Edward Durell Stone. This rare success only came about on account of the manner in which it was constructed (see evaluation by docomomo). In earnestly adopting an arts & crafts movement approach in the construction of this building, the architect here managed to transcended the formalistic limitations of the style with a conscious attempt at cross-cultural pollination from which springs its timeless qualities.

Buildings such as the BOE in my opinion fail to transcend its style and further appear dated on account of its mathematically odd proportions and massing, coupled with its awkwardly dense window pattern and weak arches dressed up by embellishments by way of art panels and the bronze frieze all affixed on the shell of an otherwise poorly planned building.

Outside of the example in New Delhi, and to an extent in NYC,(1,2) Washington DC and LA, there are very few examples in my opinion - of the transcendence of form from this period. And it may well be the slavish false colonnades which were gratuitously slapped onto plain boxes that became this styles undoing.

In my opinion New Formalism's self-indulgence with form and its resultant societal disconnect sprung from the very words you have quoted that describes it so well:

"The success of the New Formalism in the America of the 1960s is not hard to account for ; in an affluent society it lends itself to the use of expensive materials (as well as materials that only look expensive); in a society that aspires to culture it flatters the spectator with its references to the past; in a conservative society it suggests that the old forms need only to be restyled to fit them for new needs" (Whiffen p. 260).

In trying to be everything to all, New Formalism in my opinion failed to become itself.

Your profile of New Formalism is a reproduction in its entirety from the marketing blurb on the website of Beckett's Music Centre in LA - which is a reproduction of Teresa Grimes' take of this style.

This to me may not be an ideal approach to un-layering the history of a local response to an imported architectural styles by an insular local profession that continues to mimic form rather than assimilate principles.

Unlike the architecture of the 20's & 30's such as the Pigott building which was built on far deeper beliefs and a more rigorous understanding of form, materials and proportions, and from which it derived its aesthetic longevity, much of the New Formalist architecture, just like our stick-built suburban mac-mansions with their fake ill-proportioned arches, gratuitous keystones and foam colonnades may pose a serious challenge to even the most well-meaning 'troughs of public appreciation'.

Slapping marble on poor form does not legitimize the form or the style it is attempting.

In most large cities, much bad architecture co-mingles with ease among good architecture. I think it is the halo of the good architecture that manages to wash out the bad architecture around it with its light.

In Hamilton where good architecture has been substantially decimated, its halo is weak or often non-existent. Many of us recognize this tragedy, and this drives our strong desire to save anything and everything that is left standing from another age.

Hence often we are consumed by the wrong battles around styles and troughs of aging, while poor planning decisions continues to expand the raw texture of our city.

This was the state of our local architectural profession at the turn of the last century - nothing much has changed in the reading or the making of history a hundred years later in our part of the world:

"the granting of architectural commissions rarely involved an actual competition where the ability of the architect or the quality of the design might be decisive factors. Rather, the key variables in any particular decision usually were family and personal connections, church and club affiliation, and political party membership." ~ The Architect and the Community.

If people like you, Highwater, Paul Wilson or Terry Cooke who have traction with architectural thinking in this city don't lift the public conversation on architecture here, who will?

Burying inconvenient conversations as fast as they begin may no longer be an option if you want Hamilton to grow into a big league city.

Leading such conversations from here on is your call. Failing which the absurdity of aesthetic, social and spatial disconnects will continue to thrive in our city.

Our new farmers market may not be the first or the last of such recent social & spatial disconnects (a,b). What is happening to Ward 3 presently would shame all such disconnects.

Mahesh P. Butani

Comment edited by Mahesh_P_Butani on 2011-11-23 18:24:39

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