A WORLD CENTRE OF COMMUNICATION
A. Trystan Edwards
Town Planning Review 5 (April 1914):14-30.Edwards (1884-1973) was Welsh born, had a brilliant undergraduate record at Oxford before deciding to embark on architecture as a career. He served his articles under Sir Reginald Blomfield and in 1911 began to teach in the Department of Civic Design at Liverpool University. After serving in the navy in World War I, Edwards joined the Ministry of Health where he remained for six years dealing principally with housing policy. In 1933 he found the Hundred New Towns Association, but his recommendations were disregarded until the publication of the great World War II policy reports on Population Distribution, Land Utilization, and New Towns. In private practice as an architect he wrote several books: Good and Bad Manners in Architecture (1924), A Hundred New Towns for Britain (1933), Modern Terrace Houses (1946), and Tomorrow's Architecture (1968), among others.Introduction
In this review of the monumental proposal for a world center of communications, Edwards leveled his biting criticism at this most elaborate example of French Beaux-Arts design. This review essay included several illustrations. Some of these are difficult to reproduce, and only two from other sources are used here.
The literature of Town Planning grows apace. Mr. H. C. Andersen, in conjunction with Mr. Hébrard, of the Beaux Arts School at Paris, has compiled a great work entitled "A World Centre of Communication." This volume is 1 foot broad, 1 foot 6 inches long, and it weighs 10 lbs. It is obvious, then, that if it has a corresponding spiritual gravity it cannot be treated with too much deference. Out of a very much smaller work called "The Fountain of Life" it grew to its present enormous size. No critic, however, must suffer himself to be overawed by mere dimensions. Too many books, especially on art subjects, have kept on growing when they ought never to have grown; it would have been better if they had got smaller and smaller in their authors' hands until nothing was left of them at all. Essays containing but a tiny fraction of an idea which one might expect to find in an ephemeral pamphlet are eked out with illustrations and inflated beyond measure until they finally appear as ponderous folios decked in regal style as if they were fit to be "a possession for all time." But in the present case the enlargement was justified, for the volume before us is not only more imposing than the smaller one from which it sprang, but is richer in substance; the matured conception of a World Centre is of far greater significance than the quite arbitrary symbolism that marks the designs for "The Fountain of Life." Of the huge tomes reposing in our architectural libraries not many could be found that represented so much industry as the present one. It is, moreover, exquisitely printed, and a monument to the public spirit of whoever is responsible for its production, for it is impossible to imagine that any financial profit is likely to accrue therefrom.
In the opinion of its authors, the World Centre represents the very pivot of civilisation. It is "a fountain of overflowing knowledge to be fed by the whole world of human endeavour in art, science, religion, commerce, industry, and law; and in turn to diffuse throughout the whole of humanity as though it were one grand, divine body conceived by God, the vital requirements which would renew its strength, protect its rights, and enable it to attain greater heights through a concentration of world effort."
M. Andersen goes on to explain that the International Centre which forms the heart of this great capital comprises three parts--a Physical Culture or Olympic Centre, an Art Centre, and a Scientific Centre. The Olympic Centre consists of a colossal natatorium facing the sea, and a very large stadium. To the right and left are gymnasia for men and women. In the Art Centre there are a central Temple of Art, a conservatorium for Music and Drama, and museums, schools, and libraries that appertain to these. The Scientific Centre is dominated by the Tower of Progress, over 1,000 feet high. At its base is a World Press which "could receive and rapidly distribute throughout the world all knowledge of vital importance." Surrounding this are four International Scientific Congress buildings, while to the right and left are the Temple of Religions and the International Court of Justice. Between the Art Centre and the Scientific Centre are two long rows of "Palaces of the Nations" in which ambassadors would perform their duties. There are university centres cut off from the main stream of traffic; there are hospitals, exhibition buildings, and stations in their appropriate places; the underground railways go exactly where they should, and the exits and entrances thereto are conveniently situated. A belt of park land surrounds the city. There is an aviation port, of course. In fact, the World Centre is supposed to be The City Beautiful, the complete and perfect metropolis.
But before trying to arrive at any conclusion concerning it, we must ask ourselves the question whether it is possible to have such a Centre at all, and also the further question whether, if such a Centre is possible, it is desirable. Having disposed of these to the best of our ability, it will remain for us to enter upon a detailed criticism of the city itself. For although we may deny the necessity of this world-metropolis, although we may contend that it is not only incapable of immediate realisation but worthless even as an ideal, M. Hébrard's scheme raises so many points which are of interest to Town Planners that they will find it a profitable occupation to give close attention to it.
Hence the first part of this review will consist in an examination of the ideal of which the World Centre is an expression, while the second part will deal with the World Centre itself, and will be devoted to a critique both of the plan and of the more important works of architecture designed by M. Hébrard and his collaborators.
The Supermetropolitan Ideal Internationalism, Social and PoliticalIn his book, "The World Centre," M. Andersen has a great deal to say about "love" and "brotherhood." He would do away with all national prejudices and animosities. Now, when he talks of "love" and "brotherhood" it becomes obvious that his ideal is largely a political one. He is aiming at the establishment of universal peace. It never seems to have occurred to him, however, that the cosmopolitan culture which he rightly imagines to be inevitable can exist side by side with an intense nationalism. Germany is no more friendly to Russia because educated Germans read Tolstoi or Turgenieff, neither is she endeared to France merely because educated Frenchmen are devoted to Goethe, Wagner, or Nietzsche. Although the inhabitants of North America speak the same language as we ourselves, and are brought up upon the same literature, England has several times been on the verge of war with the United States. A cultured Japanese reads Wilde or Meredith with the same pleasure as any Londoner might do, but that will not prevent his country taking advantage of the situation if England failed to make good the defences of Australia. As time goes on it will become ever more and more clear that nationality is purely a political phenomenon with which artists, whether Town Planners or of any other variety, have very little to do. It is easy to understand how the opposite opinion has been widely held. Former civilisations have differed profoundly from our own; for untold centuries there was only a limited degree of intercommunication between the different parts of the world, and there have come into being not only great societies, each of which forms a separate political entity, but separate languages and traditions as well. There still exists a thing called "national temperament," but it grows weaker every day. Community of national temperament did not prevent the North American colonists breaking away from the English; in that instance a new nationality was born of a political dispute. On the other hand, disparity of national temperament will not prevent the peoples of South America from joining together to form a league (as there is every sign that they intend to do), if they are convinced that their political interests will be served thereby. The so-called "national" characteristics are an artificial product, and are dependent upon social environment. But uniform methods of industry and commerce, a literature which is rapidly becoming of cosmopolitan appeal, and boundless facilities of travel are destined to do much to establish one single civilisation all over the globe. Even if distinctions of race are jealously maintained, they need not imply distinctions of culture except in so far as some races are naturally less gifted than others. It may be asked, however, upon which basis does political nationality rest? Why should it persist when all differences of national temperament have been obliterated? The answer is not far to seek. Political nationality is an affair of government. If universal peace is once established, what guarantee have we of good government? At the present moment every country has powerful and restless neighbours. If the statesmen of any one nation failed to provide an environment favourable to the physical and intellectual development of its citizens (from whom its soldiers are recruited), if they cannot prevent the inception of civil feuds within its own borders, if in any important respect they fail to show powers of organisation, they are aware that swift punishment may ensue, and that the nation whose custodians they are may suffer the loss of territory or some other appalling injury. Universal peace may lead to universal sloth. This is not the place to enter into that question at great length, but enough has been said to show that M. Andersen has not promoted the cause of Town Planning by associating it with the disarmament propaganda which the bulk of humanity still regards with bitter and scornful hostility.
The World Centre and Cosmopolitan Culture
But even if Town Planners can have no direct interest in political internationalism they cannot be indifferent to the ideal of cosmopolitan culture which is expressed in the World Centre. Parochial art is invariably second rate. When any art has become parochial it is a sign that intellect is not being applied to the problems which the art presents. The laws of logic are the same everywhere, so if Town Planners bring logic to bear upon their subject, as indeed they must, they find that they are studying an art the practice of which may lead to different results where different conditions prevail but which is not itself capable of geographical division. Thus there is Town Planning in England, Town Planning in Germany, Town Planning in France, but there is no such thing as English Town Planning, German Town Planning, French Town Planning, any more than there are English, German, or French sciences of arithmetic. Short-sighted statesmen are apt to foster national schools of art for their own purposes, but it is clearly the duty of an artist to turn a deaf ear to their appeals, remembering that his achievements are more likely to add lustre to his nation if he holds himself free to use every means of artistic expression that is known to mankind than if he jealously wards off all foreign influences. An artist must be a cosmopolitan in his art. Statesmen have a right to demand from an artist the same kind of public service that they demand from other people; they may expect him to serve in the army if occasion arise and to perform the ordinary duties of a citizen; but they exceed their function when they attempt to direct his artistic activities.
Assuming that a cosmopolitan art and culture are desirable, let us see how far these objects would be promoted by the creation of the World Centre. It is useless to discuss the question of site. We need not try to decide the exact spot upon the globe where the city ought to be. It may be remarked, however, that as the earth is spherical the only point similarly disposed to all points on its surface is in the midst of red hot matter, and is thus not inhabitable. But any habitable point that may be taken is quite arbitrary and cannot have a position indicating that it has some peculiar relation to other points. Wherever the super-metropolis be placed, at least half the human race would find its situation inconvenient. Unfortunately there is no centre to a spherica1 superfices--at least not upon the area of the superfices itself. But even if, for the purpose of argument, we imagine that all national jealousies could be appeased, and that the site of the World City could be universally approved, it is still questionable whether, in these days of books and newspapers, it is necessary to mark out any special place upon the earth's surface as a centre for the interchange of ideas. No city will ever have the pre-eminent position that belonged to Rome in the ancient world. It will soon be possible for there to be a uniform standard of culture in all cities and towns. There is no need for us to go to Paris to become acquainted with M. Andersen's stimulating book; we can read it with the same advantage in Switzerland, in Australia, and in a Sussex village.
There is another respect, however, in which M. Andersen seems to ignore the great importance of the written word in our present civilisation; he likes symbolism in architecture and sculpture. In describing his design for the "Fountain of Life" he says that "it seemed naturally to take the shape of a large circular basin of which the bottom of blue mosaic symbolises a world, with four symbolic figures traced upon it in brightly coloured mosaics representing the seasons. Four large groups of four figures with children protected by a central figure represent the varying shades of sentiment that bind humanity together, and the triumph of love." Now a bottom of blue mosaic only symbolises a world because our author tells us that it does; but it does not express such a conception by virtue of its own form. The bottom of blue may be of an elegant shape, and its colour may be exquisite, but in so far as it attempts to symbolise something that is quite alien to its own nature, it is altogether outside the category of art. If people want to preach peace, love, and brotherhood, they should write pamphlets and get them translated into all languages, and they will explain their views far more clearly by this means than by trying to make architecture and sculpture convey a specific moral lesson. Some of the eccentricities that mar the sculpture in M. Andersen's volume are due to the fact that the figures are being strained to express ideas that the plastic arts are quite incompetent to express.
It would seem that M. Andersen has not taken into full consideration the part that literature plays in our modern life.
The Fallacy of the Perfect Plan
The political and social aspects of the World Centre ideal have been discussed. We must now deal with its aesthetic aspect. It is obvious that in their supermetropolis Messrs. Andersen and Hébrard have tried to create a city that should be without a blemish, that should have all the virtues of all other cities without any of their defects. Only thus could its pre-eminence be made manifest. Their ambition may seem creditable to them, but if we examine it closely we shall find that it is founded upon a philosophic heresy, the erronous belief that any particular thing can be perfect in every respect. Now, a boundless plain has its beauties and so has a solitary high mountain. It is also pleasant to see from some great eminence range behind range of hills. But one thing is clear beyond possibility of dispute--no single locality can at the same time possess the beauties that appertain to the boundless plain and also the beauties that appertain to a mountainous district. A flower can be red or blue or yellow, but no part of it can be all three colours simultaneously, unless it be white, in which case no special colour stands out at all. We can drink very hot coffee and also iced coffee. Each of them has its excellence. But no particular cup of coffee (after it has been well stirred round with a spoon) can at the same identical moment be both very hot and very cold. It cannot at once have all the virtues of which a cup of coffee is capable. When we come to consider some of the qualities of living beings the case is different, for there the element of time comes in. Harshness and tenderness are incompatible things; but yet a man can exhibit harshness one day and tenderness the next. The attributes of inanimate and stationary things, however, are not liable to change. If a Town Planner creates a square he must say good-bye for ever, as far as that particular piece of architecture is concerned, to the curved sweep of the cornice which he might have attained had he created a crescent instead; if he puts his city upon a plain, then he cannot have an acropolis that crowns a violet hill. What is finer than to look at an assemblage of magnificent buildings that are visible far out at sea! Yet, M. Hébrard had deliberately sacrificed such an effect in order to group his palaces and temples around the rectangular place. The World Centre is destitute of the character of universality. But that is not M. Hébrard's fault for no city nor any other created thing can possibly have this character.
The truth is that universality and perfection are not the property of any one thing. They can only be vested in a multiplicity of objects. That is one of the secrets of nature itself. The forms of animal and vegetable life so various and complex together comprise a universality and a perfection that are not resident in any single particular specimen however beautiful. The stout oak tree and the blade of grass, fishes and birds and mammals are not capable of being reduced to an archtype which can be regarded as a summary of their diverse qualities. For when we try to invent a concept so broad in its meaning that it includes all these incompatible things, we find that it is empty of content. So we must give up the attempt to design the universal city, the one city which above all others is fit to be the home of man and the centre of his civilisation. But in an infinite variety of cities, having all the different and contrary virtues of which a city is capable, there somewhere lies "the perfect city," which is, of course, only an idea.
Idolatry is not a heinous crime as some people suppose, but a pardonable philosophical error which is no less common because it does not take the form of the worship of graven images; it rests in a belief that the godhead or any other kind of universality can reside in some special part of the universe. Messrs. Andersen and Hébrard would appear to have confused the universal with the particular, and to have imagined that their supermetropolis was a shrine which could house the very spirit of internationalism. But that spirit can only find expression in the different capitals of the nations of the world, each of which has its own separate characteristics. Englishmen could not tolerate London if they knew it was the only capital. We can appreciate the peculiar virtues of London, and can become resigned to the thought that there are virtues which it lacks, by dwelling upon the grandeur of Paris, Rome, Florence, Berlin, or other cities. That is the true internationalism. But if we tried to imbue London with all the virtues of all the other cities, many of which virtues are contradictory and incompatible, we should not only deprive our capital of such character as it has, but fail to endow it with any other character. Let it not be our ambition that London should have as many broad streets as has Berlin, for fairly narrow streets have a charm of their own. Let us keep its buildings low so that St. Paul's may still dominate the city. But let New York be a symphony of skyscrapers. Every capital must jealously guard its own soul.
No citizen of London, of Paris, of Berlin, of New York, or even of any of our smaller towns such as are often endowed with some inimitable grace, could ever find in M. Hébrard's World Centre that multiplicity of excellence which would entitle it to a pre-eminent place in his affections. So far from this city being a symbol of vitality, it is a symbol of death and stagnation. It represents the end of the development of the city idea, which in reality can only grow to greater richness by becoming capable of ever wider and wider differentiation. If the World Centre is of such a catholic nature that it gives complete satisfaction to our highest needs, then its form is worthy to be copied upon all occasions, and it will lead to the adoption of a standardised type of town; if it has not this catholic nature, as indeed it has not, being necessarily devoid of nine-tenths of those beauties for which it is possible for a city to be distinguished, then it has no claim whatsoever to be a universal meeting-place. It is just a city among cities.
This question of the standard type of town must be given a little further consideration. One can deny that there is such a thing as a standard type of town without implying that towns should be devoid of form. Animals are of innumerable species, and yet each particular animal has a very distinct form and comprises a subtle artistic whole. The absence of a single type that embraces all instances does not mean mere anarchy and shapelessness. There are thousands of architectural formations all different, and yet all characterised by a certain sense of order. But they may have this in common--that they are the expression of one principle, and the universality of a principle is always measured by the variety of its manifestations. In urging the desirability of the utmost variety in the plans and in the architecture of cities one is not suggesting that there should be a variety of styles, for this would be sheer chaos. A conflict of styles means a conflict of principles, and when two principles conflict one of them is invariably wrong. A style that is worthy of the name must be such that its employment can give coherence and appropriate form to all the works of man, to cities, towns, and villages, to cathedrals, skyscrapers, factories, palaces, cottages, and pig-styes. While agreeing, however, with M. Andersen that there must ultimately be a cosmopolitan style, one cannot share his belief that the building of the supermetropolis or even the desire to build it would in the least degree hasten the coming of such a style, which is dependent upon its creation, not upon any political activity, but upon the operations of the mind conducted within a sphere far removed from politics. And when the style has once been created it will be manifested all over the world and, aesthetically, the "Centre of Communications" will not be in a privileged position at all; it would in no way be marked out as the particular symbol of "international aspiration."
M. Hébrard's Design
M. Hébrard's plan raises many points of interest. Not much need be said about the disposition of the main buildings. It may be remarked, however, that it is hardly appropriate that the "Temple of Religions" and the "International Court of Justice" should exactly balance one another. Buildings performing such very different social functions should not be of identical design. The Tower of Progress, Stadium, and Temple of Arts appear to be conveniently disposed. A special feature of the scheme is the broad canal; the docks are ingeniously placed at the furthest point from the sea and in the very centre of the factory district which is thus effectively cut off from the city proper. This arrangement has the additional advantage that the coast line is not disfigured by docks or railway sidings, but how the sea traffic is going to get under the bridges is another matter. Presumably commercial craft will have to be built low, with collapsible funnels, or perhaps masts and funnels will be abolished, and all boats will be propelled by stored electricity. But these are unprofitable speculations!
The World Centre is rightly placed by the sea, and it is characterised by complete symmetry. This is natural, for being an entirely hypothetical metropolis there is not the slightest reason why it should be unsymmetrical. The coast has also been carved out into a vast orderly shape. The important public buildings have been arranged in a geometrical pattern, and rather than that an arbitrary element should be introduced the unimportant streets, the commercial and residential, have also been disposed in a stiff and mechanical manner. This is unfortunate, for it deprives the plan of half its significance. It is right that the main group of palaces and museums should be united to form a whole. By such a means society gives itself, as it were, a backbone. Its most permanent elements are crystallised into an artistic entity. But in society there is both the permanent and the impermanent, and it is a condition for its health that what is impermanent should not take to itself the form of the permanent. It is only by a tremendous effort that society can ever create a formal configuration; it will not have strength to do so unless allowed to breathe freely elsewhere. The petals of a flower are symmetrically disposed, but the stems and leaves, although they have a beauty, and order of their own, are characterised by a certain freedom. A plant in which all the branches and twigs exactly balanced one another would be a monstrosity. It would look stiff and lifeless. The flower is vested with formality because it has a peculiar importance in the life of the plant; the flower has the seed, it contains within itself both the past and the future. Similarly in the animal world, where a still higher degree of vitality is displayed, the head and face are permanently symmetrical for they have great spiritual significance (we need not consider wilful distortion of a man's countenance), while the body and the limbs, though capable of assuming a symmetrical formation, are nearly always in that position of ease which is called "natural." A city which had no formal element at all would resemble a plant without a flower, or an animal without a face; but a city, like M. Hébrard's World Centre, that is completely formal can justly be compared to dried leaves twisted into the shape of a star or to man that has been crucified. There is no need to adopt a harsh view with regard to the choice of buildings worthy of being endowed with a formal character. Every town worthy of the name has its residential squares, while some of its shops are arranged in large compositions. But in the World Centre there is an utterly meaningless geometricality--an exact duplication of roads, some of which are about a mile away from each other. Even in M. Hébrard's bird's-eye view that enables the spectator to apprehend the road-pattern (a thing which no pedestrian in the World Centre could do) the effect is not pleasing, and he seems to have realised this himself, for he has cast dense shadows over the greater part of the city and has revealed to us in clear outline only the central configuration. Thus by a trick of draughtsmanship he conceals the defects of his scheme.
Let us give further consideration to the aesthetic aspects of the plan. The colossal Tower of Progress dominates the scene, while the broad "avenues" which lie between it and the Art Centre do much to give form to the city. It may be objected that the Olympic Centre is somewhat cut off from the main scheme, and that the Stadium blocks the view of the city from the harbour. It is easy to make this kind of criticism. Most designs, however, must be a compromise. If we had had an uninterrupted view of the Tower of Progress from the sea, the Temple of Art could not have been so admirably placed at the end of the Avenue des Nations. In a large metropolis one must not demand too great a measure of cohesion; much has been achieved if there is an ordered arrangement in a limited centre part. In this case, it is obvious that the Olympic Centre has to be regarded as an extraneous element. The area between the Tower of Progress and the Art Centre, having the Palaces of the Nations on either side, attracts one's attention immediately as a self-contained whole. It is the most important part of the city and it is to this that criticism must be directed. There is a change of terminology which must be suggested here, for although at first sight it may appear trivial, one's attitude to the plan is profoundly affected by it. The expression "avenue" is somewhat misleading, for the thing which the word connotes in this instance is not an avenue at all, but a long rectangular place. If we had before us the Scientific Centre and the Art Centre with nothing but avenues between them, the virtue of unity would be entirely absent: we should have a duality, two separate entities joined together by a thread, and the eye would travel from one to the other and would find no final resting-place. The present writer has no exact knowledge of the manner in which M. Hébrard's conception grew, but from the evidence before us it seems probable that he began by making a fairly narrow link between the centres, one which might truthfully have been called an avenue, and that afterwards his aesthetic sense compelled him to broaden it considerably until eventually he arrived at this rectangular place, which has a far greater right to be considered the real core of the city, the simple elementary form which gives it cohesion, than has the Tower of Progress; for the latter is nothing but an enormous spike which, in spite of its height, accentuates but a very small area of ground. What we have is a long place broadened at each end and surrounded on all sides by public buildings. Unfortunately, the Palaces of the Nations situated upon its flanks appear to have been designed before the avenue changed its character and developed into a place. They are disposed in an irregular way, half of them being recessed back a considerable distance, so that the area bounded by the buildings is of no obvious shape. This results in a loss of dignity, and although the Palaces of the Nations may be beautiful in themselves they do not together comprise a harmonious whole. It may be said that if they were given a single alignment the effect would be one of dulness.
This objection is undoubtedly a true one, and it emphasises the fact that there is a certain limit to the size of a formal place, a limit which in this instance has been exceeded. An avenue can be of a great length because it is only a joining member, but when we are dealing with a piece of ground which has to be considered as a unity, it ought not to be so large that the ordinary pedestrian cannot sum it up. The practice of making bird's-eye views is not without its dangers. Formerly it was often complained of architects that they designed their buildings without reference to what was adjoining, and had no eye for a big composition; it is quite likely that in the future they will be taken to task because their compositions are on such a scale that only people on aeroplanes would be able to take pleasure in them.
An extensive arrangement of formal architecture never fails to express the power and importance of the community that has brought it into being. But the love of grandeur sometimes develops into megalomania, and we have a fatal transition very like that between the sublime and the ridiculous. No city place should be so immense that it cannot be bounded by buildings that form a group whose significance can be grasped at once. It is hardly desirable that such a formation should attain a size greater than that of the paved court before the Palace at Versailles or the Place du Carrousel in front of the Louvre. The latter is 500 metres long, and even in this instance, when one stands on the site of the Tuileries, the general composition suffers because the more distant buildings, such as the central Pavillon Sully, seem too small to play their appropriate part in the scheme. This criticism applies still more aptly to M. Hébrard's rectangle, which is over a mile long.
There is another reason why the unit of design should not be extended indefinitely. Many a stately fabric reflects glory upon its creators, but when the wild ambition of artists leads them to erect structures so colossal that men and women look like insects beside them, the main purpose of art will not be fulfilled. For the purpose of art is to endow matter with mind, and this cannot be accomplished if mind is brought into disrepute, as is certainly the case when human beings, the highest incarnation of mind, are themselves humiliated before huge creations in stone. This is an insult, not to any individual, but to the humanity which is common to us all. It is natural, of course, that the individual should be conscious of his own subordinate position when in the presence of some vast assemblage of public buildings that expresses the majesty of the State to which he belongs; in this instance, however, a sense of his own comparative unimportance is accompanied by one of exaltation in that he is a member of an august society. The magnificence of the whole sheds lustre upon the parts. But our spirits are not elevated when architectural fabrics are allowed to attain such dimensions that our bodily forms are made to appear mean, petty, infinitesimal. It is necessary for the welfare of an animal that it retain a pride in its own type and species.
Many people hold that even St. Peter's Cathedral is too big and has not as much dignity as St. Paul's, which is far smaller. The grandeur of the Pyramids may doubtless be cited, but the Pyramids have all the simplicity of mountains. They are the decoration of a desert. A solitary monument may be as gigantic as we please, but when a dwelling-place is unduly inflated we have a repetition of elements which becomes exceedingly wearisome to the eye unless those elements are disguised and obliterated. No façade ought to be increased either in height or breadth to such an extent that the windows, the visible symbols of the human use to which the building has been devoted, lose their identity as windows and become insignificant factors in an immense pattern. This is what has certainly happened in the Tower of Progress. In fact, the World Centre has been conceived upon an excessive scale. We feel enervated rather than inspired at the sight of such vast units. Society itself appears to be belittled by such a gigantic structure as the Tower of Progress.
Some Remarks on the Uses of Architectural Forms
Putting aside the question of scale, let us ask ourselves whether the architectural forms employed in this design have been disposed in a manner which is in accordance with the best traditions of the past. Traditions are not inviolable, but, on the other hand, it is probable that all well-established usages owe their longevity to the fact that they are founded upon reason. Towers and domes cannot be erected merely to please the fancy of an artist, but have their own peculiar significance; and there are not only social but aesthetic principles which must be taken into account.
All the other buildings in the city are kept comparatively low, in order that this Tower of Progress may assert itself. There seems to be a confusion of motives here. Our authors started with the conception of a meeting-place, a crossing of the roads which was to be accentuated by an immense tower shaped somewhat like an obelisk. Afterwards they decided that a great city must be built to house the idealists who would be attracted to the world's capital. The consequence is that the tower that originally served to mark a particular centre (which function it was admirably fitted to perform) is made to preside over a city, and for this it is quite inadequate. A tower of narrow proportions cannot be invested with the presidential manner. It looks best when used as a foil to lower and more substantial buildings. A Turkish mosque and its minarets form a more impressive composition. The Campanile in St. Mark's Square at Venice, although it lifts its head so high, is really subordinate to the cathedral and library. The Tower of Progress when seen far out at sea would seem but a solitary spike, which had very little meaning; nobody would ever suppose that it had been built to express the nobility of communal existence. There is something restless and temporary in a single skyscraper rising high above a city. A stumpy church tower looks very well as the principal feature of a small country town; and a steeple is the natural climax of a picturesque village. But in the case of a city spread over a considerable area, a dome will always outbalance a dozen spires, provided that they are not absurdly tall. When we have a view of Oxford from one of the surrounding hills the Radcliffe Camera is obviously the centre of interest, while St. Mary's steeple looks all the better for being placed in contrast to it. In the present design, however, there are about 50 domes that are all made to look insignificant in the presence of the skyscraper, and this itself suffers through being put in a position of eminence of which it is not worthy. It is true an attempt has been made to support the central colossus by introducing eight campaniles. But these are too small to perform their function well, and look like thin sticks; moreover they have an arbitrary character, for they are not properly attached to the buildings of which they form a part, and one obtains the impression that they might be knocked off with advantage to the latter.
Criticism of the Tower of Progress
Of the Tower of Progress itself one may say that it is an interesting and highly original example of "skyscraper" design, and it is in many respects a most elegant structure. In a great deal of the criticism that can be passed upon it there is no implication that any other architect could have had more success than M. Hébrard in the task that he undertook. He has set himself an impossible problem. He has conceived his tower upon such a vast scale that its lower storeys cover too large an area to be lit or ventilated from the outside; hence he has cut into them with two enormous barrel vaults open at the ends, with the result that the base of the tower has not the requisite solidity.
But even if the whole building had been smaller, and the open vaults had not been necessary, it is questionable whether the obelisk form can be suitably adopted in a structure that is designed for habitation. In the case of a monument such as Cleopatra's Needle, we have one stone resting upon another which is broader than itself, and the bottom stone, being solid right through, is the visible support of the superincumbent weight; the same is true of the many beautiful memorial columns with their spreading bases. When, however, we have a many-storeyed building that is punctured by hundreds of windows and presents a thin and fragile surface, it seems to lack stability if its upper walls are upheld by the transverse stress of invisible beams. But that is not the only cause, nor the most important, which may prevent us from finding pleasure in such a design. The constructional argument is often a little weak, for we are beginning to attain such confidence in the power of concrete and steel that no feat of engineering will surprise us. No doubt there may be a few flagrant violations of constructional propriety, such as a shop front apparently resting on a sheet of glass, that will always offend us; but it is probable that critics will in future direct their attention more and more to the question of pure design, and will demand of every building not that its supports should obtrude themselves upon our notice, but that a proper aesthetic relation should be established between its parts. In considering this point, there is a certain difference between square and round structures that must be taken into account. It will appear that M. Hébrard has treated the top of his circular tower in a manner which is only permissible in a square one, and so he attains a restless telescopic effect. If a rectangular building has an attic storey of diminished area, the two can always be brought into relation with one another, for that part of the façade immediately opposite the attic can be accentuated by a slight projection or by the use of an order, both these methods have been employed with eminent success in St. George's Hall, Liverpool; in Schinkel's Museum in Berlin, however, it must be counted a blemish that the central row of columns utterly ignores the attic which is above them. But when there is a round building arranged in tiers like a wedding-cake, even the most skilful architect cannot possibly make it into one coherent composition. A recent design for an immense oval building in New York, after the manner of the Coliseum, perhaps provides an example of the improper use of a receding attic. There is, however, one solution which applies to but a limited number of cases. It has been adopted in the domes of Wren and Soufflot; here the larger drum has an open colonnade behind which we see a wall that is coterminous with the superstructure, while it may be remarked that in each instance there are rectangular projections from the main body of the church, so that by this means the façades are made to take cognisance of the dome.
The sudden diminutions of the Tower of Progress, one at its base and the other at its crown, appear unsatisfactory because they divide the whole into parts which have not been sufficiently connected together. Not only has the base nothing whatsoever to do with the circular colonnade above it, but it does not comprise a unity even when considered by itself. The great arch, for instance, instead of being brought into relation with the rest of the structure by means of an order, completely ignores all the neighbouring features; it strikes one immediately as an element of discord, for while being too small to dominate the façade, it is yet obtrusive enough to cut it into two. What is best in the design is the part between the clock and the crown, which is simple and dignified and might almost stand alone.
All the most beautiful towers of the past, even those attached to buildings, have been carried right down to the ground, and their width has not been increased at their base. This is the natural treatment, for we are dealing with walls here and not with solid blocks of stone such as go to form an obelisk. The essential difference between a habitation and a monument must be borne in mind: in the former case we see a thin shell which is lacking in significance unless it expresses to a certain limited extent the shape and disposition of the rooms inside, and if the building is to be a work of art, one has a right to assume that an upper storey of diminished area has a logical connection with the plan of the storey below, that it perhaps marks the position of an interior hall which is again reflected upon the outside surface by the accentuation of that part of the façade immediately opposite the hall; but in a monument the units of composition are something substantial, impenetrable, opaque, and so we have far greater freedom to use a pyramidal form. It would seem that M. Hébrard has been fed by his admiration of the noble obelisk motif to employ it in an unwarrantable manner.
At first sight one might imagine that when M. Hébrard designed his memorial to Progress the Eiffel Tower was the real source of his inspiration. But this is a fabric of a quite different kind, for it is frankly a steel structure standing firmly on four legs which are a continuation of the main ribs of the tower; in that it has such a satisfactory foundation, it is aesthetically superior to the building we have just criticised.
In the brief space at our disposal it is useless to try to do justice to all the works of architecture in this world's capital. Most of them are of the type with which the Beaux-Arts School has made us familiar. The fact is that there are so many stately buildings that we become a little weary of them, and long for a foil which would set them off to better advantage. One is reminded of the saying of Goethe, that the most illustrious persons when congregated together may form a society which has all the characteristics of a mob. In spite of their individual beauty the Palaces of the Nations may be said to comprise an assembly somewhat lacking in distinction; their common and international purpose would have been better expressed if they had all lined up to the rectangular place. The Art Centre is by far the most successful part of the design; here the dome is given its proper dignity as the most important feature, while the museums and galleries are elegantly disposed around a formal court. The building which is perhaps most open to criticism is the Stadium. Here we have a restless formation of twin towers which would only be tolerable if there were a central feature big enough to dominate them. The curved façade at the ends slides into the straight in a slovenly manner; the place where the semi-circle begins should obviously be accentuated in some way, so that we might be prepared for the sudden bend. Towards the harbour side the amphitheatre has been broken to provide an entrance, with the result that the whole design has an unfinished appearance, such as the Coliseum would have had if there had been a gap in its oval.
Taking a general view of the buildings of this city, one may say that they provide fresh evidence of the flexibility of the Classic style, which can be adapted to such a great variety of architectural forms.
Whatever criticisms may be passed upon it, there is no doubt that Messrs. Andersen and Hébrard's "World Centre of Communication" will be counted a landmark in the history of civic design. We cannot help being struck not only by the originality of the conception, but by its completeness.
In order that nothing might be lacking in their scheme, our authors have made a minute study of the requirements of modern museums and galleries, and have tried to introduce the newest devices into their buildings. It is obvious that the labour expended upon this volume is quite prodigious. Whether this, labour has all been expended to the best purpose it is almost ungracious to ask. The severest critics would doubtless contend that when people are indulging in mere speculation it is unnecessary to design a city as if it were going to be built next year, and that it would have been preferable to devote more thought to first principles and less to the elucidation of small points of detail. On the other hand, it must be remembered that books are not written nor are pictures painted for philosophers alone. The majority of mankind like to have a new idea dressed up to the nines. Everybody is familiar with the type of student who can never appraise even the proportions of a building until it is fully decorated, until every moulding is neatly drawn in. But this desire to suspend judgment in the presence of an unfinished product is not always a mark of mental weakness; many designs look plausible when they are in the rough, but do not bear examination if all their features are clearly delineated. There is another reason which may account for the somewhat excessive particularity of M. Hébrard's plan. He may have been afraid of being called a "visionary"; that is the severest charge that can be brought against a member of his profession. A painter is permitted to see as many visions as he pleases, but if an architect indulges in this pastime he is dubbed "unpractical," and loses caste at once. But if anyone is inclined to say that M. Hébrard's international halls could not be built in the immediate future, and would serve no conceivable human need if they were built, he can always reply that their acoustic properties would be excellent, and their systems of heating would be in accordance with the latest models, the intended inference being that if so much practicality is displayed in the internal arrangements of his buildings, the general scheme for which the same author is responsible will also have this quality and must not be condemned hastily. By such means do artists cope with popular prejudice. But even if they succeed in attracting attention by this device, they demean themselves thereby, for they overload their work with what is accidental and temporary. The search for architectural ideas should take the form of light and rapid skirmishing; hundreds of schemes must be brought before us, rather than one scheme elaborated far more than is necessary for its comprehension. Advanced scouts will not perform their functions well if they burden themselves with enough impedimenta to set up a camp.
We must be grateful to our authors, however, in that they have had the courage to design an ideal city at all, and that they have designed it in "the grand manner."
Selected, scanned, edited, provided with headnotes, and formatted as a web document by John W. Reps, Professor Emeritus, Department of City and Regional Planning, West Sibley Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853, USA. Tel: (607) 255-5391, Fax: (607) 255-6681, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org To Top of Page To Homepage