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January 18, 2007


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back here I noted some similarities between an expensive blender the Wife and I had just bought and a trendy new building. Wittily, or so I hoped, I proposed referring to this new style of building as "high-end kitchen-appliance architecture."

Out for a walk in the East Village the other day, I noticed this godawful thing under construction:


Glass ... Steel ... Grids .... The East Village ...

In other words, stack-it-up Modernism is what contemporary architecture sees fit to contribute to the lowrise neighborhood whose hominess, eccentricity, human scale, and living texture were celebrated by the great Jane Jacobs. Yet, bizarrely, the architecture profession regularly claims to have learned Jane Jacobs' lessons. Hmm.

A bit of info for those who haven't yet stumbled across it: Modernism is on the offensive once again. Oh, perhaps you thought that the style had finally received its well-deserved stake in the heart? No such luck. These days, glassy cubey things barely distinguishable from the U.N. are going up all over New York City.

How about our well-founded worries that this kind of building will have the same alienating and destructive effects that it had the last time around? Y'know, like in the '50s and '60s, when neighborhoods went to hell and people left cities in droves. Not to worry! The New Modernism isn't the same authoritarian thing at all! No, this time around it's cool, it's fun. Why, don't you know that the chic people now consider Modernism to be nothing but a kicky retro historical style in its own right? Which means that it isn't a disaster and a landmine. No, now it's a toy! We get to play with it and mix and match it just as we do every other style! Whee! Now let's get on with destroying another neighborhood! Er, I meant, Now let's get on with celebrating diversity!

You can call me a sourpus, but I'm not joining this party. Hearing these sales pitches, er, rationales is something I find analogous to listening to some New Marxists arguing, "Dude, chill, it's just in fun! What's the big deal? What's the point in getting worked-up about it?" Er, fellas: Not that long ago we gave Modernism a serious try. It didn't work out real well. In fact, Modernism may have been the single most misguided and destructive movement in the history of architecture and urbanism.

Modernism's champions have been so successful in re-branding their beloved style that they have even persuaded the National Trust for Historic Preservation to get on board their bandwagon. Now, I think it's safe to say that the National Trust is an outfit that many people join quite specifically as a way of protesting Modernism and what Modernism has done to our towns, cities, and landscapes. Nonetheless, recent articles in Preservation, the Trust's generally good magazine, have approvingly celebrated dreary old glass boxes, and even such widely-loathed Modernist horrors as Brutalism.

The people behind the New Modernism are the same crowd that has always been behind Modernism. A certain kind of architecture student and architect have always loved the style for its apparent simplicity, for its abstraction, and for its aura of progressive-ism. Developers have always liked it as a simple way of throwing a cage around a lot of square footage. Young people often go for Modernism because it's simple, easy-to-grasp, and why not? (Kids like primary colors, after all.) Stir in a lot of the usual aesthetic fanaticism and you've got what Nikos Salingaros has referred to as "geometrical fundamentalism." (Back in more ambitious days, 2Blowhards did a five-part interview with Nikos: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five.)

Me, I look at the building above and ... How to explain? Well, sometimes I bitch about the way much of present-day culture leaves me feeling less like a living, breathing, conscious creature than like data. As I make my way through a mall (or a warehouse-style retail outlet or a chain movie theater or an airport), I don't feel at ease, recognized in three dimensions, any of that. I don't feel like I'm being treated as a human being. Instead, I feel like throughput. And when I look at the building above and imagine living or visiting there, I feel like a number being crunched.

Which calls something else to mind ... Hey, you know what looks almost exactly like the building above? A spreadsheet.


Coincidence? I think not. And is it a coincidence either that the "stacking 'em in" feeling that's conveyed by cubes and grids reminds me of modern-day shipping containers too?


More throughput. So maybe it'd be clever to label the New Modernism "shipping-container architecture"? After all, I'm always on the lookout for cute labels.

Well, maybe it would be a cute label but it would also be late label. Shipping containers have in fact been attracting the attention and enthusiasm of a certain segment of the young, we-love-geometry-and-abstraction architecture world for some years now. Here's a webpage devoted to buildings made of shipping containers. Here's the homepage of Container City, a London outfit providing modular cells, er, living units made from shipping containers. Curbed's Matt Lobron notices that permission has been granted to construct a building in the Manhattan neighborhood known as NoHo out of shipping containers. I confess that some of these creations look kinda fun, if in a PlaySkool kind of way. And at least they look more robust and resourceful than the fey glass atrocity I started this posting with. Still, I don't know how I feel about confounding the concept of "a place where a person might settle and live" with the concept of "a shipping container" ...

Incidentally, wouldya check out what they're asking for condos in this building?


New York real estate, eh?



posted by Michael at January 18, 2007


I agree, Michael--that is one UGLY building. Did they really need an architect for that?

Posted by: thaprof on January 18, 2007 2:59 PM

I hate to say this, but a radical group devoted to the explosive destruction of those monstrosities might be just the kind of "terrorist" organization I could get behind.

Posted by: PatrickH on January 18, 2007 6:34 PM

Ay, those light-blue rectangular panels. Doesn't anyone remember all those schools, motor-vehicle agencies, and post offices put up in the 1960s with those turquoise panels on them? Do we need more?

Posted by: Derek Lowe on January 18, 2007 10:24 PM

Michael, I have taken a slightly bigger interest in Architecture Schools since reading your blog, and, if I understand things correctly, it would be pretty difficult for a young traditional architecture student to become an old traditional architect.

What I mean is: say you have some 18 year old student who loves the classical styles. And he hopes to become an Architect and build on and add to those styles and traditions. Well, he only has 2 or 3 schools IN THE WORLD that teaches them. I believe they are Notre Dame, Miami (Florida) and a University in Portugal which had it's program SHUT DOWN.

So, for him to become a traditional architect, he would need to sit through all the Modernist courses and Modernist professors, then, unlearn all that he learned and then take it upon himself to learn the traditional methods and styles.

I am not saying it can't be done. But, unfortunately, I think we are still quite a bit away from having many good and great architects.

On the plus side, I should note, is that New Urbanism is on the rise. Even though you can have a New Urbanist neighborhood of Modernist and Brutalist buildings, many (the majority?) prefer traditional styles.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on January 19, 2007 9:32 AM

Thaprof -- You'd think you could just buy a computer program and with one click get a better design than this, wouldn't you?

PatrickH -- Start the guerilla force up now! I'll certainly sign on. Actually, a little more seriously, I can't quite figure out why there isn't more in the way of public protest where aesthetics is concerned. Why aren't crowds out marching around protesting this building? It's an aesthetic assault and affront. Even if there's nothing to be done about the specific project, they might get some publicity and slowly help turn public perceptions around. Developers at least can be shamed. Or so I hope...

Derek -- Those plasticky-blue panels, you're right ... I went to '60s-era grammar schools, every one of which had plasticky-blue panels. I'd love to have sat in on the meetings when the panels were settled on. What do you suppose people came up with in the way of justification? "Cheery"? Something like that?

Ian -- You're really fast! It took me years of confusion and dismay before I woke up to all that. And yeah, as far as I know you're completely correct, although I think Syracuse also has a sympathetic-to-trad-architecture school too. Amazing, isn't it? Yet trad architecture is what most people (ie., customers, users, inhabitants, etc) want and enjoy. Which, as far as I can tell, means that the modernist/academic architecture establishment is doing a disservice both to the public (which doesn't like what it produces) and to its own practitioners (who are in the position of trying to sell to the public what the public basically doesn't want). I've met a bunch of New Urbanists, and many of them had the same tale to tell. As kids, they loved buildings and beauty and dreamed of contributing. They went to architecture school -- and proceeded to get broken of all this. It's like an indoctrination. Trad architecture and beauty are viewed as fascistic, and then you're indoctrinated into geometricism and the religion of modernism. You emerge from school creating and helping out with and selling this stuff ... And then (said these NewUrbers to me), around 30, 35, they woke up to the fact that they were making buildings they didn't like. They tried to be honest with themselves -- what did they like? What seemed to work better? And they found their way to traditional architecture. Which they then had to learn from the ground up. (One legit criticism of new trad architecture is that it all seems a bit stiff and learned. Well, sure it is! Because the damn architecture establishment won't let anyone learn it from day one so it becomes natural.) Anyway, they all described it to me as being like waking up from a dream or a crazy episode or delusion. "Oh, I could be creating things of beauty that people really like and enjoy and that work well with the natural and inherited environment ..." I think it's just a great cultural thing that these people have found each other and have so entrepreneurially created their own world -- their own schools and institutions, their own label ("New Urbanism" is pretty good!), their own networks ... And it's a going business, which is great too -- sell people a nicer version of what they already like! (I'd love to see similar movements take shape in the other arts. Actually they have in a few of them -- poetry, art music, painting ... Less so in literary fiction, I don't know why ...) Anyway, fun to hear that you're getting a kick out of exploring all this. Please let me know when you run across developments that interest you or tickle you!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 19, 2007 11:25 AM

Does this explain why, week after week, the L.A. Times discusses modern architecture, modern furniture, etc., etc.? The following is a very, very typical story (check out the pictures):,1,662575.story

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 19, 2007 3:35 PM

So, FvB, what didn't you like in this story?

I'll tell you what I didn't like: incredible amount of government regulation that made construction costs highly prohibitive.
Having her funds diminished by city's bureaucrats, the owner had no choice but to stick to, literally, bare bones of modernism. Besides her aesthetic preferences, which happened to be modern, too.

Also, did you notice how much modern technological innovation in construction added to satisfactory result? The quiet argon-filled windows, f.ex. - not an element of traditional architecture. Sure, you can disguise them with trim and fussy decorative swags...I guess MB would do just that.

The owner wanted a house whose focus is on natural surrounding, not on columns and opulent faux fireplaces - nothing better serves that purpose than clear glass walls and sparse furnishings.
So what's the problem? You can't stand people who genuinely like minimalism?

Posted by: Tat on January 19, 2007 4:43 PM

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