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March 17, 2004

Towers in the Park

Dear Friedrich --

Fair warning: what follow are the rants of a semi-educated fan. Sensible people who want responsible commentary instead will find it chez David Sucher (here) and John Massengale (here and here).

Now, on with the overcaffeinated ravings.

You may have heard that New York City wants to host the 2012 Olympics. (Here's the website spelling out the city's bid.) Where would it house the athletes? And what would it do with the housing after the show's over? Some official-sounding group has commissioned plans from bigname celebritects; here's a piece about the proposals by the NYTimes' ludicrous radical propagandist, er, distinguished architecture critic, Herbert Muschamp. There's a link on the page to a slide show of the proposals. Oh, what the heck, why not copy and paste? Here are a couple of examples of what was submitted.

By Zaha Hadid
By Henning Larsens Tegnestue

Architecture as lava lamps! Towers as progressive-school playground equipment! Buildings that strike poses and wear clown suits!

All of which I suppose some people might find cool. But of course these aren't meant to be table-top pieces of "design," freely bought for personal use. They're meant to be buildings, which thousands of people will be stuck interacting with whether they want to or not. So how about getting down to earth for a sec -- 'way down to earth, in fact. Let's ignore the swirls and colors and take a look at the bases of these structures, where many, many people would be interacting with them. What's life like down there? Hmm, well ... A lot more familiar than the innovative zigzagginess of the designs would suggest.

Yep: for all their Jetsons-esque edginess, these proposals are nothing but up-to-date examples of one of the most destructive ideas of 20th century modernism, the Tower in the Park.

The what? Well, some essential (IMHO, of course) cultural history. We owe the idea of the TIP to the godawful Le Corbusier, the totalitarian of modern architecture, who was convinced that cities -- in their jumble, in their compression, and in their eclecticism -- needed drastic reform. (His kind of drastic reform, of course.) They needed order; they needed light; they needed air. Tear down the old! Build the rational, the good, and the new!

What would the Good look like? Here's what The Corbu Man thought downtown Paris should be turned into:

Le Corbusier's vision for Paris

So much for those retro qualities, romance and poetry, eh? But the Radiant City, as Le Corbusier called his vision, suited the taste that many powerful 20th century figures had for imposing gigantic, rationalized, theoretical schemes on living organisms. And because the powerful saw their own virtue and visions reflected in these designs, the Le Corbusier-ian approach was given repeated tryouts; it became, in fact, standard architecture-world taste and product. It was what was being taught at Our Lousy Ivy University back in the mid-'70s, for instance -- one reason I never took architecture classes, curious though I was about the subject.

The consequence of imposing these schemes was almost always that the organism thus imposed-on revolted. It turned out that the Radiant City wasn't a city at all, because it wasn't alive; reality fled from the Platonic ideal. Cities, we've learned, turn out to thrive on what Le Corbusier disliked: compression, bustle, closeness, eclecticism. When turned into 3-D graph paper, they die. How many times would a doctor repeat an experimental procedure that killed patient after patient? Yet for many decades, architects and planners kept plugging away at their Le Corbusierian thing, secure in their conviction that failure could never be their fault, it could only be the patient's.

Those plazas, so spankingly "open" and "clean" in drawings and models, in practice quickly cracked and stained. Trash, litter and gusts of wind have always liked them better than workers and inhabitants have; real-live people bundle up, shield their eyes against the swirls of grit, and hurry across these immense stretches of abstract nothingness feeling like ants. The rows of towers often turned out to feel crushingly heavy; and glass towers are often temperamental creatures, far more trouble and costly than advertised to maintain.

It wasn't until thinkers and writers like Jane Jacobs and William Whyte came along that the tide of knowledge and taste started to turn. Jacobs sometimes speculated -- plausibly, to my mind -- that the people who imposed these gargantuan top-down schemes did so because they simply didn't like cities, and had it in for them. Unfortunately, by the time sense started being heard, TIP-focused tax and funding incentives had been written into the regulatory-schemes of many cities. And so these antihuman structures continued being built even after they'd been recognized as the soul-sucking monsters they are.

Everybody now knows better, and has known better for ages. Almost everyone, that is -- everyone except the high-end media-architecture nexus, who continue to peddle and praise these obsolete and misconceived wares.

David and John deal with these matters responsibly. Me, I want to take advantage of the moment to make a couple of navel-gazing points of my own.

  • These proposals are a clear-as-can-be demonstration that modernism isn't over. It's important to understand this, I think, because po-mo and decon people make the claim that they've rectified the absurdities of modernism. They try to peddle themselves as antidotes to modernism's arrogance and mistakes; they want us to believe that modernism is necessary, and that a reformed modernism can be a humane thing. But, as these proposals make clear, the po-mo and decon crowd are offering anything but real alternatives; instead, they're the children of the modernists. The spoiled, high-on-mood-drugs children of austere parents, granted, but direct descendents of them nonetheless. And still trying to foist what are essentially the same discredited goods on us.

  • I can't resist turning to the language of the propagandists. Here's a passage from the incomparably rabid modernist Ada Louise Huxtable. She's responding to complaints about TIPs.

    Because it is now OK to hate modernism, it is also OK to hate the tower in a park. Its foes point to the most easily hatable examples of bad design or cynical exploitation of the tower bonus. They hate with passion ... The notion that a continuous street wall is synonymous with human scale and neighborhood vitality is just as illusory as the assumption that the tower in a plaza will create a world of sunlight and urban order. The ideology and the reality did not and will not match ... What really needs to have a stake driven through its heart is the currently fashionable idea of contextualism ... What is really being promoted is conformity -- an insistence that things "go together" through some approved definition of appropriateness. This kind of contextualism is a narrow, reactionary and dangerous doctrine.

    Thwack! Oh yeah, baby, hit me again!

    That's the sound of Authoritarian Modernism, pure as can be: "We know what's best for you. And if it doesn't work out, that's because you weren't able to live up to the beauty of Our Scheme!" Thwack!

    Notice Huxtable's virtuoso switcheroo. As she presents the story, the badguy fanatics and ideologues aren't the megalomaniac assholes who imposed Authoritarian Modernism on the rest of us; no, the badguy ideologues are the people who have protested against the assaults of the modernists. How dare they be so ungrateful? Thwack!

  • In his piece for the Times, Muschamp isn't in Huxtable's class. He isn't in his own class, in fact; the usual self-exhilaration is mostly missing. He seems hung over, er, short on drugs, er, weary, er, whatever. Still, why not enjoy cherry-picking some of the sillier passages from his piece?

    The creative ambition of the teams is pitched at a high level, overall, and it must be said at the outset that this is an impressive achievement in itself ... The public deserves much of the credit for the quality of the Olympics proposals ... The audience for civic works, we are again reminded, does not consist exclusively of neighborhood groups. It also includes an audience as broad and international as that for Olympic sports. At the Grand Central show, there are ideas of which any city can be proud ...

    Ms. Hadid has reached back even further in time but, again, to Le Corbusier. She proposes nothing less than our old friend and favorite postmodern enemy, the Towers in the Park ...

    It does not require a long memory to recall why both Corbusian models eventually came under attack. With both, the architect asserted a uniform control that all but eliminated urban diversity. They eliminated conventional streets and with them continuity with the surrounding urban fabric. They also eliminated the "eyes on the street," the neighborhood self-policing that results from active street life. These powerful objections, raised by Jane Jacobs in 1960, went far toward discrediting modern architecture in the United States.

    Times change. So do urban scale, the meaning of modernity and the relationship of cities to their past, including modernisms gone by. Not all towers-in-a-park designs were failures. A few, like Waterside on the East River and Silver Towers in Greenwich Village, contributed to the rich diversity of the cityscape.

    These designs [Hadid, etc] are right-brain poetry, not the precisely calibrated gridscapes of modernism's cold, objective truth. The forms are sensuous, playful, sinewy, as if the buildings had incorporated nature into themselves instead of standing apart from it ...

    Not as blissed-out as usual -- but, still, what a foxy writer. Did you notice his key move? First, he does a good, fast job of explaining what was wrong with the Corbusierian approach. Then the sneakiness begins. Life's gone on, times have changed ... and Muschamp slips surreptitiously from this handwaving into his usual rhapsodies, as though it's all inevitable anyway. Love it: decon and po-mo as foregone conclusions! (I wonder if this Huxtable-Muschamp move is something that's now taught in Architecture Criticism 101.) Perhaps we aren't supposed to notice that Muschamp never comes up with a single reason why we should excuse the new Towers in the Park. Are they OK because ... well, because they're wobbly and translucent and look like children's toys? There's a critical argument for you. I sometimes suspect that Muschamp won't be happy until New York City turns into a mega-Apple Store brimming with twinkling, Kandy-Kolored new IMacs.

  • Notice how firmly Huxtable and Muschamp insist that not every TIP project was a disaster. This seems crucial to their case -- but, lordy, how pathetic: hey, not every patient died. So what about the successes they lay claim to? Since I live in Greenwich Village, I was interested in Muschamp's mention of Silver Towers. Could he really be referring to ... Not those ... No, he couldn't be, could he? ... [Sound of Googling here] ... Good lord, he really is ...

    To set up a little context: Greenwich Village is much-loved for its low-lying eccentricity, its charm, its sidewalks, and its character. Here's what much of the Village looks like.

    Greenwich Village as it is loved

    Here's the I.M. Pei-designed Greenwich Village project that Muschamp wants us to agree is a resounding modernist success.

    Greenwich Village improved?

    (I lifted both these photos from Craig Matthew Holyoak's website, here. Many thanks to him.)

    I've walked past Silver Towers hundreds of times. It's a fairly depressing place. There's litter and stains, and there's unruly grass that's been fenced-off from passersby. The buildings and the spaces around them try to create their own little self-contained paradise, but it's a pathetically ineffective attempt. While you're passing through, what you feel isn't relief from the anxieties and discomforts of urban life; instead, you feel like you've been transported to a third-rate urban area -- the outskirts of Camden, perhaps. You're in the Village, yet you miss the Village -- now there's an impressive magic trick.

  • One final point: blunders like the TIP can be long-lasting and terribly hard to undo. Lesson for the day: when you get intoxicated by visions and schemes and write them into law and regulations, you may find yourself stuck with them for a very long time. In NYC, TIP incentives were written into law in 1961. In 2000, almost 40 years laters, some city officials made a serious bid to rewrite these regulations to encourage more human kinds of development. The last I heard, these attempts were under fire from lawyers and developers and had gotten nowhere. Can someone tell me what's become of them since? Google doesn't seem to help. As far as I can tell, taxpaper money is still encouraging the building of TIP buildings that no one likes, and of plazas that everyone hates.

Here's a few photos I shot of the ultra-summa masterpiece of TIP modernism, New York's Seagram Building on Park Avenue. Not of the building, really, which is the blackish one on the left. What these photos are intended to be of is what it's like to walk past the Seagram Building -- a structure, if I remember right, that Herbert Muschamp once proclaimed the greatest building since the Parthenon, or something like that.

Now that was a privilege, wasn't it? No? Well, still, that sleek black tower: quite the proud image of corporate efficiency, no? But sleek looks can deceive; an architecture-world insider told me the other day that the Seagram has always lost money, and that it's always been hard and expensive to maintain. Efficient it's not. Really, it's always been all about the look.

The Seagram at least has a sharp, expensive-pinstriped-suit crispness; Mies van der Rohe could deliver look. But what kind of thing results when a TIP building is done by a more humdrum talent? Here are a few photos of a TIP across the street from where I live.

Humdrum doesn't begin to describe it; "dreary disgrace" probably comes closer. I'm not cheating, by the way, in showing the plaza under construction; it's been having work done for most of the 15 years the Wife and I have lived across from it. I was puzzled by this at first; was the building simply the world's most lackadaisical maintainer-of-itself? Then I began to notice how many modernist towers and plazas seem to be perpetually under repair. Those sharp lines, angles and planes come out to twinkle in the sunlight for a day or two, only to disappear once again under a cloak of construction scaffolding. Can anyone with some experience and knowledge explain this phenomenon?

In any case, the building across from The Wife and me certainly is one crummy-looking thing, isn't it? (It's also lousy to walk by.) I'm not sure how making it blobby, or shimmery, or zigzaggy would redeem it. The result might be chic for a few years, but it'd still be a Tower in the Park.



posted by Michael at March 17, 2004


When I saw those first three photos my immediate reaction was, "Look, targets!"

And if you hit them just right you can take out two towers with one plane.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on March 17, 2004 8:00 PM

LOL -- that's brilliant, if awful. They do have "target" written all over them.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 17, 2004 11:52 PM

Nice post. Didn't Jacobs also emphasize that projects of the TIP kind tend to create barriers that discourage pedestrian traffic of the kind that makes good parks lively? What I always notice about the vast plazas surrounding these towers is how empty of people they usually are.

Posted by: Jonathan on March 18, 2004 1:20 AM

Quite simply, it seems to me that Alexander, Krier and their ilk are trying to incorporate principles of richness into design from the bottom up, whereas the prevailing dogma in architectural circles since the ‘let us be rid of historical influence’ movement and the TIPs has been firmly in favor of top-down creation.
And hey, if you shouldn’t be expected to bring forth your masterworks without a blank historical slate, how can you create in a way that manifests your modern wisdom if you don’t have an uncluttered physical slate as well? So bulldoze Paris and then we’ll talk.

Since I hear it crowed gratingly often that the Carpenter Center is his only significant project in the U.S., I'll go out on a limb and say that I'm probably the only [frequent] reader here who spends about 24 hours a week in a Corb building. Designers come sauntering through fairly often, mouths agape - viewing the building as precious object, and not a little annoyed that I'm coating the thing in plaster chips and sawdust and cluttering up their view. My sculpture studio is one of the Center's blocky, swoopy lobes, and as an aspiring builder myself I am not a bit awed by the building after actually experiencing it as a place. I'd be happy to see if I can give telling answers to any questions about what it's like as a place, and I’ll tell you why:
AC Douglas et al. consider it their didactic duty to proclaim that 'art is what differentiates architecture from mere building. Architecture is about aesthetics! Period!' --And, well, unless the system of built environment is simply supposed to be that they dictate and admire the constraints of our habitation-to-be according to their purely individual visual-expressive prerogative (while we should learn to shut up and be grateful for, if not relish, that which the design ubermenschen have wrought for us to shape our ways of life by) then that kind of hubris is quite simply insufferable. If we take the other route, and say that the built environment is supposed to operate that way, then say what you will about the other kinds of High Art - at least they aren’t inherently unlivable.
Building is one thing, and living is another; but where they’re going to intersect on a daily basis, I think you’re being absolutely reckless if you think for a minute that what your precious object, as a place, allows, encourages, restricts and demands (say, in the way of cost or hassle or inhospitability or maintenance) over time could be of merely peripheral concern.

Putting up walls may enable you to do things within a plot of ground that you couldn’t have before, but the act of building necessarily redirects the possibilities of what you can do there. Relativists may assail Christopher Alexander for trying to assemble a system of theories for what constitutes healthy design (for daring to impose on the freedom of their individual palettes) -- and yet modernist methodology considers it each practitioner's right to dictate how and why the ways we all can use space shall be channeled to and fro. I guess I look at architecture as a humanitarian pursuit: we are entrusting architects with our space every bit as fully as we are entrusting doctors with our bodies; why should we expect medical treatments to restore us to the functions that suit us, and yet not expect the space our architects thus doctor to suit human health any less profoundly? Well, for one thing: because anatomy can be corroborated and checked against beneficial patterns, and the medical creativity is in the means of diagnosis, in patience, and in applying the right combinations of elements in the proper procedure -- the skilled knowledge of how to do this has long been rightly termed the Medical Arts. But wait - isn't each of these scientific strengths precisely what Alexander is trying to introduce a whole basis for into architecture? So why the resistence, huh? Are capital-A architects too terrified that real accountability is incompatible with High Art? Well, where did they get that idea, until modernism threw out the entire richly human technical tradition?

Anyhow, the current mainstream's resistance to Alexander’s pattern guidelines is a perfect example of the double standard that has underlain so much frankly bad design. Maybe the people inside and outside a building have no need or use for a blank wall around that paved courtyard? Maybe we don’t want to live amid a collection of admirably austere elements? But the licensed, who don't want to have to stop designing from the top down, don't want us to pipe up with any of that Alexanderish bottom-up consideration nonsense, so we shouldn't. Isn't this Their profession, anyway? And since Harvard feels the compulsion to be so self-consciously intellectual about everything, it’s obvious that nobody *did* pipe up when the master was mailing in his plans for the Carpenter Center... matter of fact, this very university used to offer the Architectural Sciences, no less (which - you'll never guess - got merged out of existence by the same powers that had Corb come and inflict this lovely edifice upon us all a few short years before). Now that I’ve had my say for a bit, any specific questions on the place? I’ll try to check back here from time to time in the next couple of days~

Posted by: neil on March 18, 2004 1:35 AM

you know, I think back to my question of why 'capital-A architects' seem afraid that accountability will dethrone them, and then I look back up at those three proposals, and I wonder if maybe that's something, there. Architects always seem to feel that their expertise (and the true, daunting difficulty of dealing with the myriad issues that can affect or swiftly end any project) is chronically undervalued: either monetarily, which is generally all too true, or in the public understanding of the profession as they gauge it. Each of these Olympic projects, for all their presentation bang, stay quite neatly in line with the three modern trends I see eagerly seizing the Torch of Monumentality from the aging International Style box - namely The Diaphanous Cocoon [in rendering only, natch], The Spun Blob and The Crystal (respectively). It's as though, given a real opportunity to either make what David Sucher would call a "raisin in the oatmeal" or, alternatively, a sort of neighborhood with a hospitality that will last and endure rather than flash all at first, these three Architects are all doing their damnedest to make us lean back and say, "Gee! I sure never would have thought to try and pull that off! Why - I mean, just look at that, that really is designed, by golly! These architects really do get ideas out here we just wouldn't have without them. Uuu-nique high-tech stuff!"
Call it my personal interpretation of these proposals, but they seem to be flimsy advertisements built to market, via prominence first and audacious loudness second, the urgent significance of architecture today. I'll go so far as to say it reminds me of what Michael says about young women these days: amazingly good at getting themselves out there and diving in, but without the roots to be ready to do just about anything but move on to the next thing thereafter. Computerization of calculations and renderings has only made this cycle slicker and easier for architects to spit out and polish up.

And... oh, MVRDV... with all due respect for your design considerations - and I'm sure they were plural, if nothing more - I can't help it that your courageous Cutting Edge Idea reminds me of nothing so much as an Orwellian electric hedge trimmer menacing the Garden State.

Posted by: neil on March 18, 2004 3:20 AM

Your post raises the issue of why T.I.P.s continue to get designed and built despite their obvious (and widely recognized) faults. I happened to be looking at some websites describing the ideas of German sociologist Max Weber and came across the following:

Bases of Legitimacy

Legitimacy may be ascribed to an order by those subject to it in the following ways:

1) tradition, belief in legitimacy of what has always existed.

2) affectual attitudes, legitimizing the validity of what is newly revealed or is a model to imitate

3) rational belief in [the order's] absolute value

4) legality. Readiness to conform with rules which are formally correct and have been imposed by accepted procedure.

In today's New York, one would have to acknowledge that TIPs have a 50 year plus body of 'tradition' behind them. For people with an 'arts education' anyway, I suppose they may have affectual attitudes going for them--TIPs are the 'contemporary' style par excellence. But mostly, since architecture is a public art that is largely the result of very private, elite decisions, I suspect people accept TIPs because they seem 'legal' in Weber's sense (see #4 above.) I think the unity of the architectural groupthink is clearly tied up in granting this 'legal' status to certain types of design and denying it to all other types of designs.

Query: how (if at all) does a TIP vary from an ordinary skyscraper? Are Louis Sullivan's Chicago skyscrapers TIPs? If not, why not?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 18, 2004 4:00 AM

First of all, I love the phrase "buildings dressed up like clowns."

Second, as I looked at this, I just kept thinking about an earlier post about turn-of-the-century culture, and the buildings someone (Doug?) pointed out that were built in St. Louis for the World's Fair and 1904 Olympics. They were so beautiful. You do wonder what has happened.

I agree that a big part of this is the tendancy to think that the only way people view buildings is from helicopters, rather than from street level. There really are a lot of boxy nondescript buldings at street level (including the Sears Tower in Chicago) which may be "signature" buildings when you are flying in on a jet.

What is this new trend of drawing buildings like you can see through them---like the first picture you posted, and like the WTC memorial buildings that were all over the internet a few months ago. Are they "spirit" buildings or something?

Posted by: annette on March 18, 2004 11:17 AM

" (if at all) does a TIP vary from an ordinary skyscraper?..."

I'd suggest that one answer is simply whether or not there is a setback of the building from the sidewalk. If no setback, and with windows and doors at sidewalk level, it's not a "TIP" but (probably) a decent urban building.

Posted by: David Sucher on March 18, 2004 12:07 PM

A very minor aside, if you live across the street from that building, then I would have been within spitting distance of you. It's a small village after all

Posted by: jleavitt on March 18, 2004 12:40 PM

Visions of Ayn Rand's Fountainhead. Great post. Who needs the Parthenon anyway?

Posted by: Neha Bawa on March 18, 2004 1:18 PM

Jonathan -- I've noticed that too. No one seems to like hanging out in a modernist plaza. They hurry across them instead. How do they hit you? The argument I hear made is that they're conceptually wrong -- they're mere "empty space," where an attractive urban public space really needs to be as carefully crafted as a usable building does. Space that's created simply by backing off from it and not buiding there seems to be experienced as bleakness and waste.

Neil -- Fab thoughts and info, many thanks, and eager to hear more.

FvB -- I suspect you're right, that we've all just grown used to them and take their existence for granted, which confers a kind of legitimacy. We don't tend to realize that these things arose because of designers, laws, money, etc -- there was nothing inevitable about them. And they can be undone, too, if with great difficulty. David's explanation about how a TIP differs from a normal skyscraper is on the money. The Louis Sullivans and many of the great earlier NYC skyscrapers (Woolworth, Empire State, etc) come right up to the sidewalk and have a lot of human-scale detail where passersby interact with them -- windows, stonework, often stores. You walk by them aware that they're huge but not feeling like you've been teleported into a cheapo sci-fi bookjacket. This is half-baked, by I associate the way the Corbu wannabes love setting their buildings back and providing a plaza-frame around them with the way gallery art likes to set itself off against vast blank white walls -- there's a we're-serious-scientists quality to the gesture, as well as a kind of look-at-me, appreciate-me egotism. Interesting to eyeball images of 19th century art shows, for instance -- heaps of paintings stacked right up the wall, crowding each other. These days, if there are acres of white space around each little painting gesture, the artist often feels disrespected.

John -- Great part of the Village, no? I'm pretty sure the building I've shown here is the one that what's her name, the wife of Carl Andre, supposedly fell out of, landing on the roof of the store you can just make out on the left of the first of the two photos.

Neha -- Thanks for stopping by. And what a good point to raise, too: ego and its role in architecture.

Speaking of which, a question for everyone? It may be inevitable that a certain number of architects are going to be egomaniacs, showoffs and megalomaniacs. They're building big, spending lots of dough, etc. It's going to attract a certain character type, just like film directing does. So, question: how to ensure that they not only don't do us harm (ie., ruin our towns and cities) but actually contribute? That they actually serve us? Are laws and regulations our only hope? Can public shaming (ie., more responsible, informed and humane press and public discussion) help too?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 18, 2004 1:44 PM

With all the New Acropolis Museum stuff you probably think I ravenously disagree with you on everything, Michael, but I couldn't agree with you more on this. I can't stand the idea of towers in a park, or vast barren plazas at all for that matter.

But I like to tie this all back to transportation a bit. Popular culture tells us that cars are a symbol of freedom and individuality. (Even though the human body has much more freedom of movement and clothing can express individuality far more than a mass-produced hulk of metal.) Anyway, cars are now the standard of scale, and towers have become icons; billboards to be viewed from far away and at great speed. The "park" surrounding these towers serves to keep the tower away from the car. It keeps the pollution of the car away from the people in the tower and leaves the car with visibility. (Driving in a traditional city is difficult in part because buildings right next to the car extremely limit sight lines.)

This of course has been destructive from the pedestrian perspective. Big plazas feel less secure; they give the impression of being in a vast, lonely desert. They show really well how far you actually have to walk, which (especially in a car-dependent society) discourages someone from even bothering to walk. The ideal situation for a single human is a simple door, stoop or storefront that isn't overbearing but comfortably sits at the street.

I do think the aesthetics of the building is a separate matter, though. Gehry's Fred and Ginger building in Prague and Hadid's Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati are two good (I think) examples of how their styles can be integrated well into the urban fabric. They provide an interesting artistic experience while still respecting their context.

And don't worry, the schools aren't preaching TIP to us anymore.

Posted by: Christopher Davis on March 18, 2004 1:45 PM

Chris -- Cool thinking, thanks. Great to hear from people who know -- like I say, I'm just an enthusiastic amateur. Fascinating the way the TIP and the mania for freeway-building overlapped, isn't it? Both seem to see the process of getting-there as far more important than the experience of being-there. I wonder what that's about. American dynamism? The overreaching, military-inspired overconfidence of the post-WW2 years? The result often seems to be not just see-thru buildings but see-thru, move-'em-out cities. What could they have been thinking? I mean, I know what they were thinking, but how could they have been so deluded about what might result?

I'd love to know what is being taught in architecture schools these days, by the way. Context? Historical styles? And why do you suppose there are still so many celebritects who want to build TIPs?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 18, 2004 1:52 PM

Like the Salingaros post, I think the polemic writing detracts from the efficacy of the argument:

Thwack! Oh yeah, baby, hit me again!

But despite that, Michael, you're pretty effective in proving your point. The "Greenwich Village improved?" tagline is rhetorically powerful in comparison to the previous photo.

My only quibbles with your argument are the same as have been already brought up: the anti-modernist rationality applies to sky scrapers as well. Growing up in LA (which has very few skyscrapers) and now living in SF, sky scrapers save me the burden of owning a car and makes walking around quite a bit of fun. There are several public square/park spaces bounded by skyscrapers that are really pleasing environments.

And there is one nice TIP where I work. The "park" is a cement area about half the size of a football field and features two odd ziggurat structures. When it's sunny, big crowds of suits often spend lunch sitting on the structures. It really is a pleasant place. But this is the financial district--it's not really a mixed commercial/residential area.

Posted by: nick kallen on March 18, 2004 2:36 PM

Oops, apologies to Annette, whose comment I scrolled past first time around ...

You're hitting on some of what strike me too as the most important questions in contempo architecture.

1) when and why did authorities (govt, schools, etc) stop commissioning handsome buildings? It's really striking how sensational old town halls and high schools often are, and how awful more recent ones are. New York University, near where I live, owns and runs a bunch of perfectly-fine old buildings. Nearly all their new buildings are awful, often in the most obvious kinds of violating-Sucher's-Three-Rules ways. The bad trend seems to have started circa 1930 and to have accelerated madly post-WW2. Did they get buffalo'd by the architects and their propagandists, as Tom Wolfe has it in "From Bauhaus"? Did they opt for cheapness above all things? Some combo of the two?

2) To what extent does the way buildings are portrayed in the media affect the kinds of things that get built? It's one of those open secrets that prizes often go to buildings that photograph well, not to the ones that work well. Modernism itslef may depend on this. Those flat colors, empty spaces and clean lines can look terrific when done up and presented on a magazine page. But put people in them, scuff them up a bit, sprinkle some papers and chairs around, and they start looking awful. They're either perfect or they're piss-poor. Trad buildings and spaces often don't snap as loudly on the page, but often age much better, and are much more forgiving about how we actually live. Imperfections become part of a lived texture, not a violation of perfection.

And 3) What is all the zig-zagging and see-thru-ness really about? Believe it or not, there are radical-ish justifications for all this. Once you weed your way through the thicket, what they boil down to is pretty simple. Strict rectilinear Modernism was rigid and authoritarian and one-point-of-view; so we're gonna be zigzaggy and goofy and wobbly -- we're pluralists, not totalitarians (or so they like to think). The blobby semi-transparency has to do with cyber stuff. Practically, because you can now take the old modernist grids and twist and torque 'em in a computer program, but also because the virtual electronic universe is itself a morph-able, elastic thing. You can melt it, bend it, play with it as though in Photoshop; this is the texture of life today; therefore we celebrate it (and our supposed liberation from the oppressiveness both of conventional life, weighty and linear, and from the oppressiveness of classic modernism) by making whirling, translucent, blobby showpiece buildings. Whee.

There's a lot of semi-incomprehensible French rhetoric about "pleasure" behind this -- Muschamp's a big one for French theory. Really, you're supposed to look at these buildings and feel undifferentiated, childlike, whimsical erotic bliss -- the kind of melting-into-it pleasure that French theory has persuaded itself has to do with life before sexual differentiation. New materials and the computer universe, in other words, return us to a blissful, infantile state. This is supposed to be possible, desirable, and to be a good idea for a building too.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 18, 2004 3:22 PM

Oh, I've got an OK way to put it. The rectilinear modernists thought they'd theorized their way to goodness and virtue. The nouveau blob-itecture people think they've theorized their way to undifferentiated erotic bliss. My take is that what they share -- an over-theorectical approach -- is much more important than what they differ on (straight lines vs. wobbliness). Decon people, on the other hand are still trying to carry forth the revolution, sigh. Pull it all apart and make us hyperaware of how it works and ... well, sometihing of import is supposed to result from this.

Actually, as I've been rebuked over and over by people who know, it's really always all been about the look. The early modernists really liked all those straight lines and empty spaces. They used the langauge of machines and efficiency to justify their aesthetic preferences -- Bauhaus-style houses were notoriously inefficient, no matter how efficient-looking they were. Presumably the blobitecture and decon people just dig the looks they're peddling. How handy that there are intellectuals around who'll come up with ratonalizations for these preferences...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 18, 2004 4:09 PM if blobbiness is the way to French erotic bliss...when does Roseanne appear on the cover of the SI swimsuit issue? There just has to be some upside in all this! :) (It's certainly not in the buildings!).

Posted by: annette on March 18, 2004 4:16 PM

Now that you've mentioned Gehry's Ginger and Fred building in Prague, a have to stick my 2 cents. Have to admit, it looks terrific on facade exterior view in an architectural magazine; may be even from the street (although if I remember correctly, there is a vast plaza in front of it, or even a river bank?). But then I looked at the praised interiors pictures of this marvel in ID mag.

The building is supposedly houses contract interiors, that is to say, offices.
The great feature of Interior design magazine was that it used to supply FURNITURE PLANS along with the photographs, and there are no lies in plans. Let me tell you, it was,... mmmm... not that thrilling, to put it mildly. That curved exterior made use of window wall impossible for rectangular furnture window placement, and guess what? With cost/per s.f. in a place like that only big-budget (read: not infantile Internet-2day-life expectancy-Companies) could aford it, and they don't want bubble-shaped transluscent desks on casters.
So, when you have to move your desk off that wall, you have to make the office bigger and you are wasting net usable area of the leaseable space. Another thing- circular form of the floors in plan make it an awfull challenge for a space planner with a program to fill - and eventually, for an inhabitant. Place the elevator shafts and lobbies in the center - and you are left with radial dividing walls and prizmoid rooms or weird triangular nooks for bathrooms; which, again, leads to the waste of space because THE FURNITURE IS NOT PRIZMOID - and ADA compliance is not cancelled.

I had my own unfortunate encounter with that problem, when some time ago the office I used to work for had to provide office interior design for that famous circular Cesar Pelli building in Washington. Design process could be transcribed in an epic form, comment space is too measly to communicate the scale of that nighmare.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 18, 2004 4:30 PM

Why does everything have to be so sleek?! What's so wonderful about great blank walls?!
To quote Peggy Noonan on a totally unrelated subject: "I want to tear my face off and run screaming from the room!"

Posted by: ricpic on March 18, 2004 5:44 PM

This isn't exactly headline news, but going back to the 1920s, one can find illustrations by Mies of "transparent" multistory buildings where, in the drawing, floors can be seen. That is Mies' "promise" to prospective clients. And ever since then, completed buildings with glass curtain walls simply reflect clouds, sky, other buildings--whatever there is to be reflected: no view of the floor structure within until evening when interior lights become visible and reflections disappear.

Seems to me there ought to be a "truth in advertising" rule that architectural renderings--even computer-generated ones--should accurately show the sort of reflections a viewer will experience and not show what will never be seen (all those floors).

The Hadid illustration in your article is a case in point. Reflections are indicated, but so are the interiors.

Donald Pittenger

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 18, 2004 8:38 PM


I saw a Zaha Hadid presentation at the Wexner Center a couple of weeks ago. She has just 'triumphed' with the breathless declaration by, is it Muschamp? that she has conceived and brought to birth the 'building of the century' in Cincinnati, the Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art. It, for all its holy jaggedness, is a real building in a real urban context. It has obligatory stylistic confusions...the wall that meets the floor in a 3' quarter radius so that you feel uncomfortable (challenged) trying to walk near the wall.

Anyway, her presentation was of slide after numbing slide of white gob models which spread their tentacles in voidspace...the models are photographed as if they are spaceships in transit to Arcturus at midnight.

The exteriors are smooth flowing planes which extend their tentacles like crippled octipi into the void. The interiors are always views of gleaming white smooth walkways snaking around each other like plaited concrete threads which defy gravity and go around gentle bends so that you cannot see the light source that illuminates the end of the tunnel that is this otherworldly space. It seems to stretch forward to white infinity, to the country of Pure Spirit!

Are there angels in the lounge beyond waiting impatiently for a meeting with us we are late for? Do the uniformly white unarticulated walkways just stretch further to a horizon we can never reach...a mobius strip of eternal return? Why are there no people in the model? Why is there no furniture, no landscaping, no proximate forms in relationship to this blob which give cues as to how it is to be inhabited? When we see the aerial shot of its footprint on the gridded city form in plan, I saw what looked like early growth cancer cells about to ooze up and over the tidy, loveable, unchallangeing 'presence of presence' Old Urbanist forms like a giant slug to eat...?

Is the cutting edge of Architecture a symbolic rebellion against existence in a material body? I think Hadid's concrete oozes are pretty good symbols of 'presences of absence'. I could see the folks, the California Gnostics, comfortable inhabiting them, because they knew that when they committed mass suicide they were only freeing their spirits imprisoned in imperfect matter to fly to freedom and join the Mother Ship, which I suspect looks a lot like Hadid's blobs.

I think if the blobs were stood up at 90 degrees, and water pumped to the apex, they'd make durned good water slides, too.

There are Gnostics in New York who need their sensibilities properly commemorated and symbolized, aren't there?

Posted by: Carl Jahnes on March 18, 2004 10:12 PM

Annette -- LOL! Roseanne would certainly seem to have to follow, you're right.

Tatyana -- I hadn't thought abuot what a nightmare furnishing some of these buildings must be. Thanks for making that clear. I wonder how disorienting it must be to work or live in them. Do you have any sense of that?

Ricpic -- That's one of the great mysteries, isn't it? I think many architects love materials and effects that many civilians find disagreeable -- shiney, reflective, sleek, cold, perfect, pure, geometrical ... I think most civilians prefer recognizable forms, warm and textured material, a sense of solidity and coziness, comprehensible forms ... I dunno. I visit some of the chic new buildings and marvel that someone somewhere saw fit to give these people money to have this kind of fun. It's a free country and all, but still ... Too many bigname architects are like graphic designers who don't care whether you can read the text or find your way around the magazine, they just care about the wowee factor.

Donald -- I'll happily sign your proposed "truth in advertising" rule. That lust for transparency and reflectiveness is mystifying. I mean, I understand the theory, but I think (from a commonsense point of view) it's such a weird taste -- the building that has no presence, that just dissolves and shimmers. Who exactly does this strike as a good idea? One of the new classical architects once pointed out to me that traditional architectural training not only trains you how to draw traditional forms really well (apparently most contempo architecture schools do a lousy job of training students how to draw), but also of how to draw material texture, and the effects of sun and shadow too. The facades of classical buildings are real symphonies of light, mass and shadow. One of the things that makes so many modernist buildings seem to arid is the flatness or sleekness that Ricpic mentions. There's nothing for the eye to grab hold of, just big planes and surfaces and shapes and cuts. And there's no change of scale either. A classical building is interesting to the eye from far away, from the mid distance, and from closeup. The modernist building typically has its greatest visual impact from one distance only. Odd, isn't it? Do you share any of this love of the abstract, the shiney and the dissolving? Strikes me as pretty tacky, to be honest, and the buildings often remind me of Xmas tree ornaments -- shiney things to dazzle the kiddies. My failure, I'm sure.

Carl -- That's some vivid writing! I'd be a happier architecture fan if I were reading you rather than Muschamp. Many thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 18, 2004 11:14 PM

Trenchant article, which gives me an excuse to tell a true story.

I have a close friend who is an architect. One day I asked him a question: "Are you for or against the ideas of Le Corbusier?" "For." I cried out, "You will never design my house!" :)

As a programmer, I see similar problems in the software world. The Linux programmers are the ones who dictate to the users what is right/good/just, which means that the users must abdicate the right to a GUI and suffer through command prompts. No wonder Microsoft is still making tons of money, for despite the major flaws in their software architecture, at least the software is designed for the users and evolved to users' demands.

I think the same goes for the architects, who design for the award committees, not for the inhabitants in and around the building. Since the tenants are some nebulous future entities that cannot give any immediate feedback to the architects right here, right now, so the architects lack crucial feedbacks to change their designs at the earlier stage. I think what galls me even more is that the schools make the problem worse by enshrining the secret knowledge of architecture that is not to be shared nor criticized by others.

Fortunately, Alexander documented right patterns to follow, it is a preventive problem. But sadly it's not being prevented.

People like Susan Saranka, author of Not So Big House and influenced by Alexander, seems to focus on designing residential houses where they can get close feedback and input from the home owners.

Other architects who design for developers cannot possibly create suitable plans for they lack the feedback from the home owners. Of course, they can follow the patterns to overcome this problem, but that will happen if and only if the architects practise egoless architecture and serve only the best for the people in the building, not the judges of pictures of buildings and plans and prototypes.

Posted by: Bob Yu on March 19, 2004 12:21 AM

I'm not that fond of them either -- I really favor Stanford White wedding cake buildings -- but the Le Corbusier inspired housing is some of the most popular in the city -- the Village one you point out, the one at the head of the FDR, the Chinatown one. Co-op City. The waiting lists are years, years long.

Whether or not they appeal to your eye, I think it cannot be denied that they appeal to the people. They're not good examples of the kind of soul-sucking projects Jane Jacobs was talking about (though Newark comes to mind!). If you're going to make the anti-modernist argument, at least show us some pictures of some TIPs that truly did destroy their neighborhoods -- not just your morning coffee.

Posted by: O.H. on March 19, 2004 5:59 PM

-Isn't setback often a function of zoning codes?

Speaking of which, a question for everyone? It may be inevitable that a certain number of architects are going to be egomaniacs, showoffs and megalomaniacs. They're building big, spending lots of dough, etc. It's going to attract a certain character type, just like film directing does. So, question: how to ensure that they not only don't do us harm (ie., ruin our towns and cities) but actually contribute? That they actually serve us? Are laws and regulations our only hope? Can public shaming (ie., more responsible, informed and humane press and public discussion) help too?

That's a tough one. It's difficult, and I think undesirable, to impose restraints on what private enterprises build. But it would be nice at least to stop hiring elitist egomaniacs to design public buildings.

-Oh yeah:
I think if the blobs were stood up at 90 degrees, and water pumped to the apex, they'd make durned good water slides, too.

This is the best idea yet.

Posted by: Jonathan on March 20, 2004 2:50 AM

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