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« A Curse on Our Political Class | Main | Slow, Cont. »

July 30, 2004

Evolution and Architecture

Dear Vanessa --

David Sucher (here) reprints a terrific Philip Langdon piece (here) about all the lousy new architecture that Harvard and MIT are inflicting on the Boston area. Simply and straightforwardly, Langdon spells out the basic case for a traditionalist approach to building and urbanism:

Although it's true that occasionally architecture moves forward in a giant leap, more often it advances incrementally -- carefully incorporating innovations into a base of design and construction wisdom that has been refined through decades if not centuries of experience. Traditional buildings, with their usually pleasing proportions, human scale and comfortable public spaces, are the beneficiaries of a long process of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Traditional building and urbanism are the results of the same processes that have resulted in present-day life forms. (This is evo-bio at work in the arts.) When you look at a traditional courtyard, arch, column, porch, or piazza -- or even at those swags, medallions, and pineapples that traditional buidlings wear like jewelry -- you're looking at forms that are the results of longterm processes, and that are as marvelous and idiosyncratic as the life forms that have evolved to populate the world. Towns and cities are like ecosystems, in other words; the buildings in them, and the elements that make up these buildings, are like individual organisms.

That's a big part of the fascination of architecture, for my money anyway: eyeballing buildings, neighborhoods, and spaces can be fascinating in the same way that looking through a microscope at tiny wriggling beasties can be. And let's hear it for free and accessible: experienced in this way, a city is like a giant, no-admission-charge, open-air museum of natural history. Modernist/po-mo/decon buildings, neighborhoods, and spaces? For all their occasional design pizazz, they're too often lacking in simple life.

James Kunstler makes brainy, riotous fun of these chic-theme-park new Harvard/MIT buildings here, here, and here.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at July 30, 2004




Comments

Modern architecture lacks charm.

Recently I was in N.Y. I was sitting on a bench in Central Park: just inside the park at Central Park West and 91st Street, looking at the old apartment houses on CPW through a screen of trees. Charming. For all the massiveness of those buildings their details gave them a mood.
Then I walked west on 91st Street: a combination of old apartment houses and brownstones. The street wall of brownstones had a uniformity to it with just enough varietions in the uniformity to satisfy the need for both those qualities.
But at the corner of 91st and Amsterdam it all fell apart. The modern horror. Blank faced buildings. Smooth walls. Cut-out windows. Utterly lacking in charachter. Or rather, having the charachter of vacancy. The pecularely modern condition of vacuity in which you feel yourself falling, falling without support.

How architects - who are supposedly sensitive to the effects of buildings - can put up such things is beyond me.

Posted by: ricpic on July 31, 2004 9:15 AM



One of my favorite subjects - connected with what I do for a living, of course, but nevertheless - decorative architectural motifs.
I was very happy when I found out I'm not a freak, after reading this book and discovering the authors have a place downtown where you can buy frieze fragments, columns and exterior lanterns to preserve tiny part of different attitude to the craft, now almost extinct.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 31, 2004 11:03 AM



I read a while ago that with buildings, people tend to like what is currently being built, hate what was built 30 years ago, and like anything older than 60 years, regardless of what the current date is. The author backed this up by quotes from Edwardians critical of Victorian architecture, Victorians criticial of Georgian, etc. Since then, I wonder about my own perceptions of building quality.

Plus, when I look at old buildings I find some of them are pretty boring, eg. the Georgians - let's built a rectangle and stick windows into it symmetrically! And lets build another rectangle and stick windows on it! Oh, this is a rich person's house, let's build a rectangle, stick windows on it, and shove a little porch thing on front!

(Despite all that, I doubt I shall ever appreciate the 1960s/70s thing for concrete slabs, but ask me in 30 years time)

Posted by: Tracy on July 31, 2004 3:41 PM






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