It sounds more portentous in French, but we’re talkin’ somebody’s garage in Scranton, Pennsylvania that was built in pretty high Doric Greek style. I’ll be astonished (and delighted) if anyone who reads this can think of—or send a photo of—another in the U.S.A.
The garage, now seemingly on the verge of collapse, was built as an outbuilding of a house which is still well kept. A well informed friend states that there is a large rotating disk in the floor of the garage, Bat-cave-style, that once spun the owner’s car about so that it always left the garage moving forward.
So, the Doric. I’ll gently guide you to my essay on the Doric corner problem, which will teach you about the Doric while focusing on an instability in the rules of that order. It turns out that a change in the building materials the ancient Greeks used, from wood to stone, made it impossible to conform simultaneously to the two main rules for what goes where in the Doric. This is the ‘corner problem,’ and there was no way to resolve it except by fiat.
If you read that essay you’ll see that the façade of the garage dorique “solves” the problem the way the Greeks preferred, by moving the last triglyphs out to the corner and just accepting that they could not be centered over the final columns. That’s the way the Greek architect arranged things in figure 3. The house associated with our garage solves the problem in the Roman way, by just sliding the last triglyphs in over the column centers. The mausoleum in figure 2 does this, too.
In a “by-the-book” Doric façade, there would be two more columns, one under the triglyph at each side of the basketball hoop backboard. There would thus be one triglyph between each pair of columns, and one centered (to the extent possible) over each individual column. Of course, these folks wanted a garage, and a car needs rather more than a single standard intercolumniation to get in and out.
American Doric regularly switches things up to respond to real-world needs. Figure 2 shows a gilded-age plutocrat’s landmark, top-o’-the-line Doric mausoleum in Winchester, Virginia. To get caskets in, the architect added one triglyph so that there is an even number between the central columns, doubling their gap. Our garage’s architect needed even more space, so he eliminated two whole columns while leaving the triglyphs alone (see that both garage and mausoleum have even numbers of columns, but the garage has an odd number of triglyphs, with one centered).
Yet the garage’s architect knew the Doric and gave the pediment the squat proportions of the best examples, as did the Rouss mausoleum architect. The roofline of the pediment has a low pitch (a shallow slant) which is good practice, and see! the columns on the garage swell visibly from their centers down instead of having linear profiles. The mausoleum’s columns do that, too. Both architects pulled out the stops to get this swelling, or ‘entasis,’ right: those kinds of curves required costly hand cutting to one-off measurements. Columns with linear profiles could have been cheaply machine cut. The garage’s red ceramic roof tiles are also a nod to classical style.
Unfortunately, time and chance have put the garage’s columns out of alignment. The rightmost column has been replaced by a plywood rectangular brace.
So what about this garage dorique? It reveals how strongly the American middle class once relied on the câchet conferred by the cultural authority of the classical world. The use of high Doric in a garage is only somewhat more eccentric than copying the sarcophagus of Scipio Barbatus in the Vatican Museums in one’s funerary monument. To say that such a respect for classical styles (and faith in their ability to confer status) is unlikely to be felt today would be a vast understatement.
I read somewhere that on his way out of office President Trump wishes to decree that new federal building projects should all be executed in classical styles. While I very much like the classical style, it’s dead today, and there’s no bringing it back.
Only plutocrats can afford the hand-craftsmanship that such architecture demands, and we don’t produce craftsmen of the sort we need any more in anything like the requisite numbers. I’ve written about how lousy even very expensive classical mausolea look when they’re eked out at quality standards south of what plutocratic funding can provide. Monuments and mausolea designed to be machine-made are almost always risibly bad. Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote about a viable ‘arts and crafts of the machine,’ but a ‘classics of the machine’ is a hopeless proposition.
Even supposing the plutocrats with all their money want to revive classical architecture, they can’t have it. The original was designed in a different world animated by the ideals and energy of the ancient Greeks (and Romans). It takes an effort of will to try to recreate works like theirs, and when we do so, our works tend to come out cold and academic. Our Scipionic sarcophagi and Doric garages are at best clever, learned calques or pastiches of the originals. If we don’t immediately fall in love with the styles of our own day, at least they’re living styles organically evolving in the hands of artists striving for originality.
On the other hand, when the world gives you a gift of (just think of it!) a garage earnestly built in a style originally thought fitting for the highest human artistic and architectural aspirations, you must take a step back and thank the spirit of the universe.