In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Elsewhere | Main | What's My Favorite? I Dunno »

February 14, 2006

Be Original! Do Like Me!

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One of the more maddening and/or amusing characteristics of the academic avant-garde (and its apologists) is the way 1) They like to set themselves up as spokespeople for something called "diversity" yet at the same time 2) They insist that all good and progressive people must, simply must, think and act alike.

A perhaps-too-easy example comes from the world of bigtime architecture. I was meandering around the east 70s over by York -- a huge, many-blocks-big medical area that's an architectural nightmare: a patchwork that never settles into any kind of agreeable pattern. Across the street rose a building approaching completion. Sigh: yet another shiney-milky, bent-folded-and-mutilated piece of torqued geometry. They're everywhere these days.

Kodak digicam at the ready!

The building's glass surfaces were nothing if not odd and attention-grabbing. Very "Terminator 2," and worth a couple of closeups, anyway:



Snooping around, I found myself recalling something ... Surely I'd been here before, no? Or in its sister or brother anyway? Origami surfaces, weirdo semi-transparency, show-offy "we aren't square, no sirree" angles ...

Ah, now I remembered. And off I walked, Kodak in hand, to 57th Street near Madison.

Here are some snaps of the remarkably similar LVMH building, by the Pritzker Prize-winning Christian de Portzamparc. The New York Times' ludicrous architecture "critic" Herbert Muschamp was such a hyperventilating admirer of the LVMH building that rumor had it that all you had to do to make Muschamp pass out in ecstasy was to murmur the words "translucency" and "folded angles."


Modernism, eh? Forever redeeming itself, if only in its own eyes. You say the problem with modernism is all that cage-like strictness? OK, then, we'll twist and turn it! You say that modernist buildings look too much like graph paper? OK, then, we'll make buildings that look like chic perfume bottles! There's too much transparency? Then we'll feature translucency! You'd think it would be so much easier to cut their losses and give up the modernist dream instead, wouldn't you?

Incidentally, the copycat building in the East 70s isn't by some loser. It's by James Polshek, famous in his own right for the cubic zirconium Rose Center for Earth and Space, part of the American Museum of Natural History.

FWIW and IMHO: the Rose Center is one of the worst-designed museums I have ever experienced. I found it about as interesting to explore as a Kenmore refrigerator. But it's famous, it's acclaimed, and it's widely recognized as "original" despite my judgment.

So what we have here isn't a case of a meatball ripping off a genius. It's a case of two fashionable architects -- guys who specialize in originality -- agreeing about what must, simply must, be done in architecture today. Be different: Do like us.

Anyway, a couple of small questions? How exactly is it that so many artists who set themselves up as the embodiment of innovation can all end up doing the same thing? And how can a group of cutting-edgistas mock their New Urbanist opponents as makers of "Disneyland" when their own work is pure zany theme-park thrillride?



posted by Michael at February 14, 2006


How can so many artists who set themselves up as the embodiment of innovation all end up doing the same thing?

I'm having a hard time not thinking of fashion here. Everyone extols the creativity of fashion designers, and yet, and the end of the day hemlines rise and fall in sync, colors become hot and then not hot, fabrics are chosen or relegated to rag bins.

I got a laugh the other day when somebody described the electric utility business as a 'lemming' industry. "One little furball goes off the cliff, all the other ones start thinking that it's got to be a good idea. And over the side they go."

Apparently corporate architecture runs on similar principles.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 14, 2006 12:49 AM

M. Blowhard has written many brilliant posts; this one must have been issued with a number of paragraphs missing.

I'm having a hard time understanding the point of this post as it mixes-up -- with no offer of evidence -- an un-named "academic avant-garde (and its apologists)" with "diversity" with bad modern architecture. Huh? Yes, the architecture may be dumb but what is its connection to either academia or diversity.

Bile can be amusing. But aimless bile is boring.

Posted by: Raw Data Complex on February 14, 2006 1:36 AM

I have to admit to liking the expensive perfume bottle or LVMH store. In fact, I like it a lot. The translucency and angles are quite pretty. The copycat building is ugly and unoriginal however. It's a shame there aren't more architects who are their own men the way Gaudi once was.

Posted by: lindenen on February 14, 2006 2:33 AM

Of course I've always wanted to see a skyscraper based on the tree in van Gogh's painting Starry Night and, um, the Emerald City from Wizard of Oz.

Posted by: lindenen on February 14, 2006 2:37 AM

Hah! I've always wondered about the diversity thing; how one can push for the wonderful acknowledgement of the differences while at the same time saying we're all exactly alike. But that's liberal thinking that doesn't always like questioning.

In the example of the architecture, I think one of your readers got it right on the button with the fashion trend. It's also a case of if it works, copy it. CSI spawned how many more tv shows; each artistic movement was started by one or two who were different--for a little while.

Posted by: susan on February 14, 2006 7:46 AM

Great article, Michael. When I lived in Manhattan in the dismal seventies, I would give walking tours for my friends and visitors of Manhattan's post WW I twenties and thirties architecture. Wonderful buildings that people had walked past without noticing. They noticed after I pointed them out. The majesterial simplicity of some of these creations is still amazing. Something these quack architects today know little of. Check out one of the "King's Views of New York" to get an idea of what has been lost.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on February 14, 2006 9:45 AM

There is nothing I like more on 2Blowards than articles about architecture. But please, in the future, anytime you write about terrible avant-garde starchitecture (a worthy subject) please include at least one picture of great architecture/design. It would do so much for my soul.


Posted by: Ian Lewis on February 14, 2006 11:14 AM

Woops, that should be 2Blowhards (not 2Blowards).

Posted by: Ian Lewis on February 14, 2006 11:14 AM

To be accepted, the contemporary architect must heed two commandments:

1. Thou shalt not design a '60s-style poker-faced glass-and-steel building.

2. Thou shalt not use any but the most sparing and abstract ornamentation.

With these strictures ever in mind, what's the poor architect to do? All that's left, really, is to make the building a funny shape, like Gehry's cubist fantasies or that edifice in London people call "The Cucumber"; or put all your thought into giving the surfaces an exotic texture, like, say, the bark of the Amazonian Fetal Pig Tree.

My vote goes to the architect who will revive the Beaux Arts. Victorians had it right. We have it wrong.

Posted by: Rick Darby on February 14, 2006 11:21 AM

You might call it "fashion" as Friedrich did, or perhaps "zeitgeist" but it's been around for the last couple centuries and maybe much longer. For example, I can drive through residential neighborhoods and usually can tell within +/- 7 years when a house was built. The same holds for apartment buildings but with about a +/- 10-year spread.

Commercial buildings are harder to pin down than houses. Fancy office buildings like Michael shows are easier to peg than factories and warehouses. On the other hand, a new office tower is nearing completion in Seattle that has a curtain wall strongly resembling the cladding on those Sixties buildings that went up along NYC's Sixth Avenue (alias Avenue of Rockefeller's Pet Cause of the Day). The Seattle building is (owned?) and built for a big bank, so I'm thinking cost trumped style. What's ironic is that part of the deal is that it contains an expansion area for the Gehry-designed Seattle Art Museum next door.

Another factor is building technology. In recent years we've been seeing large space-frames with cables and fancy attachment points for large glass windows ("when the only tool you have is a hammer..."). So I visualize construction materials salesmen pitching architectural offices. Then the architects scan the most recent issues of professional mags for validation. Then they design a building with those features. And so the disease (um, latest design imperative) spreads throughout the land -- or midtown Mahattan anyway.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 14, 2006 11:42 AM

Well, I like the folded angles/translucency building better than the first example, which is sort of the visual equivalent of white noise.

But the second seems to jammed into its environment, misplaced, really. What happened to making a building appear to grow organically and with some consistency out of its environment? It's like new buildings on college campuses which totally chuck their historical architectural style and put some modern glass wild card next to a very traditional 1800's stone building. Yikes!

Nothing to me is more lovely than certain streets (I've seen them in Chicago neighborhoods and in London, although I'm sure they are elsewhere) of very consistent beautiful stone and brick townhomes, all melded together, with pretty flowering trees in a small front yard. No crazy glass and orange steel buildings jammed in the middle.

Posted by: annette on February 14, 2006 12:20 PM

All of these architects and their funders had better start thinking about global warming which by now is pretty much a given and it is estimated will flood most of Manhattan up to the third floor or so. Anyone handy with Photoshop? Let's hope there are plans to seal the lower floors when Manhattan becomes Venice. Then -- reflective buildings floating in reflective canals?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on February 14, 2006 1:48 PM

But isn't part of the problem here the cognitive dissonance between the totalizing claims of High Modernism (form follows function, truth to materials, etc., etc.) and the inclusion of what appears to be, as Donald noted, a strong human trend towards fashion? I understand people need a variety of social networking cues, and that these have to evolve regularly to make them work (which is what I mean by 'fashion'); it's just that satisfying this set of needs is not the way High Modernism sold itself or sells itself. All of these won't be presented with slogans like "our building is hipper than those losers next door" but with slogans like "dynamic explorations of space" or some other formalist blather.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 14, 2006 1:59 PM

Like Ian Lewis above, I'd like to see a picture of what you consider to be good contemporary architecture. I admit, I know very little about architecture and I often like the architects and/or buildings you all dislike. I'm curious what you contemporary buildings you do like.

Posted by: chelsea girl on February 14, 2006 6:19 PM

Good architecture might not be good looking building.

Good designer might not be a good educator.

look from

Posted by: look on February 15, 2006 10:12 AM

FvB -- Every cultural field sometimes seems to be turning into a branch of the fashion industry, no? Actually I get a much bigger kick out of fashion (not that I follow it) than out of fashionable buildings. Ludicrous though fashions often are, it's fun to watch the gals, and we know the fashions won't be around next year. Buildings we're stuck with, at least for a few decades...

Raw Data -- Sorry to disappoint, but that's the nicest pan I've ever gotten!

Lindenen -- I kinda like the design of the LVMH bldg myself. Tres chic. That said, I'd be much happier with it as an objet d'art rather than a building on 57th St ...

Susan -- That's a funny line about be-alike/we're-all-diverse. What's doubly hilarious about the phenom in the architecture world is that cities pre-modernism were very diverse -- full of many different kinds of buildings from many different schools and periods. Modernism wiped much of that out and replaced it with a glass-and-steel monoculture (to which many people sensibly reacted by moving out of cities). Now the same crowd of people is peddling zigzags and translucency and telling us that this time around they've got it right. Me, well, you can hoodwink me once but I'm gonna be suspicious the next time around ...

Charlton - It's so true, how people have lost the habit of noticing architectural marvels. They take a lot for granted (which is nice in its own right, of course): the nice public libraries, the classy office buildings with windows that open, the parks that work ... Too bad so many of us let ourselves be blinded by novelty and shininess. Are we rubes letting ourselves be taken advantage of by cynical elites? Or is the picture more complicated than that? In any case, it sure would be nice if our architectural elites had more of a service ethic these days than they do.

Ian -- That's a great point, tks. I'll try to remember, though I'm sure I'll be overwhelmed by the need to throw darts. The soul does need nourishing ...

Rick -- Wasn't it Auden who, when asked by someone what his ideal home would be like, answered something like, "A Victorian house but with modern plumbing and electricity?" I suspect many people would find that a super-agreeable combo. Too bad it's so hard to find these days.

Donald -- Those strapped-together-with-cables expanses of glass are a hoot, aren't they? I wonder if people actually enjoy them, or if they're just a function of designers and architects (and the people who commision them) falling for the latest trend. Come to think of it, it might be fun to keep tabs on the latest architectural trends/fashions with the ol' Kodak. Hint at just how silly most of them are ...

Annette -- "the architectural equivalent of white noise" is perfect. Can I hire you to take over architectural criticism for the New York Times?

Mary -- Scary (if funny) thought!

FvB -- I wonder if the buildings like LVMH are being sold in those old truth-to-materials terms ... My impression is that architectural propaganda has moved along some. As I've run across it, the intellectual rationale for translucency and folding has more to do with "delight" (in the French sense of "jouissance"). We're dissolving and evaporating the old modernist grid and turning it into a bunch of twirling, twinkling pixels (hence semi-transparency) ... It's all part of a relativized, Photoshop world ... All part of self-delight ... It's basically very 1968 French-radical, and all about the wonders of life high on narcissism, mood drugs, and computers. Unfortunately that does seem to be predicated on accepting modernism as a given, grrr ... You know me, I'd rather everyone just decide that modernism was a great big wrong turn, let go of the attachment to it, and move on. What are the chances of that happening, do you think?

CG -- Hey, thanks for dropping by! There's a funny thing about architecture that's a bit of a trap for all of us fans. It's this: the glitzy/chic stuff that gets the press and the praise is largely designed and created in order to look good in pictures. (Very important for architects competing in this particular sweepstakes to "get published.) The buildings often photograph extremely well -- because they're designed and made to photograph extremely well. But that's one of the major beefs we cranks have with a lot of this work: that, while such a building might make for a striking set of pictures, it's a lousy building. Buildings serve many roles. They react to neighbors. They're homes, offices, part of the landscape. They help define public space. Etc etc. We cranks like to point out that, while a Gehry or a de Pontsamparc (did I spell that right) design might be cute as a little foot-high sculpture, they're sometimes disastrous as buildings. We like to argue that architecture and urbanism should first serve human needs and pleasures. Architecture is primarily a social act (except in the case of private little buildings no one ever sees, which are often referred to as "follies.") Imposed, egocentric, or abstract designs can be really destructive. People have to live, work, and pass by 'em, after all, and a badly-judged design can degrade a block and deface a neighborhood. (While a bad modernist poem or song ... Well, who cares, really?)

So the fact is that architecture and urbanism are best judged not by looking at photos but in the actual experiencing of them. Hanging in the neighborhood, visiting the offices, either living there or comparing notes with people who do, taking note of whether the public spaces are used, how the building affects the neighborhood, etc. For a crank, it's just awful -- inhuman, totalitarian, etc -- to elevate the aesthetic dimension above the human dimension, at least where architecture and urbanism are concerned. Real beauty in these fields comes from the melding of respsect for the human, a willingness to accept wisdom and tradition, and a humble determination to add modestly to what already exists. Beauty from this point of view isn't just aesthetic -- it's human, with "the aesthetic" folded into it.

Which also means that the best new buildings (for us cranks, anyway) often don't look so hot in photographs. They aren't meant to. Maybe they're a bit dowdy -- but they serve the neighborhood well, or they're lovely to live in, or the office workers there appreciate the thoughtfulness of the spaces, or it helps carve out a successful urban space ... That kind of thing. Very hard to capture any of that in photographs.

Another challenge is that much of the work we cranks approve of is very small scale and hard to find. The architecture schools and press -- the mainstream -- is devoted to glassy angular stuff, weirdo materials, etc. Traditionalists and people doing the modest/helpful thang are largely overlooked by the press -- something I should do a little more to fight. It's hard for civilians to find out about this stuff. It takes a lot of specialized knowledge, as well some effort at clearing the head of modernist sludge.

Anyway, for an architecture-and-urbanism crank, the question that's far more important than "what's it look like?" is "what's it like to be there, and to experience it?" Very hard to capture that in photos. And many of the places/buildings that deserve a crank's approval may not make for dazzling photos.

But ain't that often the case? Gotta look past a field's self-generated p-r to see what's really there?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 15, 2006 1:58 PM

No no no, Michael, don't change the subject. The question wasn't "what architecture "you, traditionalists/cranks" find attractive. You were asked: "Mr.MB, give us specific examples of contemporary architecture you (personally, since the original post was written in first person)like". However difficult they are to find I assume you did,right?

Or I'll have to conclude you're just an old (sorry) grumpy mean blowhard.

Posted by: Tatyana on February 15, 2006 3:08 PM


The very good thing, then, for those of us who do live in big cities is the presumable presence of those buildings that don't photograph well.

Which ones? And where?

I want to see with my own eyes.


Posted by: chelsea girl on February 15, 2006 7:11 PM

Michael: "I wonder if the buildings like LVMH are being sold in those old truth-to-materials terms"

I don't think they are. That's too serious. It was Philip Johnson, I think, who insisted everything had to be "fun". So now we're all being grimly, earnestly, dutifully "fun". (It's sort of like the assigned reading effect, isn't it? If your grade-school teacher ordered you to go home and have fun, could you have done it?)

The other stupid word they use is "play".

BTW, I hope you don't mind if I steal your line that the best thing about fashion is that it will be gone by next year. I'm gonna pretend I made it up.

Posted by: Brian on February 15, 2006 7:41 PM

Check out this symposium coming up at Bard:

Streamlining Architecture: East to West Coast
Thursday April 27, 2006

Streamlined design in architecture, pervasive in the cutting-edge metropolises of the United States, came to symbolize the cities of tomorrow during the 1930s. As in industrial design, streamlining in architecture became a central metaphor for speed, technology, and modern life. Architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter will lead a discussion examining the beginnings of this concept as it was first proposed by German architect Eric Mendelsohn during the 1910s and 1920s. Architectural historian Thomas Hines and curator Sarah Schleuning will join the discussion and illustrate how American cities, from Los Angeles to Miami, utilized the principles of streamlined architecture in their own unique ways.

The panel discussion will be followed by an exhibition-viewing reception at 18 West 86th Street.

$25 general
$17 seniors and students

Time: 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Location: BGC Lecture Hall, 38 West 86th Street, NY, NY
Phone: 212-501-3011

Posted by: winifer skattebol on February 15, 2006 10:19 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?