Monday, August 09, 2010

Aesthetic Succession

One of the most curious things about beauty is that it changes. There are very few universal rules about beauty, and whether you're asking the opinions of two contemporaries or two generations, you're likely to get different answers. But although the definition of an ideal may vary, there are cycles and themes that come and go and return. This evolving and revolving aesthetic sense plays a big part in my role as an historian, particularly when discussing architecture and the changing face of Spartanburg.

I conduct downtown walking tours in which the participants get to see photographs of Spartanburg over the years. A lot has changed in our town's 225 year history, like it does anywhere after over two centuries. Change isn't inherently bad or good, and I'll be one of the first to cheer when something is improved by renovation or replacement. But a lot of the decisions in Spartanburg's past were made with a skewed idea about what constituted improvement. Some of those decisions seem to have been little more that psychotic spasms; the result of decision makers unhappy with the past or present who chose to take it out on bricks and mortar.

Perhaps Americans are particularly susceptible to wanting "out with the old and in with the new." Perhaps it's some kind of consumerist brainwashing that sees "new" as, by definition, an improvement. Perhaps our immigrant ancestors left us with the idea that if you can't get something just how you want it, don't fuss with trying to improve it, just start again with a clean slate. Or perhaps the appeal of newness is itself just another ideal that comes and goes... like the return of retro styles and revival architecture.

One of the clearest instances in which I see the revolving door of beauty is in the reaction people have to Spartanburg's courthouses. Currently, there is an idyllic grassy and shade-covered lot to the south of the county courthouse on Magnolia Street. It has the feel of a forgotten park without paths or picnic tables. This was the location of Spartanburg's prior courthouse, built in 1891 in a grand Victorian take on Romanesque Revival architecture, itself a remix of Romanesque architecture, which was a medieval resurgence of Roman style architecture... the lineage goes on and on. I have yet to meet a Spartanburg resident who is happy that the old courthouse is gone or who thinks it was ugly. Victorian architecture is adored now as a detail-rich feast of textures and rhythms and asymmetry. Spartanburg collectively mourned when the Arthur Irwin house burned recently and the few examples of it elsewhere in the city are treasured.

Not so in 1957. "[The Courthouse] is a monstrosity... and cannot be but an object of shame for the county." So spake the Spartanburg Herald in December of 1957. Despite unoccupied rooms on the third floor and a solid building free of major problems, by 1955 the county was well on its way planning a new courthouse, nominally due to a few crowded offices and an inconvenient floorplan. It was the post-war period and Spartanburg was doing its best to keep a fresh face as suburbs began to fan out in every direction. So despite a few grumbles from penny-pinching taxpayers, the county made the decision to plan a new $2,000,000 modern style courthouse and demolish the old one without future plans for the site. No one seems to have wanted the building. One state representative suggested using "a portion" as housing for a new county library, but the idea was immediately shot down. Ideas for the site abounded, the most feasible of which was for the construction of a new city hall. But everyone backed out in the end, and the site remains vacant over fifty years later.

I contrast the current and past reactions to the 1891 courthouse to shed light on perceptions that exist now about the 1957 courthouse that replaced it. I worry that if the money were readily available, Spartanburg County would be eager to tear down our current courthouse. I hear people describe it as plain, blocky, and dull. I see their faces shrivel when they look at the current courthouse after seeing the older one. They might not describe it as a monstrosity, but they certainly don't like it. They also don't see that they're enacting a cycle; they're only speaking from their place in the rotation of aesthetic succession. People don't like minimalist architecture now... they want detail and they value acknowledgements of previous styles of architecture. But the day will come when people start to rediscover the clean lines and dramatic simplicity of mid-century modern architecture, as many people already have.

Simple or complex, traditional or innovative: these are the fundamental variables in architecture and decorative arts. Any combination of them can be done well by a designer with a good eye for proportion, texture, and the other languages of visual art. Harold Woodward, the architect of the 1957 courthouse, chose simple and innovative, and articulated that decision well. Kenneth McDonald, the primary architect of the 1891 courthouse, chose complex and traditional, and executed that decision well. Both have been fine buildings that have served their purpose well. The tragedy comes when people let themselves be blinded by familiarity and think that they can best solve their problems, whether few or many, by starting over completely.

No comments: