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July 25, 2007

Architecture and Happiness: Bricks and Shadows

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Enough with the negativity and mockery. The Communicatrix, Chelsea Girl, and Raymond Pert have shown me the way: Blog about something positive from time to time, damn it. Good for the mental health, and probably a ray of sunshine for visitors too. (Listen to an interview with Chelsea Girl by Susie Bright here.) Besides, it takes more guts to open up about what moves you than it does to scorn things.

For my first act of blogging-positivity, I'm kicking off a series of postings on architecture and happiness. To set this particular posting up, let me begin with -- OK, sure, admittedly -- some negativity, a few examples of the kind of thing I dislike.

In the following photo, the shiney blue-green mass on the left is the Edward Larrabee Barnes-designed Avenue of the Americas Plaza, in New York's West 50s.


What aesthetic qualities is this building selling? Let me suggest a few answers: Blue-green silveriness, reflectiveness, grid-iness, the shock of one large funny angle ... In other words: expert play with chic geometry.

Are you surprised to learn that Edward Larrabee Barnes was once a student of Walter Gropius, one of the Very Bad Guys in Tom Wolfe's essential "From Bauhaus to Our House"?

How about this next building?


This is the backside of the Musem of Modern Art, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. What's it selling? Hmm, let's see. Right angles. Grid-iness. An unexpected big square hole. And a marked contrast in textures, between the matte of the black, the frostiness of one set of glass panes, and the reflectiveness of the other, larger set of glass panes. Expert play with chic geometry, in other words.

Funnily enough, Taniguchi once worked for Walter Gropius.

Since my digicam-finger was twitchy last week, let me present another example:


This is one of New York City's new bus stops, designed by Duncan Jackson of Grimshaw Architects. (Architecture and urbanism buffs refer to such things as street lamps, bus stops, kiosks, etc., as "street furniture.") Let's see: Glassiness, steeliness, angles ... In other words: Yet more expert play with chic geometry.

I'm sorry to report that I can't turn up any direct connection between Duncan Jackson and Walter Gropius. Still: Are you surprised to learn that the architecture and design establishment loves these new bus stops?

All the structures in the pix above are about lines, planes, glint, surfaces, volumes, and angles. The language of traditional architecture -- which might include columns, pediments, vases, temples, shadows, arches, and stone ribbons -- is nowhere to be found. No porches, no arcades ... Sigh: I do love porches and arcades.

For me, looking at the structures above is a little like leafing through stylish algebra and geometry textbooks -- dry, abstract, and mathematical, however chic. What's with that? To what are a civilian's emotions supposed to attach themselves?

Back in a previous blogging lifetime, Alice Bachini did a hilarious riff ridiculing architects' obsession with clean lines and precise planes. Who cares about such things? Aside from math teachers and fancy architects, I mean. BTW, if you should suspect that architects tend towards the grandiose and the anal-compulsive, you'd be right. In my (admittedly limited) experience of architects, they are one seriously fussy lot. Have lunch with an architect and you'll often catch him or her straightening the tablecloth and the silverware.

Here's an interesting variation on the above. It's a snap of a brand-new James Polshek addition to Weill Cornell Medical College on New York's Upper East Side:


Wobby wobbly.

The argument in the official architecture world is that the problems with oldstyle modernism -- rigidity, too much emphasis on the grid, inhumanity -- have now been solved. Computers, chaos theory, new materials, and new ways of organizing construction have broken us out of the nightmare-cage that modernism had trapped us in. Now we're able to enjoy a dazzling and humane new era of uncertainty, semi-transparency, and wobbliness.

Does this particular sales pitch make any sense to you? I mean, in anything other than an intellectual sense? When I visit a building like the Polshek and check in with my feelings, my first reaction is to guffaw. (I guffaw even louder on reading that the wobbliness is meant to key in to the Gothic style of some buildings nearby. Wobbly frosted glass equals spires and gargoyles! Works for me!) I do see the rationalizing, er, the theorizing; I do see that games are being played. And, yes I do get some of the games. But I also see that the building is, y'know, still mostly great big sheets of shiney blank glass.

As far as I'm concerned, our official architecture set is still selling the same-ol' same-ol', if a glintier, more off-balance version of it. After nearly 70 years of wrapping us in glass and steel, and screwing up our downtowns, this is the best they can do? Small MBlowhard rant: The problem with modernist (and modernist-derived) architecture isn't excessive grid-iness, it's excessive abstraction, too much theorizing, and too damn much glass.

The above acts of architecture make me unhappy. Now here's some architecture that makes me very, very happy. Drumroll please:


I have no idea who designed or created this bit of heaven. Does it matter? Even better: Who needs architects?

Some of the aesthetic values being sold here include: the human and the handmade; irregularity crossed with pattern and direction; an awareness of nature; and an intimate scale. While the twinkly constructions above speak shrilly of speed, fiber-optic cable, whizziness, and business deals you can't for the life of you understand, this modest section of brick path speaks quietly about slowing down, opening to the moment, and pausing to savor life. The glossy abstractions are like whirling, disembodied computer graphics; the humble brick path is like a small painting.

(The comparison I'm making is, of course, completely unfair. The structures I dislike are large-scale commercial and institutional structures while the brick path I love is domestic architecture, and one really shouldn't compare examples from two different classes in this direct a way. But so what? One of the more interesting -- and telling -- facts about modernist architecture is that, where private dwellings go, it has mostly been a big flop. In other words, when we're free to choose, we freely choose to do without modernism. Modernism is something we're sometimes willing put up with, and at best a necessary evil. Why do we let anyone pretend otherwise?)

Note in the closeup of the pathway the dappled sunlight, and compare that to the light in the snaps of the glitzy buildings. For all their silveriness and reflectiveness, the light-cosmos the mega-buildings inhabit seems fake, like the light in 3D computer-animation films. It's glaring, a little blinding, maybe even (once the eyeballs fatigue) a little bleak. Meanwhile, the materials in the brick path are soft, organic; they take the light in before releasing some of it back. The dirt, the plantings, the roughness of the brick itself, your awareness of trees and plants above and around you ... It's all about processes and cycles that have their own rhythms and take their own time. Even the audio quality suggested by the structures is different. The big buildings might be a shimmery Dolby assault. The brick path: a distant string quartet bandied-about by a soft breeze.

If I can be forgiven a personal note: I plugged away at architecture-appreciation for years before it came into focus for me. No idea why I kept at it, I just did. What I found was that the field opened up once I woke up to the fact that everything having to do with the human-impacted environment (usually referred to as "the built environment") qualifies as architecture: farmland, plazas, traffic patterns, suburban pods, parks, monuments, neighborhoods ... Not to mention the political, economic, and social organizations that these activities and artifacts result from and affect.

(Incidentally, the architecture field itself makes distinctions between architecture per se and landscape design, traffic engineering, urbanism, etc. No reason we have to go along with this. It isn't as though we often experience any of them independently of each other, after all.)

The thing that hit me hardest once focus had been attained was the importance of the spaces between buildings. Precisely what you're normally prone to overlook and ignore is what struck me most vividly once I finally got it: yards, parking lots, alleyways ... The signature-showpiece buildings? They're at most spices and condiments that can give a little accent to the Larger Something that we're always experiencing anyway. So why let ourselves be bullied into arguing over the up-to-dateness of the latest chic perfume bottle? Why not instead take note of and discuss what we already (and always) have: where we enjoy reading the newspaper, why we choose one parking lot over another, why we put our deck chairs in the one corner of the backyard rather than the other. That's all architecture too.



posted by Michael at July 25, 2007


I like both aesthetics. The glass wavy thing I can take or leave, but the first three make me happy. They're pretty! I think you might underestimate how many people feel that way.

Posted by: BP on July 25, 2007 5:27 PM

I question just how many of us are able to "choose" the kind of architecture we live in. Most of us are given a choice among limited options. Very few of us can afford to design the homes we would like to live in. I'm not saying you'd see modernist homes all over the place if we could, but I bet we'd see a lot more than we have now. Or at least homes with some modernist touches. Most of us have to deal with architecture based on cost savings to the developer.

Posted by: the patriarch on July 25, 2007 6:04 PM

The problem with architects is that they fall in love with their abstractions and sweeping ideas that they forget that people have to live in those things.

Architecture is not an art like sculpture or painting where if you do not like it, you can put it in a closet and forget it. You have to look at it every day, and getting rid of it forces you into mortgage financing, realtors, and the rest.

Architecture took a wrong turn when they enshrined Frank Lloyd Wright, who projected his personality into the abodes of other people, instead of recognizing the more pedestrian talent of Julia (I forget the name, the architect of San Simeon), whose characteristic of the houses she built was that they matched the personality of the buyer (I think that Ayn Rand makes a snide comment about someoone like her in her Fountainhead, but then dear Ayn could not see anything wrong about using someone else's home as a display piece of your own philosophy)

Posted by: Adriana on July 25, 2007 6:30 PM

BP -- They *are* kind of pretty, in a chic objet d'art kind of way. But of course they're buildings, not objets d'arts, and meant to be lived in, worked in, and passed by, not just "appreciated" ... It's one of the kookier ideas of modernism that we should live in and work in and around pieces of abstract design and sculpture. Traditional architectural forms (whether of the folk or elite sort) evolved out of real interactions with real people. But you're right: I certainly wouldn't mind owning some of those buildings, if they were a foot high or so. They'd look pretty on my coffee table.

Patriarch -- It'd be interesting to see what would result if the housing market were more open and responsive than it is, wouldn't it? My suspicion, though, is that modernistic designs wouldn't do much better than they already have. It's pretty well-recognized among developers that most people want traditional-style homes. (Too bad they offer up such lousy versions of such -- well, really what they're offering is roll-it-out boxes decorated with bits and pieces of kitschy-trad decor.) Over time, modernist houses, though they were imagined initially as being for the good of the masses, have become showcases and investments for a certain segment of the stylish rich. The real effort to open up the housing market these days is being made by the New Urbanists, who literally can't sell their wares in most markets. When they do crack a market open, their products -- traditionalism done better than the usual developers usually do it -- always does extremely well. Which would seem to mean that we'd have good reason to expect not that modernism would do well in a more open housing market but that classier-traditionalism would.

Adriana -- Amen, sister. Julia Morgan was her name, and wasn't she great. You might enjoy a mischievous posting I wrote long ago about FLW.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 25, 2007 6:56 PM

We have rather famous bus-shelters right here on the mid-coast of NSW. I'm told they're the work of an internationally acclaimed architect who lives in our area. They are unusual in that they are cleverly designed to admit the maximum of wind and rain, the minimum number of humans - remember them? - while nonetheless occupying space and costing money.

Recently I had to pack up and go from an architect-designed house in Sydney. I could no longer tolerate the alternation of glare and murk, the noise and reverberation from hard surfaces, the cold, the draughts, the grimness of materials, the sense of exposure and intrusion...and the way that every skimpy recreation area doubled as a thoroughfare.

Why do we pay people excessive amounts of money to install us in 'homes' that aren't much different in concept to a service station?

Whether architecture is happy nonsense like Sydney's Opera House, or glorious sanity like St. James' church in the same city; whether it springs from an engineer's love of his materials (Nervi) or a decorator's hunger for shape and colour (Gaudi) do not need an architect for your private dwelling. Really you don't. Guys, I know it's a free world...but it's like wearing socks with sandals. Just don't do it!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on July 25, 2007 7:15 PM

Very few of us can afford to design the homes we would like to live in. I'm not saying you'd see modernist homes all over the place if we could, but I bet we'd see a lot more than we have now. Or at least homes with some modernist touches. Most of us have to deal with architecture based on cost savings to the developer.

True, but one can observe what humble suburban dwellers do with their home-improvement budgets over the years, even if they can't build homes to their own specs. Loving investments are made in more wood, more brick, more stone, more green.

On the other hand, that itself could be a reflection of current fashion. (Maybe a seventies revival in home improvement is in the offing. God help us all.) It also seems to be the case that the default architecture available to most home buyers simply doesn't lend itself to "modernist touches" - you've given me an interesting thought exercise, looking out the window and trying to imagine what "modernist touches" the houses in my cul de sac could bear up under. I'm drawing a blank right now. So maybe it is a matter of money - "modernist" can't be approached piecemeal. Still, in my experience people of means still seem to be seeking the emotional resonance of Michael's brick path in their home plans.

I quite like some "modernist" buildings. (Though I can't say I've ever worked in one that, from the inside, didn't depress and demoralize me.) My layman/philistine judgment of new buildings usually rests on one question: "Will this building age well?" A lot of buildings of the last half century seem to live fast, die young, and leave really ugly corpses.

Adriana - I do understand everyone's dislike of FLW, but I have seen some little gems of "prairie modern" scattered about the small-town Midwest, unassuming little buildings that charm me, at least. If FLW was their inspiration, perhaps they will serve to lessen his time in Purgatory.

Posted by: Moira Breen on July 25, 2007 7:22 PM

Methinks that local hero Thomas Kinkade has proven conclusively what architectural style most people would live in if it were financially feasible.

Posted by: J. Goard on July 25, 2007 7:36 PM

It's odd, but I like modernism better in its domestic aspect than in its effect on big buildings and cityscapes. There are some beautiful, clean-lined modern interiors, especially when combined with vivid, subtle colours and some soft furniture; there are some beautiful modernist house-facades, especially when softened by good landscaping - part of the appeal is the contrast between the two, the biomorphic and geometric, the artificial and the natural. (And of course - this is for you Michael - there's beautiful clean-lined modernist clothes, e.g. like Ali MacGraw's in Goodbye Columbus, that do such nice things for the soft lines of the female figure. I do try to see the man's point of view from time to time.)

But I've never had the same positive response to modernist office buildings. I hate to walk down city blocks that are all uniformly modernist. It's dreary and intimidating. And too hot, with all that reflected heat off those windowed or mirrored facades and unshaded cement courtyards. And the light bounces off the buildings and the pavements, gets in your eyes, and half-blinds you.

I suspect there's such a difference because the domestic buildings are designed and built by those who can pay for really luxurious modernist houses and interiors. Office builders usually have to give in to practicality and affordability. And in any case, the scale is much less human: one house, however large, does not have the same effect as row upon row of sterile blocks of modernist buildings.

Posted by: alias clio on July 25, 2007 7:37 PM

"The structures I dislike are large-scale commercial and institutional structures while the brick path I love is domestic architecture, and one really shouldn't compare examples from two different classes in this direct a way."

I wonder if Christopher Alexander would agree with you. The brick path seems to me dense with Patterns, despite its intimate scale, while the behemoth modernist buildings, despite their scale, seem utterly impoverished in terms of Pattern-density, complexity, subtlety and richness.

Posted by: PatrickH on July 25, 2007 7:47 PM

"Loving investments are made in more wood, more brick, more stone, more green."

Those materials are used in modernist architecture, particularly the residential variety.

Posted by: the patriarch on July 25, 2007 8:01 PM

It's fitting that the black hole is the backside of the MoMA: it looks like the sooty anus of someone so uptight that it has locked into a right-angle configuration.

Posted by: Agnostic on July 25, 2007 8:38 PM


This is completely off topic, but a few months ago you were talking about a video endeavor you and your wife were involved with, that was going to end up being web available.

Where does that stand?

Posted by: dougjnn on July 25, 2007 8:40 PM

One sin the modernists have to answer for are their taste for flat roofs (with a little border on it, sometimes). slanted roofs were not built that way because they were "pretty" or "quaint". they were built that way to make water roll over and fall to the ground, while a flat roof allows water to collect and slowly seep its way inwards.

Posted by: Adriana on July 25, 2007 9:14 PM

Those materials are used in modernist architecture, particularly the residential variety.

I think I know what kind of house you're talking about, pate. Maybe we should all define terms by linking pics. The first thing that springs to mind with the words "modernist residential" is often that lump of excrement with the heavy use of corrugated metal, or the instances of the "maximum security prison" aesthetic. I suppose those words are also accurately attached to the stuff with the warm, clean, serene, Japanese-y aesthetic going on (which I'd shell out for, if I had the shells). The former is probably being perpetrated far less often than it was in the preceding few decades. It's also not really clear what people have in mind when they say "traditional", which sometimes seems to be used to mean "lacking in simplicity and elegance", fussy, even kitschy - which of course good "traditional" architecture isn't.

I still haven't figured out how one could add "modernist touches" to the standard suburban developer's template. Btw, is there a word for that current style? It's not "McMansion", because it encompasses smaller, cheaper homes, but they're all in that same basic style.

Posted by: Moira Breen on July 26, 2007 8:33 AM

Glad you did acknowledge at least one of my usual objections to your usual architecture rants (your words, not mine): completely unfair comparisons. ....and? You continue with "so what?"
Let me translate it into notions more familiar to you. It's like I'd declare that some "urban goth" fantasy novel (or, say, a screenplay for French erotic film) is superior in comparison to Elizabethan poetry to Mexican folk song to Hoffmann's Romantic tales and say - so what? It's all literature!
Didn't you say, time and time again on this blog, that the piece of writing should be judged by the merit according to rules and limitations of the genre it belongs to? That craft matters, not being a member of the approved groupthink circle? Be consistent, then.

For instance, that bus stop that you detest - let's judge it on its merit. Let's see - what are your objections? Glass (transparency), steel (sturdiness), angles (here I'm not sure what you meant: all angles are 90deg)

What are the functions of the bus stop? To provide shelter from elements; to indicate visibly detectable signage for passengers looking for the busstop; to provide waiting accomodations (seating, if possible) - but discourage bums from sleeping in the bus shelters; if possible, to provide some revenue for the city that erected the busstop, to help to pay back the invested moneys.; provide visibility of the road from all sides, for passengers' convenience; do not distruct from the street view, wherever the bus stop is located (imagine it in front of the St.Patrick cathedral - which one would you prefer to focus your eyes on, the bus shelter or the church behind?); and last - to make it uniform, so passengers will recognise it -McDonald's factor.

The bus stop on the photo above answers to all these requirements. The one you'd probably design, knowing your love for "pediments, vases, temples, shadows, arches, and stone ribbons ...porches,..arcades" - will not.

Note: I'm not even touching aspects of style or cost, just function.

I can address your other points, if you want, may be later. Have to go do some designing for public good.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 26, 2007 10:49 AM

Sorry to jump in so late, but I'm in the Oregon coast. You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned Theory. The bad stuff we see suffers from Theory, and the good stuff (often) shines because of its absence.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on July 26, 2007 11:10 AM

Whoa! Go to sleep Michael Blowhard, wake up James Kunstler! Only his warmer, more huggable cousin.

I like your path, too. And I like some modernist buildings, but I like 'em the way they mix in with the old stuff. My hometown, Chicago, has done a largely amazing job at fusing the old and the new, the (necessarily) functional and the pretty.

It makes being in L.A. all the more difficult. The lack of taste and community perspective in this suburban megalopolis is nauseating.

Posted by: communicatrix on July 26, 2007 12:15 PM

Anyone who argues that any art form should follow function is basically saying that no decorative elements will ever find their way into the work-that nothing "unnecessary" should ever into the equation. I mean, you can basically say the the role of a painting is simply to fill up empty wall space, and design the most simple, "cost-effective" piece of minimalist yuck you can think of. Most art is not needed. Its unnecessary decoration. Why in the name of God, if you need a house, would you ever try to harmonize the design with the setting, like the Prairie Style Frank Llyod Wright developed?

This is why modernism is sick--it makes the phony claim that art is really something necessary, and at the same time strips it of everything that makes this unnecessary thing appealing in the first place. Art has nothing to do with function. It is pure form, period.

Posted by: BTM on July 26, 2007 12:57 PM

Robert -- That's some seriously funny (and substantial) architecture writing! Wouldn't it be nice if people in the press occasionally dared to say such things?

Moira -- You're touching on one hopeful bit, which is that the expected lifespan of many modernist buildings is very short, thank heavens. I like your "maximum security prison aesthetic" too.

J. Goard -- I think many people are already living in a self-created kitsch dreamworld, don't you? At least once you go inside their houses ...

Clio -- Those reflections off modernist office buildings can be fierce! Between you and me, I'm not going to bother getting too upset about houses or buildings that play by trad urbanistic rules. But why are modernist architects so prone to defy those rules?

PatrickH -- I think we're sharing some brainspace.

Patriarch - It'd be fun to see a study of the kinds of people who opt for modernist domestic architecture. I wonder if there are fair generalizations that can be made about them...

Agnostic -- Ain't that the case?

Dougjnn -- Hey, thanks for asking. It's going great. A hard-drive crash threw us a little off schedule, but a couple of episodes have now been rough-cut and it's looking like fun. Hoping to have it online in September.

Adriana -- The flat-roof obsession is just weird, isn't it? It's a recipe for leaks. Why cling to what doesn't work?

Tat -- So you don't like Paris' subway entrances?

Donald -- Some people just really like their theories, don't they?

Communicatrix - Chicago rocks in many ways. The usual thing to say about LA is that it's an exception to the general rules, modernism works there because the whole city was designed around the car and there's no downtown anyway, why not just enjoy the colors and trash ... How do you react to that? I sometimes buy it -- oh, why not? Most of the time, though, LA strikes me as a big ashtray. Funny because I used to like it a lot. These days I'm in a hurry to get out of it...

BTM -- I'm with you on that. I'll venture a step further too, which is to say that trad architecture isn't just a matter of boxes with decoration suspended from it. (That's a modernist way of thinking about trad architecture.) The "decoration" is much more integral than that -- it's part and parcel of an entire language, a way of going about things. The trad architect isn't just juggling functions and abstractions, he's constructing things using the elements of trad urbanism. For example: that covered space in front of a house where many people like to put a rocking chair? It isn't just a "covered, half-indoor half-outdoor volume," it's "a porch."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 26, 2007 12:59 PM

Love the Paris subway entrances. Functionally - they address all the requirements I listed above AND are decorative, human-scale, representative of their time. They are great as a piece of an urban collage.
So what?

Posted by: Tatyana on July 26, 2007 1:14 PM

If you like Chicago, I don't think we disagree over anything substantive, except those particular buildings. Office buildings are all the same, and awful, on the inside, but I find that green one oddly soothing.

I think Moira was onto something with the "warm, clean, serene, Japanese-y aesthetic," which I get a little bit of from the back of the MoMA. The color is nice, the shape is nice--aren't simple geometric shapes inherently beautiful?--so I like it. But the garden path I guess is more authentically "Japanese-y," based on my limited knowledge of Japanese art--knowing when to leave the rough edges alone, to balance the natural and the artificial. I just think a perfect square and a rough brick are both "natural," in different ways.

I also think "columns, pediments, vases, temples, shadows, arches, and stone ribbons" are basically at odds with this aesthetic. That isn't to say they can't be nice enough. But aren't people who drool over brownstones in Brooklyn getting some significant part of their enjoyment out of kitsch value, the historic associations, a chance to play 19th century dress-up? Which is fine. I don't think anyone judges houses on purely aesthetic grounds; we want our houses to bring up pleasant associations and be cozy, and that's as it should be. I would love living in one of those houses. I guess I'm agreeing with the person who said you don't need an architect to design your house, but that doesn't mean a certain kind of super-aesthete won't want one, and I understand those people a little bit. (And in general I'm biased against the pediments and vases, etc.; for example I much prefer Romanesque churches to Gothic ones.)

As for the bus stop, you're really asking too much of a bus stop. The thing is limited to a kind of minimalism by what it is, so the question is whether you make the minimal elements (posts, rectangular roof) look nice or not. I think the new bus stops look nice compared to the old ones, which are very drab and grim.

A final note: I grew up in Milwaukee, WI, which is not exactly a hotbed of modernism, and about a decade ago they opened a new art museum designed by Santiago Calatrava. It's very modernist, all about open spaces, abstract geometry, etc., and pretty much everyone loves it, because it's beautiful and impressive. These are not effete architecture connoisseurs, they're just ordinary middle-class Milwaukeeans. My point is this kind of architecture can have populist appeal, in the right circumstances.

Posted by: BP on July 26, 2007 1:28 PM

Coleen: yes, fusing is the word. I call it urban collage. That's my private professional ideology and I believe is the right path for any city with more than few years history.

I do it in interiors, I appreciate it in architecture, landscapes - any man-made object, really. Collage, layers, quilt of different fabrics. Minimalist penthouse on a roof of a 19cent terracota-clad warehouse. Cut-velvet Victorian tablecloth next to Saarinen chairs. Redwood to glass, aluminum - to forged steel.

Collage is bigger than sum of its parts.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 26, 2007 1:29 PM

Tat -- I like your "urban collage" concept. As for the Paris-subway-entrances vs. new-NY-bus-stops thing ... The Paris subway entrances have character, local color, and beauty. The NY bus stops are anonymous, precise little functional (one hopes -- I've seen a lot of "functional" structures that didn't function well at all) machines that have about as much character as an escalator at the local mall. Why settle for that?

BP -- Yeah, I think those are all good points. And I like the Romanesque a whole lot too. I'd take issue a bit about the kitsch thing -- what's kitsch about enjoying old buildings and architecture? Western architecture until modernism was basically all about revivals. I wouldn't call Richardson kitsch or his fans kitsch-lovers, would you? Yet he was all about reviving the Romanesque. Lord knows there's such a thing as slurpy kitschy crap. But Brooklyn brownstones? That's being a little too harsh for me, anyway. The Japanese question is endlessly interesting, isn't it? I mean, there are similarities between trad Japanese architecture and Western modernism -- abstraction, flowing spaces, some kind of metaphysical something going on in there somwhere, etc. Yet there are differences too. Interesting too that Japanese modernists are often amazingly good at the modernist thing -- more finicky, more precise, more conceptually brilliant. They often make our modernism look kind of random and slapdash by comparison.

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on July 26, 2007 1:56 PM

Here's the test. Would "it" be enhanced more by (1) a pussy cat, or (2) application of M. Python's foot? The path is in category 1, the others in 2. I call this the felicitous calculus.

Posted by: dearieme on July 26, 2007 2:02 PM

Yes, kitsch was a badly chosen word. I meant only that people often like things about houses for the associations they bring up--scenes from movies, a sense of history, etc. And I'm one of those people, so I didn't mean it as a put-down at all. But I do tend not to like that style when it gets too fussy.

Posted by: BP on July 26, 2007 2:27 PM

Moira Breen - "I suppose those words are also accurately attached to the stuff with the warm, clean, serene, Japanese-y aesthetic going on (which I'd shell out for, if I had the shells)"

Exactly! The sort of modernist home architecture that is far from unpopular.

Tatanya - made some wonderful points that should still be addressed.

BTM - a convoluted and internally inconsistent comment; FLW's Prairie House becomes "modernist yuck" because it harmonizes with its setting? And if architecture is an art and if "art has nothing to do with function. It is pure form, period." Then why not champion the pure geometric forms of the modernist skyscraper? Want to try to explain yourself again?

I'm not going to search for the commenter, but whoever noted the issue of the flat roof made a very cogent point. This is a sad example of how Theory, driven by Architect Ego (AE), can derail logic and practical concerns as noted by another comment. This is a character flaw not only of modernists; I suspect plenty of traditional architects display AE as well. These days I'm particularly interested in the way Green architecture is reconsidering roof design to capture precipitation and sunlight. Not to mention all of the other attributes going into Green Architecture.

In any case, the original post sets up another of the false dichotomies so favored around here. Evil, egotistical, elitist modernism versus tried and true, trustworthy, talented traditionalism as exemplified by high-rise towers versus a brick walkway. Surely a more nuanced discussion is possible. And, as always, why must there be one "right" aesthetic?

Posted by: Chris White on July 26, 2007 3:19 PM

Chris -- Architecture up until Modernism represents "one aesthetic"? That's being a little bit dismissive of a couple of thousand years' worth of wonderful and often zany work, isn't it? Traditional architecture encompasses (to name but a few trad styles) Gothic, Romanesque, Federal, baroque, Georgian, neoclassicism, Beaux Arts, Queen Anne, and Italianate, as well as dozens if not hundreds of local and informal idioms. (I'm very fond of Adirondack Camp Style myself.) That's a lot of variety!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 26, 2007 3:32 PM

I can always count on Chris White to completely misread my points and substitute his pet theories. He thinks my point is to criticize Frank Lloyd Wright! Read a little more carefully.

See, here's a great example his misinterpretation. Chris White says why don't you champion the "pure geometric forms" of the skyscraper. But there are no "pure" forms of a skyscraper! There's just the internal structure masked by a facade! Modernism is just the stripping away of things, of decoration. But that's all that art is--decorative and non-essential! That's why modernism is such a joke.

To take the bus stop example, where the architect talks all about functions, you could say the same thing about the sidewalk underneath it. All it really needs to do is be sturdy and maybe be pitched to drain away the water. But what if someone wants to put a mosaic pattern down on it? What if somebody paints it with different designs? Then the functional becomes artistic. Art is not functional at all. Function is a product of design. Art is pure form, non-essential.

Take a look at teh engine of your car. It was designed to be purely functional. Then look at the exterior. It can take any variety of forms--all it is used for is to cover the interior structure of the car and the engine. Look at how people fuss over the non-essential shapes of this component. yet this is the thing about cars that many find most appealing.

Modernists don't even understand the basic funtion of art itself. That's why their work is so unappealing and their philosophies so confused. The form follows function credo is just another way to try to make their work "relevant" to something wholly unrelated, and belies their concerns that their opinions nd not thier skills are what is important. Opinions about this and that, which borrow importance from the relation to art, but have nothing to do with it at all.

Posted by: BTM on July 26, 2007 3:42 PM

Chris - Exactly! The sort of modernist home architecture that is far from unpopular.

Yes, but what do we mean when we label that "modernist"? That Japanese aesthetic is, after all, one of the great "tried and true, trustworthy, talented traditionalism[s]" of the world. It's just relatively new to us. It's popular because its beauty doesn't elude laymen like me, and it provides Michael's Brick Walk experience. Not long ago I was looking through some "great gardens of the world" book and was amazed when I came across photos of a certain classical Persian garden. It was stunningly "modernist" to my eyes. In fact, the design immediately reminded me of a building at a '60s-built university in my hometown. Yet the centuries-old garden was beautiful while the '60s building was a gracelessly aging eyesore. Why was that? Now part of it is surely that the old aristocratic patron of the garden could command better materials and craftsmanship - and hey, it's a pleasure garden, not a public university building. But perhaps the similarity in design perceived by my uneducated eye was spurious; there's something going on in that Persian garden that seems to have eluded the designers of the other building, and I don't think that something can be explained away by budgetary constraints. (Appealing public buildings have been built in lean times, and the '60s weren't lean times.) I don't think the layman's intuitive objection to "modernist" is all about a resistance to unfamiliar styles or an unshakable insensate attachment to Victorian Gothic.

Posted by: Moira Breen on July 26, 2007 6:48 PM

Now, now, Michael, review your original posting. It doesn't discuss modernist architecture relative to a host of different historical styles, it gives us big, bad, boring, boxy buildings beside beautiful, bucolic, body-sized, brick and asks us to choose between them.

My fundamental problem with all of these anti-modernist rants here at 2BH is the way those of us who DO enjoy a GOOD modernist building (or art object) are virtually vilified either for being elitist scum foisting our depravity on an innocent world or numbskulls brainwashed by those elitist scum. Why is it not possible to have a different aesthetic?

You often make the point about architecture that, because many in the public besides the occupant/owners must look at buildings and they might last centuries, they should somehow fit the aesthetic of the greater public. Doesn't this lead down the path toward "official" architecture? Isn't that a bad thing?

I happen to be deeply offended aesthetically by the McMansions that have eaten much of suburban New England. These out-scaled houses sometimes look like capes with thyroid problems. Other times they borrow too freely from too many architectural traditions at once, some Tudor here glued onto some Queen Anne there with a patina of Versailles thrown in for good measure. I'd much rather see a FLW influenced development. I also find big box stores to be blights on the landscape. I could go on, but the point is should my aesthetic really have any influence over what gets built? In the aggregate it does through local Planning and Zoning regulations, which are decidedly NOT under the thumb of modernists.

And a final thought; those angular glass towers are almost all built by private capitalist corporations in major cities. Real estate is incredibly expensive. The goal is often to spend the least amount of time and money on construction and maximize the amount of space to be leased and minimize the time between ground breaking and tenants moving in. In a day when stone carvers are uncommon, expensive and time consuming, but prefab glass walls can be ordered in quantity, is it any wonder you get glass walls, not gargoyles? Admittedly, this isn't argument in favor of modernism; it is rather an observation of why BAD modernist buildings get built due to the easy way they fit the business interests of the clients.

Posted by: Chris White on July 27, 2007 10:04 AM

the further architecture gets away from ingrained human aesthetic reflexes, the worse it feels, but the better it revves up the egos of preening intellectuals.

Posted by: roissy on July 27, 2007 10:21 AM

As usual, I agree with everything Chris White said.

Posted by: the patriarch on July 27, 2007 11:28 AM

Moira -- That's a key point, tks: Japanese architecture, despite its superficial similarities to modernism, is in fact a traditional architecture.

Chris, Patriarch -- Those are some funny descriptions of McMansions. I imagine that if I lived out in the boonies or 'burbs I'd be bitching about them too. But when I look at my posting I don't see me making a "case" of any kind. I see me saying that this makes me happy and that doesn't. It's all framed in terms of personal responses. The only case I might be making is a by-example one -- to demonstrate that it's possible and OK to be an open-eyed, informed architecture-and-urbanism buff and yet not agree with the judgments and values of the official architecture set. Incidentally, I'd be perfectly happy to argue that architectural modernism has been one of the most destructive mistakes in all of art history, but that'd be for another posting.

One of the tragedies of architectural modernism has resulted in the McMansion blight you dislike so much, btw. The architecture world, in setting itself against the tastes of normal people, has also alienated them. The high-end architects have so alienated normal people that they have turned their backs on architecture and opted for crap and pseudo versions of the traditionalism they have always preferred anyway. (Normal people used to buy and live in perfectly-nice houses, and inhabit perfectly-nice towns.) So we -- us generally -- wind up inhabiting a world that's split between two equally unappealing factions: the chic glinty stuff the architecture world peddles, and the bulldozed-together pseudo-traditionalism the developers peddle.

The only way out of this predicament that I can see is for the architects to put their egos aside and start thinking of themselves not as heroic trailblazers but instead as service providers, eager to help normal people achieve their goals. In that way, they'd win over the normal set again, and the normal set might start to move past their embrace of packaged food, er, crap fake traditionalism. And since the normal set is obviously never going to embrace modernism, it's up to the modernist set to kick this development off.

Hey, wait: I'm describing exactly what's going on with the New Urbanism ... Which of course is why I root for them. Don't foist unwanted and disliked brilliance on an unwilling public. Offer them instead classier versions of what they already like. But if you've got better ideas about ways out of this dilemma, I'm eager to hear about them.

Roissy -- Pithily said!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 27, 2007 11:52 AM


First, let me make the point, however much this might upset the notion of predictablity, that I am also a fan of many of the architectural styles that collectively go under the term New Urbanism. I also enjoy many 'traditional' forms of architecture. And I make distinctions in modernist approaches that you have, in previous threads, dismissed as (to you) meaningless.

Now, can you explain again how McMansions (the result of architects working somewhere for someone) are the fault of modernism? It seems that you recognize these high falutin', cash parading, over grown pieces of traditionalist architectural kitsch as being 'bad architecture' despite their popularity and traditional vocabulary. Why not then blame the architects/designers/contractors for making bad 'traditional' homes. Or laud them for their egoless willingness to give the customers what they want? It seems you want all architectural ills of the past century to be entirely the fault of modernism.

Posted by: Chris White on July 27, 2007 2:43 PM

I thought I'd never utter those words in my life: I agree with Chris White.

Life is unpredictibe thing.

Posted by: Tatyana on July 27, 2007 2:58 PM

Chris -- I'm familiar with distinctions among the subcategories of modernism, tks. It's what I was schooled in and followed closely for many years. I came to think that the distinctions don't really matter much except to insiders and fans.

I also woke up to the fact that modernism isn't an outgrowth or a development of western architectural history, it's a break with it and a rebuke to it, an attempt to sweep the table clean, to start again at zero, and to create something entirely new. It's flat-out hostile, it seems to me, to western architectural history. Even the language used ... Back in the day, the modernists often spoke about their work as making "interventions" or "ruptures" in the urban fabric. Makes me shiver still in horror.

In any case, the way the mass housing market has turned against good taste has *a lot* to do with modernism. Back when architects and designers worked with the tastes of regular folks, routine houses and buildings (and towns and neighborhoods, etc) were often just fine. In other words, the same people who are now buying ugly condos and McMansions were then buying and living in houses we still treasure today. Funny: people were less well-educated and less prosperous in those days than we are, yet they seem to have had better taste ... I wonder why?

It's at least partly because architects and designers got the revolutionary fever and turned against mass preferences. (All for the good of the masses, of course.) They turned against 2000 years of western architectural experience, actually.

The mass audience reacted as you'd expect any crowd that's been told to screw themselves would -- they responded to hostility with hostility, and turned away from the work and advice and help of elite tastemakers and embraced accessible crud intead.

Which leaves us with the standoff we have today: the official architecture world peddling stuff no one really likes much, and that has been widely resented since about 1960, and the mass audience cluelessly falling for the hallucinations and blandishments of developers.

It's a weird state of affairs -- as though the official culinary world were peddling food that 95% of Americans found not just unappealing but repulsive. Any surprise that -- given few other options -- they'd opt to buy quasi-traditional packaged foods instead?

But the food world hasn't been dumb and high-minded. There's a whole range of stuff to enjoy, from Rachael Ray to street food to super-high-end frothiness. There are any number of points of entry into the fun, and any number of ways to enjoy, and directions to explore in.

They've been smart about luring people in, too, making their wares enjoyable and appealing, and encouraging people to take part ...

As a result, we have a wonderful restaurant culture, supermarkets full of all kinds of wonders and opportunities that we didn't have 40 years ago, terrific cooking schools and classes, and a wine world that didn't even exist only a few decades ago. Because -- thanks to thousands of people working in the tradition of Julia Child and Alice Waters -- it has all been made appealing, fun, and accessible, American food-culture has been a huge cultural success. Where food is concerned, we've been able to class up our act, or at least many people have, and they've found it rewarding and enjoyable. Come to think of it, food has probably been one of our biggest cultural success stories since WWII.

But where architecture is concerned ... The academic-foundation establishment still holds the reins on the public discussion, still values things that most people find either ugly or incomprehensible, and still calumniates what normal people enjoy (decks, shady spots, comfort, etc) as not-architecture. It's as though the music-elite-establishment were peddling nothing but spikey dissonance, and weren't just uninterested in the popular love of tunes and rhythm, but were spitting at them as not-music.

Come to think of it, one of the weirder developments of the last 50 years has been the split between architecture publications and lifestyle-and-shelter publications. Who'd have thought any such split would be necessary? And in fact there was no such split back in, say 1910. Houses, sofas, porches, buildings, parks -- it was all on the same continuum, and designers and architects turned their noses up at none of it.

These days, though, architects playing the game want to be thought of as visionary geniuses, philosopher kings, zany self-expressers. And the magazines (and prizes, and professorships) following their antics highlight and value qualities and theories that fly right over the heads of civilians. There are times when you'd think you were looking at high-end R&D scientific publications, only they're generally much more chic.

The idea that visually-and-spatially gifted and trained professionals might people find professional utility and fulfillment helping civilians arrange their living rooms, or gardens, or sidewalks a little more nicely ... Well, that's a little beneath the likes of our current official architecture set. So the mass audience turns to what is available to it -- shelter mags, HGTV, whatever the local developers are offering ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 27, 2007 3:14 PM

On the topic of bus shelters, might want to check out Robert AM Stern's bus shelters which not surprisingly have been panned by narrow minded architecture critics as "faux historic" aka what architecture critics call traditional architecture of today...

Want to design a bus shelter? Well, get in line.
John King
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Photo here.

Posted by: J on July 31, 2007 2:25 AM

Well, J, they are faux-historic.
And the one on the picture you provided is badly designed, Stern or not. I wonder if you read the post you yourself link to; the factual reasons for this conclusions are very clearly stated there. The roof imitates cast-iron structures of the 1900s, only with contemporary coatings and paints, and the glass plates' sizes are selected to imitate material limitations of century ago. The result is a fake-looking, expensive in construction and maintenance, not-interesting esthetically, "midwestern mall" kind of thing.
I'm not that crazy about the Grimshaw's creation, either, but at least it is functional and not pretentious.

It's funny how "trad-lovers" fall into same Big-Name trap they accuse their opponents of. Only exchange Gehry with R.Stern - and voila, you have a cult.

Posted by: Tat on July 31, 2007 10:46 AM

That retro shelter looks like it might keep you drier than the minimalist and funky stuff...but it is the most dreadful lump.

Here's my idea.

Get some handy, commonsense character who knows about building materials, weather, wind-directions, buses, people etc. Make sure he has no tertiary qualifications of any sort, and that he has not attended any courses in design, architecture or anything containing the word 'studies' (eg. urban studies). He needs to be unaware or indifferent to such concepts as 'heritage' and 'minimalism'. He will shrug when the issue of recycled materials is raised, because he will, as I said, have commonsense and will be aware that recyling anything but aluminium cans is a total waste.

Then ask him to build you a bus-shelter. Tell him to make sure that it works, that it's solid and that it looks okay - or you won't pay him.

Might work.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 1, 2007 12:13 AM

Actually I'm not a fan of that bus shelter or Stern's work in general for that matter, I just wanted to mention and show an alternative design that I had heard about.

But what I am talking about is that just because an object has traditional/classic aesthetic properties like multiple scales, harmonious proportioning, use of symmetry and overall ordering it is automatically seen in most architecture critics eyes as trying to look old and trying to recreate history.

That said, I will definately agree with you Tat that a lot (more like most) of so-called traditional architecture made today is poorly done at best particularly because it goes for a perceived image of "traditional" without following the key underlying principles of what traditional design actually is.

Posted by: J on August 2, 2007 1:37 AM

J, I think it's the same picture, in "traditional" as well as in "modern" branches of architecture; it depends on the individual. Skills and talent manifest itself in any style.

I used to have a "design theory" professor in design school, years ago, snobbish and arrogant British lady (she would prefer "eccentric") - but sometimes she'd say surprisingly reasonable things. She told us that "you become an expert by doing things and being interested in what you do. I have never knew how fireplaces work - until a client asked me to insert one in his retreat home. Now I can open my own fireplace manufacturing if I wanted to. I had never stepped on a deck of a boat - until the job required me to renovate a Co' private historic yacht' passengers cabins. Do and learn".

It doesn't much matter, what style you were told to appreciate in school; life makes corrections - and you want to live, you'll learn.

Posted by: Tat on August 2, 2007 11:27 AM

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