1968, Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona, Dark Ages, Decline of the Roman Empire, Diocletian, Edmund Stillman, Gordon Childe, Isaac Newton, Joseph J. Thorndike, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Mechanical philosophy, Natural philosophy, Optics, Park Güell, Robert Hooke, Roy McMullen, Sagrada Família, Seagram Building, Walter Karp
Also in this issue:
In ‘Before the Fall’ Edmund Stillman deals with the questions ‘How decadent are we? What, really, is a “sick” society? Are we Rome in decline? How worried should we be?’ The upheavals of the 1960s, and especially of 1968, lent these questions urgency:
The problem with the popular notion of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is that, at bottom, it has no basis in fact. In our distorted view centuries are compressed into decades; the eras are transposed – profligacy being assumed to flourish at the end, while stoic virtues are believed to characterize the years of power. The reverse is true. As the celebrated Roman gravitas – weightiness, seriousness – of the republican character deteriorated, the empire increased in size. Macedon was crushed in 197 B.C., the Seleucid Empire in 192, and Carthage in 146. Macedonia was annexed as a province in 148, and Greece itself was annexed in 146. Thus the enervating effects of fun and games! Perhaps too many weepy gospel movies in the style of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. de Mille have warped our imaginations. For profligate Rome endured and endured, and the easy moralizer will find none of the stuff of sermons in its story. Why Rome fell in the end is something else again…
[A] century of turmoil could only be brought to an end when Diocletian, who ruled from A.D. 284-305, transferred to the office of emperor all the trappings of Oriental divine monarchy and destroyed most of the individual liberties of the Roman people under the crushing conformity of a protototalitarian state – a state that fixed prices, wages, occupations, and the poor man’s place of residence, in a new Pharaonic stasis destined to endure, in the east at least, for close to ten centuries.
But most of all, the economy decayed. Taxes grew burdensome; the civil service grew, but the gross national product shrank…
As the late Gordon Childe, one of the most distinguished archaeologists of our day, put it: ‘The bankruptcy of the Roman economy was nakedly exposed. It was proclaimed to the biologist by the decline in fertility that is notorious in all classes of the population of the later Empire. Economically, as well as scientifically, classical civilization was dead a hundred and fifty years before barbarian invaders from Germany finally disrupted the political unity of the Empire and formally initiated the Dark Ages in Europe.’
Looking at the then-present (1968) he concludes:
Is Saul Bellow a Proust – or even a Fitzgerald? Is Marshal McLuhan really an I.A. Richards or a Wittgenstein? Is not our vaunted technology for the most part a working out in practical detail of basic theories and perceptions that are by now nearly a half-century old? In what sense is the Apollo program a fundamental breakthrough comparable to Max Planck’s quantum theory? And even if we reply that the biological sciences – witness DNA – are on the eve of great things, the test-tube creation of life itself, is technological expertise a true index of a society’s growth or inner health?…The technology of Europe after Rome was more advanced than it was in Rome’s great days.
Newton is, beyond dispute, the greatest scientist who ever lived, the only one of whom it can be said: had he not lived, the course of science might have been radically altered.
He describes Newton’s discovery of the properties of light:
With increasing vexation Newton tried to explain to his critics that they had turned his discovery upside down. He had not invented a hypothesis about color and then fitted it to the facts. The very reverse was true. He had found directly from experiment ‘certain properties of light…which if I did not know to be true, I should prefer to reject as vain and empty speculation, than acknowledge even as hypothesis.’ He had not supposed that white light was a confused bundle of rays differently refrangible; he was driven to that conclusion by his experimental findings. These findings could not be explained by the prevailing theory, as he pointed out to Hooke with biting scorn. His critics remained unconvinced.
For Newton it was a bitter experience. He felt cheated and victimized. He had offered the world a great new discovery, but the grandees of science had robbed him of his credit because his discovery did not square with their own mechanical preconceptions. To Newton, who had not the smallest doubt about his own immense superiority, there was only one recourse: the grandees must be taught like children what the true method of philosophy is. He told them: ‘First, to inquire directly into the properties of things, and establish them by experiment; and then proceed more slowly to hypotheses for explaining them. For hypotheses should be subservient only in explaining the properties of things, but not assumed in determining them.’ To call an experimentally discovered property false because it contradicts a plausible hypothesis is to reverse the order of inquiry. Such was Newton’s advice to his elders, and its implications are profound. Natural philosophy, he was arguing, must rid itself of the shackles of mere rationality. The properties of things, experimentally established, may seem unintelligible and inexplicable according to prevailing principles of reason and philosophy. Yet properties they are, and they must not be rejected a priori according to the principles of any philosophical scheme, including the one of mechanical philosophy. But Newton was only a young and obscure mathematics professor, and it would take more than a few irate letters to imprint his conception of science on the minds of men.
In ‘Gaudí’, Roy McMullen considers the Catalan architect famed for Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia church:
Do you like Gaudí? Not so long ago you could smile indulgently when you answered. Liking or disliking the bizarre buildings of Antoni Gaudí I Cornet was in about the same cocktail category as liking or disliking Tiffany glass, cast-iron lilies, and other turn-of-the-century fantasies…Whatever you thought did not commit you to much, for Gaudí was presumably the great outsider of twentieth-century architecture, a provincial freak generated by the chance encounter of genius with the Gothic revival, Moorish influences, Catalan craft traditions, Art Nouveau, Spanish religiosity, and a Barcelona building boom.
Today the context for the question has changed. In recent years many visual-art consumers, aided by such taste makers as shelter magazines, paperback professors, modern museums, abstract-expressionist painters, and antique dealers, have shifted their allegiance from geometric forms to organic, from the rational to the emotional, from progressivism to historicism – in general, from classicism to romanticism. Many architects anticipated or have joined the shift: Alvar Aalto even before World War II; Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Eero Saarinen, in such familiar monuments as the Ronchamp chapel, the Guggenheim Museum, and the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport; Philip Johnson, Edward Durrell Stone, Louis I. Kahn, Paul Rudolph, and a score of lesser creators in dozens of trend-confirming works.
… Gaudí was not, after all, a really great architect. He lacked the ultimate humility of the really great ones, and their sense of architecture as a practical delight, a beautiful necessity. Somewhere inside the rough realist who enjoyed inclined piers and random rubble was an arrogant 1890s dandy…
However, having made these unavoidable judgments, I feel obliged to qualify them immediately. Granted, Gaudí was not a great architect. Granted also, one is enough. Can we not still say that he was an extraordinary man and a great artist? Evidently we can, and so the critical problem is to find an artistic category for him. Perhaps he ought simply to be called a great maker of habitable sculpture.
But a letter from the editor Joseph J. Thorndike, as well as challenging Stillman’s view that the West is in decline, also differs with McMullen:
The high priest of the functional modern school is Mies van der Rohe, and his temple is the Seagram Building on Park Avenue. It is indeed an architectural landmark – perhaps as great in its way as Gaudí’s cathedral of the Sagrada Familia. And whereas Gaudí has no direct followers, Mies is the most widely imitated of architects. One has only to look up and down Park Avenue from the Seagram Building to see the dreary results. Block after block, the steel-and-glass boxes seem to proclaim: ‘One Mies would have been enough.’
As for functionalism, what is the function of a park or cathedral? Not, surely, the same as that of a kitchen or an office. A park is to delight; a cathedral is to inspire. In these, his major works, Gaudí was triumphantly successful.