A review of Architecture of Democracy, by Allan Greenberg

Why aren't you giving a course on the American Founding?" The question came from Allan Greenberg, the architect, at lunch one day in Washington more than a dozen years ago. The question, sprung in part from curiosity, had the edge also of a reproach: why wasn't I tending to this urgent business? It was the kind of question, with the note of gravity, that comes from émigrés who have fallen in deep love with this country and become rather intense on the question of why others have not become as absorbed as they have in studying the writings and the achievements of the American Founders. Greenberg had come from South Africa with his wife and small children in the summer of 1964, and he records in his new book the impressions that struck at once:

Standing in the main concourse of the International Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, I was aware of being surrounded by voices speaking English with more accents than I had ever imagined existed. An electric energy seemed to pulsate through the ground on which I was standing. At that moment I fell in love with America. It felt as if I had come home.

That love has not abated but deepened over 40 years, and it deepened as he immersed himself in the study of the American Founding in all of its aspects—the writings and letters of the leading figures, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers—and all of it amplified by the study of Lincoln. It was all comparably intense, and all done with that attentiveness to detail that marks the eye of the accomplished architect. Settled in America, Greenberg would become a leading figure in the revival of classical architecture, and he would come to teach a new appreciation of the distinctive American forms of that classicism in the 18th century. He would be recruited by George Shultz to redesign the Treaty Room at the State Department. As his name became known, he would design the flagship store for Bergdorf Goodman in New York, for Tommy Hilfiger in Los Angeles, and he would accumulate a portfolio of the most elegant buildings, private and public (including several pictured in this new book). He settled in New Haven as he began to design for a discerning clientele in Connecticut and New York, and before long he would add an office in Washington, which he makes now his base. Along the way he would teach at Yale, not only in the school of architecture, but in the school of law. With that assignment, he would take his students for overnight stays in prison, partly to study the architecture of those buildings, bound up of course with their purposes and with the understanding of the nature of those beings, those fallen moral agents, that the buildings were designed to house.

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Greenberg found his natural, and perfect, ally in the academy in Carroll William Westfall. The professor had fled from Amherst and settled for a long while in Charlottesville, at the University of Virginia. The two would celebrate the achievement of Jefferson, not only as an architect, but as the designer of a city. What Westfall would add, in the style of Jefferson, was the placing of architecture in a setting with a moral structure—the polis, the polity. Or more precisely, architecture would take its bearings, and find its references, in the character of the regime. The grammar of architecture would mark off the difference between a public building, directed to a larger civic or religious purpose, and the lesser buildings, devoted to things more prosaic, which subserved a higher purpose. As Daniel Robinson once remarked, the Man from Mars, landing in Athens and looking at the Parthenon, would know at once that it wasn't a hamburger stand. The Italian cities of the Renaissance, studied by Westfall, revealed that grammar and design, with the churches standing with the highest peaks, pointing to the highest ends of human life. Other buildings would follow in scale, with the awareness marked in stone and board, of the things that were higher and lower.

Westfall and Greenberg formed a powerful combination in that teaching, and what came along with the restoration of a classical perspective in architecture was a confrontation with the doctrines of relativism. For those doctrines, stylishly dressed now with the pretensions of art, were woven in, inseparably, with the radical claims of modernity in architecture. The question would arise, "Why can't we build any longer those beautiful buildings built by McKim, Mead, and White at the turn of the last century?" And the answer emanating from the architectural establishment was, "Those were the buildings of their time. We can build only the buildings of our own time." As Westfall recognized, this was simply the vice of "historicism" as absorbed by architects, who had never heard the term; the students of architecture had simply imbibed the notion that understandings of the "good," in morality or anything else, would always be relative to the historical epoch in which those understandings were held. As far as I know, Westfall is the only teacher of architecture and urban form who has incorporated Leo Strauss in his teaching, as a way of breaking out to students those facile assumptions of historicism, which they have witlessly made their own. Greenberg, backed by Westfall, would restore the notion that there is indeed a "good" that is enduring, a good that holds across the historical epochs, both in architecture and politics.

With that sense of architecture and the regime, Greenberg and Westfall would team up for lectures with slides, and in the early 1990s Professor Robert George and I invited Greenberg to do a lecture in that vein for a seminar of federal judges held in Princeton. With his usual polish, Greenberg offered the judges assembled a lesson on the connection between the doctrines of "natural right" held by the founders and the architecture of the period. The judges were utterly riveted, for they had evidently never seen or heard anything like it. And what Greenberg accomplished for the judges he has begun to make available to a larger audience in this new book. Along the way, he wrote a book on George Washington as an architect, in the design of Mount Vernon and its surroundings. But with this new book, Greenberg returns to that deep connection between architecture and the regime.

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It has been said often that visitors or newcomers from abroad may see in America things that readily escape the notice of people who were born and raised here. That line has been used most notably in regard to Tocqueville and his account ofDemocracy in America. But my own reading is that Greenberg's book, in this respect, surpasses Tocqueville. In the same way that he rather astonished the federal judges, he delivers a gentle but telling jolt to ordinary folk by alerting them to the things all around them-to those buildings, those structures of cities, so familiar to them that they no longer notice them. Or, wanting comparison with similar buildings and structures abroad, they no longer see what is so distinctively and movingly American about them. Classical architecture took its bearings from nature and the human body, and American architecture took its bearings from the human person, beginning with the things nearest at hand. What, after all, is the nearest, simplest concern of architecture for the person? The house. Throughout the landscape in Europe one would find the Palais de Justice: the buildings would take their character from the palace of the monarch, and they were meant to impress and overawe with the majesty of the law, drawn from the majesty of the monarch. But in America, there was thehouse: the courthouse, for the trying of cases; the statehouse, where people came to deliberate about the laws they would make together; or even the jailhouse, which began in some cases as an annex to the home of the jailor. In Northampton, Massachusetts, the old Meeting House became known as "our town's house." As Greenberg observes, the "American house-based model…strove to create a new civic architecture, in which a citizen is at ease and feels a sense of ownership." It often goes unnoticed that the dome of the Capitol in Washington—that striking monument to a government by the people—does not cover the legislative chambers. It covers the vast hall in which ordinary citizens may meet as they come to press their concerns upon their representatives or to visit the scene where laws are made.

Greenberg, as the designer of courthouses and jailhouses, makes a special point of noting the principles that are woven into the design of American courtrooms. In England, the defendant may be placed alone in "dock," raised above the rest of the courtroom and facing the judge. In America, the prosecution and the defense sit at similar tables, set out symmetrically, facing the judge. There is a parity of dignity, because the law presumes the innocence of the accused, and the arrangements in the court are not meant to tilt the judgment. The judge is placed in the center, as the detached observer, judging without bias the two contending parties. Greenberg notes, in a passage that Tocqueville would have appreciated, that "the public, at the rear of the courtroom, faces the judge and observes the law in action." It is the trial as a moment of civic teaching:

The jurors, who determine guilt or innocence, are placed on one side of the courtroom. They are unbiased observers, removed from the axis of the judge, counsel, defendant, and public. Because defendants are entitled to confront their accusers, the witnesses face the counsel tables but are placed adjacent to, and under the protection of, the judge.

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In Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the first case to elicit a set of opinions in the new Supreme Court, James Wilson remarked that the law in America would stand on a different foundation from that of the law in England. The latter began with a sovereign issuing commands. But in America, said Wilson, "the sovereign, when traced to its source, must be found in theman." It must be found, that is, in a natural person, tendering his consent to the terms on which he is governed. It did not diminish the dignity of governance that the buildings were scaled to the human person, the subject and object of the laws. On the other hand, even the ordinary home was lifted in its dignity, because it was the abode of that person whose natural rights supplied both the ground and the purpose of the political order. As Wilson remarked, the purpose of this new government was not to invent new rights, but to secure and enlarge the rights we already possessed by nature. The home of that person or citizen, suitably modest, would be suitably elevated in turn. Greenberg offers as an illustration the Hammond-Harwood House (1774-84) in Annapolis, a simple brick house with a pediment, Ionic columns, and an archway framing the door. As he points out, the pediment, in ancient Greece and Rome, marked a temple, or the dwelling of a god. The symbols, carrying over from another time, suggest that "here, in the United States, this new democratic republic, the rights and prerogatives that were once reserved for the gods of the ancient world and the kings of Europe now belong to every citizen."

The pediment could be found, of course, on the Parthenon in Athens, the home of Athena. The pediments were supported by Doric columns, which in turn took their model from the human figure, with the capital for the head, and with the feet proportioned to the body. The building, with its clear, anthropomorphic images, conveyed the sense of the citizens of Athens supporting the home of its goddess and protector. That essential sense of things would be carried over, without strain, to symbolize a democracy under law: a polity that would find its base and its purpose in the standing, and the moral condition, of the human persons who composed it.

That same sense of things scaled to the human body may be the reason we can still find something connected to us—and something strikingly beautiful—in those grand skyscrapers put up in the Age of Art Deco, and even earlier in the last century. Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building in New York (1913), the tallest building of its time, offers a base of only about three floors, quite graspable. As Greenberg notes, the "articulation of its façade…assists an observer's eye and mind to measure it progressively, in parts, each of which is scaled to relate to a human being." The same effect was accomplished in another artful way in the Empire State Building, which succeeded the Woolworth Building and held its place for a longer time as the world's tallest building. The building does not soar until it is set back after the fifth floor. At the level of the sidewalk, in the things that catch our eye, the building does not look gargantuan or out of harmony with the things around it. "In a brilliant move," says Greenberg, "the shaft of the tower is set back from the busy Fifth Avenue sidewalk so that its great height does not loom over the pedestrians and make them feel insignificant."

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Something truly different, something reeking of a different modernity, came in after the Second World War. That new state of things could be seen in the skyline that now marks New York, Chicago, and other cities: towering rectangles or ice-cube trays in assembly with one another, without even the articulation, or the embellishments, noble or whimsical, that made the towers of the old buildings say something distinctive in the cities of their day. Edward Durrell Stone's Legislative Building in Raleigh, North Carolina (1963) looks like a ranch house with posts lining the perimeter on all sides. The posts may be a faint gesture toward the columns of old, but with the old understanding faded, the place where the legislature meets is hardly distinguishable from an office building. It might be the headquarters of an investment company, or converted tomorrow into offices for Wal-Mart. In one of his notable slips into understatement, Greenberg describes these kinds of buildings as "self-referential." But it is not merely that they slip into a version of solipsism, where a building is making a statement about itself or offering an expression of the mind that designed it. It is rather that the buildings form a jumble, with no discernible moral structure of the whole. There is no sense that any one of these buildings, with their rich variety of businesses, retail and wholesale, with their array of corporate enterprises—that the purpose of any of these buildings is higher or lower than anything else. It's not like the design we can grasp at once in the Italian cities, where we see no civic building rising above the churches, or no commercial buildings proclaiming their supremacy over civic buildings dedicated to the civic life of the whole. It is not like Washington, D.C., even today, where no buildings eclipse the Capitol or the Washington Monument.

And it is not even like the design, so simple and dramatic, that Mr. Jefferson imparted to his "academical village" in Charlottesville, Virginia. Everything in that arrangement points to the domed Library as the capital or the head, marking the higher purpose of a university. The pavilions, with their classrooms and residences, for masters and students, take their bearings from that central purpose of the campus and lead to the Library. The serpentine walls, the lawns, the furnishings inside the buildings show the hand of the artist, who adds his art guided by the overall design. But that overall design reflects, again, an aesthetic that is informed by a moral understanding, of the purposes or ends that are higher and lower. Greenberg takes the treatment of Jefferson and Charlottesville as the culmination of his book, with Jefferson placed now by Greenberg as the preeminent architect in America. Jefferson might have been, as an architect, self-taught, but his creation, says Greenberg, is unlike any other complex of buildings:

Its design sophistication rivals the Acropolis, another group of many buildings harmoniously related to each other and the surrounding landscape. Jefferson's academical village creates a coherent community; it is the apogee of architectural endeavor in the United States.

But as artful as Jefferson was, in the designs of furnishings as well as structures, it is hard finally to detach his art from the political understanding that governed the whole. It might be said of him, as an architect, what Lincoln said of him as a founder: that he had the wit to take a moment of practical judgment and articulate "an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times."

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Harry Jaffa remarked to Martin Gilbert, in regard to one of the thickest volumes in his biography of Churchill, that his only complaint was that the book was too short. The comparable complaint here is that Greenberg's book is too beautiful. The book is published by Rizzoli, the premier publisher of books on fine arts. Allan Greenberg, an accomplished artist himself, naturally seeks the most accomplished publisher in this field, and the reproductions are indeed exquisite. But the print itself does not suggest a book meant mainly for reading. The exposition in the book seems to support the striking photographs, with their vivid examples of buildings. But this is a book that should be the natural companion to Tocqueville, for the professors who are trying to explain America to the Americans. It should not be a book splendid for coffee tables or the shelf containing the masterpieces of Rizzoli. It should be a book of graspable size, finding its place in the backpack of every undergraduate in the country.

And yet, the book may be only a beginning. In its text and its presentation, it is geared to a series made for television. I'll offer my own wish that the project makes it to television and the broader public. But in the next phase, we should have the book distilled as a book, to be spread widely in the land, and then followed perhaps by the further lessons Greenberg has to teach as he unfolds his fuller argument and completes his mission. He has before him now, in his grasp, the means of driving a stake through the relativism that has debased our architecture and demeaned our cities. And after that, the rest is in sight: he continues, in his vocation, to design the buildings that show us how to restore a classic architecture, and to confirm again the lessons that the public at large already seems to grasp—that there is, indeed, in politics and in architecture, an enduring good.