Amelia Carr

title.none: Forsyth, The Uses of Art

identifier.other: baj9928.9405.005 94.05.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Amelia Carr, Allegheny College

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Forsyth, Ilene H. The Uses of Art: Medieval Metaphor in the Michigan Law Quadrangle. Distinguished Senior Faculty Lecture Series, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, The University of Michigan. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993. Pp. xi + 105; 93 black and white figures. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-09506-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.05.05

Forsyth, Ilene H. The Uses of Art: Medieval Metaphor in the Michigan Law Quadrangle. Distinguished Senior Faculty Lecture Series, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, The University of Michigan. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1993. Pp. xi + 105; 93 black and white figures. ISBN: ISBN 0-472-09506-4.

Reviewed by:

Amelia Carr
Allegheny College

Not all medievalists have much use for medievalism, but many of us do harbor a secret affection for pointed arches no matter on what side of the Atlantic they rise, and appreciate the reappearances of older forms when they emerge. Modern scholars are very much aware that they view the Middle Ages through the lenses and veils of intervening centuries. Most Americans probably first experienced Gothic architecture in a revival-style church or college, and our questions are shaped by the concerns of previous generations, not always easily separated into distinct academic and non-academic realms. Ilene Forsyth's theme, the modern use of medieval imagery, is thus a vital topic for students of the past. Forsyth is a distinguished medievalist who brings to her subject a deep familiarity, meticulous scholarship, and a mastery of previously unstudied source material.

Forsyth's book is a detailed description and analysis of the Michigan Law Quadrangle, erected between about 1920 to 1934, in Collegiate Gothic style. The project was carried out in two phases: the Lawyers Club Residences and Dining Hall, dedicated in 1924; and the John P. Cook Dormitory, the library known as the Legal Research Building, and the administrative and classroom building Hutchins Hall, all dedicated in 1934. In the first chapters of the book, Forsyth focusses particularly upon the patrons, evaluating the successful outcome of the buildings as the result of a synergistic energy between three key individuals: Cook, York, and Hutchins. The donor was William Wilson Cook (1858-1930; University of Michigan A.B. 1880; L.L.B. 1882), a wealthy and distinguished jurist (Cook on Corporations among other writings). Cook's personal architect was engaged for the commission, Edward Palmer York of York and Sawyer, New York City. Among several men representing the University emerges Harry Burns Hutchins (Dean of the Law School 1895-1910; President 1910-20 and active on the project until his death in 1930). Cook himself did not visit Ann Arbor after 1920, but kept close watch on the undertaking through a voluminous correspondence which is the basis of Forsyth's analysis. One of the express purposes of this research project, she tells us, was to examine the dynamics of patronage in a well-documented case. She concludes "that patronage is likely to be a very individual matter that depends on continually shifting variables and constantly changing conditions" (p. 85). Although this is not news, it is a salutary reminder to scholars who routinely work with less information.

Forsyth's second focus, consistent with her medieval scholarly interests1 , is the programmatic imagery which appears throughout the Quad buildings. Cook disliked figural sculpture, instructing his architect: "And no gargoyles, lions rampant and such like gewgaws. Bad taste and useless expense" (p. 45). What was desirable was stained glass, with its enlivening spots of color that did not interfere with much-desired light in public rooms. The Lawyers Club Dining Hall features a series of Zodiac signs and symbolic emblems of virtues like Justice, Prosperity, and Peace. The nine windows of the Memorial Room in the John P. Cook Dormitory feature the Michigan coat of arms and emblems of the eight branches of law. The Legal Research Building's Reading Room displays coats-of-arms from, by my count, 184 American and foreign colleges and universities. Hutchins Hall, whose decor was decided largely by a faculty committee after Cook's death, adopts a slightly different tone. Here, some twenty Latin legal maxims frame expressive vignettes of legal situations. Many of these images incorporate local sensibilities, and some are downright humorous, as in "Mayhem," illustrated by a Michigan football player whose kick is being disrupted by an opposing tackle. The later cycles of glass, at least, were executed by Heinigle and Smith of New York City.

Cook did allow a limited number of figural sculptures, in the corbels of the entrance passageways to the quad, where three-dimensional imagery is strongly subordinate to the architectural frame. The carving of these pieces was contracted to the New York firm of Ulysses Ricci and Angelo ari, and seems to have been less closely supervised than other project details. The subject matter poses problems however, which Forsyth treats closely. One quaternity of corbels personifies the four seasons through its sports, while the theme of another seems to be personified professions, although the exact identification has never been clear. The six larger corbels of the main entranceway were controversial, and ended up portraying the six University of Michigan presidents. Forsyth is truly in her element with these visual programmes, and offers insight into the choice of subject based on medieval precedents and local frames of reference.

Although she mentions sources and models for the Quadrangle buildings throughout her analysis, Forsyth turns only in the penultimate chapter to a discussion of American Collegiate Gothic in general. Here she fits the Michigan Law Quad into the larger history of the subject, which many of us know best from Paul Turner's Campus, An American Planning Tradition(Cambridge, Mass, 1984). Forsyth's conclusions are solid and broadly applicable:The search for Michigan's models leads repeatedly to England, but the path leads by way of the East Coast universities enumerated here, for Michigan's structures are actually much more closely allied to those of its eastern cousins than to their inspirations in England. (p. 77)The patrons seem never to have questioned the general appropriateness of building in the style of Oxford and Cambridge. The clearest influence is James Gamble Rogers' Harkness Quadrangle at Yale (1917-1921). In fact, York and Rogers were friends, and probably conferred on their similar projects, the Michigan Quad and Yale's Sterling Memorial Library of 1927 and the Sterling Law Building of 1930-31. Also influential was Ralph Adams Cram's Princetonian work of the 1910's and the authoritative Cope and Stewardson Gothic structures at Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr from the 1890's. These well-known models have certainly been discussed before. Forsyth's contribution is to extend the analysis beyond the East Coast, toward a building project that is ambitious and distinguished, but usually ignored in the literature beyond the local level.

In a curious way, this book is about architecture, but not building. Perhaps because of the preponderance of Cook's correspondence as documentation, we see a patron's concern for elements of style and material, but no extended discussion of building and engineering issues. This lack was dramatized for me as I pondered one of the insciptions over which Cook labored for the Lawyers Club: "THE CONSTITUTION; STEEL FRAME OF THE NATIONAL FABRIC; WITHOUT IT THE STRUCTURE WOULD FALL INTO RUINS." The metaphor comes straight out of modern construction, but is placed on a masonry building inspired by pre-steel building methods. One of the great debates among neo-medieval architects concerned just this issue, whether purity demanded avoidance of the steel frame, or whether traditional forms could be improved by up-to-date methods incorporating steel. Was Cook aware of this debate, and does the inscription represent a position? Or is it ironic, or only subconsciously relevant? In fact, were the Michigan Law Quadrangle building steel frame constructions? Forsyth's text makes no specific statement, although she traces in some detail the process of selecting Indiana limestone and Weymouth granite for the exteriors. The illustrations are inconclusive. (Figures 25 and 43 perhaps show riveted I-beams). Since by the 1920's, most American Gothic was steel-framed, and the exceptional pure masonry projects were usually trumpeted by patrons, we might take documentary silence as evidence. While Forsyth does not claim expertise in this area, the intermingling of modern and medieval building metaphors in the inscriptions is surely not too distant from her topic.

The present book emerged from Forsyth's tenure as the Distinguished Senior Lecturer for 1991 from the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, at the University of Michigan. On that occasion she addressed a general academic audience, united most visibly by their relationship to the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor. In some ways, this remains the core audience for the book. Forsyth assumes some familiarity with the Law Quad and its successes. She speaks with a degree of sentimentality about her subject, from which emerges a vaguely Lake-Wobegon-esque image of a University in which all the donors are good-looking and all the deans above average. In mind of this audience, perhaps, Forsyth also takes a light touch in dealing with the politics of the building project. She identifies a few passages in the correspondence which allude to Cook's close supervision of the project with an irony that might hide some unhappiness (p. 7). And several moments of real controversy do emerge: the selection of the building site in 1921, the change of program concerning figural sculpture of the quad's entrance passage in 1924, and a tussle over the silhouette of the Legal Research Building in 1928. Yet overall, the wealthy patron Cook was treated with incredible tact and diplomacy in the 1920's. I wonder what kind of study would emerge if the kid gloves were removed now.

Cook conceptualized his patron's role to the architect York: "you furnishing the art and I the philosophy" (p. 39). Cook is clearly a strong and forceful individual whose motives and worldview might have been handled more critically. Cook's idiosyncracies are usually treated in light of their positive results, while potential negative effects are only delicately suggested. Cook's patronage pursued an ideal, that of creating an environment that would elicit the most honorable and worthwhile behaviors from a select group of men. And yet Forsyth intimates gravely that Cook's vision of the social elite might not elicit contemporary admiration. She demurs in a footnote:

Forsyth has refused to enter the fray of Cook-bashing, hoping to focus attention instead upon the architecture. If her decision to back away from this discussion is prudent, it is also a little disappointing. Cook's vision of the unity of power and justice seemed to have its aesthetic component. The questions that remain unposed are typically post-modern ones concerning such power relationships: what is at stake? and who or what is repressed?2 The architecture and program of the Michigan Law Quadrangle connects ideals of justice, freedom and education to notions of individual achievement, corporate wealth and social hierachy. The medieval metaphors are probably not incidental but fundamental to the embodiment of this vision.

In her analysis of group patronage, Forsyth attempts the difficult task of analyzing the influence of place upon the project, how the buildings reflect Michigan. Modern and local concerns are clearly reflected in the iconography of the imagery. More controversial might be Forsyth's identification of what she sometimes labels "heartland virtues" in the patrons and architecture alike. Michigan qualities are "plain thinking in its cultural life and in its architectural programs", the ability "to do much with little, to husband resources carefully, to avoid waste through unnecessary indulgence, and to shun artifice and display" (p. 87). The streamlined silhouettes and lack of ornamentation can be connected to Cook's "hard-driving, disciplined Michigan manner, as solid and as austere as the frontier" (p. 14), and so on. These are typically Protestant and middle-class ideals, although state institutions specifically deny a connection with religion and Cook's law school was not for "the mob." Forsyth points out the contradictions of Cook's vague philosophy of architecture, for he desired the aesthetics of medieval religious art without explicitly religious elements or references. Cook's taste for what Forsyth calls "a secularized visual rhetoric" (p. 41) is at least regional, and probably represents a great segment of American architectural aesthetic that would repay closer analysis. But it is difficult to discuss morality in art, especially if one is reluctant to admit that, like medieval virtues, heartland virtues probably have their corresponding vices that might also be evident in the building.

The general history of the medieval revival styles in the United States during the 1920's has yet to be written. Gothic building during that late period has been judged derivative and ultimately unable to withstand the challenges of the Modern style. Yet Forsyth's detailed study of the Michigan Law Quadrangle gives strong evidence about Gothic's successes at that time. The prosperous economic conditions of the decade and the tradition of craftsmanship resulted in buildings that were both attractive and functional. More to the point, however uninformed the patrons and vestigial the models, medieval metaphor and style could contribute vigorously to American culture. In the Architectural Recordof 1924, E. Donald Robb could compare the visible stresses and strains of a Gothic structure to the life blood swelling the muscles of the athlete, and proceed to compare good Gothic building to scoring a home run in baseball. The personification of Fall as a football player in the Michigan Law Quadrangle testifies a similar impulse to invigorate the legacies and inspirations of the past with the urgencies of the American present. Forsyth gives us a thoughtful book, well illustrated, beautifully produced and engaging to read. Although one of its greatest services is in synthesizing and making available a vast archive of heretofore unstudied material, the questions it raises and the information it offers toward the answers transcend purely local interest. The Michigan Law Quadrangle is, indeed, a special "place apart" and well worth a physical and intellectual visit. Ilene Forsyth's laudable work ensures that Michigan will not be overlooked when students of the medieval ponder their subject.

1 Forsyth is perhaps best known for her important book The Throne of Wisdom. Wood Sculptures of the Madonna in Romanesque France (Princeton University Press, 1972).
2 Another inscription, this time from the Legal Research Building, could serve as a guide here. From Pascal: "JUSTICE AND POWER MUST BE BROUGHT TOGETHER SO THAT WHATEVER IS JUST MAY BE POWERFUL AND WHATEVER IS POWERFUL MAY BE JUST." The apparent exclusion of faculty from decision-making until after Cook's death, and the complete lack of student participation, or even concern for their reaction to the building, suggests a distinct model of the University and its internal relationships which is not explored.