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August 09, 2006

Architecture by Braun

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Wife and I recently threw financial sanity to the winds and bought -- no, we invested in -- this gorgeous hunk of high-end blender.


Although it whips up a darned good pesto sauce, its main role is to class up our kitchen. There it sits on the countertop, cool, stylish, and Euro-handsome. What gravitas. What dignity. That heavy, cast-steel gray ... That industrial-sculpture quality ... It's the BMW of blenders, both retro and forward-looking. Putting it to use as a mere smoothie-making device seems like a desecration of the higher aesthetic values.

Our snazzy new blender has got me remembering another object too -- but which one? An object that I ran across not in a kitchen but on the street ...

Ah, I recall now what it is: it's that Gwathmey Siegel condo building on Astor Place at Cooper Square that advertises itself as "Sculpture for Living." (Translated from the real-estate-ese, that means "overpriced housing for easily-gulled trendoids.")


Here's how "Sculpture for Living" sees fit to meet the sidewalk -- ie., how it condescends to address passersby. (That would be you and me.)

How lovely and thoughtful, the way it detaches itself so completely from its surroundings. (Scorn is pouring from my voice here, of course.) "I am no mere building," it says. "I am a work of art. Take me on my own unique terms. After all, I'm not meant to fit in. I aim for higher things. I aim to stand out."

David Sucher likes to call this approach to buildings "precious-object architecture" -- the making of stylish buildings that sit there by themselves, turning their backs to their surroundings, insisting on being appreciated as self-sufficient objets d'art. Looking at these buildings, I often feel like someone moving among counters of ritzy, avant-garde perfume bottles.

Sad to say, but new glassy/metallic objets are going up all over New York City these days. As John Massengale says, our builders seem determined to turn Manhattan into "Houston on the Hudson." I haven't snapped many of these atrocities yet, but here's one I did catch. It opened recently not far from where I live in Greenwich Village.:

Full of character, no?

The architecture class thinks that we should be thrilled with the projects they're foisting on us, by the way. A great and exciting new era in building is underway, etc. Me, I experience most of what our architecture class gets up to as vicious and unwarranted assaults on much-loved friends.

In fact, part of me is convinced that what we're witnessing now -- the erection of acres of ripply glass, Gehrys everywhere, etc -- is going to prove as devastating to our cities as were the rectilinear corporate-modernist behemoths of the 1950s and the concrete-brutalist bunkers of the 1960s. The newfangled angles and surfaces may be a little zanier, and (perhaps) a little more beguiling. But the results -- ie., alienation, chic that quickly becomes Ugly, people losing interest in urban life -- will be the same. So perhaps there's reason to be thankful that the housing-market bubble is collapsing.

Just to please myself -- and to set all the steel-gray and blue-green abstract shapemaking in context -- here's a little collage of typical buldings in Greenwich Village and Soho. These are the neighborhoods these architects are inserting their "playful" tin-can creations into.

I don't know about you, but scenes like these make me feel giddy with happiness. Dig the variety, the depth, the solidity, the fantasy, the tactility -- the character! There's so much here to love!

Small architecture-appreciation lesson: Take a look at the surfaces, textures, and colors of these traditional buildings. It's almost impossible not to feel the brick and/or stone. Sensuous! Sexy! Weighty! Poetic!

Now compare that sensation to what the metal-and-glass of the new buildings makes you feel. Many people find these new-style birdcages-with-laminates cold and inhuman -- in fact, devoid of all texture. Abstract compositions of planes, volumes, reflections, and edges, they're more like images in a magazine than solid 3-D things. The old buildings feel substantial, like the end result of earthly processes, fusing culture and nature. The new buildings feel fly-by-night -- more like tricks with optics than buildings. Where the old buildings address us in comprehensible and human terms, the new ones are like flashy conceptual TV ads. They're all about impact.

As for their plasticky new-style shapes ... I dunno, I sometimes don't find these creations so bad as abstract design. I wouldn't mind having a miniature version of Sculpture for Living on a coffee-table top, for example, maybe dispensing small candies. It could certainly do jaunty duty as a stylish waste-paper basket.

Come to think of it, some of these new buildings wouldn't do badly as high-end kitchen appliances either. As pure design, they don't seem to me to be quite on the level of our new blender, but then what is? Still: they might make eye-catching dishwashing machines or refrigerators.

Let me propose a name for this style of building: Kitchen-appliance architecture.



posted by Michael at August 9, 2006


Knowing a bit about how buildings go together (engineer), I can say that there really is little difference structurally between the old and new. It just the outside facing really. Putting something together that looks like the old needn't be such an expensive undertaking. I guess what I am saying is that there really is no excuse for these ugly buildings! They are eyesores.

The problem too is that architects these days have never been trained to aesthetically design like the old guys--many can't draw worth a lick, and have little imagination. They are the architectural equivalent to the "modern" artists who paint grossly ugly pictures because they simply were never taught to draw or paint well. They couldn't create something beautiful if they tried--they simply lack the skill. So they create ugly and call it beautiful, and use modern advertising techniques to try to convince everybody that the ugly pig with lipstick on is the "new" (and improved!) beauty. More and more people are seeing through the lies.

I also hope you and Donald don't wear out your cameras documenting this charade. But thanks for letting us know that us aesthetic throwbacks in Flyoverland are not alone.

Posted by: Li on August 9, 2006 12:34 PM

This factor of old vs. new is not obvious here in this village where the tallest building is the grain elevator and the newest ones are modular homes that came in on a trailer, but in movies I'm sensitive to it. I love the English mysteries not just because of the stories, etc. but also because of the buildings. I fell madly in love with the little house of assignation in "The Buccaneers" and sometimes rewatch the movie just so I can see the house.

Occasionally there'll be a house via LA modern movies like the one in "The Limey" -- built cantilevered from a hillside overlooking the city -- that's pretty interesting, but they make me nervous. I used to work for the Bureau of Buildings and I don't trust the engineering for a swimming pool that hangs out over space. I worried someone would fall over the railing and of course, someone did. With a little help from a "friend."

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 9, 2006 2:15 PM

I should add that if I were rich and had a huge kitchen, it would be crowded with those wonderful sleek kitchen appliances found places like Sonoma-Williams catalogues. And, you know, a panini press is really a handy gadget, though it's a little like ironing your food on a mangle.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 9, 2006 2:17 PM

Michael -- Given the obvious truth of what you say, how do you, or others on this forum, explain the - to mix metaphors - utter tone deafness of so many in our architectural establishment? After all, they too must, by and large, respond favorably to warm materials and harmonious proportions. The aesthetic principle is build right into us...all of us. To take one simple example: with rare exceptions people, if free to do so, will position themselves on a bench at the 60/40 point: not dead center, not at either extreme. This is an aesthetic decision, or should I say, impulse, since it seems to be built right into us. At a more complex level the same is true of the way we respond to the proportions and "feel" of a building. So I ask again: why do most architects nowadays do the opposite? make cold and jarring instead of warm and harmonious?

Posted by: ricpic on August 9, 2006 2:17 PM

Architecture has always been one of my passions.

Whenever I go to Europe, I spend as much time admiring the architecture as anything else. New York City is especially rich in architectural diversity. From the Flatiron building to some recent structures, it is a cornucopia of architectural frenzy.

When I lived in Manhattan I used to spend many a happy Sunday afternoon sauntering about and examining the skyscrapers. But there is one skyscraper, alas, which I
will never get the pleasure to gaze on: the Singer building of lower Manhattan. Built in 1908, it was, at 612 feet in height, briefly (one year) the tallest building in the world.

The sheer decorative exuberance of this building is hard to exaggerate. Tragically, it was demolished in 1967 to make way for a bland building that was simply larger. Since historic preservation was in its infancy at the time, it could not be saved. However, its loss spurred the city fathers to
pluck remaining historic buildings out of the path of the wrecking ball. The nearby Woolworth building was spared as a result. Few artifacts of the Singer building survive, which I find flabbergasting given the beautiful furnishings which are in evidence in the photos we have. The building was stunning and I can't imagine what it would cost to do that kind of decorative work today...IF it could be done at
all. Go here to see what I'm talking about...

For what it's worth, I believe the 60 WallTower building to be the current champ of beautiful skyscrapers in Manhattan. I've seen it many times and its grace and elegance continue to charm. What a skyscraper! As you approach the entrance, there is a stone model of the building right over the front door. The model is really
fascinating. Notice all the various levels and setbacks. Here's a photo...

And another.

The very top of the skyscraper is splendid beyond compare, almost like a cross between a crenelated cathedral and the hanging gardens of Babylon, and all done in Art Deco style/

Sadly, there's no really good photo of the building to show off its magnificent Art Deco design because it's so crowded by other buildings that dwarf it. The best way to really appreciate it is to see it from the air. Here's a look from street level.

and from the air (it's the darker, slender tower)...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on August 9, 2006 2:53 PM


They aren't tone deaf--they really truly can't design something the old way. They lack the skills. It really is that simple. It's a case of how modernism is destroying the arts.

Posted by: Li on August 9, 2006 5:20 PM

It's a case of how modernism is destroying the arts.

People here know more about architectural history than I do, but it seems like in the 20th C, the arts & design fields became bedfellows with aesthetic theoreticians. Once Plato cemented the concept of aesthetics as exalting the anti-sensory and anti-emotional (e.g., Platonic love), aside from a few weirdos (Hobbes, Burke, Nietzsche), the Western aesthetic tradition has kept this doctrine sacrosanct. All well and good as long as it did no harm and actual artists didn't pay them much attention.

But, for whatever reason, in the 20th C, artists became all "theoretical," and who else to turn to but aestheticians? Their desire to jettison pedestrian concepts like "the beautiful" as in "appealing to the senses" or "arrousing the emotions" continues to today. That's why no one cares about what makes us comfortable, feel good, feel marvel, what proportions in reality appeal to us, and so on -- that stuff's beside the point, which is to embrace a higher (formerly, "divine") art that encourages disinterested, rational appreciation, and that simply orders people what to like -- after all, remember what Plato thought of allowing the arts to appeal to people's emotions!

Strangely enough, I think the more lowly rungs on the art/design ladder are indulging sensuous enjoyment again, since they were never really taken seriously enough to qualify as Real Art. I'm thinking things like fashion/clothing (broadly construed), furniture & interior design, graphic design, even appliance design it seems! It's much easier to find an inviting, warm, sensuous set of bedding (both visually and functionally) than it is to find the same in a modern building or art gallery. Well, I'll except the work of those anti-rational, charming kooks like Gaudi.

How we fix this is give art back to the artists, not the anti-sensory theoreticians. There is such a thing as good theory, of course, but for now, until the pro-sensualists regain ascendancy, it'd be better to just junk all the theoreticians and keep them out of the business for a couple decades.

Posted by: Agnostic on August 9, 2006 8:44 PM

I keep thinking that, ultimately, Modernist architecture will run its course. But when is "ultimately?"

I must have had a swig of John Derbyshire's pessimism potion with dinner tonight, so herewith are some pretty dauting negatives that will have to change before architecture changes in the direction most Blowhards readers would like.

One negative is that the craftsmen who did all those Classical/Gothic/Deco details are thin on the ground these days. Scarcity drives up costs, and Modernist buildings tend to be cheaper to build if ordinary materials are used. Guys with green eyeshades are more important in shaping the streetscape than most people realize.

Secondly, contrary to all the happy Politically Correct jabber about "honoring" diversity, my impression is that traditionalist architects have the professional status of non-persons, aside from the token Robert A.M. Stern. This attitudinal problem might take decades to pass.

The quickest, most effective way for things to change, in my opinion, is for the clients to demand traditional buildings. Please, could somebody "in the know" chip in with some facts here? But my impression is that clients willing to spend above average per-square-foot bucks for a building either (a) defer to the Architectural Establishment (academia, media, etc.) or (b) had their aethetic tastes moulded by the Modernist dogma machine while attending college.

I really, really hope I'm wrong, but it might well take another generation to get us out of the architectual fix we're in.

(I also hope I'll be my usual bright-side self tomorrow...)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 9, 2006 9:35 PM


For an amusing (if heartbreaking) history of modern architechure, read Tom Wolfe's little book "From the Bauhaus to Our House". It's his contention that, after WWII, architecture schools started turning out people who literally couldn't design buildings any other way, no matter what their clients might demand. Anything other than a glass box simply wasn't "architecture".

Posted by: jimbo on August 10, 2006 8:49 AM

Li -- Thanks for the inside info. I'd heard that many architects these days can't draw but it's great to hard and fast info from the source. I'm eager to hear more tales of working with architects!

Ricpic, others -- Weird, isn't it? The way that contempo conventional architecture so deliberately defies the obvious, the tried-and-true, and the demonstrably-satisfying? I get the impression that one of the first things architecture schools do is break kids away from their instincts and then toss them into theory-world. (New Urbers have told me that it's like being brainwashed. Nearly all of them started as conventionally-trained, ie "avant-garde," architects, and several of the ones I've talked with have spoken about waking up one day as though out of a dream, realizing that they were making ugly buildings and hated what they were doing, and looking back, seeing it all as though they'd spent years in a cult.)

The press and the public discussion can't help. An example! Here's a couple of passages from Ada Louise Huxtable's review of the Renzo Piano addition to the Morgan Library. "... upgraded to currents standards of museum chic ... no gesture in the direction of faux conetxtualism ... For solidity Mr. Piano substitutes transparency, fro classical clothing, the direct expression of modern glass and steel ... Alive with natural light ... This Morgan is all about architecture: it takes a while to even know where you are."

In other words: chic, too much blazing light, abstract, bewildering. And the review is a rave. Huxtable is a huge figure in conventional architecture and a real tastemaker. Difficult=good, I guess.

Here's hoping that more and more everyday people will start mouthing off back at the tastemakers. Blogging has helped shove political discussions in various directions. Maybe if more people start making loud fun of the academic-avant-garde assholes and their pretentions and caperings, the larger world will start to take note. We can dream, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 10, 2006 10:27 AM

I just returned from a visit to Washington DC. Very little of the glass and brass newness there--- or at least in the Capitol/ White House/ Monuments/ Georgetown area. Its notable. Beautiful big marble building after another. The old post office looks like a cool castle with tiny Italian lights draped around it. Museums that look like museums. It all adds to the "importance" of what is going on in the buildings--- maybe to our detriment, since the government work itself is less grand. But a beautiful city! The did not house Jefferson or Lincoln inside glass blenders. (See --everybody knows good taste when they really care about it). Thank goodness.

Posted by: annette on August 10, 2006 4:09 PM

Excellent comment by Agnostic above, I agree with him that the "intellectualization" of art in the 20th century is very related to the trends MB decries.

Posted by: MQ on August 12, 2006 4:26 PM

One of my architect bosses has always told me, "We are in the business of style.". I just don't believe it.

I still don't. If this style ever come in the picture ( in architecture, maybe not business. So my boss was right?), it should come naturally after every non-style considerations.

look fr studio LDA

Posted by: look on August 12, 2006 6:25 PM

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