James Marston Fitch and the Nature of Habitation

Whether inside a humble igloo or the international space station, humanity cannot long survive without an appropriate means of shelter. How well a shelter performs its protective function is obviously a critical consideration in environmental extremes. Yet over longer durations of occupancy, the emotional well-being of a structure’s inhabitants come into play. After all, humanity is not simply one massive ant colony – aesthetics matter, even mark us as human. Architect James Marston Fitch (1909-2000) once observed that “the building, even in its simplest forms, surrounds and encapsulates us at every level of our existence, metabolically and perceptually. For this reason it must be regarded as a very special kind of container.” James Marston Fitch made it his life’s work, as an architect, critic, and environmentalist, to promote a holistic approach to the built JamesMarstonFitchistenvironment, encompassing many disciplines as an advocate for sensible and aesthetic design. Widely regarded as the father of historic preservation, Fitch provided the theoretical underpinnings of the practice as well as the poetry. His appreciation of the structural form and the lives lived within those forms are the meter and verse, the movement and spell that informs and animates the best in design and makes preservation so ennobling.

In 1992, James Fitch told an audience of architects and preservationists that “the preservation of the historic built world is critical to man’s psychic and emotional well-being. Its preservation and adaptive reuse is also an urgent aspect of the conservation of energy.” As was typical of so many of his essays and addresses, Fitch could take a topic nearly threadbare from use and wrest it into an argument with profound considerations, all the while couching his case in clear and concise prose. A collection of his essays entitled, James Marston Fitch: Selected Writings 1933-1997, 1 not only provides readers an intellectual framework for historic preservation but also imparts a sense of the passion with which Fitch imbued the subjects of architecture, preservation, and the built environment.

In an article from 1978,  Fitch began, “Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder and may be only skin deep; however, the surface appearance of a building not only can have a profound effect upon our reaction to the structure, but can also provide valuable clues for accurately restoring a historic structure.” A subheading later in the same article is entitled, The Architect Originally Manipulates Color…the Environment Manipulates It Further.

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Platform Houses, Sherman Oaks – Architects: Richard Neutra, William S. Beckett 1962-66, (Image Courtesy of Los Angeles Conservancy)

Fitch stresses the subtleties of restoration work and an appreciation of the fact that preservationists may restore but never truly recreate an historic structure. For one thing, the variables of the environment can affect a structure in surprising and irreproducible ways. For instance, he advises preservationists to pay close attention to the interplay of various materials, particularly when exposed to a range of degradative environmental conditions such as “heat and cold, moisture and dryness, sunlight, gravity, wind pressure, and vibration,” as well as such biological factors as “animals, insects, plants, and fungi,” and he does so in a memorable manner, writing, “The ammoniac feces of Venetian pigeons combine with the salts and gasses of Venice’s atmosphere to produce acute degradation of the city’s marbles.” This is well put, conjuring a rich visual to make his lesson all the more memorable.

One may also find intriguing the manner in which he subtly altered the aphorism at the start of the article. Fitch wrote that beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, rather than is, and that beauty may be only skin deep, rather than is. Perhaps this particular wording was a less clunky way to begin a paragraph, but read in the context of his other essays, particularly in light of his fondness for functionalism, Fitch may well be taking a tongue-in-cheek swipe at post-modernist design. Consider what he calls the basic formulation for functionalism, that “function well served produced formal beauty,” with his critique of a 1980s-era proposal for a post-modernist rooftop addition to the New York Historical Society’s home on Central Park West, which he describes as “a 24-story pile of Beaux Arts fragments, stacked one upon another like a rajah’s howdah on the back of an Indian elephant [and] is a bone-crushing disaster.” Perhaps Fitch is making the case that architectural beauty should not be conflated with human beauty. Different standards apply. Indeed, architecture tied to the latest design trends may have little more shelf life than the fleeting fashions of the day. As Fitch put it:

And surely nothing more than architects’ vanity dictates the demolition of the sturdy old Times Building…Since these newest buildings [which replaced the Times Building] are designed in the aggressively formalist manner of anti-modernism, they can only be criticized from that point of view, and from that point of view, they can only be described as hallucinatory in their capriciousness. It seems impossible to believe that they will promise to be any more durable, esthetically, than this season’s dress length or eye shadow since they ignore their responsibilities for the quality of street life around their base.

Still, not even James Fitch can speak with unchallenged authority on what is or is not beautiful or even fleeting design. This becomes clearer with the passage of time. Indeed, the visual merits of a building may or may not have anything to do with its aesthetic evaluations from a half century earlier. A structure might even have acquired an historical significance independent of its function or form.

Ultimately, it all comes back to the human environment. For James Fitch, as for countless others, an environment made more livable is a better place to be. Most people, however, have never taken such pains to consider and understand the environment on a human scale, at the level of the microclimate, as he did. For instance, in describing the brick-paved plaza of Boston’s City Hall, which was constructed in 1970, James Fitch wrote:

It is an urban space of unprecedented expansiveness and, one must add, unprecedented severity. […] Rain or snow converts the Square into a no-man’s land, impossible to dawdle in, a torment to cross. Night-time illumination may seem decorative from afar, but it is much too low to encourage pedestrian use. Unshaded, the dark red brick paving will certainly create a midsummer microclimate too hot to linger in. […] In Short, across long periods of time, the plaza is not apt to serve the needs of the Boston citizenry from the standpoint of either usefulness or pleasure.

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Boston, City Hall Plaza, May 1973 (Image Courtesy U.S. National Archives)

Fitch spoke to the necessity of a building to be compatible with the environment and site in which it is located. His sentiments can be seen in the following rather playful passage, “Trees and vines are among the best solar-shading devices known to man. They present no problems of corrosion and icing, and Nature puts them up and takes them down at exactly the right intervals.” While clearly meant to elicit a smile, the larger implications of his ethos have been borne out by the environmentally conscious green movement that has grown exponentially since his passing.

The focus on greater efficiency and innovative concepts in energy conservation today would have gotten a big nod of approval from James Fitch. However, he probably would have seen these developments as old news, or perhaps ancient news. Fitch observed that “primitive man, for all his scant resources, often builds more wisely than technologically advanced societies, and that his buildings establish principles of design that we ignore at great cost.” And while he notes that the actual forms of primitive architecture are unsuited to modern standards of safety and permanence, he also remarks that “primitive architecture merits our study for its principles, not its forms; but these have deep relevance for our populous and ill-housed world.”

The built environment should not be accepted as simply a byproduct of modern life but as a place in which we truly live. Those buildings, from what we design and where we dwell and work and what we choose to demolish or preserve, comprise the built environment that shapes our humanity for good or ill. Inherent in that understanding, then, is a responsibility. As James Marston Fitch wrote some fifty years ago:

We must relinquish that childish American faith in laissez-faire which acts as though so delicate a mechanism as a city will repair itself, like those reptiles which are supposed to grow new tails to replace the dismembered ones. The task demands considered policy and planned and resolute action. The sheer magnitude of the issues involved permits nothing less.

  1. James Marston Fitch, James Marston Fitch: Selected Writings 1933-1997, ed. Martica Sawin (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).

© 2014 – 2018, David Sprouse. All rights reserved.

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