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« Women, Men and Decisions | Main | Milton Grenfell on Traditional Architecture »

October 21, 2003


Dear Friedrich --

* Get to know some of the world's most obese people here.

* The art critic Robert Hughes' biography of Goya goes on sale soon here. It's been released already in Britain, where reviews have been enthusiastic. Here's Sebastian Smee in The Spectator.

* Lynn Sislo offers a compact history of the castrato in classical music here.

* Graham Lester writes a sensible posting about poverty, here. Great (or at least simpatico to me) line: "Poverty is primarily a practical problem, not a moral issue."

* In the Financial Times, Mark Archer reviews Robert Skidelsky's biography of John Maynard Keynes, here

* Find out which Western stars have been doing the Bill-Murray-in-Lost- Translation thing -- ie., shilling products in Japanese commercials -- here.

* Nancy Levovitz (whose own site is here) has a knack for turning up fascinating and unexpected art. Here's a page featuring the work of Jirapat Tasanasomboon, a contemporary Thai painter whose work crosses traditional Thai motifs with characters from American comic books.

* I've met a number of New Classicist architects, and many of them tell the same story: of loving buildings, of being trained as Modernists -- and of waking up one day to the fact that they were designing buildings they loathed. Milton Grenfell, a New Classicist architect in Charlotte, N.C., lived a similar experience. Here's an article by Richard Maschal about Grenfell.



posted by Michael at October 21, 2003


Hey Michael--the supposed link to Jirapat Tasanasomboon just points back to 2Blowhards. Is there a lok somewhere on NancyButtons?

Posted by: Mike Snider on October 21, 2003 10:03 AM

Well, I'm a modernist and don't much care for what Martin Grenfell's doing in architecture, but he certainly is the sensible one in the article found here:

Posted by: Mike Kelly on October 21, 2003 10:54 AM

Oops, bad link now fixed -- thanks for pointing it out.

Thanks for the link to the other Greenfell article too. I'll be taking his advice, and won't be sinking my investment money in a second home. Wait: what investment money?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 21, 2003 11:06 AM

First, this is kind of an unkind link.

Second, after reading this...I guess people who are alone really are because they want to be, given...

"Roselie Bradford...later sued the Star tabloid for suggesting that she couldn't have intimate relations with her HUSBAND at over half a ton."

"Carol Yager...In 1993, she was measured at 1189 lbs when admitted to Hurley Medical Center, suffering from cellulitis. She lost nearly 500 lbs on a 1200-calorie diet, but most of that weight was thought to be fluid, and she regained all of it and more soon after being discharged. Her TEENAGE DAUGHTER, A BOYFRIEND and a group of volunteers helped take care of her."

Posted by: annette on October 21, 2003 11:46 AM

Apologies if it seems cruel. I linked because I thought the page wasn't treating these people as freaks and because I enjoyed the glimpses I got of their lives. If anyone else finds the link offensive or cruel, let me know and I'll take it down pronto.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 21, 2003 11:56 AM

Grenfell wrote a fine essay on style for a publication I helped to produce, "Council Report III/IV." Here is an excerpt:

Remarks on Style

I would contend that the style of architecture marked by its radical rejection of all historical styles, namely Modernism, is a style inadequate to the task of creating “comfortable and interesting” places because it is deficient in three aspects which are crucial to such places, namely:

1) intelligibility,
2) complexity within order,
3) connectivity.

First intelligibility. There are three ways abandoned by modernism that architecture has traditionally made itself intelligible: typology, ornament and tectonics. Typology transmits information through association that convention has assigned to forms. Traditional typologies tell us what is a house of worship, what is a bank, what is a school, what is a house, and where the front door is. Typologically, shed roofs are for rabbit hutches, outhouses and other such modest outbuildings. Quonset huts are for temporary military encampments.

Ornament as a means of making buildings intelligible has, until the modernist movement, been inseparable from architecture. The totemic devices painted and carved into the wooden posts of even the most primitive shelter proclaimed the owner’s lineage or his powers in battle or the hunt. Before typology or tectonics, when we lived in mere holes in the earth, mankind adorned the walls of his caves with pictures that still delight us. Indeed, delight, that third prong of Vitruvius’ timeless Triad — Commodity, Firmness and Delight — is inseparable from ornament. Since we ornament where we live, where we are buried, and even our own bodies, man might well be described as the “ornamenting animal.” Such behavior is peculiarly and inextricable human.

Finally, that term beloved of architects, tectonics, which might be defined as a building’s expression of the craft of building. This expression often operates on the level of actuality and metaphor. For example, a cornice projection actually shelters a building’s fabric and occupants from sun and rain, but also creates a metaphor for shelter. Whereas the swelling, or entasis, of a column shaft is purely a metaphorical representation of the column’s load bearing. Nevertheless, such metaphors speak of truths about building that transcend mere fact.

--from "Remarks on Style" by Milton Grenfell

I can't post Grenfell's entire essay, but here are links to other essays that appeared in the same publication:

"A Conversation with Dan Solomon and Andrés Duany"

"Learning from Traditional Mediterranean Codes" by Besim S. Hakim

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on October 21, 2003 7:36 PM

I've often wondered about these poor obese beings who are so big that they are confined to their beds. Who then, is BRINGING THEM ALL THE FOOD THAT THEY EAT? Aren't THOSE people partly responsible for enabling this disease??????????

Posted by: iris on October 21, 2003 10:22 PM

I don't see how Grenfell's points about modernism and intelligibility are supportable. First, take what Grenfell says about typology. Is it really true that by losing the information typology "transmits ... through association that convention has assigned to forms" modernism has left us in confusion as to what functions are housed in the buildings we are confronted with? Sure there are some; Mies's chapel at ITT comes immediately to mind. (Indeed, it seems that Grenfell may have simply equated modernism with Miesianism.) But when we see the churches designed by the Saarinens or Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut or Wright's Unitarian Meeting House in Madison, is there any question that they are places of worship? (It is true that many churches these days are hard to recognize as churches, but that is not the result of architectural modernism, but of a rejection by many contemporary churchgoers of anything that reminds them of the churches of their youth.) Do most bank buildings puzzle us? Furthermore, note the classicists' solution to the problem of how to house banks: dress them up like Greek or Roman temples--how's that for typology? Finally, when we see one of Neutra's or A. Quincy Jones' houses, do we really have any trouble recognizing that it's a house? Modernism may have created its own typology, but it is one that everyone has very quickly picked up.

Now, note what Grenfell says about ornament. He gives examples of the _occupant_ ornamenting his house, something that continues to go on in modernist houses. The owner displays artworks, hangs family photos, and so on. Grenfell's examples show nothing to support a claim that there is a human need for ornament to be applied by an architect to our surroundings. And it's good that Grenfell didn't make an argument on the grounds of visual delight, because most modernists are very interested in visual delight, either through use of a variety of materials, or an interplay of structural forms, or through the provision of ideal views of the buidling's surroundings (and if the building is not in a beautiful location, the modernist architect may attempt to remedy that with well landscaped courtyards). Or the modernist architect may indeed supply visual delight with ornament--think of Wright's work throughout his career.

Fianlly, I hardly need to comment on modernism's exultation of the tectonic.

I'd like to see the rest of Grenfell's article to see whether it supports his rejection of modernism any better than what is quoted here.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on October 21, 2003 10:54 PM

Mike -- Have you ever run across Leon Krier's writings? He seems to me the originator of a lot of these kinds of criticisms of modernism, or to be at least one of the powerful makers of these arguments. I'd love to know how you respond to his work. Let me see if I can dig up a link or two. The book of his to search out, by the way, is "Architecture: Choice of Fate?"

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 21, 2003 11:29 PM

Iris -- I've often wondered about that too. And I've wondered as well ... er ... Well, if all this food is being brought to them ... er ... Well, in a word, how do they take leaks and dumps? They can't fit through doors. Any toilet I've ever seen would collapse beneath them. Yet they're such enormous creatures that it must take hours to get a bedpan properly situated beneath them. And who's volunteering for bedpan duties anyway?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 21, 2003 11:34 PM


I know a little bit about Krier, but I've been too lazy to do much reading of his stuff. If you could provide some links, that'd be great. And if I can summon up the energy, I'll take a look at "Architecture: Choice of Fate?"

Posted by: Mike Kelly on October 21, 2003 11:44 PM


Grenfell certainly isn’t saying that the public is wandering around in a state of confusion, unable to discern a bank from a house from a church. What he is saying is the abandonment of traditional typologies has rendered buildings less intelligible than they would be otherwise. For instance, the shed roof is, at present, a common form for a high-concept home. After seeing decades of them, we’ve become accustomed to residential shed roofs. However, tradition continues to inform our cultural perceptions; it simply has too much momentum to be wiped out by fiat. Therefore, the shed roof still impresses us on a certain level as a more casual, subordinate and trivial form. Claiming that it is high-concept introduces some dissonance that reduces the overall intelligibility of the building.

Of course, there are certain avant-gardists who revel in unintelligibility, saying that it reflects the arbitrary nature of human culture and the chaos of contemporary life. And there are plenty of confusing structures built every day: schools that look like prisons, houses that look like factories, shops that look like offices, etc. These are a long, long way from the classic modernist examples you cite.

Contemporary banks are actually dressed up like Roman basilicas (especially in plan and interior), which were themselves derived from earlier Greek and Roman temple forms. Basilicas were places of government administration and business, so the use of that typology to communicate stability and probity does make sense.

Grenfell’s point about ornament refers to the public face that houses present to society at large. That’s different than the decoration of the interior. The public face communicates to a broader, undifferentiated audience, so the message should be different. Interior decoration is for the consumption of the residents and their guests. And you are correct to observe that Grenfell isn’t talking about beauty; he is discussing iconography – the meaning that artistic symbols convey. Abstractions of texture, material and form certainly may be beautiful, but they purposefully avoid the communication through symbols that Grendfell describes.

I think you’d be disappointed by the rest of Grenfell’s essay, because it simply discusses the stylistic principles he believes are important. To fully support those principles through historical examples and cultural observations would require a longer document – an entire book, I’d say.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on October 22, 2003 1:35 AM


I wasn't sure where to post this reply, now that Michael's quoted your original post on the main page...

I should have seen that Grenfell's main point about ornament was intended to refer to external or public ornament. It was his reference to cave paintings that threw me. I suppose that that reference was mainly offered to support his description of man as the "ornamenting animal."

You make some good points in reply to my comments, yet I believe that the main point of my argument still has merit: Modernists--with the exception perhaps of Mies and some more radical contemporary architects, who abandon typology entirely--create new typologies, which were readily learned by the public (indeed these "new" typologies often were merely modifications or abstractions from traditional typologies). Also note that many new typologies _had_ to be invented, because new types of building functions were invented. Consider for example the airport.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on October 22, 2003 11:17 AM


There is no doubt in my mind that the modernists brought us new types in architecture and urban design. Slab-block housing and “towers in the park” are prominent examples.

So let’s consider airports.

First, was the airport type really invented by modernists? There were only a few self-identified modernists practicing in the 1910s – 1920s when the earliest public passenger terminals were built. So it should be easy to name the modernists who invented the airport type.

Note the assumption behind that question: Architectural modernism was an organized movement whose historical boundaries can be identified. “Modernism” is not the same thing as “modern.” Modernism is an ideological designation; modern has a chronological meaning that indicates time, the contemporary period (source: Leon Krier). It is not contradictory to label someone a modern classicist or a modern traditionalist – or even a modern modernist.

Second, is the airport really a type? Can you sketch a generic or typical airport right now? Logically, the functions of an airport terminal lend themselves to typological codification. The sequence is standardized: enter, buy tickets, check bags, pass security, wait at gate, board plane.

But there is no consistent form or plan from airport to airport. Every time you arrive at an unfamiliar airport, you constantly need signage to tell you where to go and how to use the place (beyond the gate numbers, I mean). Airports are thoroughly reliant on a literate user base.

Compare that to the Western European cathedral type. People have been building them for millennia, in an astounding variety of styles. Yet it’s still possible to sketch a generic, typical plan of a cathedral. Anyone entering an unfamiliar one knows already the general layout and arrangement of functions – literacy is not a prerequisite. From the exterior also, the cathedral type is readily identifiable, although in recent decades some modernists have been muddling that clarity with cathedrals that look like office parks or warehouses.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on October 23, 2003 6:35 PM

I don't find the picture of my baby sister cruel or offensive (but other members of my family certainly would). We just won't tell 'em, will we?


Posted by: Terry Yager on April 6, 2004 9:57 PM

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