By Witold Rybczynski
Oct. 21, 2014
Have you noticed that whenever a televised report about the Federal Reserve airs on the nightly news the account is invariably accompanied by an image of the Fed’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.? It’s always the same shot: the central entrance of a low, white marble block. Unlike many government buildings, the Fed doesn’t resemble a Roman temple, although it has some of the same gravitas. The front door is framed by a monumental portico, with a sculpted American eagle perched above the centerpiece.
Though the image might be familiar, not many people would recognize the architect of this enduring national symbol. Paul Philippe Cret (pronounced “Cray”) is hardly a household name, yet during the three decades leading up to World War II, he was one of America’s leading architects. Cret’s work includes the splendid Detroit Institute of Arts, the Indianapolis Central Library, Cincinnati’s vast Union Terminal and the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. The Lyon, France-born architect was responsible for three exquisite small museums — the Barnes Foundation and the the Rodin Museum, both in Philadelphia, and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. — and he also designed the Memorial Arch at Valley Forge and several World War I cemeteries and battlefield memorials. Cret spent his career teaching at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia (where he also established an architectural practice) and, until his death in 1945, was celebrated by both his colleagues and the public. Decades later, his buildings remain admired, enjoyed and — most important — cared for. At least 10 of them are on the National Register. So what accounts for his present-day anonymity?
Perhaps the chief reason has to do with historical accident. By education and temperament Cret was a classicist. But he was also a pragmatist, believing that classicism had to be adapted to the needs and tastes of the modern world. To that end, he developed what he called New Classicism, which dispensed with the Greek orders but preserved a classical sense of proportion, balance and symmetry. One of the earliest projects in which Cret began exploring this style was the 1928 World War I memorial at Château-Thierry, a monumental colonnade on a hilltop overlooking the valley where the fighting had taken place. The design of the memorial is spare and austere, and since the square piers are close together, the effect is of a wall with slits cut into it rather than a traditional colonnade. Cret’s new (or “stripped”) classicism was widely studied in Germany in the 1930s, and in 1935, after 30-year-old Albert Speer had been appointed the official architect of the Third Reich, he designed a colonnade of square piers atop the Zeppelinfeld stadium, directly referencing Cret. The stadium modeled what would become the house style of National Socialism; a comparable one was adopted by Mussolini’s regime. By a cruel twist of fate, the stripped classicism that Cret had conceived as the future of American public architecture was co-opted in service of very different ideologies.
It is a shame that Cret’s architecture was tarred with the fascist brush, for his World War I memorials are among the most evocative commemorative structures ever built. The centerpiece of Château-Thierry, which commemorates a battle in which both American and French forces decisively repulsed a major German advance, is Alfred-Alphonse Bottiau’s statue of two female allegorical figures representing the countries, their fingers intertwined. Cret understood that the ability of architecture to communicate iconographic information is limited — there is only so much that a building can say with abstract forms — and so he frequently worked with sculptors and painters. The facade of the Folger has nine bas-relief panels depicting scenes from Shakespeare plays (they were carved by John Gregory, whose work also adorns the exterior of the Federal Reserve) and in the Fed’s entrance portico, Cret gave Sidney Waugh’s imposing eagle pride of place. Architects have worked with artists ever since Ictinus and Phidias collaborated on the Parthenon, but modern architects tend to keep art at arm’s length. A Calder or an Oldenburg in a plaza is acceptable, or a Sol LeWitt mural on an airport wall (as in Toronto’s new Terminal 1), but rarely will an architect grant an artist equal billing.
Cret’s concerns were different from those of today’s architects. He belonged to a generation which believed that an architect had a responsibility, especially when designing a civic building, to treat architecture as a medium of public expression. This puts him at odds with today’s so-called signature architects such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, whose designs carry a personal stamp. Cret composed his buildings using the age-old technique of axes and symmetry, and took for granted that the purpose of architecture was to create places of balance and calm. “Exciting” is not a word that one applies to his architecture, and his buildings are tame compared to today’s overheated and hyperactive designs. We have become used to architecture with high decibel levels— tilted walls, dramatic cantilevers, unexpected shapes. By contrast, a Cret building murmurs. His architecture is so low-key that it is easy to overlook. In that respect, he resembles Peter Bohlin, designer of the Apple stores and Seattle’s city hall, who also works without calling attention to himself.
Cret’s New Classicism remains one of the great might-have-beens of American architecture. But architectural taste is unpredictable, and in one way it has already tilted back towards Cret, whose influence is visible in the celebrated buildings of his former student Louis Kahn. But whether or not Cret’s ideas find renewed expression, his remarkable buildings are destined to endure. Decades on, every one of Cret’s major works still stands: The tower he designed for Bethesda Naval Hospital still serves military patients, the Federal Reserve’s grand poohbahs continue to meet in the imposing Cret-designed Board Room, and UT architecture undergrads study in the handsome building that he designed for them in 1932. These buildings capture a special moment in American architecture, a time when architects had a glimpse of the modern future but were unwilling to entirely forget the classical past.