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May 26, 2005

Building Boom

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

America's current orgy of neomodernist-style building may be the largest since modernism itself laid waste to our cities and suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. (This is strictly my impression and not anything official, by the way.) How well is this building boom likely to work out? My bet is that we'll live to regret it as much as we now regret what we did to ourselves in the post-WWII years.

A sad/enraging fact is how much of this activity is being paid for by you and me. The New York Times sees fit to call the aggressive and difficult Thom Mayne "the U.S. government's favorite architect," for instance. And Mayne was recently given an award by the federal government's General Services Administration's Design Excellence program.

The what? The GSA's Design Excellence program, that's what. Since 1994, the GSA has been awarding a lot of government work to edgy architecture firms. This is a large and deliberate program that was the brainchild of Edward A. Feiner; it's full of review boards (aka, well-connected experts handing commissions to each other); it's spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money; and it's meant to class up government buildings -- or rather to make them shiney and contemporary.

As you might imagine, the architecture establishment loves the Design Excellence program. I wonder whether taxpayers -- ie., you and me -- appreciate the results, though. The guidelines the GSA is following were established in 1964, not exactly a great time in architecture history. Two of these guidelines:

  • Producing facilities that reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the Federal Government, emphasizing designs that embody the finest contemporary architectural thought.
  • Avoiding an official style.

Hmmm ....

But on to the visuals. Let's compare a couple of traditional federal courthouses to a couple of twinkly Design Excellence showpieces.

Traditional first. This is Milwaukee's federal courthouse, built originally in the 1890s and then expanded in 1930.

Here's Butte, Montana's federal courthouse, built in 1903:


These are, in other words, the kinds of buildings our government used to build. Both are -- at the very least -- solid and attractive. They look like they're here for the longterm. They're also anything but disorienting. They're instantly comprehensible; they look like the kind of thing you expect courthouses to look like. And both contribute to the urban fabric; you don't take a glimpse at them and start making plans to flee to the suburbs.

Both buildings also -- IMHO -- do a good job of living up to some of the GSA's guidelines. They express an easy-to-grasp dignity of a kind many people would like to feel their government possesses. And neither building could be said to impose an official style. They're in quite dramatically different styles, in fact. The Milwaukee courthouse's style is neo-Richardsonian/neo-romanesque while the Butte building's style is Renaissance-revival.

Over to the Design Excellence courthouses. Here's a Thom Mayne courthouse for Eugene, Oregon.

What strikes me instantly about this building is how ill it suits Eugene, Oregon. Eugene is a low-lying, overcast, bricks-and-trees-and-porches- and-uneven-sidewalks, logging-and-academia kind of town, half hippie-backpacker and half working-class. But the GSA doesn't seem concerned with whether the building suits Eugene. What strikes the GSA is Mayne's conceptual genius. The citation the GSA awarded to Mayne for this building reads: "This combination of order and artistry is an appropriate new symbol for the courts."

Here's one of the Design Excellence Program's real pride-and-joys, Richard Meier's courthouse for Islip, Long Island.

Hand me my sunglasses now!

Putting aside my personal aversion to this kind of thing, why not ask whether these buildings live up to the GSA's own guidelines? On the dignity front ... Well, come to think of it, where is the dignity? It's hard to imagine anyone looking at these two buildings and reflecting on the dignity of the law.

It's hard even to imagine anyone looking at either of these two buildings and thinking, "Hey, a courthouse!" This is one of the beefs many have with modernism, by the way. Despite modernism's obsession with "truth," it can often be hard to tell what exactly a modernist building is. Traditional buildings look like what they are. But a glass-and-steel modernist cube ... Is it a hotel? A mansion? A gas station? To my eyes, Thom Mayne's building looks like a submarine's engine room, or maybe a fancy FedEx warehouse. The Meier courthouse makes me think of a Miami Beach resort that's had all the kitschy color and fun goofiness leached out of it. Certainly neither one can be accused of saying, "I'm a courthouse."

As for avoiding an official style ... As far as I'm concerned, the two Design Excellence buildings represent a lot less in the way of variety than the Butte and Milwaukee courthouses do. Heck, I'm just an amateur but even I can group the Mayne and Meier together in one E-Z category: chic kitchen-appliance architecture.

So the GSA's multi-billion dollar program is delivering nothing in the way of governmental dignity -- quite the opposite. And it's also delivering an oppressive uniformity of style. I find it fascinating the way getting stressed-out about avoiding uniformity so often results in the imposition of a whole different kind of uniformity, by the way. Looking at the Mayne next to the Meier, I'm reminded of the way making an official fetish out of diversity so often results in the eradication of actual differences.

I wonder how the many taxpayers who aren't architecture students or contempo-architecture groupies feel about Thom Mayne's and Richard Meier's designs. And I wonder how Americans feel about their tax money being used to subsidize difficult (if establishment) architecture.

Just as important is the question David Sucher and John Massengale are so good at reminding us to ask: Where is the public discussion about what such buildings do to the neighborhoods and cities where they're located?



posted by Michael at May 26, 2005


1. It does seem like power is always abused, and reward-your-buddies is the only truly universal truth of people who get into positions to hand out rewards in the first place.

2. I totally agree with your analogies---a submarine engine room and a Miami Beach resort hotel (from the sixties---or something parodying "modern life" from the Flintstones) ARE what those two buildings look like!!! It's interesting---the courts building in St. Louis looks like a big castle, and a castle with a dungeon in it somewhere, from the Middle Ages. It definitely says "This is a nice big old solid building--even attractive---but one where PENALTIES can be handed out." But what's really astounding to me is the COST of new buildings---everybody says they don't build courthouses that look like the originals anymore because they'd be so expensive---but so are these giant new creations!

Posted by: annette on May 26, 2005 2:52 PM

1. So true. Check out this article. Edward Feiner, the guy behind the GSA program, has retired from it and moved over to the bigtime architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. Journalists and columnists get upset about the way lobbyists, corporate shills and politicos swap favors and move into each other's positions. Where's the indignation about the Design Excellence program?

2. They do seem to cost an amazing amount, don't they. I wonder if anyone can explain why -- I've got no knowledge about the realities of building. And they don't seem likely to last for a heckuva a long time. We'll probably be stuck with them for a while yet, though.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 26, 2005 3:13 PM

While normally I greatly appreciate your commentary on matters of the built environment, I fear that perhaps your approach to these new courthouses is somewhat too conservative. While the examples you cite are certainly outlandish, these are public buildings that are supposed to stick out and be prominent. If every apartment block were designed like this, with little regard for context or tradition, then we would have the problem of an unreadable mess sprawling over the semi-urban landscape, which we do. But these specific courthouses aren't the landscape at large, they are merely specific punctuations of it.

While the Islip courthouse doesn't appear to do much for the public realm (though as with so many architectural renderings it's difficult to judge, as no setting is visible), the Eugene courthouse certainly seems to make a nice gesture to the street with all of those steps. The traditional courthouses you cite, in Butte and Milwaukee are wonderful buildings- they follow the basic rules of building-street relations, but they could easily be luxury hotels, department stores, or a house a variety of offices and residences- nothing particularly courthouse about them. In contrast with the public space adjacent to Mayne's design, the Butte courthouse looks like it has a pretty nasty surface parking lot next to it (though I like the local sandstone). The contention that traditional buildings look like what they are contradicts somewhat the idea that the flexibility and resilience of traditional buildings allows them to adapt to an almost infinite range of uses over time.

Cities are at their best when produced by a coherent system of syntactic relations between their subsystems (building types, street patterns, and allotment systems), but the occasional rupture can create visual interest, serve as a landmark, and raise the profile of a (semi)public body such as government, church, community centre, etc... It is precisely these buildings that should be the site of experiments with new architecture and art, and not the mass of everyday buildings adapting cartoon facades to be noticed at 50kph.


Desmond Bliek

Posted by: Desmond Bliek on May 26, 2005 4:13 PM

Stone beats concrete and glass hands down.

Although I suppose the likes of Meier and Mayne could even screw up using stone.

Hey guys, enough with the statements; just build something beautiful (i.e. has order) for a change.

Posted by: ricpic on May 26, 2005 4:39 PM

I think the renderings are pretty, and I like steel and concrete. Then again, Disney Hall in LA often looks pretty when photographed, too, but once I took a look around I thought that from most angles it was actually a bit ugly, although the garden's quite nice. All of which is to say that while I don't think the renderings are ugly by any means, that doesn't really say much about how'll they look once they're finished, either.

Posted by: Michael on May 26, 2005 4:56 PM

I can take the Mayne design more easily, but perhaps that's because it looks exactly like many recent pharmaceutical lab buildings. You could at least imagine it as some sort of office building, although it does lack something as a courthouse. But the Meier rendering looks like it should be a condo in Ocean City, Maryland.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on May 26, 2005 5:02 PM

Oh, you just wait the addition to J.P. Morgan Library by Renzo Piano will be finished

Posted by: Tatyana on May 26, 2005 5:04 PM

Interesting how differently people react.

Joseph Giovanni tours the Meier and uses these words:

"Monumental. But its abstract language -- a classic Modernist exercise in point, line, plane, and volume -- radiates fresher, more egalitarian images relatively free of cultural baggage ...

It is not a fortress but a building intended to portray an updated, twenty-first-century sense of justice characterized by openness, accessibility, and transparency."

But Brent Staples spent a few weeks in the Meier Islip courthouse on jury duty. A few of his words about the building:

"The vast white spaces and towering rooms of the courthouse convey the coldness and architectural tyranny that one might expect from an early 20th-century mental ward ...

Breathtaking from a distance. But the scale and the composition grow steadily more alienating as you approach this mammoth building on foot. The sense of menace is augmented by the raised concrete plaza that pedestrians must cross to enter the building. The plaza is blank, unadorned, and a tad fascistic in its effect."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 26, 2005 5:12 PM

I sometimes like glass and steel, but it has to be done right and in the right place. I spent a good part of my formative years in Albany NY, where a great deal of money was spent building a vast concrete campus sometime in the 60s. Not only does it look cold, but the wind and weather in Albany--where it starts snowing in October and finishes up in April--made it a really bad choice. Eventually, they had to build underground tunnels for pedestrians. A friend who went there for a semester said she never met a sole, or saw one, in the vast concrete plazas.

Posted by: Rachel on May 26, 2005 5:55 PM

But what would you expect from a courthouse, to convey a friendly impression? Disneyland of Justice?
Any government is a bully by definition, a courthouse is a bully squared. At any time or place in history. Your counterexamples I'm sure gave exactly same impression when they were erected, of the towering Power you can't do anything against - compared to the average urban landscape of the time.
Those 2 new buildings tell you quite convincingly: be afraid, don't get caught into the Wheel of Jurisprudence.
I dunno,guys, both of those two buildings look successful to me.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 26, 2005 7:39 PM

That Long Island one looks like the hotel where Auric Goldfinger cheated at cards.

The behavior of these foundations can be expained by two economic ideas: agency problems and href="">regulatory capture. When you get right down to it, any government branch which actually serves "the people" can be considered an anomaly, and in all likelihood a short-lived one.

But I wonder though if these really are bad buildings. Art is supposed to present an idea in perceptual terms - and isn't the pomo left's strategy to overpower the citizen with disorienting rhetoric, thereby short-circuiting their rational faculties and rendering them docile and kinda stupid? These buildings - disorienting, overpowering, unresponsive - seem a fitting architectural metaphor for that.

Posted by: Brian on May 26, 2005 8:21 PM

I buggered up the regulatory capture link.

Posted by: Brian on May 26, 2005 8:26 PM

It is perhaps appropriate that the bizaare Long Island courthouse is on the site of a former mental hospital :)

Posted by: Peter on May 26, 2005 11:32 PM

The untold but hinted at story is the way that these designs are publically "vetted" by a charade of a "public process." San Diego will be the recipient of a new Federal Courthouse that will provide NO NEW PARKING for a downtown site notorious for high parking fees and lack of street parking. The Richard Meier design was called "stunningly sophisticated" by the local design critic as she schizophrenically skewered the GSA for arrogance and lack of democratic process. I guess it is sophisticated in a Machiavellian way, no?

But your initial criticisms - old good, new bad - are really besides the point. Even if (God help us) Leon Krier was to design a US Federal Courthouse it would still look like something on Federally supplied "Speer"oids. Big is what the guv'mnt is all about... which begs a question for Brian's post above - how the hell are these buildings representative of the "pomo left"? Both Bill and George lied.

But the description of the Islip as where Goldfinger cheated at cards is spot on!

Posted by: arghitect on May 27, 2005 12:10 AM

I certainly like those 19th Century courthouses that looked like Gothic castles, but I have to wonder how they were to light and heat. I get the impression from the small windows and massive stonework that they were gloomy inside, freezing in the winter, and hot and stuffy in the summer. If there's anything to be said for the glass and steel modern architure, I would hope it's along the lines of improvements in lighting, heating, and maintenance. Bottom line: are these po-mo buildings functional and do they economically and efficiently serve the purpose of enclosing space?

That having been said, what's wrong with an "official style" if it's attractive and functional? A while back, I read somebody's claim that there _is_ a native American style for public buildings, and it's neo-Classicism despite the fact we seem to have taken something of a detour lately. I don't know about that, but the powers that were in the town in Ohio where I grew up had a semi-official policy insisting that all major building projects be built in "Colonial" style to fit the city's public image of itself. So some schools and other public buildings were built in brick with white wood trim and simulated pillars and cupolas even if inside the structures were more or less modern. Maybe it was a kind of silly and artificial civic boosterism, but the results were a number of buildings that were graceful and attractive, and not just anonymous glass boxes.

Then again...the high school I went to was built in 1941 in Colonial style, and reasonably attractive in its way. But I've recently seen pictures of the old high school they tore down to build it, and it was a 19th Century Gothic castle they could have filmed Harry Potter movies in. I'm almost sorry I came along too late to have gone to school in that...


Posted by: Dwight Decker on May 27, 2005 1:10 AM

I'm of two minds about these types of buildings. Certainly, I agree that the non-modernist buildings are far superior aesthetically. And, yet, I think there is some value in those hideous modernist bunkers if only because their style is so off-putting to the average person that, on some level, they must discredit government. It's rather simple. Buildings that inspire awe and are attractive would make people think good thoughts toward government. Buildings that echo K-Mart, the mall and a mental ward can't help but diminish government and engender feelings of resentment. I'm reminded of how, during the Great Depression, banks were built in a monumental fashion with enormous columns and beautiful stone in order to make them seem more respectable and solid given the banking troubles.

Posted by: lindenen on May 27, 2005 3:03 AM

they must discredit government

But it doesn't matter how much or how often they're discredited -- they keep on building things like this. And for my money, I'd personally rather see someone do a lightly updated castle courthouse, with more time spent on modern conveniences on the inside. But as has been noted, it's not like we get a say in how it's spent.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on May 27, 2005 8:15 AM

What a bunch of interesting points everyone raises. My own probably less modest one boiils down -- I hope! -- a little less to "traditional buildings are always better than modern ones" than to something like this ...

*These are all public buildings, built with our money and to serve us. (Ostensibly, anyway.)

* Most people don't have trouble with traditional buildings. They're easy to understand, generally attractive, around for the long run, look official, etc.

* Our experience of the modernist buildings is very different. Many people don't like these styles. They're "difficult," or they remind people of awful '50s and '60s totalitarian modernism. They're hard to read. They look "official" but only in the worst way.

* Yet, again, they're built with our money, ostensibly to serve us.

* So the relationship between the powers-that-be (both in government and architecture) and us has changed somewhat. However corrupt or power-driven, the architecture-elite/government-elite nexus used to do something that at least suited the people's tastes and wasn't a major irritation. These days, the archttecture-elite/govt-elites just ... impose aesthetic shit on us that almost no one likes. It suits them; it doesn't suit many of us.

I dunno. Does that mean that the elites have gotten more straightforwardly self-serving than they once were? They feel less obliged to make noises about serving our interests, and just naked promote each other?

And of course it's always fun to tweak the establishment for its pretentions -- amusing to notice that harcore modernist Richard Meier's building, for instance, was largely made possible by Sen. Alfone d'Amato. And that Thom "Mr. Anti-Establishment" Mayne is getting much of his work these days from the government ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2005 10:12 AM

Awww, ya'll are just a bunch of haters :)

Boston depresses me for many reasons, not the least of which is the sameness of the place and the inability to embrace anything new (ok, there is that, what is it? Gehry thingie on the MIT campus, but anything new here is pretty much concrete). And even when they try to be traditional, it's dull, dull, dull.

I miss Chicago, partly for the glass towers: the colors they reflect on a hot summer day, or the storms over the lake. It works for me.....why is that the particular jumble of the Chicago skyline works for me, but not the jumble of Boston? It's a conundrum....

Oh, and the Gehry building on the MIT campus? Well, my Dad loved it, and I got a kick out of the outside, but to be honest, I think the inside looks a bit's gonna look a bit down and out in a few years, I'm predicting.

Posted by: MD on May 27, 2005 10:13 AM

But how do y'all feel about your tax money being used to subsidize the likes ot Meier and Mayne, and the kind of architecture and urbanism they stand for?

There's a lot more government money going out to these guys and these styles than there is from the NEA to "Piss Christ" and Karen Finley, etc.

It's funny how much attention a few NEA grants to edgy artists can generate. These are, like $5000 grants. Meanwhile, billions -- billions! -- in tax money are going to subsidize people who build buildings few people like and many hate (and who then promote more such work). It seems to me a total scandal, yet it generates no press coverage at all, and no public outrage. Any thoughts about why?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2005 10:21 AM

Michael Blowhard - we,, when you put it like that it is pretty outrageous.

I suppose there is not more public outrage because, well, there is always some tax money being spent in an outrageous way somewhere. For you it's public buildings like this, for me it's the waste that goes into any inherently beaurocratic excercise. That's the real secret to governing - make it so mind-numbingly boring and painful and full of minutae that most can't keep up.

Actually, now that you put it that way, it does kind of bother me....that's a lot of money for those kinds of public buildings. Hmmmm

Posted by: MD on May 27, 2005 10:29 AM

Who's to say the public didn't have some input? I spent a great deal of time covering small-town government in NJ as a reporter. Everytime anything went up, the builders had to notify neighbors, submit plans, go before zoning boards, etc, etc. Most people didn't get their dander up about the looks of the place. But parking? That was always an issue. I'd guess everyone on L.I. was really happy D'Amato built the courthouse (creating jobs! blah, blah, blah) and saw the building as their chance to get something from the federal tit (as it were). But raise their property taxes and you'd really see the fur fly. The fact that it's all coming from their pockets, seems not to occur to them.

Posted by: Rachel on May 27, 2005 11:17 AM

In response to arghitect: a downtown site in San Diego shouldn't need new parking- it's downtown, in a major city, therefore there should be other ways of getting there than taking your car. More than any other country, it seems like the US just gave up on the idea of cities, and forgot what they're made of, which is not abundant new parking.

Also, it boggles the mind how distrustful of government the comments on this posting are (not entirely without reason). This in a country with intensive local democracy. If citizens' sensibilities are being imposed upon, how come neither the market (people still live, work, and shop in parking-dominated wastelands), nor local government (public architecture from the perspective of most citizens appears not to be on the agenda of these agencies) are dealing with this problem?

Posted by: Desmond Bliek on May 27, 2005 12:00 PM

For the ICA and other classical-revival fans in the audience, the ultimate is the "Temple on the Hudson" in Goshen, with another one in Newburgh, designed by Thornton MacNess Niven (great-grandfather of Thornton Wilder):

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 27, 2005 12:30 PM

Alaskans are organizing opposition to fight Mayne's Alaska State Capitol Building.

Posted by: Bill on May 27, 2005 12:46 PM

Michael: It seems to me that the fact that a lot of stink is raised over the $5000 grants that go to "edgy artists" while not much of an outcry is made over these buildings might just mean that these are NOT "buildings few people like and many hate." Are you sure you're not in the minority here in disliking these things? It seems to me you're absolutely right, if everyone hated them it'd be very strange that there wouldn't be an outcry.

Posted by: i on May 27, 2005 3:13 PM

I -- You could well be right! On the other hand, I think few people are even aware that billions in tax dollars are subsidizing this kind of thing, let alone that they might protest such actions. You're raising an ultra-good question, which is one that Sucher and Massengale (and Laurence Aurbach) often chew over: to what extent does the way Americans put with ugliness represent a free choice, and to what extent does it represent ingorance of alternatives? Beats me, and I'd be curious to hear our hunch about it. My bet is that many (if not most) people would choose walkable neighborhoods, traditional architecture, shorter commutes, etc -- but only if they 1) were offered the choice and 2) were aware of it. I find it interesting that New Urbanist developments command a considerable premium. Some of that probably represents hocus-pocus and publicity, but some of it probably represents real and as-yet unanswered demand. We'll never know until the housing market opens up more than it has. I'm semi-hopeful that the web will awaken more and more people to the fact that their pleasures and interests are being steamrollered by the elites so far as housing and buildings go. But maybe that's quixotic. On the other hand: can't hurt. I think at the moment most people have a sense of helplessness where the public domain is concernred -- why worry about it? Why not just get in the SUV and drive home instead? But as the reaction in Alaska shows, loud noises will be heard by the elites. (Some loud noises, anyway.) It'd be lovely if the elites regained a sense that it's their dutiy to serve the rest of us -- a sense of humility and respect. At the moment, they're doing as much top-down imposing on us as they were doing in the post-WWII years.

But I'm just venting. What's your hunch about all this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2005 7:22 PM

Incidentally, my hunch about why bigger stinks haven't been raised about such things as the GSA's Design Excellence program is that the the politicians, the architects, the press, the critics -- they all come from the same class. They're all the same people. And they discuss it all (and keep the discussion to themselves) by making themselves out as experts. So nary a dissenting voice ever makes it into the public discussion. Another reason to feel hopeful about the web's impact!

Also, Americans are notoriusly blind to and uneasy about questions of aesthetics and pleasure. Some of that is great in a populist way. But it also means that we're defenceless when genuine issues about aesthetics and pleasure come up. We don't know how to take them on. And we wind up hurrying home in our SUVs and watching TV instead.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 27, 2005 7:25 PM

"I think at the moment most people have a sense of helplessness where the public domain is concernred -- why worry about it? Why not just get in the SUV and drive home instead?"

You have mentioned a key issue -- How do people who live in multi-family (i.e. attached, apartment, condo, loft etc) neighborhoods influence their environment? It's tough because most of it is in the public right-of-way and it's in the hands of the City govt. A single family homeowner has his/her own buffer surrounding them and has a great deal more autonomy etc.

It's a severe structural issue with dense housing because most cities are not yet tuned into to the importance of making their public spaces inviting and even...comfortable.

Posted by: David Sucher on May 27, 2005 8:08 PM

Until architects start offending religious or moral sensibilities, you're not going to have a public upset over subsidies for what are just buildings. It's only a small number of people who are going to get worked up over a modernist bunker as opposed to an incredibly large number angry over the Virgin Mary festooned with crap. This is the real issue. Buildings are practical, rational issues. It's hard to object to building a new courthouse. Most people just won't care. Afterall, how much does the style of a building I might visit twice in my life impact me? It doesn't really. It only contributes in the most marginal way by making my day to day environment less attractive and in a world dotted with strip malls and vinyl siding, how is your average American going to tell the difference? Especially when you're whizzing by at 45mph?

Perhaps if more architectural critics argued that Wal-Mart and all other strip mall hells were defacing what god gave us, they might be able to get the fundies upset and the quality of life lefties to agree on something.

Posted by: lindenen on May 28, 2005 2:27 AM

They should present the issue in moral and religious terms. You might not like the Religious Right, but, if you reach out to them on this particular issue, you might find a highly motivated group of allies. The idea that we have a responsibility as stewards of the earth to create something beautiful from what God has given us, in honor of Him, yadda yadda yadda.

Bring pictures of a Wal Mart and its parking lot and repeat over and over again that it looks like a slum, and eventually people will get it.

Posted by: lindenen on May 28, 2005 2:39 AM

Also, check out this Opera House design in Dallas.

Posted by: lindenen on May 28, 2005 4:36 AM

Am I the only one who likes many examples of current architecture? There are many that are boring, but I like the new public library in Wellington, NZ and other examples. They are much better than all those mid-century buildings that were all grey concrete and no ornamentation.

Or look at this picture of the engineering school at Canterbury University. The building in the foreground is from the 1950s, the taller building was an extension built in the 1990s. I prefer the newer building (the front view of the 1950s building is as exciting as it gets). It's a lot nicer inside too. Much better use of light and less use of grey concrete.

Plus, cities evolve over time. While it is nice for some places to stay still, if no buildings were ever built in a different style we would not have New York's skyscrapers, or London's Georgian terraces.

Posted by: Tracy on May 28, 2005 7:10 AM

"We end up hurrying home in our SUVs to watch TV."

Well, some people like SUVs and some people like tv.

I'm going to break with the general tone of this discussion and horrify all of you: I like the way suburbia looks, I don't mind strip malls, I prefer the way Tuscon looks to the way Boston looks (not saying it's better, just saying that aesthetically, I prefer it.)

I like big open spaces and new things and the feeling of today, today, today and kitsch and shiny neon signs and the newness that you feel out West (which is paradoxical, I know, because in a few years it will all look shabby and it's wasteful. But I'm just talking about looks here, not good for the environment, etc). I would give up all my quirky neighborhood stores for good weather, palm trees and being able to walk through something shiny and nice and new in my flip flops, not a care in the world. Ok, that's not really true; I like both in different ways.

Actually, the suburbia aesthetic seems to be the preference of a lot of Indians in the US that I know: they like new. What's the point of America if you can't have your own house and your own car and your own space? If they wanted something else, they would have stayed back in the old country.

None of which really answers why people would put up with billions of dollars being spent on these kinds of public buildings, but when it comes to matters of lifestyle people are largely voting with their feet....I don't think it's just a lack of education. It's a different aesthetic.

*Although, the fact that they are building loft developments back home in Des Moines just shoots holes in my theory. Yes, there is something called the 'east village' in Des Moines :) Although why the three hipsters that live there don't turn barns or silos into houses, which is the logical hipster who stays in Iowa thing to do, just boggles the mind...

Posted by: MD on May 28, 2005 8:25 AM

This GSA project started in 1994, you say? Wonder if there was some small promise in the 1992 Democratic platform, or some position paper, or a group of "architects for Clinton". That's often how these things begin.

And, of course, once started, they can be almost impossible to derail.

Posted by: Jim Miller on May 28, 2005 8:39 AM

Funny you should mention Dallas in a thread on public architecture that has generated some comments about not trusting the government with our money. We (Dallas tax payers) got the shaft over public works improvements on the Trinity River corridor. After years of high falutin' talk about building a public space and cleaning up the river and making it grand for all Dallasites, the bond money (or the vast majority of it) is going to a Spaniard to rebuild some stupid bridges, which in turn will become our "signature". Total bullcrap that 99% of the citizenry don't freaking care about. Just imagine -- signature Calatrava (most likely just one of his intern sycophants) bridges, on the damn prairie. Just to whip up some national disgust, the US DoT has pitched in many millions of taxpayer dollars to fund these monstrosities, so, um, thanks, America!

There's a reason people don't trust local governments to listen to them about such things as architecture and planning. The pols pretend to, and then do what the culturati money boys want, anyway, so why even bother?

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on May 28, 2005 11:57 AM

Actually, MD, I just saw a program on HGTV about one such building - owners who are also the architects incorporated a silo into their updated barn house. They've put a wide spiral stair inside, gilded the surfaces, put new verdigried copper roof on the silo - and redwood shingles on the adjacent barn; they threw away rotten and twisted beams, installed new engineered (laminated) girders, exposing layers of wood as decorative element, used local polished floor tiles made with cut straw, giving the floors golden luster and reglazed the parlor windows with vintage stained glass panels...The house is breathtakingly beautiful.

This is a kind of architecture that should appeal to people - taking clues from and incorporating the vernacular, and at the same time displaying advantages of contemporary technological achievements.
Not random collection of pseudo-classical fiberglass elements slapped on vinyl sided "Ranches" and artificially-aged-brick "Colonials" that passes for "traditional-equals-good" suburbia.

It's beside me, that desire of most Americans to copycat mélange of period detail, that self-deprecating preference for fake "Tudors" etc - missing on their own heritage, on original American styles, born out of American soil, things that foreigners consider American achievement - and copy in their countries!
Really, no prophet is well-received in his own land.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 28, 2005 1:26 PM

Scott, but isn't giving bridges' comission to Calatrava exactly "cleaning up the river and making it grand for all Dallasites"?

If you scout his site for images of his works in relation to their environment, you might notice he's not one of those architects that just plop their creation into place with no concern for the surroundings. On the contrary, everything he builds accentuate natural beauty of the place it's erected. Look, f.ex, at his Winery and it's relation to the mountains behind it.

Mightn't you want to postpone your judgement till the architects' model presented to the public?

Posted by: Tatyana on May 28, 2005 2:34 PM

MD, I like suburbia as well though the houses could be much better. I'm more than a bit claustrophobic so urban areas don't really work for me. But I do hate stripmalls and find them to be eyesores. We can do better.

Also, I like Calatrava. From what I've seen of his past work, I think he's excellent.

Posted by: lindenen on May 28, 2005 3:03 PM

Tatyana: It has been, and it's nothing special to me. But regardless of it's aesthetic -- it's not what we paid for. Big, dumb, fancy-pants bridges weren't part of the bond package.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on May 28, 2005 3:16 PM

It's not what you paid for? You're not suggesting the architect proposed bridges instead of other listed developments out of his own consideration, do you?
Your anger, if understandable, is misdirected, Scott. It's so easy to use the architect as a beating boy, totally missing the real culprits. If you might want to follow the money trail and look into people/commettee/city hall/urban planners/whoever who actually hired him.

Besides, I find calling Calatrava's work "dumb" a bit...dumb.

Posted by: Tatyana on May 28, 2005 6:36 PM

Why is there no outcry? For a few reasons:

1) I think the average citizen really doesn't care much about architecture one way or the other. (And I think this has pretty much always been true.) As a result, this means that the most motivated and organized architectural faction "wins" the culture wars. At this time in archtectural history, the winning faction is that of the orthodox modernists. They have the univeristy postions, the newspaper columnists, etc., etc.

2) As hypothosized in an earlier post, I have the inclination to believe that there is also a somewhat built-in bias towards the orthodox modern faction as it is the school of thought that most flatters the ego of architectural students and architectural practictioners (and architectural critics, etc.) -- it holds that the lone cutting edge architect can (must!) contribute something new, important and unique to society. Why should an architect build something that is (I'm not sure I can think of the right word at the moment) self-deprecating, and deferential towards other (dead) architects when one can express one's "vision" for all the world to see and praise -- in permanent building materials yet.

3) America (and the world?) has essentially been mentally "suburbanized" despite all the lip service about Jane Jacobs and urbanism -- whether we here at 2B like it or not. While many urbanists genuinely think that they are really pro-Jane Jacobs, etc., in fact, they are Corbusian deep in their soul. The vision of "La Ville Radieuse" hasn't been destroyed, it was always hanging around, it metamorphisized and has been modified and "improved," and it has come back as . . . (among other things) the current plan for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in particular and Lower Manhattan in general.

(For instance, it is amazing, shocking and disappointing to me to hear how much community activists, etc. (who genuinely believe they are urbanists) talk about the "desperate need" for more open space and greenery in Manhattan, a green necklace around Manhattan island, and centrally "planned" rationale growth, etc.)

- - - - -

Since MB mentioned how someone wrote how uncomfortable they felt the new Mier courthouse was, I'd just like to pen a short valentine to the wonderful, wonderful New York State Courthouse on Foley Square -- what a comfortable TREASURE. It's hard to describe, but the spaces (jury rooms, segregated juror's hallways, stairways, general corridors, etc.) are all so handsome, dignified, well-proportioned and, to my mind, "comfy."

A little secret: In the late 1980s, when I used to work for the Department of City Planning (when it was located across the street from the courthouse at 2 Lafayette St.), I used to bring my own lunch to work everyday, and I use to use a jury assembly room "waiting area" in this courthouse as my little secret lunchtime "getaway." Not only did I like the building itself so much, but I also liked the way the juror's "lunchroom" (really a wide, unused corridor!) was so nice and quiet.

There are also two magnificent WPA era murals in the jury assembly room. I think one of the murals, in particular, is one of the greatest works of public art in New York City. It's an enormous scene of New York harbor, and it really conveys the bustling harbor, the brisk wind and the moving ships wonderfully.

Also, by the way, for some reason even without mechanical air conditioning the public areas in the building were remarkably comfortable during the summer.

One funny, embarrassing incident: One day I went there on a nice sunny day and was sitting in an empty lunch room, and a startled guard came by and told me that the building was actually closed. When I originally sat down, I thought (obviously, too optimistically) that everyone just cut out because it was such a gorgeous day outside.

Anyway, in my mind, THAT is a great courthouse!

- - - - -

P.S. -- Although I know not everyone here is for the preservation of Edward Durrell Stone's 2 Columbus Circle, I thought people would be interested, nevertheless, in knowing that on Tuesday, May 31st, at 5:30 p.m., there will be a demonstration outside the opening of an exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design (the orthodox modernists) on 53rd St. to protest the lack of a public hearing to even consider whether or not to grant landmark status to 2 Columbus Circle. (Robert A.M. Stern recently called the refusal to hold a public hearing for 2 Columbus Circle "criminal.") The demonstration is being organized by Landmarks West!, which is spearheading the fight to save the building. Hope to see people there!

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on May 28, 2005 9:40 PM

Robert Stern helped to organize a similar demo a couple of years ago AT 2 Columbus this is an interesting follow-up. Most people think Laurie Beckelman is a turncoat because she is now design director for the Museum of A&D (Amer Crafts Museum) and she USED to be the head of the Landmarks Commission.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 28, 2005 11:07 PM

I used to work for I.M. Pei and we got a lot of requests for info about-- and images-- of this courthouse the firm built in Boston:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on May 28, 2005 11:12 PM

Tatyana: if it's not clear that I'm ticked off at the local government, let me clear that up for you. I am. Bridges weren't in any way part of the bond package. Now, presto-chango, they are. And many things that were part of the package, like a clean, usable river, are gone. Clear?

You'll hopefully pardon me for not bending knee toward Sr. Calatrava, Architectural Genius. Aesthetically, I find his work frivolous and silly and it's completely unsuitable for the setting here in Dallas. I'm not angry at him -- he's just taking the cash my city govt. is handing him. Which, you know, I'd really rather see going to a local design firm. But why buy local when you can get something from Europe that costs 10 times as much? That's my home town!

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on May 29, 2005 8:41 AM

Desmond is correct. There shouldn't be a huge concern about lack of parking in San Diego's downtown, but this is where the contradictions between the building's perceived uses (majesty of Justice, yada yaha) and its actual uses (massive bureacratic police state mind f****s and a waste of time for the tax paying jurors who will have to pay for parking out of their limited daily stipend to attend to said majesty of Justice and/or police state mind f****s from their suburban and exurban tuscan-themed villas).

The folks that manage, design and build Federal Court Houses do not need to make ANY concessions to local control and review. Nada. Zip. Squat.

The public had a concern about parking. Granted, the existing perceived lack of affordable and easily accessible parking has been excacerbated by a sudden sprouting of high rise condos where cheap surface parking had once been available, and really isn't the Federal Government's problem, but the new building will bring thousands of new employees and hundreds of new jurors to downtown everyday. It's really not such a great deal for the urban joie de vivre because they (the employees) are pretty lousy tippers, and the jurors will be scared to step outside the jury room because of the proximity of the scary Greyhound Terminal across Broadway, but I digress...the point is those concerns about parking were ignored. Repeatedly.

Indeed, even more serious Life/Safety concerns are ignored or challenged by these paladins of public service. Elevator lobbies are required by the UBC (as interpreted by the California Building Code - or CBC) for highrise buildings. It is required to separate the vertical shaft of an elevator (which can carry smoke and flame) from the Horizontal exit system (the corridor). Now there are many exceptions to this rule, but none apply to most vertical courthouse situations in a highrise (i.e. higher than 75' - about 6 stories). Through the GSA attempts at waivers for these critical life safety features, which have been standard practice for at least 15 years, have been proposed at the ICBO and rejected. They will keep trying, calling it "regulatory oppression" or some other nonsense, implying that the buildings could have been cheaper or more efficient if the life safety systems were compromised. Maybe the GSA has some confidential information learned from the WTC tragedy about the function of elevator shafts that they should share with the rest of the construction community.

Yes, we are distrustful of the Government. Why is that so remarkable? San Diego is the middle of a huge pension scandal and a pay for influence scheme known as "Strippergate." Last time I checked CNN we're still acting as warlords/victors/occupiers/whatever in Iraq...

Calling San Diego a major downtown kinda makes me snicker, but thanks anyway!

Posted by: arghitect on May 31, 2005 12:07 AM

Er, what do you mean "Islip, Long Island"? Long Island was incorporated into New York in 1664. It's not its own state anymore.

Milwaukee's federal courthouse is a dead ringer for St Paul's:
Though St Paul's has a bit more color. And faces one of the country's nicest small urban parks, Rice Park, the desecration of which you can see in "Jingle All the Way".

If Mr Mayne's plan for Alaska is anything like that for Eugene, let's pray the new capitol suffers the same fate as the new capital (Willow), and doesn't get built. When I visited Juneau, the old Capitol reminded me very much of New York's, which I think is the finest of all 50. Alaska's seemed to convey the same sense of grandeur. Yet pictures show that they have nothing in common but their boxiness:

So whence the grandeur? Why, from the surrounding mountains! The bland little warehouse-capitol sits there humbly and lets Nature supply the ornamentation that Man must add himself in Albany. (Which is a nice setting but no Juneau.)

This is why long rows of bland, faceless steel-and-glass skyscrapers actually look nice against dramatic backdrops like Rio and Hong Kong. You're not looking at the buildings-- you're looking at the mountains, and the sea. ("Cristo Redentor, braços abertos sobre a Guanabara..."-- AC Jobim.)

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on May 31, 2005 3:25 AM

I just got back from Rome, where the central city is largely Baroque Classical (very sturdy 5-6 story masonry construction, lots of elaborate ornamentation) but stayed outside the city center in a 1960s era high-rise hotel. After a day of wandering around, when I got back to the hotel, I couldn't help but wonder how long it was before the Romans tore the heap down--it stands out like a wimpy sore thumb. I can't imagine it still being around 200 years from now--unlike most of the central city, which will probably look pretty much as it does today.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 5, 2005 1:30 PM

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