Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cram's Curve

Ralph Adam Crams' Walled Towns (1919) is a fascinating fantasy from the pen of America's most resolute medieval revivalist. Crams has been relegated to the "uninteresting" category of architectural theorists a favorite of quaint antiquarians, seminarians and reactionaries. Cram never tackled modernity's principle problems (technology, mechanization, labor) and, therefore, offered no viable solutions. Compared to manifestos like Towards An Architecture by LeCorbusier (1923), Walled Towns seems marginal. But I would argue that it needs to be re-read and we need to look at Cram not as a reactionary but as a radical. Consider his pseudo-social-scientific graph above that tries to prove that monasticism is an accurate register of civilization. This is fabulous stuff.

A nice essay that situates Cram in the history of architectural history is Peter Fergusson, "Medieval Architectual Scholarship in America, 1900-1940: Ralph Adams Cram and Kenneth John Conant," in The Architectural Historian in America (Washington, D.C., 1990), 127-139. The volume rose out of a symposium held at the National Gallery to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Society of Architectural Historians. As a collection of essays, it is not entirely comprehensive -- for instance, there is little attention on the German refugees of the 1950s -- nevertheless, it is a great primer on the history of architectural history in the U.S.

Fergusson summarizes Cram's social agenda as follows:

"Reactionary as this sounds [Cram's critique of democracy and endorsement of Jacobean monarchy], Cram's utopian views reveal a figure who was much more a rebel than a reactionary, a passionate critic of the status quo. These qualities explain other causes he pushed with equal ardor. Some appear directly antithetical to his monarchist views, like the strong advocacy of 'socialist ideas,' as he recalled them. If The Decadent examined this theme at the start of Cram's career, at least five books dealt with it during his middle years, their pitch discernible from such titles as The Nemesis of Mediocrity (1917) and The Sins of the Fathers (1918); he returned to it again in his last book at the close of his life, The End of Democracy (1937). All of these volumes are marked by a pervasive pessimism and a sense of imminent cultural crisis. Democracy has failed, big government is evil, bureaucracy intolerable, modernism corrupting, Roosevelt imperial. The short-term solution lies in the amendment of the American constitution through the reconfiguration of the then forty-six states into five or six provinces or commonwealths. The long-term ideal remains a constitutional monarchy, complete with orders of knighthood. These prolonged forays into political theory are particularly hard to digest today. But they are important." (131).

This is crazy cool stuff (crazier than the Tea Party). And we must remember, Cram was not a political theorists, but one of America's most productive architects that also happened to publish dozens of books. Fergusson reminds us that, unlike utopian medievalists like Philip Morris, Cram had no personal fortune to rely on. The early interest on churches was driven by "an entrepreneurial opportunism" and his writing was surely profitable.

My 1930s seminar will read Cram and make up its own mind. The chart from Walled Towns may have absolutely no relevance to the 21st-century student. In my architectural history classes, I often start the discussion of monasticism with an image from 1969 (left), showing three F&M students bidding farewell to single-sex education. The students have here set up a tombstone for "Monas T. Cism, 1787-1969," right next to Old Main (where Nevin unveiled his radical liturgy). The college's seminarian roots make monasticism relevant. The joke was understood in 1969, but when I ask my students about monasticism in class, most have no idea at all. Cram would place 2010 at the bottom of the cultural/monastic curve, but I would hope that he places 1969 at the top.


Theodore Daniel Richards said...

Didn't Sir Kenneth Clark trace Western Civilization's social, cultural, and intellectual development through architecture? I wonder if he borrowed any of his methodology or at least the conceptual framework from Cram since he is comparing "civilization" to monasticism. I suppose the comparison tells us that great ideas emerged from the solitude afforded by those walls.

millinerd said...

Love the post (especially the graph), but a friendly quibble: You write, "Cram never tackled modernity's principle problems (technology, mechanization, labor) and, therefore, offered no viable solutions." Strangely enough, in his address, The New Middle Ages (delivered at the corporation of the Mediaeval Academy of America, 28 April 1934) Cram directly addresses all three!

Technology: "To use what we have now, not, as now, to be used, is our problem, and out of this, our immediate past of the Middle Ages, we may, I am convinced, find much that will lighten our way."

Mechanization: "Of course at the root of the whole matter lies the diametrical difference between the Mediaeval and the modern industrial principle. Until about a century ago consumption determined production, the demand created the supply; now the revers is the case. Supply, production, having been increased an hundred fold though recently discovered and developed mechanical means and the resulting mass-production and standardization must find its market, since its whole object is profits which can be distributed amongst inactive stock-holders and highly paid management, or turned back into capital to magnify still further the productive operations and to increase the output which must find a still larger market. To achieve this end "high pressure" salesmanship, colossal advertising campaigns and the installment system of payments have been devised to magnify the natural cupidity of mankind and induce those who cannot afford them to buy the tings they do not need and frequently do not want. The result has of course been the present actual, though hardly admitted, bankruptcy of national, state and municipal governments, and also of great numbers of people at large."

Labor: "To [the Guild system] we are bound to return in the coming process of social transformation... The imminent necessity revealed itself many years ago and prophets and seers like Ruskin and Morris, with their successors... preached a doctrine of a new guild system as the inevitable corrective of the capitalist, mass-production, individualized, caste organization that had developed as at once the crown, calamity and Nemesis of Modernism. What was at first a protests and a theory has now become a practical and pressing necessity, and it is for the Mediaevalists to search deeply into the records, not as archaeologists but as discoverers, finding out what time can teach, for instruction, re-creation, perhaps even social salvation."

And that's just one minor address (in which he is also much more sanguine about Roosevelt). Whether or not his solutions are viable, however, is still a matter of debate.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States