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« Tacit Knowledge -- 30 | Main | Architecture and Sex »

April 24, 2003

I don't know why I worry

Friedrich --

You're no doubt tired of hearing me complain about how the poohbahs of the architecture world refuse to engage in any critical discussion of such interesting recent developments as the New Urbanism and the New Classicism. And you're right: Why waste energy worrying about the silliness of the poohbahs? They're only choking off their own air passages anyway; all their uptightness accomplishes is to make establishment architecture seem ever more removed from common concerns. Meanwhile, the rest of us -- and god bless us -- seem to be as busy as ever getting on with life.

Porphyrios's Grove Quadrangle at Oxford

On which theme I did a little idle websurfing today, and in just a few minutes turned up the following:

  • One article in USA Today (here) discussing current efforts that some American cities, towns and neighborhoods are making to become more walkable. New Urbanists are being consulted.
  • Another USA Today article (here) about how many of the old '60s and '70s-era shopping malls are being converted into mini-urban developments along -- you guessed it -- New Urbanist lines.
  • A piece here about how Princeton University has signed up the Greek-American-British New Classicist Demetri Porphyrios to build a $100 million new residential quad in collegiate-gothic style. The bulk of the money for the project is coming from Meg Whitman of Ebay, who loved the style when she was a student there, and who says she doesn't want the campus -- which has been cluttered up with a variety of loudly new buildings in recent decades -- to lose its identity. Porphyrios, by the way, is the author of a very good book about classical architecture, buyable here.
  • A gallery of student work from the school of architecture at Notre Dame, here. Although nearly all of America's architecture schools remain modernist in outlook and approach, a few have gone a different route. One is the University of Miami, which has a New Urbanist flavor. Another is Notre Dame, which re-made itself about a decade ago into a traditional Beaux-Arts-style school of architecture, where students immerse themselves in the history of architecture, where they get familiar with traditional forms, and where they actually learn how to draw and render by hand.
  • An article by Catesby Leigh (here), the only American architecture critic to my knowledge to give this kind of work any actual critical consideration, about Leon Krier's Poundbury, a new village in Britain that's being constructed along traditional lines. Sneered at by modernist architects and critics for being Disneylandish, widely expected to prove an embarrassment and a failure, it has in fact turned out to be a spanking success where the houses sell at a premium. According to Leigh, "Tony Blair's New Labour government has directed local planning authorities to consider the village a pattern for environmentally sensible town planning." Could this really be the same Tony Blair who began his tenure as a great sponsor of Richard Rogers' flop-eroo Millenium Dome?

Krier's Poundbury

All this stuff is fizzing around us all the time, there to be noticed, reacted to and discussed -- ain't culture great? Meanwhile the poohbahs spend their time debating what's really architecture and what's not. Sigh. But I think I remember saying something about turning over a new leaf, so I'll stop there.



posted by Michael at April 24, 2003


Your USA Today links aren't working. In any event, I was Google-searching for essays on the notion of suburbia, and found that at least one erstwhile New Urbanist seemed to find suburbia (or at least car-commuter suburbia) the most evil of all possible living arrangements, as well as possibly the most evil human condition ever invented. Is this typical of New Urbanist thinking and--perhaps more crucially--is this a typical New Urbanist moral stance?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 26, 2003 4:20 PM

If you're going to combine all this stuff in one posting, you're going to have to put up with multiple comments as I work my way through it. I checked out the Notre Dame gallery of student art and it's pretty interesting. However, one of the designs reminded me of some of the work I came across by C. N. Ledoux in researching my own post. Both Ledoux and the student work suggested that when certain rules of proportion aren't observed, Classicism starts to look pretty zany.

C. N. Ledoux, La Rotonde de Villette, ?; M. Enquist, Architectural Design, 2002-3

How much give and take vis-a-vis things like "traditional" proportion is considered proper in contemporary neo-Classicism? Are they trying to just revive the tradition, or do they want to play around with it, create a sort of contemporary classicism? I came across some brief discussions of Ledoux's work in which his proportional oddities were "explained" by the fact that Ledoux never visited Rome, and was dependent largely on the study of prints (by G. B. Piranesi, no less!) Is it possible that the current crop of students may find themselves in Ledoux's position: not having been exposed to enough Classical buildings (and to perhaps too many PoMo buildings) to imbibe the full gestalt?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 26, 2003 4:39 PM

Damn, the USA Today links were working the other day. Does USA Today only keep their pages and stories up for a few days. Pretty interesting pieces.

Yeah, actually, some New Urbanists can fly off into real NPR/Denmark-is-heaven/socialist-snob fits about the supposed awfulness of the suburbs. And they need criticism for that kind of bullshit -- one reason why my little campaign here focuses on getting people to pay a little attention, and to consider these movements worth discussing too. Without critical attention and discussion (also known as feedback) art movements will lose their bearings.

Same with the New Classicists -- they need the recognition, because that'll lead to attention and discussion, and then a useful production/feedback loop can start up. The quality will be more likely to go up. Notre Dame, as I understand it, tries to make a point of giving most of their students some serious time overseas. So I wonder what some of the bizarreries that are evident in some of their designs come from -- just student inexperience? Shakey teaching? (All these people are trying to not just re-learn but re-create the whole Classical approach.) First fumbling attempts at getting the tradition back to life? Adapting Classicism to towers and especially skyscrapers was always one of the bigger challenges: What do you do with that elongated middle section?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 26, 2003 4:57 PM

Oh, I don't know, how 'bout this solution:

Caesar's Palace Tower

This has always simultaneously cracked me up and won my admiration. Not a bad combination for something as "serious" as architecture.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 27, 2003 2:53 AM

What I think you're getting at, Michael, is that developers in the real world are working to fill some genuine demand for some of the "walkable community" aspects that the New Urbanists push, but are doing so with less of an effete scholar/snob outlook than so many of the New Urbanist navel-gazers have. I'm one of those people who wouldn't mind seeing the New Urbanism and New Classicism ideas spread even further in reality, because I don't particularly see car-commuter suburbia as a sort of living space that I'd personally like to live in, and for that reason I don't want to see all the serious urban options become prohibitively expensive like, say, New York is nowadays.

So I am happy that these ideas are spreading around more in the real world, because for a long time I was worried that New Urbanism would be forever held back by the sort of snooty, moralistic viewpoint that Freidrich notes, which has the effect of putting off all the people who think living in a commuter suburb is more appealing than other possible ways of living. They'd be better off if they were able to concentrate on ways to fit these different modes together, rather than creating a discussion that pits one lifestyle against the other and reduces everyone to flinging feces back and forth across the city line. (There are pro-suburbanists who are more than happy to join in, loudly insisting that car-commuting suburbs are destined to take over the world because they are "what people really want" -- never mind the obvious fact that all these new developments, not to mention the stratospheric rents in places like New York, demonstrate that there's also some pretty hefty demand for what urbanists have on offer.)

It's too bad that so many of the early backers of New Urbanism were elite theorists who, not to put too fine a point on it, are not particularly interested in seeing the lifestyle choices of the petit bourgeois as actual choices. It seems to be the conviction of a lot of these folks -- believe me, I used to be one of them -- that suburbia exists only because powerful interests indoctrinated the lemming-like masses of humanity into believing that suburbia is what they wanted, and so the right way to counteract that is not to make arguments about why someone might want another lifestyle, but rather to seize away the putative power of indoctrination and coercion.

Posted by: Combustible Boy on April 27, 2003 8:17 PM

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