by Timothy Culvahouse

Millenial Questions Invite polemical responses, so I will begin with a rash remark: architectural innovation in our century has involved more rejection than invention.

We have rejected old ideas to open our minds to something new; rejected certain possibilities to symbolize a challenge to a political or cultural order; rejected other possibilities because we could not muster the resources necessary for success in them. Many of us, sad to say, have rejected something simply to distinguish our work from that of others. Individuals, like nations, too often define themselves by what they are not.

Our claim throughout has been that the rejected things were not modern, meaning timely, and we have been parsimonious in defining what counts in our time. Some of the possibilities we have rejected as unmodern include: ornament, both as signification and as a system for ordering and scaling surfaces; representation, generally, and figural representation specifically; hierarchically differentiated space or, simply, rooms; dark rooms in particular, and darkness in general; craft; colors beyond the secondary triad; surface relief; operable windows; and both beauty and comfort (unmodern because they are rationally indeterminate and, presumably, bourgeois).

I cannot recall a notable building of the last fifty years that has not rejected at least a handful of these possibilities. Nor is it easy to think of an architect of this period whose position is not actually defined, in part, by such rejections. Dare we imagine another thousand years of rejected possibilities — including the possibilities discovered in Modernism itself? I think not. We have rejected enough. Architecture is the application of judgment to the superabundance of possibilities, not their reduction.

I look at the First Church of Christ, Scientist, and am amazed at this unprecedented whole in which Maybeck abandons no part of the legacy as he innovates. The church combines long-known forms with forms original to its architect and with fashionable forms of its day. In it he employs both traditional and cutting-edge technologies, and he does so without irony.

I hope that in the year 3000 we remember and honor the sheer generosity of Maybeck’s vision. If we do not, I fear we will have forgotten a great deal more.

Timothy Culvahouse is an architect on the faculty of California College of Arts and Crafts. He is the editor of a journal for California Members of the American Institute of Architects.