Michael Imber, FAIA, is principal of Michael G. Imber, Architects in San Antonio. Imber, a self-described “modern classicist,” submitted a letter, dated February 17, to AIA President Jane Frederick and CEO Robert Ivy in response to the AIA’s statement regarding the draft executive order “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again.” Texas Architect Editor Aaron Seward talks with Imber about the points in his letter and about the principles shared by modernists and classicists/traditionalists.
Aaron Seward: Let’s get started by reviewing some recent history: Architectural Record leaks a supposed draft presidential order mandating classical stylings on federal buildings. The AIA issues a response saying it is opposed to mandated styles, that it supports diversity in every way. And you respond with a letter to the AIA saying that’s not quite true, and, in fact, the AIA for decades and decades has been pushing modernism as a style, over classicism and traditional vernacular styles.
Michael Imber, FAIA: I think, number one, as you stated, the purpose of the AIA letter is to say that they’re against mandating a style for federal architecture. That’s not what I was in disagreement about. What I was in disagreement about was their reasoning — what they stated as facts. And that their position was very slanted. So, that’s what I was trying to address with my letter. As a traditionalist, I didn’t feel like it was evenly representational. And I felt they made statements that were simply untrue. So I was trying to set the record straight.
AS: One thing that’s come up in both your response and in other responses from the classical camp has been that the presidential draft order reduces an entire philosophy of architecture to a surface style. What is the classical philosophy of architecture, and how is that different from what we call modernism?
MI: The difference between a style and a philosophy is that style is more transient. It’s not something that relates specifically to us or our principles. And that’s where I have an issue with the presidential statement asking for a style. If it had stated a set of principles, much like the earlier guidelines for the GSA [General Services Administration], I think that would have been much more successful and much more meaningful. If we look at what classicism or what traditional architecture is all about, it’s an understanding of history and how that history embodies cultural meaning. It’s an architecture that’s been developed for thousands of years and has been adapted by many cultures, and many politics, and many philosophies.
I think when we look at classical architecture, it’s a matter of basic principles that are humanistic in their nature. They are elements that have been derived from nature and proportioned in the built form, so they’re relatable. They form a language that we’re familiar with — a language that represents stability. We find beauty in these buildings. And we know people react to the language of classical architecture and its expression of beauty.
If you look at the principles of classical architecture, going back to Vitruvius — commodity, firmness, and delight — they lead to buildings that are useful and adaptable. They’re buildings that express stability, which is something that the 1962 GSA guidelines asked for.
And, a lot of those principles can be applied to modern architecture, as well. So, for us to get into this battle between whether it’s classical or modernist, to me, is meaningless. What we need to be talking about is general principles of architecture, and those principles that resonate with everybody, and not just the few.
AS: It seems that in this style war between classicism and modernism, we’re overlooking the fact that there’s actually quite a bit of common ground to both approaches, and that architecture itself transcends questions of style.
AS: I’d like to go back to the idea of beauty. Beauty is something that modernism used to speak about in the mid-century period. neo-modernists, however, have let go of beauty as a talking point. As an architectural journalist, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a contemporary architect use the word beauty to describe something that they were seeking to achieve in a project, whereas classicists and traditionalists speak about it all the time without any sort of self-consciousness. I’m wondering if you could speak about what is the basis of beauty and what makes beauty universal?
MI: Well that’s a difficult question. And I wish I was a philosopher instead of just a practicing architect. I think part of the problem that we have in today’s architectural schools is that, as modernism tries to divorce itself from classical principles and from history, [it has] a hard time defining what beauty is. And so what ends up happening is it becomes defined individually, by each and every architect, and becomes less a communal definition than it does an individualistic expression. The more it becomes an individualistic expression, the more it gets lost on the general public, and the more we have misses in terms of the public being able to understand the architecture at all, and often they reject it.
AS: So this goes back to classical and traditional uses of historic forms that have been around for a long time, and the reason they’ve been around for a long time is that people like them?
MI: Well, yeah. It’s like, you have your diet. If you eat something you like, you’re going to keep eating it. Something you don’t like, you’re going to discard it. Mankind has been reverberating these classical principles over the millennia because they’re meaningful and we respond to them. The problem is, as modernists keep trying to find an expression of beauty that is not embodied in those principles, there are going to be times when they hit it and times when they miss. There are architects that are modernists who understand and are able to get a positive response from their architecture. And there are architects that even try to find those points which they find the public reacting to in a negative way. I guess that’s why you see me responding in my letter to Thom Mayne’s Federal Building in San Francisco. He actively tries to agitate.
AS: There’s this strain of the avant-garde that continues to run through modernist expressions of architecture, I think exemplified by Mayne, that is intentionally challenging, intentionally confrontational, maybe even intentionally ugly. It goes back to this idea of defamiliarization, of making things strange, to kind of snap us out of our torpor. Which, you know, is questionable, whether or not that’s ever an operation that actually happens, but it is an intriguing idea.
MI: Well, it is an intriguing idea, and it has its place. But does it have a place in the GSA? I keep going back to the 1962 GSA guidelines, which say a major emphasis should be placed on choosing styles that embody the finest contemporary American thought, but that sentence is in the middle of a paragraph that also says buildings should reflect dignity, enterprise, vigor, and the stability of the national government, and specific attention should be paid to designs that reflect the regional architectural traditions of the part of the nation in which the buildings are located. You know, we have a tendency to cherry-pick the language that we want to use and ignore the rest of it.
The other place that I had a real issue with the AIA’s letter was where it said that classical buildings cost more, which is a blatant mistruth. I do classical buildings. I have to work within the same budgets that modernist buildings do. I don’t have a choice of going to a university and saying, well, I need a budget that’s three times higher because my buildings are classical. I’m given a budget, and I have to work within that budget. And, in fact, my last classical project, on the University of Arkansas campus, was under budget — and LEED-certified.
The other thing is the experimentation that you get with a lot of the GSA buildings that modernists are putting out there. With that experimentation, both in terms of the technology and building materials, you have maintenance issues — sometimes long-standing maintenance issues — which end up costing millions of dollars after the buildings are built. And, again, if you go to the GSA guidelines, it says designs must adhere to a sound construction practice and use of materials, methods, and equipment of proven dependability. Buildings must be economical to build, operate, and maintain. And that’s ignored.
AS: Yeah. But, would you say that the classical approach will always produce a watertight building? It seems like, in some ways, there’s an issue of commissioning here, and the actual execution.
MI: You know, of course not. It always depends on the constructability of a building. But the fact is that classical buildings are relying less on steel, glass, silicon, and plastics than modern buildings are. And when you’re using more stable materials, then the chances that the building is going to be longer-lasting, if built properly, are much higher.
AS: Now this touches on a direction in which I want to move this conversation, which is this idea that modern architecture is a response to our technological age, and a lot of its forms are derived from both new building typologies of the modern era, as well as technologies that go into the buildings, like air conditioning. At the same time, those modern technological advancements have gotten us into an ecological situation that may be ending the world as we know it. So in some ways, I think now might be a good time to look back to classical architecture, to architecture that was built in an era before air conditioning.
MI: [laughs] Yeah, if you want to be sustainable, get rid of air conditioning.
AS: Exactly. So it’s really easy. And, you know, also, significantly decreases the budget of your building.
MI: Here’s the problem I have with those comments: As long as we’re building innovative buildings for the sake of innovation, we’ll always be chasing our tails. Because once an innovative building is built, then it’s obsolete and you’re moving on to the next innovation. The other issue with that is, if you’re relying on innovative technology, who’s to say what ends up being tried and true in terms of that technology? If you’re building innovative technology, then who’s to say how you’re going to maintain that building 10 years from now, when technology has moved on to something completely different? And what’s the cost of that maintenance going to be? So, to me, that’s a complete fallacy, when we start saying that buildings should reflect innovation and innovation alone.
AS: Another thing that influenced the acceptance of modern architecture at its birth was sanitation — and this is very relevant right now with the COVID-19 crisis. Modern architecture got a leg up because it was seen as a cleaner form of architecture — it let more light inside. Tuberculosis, I think, was the going concern at the time, and a lot of early modernist buildings were in fact sanitariums. Also, Corbusier wrote about the need to clean up Paris, and modern architecture, or modern city planning, was a response to that. I wonder if you have any thoughts about sterility, sanitization, health, and classical architecture?
MI: I’ve never been in any modern classical building that feels dirty or isn’t lit with natural sunlight. So I think any well-designed building is going to take into account sunlight. As far as cleanliness, I think that’s referring to the original modernist premise that if you have moldings, they’re going to catch dust, and therefore, you’re going to have a dusty atmosphere, and that’s going to be unhealthy. Well, look at Thom Mayne’s federal building in San Francisco and tell me there’s not some dust shelves in that building. It’s off the charts!
AS: For sure.
MI: So, I don’t know. That was an argument in early modernism. I don’t know how relative or meaningful that argument was. All I can do is speak for what we’re doing today with our buildings and our awareness of these things, whether or not you’re a classical practitioner or modernist. I don’t think any modern classical architects are building unhealthy buildings.
AS: Earlier in my career, when I was still in New York, I was interviewing Robert Stern about a new high-rise that was going up in Lower Manhattan, near the World Trade Center site. Unlike the skyscrapers at the World Trade Center, which are all glass curtain wall buildings, this was a residential building. It was done with a stone facade, punched windows, and kind of like this classic idea of the New York skyscraper expression. We were discussing that — and Stern is an architect that will design both a glass curtain wall building and a contextual stone-clad building — and what he says is, “Look, this is a modern building in terms of its structure, its systems — it’s reinforced concrete, and it’s air conditioned, and has elevators — but it has a facade, an expression, that speaks to the qualities of the golden era of New York City high-rise design.”
MI: That’s exactly right, and that’s another issue I had with the AIA letter, which said that classical buildings cannot adapt to modern technology, which is just bunk. I’m not a political guy. I’m not one to throw my hat in the ring and start writing letters. But when the AIA is sending official letters that state these sorts of things, it’s hard to stand by as a member and not refute it.
AS: I’m friends with a lot of young architects, and many of them don’t seem to have any sort of revolutionary furor, or any sort of allegiance to a style. A number of them have said that they’d love to work for a classical architect doing, you know, Palladian buildings, if they were doing them well. But not a lot of people are coming out of school these days with that training, and not a lot of people are doing it well.
MI: You’re right. And that’s a problem. I think, as architects, we should all be trained to understand traditional architecture and understand architectural history. I think that’s the basis for our knowledge. Where we go from there is another matter. I purposely sent you our project Escondido-Aspen to show you that, even though we’re classical architects, we can design in the modern idiom.
A lot of schools today don’t teach the principles of classical architecture, but fortunately, we have some schools that do. Most of our employees come from Notre Dame and like-minded programs. But the fact is, you’ve got some schools today that don’t even teach drawing. It’s hard to understand how we can think holistically about architecture if we don’t have that training. I mean, for instance, when you look at an AutoCAD screen, there’s no scale reference. When you’re dealing with classical architecture, it’s all about scale.
AS: In your office, do you produce most of your design by hand?
MI: Conceptually we do, and then we quickly move on to the computer, where we do 3-D studies. We use all the modern tools that we have at our disposal, but it starts by hand. The hand-to-mind connection to our creativity is where it starts.
AS: My background is in literature…
MI: Could you imagine if you’d never studied literature of the past?
AS: [laughs] This is what I’m saying! To this day, I’ll read the classics. I was just reading Ovid’s “Amores” to my girlfriend, and she couldn’t believe it was a 2,000-year-old text and said it sounds like it was written by My Cousin Vinny.
AS: The same concerns of the heart; the same humanistic landscape — it’s continuous. And it seems like there is a corollary to this in architecture.
MI: And that’s why we feel strongly about the continuity, and you’ll hear classicists talk about that continuum consistently. It’s what connects us as human beings; it’s what connects us to our past; and it’s what connects us to our future. If we’re always designing for the now, we’ll always be disconnected.