Paul Cret

Architect, United States
Paul Cret can be seen as one of the leading examples of the architectural generation
that formed the bridge between neoclassicism and modernism.
Whereas many American architects, starting with Richard Morris Hunt, traveled to
France to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Cret was a native. Born in Lyons in 1876, he
studied at the École from 1897 to 1903, absorbing its principles of rationality and
symmetry and its devotion to the sources of classicism. Although he distinguished
himself in his studies and might have flourished professionally in France, in 1903 Cret
accepted a position on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
While there, he helped establish the university’s school “of architecture as one of the
most influential in the United States, counting among his students Louis I.Kahn, who
would go on to prominence in later life.
In his own practice, Cret concentrated heavily on civic buildings, to which he brought
a steadily more refined style of Beaux-Arts classicism. Describing his professional goals
in the early 1930s, he wrote, “The characteristic of this practice is the planning of
important city improvements, the planning of government…buildings and important
memorial buildings.” However, the aim of his aesthetic was to convey, as Elizabeth
Grossman has written in her 1996 monograph, The Civic Architecture of Paul Cret, an “intimate monumentality.”
Encyclopedia of 20th-century architecture 620
Cret eagerly adopted new construction techniques, particularly in the use of steel
framing, but he remained committed to the essentially Beaux-Arts idea that the
architecture of a building should flow from an analysis of its program. He was averse to
the idea that a building should make a personal statement about its creator.
Cret’s earliest major commission was won in a competition he entered in association
with Albert Kelsey for the International Bureau of American Republics, later called the
Pan American Union, in Washington, D.C., completed in 1910. The building was richly
ornamented, but beneath the trim lay a rigorous organization of masses and spaces that
gave it a fundamental sculptural power.
Cret interrupted his career to return to his homeland and serve with the French army
during World War I. (He was first an infantryman and later an interpreter on the staff of
American General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force; the
frontline experience left him partially deaf.) On his return to the United States, Cret
embarked on a gradual simplification of the ornamental palette that he had employed on
the Pan American Union building, reducing columns to flat piers, stripping them of
capitals and bases, and eliminating moldings.
This austere aesthetic, powerfully exemplified by the Hartford County Building (1930)
in Connecticut and the Folger Shakespeare Library (1932) in Washington, D.C., proved
especially effective for the many memorials that Cret designed for the dead of World War
I both in France and in such American cities as Providence, Rhode Island. However, his
reach extended well beyond these high-minded structures to include such mundane
projects as the Central Heating Plant for Washington, D.C.
Although some have argued that Cret’s “stripped classicism”—which he
preferred to call “new classicism”—reflected a return to conservative
sources in reaction to the upheavals of World War I, a more convincing
argument can be made that Cret was seeking a version of a style in whose
fundamental principles he still believed but whose embellishment had
become overly familiar and socially suspect. He suffered among other
critics for the superficial similarities of his work to that of contemporary
architects in Italy and Germany, whose less sensitive forms and spaces created in the service of authoritarian regimes were given a political
overtone of racial “purity.”
Cret retired from the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 1937 and a year later was
awarded the Gold Medal by the American Institute of Architects. In his acceptance
speech, Cret said, “In the art of Architecture, collective effort counts more than individual
industry in giving form to the ideals of a period.”
Cret died on 8 September 1945 during an inspection tour of a building site in North
Carolina. His vision of a “new classicism” had long since been overtaken by modernism,
but with the discrediting of that movement later in the century, Cret’s evolved
investigations of traditional forms began to take on renewed stature, especially as durable
architectural citizens of the American urban fabric.
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