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March 24, 2006

Architecture and Urbanism Buzz

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* John Massengale links to this excellent context-setting discussion of modernism. Robert Hughes adds to the discussion here.

* John himself will soon be teaching what sounds like a terrific class on the Elements of Urbanism. Sign up now.

* The whackily post-postmodern -- the word always used vis a vis his work is "fun" -- British architect Will Alsop has had to close up shop. Given Alsop's tastes and talents (check out this honey), I'm not feeling too sorry for him.

* A new issue from the Project for Public Spaces is online, and its very interesting theme is "the public square." Why do some work while others flop? (A couple of small tips for those just getting into architecture and urbanism: The spaces between the buildings count for at least as much as the buildings. And parks and squares require just as much care and skill to create as concert halls and office towers do.) Here's a list of the best public squares in North America. Does your city rate?



posted by Michael at March 24, 2006


If I'm not misinterpreting the Guardian article, the world surely owes Will Alsop a living. The poor dear has obviously been victimized.

Maybe I should try to pursuade the city of Seattle to commission him to build an annex to Rem Koolhaas' new Seattle Public Library building.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 24, 2006 03:39 PM

I'm back again, this time after having read the Robert Hughes piece from the Guardian. Earlier today I grumbled about the Guardian failing to mention that Chungking was the capital of China during World War 2. Now I'll continue my historical axe-grinding. Hughes writes:

It's no accident that the exhibition's delimiting years should be the starting dates of two catastrophic world wars, 1914 and 1939. These dates mark the span of a hectic utopian hope among Europeans, who felt - as Apollinaire wrote in his great paean to cultural renewal: "In the end, you are tired of this old world." The hope of renewal took form in the rubble of post-first world war Germany and attained something like hysteria in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution.

I hate to say this, but Germany came through the Great War essentially unscratched: Although there was some fighting on German soil in the east, the Western Front battles were fought almost entirely in Belgium and France. World War 2 corrected that oversight.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 24, 2006 05:59 PM

I disagree, somewhat, with some of the comments (or implied comments) of the PPS people regarding squares in general and the NYC squares in particular. (But these are essentially quibbles., as I also agree with much of what they say, too.)

1) Rockefeller Center. I don't think the Rockefeller Center of 35 years ago was as "bad" as they make it out. Yes it was "privitized" but IT IS PRIVATE PROPERTY. Talk about giving someone a hand and them taking an arm!

Plus, in some ways, I think it was better the way it was. It had more of a city feel and energy to it.

That's not to say that's what's been done is bad. Times change, and due to security concerns, I'm not sure if one would want vehicles on Rockefeller Plaza (which is actually the name of the little PRIVATE street that runs, north-south, through the complex) anyway.

However, I don't think it's all that necessary to reduce vehicular traffic on the cross-town streets (which are important streets and nice the way they are, in my opinion).

Also, I don't think they recognize one of the most important elements of this particular public space post 1970 -- the construction of the "Today" show studios on Rockefeller Plaza (the street). I think this has made a tremendous difference for Rockefeller Center. (Even when the Today show is off the air, people walk by to peek into the studios, etc.)

2) I don't think that the seasonal tents for the fashion shows in Bryant Park are all that bad, and they don't seem to me to have impacted on the successfulness of the park that much.

Maybe because I only walk by the park and don't go in it that much, but I kind of think it's fun when they put the tents up and there's all that equipment around the park. It's kind of exciting and glamorous -- and it's kind of a nice URBAN seasonal touch.

3) Union Sq. already has had the roads around it narrowed. I think they are perfectly fine the way they are -- no need to reduce traffic further.

One of the nice things about this public square, to my way of thinking, is the casual, improvisational air to it. It's flexible and not overplanned. (The Greenmarket occupies asphalt that used to be a parking lot, parts of the outdoor cafe occupies some old, recycled parks structure, etc, )

4) While Washington Sq. is much better than it used to be, I think it could benefit further from a handsome iron fence around it.

5) In general, I think there is an over-emphasis on public squares and an underemphasis on healthy streets. (Regarding NYC, I'm thinking particularly of all those forecourts and "plazas" around various new buildings.) Even if they are eventually given the PPS re-vitalization treatment, there's still too much of them. A better public open space policy, in mind opinion, would be to encourage mid-block pedestrian streets with shops, etc. on them.

Just today, I passed by the new office building going up on the northwest corner of 42nd and Sixth Ave. (diagonally across from Bryant Park). The building is "pushed back" from Sixth Ave. in order to provide a forecourt "plaza" which "damages" the nice enclosed feel of Bryant Park, and right up next to the Conde Nast building, when a little pedestrian through street (a la Shubert Allly) could really make the dark side of Times Sq. alot more pleasant (plus help reduce pedestriann overcrowding and provide extra street level space for interesting stores, etc.).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 24, 2006 07:04 PM

Donald -- The editors of the Guardian need your guidance. I'll forward your resume along.

Benjamin -- PPS can get a little too Portland for me too sometimes, though I certainly cheer for their team generally. I like your idea of an iron fence around Washington Square -- had never occurred to me. And I know what you mean about an excess of plazas, and that new building at 6th and 42nd. It looks like it's going to "open up" the area in a way it certainly doesn't need. Actually the building is going to be a glassy, flowy, funny-angled thing. It's already being celebrated for being eco-sensitive (low-power, apparently). I've seen a lot of discussion of its "green"-ness, but none so far about how it's going to affect Bryant Park, darn it...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 24, 2006 07:17 PM

Heh. Heh heh. I uh...I live near that 'honey.' I go past it all the time on my way to school/work. Ontario College of Art & Design, isn't it?

Oh dear me.

Posted by: Peggy Nature on March 24, 2006 08:35 PM

Green buildings...I fear I'll be crucified (or at least blacklisted) for the anecdote I'm going to impart, but my long tongue is itching in my big mouth (how's that for a visual?)

In the office we're deep in the project of resurfacing existing hi-rise complex in Battery Park City. The building's "as is" skin consist of aluminum frame and window packages, aluminum and concrete panels of various texture installed into it.
One of the resurfacing options (the less expensive one) is to retain the frame and to install different in-fill panels.
The Owner, describing what they envision for the finish, mentioned solar panels instead of exist. concrete. (It means 4 buildings, 17 floors each, faced with 3'x6' solar panels)
My boss said it makes no economic sense: panels are expensive; installed vertically they won't generate much energy - probably enough for a guy to shave in the morning at best (just not enough direct sunlight to catch), require costly facade cleaning and weight a ton[s]. That's OK, he was told, we want to create a green building here.

[I think I just become unemployable]

Posted by: Tat on March 24, 2006 10:11 PM

Central Park's Arsenal had a public squares, past and present, exhibition just 3 years ago:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on March 24, 2006 10:58 PM

Hmmm, my town (L.A.) certainly doesn't rate in terms of good squares, or even mediocre squares. Granted, L.A. is pretty much the Antichrist as far as New Urbanism goes. However, I must protest that fully a third of these 'great' squares are in NY. Somehow I detect a hint of bias here.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 24, 2006 11:22 PM

Actually the idea about a fence around Washington Sq. Park is not mine and is an old one.

Building a beautiful iron fence around the modern day park was first proposed, as far as I know, around 1972 by Oscar Newman (the guy who popularized the phrase "defensible space" with his book by the same name). The proposal caused an uproar among the "anything goes" and "cities should be chaos" crowd, and so nothing happened with it. (I'm not sure about this, but I think there was originally a tall iron fence around the park in the 19th Century.)

Recently, (last summer?), the proposal was revived and, at first, seemed like it was going to happen. But the old "anything goes" and "cities should be chaos" crowd woke up and defeated it again.

In principal, the PPS people are ideologically opposed to things like this -- BUT in reality it appears that they were perfectly comfortable keeping and even enhancing the fence around Bryant Park (which the PPS people helped revitalize in the early 1980s).

Basically the idea behind such fences is to enhance the ability of the authorities to control the public sphere, protect public property at night (protect flower beds, expensive furnishings and equipment, deter graffiti, etc.) and to help create a general feeling of security and order. If Washington Sq. Park had a fence around it, the park could truly be closed off at night for maintenance and to better protect it from vandals, etc.

Interestingly, although people were successful in opposing a decorative security fence around the entire park, the need was nevertheless felt to build a fence around the children's play area in the park. Too many homeless people were using the sand box as a bathroom, etc.

While the decorative security fence would have been most useful in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when the park had turned into a drug market and sewer, it seems to me that a fence could still help create a more civilized atmosphere in the park (and allow for better maintenance, street furnishings, etc.).

One wrinkle though. Unlike in the 1970s, there is now a terrific dog run (actually two dog runs) inside the park. I'm not sure how they planned to keep the dog run along with a fence. (Perhaps they were planning on moving the dog run to the edge of the park?)

I think the dog run is terrific. It's really made me feel a lot safer at night when I've been nearby. I certainly would want a fence to interfere with its operation.

- - - - - - -

It's interesting that despite the community opposition to a decorative security fence in Washington Sq. Park, security fences -- most beautiful, some not so beautiful -- have become treasured, essential features of parks all throughout the Village and Lower Manhattan (e.g., Sheridan Sq., the spectacular community park on Chambers St. next to Independence Plaza, etc.).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 25, 2006 02:18 AM

P.S. -- a correction of a particularly bad typo:

I think the dog run is terrific. It's really made me feel a lot safer at night when I've been nearby. I certainly would NOT want a fence to interfere with its operation.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 25, 2006 02:21 AM

I just read "Modernism - or should that be Modernwasm?" by Hugh Pearman. No criticism of Mr. Pearman's article, but something about all this makes my head hurt. To put is as succinctly as I can, the term Modernism is not intellectually useful, and as a consequence it is impossible to clarify things by embracing or even denouncing it. Modernism is an attempt to use a chronological label to discuss phenomenona that really haven't altered much in two or three centuries. It is no accident that Sant'Elia's drawings recall so clearly those of Piranesi, or that Corbusier's Ronchamp chapel has a bit of the same feeling as Boulee and Ledoux. Something big happened to culture in the 18th century, and the various issues that arose then are still clearly visible in the culture. Industrialism, the triumph of science and technology, shifts in religion, uneasy relationships with the ancien regime (i.e., the aristocratic culture of early Modern Europe), the impact of non-European cultures, etc., all continue to jostle each other in the cultural mix.

As best I can tell the term 'Modernism' is pretty much a P.R. term that has been used to fight various culture wars; it is pretty much nothing but an advertising slogan. Think of it in much the same terms as "See The USA in Your Chevrolet"--it has about the same intellectual weight.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 25, 2006 07:15 PM

Can't beat the front steps of the New York Public Library at lunchtime, especially in the Spring. It probably doesn’t qualify as a “square”, but why quibble with details. Street performers, food vendors and pretty girls without coats. What else can you ask for?

Posted by: Bill on March 25, 2006 07:30 PM

I have to agree with FvB's comment - as I scrolled down the list, I started shaking my head as all those NYC landmarks kept showing up - heck, they're Manhattan landmarks, to be more precise.

Someone had to point them to Philadelphia, it looks like, and Boston and Chicago apparently don't rate at all.

Heck, I've lived near the place for seventeen years now, but I don't really think that Manhattan needs any more encouragement to think of itself as the center of the universe.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on March 25, 2006 09:05 PM

Friedrich, I think you're probably right concerning the 18th C as a pivot-point intellectually. But Non-Ornamented (or whatever might be a replacement term for Modernism) architecture didn't kick in until the early 20th C.

Worse, the term "Modernism" is pretty solidly set at this point, though Hughes does a valiant job trying to dance around it.

Still, labels aren't necessarily forever. A case in point is the comeback of "the Great War" in place of World War I.

Now all we need is a snappy term to replace "Modern" or "Modernism." Any ideas?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 25, 2006 10:02 PM

Finding substitutes for words like "modern" and "modernism" is a topic that comes up a lot on the TradArch mailing list.

However, I think it may be too late to come up with terms other than "modern" and "modernism" (despite the genuine problems that have been pointed out with those words).

Plus, although I didn't get a chance to read the Hugh Pearman article, it seems to me that the words "modern" and "modernism" do have some validity to them, as they seem to denote a "self-concious" modernism that developed in conjunction with the machine age and industrialization.

The immediate problem is that in the modern-day era there are so many VERY DIFFERENT styles of modernism all of which claim to be "modern" -- including contemporary architecture that also incorporates elements of traditional architecture. Inevitably this seems to lead to a great deal of confusion.

So I think it's helpful to try and call the various modern styles by their individual names when possible (e.g., Bauhaus, Expressionism, Constructivism, Art Deco, and more recently Deconstructism, etc.). And perhaps some day the individual style names will lead to "modern" and "modernism" being replaced, at least to a degree.

Also, to distinguish between "compound-approved" modern styles (the "annointed" styles, like Bauhaus, International Style, Deconstructivism) and "compund-disapproved" or "compound-ignored" styles (e.g., Art Deco, Moderne, etc.), I like to use the terms "orthodox modernism" and "unorthodox modernism."

Someone on the TradArch mailing list also suggested "avantgardist modernism" for the compound-approved types "holier than thou" modernism.

For contemporary architecture that incorporates "traditional" architectural elements, I like to use the term "modern traditional" architecture.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 25, 2006 11:42 PM

Mr. Hemric:

I appreciate your suggestions, but while they work descriptively, they don't do much as explanations. Surely any attempt to understand what these various styles mean has to connect the dots between all the various episodes of hyper-rationalism, of emotional romanticism, of historicism, of internationalism, etc., etc. in art that keep popping up at regular intervals throughout the past three centuries.

All these trends in art seem, jointly, to form a giant multifaceted mirror for a society organized by and for the middle/working classes. Rational (by economic necessity) yet hyper-emotional (insecure and lacking a culture of aristocratic restraint), looking for aesthetic guidance sometimes in the past, sometimes in other cultures, sometimes in other eras, but restlessly unable to tolerate any form of 'authority' for long.

It doesn't give me much confidence that the return to tradition is likely to stick in current society. The authority of the ancients (i.e., the ancestors) makes a great deal more sense as a source of aesthetic authority in an aristocratic society than it does in a middle-class/working class one.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 26, 2006 12:29 AM

While my own favorite spots in NYC include all 4 squares listed, I feel like Union Square can use some cleaning up. Especially in the summer, it's filthy and ridden with rats--not very pleasant. Also, they neglected to mention Bryant Park's Broadway Under the Stars and HBO Mondays, perhaps the park's greatest attractions, which draw thousands of locals and tourists -- truly an incredibly experience. I found the skating rink, on the other hand, kind of disappointing. Much prefer skating at Rockefeller--exhilirating!

Posted by: bits'npieces on March 26, 2006 09:16 AM

A term to replace Modern or Modernism.

How about Streamlined?

Posted by: ricpic on March 27, 2006 02:28 PM

Sehr geehrter Herr Doktor von Blowhard,

That's the most interesting comment I've read anywhere this month.

Mit freundlichen Gruessen,

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on March 27, 2006 02:37 PM

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