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   Chapter 2 DURING THE WAR

Architecture and Democracy By Claude Fayette Bragdon Characters: 19436

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The best thing that can be said about our immediate architectural past is that it is past, for it has contributed little of value to an architecture of democracy. During that neo-feudal period the architect prospered, having his place at the baronial table; but now poor Tom's a-cold on a war-swept heath, with food only for reflection. This is but natural; the architect, in so far as he is an artist, is a purveyor of beauty; and the abnormal conditions inevitable to a state of war are devastating to so feminine and tender a thing, even though war be the very soil from which new beauty springs. With Mars in mid-heaven how afflicted is the horoscope of all artists! The skilled hand of the musician is put to coarser uses; the eye that learned its lessons from the sunset must learn the trick of making invisible warships and great guns. Let the architect serve the war-god likewise, in any capacity that offers, confident that this troubling of the waters will bring about a new precipitation; that once the war is over, men will turn from those "old, unhappy, far-off things" to pastures beautiful and new.

In whatever way the war may complicate the architect's personal problem, it should simplify and clarify his attitude toward his art. With no matter what seriousness and sincerity he may have undertaken his personal search for truth and beauty, he will come to question, as never before, both its direction and its results. He is bound to perceive, if he does not perceive already, that the war's arrestment of architecture (in all but its most utilitarian and ephemeral phases) is no great loss to the world for the reason that our architecture was uninspired, unoriginal, done without joy, without reverence, without conviction: a thing which any wind of a new spirit was bound to make appear foolish to a generation with sight rendered clairvoyant through its dedication to great and regenerative ends.

He will come to perceive that between the Civil War and the crusade that is now upon us, we were under the evil spell of materialism. Now materialism is the very negation of democracy, which is a government by the demos, or over-soul; it is equally the negation of joy, the negation of reverence, and it is without conviction because it cannot believe even in itself. Reflecting thus, he can scarcely fail to realize that materialism, everywhere entrenched, was entrenched strongest in the camps of the rich--not the idle rich, for materialism is so terrible a taskmaster that it makes its votaries its slaves. These slaves, in turn, made a slave of the artist, a minister to their pride and pretence. His art thus lacked that "sad sincerity" which alone might have saved it in a crisis. When the storm broke militant democracy turned to the engineer, who produced buildings at record speed, by the mile, with only such architectural assistance as could be first and easiest fished up from the dragnet of the draft.

In one direction only does there appear to be open water. Toward the general housing problem the architectural profession has been spurred into activity by reason of the war, and to its credit be it said, it is now thoroughly aroused. The American Institute of Architects sent a commissioner to England to study housing in its latest manifestations, and some of the ablest and most influential members of that organization have placed their services at the disposal of the government. Moreover, there is a manifest disposition, on the part of architects everywhere, to help in this matter all they can. The danger dwells in the possibility that their advice will not be heeded, their services not be fully utilized, but through chicanery, ignorance, or inanition, we will relapse into the tentative, "expensively provisional" methods which have governed the housing of workers hitherto. Even so, architects will doubtless recapture, and more than recapture, their imperiled prestige, but under what changed conditions, and with what an altered attitude toward their art and their craft!

They will find that they must unlearn certain things the schools had taught them: preoccupation with the relative merits of Gothic and Classic-tweedledum and tweedledee. Furthermore, they must learn certain neglected lessons from the engineer, lessons that they will be able immeasurably to better, for although the engineer is a very monster of competence and efficiency within his limits, these are sharply marked, and to any detailed knowledge of that "beautiful necessity" which determines spatial rhythm and counterpoint he is a stranger. The ideal relation between architect and engineer is that of a happily wedded pair-strength married to beauty; in the period just passed or passing they have been as disgruntled divorcés.

[Illustration: PLATE VI. PLAN OF THE RED CROSS COMMUNITY CLUB HOUSE,

CAMP SHERMAN, OHIO]

The author has in mind one child of such a happy union brought about by the war; the building is the Red Cross Community Club House at Camp Sherman, which, in the pursuit of his destiny, and for the furtherance of his education, he inhabited for two memorable weeks. He learned there more lessons than a few, and encountered more tangled skeins of destiny than he is ever likely to unravel. The matter has so direct a bearing, both on the subject of architecture and of democracy, that it is worth discussing at some length.

This club house stands, surrounded by its tributary dormitories, on a government reservation, immediately adjacent to the camp itself, the whole constituting what is known as the Community Center. By the payment of a dollar any soldier is free to entertain his relatives and friends there, and it is open to all the soldiers at all times. Because the iron discipline of the army is relaxed as soon as the limits of the camp are overpassed, the atmosphere is favourable to social life.

The building occupies its acre of ground invitingly, though exteriorly of no particular distinction. It is the interior that entitles it to consideration as a contribution to an architecture of that new-born democracy of which our army camps have been the cradle. The plan of this interior is cruciform, two hundred feet in each dimension. Built by the Red Cross of the state of Ohio, and dedicated to the larger uses of that organization, the symbolic appropriateness of this particular geometrical figure should not pass unremarked. The cross is divided into side aisles, nave, and crossing, with galleries and mezzanines so arranged as to shorten the arms of the cross in its upper stages, leaving the clear-story surrounding the crossing unimpeded and well defined. The light comes for the most part from high windows, filtering down, in tempered brightness to the floor. The bones of the structure are everywhere in evidence, and an element of its beauty, by reason of the admirably direct and logical arrangement of posts and trusses. The vertical walls are covered with plaster-board of a light buff color, converted into good sized panels by means of wooden strips finished with a thin grey stain. The structural wood work is stained in similar fashion, the iron rods, straps, and bolts being painted black. This color scheme is completed and a little enlivened by red stripes and crosses placed at appropriate intervals in the general design.

The building attained its final synthesis through the collaboration of a Cleveland architect and a National Army captain of engineers. It is so single in its appeal that one does not care to inquire too closely into the part of each in the performance; both are in evidence, for an architect seldom succeeds in being so direct and simple, while an engineer seldom succeeds in being so gracious and altogether suave.

Entirely aside from its ?sthetic interest-based as this is on beauty of organism almost alone-the building is notable for the success with which it fulfils and co-ordinates its manifold functions: those of a dormitory, a restaurant, a ballroom, a theatre, and a lounge. The arm of the cross containing the principal entrance accommodates the office, coat room, telephones, news and cigar stand, while leaving the central nave unimpeded, so that from the door one gets the unusual effect of an interior vista two hundred feet long. The restaurant occupies the entire left transept, with a great brick fireplace at the far end. There is another fireplace in the centre of the side of the arm beyond the crossing; that part which would correspond in a cathedral to the choir and apse being given over to the uses of a reading and writing room. The right transept forms a theatre, on occasion, terminating as it does with a stage. The central floor spaces are kept everywhere free except in the restaurant, the sides and angles being filled in with leather-covered sofas, wicker and wooden chairs and tables, arranged in groups favourable to comfort and conversation. Two stairways, at the right and left of the restaurant, give access to the ample balcony and to the bedrooms, which occupy three of the four ends of the arms of the cross at this level.

The appearance and atmosphere of this great interior is inspiring; particularly of an evening, when it is thronged with soldiers, and civilian guests. The strains of music, the hum of many voices, the rhythmic shuffle on the waxed floor of the feet of the dancers-these eminently social sounds mingle and lose themselves in the spaces of the roof, like the voice of many waters. Tobacco smoke ascends like incense, blue above the prevailing green-brown of the crowd, shot here and there with brighter colors from the women's hats and dresses, in the kaleidoscopic shifting of the dance. Long parallel rows of or

ange lights, grouped low down on the lofty pillars, reflect themselves on the polished floor, and like the patina of time on painted canvas impart to the entire animated picture an incomparable tone. For the lighting, either by accident or by inspiration, is an achievement of the happiest, an example of the friendliness of fate to him who attempts a free solution of his problem. The brackets consist merely of a cruciform arrangement of planed pine boards about each column, with the end grain painted red. On the under side of each arm of the cross is a single electric bulb enclosed within an orange-coloured shade to kill the glare. The light makes the bare wood of the fixture appear incandescent, defining its geometry in rose colour with the most beautiful effect.

The club house is the centre of the social and ceremonial life of the camp, for balls, dinners, receptions, conferences, concerts without number; and it has been the scene of a military wedding-the daughter of a major-general to the grandson of an ex-president. To these events the unassuming, but pervasive beauty of the place lends a dignity new to our social life. In our army camps social life is truly democratic, as any one who has experienced it does not need to be told. Not alone have the conditions of conscription conspired to make it so, but there is a manifest will-to-democracy-the growing of a new flower of the spirit, sown in a community of sacrifice, to reach its maturity, perhaps, only in a community of suffering.

The author may seem to have over-praised this Community Club House; with the whole country to draw from for examples it may well appear fatuous to concentrate the reader's attention, for so long, on a building in a remote part of the Middle West: cheap, temporary, and requiring only twenty-one days for its erection. But of the transvaluation of values brought about by the war, this building is an eminent example: it stands in symbolic relation to the times; it represents what may be called the architecture of Service; it is among the first of the new temples of the new democracy, dedicated to the uses of simple, rational social life. Notwithstanding that it fills a felt need, common to every community, there is nothing like it in any of our towns and cities; there are only such poor and partial substitutes as the hotel, the saloon, the dance hall, the lodge room and the club. It is scarcely conceivable that the men and women who have experienced its benefits and its beauty should not demand and have similar buildings in their own home towns.

[Illustration: PLATE VII. INTERIOR OF THE CAMP SHERMAN COMMUNITY

HOUSE]

Beyond the oasis of the Community Club House at Camp Sherman stretch the cantonments-a Euclidian nightmare of bare boards, black roofs and ditches, making grim vistas of straight lines. This is the architecture of Need in contradistinction to the architecture of Greed, symbolized in the shop-window prettiness of those sanitary suburbs of our cities created by the real estate agent and the speculative builder. Neither contain any enduring element of beauty.

But the love of beauty in one form or another exists in every human heart, and if too long or too rigorously denied it finds its own channels of fulfilment. This desire for self-expression through beauty is an important, though little remarked phenomenon of these mid-war times. At the camps it shows itself in the efforts of men of specialized tastes and talents to get together and form dramatic organizations, glee clubs, and orchestras; and more generally by the disposition of the soldiers to sing together at work and play and on the march. The renascence of poetry can be interpreted as a revulsion against the prevailing prosiness; the amateur theatre is equally a protest against the inanity and conventionality of the commercial stage; while the Community Chorus movement is an evidence of a desire to escape a narrow professionalism in music. A similar situation has arisen in the field of domestic architecture, in the form of an unorganized, but wide-spread reaction against the cheap and ugly commercialism which has dominated house construction and decoration of the more unpretentious class. This became articulate a few years ago in the large number of books and magazines devoted to house-planning, construction, decoration, furnishing, and garden-craft. The success which has attended these publications, and their marked influence, give some measure of the magnitude of this revolt.

But now attention must be called to a significant, and somewhat sinister fact. The professional in these various fields of ?sthetic endeavour, has shown either indifference or active hostility toward all manner of amateur efforts at self-expression. Free verse aroused the ridicule of the professors of metrics; the Little Theatre movement was solemnly banned by such pundits as Belasco and Mrs. Fiske; the Community Chorus movement has invariably met with opposition and misunderstanding from professional musicians; and with few exceptions the more influential architects have remained aloof from the effort to give skilled architectural assistance to those who cannot afford to pay them ten per cent.

Thus everywhere do we discover a deadening hand laid upon the self-expression of the democratic spirit through beauty. Its enemies are of its own household; those who by nature and training should be its helpers hinder it instead. Why do they do this? Because their fastidious, ?sthetic natures are outraged by a crudeness which they themselves could easily refine away if they chose; because also they recoil at a lack of conformity to existing conventions-conventions so hampering to the inner spirit of the Newness, that in order to incarnate at all it must of necessity sweep them aside.

But in every field of ?sthetic endeavour appears here and there a man or a woman with unclouded vision, who is able to see in the flounderings of untrained amateurs the stirrings of demos from his age-long sleep. These, often forsaking paths more profitable, lend their skilled assistance, not seeking to impose the ancient outworn forms upon the Newness, but by a transfusion of consciousness permitting it to create forms of its own. Such a one, in architecture, Louis Sullivan has proved himself; in music Harry Barnhart, who evokes the very spirit of song from any random crowd. The demos found voice first in the poetry of Walt Whitman who has a successor in Vachel Lindsay, the man who walked through Kansas, trading poetry for food and lodging, teaching the farmers' sons and daughters to intone his stirring odes to Pocahontas, General Booth, and Old John Brown. Isadora Duncan, Gordon Craig, Maeterlinck, Scriabine are perhaps too remote from the spirit of democracy, too tinged with old-world ?stheticism, to be included in this particular category, but all are image-breakers, liberators, and have played their part in the preparation of the field for an art of democracy.

To the architect falls the task, in the new dispensation, of providing the appropriate material environment for its new life. If he holds the old ideas and cherishes the old convictions current before the war he can do nothing but reproduce their forms and fashions; for architecture, in the last analysis, is only the handwriting of consciousness on space, and materialism has written there already all that it has to tell of its failure to satisfy the mind and heart of man. However beautiful old forms may seem to him they will declare their inadequacy to generations free of that mist of familiarity which now makes life obscure. If, on the other hand, submitting himself to the inspiration of the demos he experiences a change of consciousness, he will become truly and newly creative.

His problem, in other words, is not to interpret democracy in terms of existing idioms, be they classic or romantic, but to experience democracy in his heart and let it create and determine its new forms through him. It is not for him to impose, it is for him to be imposed upon.

"The passive Master lent his hand

To the vast soul that o'er him planned"

says Emerson in The Problem, a poem, which seems particularly addressed to architects, and which every one of them would do well to learn by heart.

If he is at a loss to know where to go and what to do in order to be played upon by these great forces let him direct his attention to the army and the army camps. Here the spirit of democracy is already incarnate. These soldiers, violently shaken free from their environment, stripped of all but the elemental necessities of life; facing a sinister destiny beyond a human-shark-infested ocean, are today the fortunate of earth by reason of their realization of brotherhood, not as a beautiful theory, but as a blessed fact of experience. They will come back with ideas that they cannot utter, with memories that they cannot describe; they will have dreamed dreams and seen visions, and their hearts will stir to potencies for which materialism has not even a name.

The future of the country will be in their young hands. Will they re-create, from its ruins, the faithless and loveless feudalism from which the war set them free? No, they will seek only for self-expression, the expression of that aroused and indwelling spirit which shall create the new, the true democracy. And because it is a spiritual thing it will come clothed in beauty; that is, it will find its supreme expression through the forms of art. The architect who assists in the emprise of weaving this garment will be supremely blessed, but only he who has kept the vigil with prayer and fasting will be supremely qualified.

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