When Is Architectural Symbolism Hypocrisy?
8 mins read

When Is Architectural Symbolism Hypocrisy?

Architecture mirrors the culture it is built from, while simultaneously aspiring to lead that culture. This is almost oxymoronic, since reflecting and projecting our values is an essential part of every human life, and architecture is exquisitely human. Our buildings embody us, with all of our mixed messages.

The city of New Haven, Connecticut, has several “gateways” where those passing by and through it are welcomed. Architecture students of a certain age remember the New Haven Coliseum (now gone) and the Knights of Columbus Tower, buildings designed by Kevin Roche that heroically defied precedents to create iconic symbols of arrival as the then-new Route 34 (now Martin Luther King Boulevard) funneled traffic from I-91 and I-95 into and out of New Haven’s downtown. 

Across the street, another intentional urban demarcation is close to completion. Elkus Manfredi Architects was selected by Winstanley Enterprises to design a new multitenant life sciences center located at 101 College St. It’s as proud as Roche’s tower, but much of corporate architecture built in the 21st century has new formal complexities that convey relevance beyond the statements that mid-20th century icons aspired to.

The exterior of the building uses solid/void curtain walls, applied shapes, and material distinctions that are typical of the architectural language of the moment. But in addition to those arbitrary complexities, this building has an even more overt attempt to offer an architectural sound bite: The veneration of a celebrated piece of “mass timber.”

Of course the recent advancements in mass timber to avoid the carbon emissions generated by using concrete and steel for larger buildings is an exploding construction method. But this entry on College Street is not about that. A tiny piece of the building uses the luster of “mass timber cool” at the first two stories on one side of one corner of the building at the street level.

While mass timber is being built as a viable alternative to mid rise urban structures, here its use is aesthetic, a neat showpiece as the rest of this building is built as a standard steel-and-concrete building.

 

The entry’s two-story wing highlights a mass timber interior. This one spot uses bared, lit, and focal wood timbers and natural wood as applied ornament on one section, set floating off the slick skin. While mass timber is being built in northern Europe and the U.S. as a viable alternative to mid rise urban structures, here its use is aesthetic, a neat showpiece as the rest of this building (shorter than many of the other actual mass timber buildings) is built as a standard steel-and-concrete building.

Once again, symbolism over substance has a front-facing presence in architecture—like the temple pediments tacked onto a thousand neoclassical civic and institutional buildings, rendered in limestone purity, when their creation as free-standing temples over two millennia ago were dazzling colored explosions.

Since the Renaissance, designers have used the aesthetic gravitas of classical architecture from a thousand years earlier as symbols of legitimacy and power. Applying iconography is a seminal design choice. However, the legitimate colorization of the ancient buildings’ design was somehow eschewed by neoclassicists as getting in the way of the archeological cliche we hold dear. The selective use of mass timber bits for the entry iconography in New Haven is a knowing but empty aesthetic insertion. No anti-carbon revolution here, just a neat alternative applied to the special place of entry for a gateway building, built in the steel and concrete that mass timber is intended to supplant.

Using the mass timber aesthetic as eye candy without any intention of carbon mitigation is merely another attempt to find relevance for buildings in the greater culture, like the attempts to graft pale neoclassical porticos onto new construction without the vitalizing colors of their origins.

A few blocks from the Elkus Manfredi gateway is what all of the city’s gateways ultimately lead to: The New Haven Green, the center square of the nine-block, theologically centered 1638 civic experiment designed by Theophilus Eaton and John Davenport. Like Puritanism itself, New Haven did not maintain its theological origins. But two hundred years after its founding, three new churches were built in the second decade of the 19th century at the center of the New Haven Green. It could be said that the Great Awakening religious revival of that moment generated these civic icons, and one of them manifested the very human desire to connect a building to beyond itself. 

A Perspective View of the Three Houses for Public Worship on the Public Square New Haven, hand-colored engraving attributed to Amos Dolittle, circa 1825. Courtesy of New Haven Colony Historical Society, New Haven, Connecticut.

 

That church, Trinity Church on the Green, was the lone Church of England parish in the city, a denomination eventually renamed the Episcopal Church in America. At the time the Church of England was, well, English. And in 18th century England, the desire to be proudly English was in full power, which somehow became Gothic Revival architecture and, despite the Revolutionary War with England and another war in 1812, Trinity Church on the Green, and its architect, Ithiel Town, saw the cool new way to be English was to be Gothic.

So a large worship space, which is not perpendicular or elongated, was built and Gothicized by applying iconic pieces and ogee arches that simulated Gothic architecture. Very much like the mass timber touches on the Elkus Manfredi building (without the rethinking of construction.)

Is this hypocrisy? 

It is human. Like 18th century America, the 21st has lost its traditional way of being religious. While human spirituality is a constant, organized religion is losing relevance. That split can be applied to architecture. Our culture has lost the architectural religions that were our styles for the last two centuries. The earliest English colonists came to this continent as Puritans, who gave the best part of New England towns to meeting houses on greens that were dedicated to the glory of God. The extreme devotion of the Puritans was too hard for their grandchildren, and the reasonable, mainline Protestant religion of the Congregational Church was born.

Similarly, architects and Western culture believed in the universal truth of classical architecture being transcendently noble and perfect, until some did not. Like the Puritans breaking away from the Anglican Church (who broke away from the Catholic Church), some in 20th century culture came to see a modernist universality—which, ironically, eschewed “decoration”—until its own “style” proved hard to justify. Now, as all aesthetics are being questioned and revised, as they always have been, the truths of climate change are as central to culture as classical beauty and the truth of modernity were in the previous century.

So finding the symbolic trappings of grappling with the climate crisis—whether it’s the solar panel tacked onto a façade or the dramatically lit mass timber entry on a steel-and-concrete building—that effort is us, trying to find a deeper meaning in what we think is beauty.

But style is not substance. Ideas do not trump reality. The reality of wildly colored architecture 2,000 years ago is a reality that no stage set perfecting of architecture conveys. A Congregational Church wearing a Gothic suit is not an English building, and a decorative use of heavy timber is not reinventing construction. It’s just humanity in the moment trying to find the truth in our architecture.

Featured photo by the author.