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« Architecture "Worth a Journey" | Main | The New Yorker Wants Me »

January 04, 2006


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Although kids love shiney things, does it automatically follow that adults should too? In any case, mainstream architects never seem to outgrow the taste:

For them, too much shine-iness is never enough. I wrote here about the bizarre passion architects have for angles, abstractions, and glass.

We recognize "noise pollution" as something disagreeable, and as something worth minimizing. Why are we so much more reluctant to denounce visual offenses? I don't have synaesthesia, but when I round a corner and encounter this kind of thing --

-- it hits me just like a loud, obnoxious noise.

But why stop with cold, flat, and reflective? Why not coat the ensemble with silver? Instead of relieving the pain, why not heighten it instead? Works in S&M dungeons, or so I hear.


Here's a zigzagging, twinkly thing going up near where I work. Glad to haveya in the neighborhood, he said, shielding his eyes.

Click on that photograph to see a larger, and far-more-eye-searing, version. Taking that photograph nearly burned out the sensor in my Kodak digicam.

Here's a taste of what could have been in each one of these cases:

A little easier on the eyes, no? Although there's bright sun on that brick surface, you can walk by without needing to don dark glasses. Despite appearances, this brick building is a brand-new one. Small lesson: There is no pressing reason why new buildings have to wear skins made of glass-and-metal.

By the way, do you find that many of these chic-tin-can buildings look like bad furniture left over from the '80s, the kinds of once-fashionable/now-silly artifacts you giggle over at lawn sales?



posted by Michael at January 4, 2006


At times the blinding light pollution from the hideous EMP in Seattle is hazardous to drivers.

As to why buildings are made this way: I've concluded the designers hate people, and therefore are doing it on purpose.

Posted by: Carter on January 4, 2006 3:24 PM

Nice bit of observation, Michael. Even though reflected flash is a transient, geometry-dependent thing, it is annoying and possibly dangerous. Good thing I live in the cloudy, soggy Pacific NW.

Your post also makes me wonder (yet again and again and again!) how it is with all the books about eviro-friendly architecture and relating new buildings to their urban setting that so much glassy stuff continues to be built. I suppose it boils down to cost -- probably that new brick-job (BTW, where is it located?) had a more costly exterior than the modular curtain-wall ones you shot, but I might be wrong.

(Maybe we could influence some NY Times reporter to do a write-up on the visual-enviro-pollutions you unearthed to get the ball rolling in the Establishment World. Would Francis M. or Benjamin H. be willing to front for the pseudononymous MB?)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 4, 2006 3:27 PM

Hundreds of years ago, architects were much dumber and put shiny materials on domes so that light reflected towards the sky. This caused people to take their attention away from the beauty at eye level to see the beauty up above.

Examples: Tempietto and Dome of the Rock

What idiots!

Little did they realize that they should have been pointing the Sun Rays into our retinas.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on January 4, 2006 3:54 PM

I thought that I would provide a few more examples of traditional building reflecting light: Google Image Results

Posted by: Ian Lewis on January 4, 2006 4:01 PM

Ooh, but I like to watch the weather reflected back by the shiny-ness. What I dislike more is the concrete playground that dominated before the glass playground.

*The caveat to this is that I like a mix of other non-shiny things, so as to appreciated the shiny things. It's the mix that makes city architecture so appealing.

Posted by: MD on January 4, 2006 6:06 PM

Michael, why didn't you step a bit further down 42nd St and took a picture of the WR Grace building?

May be you're not as opposed to modern beauties as you want us to think?

[yes, I love it. One of the attractions of Bryant Park for me; much more so than whipped-cream-cake of Beaux Arts Bryant Park Studios building]. While I find that red-brick setbacked building you think is easy on the eyes is a depressingly boring fake monstrosity, the worst type of architecture to build]

Posted by: Tat on January 4, 2006 8:47 PM

I agree with MD about weather reflections. Other points about the negatives of reflectivity are well taken.

Posted by: Jonathan on January 4, 2006 9:22 PM

I'm not as out and about as I really should be, so the eye blasting architecture around here (if any) doesn't come to my attention. I'm sure we have some, but I haven't been paying attention.

I have noticed another assault on good sense; inappropriate additions to old plant.

In this case the building is the old Trolley Barn on Broadway just east of Pacific Highway. Originally trolley storage for San Diego's street cars, it later became home to electrical generators for San Diego Gas and Electric. A few decades back those generators were shut down and the place, in a sense, lay fallow.

During those years the facility was going to be converted to loft apartments, senior housing, condominiums, even an aquarium. It was finally sold and is now the site of construction. Mixed use retail and residential, in accordance to recent Centre City regulations.

Thing is, other than the retention of the outer walls, the new building has about as much to do with the old Trolley Barn as the Book of Genesis has to do with evolution. The new building's style blends in about as well as a nude man with an erection in a confirmation for Catholic schoolgirls.

Anybody else have examples of this sort of thing?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on January 4, 2006 9:29 PM

My turn to be the contrarian here. Santa Fe's beauty mostly comes from the restrained faux adobe structures and how they fade into the hillsides, and a glass curtain there would be grossly out of place (and would be subjected to ballistic architectural criticism in short order.) But Manhattan's skyscrapers really do turn the streets into dark canyons in how they impose on your field of view. Glass curtains give you some of the sky back and throw more light onto the street. Instead of fading into the hills like a Santa Fe home, they fade into the sky. Not that bad an idea, say I.

Posted by: Omri on January 5, 2006 9:56 PM

Ah, glass and steel building...and when the windows fall out, they have to cover the holes with plywood...

Posted by: boinkie on January 6, 2006 9:47 PM

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