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April 27, 2007

New Nikos

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Good news for unorthodox architecture buffs: a new journal -- The International Journal of Architectural Research -- that looks to be far more sensible and open-minded than the establishment architecture magazines are.

While the IJAR may be a wee bit austere for mere fans, those who enjoy technical and philosophical conundra should find a lot to chow down on. Don't miss "Restructuring 21st Century Architecture Through Human Intelligence" (PDF alert), a brilliant article in the IJAR's first issue by 2Blowhards fave Nikos Salingaros, co-written with Kenneth G. Masden. One of many great passages in their piece:

How can anyone believe that a "Dutch Design Demigod" [Nikos and Masden are referring here to the international superstar Rem Koolhaas] could know more about a place than the very people who were born and raised there? How can these starchitects espose to know what is best for the rest of the world? More importantly, how do we combat the aesthetic authority that such individuals now exert over our place in the world?

My own preferred answer to this final question is: Hey, how about starting off by making fun of arrogant jerks and their silly buildings? And how about ridiculing the cowardly and slavish critical and academic apparatus that serves them?

2Blowhards did a long interview with Nikos Salingaros a while back: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five. Print and read: It's a mind-blower of a very pleasant sort, if I do say so myself. Nikos' own, very generous, website is here. He makes a lot of his work available for free.

Some links for those who find the whole buildings-and-space thang fascinating but who stare in outrage and amazement at the way the topic is typically treated and covered:

  • Whatever you think of James Kunstler's Peak Oil argument, in the unorthodox-architecture world he's a firebrand and a giant. His Eyesore of the Month isn't to be missed, and his books about American urbanism and sprawl (here and here) are rowdy and rousing eye-openers.

  • Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" and Tom Wolfe's "From Bauhaus to Our House" -- both of them great reads -- played huge roles in helping many people see the truth about modernist architecture. I wrote a links-filled intro to Jane Jacobs back here.

  • Back in the late 1960s, the sociologist William Whyte had an inspired idea: Why not observe systematically how people actually use urban spaces? Whyte brought together much of what he learned about people and urbanism in this very enjoyable book. Here's a substantial article about / interview with him.

  • Two comprehensive and fun introductions to the New Urbanism are Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck's "Suburban Nation" and Philip Langdon's "A Better Place to Live."

  • The New York Times' architecture historian Christopher Gray is a reliably enlightening and informative pleasure; in his company you quickly start to get the hang of what it's like to experience the built environment. It isn't a matter of mere "design," as the typical architecture p-o-v would have it. It's a matter of stories, history, quirks, politics, personalities, pleasures, outrages ... Oh, and design too.

  • Lucien Steil's new-traditionalist webzine Katarxis may be a bit irregular, but it's always a joy to browse and eyeball.

  • The Luxembourgeois (is that the right word?) New Classicist Leon Krier is, among other things, a witty polemicist and critic. I found this Krier book one of the most brain-clearing and enlightening things I've ever read. Nikos Salingaros interviews Krier here.

  • The Congress for the New Urbanism is headquarters for the New Urbanist movement. This page is a good place to dip a toe in the New Urbanism.

  • A Vision of Europe is a Euro organization devoted to investigating and promoting traditional pleasure and beauty. It's New Urbanism for Europe, basically. Check out this page for a bit of hope in this mad world ...

  • Christopher Alexander may deserve to be called the founding giant of the heterodox architecture world. His visionary "A Pattern Language" and his four-volume "The Nature of Order" are unquestionably his masterworks. But they're also complex and huge, and may not be the best place to kick off an acquaintance with Alexander's mind. I suggest starting with the short and EZ (but very profound) "The Timeless Way of Building" instead. Alexander's own website is here. Here's a good introduction to his work.

  • Jonathan Hale's "The Old Way of Seeing" is an inspiring survey of how and why traditional ways of building and organizing life suit human nature so well.

  • Have you ever noticed how many of the world's great places have no official architect associated with them? Some of my own faves are namebrand-architect-free places: old New England towns, Romanesque churches, college campuses, white Spanish hill towns, ramshackle beach communities, dairy barns ... In "Architecture Without Architects," Bernard Rudofsky dared to ask some startling questions: Do we really need architects? Do they do more damage than good? And would we be better off making do without them?

    * A question just as modest and radical was proposed by the British anarchist and architect John Turner in "Housing By People." What if the job of an architect were to be conceived-of not as expressing a unique vision, defying common sense, or imposing good-for-you social engineering? What if instead architects just -- y'know -- helped people build what people want to get built?

  • The architect Sarah Susanka is known for her "Not So Big House" books. They're sensible, beautiful, and practical guides to quality-over-quantity living.

  • The Taunton Press publishes reliably down-to-earth books about building and remodeling. They publish Susanka, and have been very influenced by the Alexander approach. Taunton books are always rewarding to browse, and are works of beauty in their own right. If you have a remodeling project in mind, check out what Taunton has on offer. You're guaranteed to wind up with more satisfying results than you would otherwise. I wrote a blog posting about Taunton Press here.

  • Occasional Blowhard Francis Morrone is a tiptop architecture-and-urbanism writer. His guides to Philadelphia and Brooklyn are gems. Francis does some blogging at The Classicist. This New Criterion essay of Francis' is a showstopper too.

  • The blogger Philip Murphy often gets off hilarious jokes at the expense of establishment architecture-and-urbanism follies. We need many more bloggers with Philip's humor and guts. When you see something new and ugly, sound off, people, dammit! What are we, doormats for our self-enraptured elites?

  • Architecture and Morality is an especially thoughtful and searching architecture blog, where the blogpostings are often fullblown essays in their own right.

  • David Sucher and John Massengale are excellent New Urbanist bloggers. They're also much more seasoned and up-to-date than I am. I interviewed David here and here.

These are, btw, people and outfits that don't want to radically remake anything, or show off at anyone else's expense, or impose abstract and impersonal schemes. Instead, they're devoted to registering what we already have, learning from what works and what doesn't, and respectfully adding to it.

And in case this blizzard of links leaves anyone with the impression that the Alexander-Salingaros-Krier-New-Urbanism network is a huge and powerful octopus in bad need of slapping down ... What I'm introducing is in fact a small and unorthodox reform movement -- a relatively tiny band of good guys who are convinced that mainstream architecture (of both the avant-garde and the sprawl sort) has gone off the rails and become destructive, and who are determined to find a way back to making positive contributions instead.

Proof of what a small role this group still plays in our culture: Last I checked, there were only two schools of architecture in the U.S. training their students in traditional architecture -- Notre Dame and the University of Miami. All our other architecture schools peddle the abstract / modernist-po-mo-decon approach. Given that most civilians -- that'd probably include you, me, and our friends and families -- prefer traditional architecture, what this means is that our architecture students are being trained in the skill of defying shared and common preferences. Hmmm. Kinda reminds me of the "literary fiction" world ...

What a state of affairs, eh?

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at April 27, 2007




Comments

Awesome! I love when you post on Architecture.

On the topic of Sarah Susanka and her "Not So Big House" there is something that I always noticed and that is she always has a "Not So Big House On A VERY BIG Property".

That is, I don't think that she has ever shown an example of a Not So Big House in an Urban, walkable environment.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 27, 2007 3:24 PM



Also, I think that you may have missed one important organization in your linkfest:

The International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism (INTBAU)

http://www.intbau.org

Posted by: Ian Lewis on April 27, 2007 3:42 PM



I'd like to read Christopher Alexander's books, but they're too %*&^$##@ expensive! Now if his publisher would only cut the price in half...

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 28, 2007 10:58 AM



For an unintentionally humorous example of the trad-mo/pomo split (and would foot-friendly modernism be "moped"?), check out the downtown tour maps offered by AIA Minnesota: http://www.aia-mn.org/tour_maps.cfm#

The Saint Paul map assumes you'd be most interested in the handsome late 19th- and early 20th-century structures which ring the (thankfully tiny) modern core of downtown like a doughnut around its hole. Not all the new buildings are listed.

The Minneapolis map, or rather its author, throws all that city's major and minor recent atrocities at you, while leaving off some of the nice Deco specimens which survive along Marquette Ave. (My copy is lost, but I remember either the Dain or the Rand, and maybe both, are absent.) The most interesting area, the "Warehouse District", also isn't mentioned, perhaps because its the total effect rather than the individual structures which give it its soul. But more likely because it's the Place the Planners Forgot. (NB: my copies of these maps were from several years ago. They may have been updated-- or rather "backdated"!-- in the meantime.)

BTW, I can't offer an opinion of Duluth's map. During my recent honeymoon in that city it was twenty below zero, and we had to settle for pursuits somewhat warmer than an architecture tour.

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on April 28, 2007 2:26 PM



I've been visiting some high schools and colleges lately, and most of them have expensive new buildings going up. The surprising thing is they all look -- to this unsophisticated viewer -- pretty good. They try fairly hard to fit in with the pre-modernist architecture on campus, with some lavish new touches. They look a lot better than the 1950-1980 modernist stuff on campus, although that's partly just that they are more expensive.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 29, 2007 3:53 AM



Thank you for the links Michael

I too very much enjoy the architecture posts on this blog. This is the exact type of architecture that I love and wish to see more of in the future. Your blog introduced me to the writing of Salingaros. Although I am a student of architecture at an avant-garde-only design school, I am so sick of the cynical views of the world of the entire architecture world. Human beings to them get in the way of "innovation" and "creativity."

Perhaps I could suggest a few more:
Daniel Solomon's Global City Blues

How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand

Even Robert Venturi's 'Learning from Las Vegas is pretty good (I'll pass however on his building designs though)

Posted by: J on May 3, 2007 2:42 PM






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