In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Trip Journal | Main | Girls, Details, Yak »

May 13, 2008

Glass Staircases

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Thanks to visitor Bryan for pointing out this NYTimes article about the current fashion for glass staircases. Funny comment from Bryan: "Glass, glass, glass. You would think it's this mysterious brand-new material, architects love it so much."

Please, can someone commission a nature-or-nurture study of modernistic architects? Is the tendency to worship transparency and geometry something that some people are born with? Or are they brainwashed into their fascination with it?

Small point: Given that pre-modernist and non-modernistic architects aren't mesmerized by abstraction to anything like the extent that the modernistic crowd is, this can't have to do with architects and architecture per se. After all, some architects -- not the kind who get tons of coverage from the likes of the NYTimes, alas -- are actually concerned with such values as shelter, social life, solidity, and even coziness. Visit John Massengale and Katie Hutchison for glimpses of a world the NYTimes will tell you very little about.

Gotta love this quote from Rick Mather, the architect who created the glass staircase featured in the Times' story:

“I like the ambiguity of it, I like that it brings in light, and I like that it disappears,” Mr. Mather said. “I like to not show how it’s supported.”

Yup, that's what we want our architects doing: not creating satisfying and solid spaces and structures, but dissolving our structures around us. At his website, Rick Mather shows off a lot of flat planes, geometry, glowiness, crisp edges, and glass. Mather shows off little but that, it seems to me ... But, heck, well, at least his clients know what they're in for.

God, but it must be exciting for architects to imagine themselves to be not just humble service-people doing their modest best to contribute a little to our shared quality of life, but instead to picture themselves as gurus, philosophers, and experimental scientists. Let's rescue humanity from tradition, from brick, even from rooms (modernistic architects prefer "spaces" to "rooms") -- from any familiar sense of how we're being sheltered! Too bad about those people who are terrified by the experience of, say, glass staircases ... But (as always) sacrifices need to be made so that the "liberation" process can move forward.

Bryan's note reminded me of some vidclips I'd collected of the glassy insides of one of NYCity's Apple Stores. So I threw them together and hit iMovie '08's "Upload to YouTube" button. Here's my latest production, already viewed by 12 discerning and fortunate viewers, I see:

Not a complete surprise to learn that Mr. iPod is a transparency buff himself, is it? I wonder if someone might want to suggest to Steve Jobs that the values that make for a nice computer or music player might not be the ones that are appropriate for buildings.

In any case: Some people sure have weird tastes in architectural thrills. Too bad so many of them are architects. Modernistic architects: Preening zombies we need to learn to protect ourselves against.

Incidentally, I have no quarrel with people doing what they want with interiors, of course. None of my business. But when the mania for glass and geometry starts to be imposed on the public realm it's another thing entirely:


Let me be the first to express my gratitude to those planners, developers, and architects who show such determination to transform our cities and town into sterile hospital corridors.

Nikos Salingaros argues -- to my mind convincingly -- that modernistic architecture is a kind of cult, and that its ideology is a pernicious mind-virus.

One of these days I'll get around to making the case that today's highbrow-architecture scene is well understood as something akin to the high-end women's-fashion world. Both fields specialize in the creation of brittle, hysterical whimsies that are sometimes amusing in snobbish and absurd ways. Little harm is done when such productions are fodder for the pages of Vogue, and when they're understood to serve fantasy purposes. But what kind of person would impose high-strung, soon-to-fall- out-of-fashion craziness on our public realm?

Semi-related: I wrote back here about how often ad designers are making use of something I call "the Glow." Visuals galore. If you're at all like me, you sometimes look at new buildings and spaces and think, "Gosh, why are developers and architects so devoted to making new buildings that look like magazine layouts?" Back here, I ventured the observation that today's banks look like brochures for themselves.

Thanks again to Bryan.



posted by Michael at May 13, 2008


But what kind of person would impose high-strung, soon-to-fall- out-of-fashion craziness on our public realm?

Easy, someone who wants to attain status by showing how hip they are, that they can make something that goes AGAINST social and traditional norms.

This is why when you see crazy, non-trad architecture in an urban environment next to a bunch of other crazy, non-trad buildings, well, the whole thing looks really weird.

This is probably why so much of the early modernist and post-modernist buildings were built in suburban environments or set-back from the human interaction that normally comes with urban environments.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on May 13, 2008 1:28 PM

Interesting quote by Rick Mather. Back in the modernist heyday, the diktat was that function ruled!

So now here's this guy trying to disguise how a stairway is supported. Back in 1960 that would have been almost as flagrant a sin as thatching the roof and installing leaded glass windows -- which is still a sin in architectural schools as best I can tell.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 13, 2008 8:01 PM

In order to understand modern architecture you have to understand that it's not about the building, it's about the architect.

Posted by: Slumlord on May 14, 2008 12:37 AM

This post is interesting to me, as a friend visiting just came back from Los Angeles and had many photos of contemporary structures to show. Frank Gehry seems to have cloned many copy-cats, there. What strikes me, a person in failing stages of eyesight, is how unfriendly many modern structures are to people with physical or perceptual impediments.
The glass staircase is a good example. Absolutely unfriendly to those whose visual perception is not operating at a full 100%. I'm sure I'd get killed in that London house with the glass staircase, as depth perception will be seriously fooled with by the play of light and transparency. Just because something is possible to achieve does not mean it is a desirable end. In my opinion, much of recent modern "starchitecture" is based on egos outdoing each other with improbable structures using novel materials. Sort of a grown-up version of sand-castle competitions among children on the beach.

Posted by: Gabriella morrison on May 14, 2008 2:40 AM

One reason premodern architects weren't so fascinated with straight lines and geometry was that they couldn't be. Before the revolutions of steel framing and reinforced concrete, it was not possible to blow up fanciful blueprints to real-life size. The buttressing and arches that give buildings a look and feeling of solidity were there for engineering reasons, not just to comfort or delight observers. So yeah, modern architects are playing with possibilities.

I wonder if they would savage traditional aesthetics quite so much, though, if the world were not so perfused with socialist/whiggish longing for a perfected future.

Posted by: robert on May 14, 2008 2:56 AM

Ian -- I think that's all mighty shrewd!

Donald -- It is funny, isn't it? Where modernism goes, I wonder if we've entered its Roccoco, decadent phase. Transparency (and such) as a form of hyper-refined self-amusement ...

Slumlord -- I wish you'd given the intro lecture to the history of architecture course I took in college. I'd have started out on a much more sound path.

Gabriella -- That's very interesting to hear, and a bunch of great points. High-wire-act type structures can be challenging in many ways even for people whose physical abilities are all in good shape, god knows. And once those abilities start to weaken what used to thrill can really start to frighten. Plus, and I don't know about anyone else here, I'm not actually looking for gee-whiz experiences of vertigo from my interactions with architecture. A few exceptions: visiting the top of the Empire State Bldg, walking into some Pantheon or other ... But generally speaking if I want to feel whirly, disorienting, near-terrifying feelings, I'll go rope-climbing or something. Which I never in fact do, of course, because I have nothing of the physical daredevil in me.

Robert -- Smart. I like your phrase "blow up fanciful blueprints to real-life size." That's what so many of these buildings and spaces feel like -- like their real existence is in the blueprint, not in the physical embodiment.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 14, 2008 11:32 AM

As to Gabriella's point: I think that disabled Americans should systematically sue all the architects and builders and owners of modernist monstrosities that are unfriendly to the disabled. I think they'd have a pretty good case under the ADA.

Just think of it! Human-centred building could return to our society, brought back because heartless, inhuman starchitects and their hack epigones get their heartless pants sued off every time they try to inflict one of their mega-stressor machines on us!

That's it. No more fantasizing about OBL taking down the latest Gehry. We could sue instead. After all, that's the American way.

Posted by: PatrickH on May 14, 2008 12:10 PM

Modernist architecture was, from the beginning, about being non-bourgeois (where "bourgeois" included the traditionalist wealthy). Hipper and newer than thou. It also had, in many ways, an economic advantage - straight lines and boxes were cheaper to build and operate. But the main thing it did was gratify the ego of the architect - move him from craftsman to artist. It persists because architects like that, and wealthy patrons (and the non-profit entities they control) want desperately to be hip.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on May 14, 2008 6:43 PM

When it was under construction, I blogged the new research facility of the University of Michigan Medical School. Prominent in the front is the curvaceous lecture hall, which I actually like; the shape's geometrical rules can be intuited, unlike Gehry's buildings, which seem arbitrary to me. Also, the location at a bend in a busy street justifies the placement of a eye-catching landmark.

The real problem is the tall building behind the lecture hall. It is fronted by a big, very ugly, glass wall. I find it loathsome. I'm mystified that anyone would like it. It's existence is due in part to university politics; you can read more at my blog, but some of you will give a knowing nod of the head when I mention that Lee Bollinger was involved, Mr. Reverse-Midas-Touch himself.

Better images are available at the architect's website.

Posted by: Fredosphere on May 14, 2008 7:53 PM

My question about such things (as glass stairs) is: who does the dusting?

Posted by: Lee on May 16, 2008 3:10 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?