In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Elsewhere | Main | Follow Up: Preserving the Rainforest »

October 15, 2003

Tom Wolfe and Transparent Buildings

Friedrich --

That brilliant troublemaker Tom Wolfe has written a couple of op-ed pieces for the NYTimes about 2 Columbus Circle, here and here. Felix Salmon comments here, and David Sucher comments here.

Though the general question is whether the crumbling, quasi-Moorish Edward Durrel Stone building is any good (Wolfe gives it an it's-so-wonderfully-goofy thumbs-up; I give it a thumbs-down), another question gets raised too, which is: Why do so many new buildings these days look all twinkly and refract-y, like avant-garde perfume bottles?

It ain't just fashion, although that's certainly a big part of the explanation. There's also a rationale, a lot of which boils down to: solid-seeming buildings equal authority equals bad, while structures that dissolve into mist equal anti-authoritarianism equals good. I kid you not. My own take is that they're virtual buildings -- databases given a few kinky twists in order to make architectural statements. In other words, fashion, ideology and corporate convenience are triumphing at the expense of demonstrated human and user preference. Sigh.

I've got a cold today and no appetite whatsoever for polemics over architecture, so will confine myself to pointing out a good article in Spiked Online by Ciaran Guilfoyle, here, which explains transparent-building fetishism; and an interview with Lynne Munson, here, during the course of which she explains why modern art museums look the way they do.



posted by Michael at October 15, 2003


Ugh. I feel like I need to cleanse myself after reading that insanely snobbish Guilfoyle piece. The guy obviously didn't stop to think once about the difference between lending libraries in local communities and research libraries where you sit down with a hefty tome: the idea that one might not ideally be exactly like the other never occurs to him.

I don't undertand your "databases" jibe at all, I'm afraid, but I do understand your line about "demonstrated human and user preference" -- with the proviso that I'm not entirely sure why you seem to care about the non-human users of such buildings. I just think you're wrong, is all. Did you see how much more popular the Louvre became after IM Pei built his glass pyramids? How much more popular the British Museum became after Norman Foster built his glass Great Court? How much more popular the Reichstag became after its own Fosterization? How much more popular the Hayden Planetarium became after it was encased in glass?

I'd say that demonstrated human preference shows that people feel much more comfortable in airy, glass structures, and much more intimidated by forbidding buildings in stone or concrete. What makes you think otherwise?

Posted by: Felix on October 16, 2003 12:47 PM

Isn't this interesting. I just logged back to this post to urge others to read Ciaran Guilfoyle's article as I thought it particularly intelligent.

When the local Seattle Library was selling Koolhaas to our citizenry it went on and on about his design, which with so much glass, would be "light and airy." To me, the image was jarring: who wants to read in bright light? There are few things less conducive to pleasant reading than direct sunlight; I can never figure out how so many people cxan read at the beach, for instance; I much prefer shade.

Posted by: David Sucher on October 16, 2003 4:47 PM

Speaking of transparency, this posting comes to mind.

Apparently - check Planetizen - the new main library in Salt Lake City is latching onto the transparency and populism trend, and I saw a really terrible and really trendy proposal here in the GSD for a 'perfume-box' Brooklyn public library right by the lovely old Williamsburg Savings Bank skyscraper. The subject of transparency in renderings, a la the Hadid building in the post of yours I referenced, actually comes up from time to time in the forums on - here's the latest instance, although Trump World Tower (sleek gold renderings, 2001:A Space Odysseyesque dull black monolithic result) elicited louder protests.
But then, as is said on the forum, and as was probably said in response to Foster's new Manhattan project for - who'd've guessed? - a company that is marketing modern culture, "Crystals are the new boxes..."

Posted by: Neil on October 16, 2003 6:51 PM

Felix -- I dunno, seems to me there can be such a thing as too much glass. For instance, I work in an office building that's anything but a glass-curtain thing. Modest office, with a pleasantly large window -- very pleased to have it. But most days, I (like most of my co-workers) have the windowblind 3/4 of the way down. Two reasons -- direct sunlight's a drag, and because even a non-sunlit day can be so bright that it washes out my computer screen. When I want a full blast of sunlight and air, I'll go outside. So yeah, I do question the transparencey-fetishism of the architecture mainstream, strictly from a practical point of view. From a more intellectual/theoretical point of view, I think they've talked themselves into a peculiar corner. It's pretty well established that a good part of what people want when they "go inside" is a sense of shelter, yet the architecture mainstream has been fairly consistently devoted to dissolving the distinction between outside and inside for almost a century. My own take is that that's ideology and fashion driven -- that (for whatever reason) many architects thrill, just thrill, to rippling, reflect-y, daredevil stunts with angles, planes and glass. I don't see too many civilians clamoring for such experiences. Where people get to have some control over their building-and-shelter choices (their homes, primarily), glassy and ripply buildings have barely made a dent.

David-- I'm with you, I seek out shade and quiet. The last thing I want when I'm hoping to use my eyes, brains and concentration is a wide-open, mall-like setting that gets raked with direct sunlight.

Neil -- Thanks for the leads and the tips. One of the new crystal spires is going up near my place of work. It's interesting to hear the responses of workers in the neighborhood, most of whom seem to think it's an awful idea.

Hey, does it strike anyone else (as it does me) that a crystal is just a glass box that's been given some fancy pleats and twists? IMHO, the architecture mainstream is once again selling us a bunch of glass boxes. Fancier ones, but still.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 17, 2003 12:05 PM

In terms of indoor/outdoor light, the only really compelling architectural act I've seen carried out lately is the epochal new Nasher Sculpture Center in my hometown. Have you heard about it? Understated, painstakingly thought out, no expense whatsoever spared on the building or the thorough and classy web site, unbelievable collection, all with a glass roof shielded precisely year-round from that Texas sun with a really unique new system. No wonder New York, London et al. have been wetting themselves for years trying to court Nasher. At any rate, one more refreshing reminder of what can really happen beyond all of the shoddy and/or ego-masturbatory architecture that's going up on the modern city scene.

Posted by: Neil on October 17, 2003 6:36 PM


Very nice that you have an office and a computer screen right next to a window. Most office drones don't, and very much appreciate glass walls or bigger windows. Besides, as you point out, a simple pull-down screen can effectively erase a window; there's no similar mechanism for effectively erasing a wall.

You don't see too many civilians clamoring for glass and an erasure of the distinction between inside and outside? Not the case where I'm sitting: I'm looking at all the high-profile glass-wall apartments in New York, from Trump to Richard Meier's new building in the West Village, and watching them go for serious premiums. I'm looking at the light and airy houses being built in the Hamptons, or even back when such things weren't technologically possible, the way that summer houses invariably had large covered porches which were neither really inside nor out.

As for primary homes which don't have the security of a doorman, yes, there's a reason to have architectural security instead. As I said in my previous comment, solid buildings are forbidding, and that's actually something you WANT a home to be: This Is Mine, Keep Out. Whereas something like a library should be more Come In than Keep Out, and glass is the best way of doing that.

Now I am sympathetic to the argument that libraries, insofar as they're places for study and contemplation, shouldn't necessarily be too brightly lit with sunlight. That's one of the reasons I made my distinction in my first comment between lending libraries and reference libraries. But I think you'll find that most of the glass/airy big municipal central library buildings you're criticising actually have more secluded and much darker reading rooms inside them.

In general, I don't see what the problem is with glass boxes, whether they're faceted or not. Certainly some are better than others, but they're normally better than the alternative. Go downtown, for instance, and compare black glass boxes like 140 Broadway or the Millenium (sic) Hilton with, oh, the Goldman Sachs building at 85 Broad or 1 Liberty Plaza. You'll see what I mean.

Posted by: Felix on October 17, 2003 7:04 PM

You look at the new Richard Meier building in the West Village and see the public clamoring for chic glass buildings; I look at the rest of the West Village and see tons of people already paying a premium to be happy and snug in a ragbag assortment of small brick houses. You point to the Hamptons; I'll point to 9/10ths of the country's other rich enclaves, which are full of houses in traditional styles. I'm not sure you've proved anything except that the architecture mainstream is able to sell ripply, reflect-y, super-geometric glassy houses to a handful of fashion victims.

I'm not sure why you seem scornful of my middleclass experience in my pleasant little office, typical as it is of millions of American jobs, but I decided to check out other people's experiences in the building I work in anyway. Am I such a privileged person, and such an exception to the way the real people live? So I went to visit my friends in the production bullpen, a wide-open space a few floors away marked out only by low cubicle walls. And their windows? Like mine -- all but a few of them with the semi-transparent blinds pulled nearly all the way down. I poked my head in my boss's office -- the blind was pulled all the way down. People in this building pretty consistently, I'd say, don't like being dazzled by the sun, and like being able to see what's on their computer screens. I think it's fair to conclude that there's no demand in my building (a nondescript but pleasant 1940ish mostly-brick skyscraper) for more glass acreage.

I'm fascinated to hear that you find solid-seeming buildings off-putting. Are you aware that, in terms of both evo-bio and architectural history, that makes you quite the anomoly? It's pretty well established that people want a sense of shelter when they go inside. (Why else would they be going inside?) Probably nobody wants to feel like they've been locked in a closet, and some of the best work the modernists (etc) have done has been in renovating existing structures so they're more open to light and air. But, when it comes to generating their own spaces and forms, the modernists have often run into trouble; their principles and approaches often seem to work better when applied to cleaning up what's already-existing than to coming up with something fresh from scratch. (You'll find books about modernism by modernists making this point.) Opening-up and cleaning-out may work well as reforming principles, but not so well as generative principles.

One of the reasons the twinkly new buildings are taking the twisty/bouncy forms they're taking is in reaction to earlier modernism, which nearly everyone admits was too right-angle austere, and was tailored more to the preferences of engineers and designers than to the way people actually like to live; nearly everyone, modernists included, admits that early-mid modernism played a role in driving people out of cities.

So the question becomes: have the same people (and their students and descendents) who blew it with early-mid modernism now come up with good solutions to problems they themselves created? Will the twinkly, bouncey new glass crystals work, where the big glass boxes didn't? Or does it perhaps make more sense to look at the modernist experiment, conclude it's a failure, and move on (and back) to something better based in history and biology. I guess you vote for the first; my vote goes to the second.

In any case, what evo-bio studies have shown (to my mind pretty conclusively) is that when people (and many animals too) take shelter, they do in fact like being able to look out when they want to, but they primarily like feeling sheltered. This makes intuitive sense; they want to be able to recede and feel cozy and protected -- they want to be able to let down their defenses. Traditional architecture provides for and services these preferences; glassy extravaganzas defy them.

You do seem to be making the assumption that there's a terrible problem with traditional buildings that needs correcting. They seem to strike you as oppressive, as forms from which people need liberating. I'm not quite sure where you've picked up this radical silliness, or what your precedents and evidence are for your claim that people generally have trouble with solid-seeming buildings, even public buildings, and find them off-putting.

You're thinking of, say, the Metropolitan Museum? Traditional college buildings? Or town halls?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 17, 2003 8:54 PM

Let's try one last time. You see people paying a premium to live in "a ragbag assortment of small brick houses" in the West Village? So do I. But I see people paying much more of a premium to live in a glass apartment in the same location. I never said, thought or hinted that "there's a terrible problem with traditional buildings", to use your straw-man formulation. I said that glass is, in general, a good and not a bad thing in architecture.

As for your brave venture into the proletarian world of the production bullpen, do you think I could prevail upon you to go back just one more time and ask those people whether they'd prefer smaller windows? Semi-transparent blinds are wonderful things: they let in beautiful natural daylight while, as you say, eliminating dazzle and glare. They're not a desperate attempt to patch over an architectural mistake. How many times have you heard people complain that their windows are too big? I was walking back home tonight down Rivington Street, and I saw the backs of a couple of adjacent apartment buildings on Norfolk between Rivington and Stanton. One was an old tenement with brick walls and tiny windows; the other was a new building of "loft-style" apartments which had floor-to-ceiling windows at the rear. There's no doubt which building looked more attractive.

There's nothing modernist about what I'm saying: I grew up in the city of Christopher Wren and the Crystal Palace, both of which used state-of-the-art technology to maximise the amount of glass in structural walls. There's a very natural desire for light and glass in architecture, Michael: remember how certain WASPs would euphemistically refer to apartments on CPW, 5th Ave and Park Ave as apartments "with light"? You know, as in "oh, you're on 77th Street, are you? I prefer an apartment with light".

For all your handwaving about conclusive evo-bio this and that, you haven't yet shown me anybody who thinks they live or work in a building with too much light, too many windows, or too much glass. I've listed lots of great glass buildings: can you give me a similar list of dreadful ones?

Posted by: Felix on October 18, 2003 7:19 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?