A Classical Revival

Architect Defends Classicism From Modern Encroachments

Posted April 18, 2005 at 2:54pm

To get a sense of just how long architect Henry Hope Reed has been fighting his ongoing battle to save the American classical tradition from the encroachment of the modernist architectural style, it might help to put the timeline in Congressional terms.

Reed published his first book decrying the rise of “anorexic” architecture at about the same time Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was getting his feet wet as a freshman Senator.

More than a half-century later, Reed is still one of the foremost scholars and defenders of classicism. Today, at close to 90 years old, he is looking to raise awareness of what he terms the grand tradition of American design by highlighting its greatest example: the United States Capitol.

Released earlier this month by W.W. Norton and Company, “The United States Capitol: It’s Architecture and Decoration” is part tour book, part architecture text and part history tome with a mission of furthering Ross’ lifelong goal for a renewed commitment to American classicism. The book deconstructs the Capitol in meticulous detail from the outside walls to the most public rooms to the many roped-off private chambers, and Reed uses each aspect of the Capitol to show that the greatness of the structure stems not just from the space it occupies but from the ornamentation and adornments that cover almost every square inch of the building.

“To underscore the place of the Capitol, and for that matter the Jefferson Building [of the Library of Congress], in American art, one must point out that today’s Modern art represents the total opposite of them both,” Reed writes in his introduction. “The label Modern is nothing less than an art of starvation — visual starvation. … Inevitably we return to the United States Capitol for some measure of guidance.”

Reed’s exploration of the Capitol’s classical tradition is highlighted with 150 color photographs, a fully illustrated glossary of architectural terms and a section of brief biographies of those who helped build and decorate the Capitol.

Paul Gunther, president of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Classical America — a modern-day version of the Classical America group that Reed helped found in 1968 to bring the style back from the brink — said Reed’s shared focus on both the architecture and decoration, and what that means for the viewer, is what separates Reed’s book from other historical studies of the Capitol.

Reed “is using the Capitol as a metaphor. He’s saying that it’s not just the architecture but the allied arts, the metalworking, the stone work, that really add to its glory,” Gunther said. “He is reasserting the stress on decoration and looking at the totality of the project. … That’s what distinguishes this book.”

Reed’s book “is more of a history of the culture of the building and his agenda is the revival of classicism as a mainstream architecture style,” said Nir Buras, a Washington architect who lives on Capitol Hill and who recently helped found the Washington Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture.

Buras — who said he became a classicist after working on a project at the Russell Senate Office Building and being overwhelmed by the “absolutely beautiful” designs of the complex — said that using the Capitol as a case study is a good way to show how “every single little bit of a classical building has a story behind it, it contains the memory of those who came before.”

But as the Capitol moves into its next major phase of expansion with the development of the Capitol Visitor Center, Reed laments that some elements of the classical style are in danger of being lost. Security concerns, which have already cut the public off from some of the Capitol’s greatest rooms, will soon dramatically alter the way visitors first experience the building.

“An underground visitor center to a great building is a novelty,” Reed writes. “The visitor center will rob both [the Capitol and the Jefferson Building] of one of their spectacular wonders, that of stepping directly from the outside into a magnificent interior, much as is still possible at the Pantheon of ancient Rome.”

While these security concerns represent the newest challenge to the tradition trumpeted by Reed and his fellow classicists, on the whole “security issues are ephemeral,” Buras said. Classicists look a bit further down the road, because, as Buras pointed out, like the great masterpieces of ancient Rome, classical buildings are built to last.