IN a recent number of the London Athenæum there appeared a review of a new translation of Arabian poetry. A passage in this review is worth quoting. because, in commenting on the conditions of civilization which affect that form of art called poetry, it uses language equally applicable to that other form of art called architecture, and is thus unconsciously significant of the close analogy existing between the various forms of art in which man has expressed his higher emotions. The passage, with a few verbal changes, mainly in substituting the word “architecture” and its derivatives for the word “ poetry ” and its derivatives, is as follows : —
“ The architecture of a people, who have preserved their natural character and simplicity, and have so far learnt nothing from other civilizations, must always possess a strong fascination. As soon as the period of study and learning arrives we obtain, indeed, forms of architecture and poetry beautiful in themselves, and full of the thoughts and inventions, the spirit and characteristics, of the best works of many nations, but we lose the simplicity, the unaffected naturalness, the fresh outlook upon life and nature, which belong to primitive races. The freshness and sincerity which are exhibited in the architectural works of such races arise from the fact that they formed their styles for themselves, with no assistance from other nations, and developed form naturally and out of necessity, with no admixture of preconceptions derived from books and study. They did not suffer from the difficulties which beset the modern architect; they had no models in other styles to teach them to affect impressions which they did not feel ; there was no searching after originality with them, since the native and instinctive ideas and forms of art had not been exhausted in their time; and though they spared no pains to attain the utmost degree of artistic finish in their work, they were not ever striving after the discovery of new motifs, or rare combinations and tricks of design, to render their work original and interesting.”
This quotation may fairly introduce what I have to say on the present condition of architecture. It is impossible justly to study this theme without constant comparison of the attitude, functions, and methods of the architects, who produced what we now recognize as the historical styles, with those of the modern architects, who, far more learned and versatile, far better equipped, are contending with projects of building far more complex, in an atmosphere infinitely less favorable to purely artistic achievement.
We may follow the development of architectural form from the hypostyle temple of Karnac to the Parthenon, from the Parthenon to the Pantheon, from the Pantheon to St. Sophia, from St. Sophia to St. Mark’s, from St. Mark’s to the cathedral of Cologne, and thence to the basilica of St. Peter in Rome and of St. Paul in London, and can see in these a very frank and undistorted series of reflections of the progress of the human mind through consecutive civilizations. They are monuments of a succession of well-defined styles, one following the other in logical sequence, and, in a large degree, according to the laws of structural evolution, But after St. Paul came the era of books, prints, and photographs. Since then we have gathered, assimilated, and classified the fruits of all previous civilizations; we have invented a science of æsthetics, which pretends to analyze the very germs of art, to reveal the secret of the spirit of architecture, to discover the mental processes which were unconsciously followed by our less instructed but more fortunate predecessors ; we have, in short, become learned, and the architectural result is chaos, — or, at least, what seems chaos to us, who view the results of modern architecture in the distorted and violent perspective of proximity. Possibly, — nay, probably, — to our successors this inchoate, nebulous mass may resolve itself, not into a style in the historical sense, but into a sort of architectural constellation, in which may be seen, in a manner, some reflection of the spirit of the times in which we live.
The profession of architecture is now reproached because it has failed to establish " a style,” because it has not agreed upon a system, because its followers do not move in parallel lines onward towards a consummation of art commensurate with our civilization, in the same way that contemporaneous science has moved towards the development of the electric telegraph, of electric lighting, of the telephone; because at our annual conventions the president of the British or American Institute of Architects is not able, like the president of the National or International Academy of Sciences, to report in his address a definite and orderly progress of achievement.
But architecture is a fine art upon a basis of science ; if it were a pure science, we could emulate the electrician, the geologist, the political economist, the naturalist, the civil engineer, and report, like them, an annual record of consistent advance in all that relates to questions of construction and practical building methods. Modern architecture, as a fine art, cannot make its annual boast of improvement, for reasons which are well worth investigating. But, on the other hand, Callicrates in his day could have reported to Pericles, if required, a definite progress in the development of the Doric order within any twelvemonth of his career; Apollodorus, in like manner, might have reported to Trajan a corresponding progress in the architectural use of the arch; Anthemius, of Tralles, could easily have described to Justinian a clear advance in domical architecture in any successive half dozen years of the reign ; the Abbé Suger could have traced distinct stages of growth in all the details of Gothic art from year to year, if St. Louis had needed any such statement; and Marie de Medicis would not in vain have ordered from Philibert de Lorme a report of annual progress in French Renaissance, nor would Charles II. have been without response if he had thought it worth while to summon Sir Christopher to give account of the conversion of the orders in English hands. Those were days when styles were visibly unfolding towards perfection ; when the practice of architecture broadened from precedent to precedent without distraction or bias ; when temple followed temple, church followed church, château followed château, in a reasonable development and natural growth of architectural forms, confined within practicable limits. The study of the architect was limited to a type which all understood, and there was an orderly, intelligible, and harmonious evolution of styles. The forms in vogue, by means of a series of practical experiments in a succession of structures of the same sort, adapted to a comparatively simple condition of civilization, underwent a process of purification and natural enrichment. They gradually approached, and finally achieved, technical perfection and consistent harmony. At length, when the inherent capacities of the style were exhausted by use (the human mind declining to rest upon, or, indeed, to recognize, the attainment of perfection, but demanding ever new things, fresh surprises), it was by degrees overlaid and overwrought with invention, it declined with laborious splendor, and, in due time, gave place to a new set of forms, which were introduced in a political conquest, perhaps, like that of the Normans in England ; in a religious revolution, like that of St. Bernard in France; in an intellectual revival, like that of the Renaissance in Italy ; or by the influence of a brilliant court, like that of Elizabeth or Louis XIV., demanding an especial expression of splendor or triumph. And these new forms, in their turn, were developed to completion by the same processes of consecutive experiment in a narrow field of enterprise, and constituted in each case a style, an exponent of manners and customs, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, between two brief eras of doubt, called, in the history of art, eras of transition.
Now in the modern architectural chaos there appears to be a notable exception in the work of the French people. In Paris, archæology and the theory of architecture are taught in an official school of fine arts, which is the guardian of the national traditions. In this school the basis of study is the classic formula or dogma of the orders received in the fifteenth century from Italy, and since then adorned and vivified so as to form a great body of national precedent, reflecting the advance and character of French civilization through all its stages. Architecture is in this way officially organized and kept in a steady line of academic development. Thus confined, French genius is not, as elsewhere, exhausted in experiments, or spread thin over fields of enterprise too extensive for a display of effective progress ; nor is it distracted by capricious archæological revivals. This concentration of energy expresses itself in a degree of refinement in detail, a degree of clearness and directness of thought, a degree of self-restraint and repose, which are quite unapproached in the practice of any other nation. Under this dispensation technical qualities of design are naturally carried to the highest perfection. Refinement is often pressed to the verge of effeminacy. The highest results obtained under this system are, on the one hand, extreme dignity and repose, as in the Palace of Justice ; and, on the other, a poetic and florid, but always a correct, brilliancy, as in the Hôtel de Ville, of Paris, and the New Opera. If the architectural conventionalism which it fosters is sometimes commonplace? it is always correct, never illiterate, and often scholarly. If it disciplines individuality of thought, so that the style, in the hands of inferior artists, becomes unduly uniform and uninteresting, it protects common work from the dangerous vagaries of invention, and keeps it pure. Originality is not sought after with the feverish eagerness which must be the prevailing characteristic of work done under a condition of liberty. The school, in fact, is a Propaganda of faith in an arbitrary type of art. While it narrows the range of expression, it encourages academic precision, fosters beautiful invention in detail, and leads to a study of ornament far more delicate and precious in its results than is elsewhere possible. As a school for practice and education, it maintains a conspicuous advantage. Viollet-le-Duc, with all his knowledge and all his convictions, eloquently urged in favor of a return to Greek and mediæval methods in design, was unable to create a successful revolt from the national styles as established under this official system. On the whole, modern French Renaissance, with its vast accumulation of motifs, resulting from five centuries of constant use in the hands of a naturally inventive and imaginative race, constitutes a language of art, at once homogeneous and copious. If its essential paganism makes it less fit for the expression of romantic, picturesque, or religious thought, and perhaps, by reason of its academical character, less adaptable for domestic purposes, this quality renders it more elastic than any other for monumental and civic uses. It can be gay or grave, profuse or severe, stately or poetic, without straining its resources of expression, and it still continues to reflect the spirit of the times with the same fidelity that has characterized it in all its historic phases from the style of Francis I. to that of Napoleon III.; yet, when used out of France, it becomes an unfruitful exotic, and degenerates into cold conventionalism. Its blossoms invariably die in crossing the English Channel, and when imported to this side of the Atlantic there is nothing left of it but branches and withered leaves.
English architecture, on the other hand, is still groping after a fit type of national expression. If in France, under the patronage of government, there is a living style consistent with national traditions, a style still to a certain extent receiving accretions from the spirit of the times, thus serving as an index of national character, in England, without official guidance, liberty of thought is unrestrained except by the unrecognized influence of custom. The result is that the elements of design, which are repressed by the tyranny of a refined scholasticism on the other side of the channel, find the fullest expression, while the study of detail and ornament, to which French genius has been compelled to confine itself, is essentially wanting. Thus, English architecture abounds in picturesque, romantic, and religious thought. Indeed, through these sentiments alone, it has occasionally succeeded in entering into the difficult regions of noble architecture; but, with certain exceptions quite rare enough to prove the rule, as in the Banqueting House at Whitehall, in St. George’s Hall at Liverpool, in some of the earlier work of Barry in the club houses of London, and in some of Thompson’s Greek work in Edinburgh and Glasgow, English essays in classic types of architecture have hitherto proved cold and colorless, if not absolutely incorrect and vulgar. The orders have been used rather as an inflexible geometrical expression than as a language of art. In fact, the English have failed where the French have succeeded ; they have succeeded where the French have failed. But the English failure is the more disastrous to the rank of English architecture because its vain attempts to vitalize and nationalize the classic formula have been frequent enough to constitute a characteristic feature. On the other hand, the severe academic training of the French architects has preserved them from conspicuous error in any branch of picturesque or romantic effects which they have attempted. The French, in short, cannot be ungrammatical; but there is no street in a modern English town which is not full of offenses against correctness. Notwithstanding this, the history of modern architecture in England, though its condition of artistic liberty has never given it its Augustan era, to correspond with that of Shakespeare or Addison in literature, attracts our interest and claims our sympathies to a greater degree than that of any other nation. It abounds in episodes of ingenuous and gallant effort. Twenty years ago it became necessary, in the interest of peace and quiet, to exclude by formal by-laws the discussion of the relative merits of classic and of Gothic art in the societies. The profession in England was divided into hostile camps by an irrepressible conflict of architectural principles. The Gothicists, by the chance of war, gained the day, and held the field undisputed for some fifteen years. This warfare, however grotesque it may now appear to us, who, by conviction and not by indifference, have become catholic, bears witness to a sincerity and zeal on pure questions of principle in art which are unparalleled in history. Indeed, these are among the best fruits of liberty.
The main characteristic of modern English architecture consists in its series of revivals. In the absence of academic taste, guided by official schools, the architect is under the dominion of a prevailing fashion, which, while it lasts, is as powerful as if promulgated by an edict of government. He aims less to please with old forms than to astonish with new. Any strong mind or hand in the profession which is fortunate enough to make a happy revival of a style or phase of architecture, which had until then been laid aside and forgotten, establishes a starting point for a host of young imitators, who at length constitute a school, numerously and enthusiastically followed : and thus a fashion in design takes possession of contemporary art and has its run through a course of years, until some other guiding spirit awakens a new revival and makes a new fashion, which succeeds until its capacity for producing novelty has been exhausted. The movements which have had the most enduring effect are the Gothic revival, the Queen Anne revival, the free classic revival ; and now, under the impulse of the new war office competition, we shall see, perhaps, another attempt to acclimate the French Renaissance in England, to do service for a succession of years wherever English thought and English speech prevail.
It is a peculiarity of these successive experiments that they are revivals of completed systems, of forms incapable of further progression. Viollet-le-Duc justly observed that a prosperous career in art can start only from primitive types, of which the powers of development are unexhausted by use. The practical effect of the revival of a style, which has had its era of glory and its associations of history, is to give to the architect an opportunity to exhibit his ingenuity in adapting old forms to new uses, and to display a facility of quotation which is often mistaken for genius, but which is really little more than memory, cultivated and effective indeed, leading him “ to affect impressions which he does not feel,” but not touching the springs of life in art. Meanwhile, the public are interested in it simply as they are interested in any other new fashion: not because it has in it the healthy breath of life, but because it is in vogue, and has been made reputable by architectural usage. Few practitioners have courage or force enough not to follow this usage. They are bound by it hand and foot while it lasts, and its powers are tested and strained to the uttermost limits by being forced into service often uncongenial to its natural capacity.
It is very noteworthy that the first and greatest of the English revivals, that of mediæval art, had its basis in an awakened conscience. Pugin and Ruskin preached the gospel of this revival ; they asked for a return to the era of truth in art; they asked that architectural expression should be controlled by structure, and that decoration should follow the methods of nature. The Gothic revival is the only instance in history of a moral revolution in art. On the other hand, the revival of the style, called of Queen Anne, was a revolution effected under the influence of a literary sentiment. If the genius of Norman Shaw struck the first blow, the genius of Thackeray gave the movement inspiration and character. Both revivals were patriotic, and would have been impossible if not associated with phases of English history. But neither conscience, nor historic sentiment, nor patriotism, can make art; they can give character and variety, they can supply motifs, they can minister to emotions and inspire poetry, but they cannot make a style. Hence these English fashions, which have had loud and sometimes effective imitations in the practice of American architects, have apparently had no permanent influence in improving the practice of architecture either in England or here. They have made dilettanti among the public and virtuosi among the architects, but they have not created artists. There is plenty of archæology, but no inspiration, in an architectural fashion which is hampered by the necessity of strict conformity. The Gothic revival gave opportunity for innumerable experiments ; for many years it preoccupied the minds of the Anglo-Saxon people, and was ingeniously and sedulously adapted to every possible habit of modern life which could be ministered to by architectural forms. But this adaptation, though the writers have called its results “ Victorian Gothic,” did not advance Gothic art one step towards the creation of a modern English style, because it did not develop any capacity for expansion in this new service. Its potency for new expressions was speedily exhausted without satisfying the requirements of common sense or meeting the practical conditions to which it was applied. It was replaced — not, it is important to note, through any process of logical succession, by the accident of the Jacobean, or Queen Anne, or free classic revival, which at every point was an offense to the architectural morality engendered by the preachments of Pugin and Ruskin, and possibly a result of them, as the license of Charles II. naturally followed the rigid Puritanism of the Commonwealth. This revival also is proving unsuccessful, because the capacities of the type had been already exhausted before the revivalist made his first quotation. Neither of these types permitted expansion or progress; and the rehabilitations of them have proved to be merely sterile incidents in the history of modern architecture. They have not, so far as we can see, furnished to the English civilization of the nineteenth century any fitting and adequate architectural expositions.
These revivals, as I have said, have found a large and by no means an unintelligent expression in the United States. But the national genius of our architects and their freedom from the tyranny of historic precedent have encouraged them to a far wider range of experiment in architectural forms. Out of these experiments hitherto there have as yet come no definite promises for art. But the higher education of the practitioner and the more exacting demand for studied and grammatical expression have in these latter days, especially in those parts of the country where the better civilization obtains, already practically supplanted the illiterate products of our earlier condition with better work. They have succeeded in establishing a higher technical standard of performance without loss of that quality of intelligent liberty in which lie our greatest hopes and our largest promise. The service of our architectural schools is already amply justified by their results. Their graduates have spread abroad in Western as well as Eastern States, and wherever they have had opportunity of practice they have sown good seed, and are steadily rendering obsolete the normal American types of raw and undisciplined invention, of audacious exaggeration and caprice. This is the first and most wholesome step towards rational reform. We have had good practice and experience in following the English fashions, but here their reign has never been undisputed. By the entire absence of local traditions ; by the entire absence of monuments more ancient than those which we call " old colonial ” (which we are recognizing for a little while in our practice to the extent of its limited but respectable capacity) ; by the entire absence of any official prejudice, of any venerable conventionalities, of any national system of instruction in architecture, we are left in a condition of freedom which is fatal to art while we are ignorant, but capable of great developments when we are educated. In regard to the use of precedent we are essentially" eclectic and cosmopolitan. But education is enabling us to accord a proper degree of respect to the formulas and traditions of the Old World, to avail ourselves of them without bias, and to use them with a freedom which is becoming characteristic of our work. We are in position to profit by conventionalities without being bound by them. If our heritage of liberty has made us impatient of academical discipline, it has made us peculiarly hospitable to unprejudiced impressions of beauty and fitness. Our national offense has been license and insolent disrespect of venerable things, arising from want of appreciation and ignorance. We have carried experiment and invention in matters of design further than any other people. We are, as a new nation, a nation of builders. No part of the history of civilization is so abounding in architectural expressions, good, bad, and indifferent, as that of the American people. In quantity, certainly, we have in a given time accomplished more in this field than any other people. Our distinctive practical necessities, our mechanical genius in the matter of building appliances, the nature of our building materials, the exigencies of climate, and the characteristics of social life have created certain corresponding distinctive qualities in our architecture ; but they have not established as yet anything approaching that coherent body of architectural forms which constitutes a style.
The architect, in the course of his career, is called upon to erect buildings for every conceivable purpose, most of them adapted to requirements which have never before arisen in history. Practical considerations of structure, economy, and convenience preoccupy his mind, and his purely and conventionally architectural acquirements are subject to frequent eclipse in practice. His great architectural models give him no hint, and stand too far apart from modern sympathies and use to serve him for inspiration and guidance. Railway buildings of all sorts ; churches with parlors, kitchens, and society rooms; hotels on a scale never before dreamt of ; public libraries, the service of which is fundamentally different from any of their predecessors; office and mercantile structures, such as no preëxisting conditions of professional and commercial life have ever required; school-houses and college buildings, whose necessary equipment removes them far from the venerable examples of Oxford and Cambridge ; skating-rinks, theatres, exhibition buildings of vast extent., casinos, jails, prisons, municipal buildings, music halls, apartment houses, and all the other structures which must be accommodated to the complicated conditions of modern society, — these force the architect to branches of study to which his books, photographs, and sketches give him no direct aid. Out of these eminently practical considerations of planning must grow elevations, of which the essential character, if they are honestly composed, can have no precedent in architectural history.
Even though a prevailing fashion or revival may give a color of unity to contemporary buildings erected under such conditions, what wonder if there is the most perplexing variety of architectural expression ? What wonder if the superficial critic, seeking for a characteristic type and finding none, cries out that art is dead, that there is no American style ? What wonder if he decries the American architect as a creature without convictions ? In fact, the canons of criticism which guided the opinions of our forefathers under narrower conditions, and which led them to pronounce judgment with the formulas “ correct” or “ not correct,”are no longer applicable. The art which of all the fine arts is the only one dependent on practical considerations must be a free art, from the nature of the case. It cannot be confined within the bounds of any historic styles and remain true to its functions ; it cannot meet the requirements of modern life in a straitjacket of antiquarian knowledge and archæological forms. The functions of the critic have become far more difficult, and require a far more catholic, unprejudiced, and judicial mind, a far wider range of knowledge and sympathy, than could possibly grow up under the teachings or examples of Vitruvius or Palladio, Philibert de Lorme or Sir William Chambers, Sir Christopher Wren or the brothers Adam, Pugin or Ruskin, or any other prophet or expounder of ancient principles, with their rigid doctrines of exclusions and their exact formulas of practice in design. It is an era of experiment and invention, of boldness and courage. Conscientious fidelity to style in the merely archæological sense no longer leads to great and successful achievements, because the requirements of modern buildings are far beyond its capacity. The narrow city façade, crowded with necessary windows, elbowed by uncongenial neighbors, restricted by municipal regulations, with story piled upon story, and the whole hanging over a void filled with enormous sheets of glass, the bête noir of architectural composition, is a defiance to all rule and precedent in art. Iron construction can be adjusted neither according to the elegant precepts of Vitruvius nor the more elastic principles of mediæval art. At every step the architect is confronted with problems which cannot be solved by the suggestions of his library and sketch-book. He is compelled to employ new devices, to invent, to reconcile incongruous conditions, to strain the conventionalities of architectural design beyond their capacity, to produce new things. The result, in the absence of a wise and thorough architectural training in the fundamental principles of art, is confusion of types, illiterate combinations, an evident breathlessness of effort and striving for effect, with the inevitable loss of repose, dignity, and style. The practitioner becomes reckless of rules, and, despairing of being able to please, he aims to astonish.
Under these conditions, a new style of architecture — a style in the sense of the great historical styles, as those of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Romanesque, mediæval Saracenic, and early Renaissance periods — is impossible. But good architecture is possible. The progress of architectural knowledge has already begun to enable us to have our own revivals, and the experiments we are trying in this respect, being free from the prejudices of patriotic sentiment which I believe to be a serious hindrance to the advance of English art, are curious and not without promise. Among these minor revivals, that of the Romanesque forms of Auvergne, in which the vigorous round arches, the robust columns, the strong capitals, and the rich but semi-barbaric sculpture are tempered with reminiscences of the finer Roman art, is at the moment the most interesting and perhaps the most promising. Mr. H. H. Richardson deserves great credit for his persistency in pressing this style towards the limits of its possibilities. It has the advantage of being an early and uncorrupted type, and it will be interesting to see in what direction and to what end its apparently unexhausted capacities will lead us, by the course of constant and intelligent experiment to which it is now subjected. But these experiments are often open to the charge of an affectation of barbarism and heaviness inconsistent with our civilization. They have hardly broken loose from the bonds of precedent in the style, or shown signs of acquiring new elements with any tendency to that delicacy and refinement which are necessary to satisfy modern culture, or to that elasticity essential to modern requirements. This revival will cease to be a masquerade, and will be in the healthy path of natural development, as soon as it begins to show a capacity for adjustment to our material and moral conditions. Whether it will succeed in reaching this stage, or whether it will presently begin to fatigue by monotony and so fall into disuse, there is no question that the experiment is based upon sounder principles than that of any other now under study. To take a larger view of the present attitude of American architecture, there is no doubt in my own mind that all the conditions are favorable to developments of the greatest interest. With thorough education, the future of our architectural practice is secure, and though " the American style ” may never be realized, style will undoubtedly be a feature in our work, and will give it high rank in the history of art. Indeed, our best achievements are already showing how a certain unconventional art of the highest sort may be an essential part of the science of good building, and are not surpassed, in respect to genuine promise, by any contemporary work whatever in any part of the world.
This essay began with a quotation explaining how the necessary equipment of the modern architect, his organized business appliances, his library, his prints, his photographs, his familiarity with the historic styles in all their phases of development, glory, and decline, his conscious æsthetics, — his study, in short, has predisposed him to insincerity and affectation, and prevented him from competing on equal terms with the creators of the great styles. There is another element of difficulty which it is important to note. Our predecessors, before the era of learning, had the good fortune to be sustained by public sympathy. Criticism they felt to be an active, incessant, and intelligent force. There could be no such thing among them as pedantry. The language of art was a common language which all understood ; it was therefore used with force, correctness, and discretion, and broke naturally into poetry and songs. The result was that the builder designed, not better than he knew, but under correction, and with the knowledge that his efforts would be appreciated at their full value; he was encouraged, surrounded, sustained, admonished, and taught by public opinion. If, in this atmosphere, he was a leader, it was solely by force of genius working in familiar paths. The people were all handiworkers. Fingers, brains, and heart wrought together at the forge, in the stone-cutter’s yard, with the weaver’s shuttle, at the jeweler’s bench, with the carver’s chisel, in the armorer’s shop. The mind of every artisan was prompt to conceive, and his hand was quick to execute variations of form in his own craft, to give new interest and individuality to his work, however humble. It was natural
Was er ershaflt mit seiner Hand.
This constant exercise of intelligent invention made him sensitive to every expression of art, and he was not indifferent when his brethren, the stone-carvers, or painters, or workers in wood or metal or glass, united their best individual handiwork in an architectural symphony. Under this pressure, with this powerful correlation of forces behind, the growth of definite architectural styles was inevitable.
It was no less inevitable, in the progress of civilization, that labor-saving machinery should take the place of handiwork ; that artisans should become mechanics or tenders of machinery, in whose product their best qualities of mind and heart could have no concern whatever. Thus the common artistic instinct, which, in the aggregate, constituted intelligent public sympathy in Athens, in Ravenna, in the Isle de France, does not exist in Manchester and New York. The architect is left to work out his problems alone, “ with difficulty and labor hard,” unsustained by appreciative recognition and criticism, buried in the study of ancient precedent and in the contemplation of theories of design. The fundamental motive of his work is changed, and the best results of his labors, more or less affected by the pale cast of thought, are set up in the public places in complete silence. Criticism, if any, has become indifferent and careless. The architect is neither praised for his good points, nor blamed for his bad. Few care whether they are good or bad. They are not understood. In this emergency the architects unite in societies, for the sake of professional fellowship and mutual encouragement. They form a caste apart; they are no longer the leaders and exponents of public sentiment and thought in questions of art; no longer agents in the development of a style. Not having the correction, the stimulus, and assistance of public knowledge and interest to keep them in a straight path of fruitful development, they make devious excursions in new fields, they “ affect impressions which they do not feel,” they masquerade in various capricious disguises, all with the hope of astonishing the ignorant and arousing the indifferent.
Under these circumstances, it is much to be feared that the advance of the profession in these modern days is, to a large extent, a progress of architecture into regions inaccessible to the public. The most intelligent laymen do not pretend to appreciate its motives or to comprehend its results. But without their aid architecture cannot advance.
The members of the profession have begun to say one to the other, Let us cease this process of fruitless sophistication ; let us study how we can excite intelligent interest. This point once gained, we shall at length have established a standard of performance which, if advanced by us in our practice with wise persistency and honest, straightforward endeavor, may at length give us a public whose good opinion will be worth earning. We have discovered that mere caprice, mere novelty, will not answer. This may amuse the vulgar for a while, but it makes the judicious grieve. When in our schools and in our practice we can succeed in cultivating a fine artistic feeling and in establishing really catholic ideals in design without falling into dilettanteism or into habits of mere imitation ; when we can use our knowledge of good examples, modern and ancient, so that it will not betray us into quotations for the sake of quotations, into correctness for the sake of correctness ; when we can work without caprice and design reasonably, so that every detail shall be capable of logical explanation and defense, without detriment to a pervading spirit of unity; when we can be refined without weakness, bold without brutality, learned without pedantry ; when, above all, we can content ourselves with simplicity and purity, and refrain from affectations; we shall have conquered the indifference of the people, and shall have accomplished more than has yet been done in modern England with all its archæology, or in modern France with all its academical discipline, but we shall have done no more than should result from an intelligent use of our precious and unparalleled condition of liberty in art.
Henry Van Brunt.