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March 05, 2008

Some Architecture Musings

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Inspired by Donald's posting about the Seattle Central Library, I was e-chatting with a friend about buildings, architecture, and modernism. I wound up dashing off a note that I was pleased with. Never one to forego EZ blogging, I present it here:

I kinda like a certain amount of chic architecture purely as "design." Shrink a Frank Gehry building by a factor of 1000, put a 60 watt bulb in it, plunk it on my coffee table, and I'd enjoy it as a fun, kooky lamp.

Mies van der Rohe had a much snappier sense of abstract design and proportions than I ever will -- he'd have been a great layout artist.

It's absurd, though, to proffer their kind of thing as buildings. In Gehry's case: Asking people to live in a piece of swoopy sculpture? Whose dumb idea was that? In Mies' case: What kind of nutcase would maintain that people should live in the equivalent of a sharp-looking piece of magazine design?

Plus there's all that awful "empty space" around so much modernist architecture -- dead plazas, streets that no longer work as living urban streets ... It's sterile, dead-end stuff. People tend to move out of a city that becomes too dominated by modernist (po-mo, decon, etc) buildings and spaces. Which is finally what clinches the deal for me: the "Modernism" thing is an experiment that just didn't work. People voted with their feet. So let's put a stop to it, and pronto.

The forms of traditional-style building evolved because they served people's needs and pleasures well, or well-enough. You toss these forms out (or monkey with them too dramatically) at your peril. It's useful to think of traditional buildings and traditional urbanism as evolved things, much like biological creatures. They've evolved in the way they have for many reasons, almost certainly more than we'll ever be consciously aware of. Mess with 'em too heedlessly and something's likely to go haywire.

Another fun way to think of traditional architecture: as akin to tonal music. Scales, chords, harmonies, rhythmic patterns ... For some reason or other, tonality speaks to people, where purely intellectual and abstract musical structures strike most people as bewildering and alienating. And of course musical tonality has a history that's similar to that of traditional architecture. Both evolved in a trial-and-error way, in relationship to people's actual (and very possibily biologically-based) tastes, pleasures, and preferences.

Modernist architecture by contrast has always been a top-down, theory-driven kind of thing -- a cage imposed on us rather than a creature that has been nurtured and that has grown to take its place in a larger ecosystem. Modernist architecture never stops haranguing us about what we ought to like and how we ought to live. Traditional architecture -- well, it is what we like; it is how we like to live.

Funny too the way that the "radical" (haha) architecture set has often claimed that they advocate what they do because they're such righteous radicals. I guess they figure that they're working for the final liberation of the oppressed, or "the workers," or something. In fact, they have almost always wound up serving the highest of high-end markets. Well, those plus bureaucracies. Bureaucracies luvvvvvvvv modernism.

These days the chic set seems to have abandoned making overt claims of working for the good of the oppressed. Instead they extoll architectural "excitement" -- thrills, basically. Jagged angles, sharp edges, see-through stairs, surfaces whose reflections blind passersby ... If you want to add "theme park thrills," or "masturbatory thrills," you'd get no argument from me.

It's hilarious to hear the avant-gardists castigate, say, the New Urbanists. "You're just making nicer suburbs!" is a common put-down.

Here's a sensible response to that criticism: "What on earth is wrong with making a nicer suburb? Isn't that a super architectural achievement? Isn't it a useful way of serving the needs and desires of normal people? Besides, making glittery avant-garde jewelboxes for the elites isn't exactly doing much for the underclass, you know?"

Speaking of regular people ... Most of them like porches, easily-understood doorways, usable parks, "rooms" instead of "spaces" ... They always have and they always will -- just as they enjoy tonal music, pictures that represent recognizable things, and narratives that tell actual stories. My response: Why not accept these as basic facts of culture, and work with them rather than against them? If you were a cook, would you devote yourself to creating food that everyday people find inedible? I wouldn't pass a law against a cook spending his life in such a pursuit. But I wouldn't find a lot in common with him either.

Quarreling with what are probably in-born preferences can be fun in an experimental-adolescent way, granted. I like a lot of experimental art myself, and god knows that a lot of the moviegoing I do is spent in the pursuit of kicks and thrills. But let's not make too much of it.

Plus, let's remember that when you experiment too lavishly with public structures and public spaces -- and nearly all buildings and spaces-between-buildings have a public aspect -- you can do real damage. Poems, music, paintings ... Who cares? Unless it gets to be too much, or unless avant-garde schools capture powerful bureaucracies. But a bad building? It can destroy a block, drive citydwellers out of town, and put a curse on thousands of people's lives.

Matt Mullenix forwards along a revealing piece about Saint John's University in Minnesota, which was largely designed by that godawful bunker-builder, the modernist architect Marcel Breuer. (See more Breuer here, here, and here. Thanks for the link, Charlton!) The piece raves about Breuer and his work, just as if it were still 1974, and Brutalism and raw concrete were still felt to be wonderful, just wonderful.

If you want to enjoy a quick sampling of the kind of case that modernist true believers make, go and learn. Keep your eyes peeled for phrases like "honesty about materials," "functionalism," "geometric forms," "slabs," "concrete boxes," "untreated concrete." Such phrases (used in a positive way) are indicators that you're in the presence of modernist hyper-ventilating.

Untreated concrete was a big deal to Marcel Breuer, as a matter of fact, as well as to the critics who did propaganda duty for his work. Inadvertently great sentence: "Breuer believed that the cantilevered concrete slab was the signature architectural feature of the 20th century." So why not make everything look like a parking structure, eh?



posted by Michael at March 5, 2008


I graduated from UC Irvine, located in Orange County, CA. The campus opened in 1965 and many of the original buildings were built during the late 60 to mid 70s when Brutalism was the happenin' thing.

I'm so grateful I had so many beautiful structures to look at everyday:

Compare those jewels to these monstrosities:

Ugh. Sickening.

Posted by: Bryan on March 5, 2008 4:57 PM

Conspicuous ugliness is a much more effective display of power than grand beautiful things. Hence the brutality of modern political buildings (including that subset of political buildings called corporate headquarters). Notice the effect of the empty plazas: as you traverse them, you leave behind the world of your equals, your fellow citizens and have to traverse the long, dead hallway like Dorothy and her Friends going to see the Wizard of Oz. And once inside, you are oppressed by harsh colours, jagged lines, exposed industrial hardware, looming or crowding ceilings. Your status as a subject is perfectly communicated to you by these structures.

And notice how often they compound the crushing effect by inflicting on their already quivering targets the stress and nausea and. yes, humiliation of having to look at twisted masses of metal ("sculpture") and great hanging slabs covered with thick, clotted masses of acrylic sludge, most of it purple, dark blue or black ("painting").

The message is clear, consistent and sustained in its intensity: Meet the new boss, sucker. Same as the old boss, serf. And there's nothing you'll ever be able to do about it, loser.

Posted by: PatrickH on March 5, 2008 6:44 PM

Michael, your comment about 'dead spaces' around recent starchitecture prompts me to mention the mock-Campidoglio that was imposed a couple of decades ago on the calm glory that is St James' Church, Sydney. The structure, designed by the convicted forger, Francis Greenaway, and built by convicts, is nearly as old as Sydney, yet it is as fresh as rain on new-fired bushland. The eighties-style streetscaping is dated and dead, dead, dead. Check out those plastic bubbles atop the 'heritage-red' bicycle pumps and the lumpish monotony of the paving design.

No sense complaining too loudly. They'll just send in a new crop of architects and bugger it all over again.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on March 5, 2008 9:04 PM

I know it is a terrible thing to admit, especially here, but I like a lot of Gehry buildings. The few that I've seen up close seem both playful and inspiring. Given that the most distinctive features of his buildings pertain to the outer form they may, as I've heard from friends who've been inside them, be more comfortably "normal" on the interior. No doubt certain of them have had problems in terms of construction issues, but so do other buildings.

I also like many of the design ideas set forth by New Urbanists. I love a nice porch and natural materials and human scale detailing. Of course, there is a difference between residential architecture and commercial architecture. Not many huge institutions like libraries and museums can fit into a cape or bungalow. And few of us would be able to live in a half million square foot residence. In other words, there are apples and there are oranges.

When many of the great buildings of yesteryear were constructed [e.g. Connecticut Hall & Pembroke College from the links above] there were the craftsmen who could create the carvings and other details you so enjoy ... as do I. Can you honestly say that such craftsmen are still available to construct and enhance today's buildings? And if there are a few great craftsmen out there whose talents can be drawn upon, at what cost? In the same way, it would be nice to have a home built today with the wide chestnut planking found in the 1840's house my in-laws owned when they were alive. Of course, today there are no more giant chestnuts, let alone chestnuts being milled into lumber. Sometimes you can preserve the best of the past, but you cannot recreate it.

I guess part of what I'm saying is that it seems to me that contemporary economic thinking in the West (i.e. free market capitalism) is where you'll find the bulk of the blame for the worst of the large modernist buildings you loath, rather than among modernist "starchitects", theorists or aestheticians. They're just doing what they get paid to do. It is in the economic thinking of the clients that you'll find the devaluation of craftsmanship and the elevation of the bottom line that results in cookie cutter big box architecture. The dissolution of craft guilds, union busting, reliance on technology over people with skills, and all the rest results in the elevation of apologists for concrete and functionalism.

Posted by: Chris White on March 6, 2008 8:29 AM


I got my boys (9 and 11) to rate your five buildings:


OK / bad

bad / bad

OK / good

good / good

So, on a 1-3 scale, the modernists get 1.5 and the traditionalists get 2.5. Not as big a difference as you might expect, but then kids (and plenty of people, actually) do like that futuristic stuff.

By instinct I would automatically jump on the neotraditionalist bandwagon - like anyone, I can think of plenty of God-awful brutalist buildings - but I attended an entirely brutalist university, and it was actually quite beautiful:

You can see the window of my old room overlooking the river. The college is successful for two main reasons. First, the grey cast concrete - normally the most dismal building material - complements the rocky, thin-soiled Canadian Shield landscape. More importantly, the scale and layout is right, inspired by the layout of Oxford colleges, according to the architect. Architects spout all kinds of shite (did you know Boston City Hall is a Renaissance palazzo, appropriately updated?), but in this case I believe him.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on March 6, 2008 10:36 AM

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