Beauty in the New New Deal

(I wrote this in March 2009, at the dawn of the economic recovery, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Florida. It was published by The Fine Print, a fantastic “alternative” student newspaper that was founded by my great friends Jessica Newman and Lydia Fiser. I explored really interesting topics, producing articles with luxuriously long word counts, and learning as I went. It was just beginning during my time there, and is now thriving. )

A low wall of coral rock surrounds the Miami Shores Country Club. As a kid, I walked along it many times, hopping over cracks and watching golfers. Built during the Great Depression, the wall is beautiful. Head sized stones of odd shapes – probably dug from the very ground the wall encloses – are plastered together with concrete. The wall has character, rustic beauty, strength, durability, and is probably better looking today than the day it was built. It was also, probably, expensive.

So was Greynolds Park in North Miami, with its coral rock castle built on an earthen mound and boat houses made of solid logs of pine. There’s the Miami Beach Post Office, a stately art deco hall. A New Deal public housing project in central Miami is so quaint and charming that it was (unfortunately for the poor) recently privatized and made into trendy apartments. The Coral Gables fire station, south of Miami, is a two story building with solid limestone walls, 18 inches thick. Carved firemen perch above garage doors, and a bell tower is at one corner. It would be prohibitively expensive if built today but, like the temples of ancient Greece, will probably be around forever. These civic structures, whether country club or city hall, were products of the New Deal. They were architectural statements meant to help in the pull out of the Great Depresion.

Why weren’t more cost effective and meager structures built? Was constructing beauty, monumentality, quality, and a certain degree of populist luxury a prudent decision during the greatest financial calamity our country has ever seen? With the advantage of hindsight, I say definitely yes. They’ve had incredibly long operating lives. Even without the benefits of reinvestment and “updating,” quality buildings last. More importantly, we look at these buildings as romantic remnants from one of the most cooperatively American of times. They survive in the American psyche, contributing to the definition of Americans as a modern people. The ideals of a society trying to rescue itself through optimism and a classic “can-do” American spirit are preserved in those walls. The United States once an amazingly progressive country that lead the world, and these buildings remind us of that.

Efforts to create beauty in The Depression came in other forms too. Part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration employed artists and sculptors to paint murals and carve architectural ornamentation. Photographers and writers documented the Depression. The single most remembered image of the depression, “Migrant Mother” was taken under a government photography program. The progressive nature of the New Deal saw art as an economic driver and, putting artists to work, but also as a psychological tool. Visual documentation of America encouraged American pride, American ingenuity, American productivity, American modernity, and the goal of a brighter American future. It was somewhat propagandistic, but it wasn’t censorial, and the resulting visual language was as desperately needed then as it is needed now.

The University of Florida, my home as of this writing, benefited from New Deal largess and ideals. The first student union building, now Dauer Hall, was built using New Deal funds. Norman Hall, originally the P. K. Younge laboratory school, as well the Food Sciences building, and a number of dormitories, were all government projects during the Great Depression. They are all great examples of good design, they respect the campus context in which they’re placed, and they’re even quite stately. Each has an individual confidence which many buildings lack today.

The economic recovery and stimulus plan that President Obama is fighting for today – a plan that has the potential to be the second New Deal – will commit massive amounts of money to new construction, infrastructure, and civic building, and possibly public art. His infrastructure improvements will be well into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Considering that today, perhaps more than ever, good public architecture is prevented by value engineering and our desires for cost effectiveness, there is a real chance that aesthetics will be marginalized in the New New Deal. Art has already been shown a mediocre financial hand in the stimulus bill. A paltry $50 million dollars is going to the National Endowment for the Arts. That shows an acknowledgement of art’s value, at the most, but more would be vastly beneficial and we cannot even begin to replicate the first New Deal’s artistic strengths without it.

What is the point of building at all if what you’re going to construct turns out ugly? Ugliness isn’t idealistic, and invigorates nobody’s soul. To create something ugly doesn’t capture the imagination or imbue a great optimism in a society that so direly needs it. We need beauty. The original New Deal built bridges, schools, parks, roads, sewers, power grids, and even whole towns – all things (except perhaps the towns) we will do again today.

Next door to Dauer Hall is one of the newest buildings on campus, Pugh Hall. Here is a contrast of the times and an example of the diminished appreciated for aesthetics often seen in popular architecture. This building, meant to reflect the University of Florida’s academic gothic context, is a spare skeleton filled in with the worst kind of “office block” postmodern drabness, in red brick. The proportions agree with neighboring buildings – they blend to scale and direct your gaze to the single large gable overhead as a focal point.  At least the building has a sense of urbanity, but the details and visual quality of construction just aren’t there. It feels blocky and cheap. For a building designed and financed in better economic times, just before the Great Recession, the results are bad. Who will remember Pugh as fondly or take inspiration from it like I have from my dear coral rock wall?

Consider not only the financial needs and impacts of architects, artists, musicians, and writers for the good of the greater society – the Greater Good – but you also must remember psychological benefits, and the effects of beauty on the morale of those who encounter it. We cannot encourage societal malaise. If people believe things are getting better they respond by spending, working, investing, being ambitious, and strivingh to catch up with a brighter future.

The economic stimulus has passed. Art is getting $50 million dollars, infrastructure will be built with hundreds of billions, and millions of people will be going to work. What will they build when they get there, and will it be beautiful?

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