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April 07, 2003

Pix for the Day -- Robert A.M. Stern

Friedrich --

I'm often puzzled by the architectural press. Why aren't they giving regular coverage not just to the thinking and building that interests me most, but to the thinking and building that's going on all around them? Isn't that part of what the press is supposed to do? Instead, usual suspects drone on about other usual suspects, and then all the usual suspects award each other prizes and carry on as though it's all been not just well-deserved but inevitable.

But I'm just as puzzled by the general public's ... Well, what? Indifference? Gullibility? In any case, by how un-bugged civilians are by this state of affairs. Why aren't they 1) outraged by what's being foisted on them? and 2) interested in what's actually going on all around them?

Such as the New Urbanism, the various other new traditionalisms, the new Christopher Alexander-derived ways of seeing neighborhoods and buildings. This rejection of modernism/po-mo and fashion is an impressively large-scale phenomenon. Yet it's so little discussed and so seldom acknowledged that I sometimes sense myself being looked at like a freak when I call it to people's attention. It's as though everyone's concluded that it's just some fringe, passing thing.

So I present today's images simply to bolster two simple, easy-to-digest points: hey, it's happening, and hey, it's major.

These are images of a new building designed by the architecture firm of Robert A.M. Stern. Note the use of traditional forms. Note the efforts to engage in conversation both with history and environment. What is Stern? Some reactionary Tory? Some nostalgic hippie gone neocon? No, Stern's a bona fide, ever-in-demand, well-established bigshot. He's on the board of the Disney Company, he co-masterplanned the Florida town of Celebration, he's written a number of excellent books, including several good ones about the architectural history of New York City. He's designed buildings for the Gap as well as for Columbia University. (He made what were apparently extraordinary efforts to consult with people living on New York's Upper West Side to ensure that his Columbia dormitory would jibe with what they want from, and how they see, their neighborhood.) Oh, and he's just been re-appointed as Dean of Yale's School of Architecture, where he's said to have kicked around some modernist/po-mo butt, and to have brought some innovative energy into the place.

Anyway, a few views of a recent project in Nashville. This is a new building by a big-shot architect that's part of a large-scale movement. (Sound of shoe pounding on tabletop.)

Sorry, almost lost my composure there. Anyway, please click on the images for a better look.

Stern's Nashville Public Library

Some fringe phenom, eh?

The website for Robert A.M. Stern Architects (where I found these images) is here. Rebecca Tolley-Stokes, a Tennessee librarian, has put up a page of black and white photos of the Nashville library here.



posted by Michael at April 7, 2003


Interesting. I followed the link to the website, and found this performing arts center, this shopping center, and this university hall, all of which are unabashedly Modernist. There's also this hideous po-mo headquarters building in San Francisco, which I'm pretty sure you'll dislike as much as I do.

As for that library, I have to say that looking at it, I'd much rather be in the Modernist Science, Industry and Business library on Madison Avenue in New York. The Nashville library is obviously a large, echoey room, with uncomfortable chairs too close together, no privacy at all, and nowhere to plug in a laptop. Or do you think that the primary purpose of a library is to be photographed empty, rather than used?

Posted by: Felix on April 7, 2003 1:30 AM

Hey, Felix, Good to see you, and thanks for pouncing. Happy to compare notes about personal tastes and preferences sometime. But for this posting, my argument is simply (as I said), hey, it's happening, and it ain't trivial. And that, given how widespread this movement is, it's bizarre how underdiscussed it is. So the Blowhards -- well, this Blowhard -- tries to discuss it from time to time.

Stern? Whatever his vicissitudes, he's known as an eloquent and outspoken advocate of historicism, he does much of his work in period and vernacular styles, and he's a big, successful figure. I'd love to hear how he justifies the modernist buildings, wouldn't you? I wonder if he's got some rap about contextualism.

I haven't spent any time in the Nashville Library, though I did drive around and ogle it. So I've alas got nothing to report about its acoustics or its usability. But I can report that it fits in very adroitly and enjoyably with downtown Nashville.

As for the Science, Industry and Business Library in Manhattan that you're fond of? We're thinking of the same one, right? The one that's inside the former B. Altman building? Which was built in the Italian Renaissance style and was originally opened almost a century ago? It looked really good the last time I stopped by too. But didn't you think that the actual building it's located in -- French limestone, columns, porticos and all -- added a little something to the experience?

I'd argue that modernists often do good work when they're updating/cleaning-up/etc yet respecting traditional buildings -- they're sometimes wonderful renovators. I imagine we agree there. But I'd also argue that they often run into problems when they try to create their own forms (let alone neighborhoods). I imagine we disagree about this.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 7, 2003 2:16 AM

As a financial journalist, I spend a lot of time in five-star hotels. (Not staying in them, unfortunately; just going to conferences and meetings in them.) And I have to say that your second picture of the Nashville Public Library -- the one with the great descending marble staircase -- looks, to my eyes, like nothing so much as the interior of your average Four Seasons Hotel. Blandly luxurious -- which wouldn't be such a bad thing, if it weren't for the fact that such ostentation is actually extremely intimidating to much of the public that it's meant to be serving.

Grand hotels have developed their architecture very cleverly: their interiors are public spaces, but at the same time they don't want any old riff-raff coming in and harshing their mellow. So the ostentation serves two functions: as a signifier of luxury to the genuine guests, and as a "Keep Out" sign to those of us without an overdeveloped sense of entitlement or large wads of cash in our pockets.

When I look at buildings like the Nashville public library, I see something which most of Nashville will be, at best, apprehensive about entering and using. (The same is true of the main New York Public Library, by the way, in Bryant Park.) Modern libraries understand this, and are generally much more welcoming, with light-filled spaces which draw you in before you know it. SIBL is a good example, but, as you point out, it's in an old building: for new buildings, there are examples in Toronto and east London (England), off the top of my head, which I can't be bothered to look up right now.

Nashville, in this sense, then is a step backward not only in terms of architectural vernacular, but also in its understanding of what public libraries should be. It seems to have been built for (1) the client, who will have loved seeing all the luxury; and (2) the professorial classes of Nashville, who will undoubtedly have the building to themselves most of the time. The public -- well, they might or might not like to look at the building when they walk past, but there's nothing in the architecture, inside or out, which is going to draw them in and encourage them to use this obviously very expensive public resource. What we have here is a prime example of government expenditure (as opposed to taxation) being regressive: the benefits of this library go not to the poor, but to the overeducated middle classes.

Posted by: Felix on April 7, 2003 10:49 AM

Good post Michael. A related, and welcome phenomenon is the steady reversal of defacing that went on from the 50’s through the 80’s as the 1st and 2nd floor facades of countless masonry buildings were ripped off or covered up to give the building a “fresh modern” look. Now, not only are these injured buildings being repaired and restored, (good example on SE corner of 5th Ave and , I think, 39th street) but the modernist glass boxes are now all being retrofitted with granite facades!

Felix, you write:

“The Nashville library is obviously a large, echoey room, with uncomfortable chairs too close together, no privacy at all, and nowhere to plug in a laptop. Or do you think that the primary purpose of a library is to be photographed empty, rather than used?”

This is mindless, knee jerk, and completely uniformed criticism. First of all the library is much more than its main reading room. You treat the two as one. The purpose of a main reading room is to be a large formal room with tables and upright, but not uncomfortable chairs. (If I were in charge, I wouldn’t even allow little kids in this room!) It should be slightly awe-inspiring. It should inspire hushed respect. One should afraid to talk loudly in the room. Note that, for your benefit, comfortable club chairs and sofas are arranged around the perimeter of the room. The library provides, as it should, separate rooms explicitly for computer users. There are also more informal rooms for general book borrowing and informal rooms explicitly for young adults, (with more computer access). There are more informal rooms just for children with plenty of comfy chairs. And this is the library system’s MAIN library, not a small neighborhood branch.

By the way, I’m curious, did you not know that the SIBL (B. Altman) building was emphatically not a modernist building until Michael pointed it out?

Posted by: Paul Mansour on April 7, 2003 2:01 PM

Paul -- I'll happily admit I've never seen the Nashville library in real life. All I have to go on is the photos that Michael linked to, and none of them show that "comfortable club chairs and sofas are arranged around the perimeter of the room". In fact, it looks to me as though the perimiter of the room is lined with books. (Not such a bad thing, in a library.)

What's an "informal room for general book borrowing"? On the Stern website, we're shown this picture of a Grand Central Terminal size hall with a big "Returns" sign on one side; one assumes that the archway opposite it is for borrowing books. This room is many things, but informal it is not.

As for children, I never once mentioned them. It's now standard to put children's rooms in any library, branch or main, and that's surely a good thing. My point was about adults: the architecture of this library does nothing to encourage Nashville's working class population to come in and use it.

As for SIBL, I never said it was a modernist building, I said it was a modernist library, which it emphatically is. I might be a bit obtuse occasionally, but I think I can tell the difference between a glass curtain wall and turn-of-the-century department-store architecture. In fact, I know the building well, since I'm a semi-regular attendee of lectures at the new CUNY Graduate Center, which occupies the Fifth Avenue half of the building.

Posted by: Felix on April 7, 2003 2:56 PM

Oh, and as for jerking knees, I humbly decline that prize and hand it off instead to Michael, who seems to think that anybody who's ever put an Ionic column on a building has demonstrated a "rejection of modernism/po-mo". Stern, whether or not you like him, obviously does not share Michael's distate for modernism/po-mo. He might be "an eloquent and outspoken advocate of historicism," but that does not make him, pace Salingaros, an outspoken critic of modernism.

Posted by: Felix on April 7, 2003 3:39 PM

Tempting though it is to get into the mosh pit with youse tough guys, and happy though I am to admit where my sympathies lie, I'm going to choose to remain up here, serene on my blogmaster's neoclassical throne, and attempt to steer the conversation back to the gist of my posting, which is (I'm repeating myself, I know, but just this one last time and then I give up): this anti-modernist/po-mo thing is happening, it's substantial, and ain't it weird that it gets so little acknowledgment, recognition, and discussion?

That's it. That's all I'm saying. Is this building the greatest thing since sliced bread? Do I love love love this staircase to death? Do I want to marry Robert A.M. Stern's daughter? Separate discussions, and interesting ones, but perhaps best had over Ginger Kamikazes.

I don't hear anyone disputing my explicit point here, do I? Do I? But maybe I do...

Felix, one small matter, which is that the rejection of modernism/po-mo I'm talking about doesn't have to be the architect's. Stern likes historicism and often works in traditional styles. But the building is as much Nashville's as his. They decided they wanted something in a style that matched much of their traditional downtown. They rejected the modernist/po-mo alternative. To point at a couple of modernist buildings by Stern doesn't in any way refute my point, which is simply that there's a surprisingly substantial and largely unrecognized movement out there of people rejecting modernism and po-mo/etc.

Thanks for the lively discussion, architecture dudes.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 7, 2003 6:52 PM

Felix, I guess the chairs and sofas are only on the left (interior) side of the reading room. See the Rebecca Tolley-Stokes photos that Michael refers to in his post.

I stand by my point that the library is much more than the few grand, formal rooms, and that complaining that they are not comfortable and don’t have laptop outlets is not enlightening.

Regarding your main point:

“My point was about adults: the architecture of this library does nothing to encourage Nashville's working class population to come in and use it.”

I think it would be interesting to explore this, in conjunction with your comments regarding luxury hotels, and if I can scrape up some time, I’ll do a post on it on my blog. I will only say now that I think you might have too low an opinion of the working class population.

And finally, let me apologize both for my “mindless, knee jerk” comment and my last jibe about the B. Altman building. Both were uncalled for. Didn’t mean to come across as a tough (and rude) guy!

Posted by: Paul Mansour on April 7, 2003 8:58 PM

Michael wrote: "...I'm going to choose to remain up here, serene on my blogmaster's neoclassical throne, and attempt to steer the conversation back to the gist of my posting, which is...: this anti-modernist/po-mo thing is happening, it's substantial, and ain't it weird that it gets so little acknowledgment, recognition, and discussion [in the architectural press]?"

Against my better judgment...

And just where in the architectural press would you expect discussion of a marginal architectural (using the term in its most generic sense) movement such as includes The New Urbanism, Alexander-influenced historical copies, and all the rest of the so-called New Traditionalist stuff? (And, yes, the movement is marginal, and Stern -- a "corporate," and sober conservative architect all his career -- is NOT part of it, your attempt to implicate him notwithstanding.) Surely not in the *design* sections of architectural journals. The very idea is absurd. There's nothing design-wise about any of that stuff that would merit inclusion there. The section that covers architectural business, then. Perhaps. I'm not up on how much of an impact the movement has had on the business of architecture generally, and so can't offer anything more than the suggestion that it might merit mention, or even at-length discussion, there.

In general, it seems to me that if the movement merited discussion at all, journals devoted to the home improvement and building trades would be more appropriate venues.

But I bet that wouldn't please you one little bit.


Posted by: acdouglas on April 8, 2003 2:11 AM

Hey AC, I'd be happy to respond to your comment if I saw anything in it that's respond-able to. As far as I can tell, what you're saying is that because you don't like this work -- you don't seem to be offering any other reason -- it doesn't deserve to be recognized as or discussed as architecture. I guess that's a kind of interesting stance that you're taking. But it's a little hard to respond to. Got anything but opinion to back any of this up?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2003 11:11 PM

The "mainstream" architectural press in the U.S. is a joke. They care much more about novelty and "the next thing" than they care about quality. But despite these generalizations, much ink has been spilled on the subject of new urbanism and post-modernism. These are both subjects that broke over fifteen years ago. They contiue to be covered by magazines such as Architecture and Architectural Record.

In fact, this Library by Stern, was published in one of these magazines. (I can't recall which) There is no conspiracy by the moderist hordes to cover this stuff up. I would guess that a large number of architects believe that his stuff is great.

I however, do not. It is the 21st Century. We should build structures that reflect our time and our values. This library reflects the values of "Old Europe," not democratic America. Stern is a powerful and successful architect becuase he is good at giving people what they think they want. Unfortunately, this is usually just a bunch of tired symbols clumsily thrown together in some attempt to lay claim to status and class. He is a Peter Keating for our age.

I am not going to tell you that Modernism is inherently good. It is merely a style, just as neo-classicism is. Good architects make good architecture, and Stern is not a good architect. It may look passable in the photos, but what I have seen in person is not.

Posted by: Randy Ruiz on April 9, 2003 1:55 AM

Michael wrote: "As far as I can tell, what you're saying is that because you don't like this work -- you don't seem to be offering any other reason -- it doesn't deserve to be recognized as or discussed as architecture."

Posted by: acdouglas on April 9, 2003 6:40 AM

I know that probably no one will read this, but I had to post something to refute some of the ridiculous claims made on this site. Robert A. M. Stern is my favorite architect, and is undoubtedly one of the greatest of our time. He is a postmodernist, possibly, but he strives to create buildings that fit perfectly into their environments. If a postmodernist building will interact with its surroundings better than an overgrown Corinthian column, then he designs a postmodernist building. And his buildings certainly interact well with their environments. The Nashville Public Library, for example. An excerpt from "Robert A. M. Stern: Buildings and Projects, 1993-1998" shows that Stern's library was designed to help "strengthen the dangerously frayed fabric of the civic center complex", as it sits on the axis of the Tennessee State Capitol. When I read some of the comments on this site, I decided to go to Nashville (from Ohio) to investigate, so that I could give Stern the credit he truly deserves. As Nashville is the "Athens of the South", Stern's design incorporates motifs from the city's Parthenon and other Classical buildings. The acanthus leaves on the pediments, along with the scrolling decorations found on the façade, in the carpeting, and in the courtyard fountain, show this commitment to detail. The library is a worthy component of the Capitol area, and as for "good architecture", it has been praised for its design by almost the whole of Nashville. The grand reading room is NOT a large, echoey room, and it has outlets accomodating laptops at every seat. The chairs are comfortable, too. And the children's reading room, celebrated for its collection of marionettes, is not imposing, but inviting. As for the grand staircase, it does NOT scare off the public. It welcomes them. In fact, I saw children racing each other up the stairs, not looking at it in terror. Thus, the library is not used only by Nashville's professorial classes, but mainly by the public, those who do NOT have an "overdeveloped sense of entitlement" or "large wads of cash in their pockets". It definitely does a great deal to encourage the working class to use it. And as for "regressive government expenditure", the library has been extolled in local newspapers as the best use of government funds since the city's coliseum, another beloved building. The city is immensely proud of its accomplishment, and Stern should be too. A former Nashville mayor said that "a city with a great library is a great city", prompting the construction of the new building. With the completion of Stern's masterpiece, the mayor got his wish.
As a fifteen-year-old architectural enthusiast, it sickens me to come online and see adults making childlike, unfounded comments. Maybe some of you should pick up a copy of one of Stern's monographs and get some insight from someone who actually KNOWS a thing or two about architecture.

Posted by: Andrew on July 29, 2003 11:47 PM

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