Three glorious buildings of the University; Or, the Myth of the Historian of Architecture in the Age of the Neo-Styles
The Opera House
Our university tour commences at the Opera House, an enduring monument for the generations of excellent scholars in the timeless pursuit of music. We are now able to determine the exact year of its completion, and it reveals that it was the very year that a miserable plague has swept through the cities and the countryside. Although some of the history has fallen into the tenebrous unknown, we know that the Opera house has opened two years later, which is indeed a testament to the perseverance of the builders, stone masons, carpenters, metalsmiths, as well as university magisters, scholars and students inhabiting the city that we know and adore today. Its opening must have been spectacular–a visit to the theater (or, the theatrum) reveals its full glory. Indeed, the beauty is beyond words. A philosopher once remarked that whereof we cannot speak of, thereof we must be silent. 1 Now, we must move on.
The second step of our visit is the Institute Building. Constructed during the fin-de-siècle–a time of art, literature, and music that conjures up much of our romantic imagination–the building itself is a cauldron that epitomizes all the cultural achievement of this belle epoque, and its excellence is the manifestation that architecture is the summation of all arts. In the parlance of the time it is said that the building is “Saracenic” and “Oriental”, which reveals a refueled admiration of cultural achievements of the “Near East,” a movement echoed by the allied arts. The opulence of the building brought to it distinguished personalities of the top echelon–two former chef d’état attended its ground-breaking and an erstwhile Russian sovereign the dedication. 2
The Administration Building
Finally we are at the Administration Building, a rather recent architecture that speaks with an ethos close to that of ours. Constructed only a few years before WWI, we can even find an abundance of photographs taken during its completion. Indeed this building may look a lot older than what it really is–Neo-Byzantine in style, it sports an arcade replicating that of the Doge’s palace in Venice.
If there is any accusation of anachronism, it is based on the naive presumption (or normative prescription) that time is linear, which is nothing but a spatial metaphor and of course, time is not spatial at all. 3 What we can expect is that a neo-style architecture like such can gradually accrue meanings to itself, through the attachments of the users so that it is no longer “neo” and indeed, with the passage of time, incommensurate–would people in the year 20230 care so much between the Dover castle and a Disney castle? It is now the year of MMXXIII (which is entirely extraneous to this discussion), and what can be certain is that revivalism, “renaissances,” neo-styles of all sorts will continue to reappear. Indeed, to talk about style, is totally inadequate–it is not neo style but no style, no style but this an sich. And indeed they need to be constructed as soon as possible and as much as possible to quickly generate convincing monuments in the nearest future. And no, they are not McMonuments–with just a couple of decades they are indistinguishably history. Pollution and climate change is without a doubt an aid: acid rain accelerates the deterioration of stone, and uptick in natural disasters only increases the chance of creating artificial ruins. The production of monuments is the commodification of history, and to speculate we must invest in money and time.
The historians of architecture writing this neo-future are the absurd heroes. They are, as much through their passions as through their tortures. Their scorn of the monuments, their hatred of death, and their passion for their métier won them that unspeakable penalty in which their whole beings are exerted toward accomplishing nothing. The struggle itself toward the infinity is enough to fill their hearts. One must imagine the historians happy. 4
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinnes (London: Routledge & Kegal Paul Ltd, 1961), 151, §7. ↩︎
- Stephen Fox, Rice University: An Architectural Guide (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001), 123. Its ground-breaking is attended by George Bush and Gerald Ford and its dedication Mikhail Gorbachev. ↩︎
- See Henri Bergson, Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness, trans. F. L. Pogson (New York: McMillian, 1910), 232-34. ↩︎
- The last paragraph is a rewrite of Albert Camus’s essay. See Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Alfred A. Knopf: 1955), 120, 123. ↩︎