Can we categorize the Beaux Arts tradition as a period of decline in architecture?

“‘If you want my advice, Peter,’ he said at last, ‘you've made a mistake already. By asking me. By asking anyone. Never ask people. Not about your work. Don't you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?’”

This is Howard Roark’s response to Peter Keating in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, when asked whether Keating should accept a scholarship to the prominent Ecole des Beaux Arts.

It seems that Roark shares the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan’s frustration with the Beaux Arts school, which he attended only for a year, hoping to study Michelangelo and the Renaissance. Sullivan was interested in the spirit of creation rather than replication. The Beaux Arts school was the wrong place for this quest.
The ateliers, portfolios, and “problem-solving” of the Beaux Arts School mark a period of decline in Architecture. The idea of decline is linked to transition, and has as its characteristics doubt, crisis, paranoia, a loss of authorship, and an unoriginal repetition and combination of what has already been canonized.

Durand’s introduction helps to illustrate this argument that the Beaux Arts School was unoriginal and, as Antoine keeps repeating, “boring”. Beatriz Colomina spoke today in Sanford Kwinter’s class and she said that architects work in many mediums. She said the building is just one of those mediums, even though to the lay person it may appear to be the only medium. The Renaissance architects understood the importance of the representation of an architectural idea, both in drawings and in built form. So did the Modernists.

Durand has forgotten it. He is clearly only interested in building. He recycles Vitruvius and, with an air of great authority, sets out to describe what is “dangerous” and “strictly forbidden”: representation and decoration. He is interested in the basic demands of a building: cost, use-value, and a “composition” of “elements”. He praises only Palladio but we must remember that Palladio’s work would have been impossible without the likes of Brunelleschi and Michelangelo.

How could Durand appreciate Architecture’s symbolic value? He was at the top of a very hierarchal institution and there was nothing to react against; architecture’s role was reduced to reaffirming and reiterating the status quo.

He says architecture should not “please” and that “imitation is not a means proper to architecture”. But that is exactly what he is doing by reducing architecture to a set of rules and regulations. Just like Philip Johnson and others killed Modernism by declaring it the International Style (Eric Owen Moss said this in the winter 2011 issue of Log), the Beaux Arts kills everything before it by over-canonizing it and reducing it to a set of rules (right and wrong) that students must follow.


I include the image of Labrouste’s library’s interior (conspicuously missing from Antoine Picon's lecture slides!) to point out that there is a positive. The Beaux Arts school was so archaic that it produced reactions from people like Labrouste and Sullivan (and Roark). It created the conditions for the Modernists to declare a revolution in the way we think about architecture—which was of course much needed!

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