As I've mentioned before, architecture is hard.
Even "bad" buildings represent a huge investment of time and effort by a large number of skilled individuals working toward a common goal. All to often a good design succumbs to a budget that is too small, a schedule that is too short or a will that is too weak. Still, "good" buildings do get built from time to time and every once in a while something is built that approaches perfection.
In my life I've experienced three buildings that I consider to be "perfect". I was incredibly lucky to grow up about ten miles from one of them - Louis Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. Its vaulted galleries are a seamless integration of form and structure, light and shadow. Louis Sullivan's National Farmers' Bank of Owatonna, Minnesota is another. For reasons I still don't fully understand, I was brought to tears the first time I stood inside it.
Henry Bacon's Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC is the third perfect building I've visited. Of course the sculpture of Lincoln by Daniel Chester French would be impressive anywhere, but the architectural frame that's built around it is nearly flawless. Although clearly based on ancient temple precedents, its orientation and massing are unique. It's somehow both richly ornamented and fittingly subdued. There are no grand inscriptions proclaiming the greatness of the sixteenth President, merely the words of the man himself. On the south wall of the memorial's interior is the Gettysburg Address. On the north wall is Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.
Like the speech he gave at Gettysburg, the Second Inaugural is elegant and concise. Its opening paragraph gives a brief overview of what has happened in the four years since his first inauguration - specifically the Civil War - and he acknowledges that this subject remains the primary concern of the country:
The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
If you look at the actual inscription on the north wall, you'll notice there's a typo. The "F" in "FUTURE" was accidentally carved as an "E". The error was quickly discovered, however, and the offending horizontal bar was filled in so as to match the neighboring stone.
Still, if you look closely you can totally see their attempt to cover-up the mistake. Of course, if you look that closely you can also see that none of the lettering is perfect - verticals aren't entirely vertical and curves aren't perfectly smooth. The four "U"s in the above photo are all a little different.
The reason for this is simple. Each of those letters was carved by hand. Indeed, every one of the 969 words of the Second Inaugural and Gettysburg Addresses were rendered in stone by skilled but imperfect craftsmen who toiled to the best of their abilities to create a monument to a man who sought to preserve a union that was just as flawed as they were. The United States of 1865 was far from ideal, but Lincoln sought to make that nation more perfect. That's why we remember him.
Good architecture should always be optimistic. It requires imagining a world that is better than the one that currently exists. It presupposes that we deserve something better. And when we - and by we I mean architects, clients and contractors - listen to the better angels of our nature, we can together create a world that is a bit more perfect.