N ext month, Allan Greenberg will be the first American to receive classical architecture’s highest honor, The Richard H. Driehaus Prize, awarded by the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture. For Greenberg, the prize is not only a recognition of his success as an architect, but also a validation of his great claim that in our republican democracy, classical architecture remains the “most potent, most appropriate, and the most noble language to express the relationship of the individual to the community.”
A champion of classical architecture in a world of modernists, Greenberg is regarded as something of a fundamentalist by some of America’s architectural establishment, for whom eschewing modernism for classicism is like exchanging a laptop for quill and parchment — retrograde to the point of madness. But in some crowds, his work is wildly popular. He designed Tommy Hilfiger’s flagship store on Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, and his client list includes such luminaries as Harrison Ford, Martha Stewart, the U.S. State Department and a series of universities, among them Rice and Princeton. His columns and colonnades have a populist appeal, too; many Americans reject modernism for its austerity and inaccessibility, choosing instead the architecture of antiquity for their homes and offices.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and educated at Yale, Greenberg moved to the United States at the age of 23. Architectural historian Vincent Scully once wrote that Greenberg has “a special architect’s version of the immigrant’s patriotic fervor.” At his office in New York, Greenberg spoke with Adina Lopatin about his experience as an immigrant and his ideas about Jewish architecture.
Q: In your book, “Architecture and Democracy: The Founding Fathers’ Vision for America” (1999), and in your new book on the architectural legacy of the Constitution, slated to be published by Rizzoli this spring, you write about George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the architecture of American democracy. Is your interest in that topic related to your experience as an immigrant?
A: Yes, there’s no doubt. No doubt about it. And it has a particular dimension that’s relevant to Jewish history. In addition to my interest in Washington and Jefferson, I have a passionate interest in Puritan architecture. The Puritans thought of themselves as the new children of Israel, building the new promised land. Like all Protestants, they reached back not to the Latin Bible but to the original source, which was the Jewish Bible. They read Hebrew and knew that in Hebrew, buildings are named as houses. You say, beit hamidrash , study house, and beit din, judgment house. And that’s where I believe the Puritans got their meetinghouse.
Q: Does that Hebrew-Puritan tradition inform American democracy today?
A: We are unique in having every building have the suffix “house.” We have courthouse, statehouse, jailhouse, firehouse. In England, you have fire station, police station, law court. I thought a great deal about the significance of “house,” the ordinary citizen’s house, being the equivalent of the king’s palace in Europe. For the first time in the history of architecture, the ordinary person’s house became a work of architecture. One part of that idea is Jewish, and a part of the Puritan bequest to what became the United States.
Q: Does the element of the Hebrew Bible that privileges houses over palaces resonate with your experience of the Jewish community?
A: No, I don’t think so. It’s an idea that resonates with people who are interested in American history, resonates both to the extreme left and the extreme right. But I don’t know that this Jewish connection, which meant a lot to me, really is understood by the Jewish community. They tend to be very inwardly focused, and I don’t think they’re quite aware of some of the resonance this may have had, particularly in the Protestant community.
Q: What about Jewish architecture? Is there such a thing?
A: I don’t think so. During the Diaspora, Jews built like the locals did. So we have this eclectic tradition of building. But I think there is some deep element of skepticism in the Jewish people, about the notion of beauty in buildings, beautiful things, admiring artifacts, as worshipping of a false God. I think there’s a kind of deep ambivalence.
Q: Do you share that ambivalence?
A: I don’t. But I’m not sure I’m a very good Jew. The older I get, the more complicated everything seems to become. I thought that when I got older I’d get wiser, and things would become clearer, but they seem to become more complicated. But there is no doubt that the pursuit of beauty, artistic perfection for its own sake, may compromise the pursuit of religion.
Q: Do you think there are any great Jewish buildings?
A: I think that the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., is maybe the most beautiful synagogue in the history of the Jewish people. I can’t believe the Temple was ever as beautiful as that building. In the greatest religious buildings — the Touro Synagogue, the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe — the architecture embodied the liturgy. Whatever was beautiful came out of that embodiment.
Q: That seems to be a guiding principle in your work: Buildings are great when they embody an idea. What about the Holocaust memorial you proposed for Battery Park? What idea does that embody?
A: I created an arch, and its keystone is the law, the Torah — a physical reminder that the law triumphed. This is what Hitler wanted to eradicate. It wasn’t only Jewish people he wanted to kill, it was the law that Jews revered that he wanted to eradicate, because it stood for some heart of civilization that stood in his way, and for him that was the most important job he did. And he failed. This is the triumph of Jewish law.
Q: Israel is always looking for a way to embody Jewish law in buildings. What do you think of the Jerusalem law that all new construction must be made of Jerusalem stone?
A: I think not losing contact with your vernacular tradition is very important. I think it’s important here, as well, to be contextual.
Q: Last month, Palestine held democratic elections and Hamas won. Creating contextual architecture in democratic Palestine seems like a challenge. What kind of buildings should Palestine build to house its new democracy?
A: I don’t know. I don’t look for work overseas, I just want to work in America. Or if I had to work overseas, I could imagine England as the only place I might feel at home enough to work in. But I’ve often wondered what I would do if I were a German architect, or a French architect. For the Germans, the past is the Nazis; for the French, you have monarchies, the chaos of the French Revolution. If you want to create a democratic government, what’s your reference? In America and in England, the evolution to democracy was so gradual; our connection to the past is seamless.
Q: What about South Africa, where you grew up? South Africa’s connection to the past is anything but seamless.
A: I left South Africa when it was a very different place. Nelson Mandela had just gone to prison. Until two years before I left, blacks were admitted to the university I went to, and they were subsequently excluded. I despaired of anything coming out of there when in my army service I realized we were being trained to kill blacks, not to fight World War III. I had to get out. So I don’t know. It’s been so hard establishing myself here that I hardly thought about anything other than succeeding. And I fell in love with the United States. I’ve never thought of going anywhere else.