a curated selection of Russell Kirk’s perennial essays
A Note from the Editor
“The Architecture of Servitude and Boredom” is Russell Kirk’s critical examination of modern architecture and urban planning in relation to their effect on the person and the community. It was originally delivered as a lecture at the Heritage Foundation in 1982 and subsequently published in several collections of essays. In contrast to the trend toward a “colossal architecture of unparalleled dreariness,” Kirk suggests four general principles of urban restoration based on adaptation to a humane scale. This essay has become a favorite among Kirk’s readers, appealing both to a wide audience of those interested in the vitality and beauty of their neighborhoods as well as specifically to those active in the revival of traditional architectural styles.
Kirk’s concluding challenge to “discover afresh old truths about form, symbol, and pattern” has been taken up by architect Erik Bootsma. In a new commentary for the University Bookman, Mr. Bootsma surveys the American architectural field over the intervening decades and discusses several movements compatible with the principles that Kirk advocated. The Kirk Center is pleased to include Mr. Bootsma’s afterword as a contemporary engagement with Kirk’s thought.
The Architecture of Servitude and Boredom
From The Essential Russell Kirk (ISI Books, 2007)
Britain’s urban riots of July 1981 came to Edinburgh somewhat tardily, but they arrived. Being there at the time, I asked a knowledgeable Scottish engineer, who builds roads but is an architect too, what had caused the Edinburgh troubles.
“Bad architecture,” he told me. He meant that the Edinburgh riot arose in one of the ugliest and most boring of the county-council public housing schemes, afflicted by a ghastly monotony. He did not suggest that the rioters were endowed with good architectural taste; it was rather that the people who dwell in this Edinburgh housing-scheme are perpetually discontented, without quite knowing why—and spoiling for a fight.
It would not be difficult to show that the dreariness of life in “working class” quarters of English and Scottish towns was a principal cause of the burning and the looting and the stoning of police which came to pass in Liverpool and London and other places. It was not that the districts where the riots occurred were architectural survivals from the Bleak Age: no, those quarters were built or rebuilt after the Second World War. But everything in them, including the police stations, was shoddy and badly designed. It has been said that mankind can endure anything except boredom. With great buildings or with small, the architecture of our mass-age, in this latter half of the twentieth century, has been wondrously boring. Also it has been an architecture of sham: the outward symbol of a society which, despite all its protestations of being “free” and “democratic,” rapidly sinks into servility.
What Sir Osbert Sitwell has called “the modern proletarian cosmopolis” has been sliding, politically and architecturally, toward general boredom and general servitude. Talking vaguely of egalitarianism and an “international style,” the “renewers” of our cities have been creating vistas of boredom. Amidst this monotony, the natives are restless. With every month that passes, the rate of serious crimes increases. And what is done to alleviate such discontents? Why, not infrequently the public authorities are moved to relieve the barrenness of their urban landscapes by commissioning somebody to design (for a delightful fee) another piece of “junk” sculpture, product of the blow-torch, to be erected in some place of public assembly. Public funds have been made available lavishly to encourage such artistic frauds. Yet somehow these contributions to a city’s amenities do not restore civic virtue: the rates of murder, rape, and arson continue to rise.
Two decades ago, when Jane Jacobs published her detailed and convincing study The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), I naively assumed that the tide had turned; that our hideous blunders in urban planning were repented by the leaders of business and industry; that we might discern the beginnings of a recovery of the humane scale in our urban life and conceivably in our architecture. Seventeen years ago, when I addressed at St. Louis (then the most decayed city in America) the National Conference of the American Institute of Planners, I fancied that I discerned among some urban planners glimmerings of sense and taste. But I was mistaken.
For the policies of the Johnson administration, in the name of urban “renewal,” created urban deserts and jungles on a scale previously unparalleled in time of peace. George Romney, in his last address as governor of Michigan, declared that the great Detroit riots had been provoked by “urban renewal and federal highway building.” He was accurate; and nobody paid any attention.
Dr. Martin Anderson’s book The Federal Bulldozer (1964) described the Johnsonian folly, and suggested remedies; but only some minor checks upon the process were effected. We continued to dehumanize our cities; if the pace of destruction is somewhat slowed nowadays, that is chiefly for lack of funds. Quite literally, as T. S. Eliot observed concerning education in his Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948), we are “destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.”
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As I endeavored to remind the American Institute of Planners, successful planning must be concerned primarily with the person, and how he thrives under a large plan; with the republic (or the public interest), and what sort of society arises from grand designs. I quote Eliot once more: “One thing to avoid is a universalized planning; one thing to ascertain is the limits of the plannable.”
Assuming, however, that urban planning has no limits, the breed of urban planners have given us the architecture of servitude and boredom. Over the past quarter of a century and more, anarchy and desolation have been the consequences of grandiose pseudo-planning. One is a good deal safer in Palermo, or Tunis, or Fez, than in New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. For those ancient towns, whatever their difficulties and their poverty, remain genuine communities, in which the townsman still is a person, not wholly lost in the faceless crowd; and in which, whatever the degree of civic corruption, still the public authority can maintain a tolerable order. Our urban planners have lost those civic advantages.
Some years ago I received a letter from a young man in Oklahoma, conservatively inclined, who had dropped out of college because his university, like the American urban behemoth, possessed neither imagination nor humane apprehension. I offer you some of his observations on urban planning and architecture.
“First, the quality of the architecture. Organic architecture is being ignored, for the most part, because of its personal and individual quality. Planning for the individual must entail an individual architecture, not international style a la the current mode of Paul Rudolph, Louis I. Kahn, Gordon Bunshaft, and the Eastern boys.
“Second, the sheer size of our cities will kill humane culture. You are acquainted with the Brave New Worlds that our latest periodicals display, such as Paulo Soleri’s ‘City on the Mesa.’ Frightful, but it is coming—the mob loves it; togetherness.
“Third, the automobile is obsolete. It is time we recognized this before the auto makes civilization obsolete . . . The Highway Commissioner must be stopped—or, better, overruled.
“Fourth, the land speculators are the great makers of slumurbia, responsible for the concentration of skyscrapers. All too often they are defended as part of a free economy.
“…It seems to me that we can plan the functional requirements of a city, but the more we plan the culture of cities, meaning especially the architecture of cities, the worse it will get. In other words, plan part of the city, and include as part of the plan a great deal that is unplanned.”
Just so; this seeming paradox is what Eliot meant in his remarks on the limits of planning. In American society, urban planning has tended to reflect the talent of Americans for technological success, but also to reflect their frequent deficiency in the realm of imagination, remarked by Tocqueville a century and a half ago. So we find ourselves in our air-conditioned urban jungle.
* * *
I venture to suggest just now some general principles of urban restoration which might help to redeem this country from boredom and servitude.
First, the architecture of a city and a countryside ought to be adapted to the humane scale. A city is not simply a collectivity; it is a vital continuity, composed of a great many distinct individuals, most of whom have no desire to be precisely like everybody else. Society is not a machine: on the contrary, it is a kind of spiritual corporation; and if treated as a machine, people rebel, politically or personally.
Second, the community called a city must nurture roots, not hack through them. Neighborhoods, voluntary associations, old landmarks, historic monuments—such elements make men and women feel at home. They bind together a community with what Gabriel Marcel calls “diffused gratitude.” Restoration and rehabilitation almost always are preferable to grand reconstitution—even when more expensive, which repair rarely is.
Third, the measure of urban planning should be not commercial gain primarily, but the common good. In miscalled “urban renewal,” the Johnson administration’s “war on poverty” actually was a war against the poor, for the advantage of the speculator and the contractor. Once I spoke to an association of Jewish charities in a large meeting room at the top of Boston’s museum of science. From the windows, we looked across the bay to a district covered by immense high-rise and high-rent apartments, or even more costly condominiums. Only three years earlier, I was told by the rabbi who chaired our meeting, this had been a low-rent district inhabited by poor Jews. The area had not been a slum, he said; and he mused, looking out the window. “Where are they now?” he murmured. “Why, dead, or swept under the rug.” Those words would have been as true in a hundred other American cities.
Fourth, civic restoration must be founded upon the long-established customs, habits, and political institutions of a community. Most convictions and institutions are products of a long historical process of winnowing and filtering. No planner, however ingenious, can make humanity happy by being stretched upon a Procrustean bed of social innovation. And among the deepest longings of humankind is the desire for permanence and security of territory, “a place of one’s own.”
These four very general principles, generally disregarded by the typical planner of the twentieth century, slowly obtain a hearing once more. We may see them at work practically in the successful restoration, for instance, of an eighteenth-century city of high interest—Savannah. But these beneficent concepts have not yet entered the heads of the run-of-the-mill city politician and urban administrator.
Consider Detroit, the city I used to know best. Nobody can take pleasure in knowing Detroit well nowadays. That city’s publicists boast of the Renaissance Center, a group of glittering colossal towers near the river, including a hotel, offices, and a shopping complex—the whole constructed very like a fortress, with redoubts, doubtless in anticipation of a storm by the nearby proletariat, one of these days. From the restaurant at the summit of the Detroit Plaza Hotel, one can behold mile upon mile of decay and obliteration of a city founded at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Nearly all the old neighborhoods and districts of Detroit that I used to explore during my college days have been effaced. Even the old high-domed City Hall has vanished without trace. The central block of the Wayne County Courthouse, with its quadriga and elaborate baroque decoration, still stands—overshadowed by the Renaissance Center; but those in Detroit’s seats of the mighty mean to pull it down, another job for the wrecking contractors.
From the Renaissance Center, one may stroll in relative safety to the cafes of Greektown, less than a hundred yards distant. Beyond that little old quarter only the unwary venture: a glance at a map showing the incidence of violent crimes in Detroit will explain why.
Greektown is safe because the streets are thronged with people day and night; because its two- or three-story buildings are fully inhabited, with old women watching the streets from upper windows; because it is not much afflicted by vacant lots where predators lurk; because a social (and ethnic) community survives there. The humane scale has not been wiped out of existence by civic “planners.”
But the boasted Renaissance Center, externally and internally a triumph of extravagantly bad taste, is a besieged island amidst the swamp of urban savagery. It is designed vertically, not horizontally: so its tenants meet chiefly in elevators, not knowing one another. Certain happy persons, true, have been mightily enriched by this Detroit development—persons with large political influence, which obtained abundant federal funds for the project. One wonders whether, twenty years from now, the Renaissance Center will not have been demolished in its turn.
A few miles north of the Renaissance Center—on a clear day, one can see the district with the naked eye from the top of the Renaissance Center’s towers—there used to lay the old district of Poletown, inhabited by people of eastern European stock. That whole neighborhood has been pulled down, every brick, stone, and stick of it, to supply a site (mostly parking lots) for a General Motors plant. Thousands of people, many of them elderly, nearly all of them in narrow circumstances, were abruptly uprooted. They protested vehemently, to no avail. Where did they go? Some doubled up in slums—though they were not slum-folk before. Others presumably settled in new low-income housing developments, commonly uglier and more dangerous than the older slums. Two Catholic churches were demolished, despite the resistance of pastors and congregations. One protesting pastor died, a few months later, of a broken heart; newspapers and their writers to the editor praised him—after his funeral.
This scandalous “clearance,” widely and unfavorably publicized, was made possible by an unholy alliance. The chief powers in this league were former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young; General Motors planners, said to have been bullied by Mayor Young; and the late Cardinal Dearden, archbishop of Detroit, who was given to much talk about injustice toward the poor (that is, the abstract poor at large, not the poor of Poletown), and all that. When General Motors tardily offered to move one of Poletown’s churches to a new site, the Cardinal rejected the offer and insisted upon demolition—to the astonishment and rage of pastor and parishioners.
It is all a rather nasty story, deserving of a short sardonic book. So Poletown is gone; and the decent folk of small means who lived there have been shuffled off to the architecture of boredom and servitude. We may be sure they’ll not spend their declining years in any Renaissance Center. Again, the power of eminent domain and plenty of public money were involved in this successful assault on community and the humane scale of living. Are people treated more arbitrarily, with greater disregard of their rights in property, in a socialist dictatorship?
After this fashion, even in these United States, there takes form the future collectivism, like one of H. G. Wells’ utopias or Aldous Huxley’s dystopia: the countryside almost wholly depopulated; the great bulk of the population packed into smart, shoddy, comfortless, impersonal “housing developments”; and looming above this landscape and manscape, the blank-walled towers of the administrative class. The architecture of this future domination—or, rather, this emerging domination—retains nothing whatsoever that wakes the imagination or satisfies the memory. One may predict that in this domination of utilitarianism, life will be unsafe increasingly, as well as unsatisfying; and that despite an outward appearance of material accomplishment, real incomes will diminish steadily: architectural impoverishment and general impoverishment are joined historically. Jacquetta Hawkes’ fable “The Unites” represents the final degradation of such a collectivism.
In that tale, Miss Hawkes (Mrs. J. B. Priestley) describes a future society from which all privacy, all art (except degraded vestiges), all beauty of architecture, and all symbols have been stripped away, together with all belief in the divine. Production and consumption—though reduced to bare subsistence levels—are the obsessions of the folk who call themselves the Unites. I quote a passage from this fable:
“Perhaps it was this utilitarianism more than anything else which made Unite existence fall so far below the worst of human life in former days. Peasants of old had lived from birth to death almost as helplessly, with almost as little hope of escape, but their life’s course had been decked with fantasy and symbol, with simple art and ritual, with very many things that were of no use in daily life except to make it human and significant. Now utilitarianism itself was at its most base, for needs and expectations had been so much reduced that all were perfectly satisfied. To have no desire is far more dreadful than for desire to remain unfulfilled.”
The population of our cities is not very far from that condition. When all interesting architecture has fallen into the limbo of lost things, presumably the rising generation will raise no objection to the architecture of servility and boredom, because they will know no alternative. Desire will have starved to death. As Jacquetta Hawkes implies, architecture, like all art and all science, arises originally out of the religious impulse; and when a culture’s religious quest and yearning have expired, then architecture, like all the other aspects of a culture, falls into decadence. Thus the total condition of our urban life and the dreariness of our architecture are not separate phenomena.
* * *
But I must permit some cheerfulness to break in, at this point. Here and there in this land, effective resistance is offered to the evangels of architectural boredom. Two decades ago, it was proposed to sweep away the old streets of Galena, Illinois—one of our surviving historic towns with a good deal of interesting architecture—in order to build supermarkets and “modernize” generally. After a hard fight, in which I took some hand, the developers were defeated.
Through years of protest and litigation, we succeeded in one major contest against utilitarian city planners, in a really big city: the defeat of the Riverfront Expressway at New Orleans, which would have blighted the French Quarter and done other mischief. You can read about that fight in a book by Richard Baumbach and William Borah, The Second Battle of New Orleans (1981). The advocates of preservation of our architectural patrimony do obtain some hearing today—after most of that patrimony has been flattened.
Preservation of good buildings, good streets, and good districts is only one aspect of our struggle against the architecture of servility and boredom. New construction, whether downtown or in the suburbs, looms larger. High costs of all building unite with the sorry limitations of most architects to produce barren public buildings, office towers, and “motor hotels”; while the condominiums and the tract-houses employ third-rate materials and fourth-rate interior decoration. Ever since the Second World War, the old arts of building have lain in the sere and yellow leaf. Facile apologies for shoddy and dreary work are offered—as, in Waugh’s novel Helena (1950), the architects and sculptors of the Emperor Constantine offer him excuses for not building a triumphal arch in the old grand style: “That is not the function of the feature, sire,” and similar jargon. At length Constantine demands of them, “Can you do it?” And those architects are compelled to answer, “No.” So it is in our age: a principal reason why our buildings are ugly is that our architects and craftsmen have quite forgotten how to construct handsome buildings. Incidentally, I commend to everyone interested in the relationships between social decay and the decline of architecture and the arts a slim book published in 1952 by Bernard Berenson: The Arch of Constantine, or The Decline of Form.
About all that can be said of most recent building, on every scale, in this country is this: American building is not quite so wretched as building today in most of the rest of the world. Recently I spent a few hours—as much time as I could endure—in the City of London, once dominated by St. Paul’s and the Tower. Here Julius Caesar built his fortress on the Thames, and the hideous new museum of the City of London is full of Roman artifacts. The City, for centuries past the financial center of British Empire and Commonwealth, was badly smashed by German bombs; strange to say, some of the damage still has not been cleared up. But the City has been rebuilt, of really nasty gray concrete, already badly streaked, obscuring the great dome of Wren’s cathedral, elbowing aside the Tower, supplanting the old picturesque confusion of the streets by a new ugly confusion worse confounded. This “Barbican Scheme” betrays the failure of intellect and imagination throughout Britain since the Second World War. What has been done in the neighborhood of the Barbican is a disgrace to England so embarrassing that few people mention it. Even in a Communist state, such an architectural atrocity would not be permitted, and the engulfing of the famous cathedral by dismal office buildings would be rejected. Surely it is not from Britain today that a revival of architectural imagination can be expected. Nor do we encounter imaginative building in Germany, France, Italy, or Scandinavia. Everywhere it is the architecture of the mass-age, so far as “lodging” goes; and the architecture of the Bureaucrats’ Epoch, so far as public buildings are in question.
Well, do I give you naught for your comfort? Do we descend steadily, and now somewhat speedily, toward a colossal architecture of unparalleled dreariness, and a colossal state of unparalleled uniformity—at best Tocqueville’s “democratic despotism”? Will all of us labor under a profound depression of spirits (in part conscious, in part below the level of consciousness) because of the boring and servile architecture about us? And will the society now taking form in America resign itself to a parallel barrenness of soul and mind, under a political domination of unimaginative and complacent bureaucrats and managers?
No, not necessarily. Let us leave historical determinism to the Marxists and other ideologues. The courses of nations depend upon the energy and the talents of particular individuals—and upon Providence, always inscrutable. It remains true even in this mass-age of ours that individual genius and courage—or, at least, the imagination and boldness of a handful of men and women—may leaven the lump of dullness and apathy, all across the land. In practical politics, something of that sort has begun to occur among us.
From causes which at present no one guesses, conceivably there may come about a reinvigoration of of urban planning and of architecture and of the humane scale. Rather as the current discoveries about the Shroud of Turin conceivably may work a widespread renewal of belief in the literal resurrection of the body, so people at the end of the twentieth century may discover afresh the old truths about form, symbol, and pattern in architecture and in urban living.
The architectural and artistic charlatan, leagued with the spoilsman and the bureaucrat, may be thrust aside, abruptly, by a new breed of architects and artists endowed with the moral imagination. There have occurred ages when an architecture of vigor and freedom flourished, nurtured by myth and symbol and human confidence. Given faith and hope, it is yet imaginable that we may draw upon the architectural well of the past to bring into being an architecture (in the larger sense of that word) strong and humane. I have endeavored to diagnose the architectural malady; others must prescribe the remedies.
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