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October 21, 2003

Milton Grenfell on Traditional Architecture

Dear Friedrich --

Laurence Aurbach, an editor at The Town Paper (here), left a comment on the previous posting that I can't resist making into its own posting. He was responding to my link to an article about the Charlotte, N.C. New Classicist architect Milton Grenfell. Here's Laurence's note:

Michael -- Milton 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," here.

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

Best, Laurence

Many thanks to Laurence Aurbach, and I do urge everyone to visit The Town Paper (here) -- lots of sensible, intelligent talk about buildings, neighborhoods and towns. Me, I'm scooting over to read the Solomon-Duany and Hakim papers right now.



UPDATE: David Sucher and Laurence Aurbach have an enlightening back-and-forth in the comments on this posting. Mike Kelly adds a lot in the comments on the previous posting. Don't miss the show.

posted by Michael at October 21, 2003


If I understand the thesis correctly-- "Modernism, is a style inadequate to the task of creating "comfortable and interesting" places because it is deficient in three aspects..." -- I couldn't disagree more.

While I personally happen to like buildings with texture (which is what I believe Aurbach's rules boil down to) I do not believe that its absence prevents the development of pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods.

I'd put it this way: show me a neighborhood built according to the Three Rules and in a "Modernist" style but which is not pedestrian-friendly and then we can have some phsyical basis for discussion. My point is that no one has tried it over a broad area. Individual buildings in a Modernist style can and do in fact make excellent neighbors.

Let's not confuse site plan with style.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 22, 2003 12:14 AM

Oops, things are getting a bit messy here -- my fault. Lousy layout artist, I guess.

I posted here a comment Laurence wrote on a previous posting. But evidently I did so in an unclear way. In any case, what David is responding to is a passage from an article by Milton Grenfell that Laurence quoted in his comment. (Although I wouldn't be surprised if Laurence agreed with Grenfell.) So, for the moment, it's Sucher vs. Grenfell.

And, to mess things up even further, be sure to check out Mike Kelly's comments about Grenfell and modernism on the posting just beneath this one.

My own two cents is less an opinion than a musing. While I agree totally with David that (I think I'm lifting David's words here) how a buiding behaves is much more important than how a building looks, I do also wonder about modernism, I sympathize with Grenfell, and recognize what he's talking about. There's no reason a modernist building shouldn't play by the 3 rules and be a congenial partner in a neighborhood. But it does seem that very few of them do so. For some reason (the modernist desire to "be striking"? the modernist tendency to see what they do as "intervening in the urban fabric"?), the modernist thing is often to defy the rules. I remember Krier and Duany somewhere saying that as far as they were concerned, a New Urbanist town could be full of buildings designed by Hadid and Calatrava -- if they'd play by the rules, which they won't. Anyway, my deepdown feeling (and I'm resigned to being scoleded for being a hysteric here) is that there's something totalizing and utopian in the modernist impulse -- that most modernist works are going to do their best to transform, transcend, and defy. Hey, I like some modest modernism. Too bad there's so little of it. Instead: plazas, disruptions, interventions, blankness ....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 22, 2003 12:38 AM

Well, I just came back from seeing "the Disney" (or is it really "the Gehry"?) and one of the most interesting things about it (actually one of the few interesting things about it besides the media reaction) is its frontage on Grand Avenue: it's not bad and starts to create an urban streetscape as it offers the pedestrian a restaurant, a retail shop, entry doors and a ticket office. (The other 3 streetfronts are blank-wall garbage.) The architect probably could have done the Grand Avenue side truly great -- made it live -- had the client had the common sense to know what to ask for. But it's a start.

My point here is that even an extreme (to judge by Gehry syncophants' verbiage) modernist can create a decent (and alas its no more than decent) streetfront well within his preferred goofy style.

As to the idea that there is something "totalizing and utopian in the modernist impulse..." ...hmmm...I think that's giving them far too much credit; I think they just "do it for the kicks" and to get attention simply by being different; I think it's no more profound than that.

Btw, I was just reviewing my images in preparation for blogging and the Disney photographs extremely well. I think that that's one of Gehry's secrets: consistent with Hollywood, he designs as much for the camera as for live eyes.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 22, 2003 1:12 AM

I think that's one of the secrets of the most-publicized architects generally -- their work photographs better than it works or plays. They make buildings more for publication than for use.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 22, 2003 1:42 AM

David, I agree with you completely -- in theory. As long as the urban pattern is pedestrian-friendly, why shouldn't modernist styles perform equally well as traditional ones? If the urbanism (the street network and geometry, the block sizes, the frontages, the diversity of building types and uses, etc.) is handled well, then it seems reasonable that any style at all would be suitable to create a good place.

In practice, however, I am less than entirely convinced. Too often a modernist building -- even one that supports good urbanism -- strikes me as lacking some critical quality. It’s like meeting someone at a dinner party, and suddenly you realize it’s the Rain Man: opaque, unable to communicate in conventional ways.

I've seen the photos of Tel Aviv you posted on your blog, and while those streets may be interesting and pedestrian-friendly, they don't seem as comfortable as streets composed of traditional-style buildings. There are similar places in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. The buildings are rigorously abstracted and rationalized; they lack the human touch. Think of things you consider comfortable, perhaps a broken-in pair of jeans or boots or a baseball mitt. It is the trace of the human body that makes those things comfortable, their adaptation to human needs rather than vice versa.

In architecture, that comfort is expressed in several ways, including:

Scale – The building is constructed with ornamental and articulating elements that are between one inch and one yard in size. Traditionally, those major building that are stark and unornamented have tended to be a fortresses or a funerary monuments. Those associations probably contribute to the “totalizing” character that Michael perceives.

Craft -- materials are assembled in a way that exhibits variations inherent in the maker’s hand, rather than the precision of the machine. More and more bad, tilt-up traditionalism displays a machine-like precision, and it suffers for it.

Used-ness – The materials weather and age gracefully, they develop a patina. The syntax is easily adaptable, gracefully allowing an extra story to be added here, a new wing there, a new porch somewhere else. This is counter to the aesthetic of the 20th-century modernist object building, which requires a pristine and unchanging appearance, forever removed from the flow of time.

I enjoy some modernist architecture, but I don’t usually cozy up to it. It’s not a style that inspires fondness.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on October 22, 2003 3:47 PM

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