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« Sophie Marceau ... And Group Characteristics 5 | Main | Elsewhere »

September 15, 2005

As Bad as All That?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Is the situation in architecture really as bad as all that? Does the modernist/decon/po-mo crowd -- the field's ruling elite -- really sneer at common and traditional tastes, pleasures, and satisfactions? Can they possibly be as puffed-up and arrogant as all that?

You betcha. John Massengale tells an all-too-common story here and here. John's conclusion: "More and more, what the architects like best is what the public hates most."

Which provokes a question: Why should this we-know-better-than-you attitude be so prevalent in architecture? In some other fields -- acting, movies -- the walls crumbled long ago. In fact, only twenty years ago architecture seemed on the verge of rejoining the human race. But the field's academic, prize-giving, and political elites regrouped; they snagged back control. And, these days, they're doing their impressive best to persuade us that we're in the midst not of a tragic repeat of '50s-modernist devastation (my view) but of an architectural golden age.

Key thing to remember: They don't want to serve, they want to dictate. Not only that, they want us applauding, expressing gratitude, and throwing money. Hmm. Whaddya say we jeer 'em instead?

Hey, is anyone else as tired of translucent new buildings as I am? As the owner of a new iMac, I'm happy to agree that semi-transparent geometry makes for a cool home computer. Looks very nifty on a desktop. But what kind of fool thinks it appropriate to insert a gigantic iMac into a traditional urban fabric?

Earth to architects: Buildings are not standalone objects that we buy at a store, lug home, and use privately.



posted by Michael at September 15, 2005


I don't think it is a bad idea to have a few cool looking buildings. Especially for museums and the like. The neo-traditional buildings do look better at UVA though.

Posted by: joe o on September 15, 2005 12:44 PM

I live in San Francisco and I have been depressed by how awful almost all the tall modern buildings are in my fair city. At least they could make them non-descript instead of actively ugly.
I remember one time I was driving down Folsom Street near the Moscone Convention when I looked at a new set of condos they had put up their. I thought they were some of the ugliest buildings I had ever seen and I have been to Russia. They were unpainted concrete (that looks dirty when new) and had metal gates in front. The new city jail is more appealing. About a month later the SF Chron had an article on new architecture in the city. The author, an architect at Berkeley, also bemoaned the lousiness of SF modern architecture. He said the only good and distinguished new architecture in SF were those very condos!
Interestingly though, on average, the new mid rise (six story or less) apartment/condos are more appealing than the high rises. San Francisco's South Beach is now very appealing.
I do not think they have won any awards though.

Posted by: Larry on September 15, 2005 1:16 PM

Joe O -- If only there were a way of keeping the cool-looking buildings to "a few"!

Larry -- It's so true. I always thought one of the funniest things about the architecture world is how often it works out that the ugliest building on a university campus is the architecture building. Or the way that arty people would find a rundown but lovely old neighborhood, colonize it -- and then proceed, when left to their own devices, to build really hideous abstract buildings in the midst of all the old period buildings that were what made the neighborhood nice and desirable in the first place. It sounds like some of the same people who love SanFran's old buildings (and the whole SanFran) vibe have been, on their own, doing their best to ruin that vibe. Weird, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 15, 2005 2:23 PM

"Why should this we-know-better-than-you attitude be so prevalent in architecture? In some other fields -- acting, movies -- the walls crumbled long ago."

I'll find that claim a bit more compelling when action and comedy movies start winning Oscars at something like the rate at which they win at the box office. (I claim no knowledge of stage acting, and will leave that to others.)

The same situation applies in art, music, and literature, at least. "Popular" and "Beloved of the Critics" are not quite opposites; some critics actually listen to their audiences. But there is a definite negative correlation.

The big difference with architecture is that, at least in large projects, many of the people making purchasing decisions have been captured by the elitists. The number of people actually making purchasing decisions in other fields is much larger, and their taste (in aggregate) more broadly reflects the taste of the general population.

Of course, the critics-who-know-better-than-we-do decry this situation loudly, and in every field. Well, I f*rt in their general direction. It is possible that I even hear the scurrying of hamsters and smell the distinct odor of elderberries.

Not to put too fine a point on it, of course.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on September 15, 2005 6:49 PM

I like a lot of modern architecture. I think it's improved out of all sight since the 1960s-80s, at least in Wellington. E.g. in the 1980s the BNZ building (now State Insurance) was built as a big black box, sometimes nicknamed Darth Vader's pencil case. I can't find a good picture of it on the web, which is no loss.

In the 1990s they built the Majestic Centre. Heaps of pictures available. It has more interesting design, uses more complex shapes and colour, and the ground level was built right along the road with shops down below, rather than the BNZ building which originally was set back with a courtyard and only recently has been built out.

Another example is the new Wellington library, which had a fun row of palms in the front. Of course there's some failures, like Te Papa. But Te Papa is just a boring building, an act of incompetence on behalf of the architects but not one of deliberate malice like the BNZ building. They had interesting elements, just not the skill to pull it together.

Of course based on the few pictures, the architects at the university you're talking about may be hopeless. But I don't think all modern architects are that bad.

Posted by: Tracy W on September 15, 2005 7:06 PM

I think a mix of building styles is still the best option. It is true that a lot of modern architecture from the early 20th century was hideous, but it has been refined into something more digestable over time. Still, a city with nothing but modern architecture would be alienating, but would seem dull and dated with nothing but classic architecture. Striving to find that "middle ground" is the way to go.

With that being said, I do believe the art world has saturated the field of architecture to the point of absurdity. I took a beginning architecture course at Texas Tech University last year, and one of our projects was to design a cube. It had to be of certain dimensions, but you could make it look like anything you wanted. I couldn't help but think that this kind of work belongs in an art class, as it in no way relates to spatial planning.

The comment about a university's architecture building being the ugliest on campus is hilarious. TTU's is a brown brick box, and fits in well with the dull cityscape of Lubbock. And you should see Lubbock's downtown area: white, boxy, dull, and colorless. Corbusier would love it.

Posted by: Ryan Miller on September 17, 2005 12:46 PM

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