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April 09, 2005

Architecture Elsewhere

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* John Massengale spells out what's wrong with Christian de Portzamparc's proposed new co-op building on lower Park Ave. (Follow the links for more images and comments.) John gives Starbuck's a little what-for too.

* The building I'm currently seething about is this flashy Gwathmey-Siegel atrocity, now nearing completion a few blocks from where I live. Where I live is Greenwich Village. Let me repeat that: Greenwich Village. Think low-lying brick buildings; mucho sidewalk life; a counterculture atmosphere; zig-zagging and leafy streets. (Check out the building behind the Gwathmey-Siegel, for instance.) The Village is one of the few homey -- cozy, quirky, human-scale -- neighborhoods in Manhattan. What kind of a developer (and what kind of an architect) would look at such a neighborhood and think: "Hey, you know what I think I'll put there? A tall, angular, gleaming, perfume bottle!" I have a word for people who think this way, and the word is "asshole." I can't help admiring the project's motto/tagline/whatever: "Sculpture for Living." To whom could such a tagline appeal? One possibility: the dumbest kind of fashion victim.

* Thanks to visitor Kevin Hurley for pointing out this good Anchorage Daily News article. It concerns Thom Mayne's winning design for a new Alaska state capitol building. Surprise, surprise: some Alaskans don't like it. (It looks like a Photoshop 101 exercise to me.) Brief passage: "Many called the designs sci-fi, or simply ugly, and described Mayne's dome as a big egg or even a nuclear reactor." Mayne, who recently won the prestigious Pritzker Prize -- and about whom I blogged here -- seems to be doing his best to play beleaguered, forward-looking, eager to help, and not-backing-down. But he's unlikely -- to say the least -- to oblige with the kind of traditional-looking and traditional-feeling capitol building many people might prefer. What Mayne does is zigzags. Laurence Aurbach posts some observations and opinions here.

* I recently walked down 54th St. in Manhattan for the first time in months and got a shock. The newly redone Museum of Modern Art faces 53rd St. but backs up on 54th St. And -- despite the care that has been lavished on the building's chic-minimalist design -- its relationship to 54th St. is appalling: one kindergarten-level urbanism mistake after another. A little searching turned up David Sucher providing a photo and many sensible criticisms, and a down-to-earth and eloquent Witold Rybczynski review in Slate.

Nice Rybczynski quote about what it's like these days to walk down 54th St.:

The effect of 196 unrelieved feet of corrugated aluminum is extremely unpleasant. It looks like the sort of temporary hoarding that is used to keep people from falling into an excavation at a building site, but without the posters and fliers.

* Can buildings and developments in traditional styles stink too? DesignObserver's Lorraine Wild thinks that Southern Californian developers aren't just overdoing the "Tuscan" style, they're doing it badly.

* James Kunstler's April Eyesore of the Month is an all-too-familiar hoot.



posted by Michael at April 9, 2005


> Can buildings and developments in traditional
> styles stink too?

Once you get outside New York and a handful of other older cities, there's much more bad traditionalism than bad Modernism.

Posted by: john massengale on April 9, 2005 4:19 PM

I click through to the Gwathmy Siegel site. Over on the right is a panel that, among other items, includes the following words: "A Limited Collection of Museum Quality Architectural Loft Residences".

Okay, I'm a rube from Seattle who often as not thinks of "hip" as an anatomical term.

So please, please can somebody explain to me what a museum quality architectural loft is?

I know what each of those words means individually, but putting them together...?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 9, 2005 7:54 PM

Santa Monica, Calif.-based Morphosis Architects submitted the only design concept with a dome to the Alaska State Capitol design committee in Juneau.

BWAAAAAAAAAAAA-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!!!!!!!! Tee-hee/snort!

I'm doubled over at that one.

Of course, domes on state capitols are an ancient tradition to echo the big dome in Washington, but fooey to tradition I guess.

The whole "when you're slapped you'll take it and like it" ethos of modern architects is by far their funniest feature. Funnier even then their taste in buildings. I think they've all read The Fountainhead once too often.

Whither customer service?

BTW, I saw Sideways on your recommendation, Michael, and my favorite gag in the film was the name of the small-press publishing house: Conundrum. If the Sideways guys were sending up trendy architects, Morphosis would be the perfect gag name. Too bad it's taken.

Posted by: Brian on April 9, 2005 8:28 PM

I agree, Michael, but there is nothing new under the sun and assholes have been around for ages. Consider PS 41, the Village eyesore on West 11 St. which went up the year I was born (so I had to grow up watching drugged-out hippies play ball against it)-- replacing the beautiful Rhinelander Gardens, here depicted by Berenice Abbott:

"Unadilla" mentioned in the article is where Grace Paley lived. Her sister was our landlady.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 9, 2005 8:40 PM

PS: my mother says that when the Rhinelander Gardens were demolished, the workmen found Civil War coins in the earth.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 9, 2005 8:45 PM

"can somebody explain to me what a museum quality architectural loft is?"

An overpriced loft.

Posted by: Peter on April 9, 2005 10:12 PM

Blob tower, blue glass
portentous sans-serif type:
through the nose you'll pay.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on April 10, 2005 4:20 PM

Once you get outside New York and a handful of other older cities, there's much more bad traditionalism than bad Modernism.

Living in L.A., on of those 'modern' cities, I would have to say that there is relatively little traditional architecture, good or bad. Excepting a lot of 'traditional' tract housing, built 50 years ago for very little money, most crummy buildings in L.A. are, in fact, modern. (And most modern residential architecture ain't anything to shout about, either.) Most traditional commercial buildings and public buildings in L.A., while not necessarily inspired, are usually at least okay. I don't think people prefer traditional styles of architecture because buildings in those styles are always terrific, but rather because they have greater neighborhood cohesion and a substantially better batting average than buildings in the modernist idiom.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 10, 2005 8:46 PM

Isn't Mission Style considered "traditional" style in Los Angeles? For example, Julia Morgan's L.A. Examiner building:

Or Arts-and-Crafts style, like the Greenes' Gamble House in Pasadena?

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 10, 2005 9:53 PM

Sideways was a sad sick movie that shows America in decline. wake up
guys, before it's too late. wait a minute, it is too late. sad sick

myles steals from his mom? u okay with that. the pretty boy screws
girl before wedding ceremony? okay with that too?

if that is what america has become, LA and hollywood and all that,
good riddance, America.

we hardly knew ye. sad sick movie.

what were the critics smoking? don't say.

Posted by: david hume on April 11, 2005 3:41 AM

Michael -
At lunch today I walked the 15 minutes or so to Astor Place to get a look at that Gwathmey-Siegel building. I didn't really care for its design, and given the prices of the apartments it's pretty clear that the developers and lenders are making a *huge* bet on continued growth in the local real estate market. Nonetheless, the building did not seem quite as out-of-place in its setting as one might expect. It's true that it may be uncomfortably close to the historic Cooper Union and Public Theater buildings. On the other hand, the building's also near some bland if not downright ugly newer structures, such as the Cooper Union engineering school and a couple of white-brick apartment houses (is there a duller architectural style anywhere?), and some older but undistinguished buildings such as the former Fischer Music store and the building with the K-Mart in the ground level.
In short, while I had been thinking that the building would be an atrocity in its location, it's just somewhat incongruous, and for all we know may start to "grow" on people over time. It's also rather smaller than one would guess from looking at the rendering, although that's probably deliberate on the draftsman's part.

Posted by: Peter on April 11, 2005 1:31 PM

I also only recently saw the City Comforts blog and saw what MOMA has done to 54th St. (I haven't had a chance, yet, to go by there myself.)

One of the saddest things to me about all the talk regarding the most recent addition to MOMA is the fact that no one seems to be talking about how truly, unique, attractive and urbane both 53rd and 54th Streets, between Fifth Ave. and Sixth used to be in the first place (say, circa 1965-1975). So for me the tragedy of the most recent MOMA addition is not only that it has further degraded these streets, but that these streets have been so degraded over time that even the memory of their specialnes has, apparently, been lost to civic consciousness. To me, these streets were the very models of how interesting, attractive and productive (in a Jane Jacobs way) crosstown Manhattan streets could be. And they were virtually unique.

53rd St. had 1) a nice diversity of building types (e.g., modest brownstones and a limestone mansion) and uses (e.g., walkup apartments and a ground floor/basement restaurant); 2) a pleasantly unusual width and scale; and 3) a number of somewhat unusual (for their time) and pleasant urbanistic features (e.g., the 666 Building had, if I remember correctly: slate sidewalks; specially selected trees that were dramatically lit from below; and an attractive arcade to perhaps the most glamorous subway entrance in New York). 54th St. contained an unusually handsome hotel (the Dorset), the facade of the Whitney Museum (which was connected at back to the MOMA) and the MOMA's own beautiful garden wall of grey glazed brick with one or two sections of peek-through slats.

(Similarly, the real tragedy of the construction of the Mariott Marquis Hotel, to me, wasn't just the loss of the theaters that were demolished, but that the portions of 45th St. and 46th St. that were destroyed were just about the nicest, most diverse, most attractive, and most New York-like, blocks in all of the Times Sq. area.)

- - - - -

I kind of like the Gwathmey Siegel building -- but not at all at that location. (Similarly, I've always liked the Pan Am/Met Life building, but hate what it did to the vista looking down Park Ave.) I think the Gwathmey Siegel building would, however, add a nice touch of glamour to a number of faceless East Side streets further to the north, for example.

But at its Astor Place location it draws too much attention to itself (and away from quite an unusual number of distinguished older buildings) and it throws away a splendid opportunity to lend cohesion and urban order to this important urban "square" and East Village gateway. (And this is especially tragic since, as I understand it, the other impediment to civic order in the area, the Cooper Union Engineering building, is apparently slated for replacement.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 11, 2005 5:48 PM

The problem with using that partricular quote from Rybczynski is that some people might think he is suggesting (unless they read the whole piece) that if MOMA had simply offered a nicer-looking wall -- say some cool, individually hand-painted tiles -- then it would be OK.


In fact the wall is actually -- so surprise -- a very attractive piece of matter as a wall. The only problem is that it's a non-productive location for a wall, no matter its looks.

Posted by: David Sucher on April 12, 2005 9:55 AM

I'll take this opportunity to plug the afore-promised architecture salon at Salon #1: Night Architecture - stop on by!

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on April 12, 2005 11:02 AM

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