When the Cloisters opened in 1935, its director was so nervous about Lewis Mumford’s reaction to the building that he stayed up all night waiting for The New Yorker to hit the newsstands. A collage of parts of medieval buildings from across Europe, the Cloisters was precisely the sort of project that Mumford might well have savaged. He was generally opposed to any kind of artifice, and he indeed took the designers to task for the museum’s appearance in the landscape, “a transplanted building, picked up by the jinn and whisked through the sky — not so much an honest relic as a wish.”
But the bulk of Mumford’s review praises the museum. Its patchwork structure he calls “much closer to a real monument altered to suit the needs of succeeding generations than anything else we have in America today” and posits it as a lesson, a reminder that “there are no periods to respect in history — only men, who must live in their own way, in accord with their own needs.” In other words, he reminded his readers, at a time when much of architectural discourse was given over to debates about competing styles, that the organic nature of architecture was important, even valuable. European churches, remember, were built over periods of hundreds of years — their programs and styles slowly changing to suit the needs of their parishioners.
And then he presents his central point, that “the building itself is essentially a setting for the cloisters.” And if you have ever been up to the Cloisters, you may understand what he means. Yes, the place is a museum filled with some of the finest examples of Medieval art in the world, but its real value lies in the way it shows the importance of the cloister (FYI, a walled courtyard), and by extension, perhaps, the importance of monastic culture, and its technology. We all know that the great monasteries of Europe both generated and preserved knowledge, sheltered and nourished the arts, and passed these things on down through the ages. But they weren’t just libraries or research centers. The very structure of the monastery, centered on the cloister, can be thought of as the answer to a specific problem, a place “whose walls and regulations kept the brutalities of life at bay.”
one walks away from the Cloisters with is not the memory of individual artifacts, but the peace and tranquility the place engenders. The day I visited, fruit was ripening on the trees, butterflies fluttered about, and everyone I saw there was beaming. Some of our present-day cultural critics are prophesying the imminent decline of Western civilization, [Jane Jacobs, that other dude…] but Lewis Mumford beat them to the punch: “Maybe [the Cloisters] is an experimental model to help us face more cheerfully the dark ages.”
Ahhh, the brutalities of life.