Like many young American architects, George E. Hartman Jr., of Washington's adroit Hartman-Cox team, is disturbed about our architecture - its triviality, its abstract unrelatedness to people's needs and concerns and to the urban fabric. He feels modern architecture may have lost its way.
"I seek more richness and content in my architecture and want to study the contextual connotations between buildings and their site, function and technology," Hartman wrote in his application to the American Academy in Rome.
After a "marvelously stimulating" six months mid-career fellowship, drinking deeply of the wellspring of Western architecture and civilization, Hartman feels refreshed and bubbling with optimistic, creative energy.
That is the purpose for which, over port and after-dinner cigars, the American Academy in Rome was founded in March, 1894.
The founders were the remarkable group of architects and artists who also created the plaster magnificence of the Chicago world's fair in 1893. The fair launched the "city beautiful movement," which brought reforms, civic buildings, parks and boulevards to many American cities. The movement also rolled that great, green carpet down from Capitol Hill to the Potomac, furnishing it with the temples and memorials that make Washington a beautiful city.
It all began in "The Shack," the construction shed of the swampy Chicago fair site where they would gather to supervise their work. "Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men's blood," Daniel Burnham, the fair's chief architect, had once said. Nor did the Shack Group have a little opinion of itself. Looking at architects Charles Follen McKim, William R. Mead, Stanford White and Richard Howland Hunt, sculptor Daniel Chester French, painters John La Farge and Frank Millet, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens suddenly exclaimed: "Do you realize that this is the greatest meeting of artists since the 15th century?"
Louis Sullivan, for one, thought otherwise. The Chicago fair and its creators, he said, set the cause of a great, modern American architecture back by at least 50 years. We all believed him.
Only in recent years, as part of a new longing for "roots" and historic cntinuity, is the art and architecture of the Shack Group - a style that was popularized by the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris - again beginning to be appreciated by the American public. Architects join the protests to save Beaux Arts buildings, but recoil in horror when one of their leaders, Phillip Johnson, proposes to continue the Beaux Arts tradition with his design for the AT&T sky-scraper in New York City.
The idea of McKim, Burnham and friends to launch an American Academy in Rome was, at least in part, to break the monopoly of the French Beaux Arts school on American art and architecture. The Shack Group wanted their inspiration to come direct from the source rather than via Paris.
There was then no question that the real source of Beaux Arts was Rome. The whole Western world considered its culture as a continuum in which one style and Weltanschauung emerged from the previous ones - all built on the foundations of antiquity. Everyone acknowledged that despite Italy's many political misfortunes, Rome held the richest accumulation of artistic accomplishments ever, anywhere.
The question "Why Rome?" was not asked until much, much later - until art had been polarized into elitist abstraction versus popular representation, and until America, after Vietnam, suffered its identity crisis.
At any rate, at the turn of the century, by the time the Shack Group had firmly established its architecture school in Rome, turned it into an academy and enlarged it to include classical studies, the enterprise had the full support of everyone interested in American culture.
Edith Wharton and other writers would hold soirees for the cause, just about every millionaire with cultural aspirations would contribute, artists of all persuasions competed fiercely for the honor of being invited to Rome. McKim built one of his best buildings, commanding a striking view of the Eternal City, and - after the usual cranky demurring on the part of House Speaker "Uncle Joe" Cannon - Congress officially chartered the Academy.
The American Academy is not the only foreign art institute in Rome. The French Academy was, in fact founded in 1660, followed shortly by a similar German institution. Now there are 22 foreign academies in Rome. Only the American one is not supported by its government. It is entirely dependent on private funds. And costs are no longer what they were in the early years, when an American artist could get around for $1.33 a day (40 cents for railroad fare and 93 cents for board and lodging).
Over the years, 450 Americans - architects, painters, sculptors, musicians, classicists, archeologists, and other artists and scholars - have lived and worked in Rome as fellows of the academy. The first Rome prize fellow was John Russell Pope, who later designed the original National Gallery of Art and the Jefferson Memorial.
Among the other prominent fellows were Samuel Barber, Elizabeth Bowen, Archibald MacLeish, Van Wyck Brooks, Glenway Wescott, Thornton Wilder, Aaron Copland, Geroge Nelson, Robert Venturi, Edward Durrell Stone, and Nathaniel Owings. One of the Academy's outstanding achievements is the archeological excavation of Cosa, the Etruscan settlement.
But despite the names and its undiminished prestige in the world of serious scholarship and art, the cant that Rome was no longer "relevant" took its toll. The academy lost importance.
But this is changing. Early last year, the academy's trustees appointed Bill N. Lacy, as president Lacy, 44, had for five years directed the architecture and design program of the National Endowment for the Arts and is both an architect and a teacher of architecture. "Lacy represents the kind of youthful national leadership the academy is seeking at a period when the relevance of European study is once again appreciated by American artists and scholars," said Walker O. Cain, chairman of the trustees.
The fresh spirit is evident in a spate of publicity, the decor of the academy's ofices in New York and in Rome where by all accounts classicist John D'Arms runs what he calls the "creative and academic wild-life preserve," with charm and elan.
An exhibition of the work of five painters who worked at the academy will soon open at New York's Union Carbide Building lobby. A concert of works written at the academy will be held at Carnegie Hall later this year.
But the real, the important visibility of the American Academy in Rome is still to come. It is fore-shadowed by the way George Hartman talks about his Roman experience.
Hartman found the architectural "contextualism" he was looking for - in the work of Brunelleschi and Bramante, in Urbino and other Italian towns. He found it in the ruins of Hadrian's Villa and in the fact that of Rome's 255 churches only six are free standing. The rest are all parts of the three-dimensional, tightly interwoven urban fabric that is Rome.
And Hartman found that other modern American architects such as Romaldo Giurgola, Hugh Hardy or Edward Barnes are making the same enthusiastic discoveries.
They are not talking about the fashionable "post-modernism." They are talking about insights and inspirations that will only gradually mature and emerge.
The symbol of the academy is the head of Janus, the Roman god, because the academy building is located on Janiculum Hill which rises steeply from the Tiber.
The Janus head, like the academy itself, looks both to the future and to the past.