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May 07, 2008

The Human Touch

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A little fun with comparing-and-contrasting.

In our first pairing, the theme is outlines and shapes.


The top building, the traditional one: Check out the variety and quantity of shapes. Trace the outline of the building with your finger -- takes some concentration and time, no? Incidentally: You may or may not know the names and histories of all the architectural elements playing roles in this composition. It really doesn't matter, unless you're (shudder) a scholar or a pedant. The important thing is to sense that they're embedded in western art history. And how is it possible not to do that?

The bottom cluster of modernist buildings: a buncha shoeboxes covered with graph paper. One of them has been given a twist -- that's what too-often qualifies as "architectural creativity" these days. Trace these outlines with a finger -- it's fast, easy, and majorly boring. We're in a world of simple geometry and dumb abstraction, in other words, with no connection to anything of substance or depth, especially pre-1900 western art history.

An analogy. Traditional architecture is to modernist architecture as traditional handmade art is to Adobe Illustrator images. In a handmade image ...


... you feel the presence of a person. There's subtlety, texture, depth.

In many Adobe Illutrator images ... Well, they certainly pop.


This image is what people in the media biz might call "a quick read" -- it's all edges, planes, gradient fills, and color swatches. But -- despite the whirliness and effects -- one glance at this image and you're done with it. Like the modernist buildings in the photo above, the Illustrator image has all the personality and lovableness of a bureaucracy. (Small aside: Doesn't it often seem that everything in our culture is doing its best to turn into spinning TV graphics?)

Our next theme is color, scale, and texture:

la_arcada.jpg columbus_circle05.jpg

Top image: Warm colors. A structure that relates to your scale as a physical being, and that coexists easily with nature. Imagine reaching out and touching the stucco, the red tiles of the roof, the canvas of the awnings (awnings are architecture too): Nubbliness, weight, age ... It all makes me want to settle in, sip wine, and enjoy the day.

Bottom image: So far as colors go, it's all neutrals. So far as scale goes: a kind of ballooning overwhelmingness. Put a tree in the midst of that scene and it'd look pathetic -- this world is a completely paved-over one. As for the materials ... Well, imagine reaching out and giving these surfaces a touch: slick and cold glass and metal; post-industrial surfaces made of god only knows what. To me, the scene resembles a loading dock full of computers and keyboards cast off by giants. It's one of the last places where I'd be tempted to take my ease.

Hey, another analogy:


The adobe-and-red-tile-roof building is like this pot: unmistakably hand-made, and redolent of character and culture. (In the case of this pot, Native American.) It's something you might make use of, but also something you might simply take pleasure in. It's definitely something you're likely to grow old with. If it were to be demolished, you might well feel some pain.


The modernist cluster is like these speakers. The shapes aren't completely unattractive; a little time has clearly been invested in giving them a soupcon of chic. But they're unavoidably industrial: plastic, all neutrals. You may want or need them; you may enjoy what they do for you. But you're unlikely to develop much of a relationship with them. If the speakers were to break, who would care? You were expecting to replace them in five years anyway. Same with the modernist neighborhood: If you were to bulldoze one of those buildings, would anyone go into mourning?

Our next theme is stability and solidity. The trad structure is a SoHo cast-iron building. The modernist one is a reworking of that Downtown theme in glitzy-decadent contempo terms.

soho_cast_iron01.jpg new_glass_village02.jpg

In this case, the contrast isn't between hand-made and industrial-functional. The contrast is between the high style of one era vs. the high style of our own.

One quick impression: The cast-iron building isn't monotonous, while the glassy remake certainly is. That's partly because the cast-iron building is divided into the traditional three-part structure: base, middle stretch, and top part. The glassy building is just a repetitious buncha shapes.

Another impression: The SoHo building, for all its style, doesn't blind you with flash. It's unquestionably a building, something intended to take its place in city life. You know what its scale and its purpose is. As for the remake ... Well, it might be a building. But it might also be a perfume counter, or it might be a computer program's opening screen.

Question for the day: Is "transparency" always a virtue?

The SoHo building is easy to comprehend as well as approachable, while the flashy new building is messin' with your mind in a twinkly, is-it-real-or-is-it-virtual-reality sort of way. That may be a nifty game for conceptual artists or videogame-creators to play. But is it really something that we want our buildings doing?

Next: neighborhoods. First up in this comparison is a typical downtown-Manhattan block. It's followed by a modernist block.

typical_village_street01.jpg modernist_geometric_hell002.jpg

Trad: Take in the way a loose regularity is crossed with exuberant diversity. The buildings all front the street in the same way; they all play by similar rules. These buildings orient themselves by reference to cultural history and norms, and to basic human scale. Yet the details, textures, and motifs vary wildly. You could, in fact, spend weeks examining and enjoying what these buildings offer, as well as how they interact. This block is an edge-of-chaos Mandelbrot set; it's a symphony composed by God; it's a deeply satisfying image of social life. Cooperation is coexisting with individuality in a really wonderful way.

Modernist: A repellant, rationalist, and Kafka-esque hell, populated by anxious people whose minds are elsewhere and who'd rather be anyplace else.

Two main things to take note of, it seems to me: surfaces, and light-and-shadow. The surfaces in the trad block leave you in no doubt about the weight and substance of those buildings. They were here yesterday, and they'll be here tomorrow. Meanwhile, the surfaces in the modernist block look here-today / gone-tomorrow, and paper-thin.

As for the question of light-and-shadow ... Well, look at that trad block again: It's a living, dancing thing, a Rembrandt pen-and-ink drawing that sunlight brings to sparkling life. The modernist block? Where light-and-shadow goes, it doesn't even give you a way of knowing whether the day is a sunny one or not. Nature has been rendered inaccessible. Light-wise, this space is as dead, dead, dead as a dentist's office.

A final reflection: I can see a case being made that participation in the modern economy demands that we put up with a certain number of soulless birdcages, spaces, and blocks. I don't know whether this is really true, by the way. But I can see the case being made. I can also agree that some soulless birdcages are snazzier-lookin' than others, and I assume that designers and architects deserve credit for that.

What I struggle with is this: the notion that these creations shouldn't be just tolerated but praised, let alone valued above traditional pleasures. After all, they're the equivalent of agri-business packaged foods, while trad buildings and blocks represent nourishment that's fresh and handmade. The modernist structures are synthesizer Muzak, while trad buildings and blocks are jazz combos and string quartets.

So it's funny, isn't it, that the critics, the committees, and the architecture schools reserve their enthusiasm and their big claims for the inhuman, plastic crap? Wouldn't we prefer to have an architecture class that's devoted to beauty, class, and pleasure?

Semi-related: I marveled over the way banks have begun to resemble brochures for themselves. Back here, I celebrated Addison Mizner, popularizer of the Mediterranean Revival style. Mizner showed one satisfying way to be modern without being modernist.



posted by Michael at May 7, 2008


Part of the problem is that the relative cost of ornament with respect to total cost to build has gone up. Even contemporary builders that want to avoid modernist designs have a hard time getting their buildings ornamental enough. Brick buildings may be an exception because they are not really that ornamental to begin with.

Posted by: lemmy caution on May 7, 2008 1:44 PM

Michael, I love this post. Do you live in Manhattan?
I always find that there is something to be said about a person who chooses to live in one of the modern structures. Drive along West Side Highway and you'll see the cookie-cutter, glass Trump Towers. These are high-rise luxury buildings for the yuppie bachelor-types. Inside, these buildings look like hotels. The only thing I can say about them is that they seem to be transient homes.

A walk down Riverside Dr is by far a more pleasant activity. All the building are historic and have a lot of character, even though many are above ten stories tall. Many of the buildings are uninhabited. They are crumbling, and it looks like an animal decomposing. I love it.

Architecture reflects the people who build it and the people who live or work in/near it. There is a reason why people in New York still scramble for the brownstones, even if they have incredible maintenance costs, over the luxury highrises. The old feels so much closer to real and homey.

Posted by: irina on May 7, 2008 1:57 PM

Michael, as always, these types of postings are great.

But, I see little to puzzle over with the preference of the new glassy things over the old ornate things.

I tend to look at it this way:
Back in the day, before Modernism, if you had seen the newest building being erected in London, or Paris or Tokyo, they would have seemed very British, or French or Japanese.

Today, our Leftist Overlords create buildings that could go anywhere and say nothing and everything all at the same time. They are Internationalist.

So, why did the British make British looking buildings and not Spanish looking ones, well, because they were British.

Those buildings, whether they meant to or not, expresses their natural Britishness (or Frenchness, or Japanese-ness or whatever).

You can not be proud to be [fill in the blank of some once powerful western nation] you opressing, raping, land-stealing, nature-destroying racist.

Now, if you build some "thing" that deconstructs tradition and speaks to the opressed in a way that defies social norms, well, now you have something. And since we are all the same, it's shape and design will speak to everyone, not just the Dutch (or whoever).

Now, it can be an expression of some oppressed group since it would be an act of defiance and showing their plight.

But, otherwise, it must be Internationalist (i.e. Leftist).

This is why it is damn near impossible nowadays to find real Ornamentation (this goes to your first example) today. Ornamentation almost always signals something unique.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on May 7, 2008 4:22 PM

Lemmy - That's an important point, thanks. But can I venture one small thought on you? Thinking of "ornament" as something tacked-on is often a bit of a modernist-influenced goof. Modernists see everything as primarily geometrical; to them, traditional architecture is nothing but boxes hung with gewgaws. My argument would be that trad architecture is anything but that -- that it's more akin to language than math, and is made up of components and patterns (at various levels of complexity) that have character, overtones, associations, etc. A box that has had some ornaments hung from it usually looks like just that. A trad-style building that has been "grown" in the traditional style looks (and feels) like the organic thing it is. Trad architecture: It's a lot more like cooking than it is like chemistry.

Irina -- Glad you enjoyed, thanks for reading and commenting. Live in the Village, work near Columbus Circle. Excellent description the charm of Riverside Dr.!

Ian -- That's a lot of smart points. "buildings that could go anywhere and say nothing and everything all at the same time" is really good. One question for you? Do you think it's fair to call the people behind contempo modernism "leftists"? It seems to me that something like "globalists" would be more apt.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 7, 2008 4:56 PM

Michael, I'd be curious to hear what you think of Julian Schnabel's new digs, the ones that were written up in Vanity Fair a while ago. I must confess I really love what he's done, all of it. I somehow don't think you're much of a fan of JS in general, but his home choices seem to be something old and new both, in look, feel, and even (detectable somehow through the pictures) smell.

You like? Direction for the future? I'm an idiot? Do tell!

Posted by: PatrickH on May 7, 2008 5:10 PM

Essentially two comments:

1) Tom Wolfe ("From Bauhaus to Our House") and others have addressed the "ornament is too expensive" argument.

Some say that this is a self-fulfiling prophecy: It's expensive because so few ornamented buildings are built -- due to the opposition of modernists!

Others also say that the "ornamentation is now too expensive argument" seems unlikely to be true since modern building materials (e.g., fiberglass) and techniques would likely make ornament less expensive, not more.

And history would seem to back up this counter argument as the profuse ornamentation of the cast iron buildings illustrated in MB's post is indeed a result of a new building material (i.e, cast iron) and a new building technology (massed produced cast iron ornamentation that can be, essentially, screwed on) being used to make an expensive older material and older building technology (i.e., stone) less expensive. (The cast iron was painted to look like stone.)

Today fiberglass, erector-set type scaffolding, etc. seem to be ways of doing something similar.

2) I'm so glad that Patrick H brought up the Julian Schnabel building -- I've been meaning to ask MB the same question for months now!

A few months ago I was walking through the West Village, and I saw the Schnabel building (which I was only dimly aware of) for the first time -- and I was overwhelmed. What a wonderful, fantastic building!

Some thoughts that occurred to me:

a) When was it built? And how did I not know about it?!!!

I did a little research and found out that it's recent, and I HAD read about it. But the descriptions of it, however, were very poor and, importantly, they were essentially written by local activists who were violently opposed to it because they are basically anti-development and anti-diversity. (One of them is the prime mover, by the way, of landmarking the Silver Towers complex.)

b) I wonder what MB thinks about it?

c) And when I found out it was built by modernist Schnabel, I too was intrigued that he would be responsible for such a "traditional" building. (Which is another reason, I suppose, I hadn't connected him -- and the negative press that I had read about his building -- with this spectacular traditional building when I actually first saw it.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on May 7, 2008 7:17 PM

Why is it that so many comments equate the buildings built by global corporate capitalism as "leftist" architecture? Michael is closer to getting it right when he uses the term 'globalists." Ornamentation costs money that the clients (Trump of the Towers et al) would rather keep in their own pockets. Furthermore, traditional buildings were built by highly skilled craftsmen and guild workers while modern boxes are built by less skilled workers who are more easily replaced should they begin to demand higher pay.

Posted by: Chris White on May 7, 2008 7:32 PM

Chris, that's probably a fair assessment of the current architects, but the roots of International style are definitely leftist.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on May 7, 2008 8:09 PM

Are you familiar with this passage Michael?

Psychology has ascertained that sight alone gives us no accurate sense of the third dimension. In our infancy, long before we are conscious of the process, the sense of touch, helped on by muscular sensations of movement, teaches us to appreciate depth, the third dimension, both in objects and in space.

In the same unconscious years we learn to make of touch, of the third dimension, the test of reality. The child is still dimly aware of the intimate connection between touch and the third dimension. He cannot persuade himself of the unreality of Looking-Glass Land until he has touched the back of the mirror. Later, we entirely forget the connection, although it remains true, that every time our eyes recognise reality, we are, as a matter of fact, giving tactile values to retinal impressions.

Now, painting is an art which aims at giving an abiding impression of artistic reality with only two dimensions. The painter must, therefore, do consciously what we all do unconsciously,--construct his third dimension. And he can accomplish his task only as we accomplish ours, by giving tactile values to retinal impressions. His first business, therefore, is to rouse the tactile sense, for I must have the illusion of being able to touch a figure, I must have the illusion of varying muscular sensations inside my palm and fingers corresponding to the various projections of this figure, before I shall take it for granted as real, and let it affect me lastingly.

It follows that the essential in the art of painting--as distinguished from the art of colouring, I beg the reader to observe--is somehow to stimulate our consciousness of tactile values, so that the picture shall have at least as much power as the object represented, to appeal to our tactile imagination.

It's from the opening of Berenson's Florentine Painters Of The Renaissance. Now apply what he says about the painter's job to architects.

I think the difference isn't so much between trad and mod or vernacular and elite so much as it is between the tactile and the visual, or - to put it more jargonyly - between haptic and optic. The mod and post-mod stuff with its slick surfaces and Cartesian grids is explicitly designed to avoid "stimulat[ing] our consciousness of tactile values", and that's the reason it is so unreal and hence so unaffecting. By attempting to seem disembodied it cheats the eye.

The traditional stuff provides the sort of "retinal impressions" that are able to "rouse the tactile sense", which is what I suspect is meant by such terms as warmth, humanity, and suchlike.

Posted by: Brian on May 7, 2008 8:33 PM

None of the photos I've been able to find on the internet seem to do the spectacular (in my eyes) Schnabel building justice, but this thread at "Wired New York - Forum" seems to contain a number of photos that, cumulatively at least, seem to convey this building's wonderfulness.

(In case the URL is faulty, the thread can be found at Wired New York Forum / Skyscrapers and Architecture / New York Real Estate / Far Lower West Side Boom.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on May 7, 2008 9:19 PM

It's a bit of a paradox, but stripped down modernist interiors can be very appealing to live in, even as stripped down modernist exteriors feel inhuman and forbidding.

Best of all is living in the exposed beam and brick walled interior of one of those old cast iron buildings.

I wonder why that is? Modernist interior: good; modernist exterior: bad.

Posted by: ricpic on May 7, 2008 9:24 PM

Do you think it's fair to call the people behind contempo modernism "leftists"?

I have no problem refering to these people as Leftists. I think it is important to make a distinction between Globalizing and Internationalism. When I hear that something wants to go "global", we are talking about some business getting clients all over the world. Or, Doctors Without Borders having staff in almost every country around the globe.

Internationalism, with it's brothers Modernism, Post-Modernism and Brutalism (amongst other *isms) is very much rooted in Leftist ideology. Please understand that I am not talking about Liberals. I am not burning Daniel Patrick Moynihan at the stake here.

I wish I could find the book, but I had read about the original Modernist architects (there were 3 or 4 very influential groups during the first half of the 20th century) and their methods for advancing Modern and Internationalist architecture. It was a movement that HAD to prevail world-wide.

The Architecture is never about place and continueing and advancing long-held traditions and looks. Internationalism does not want architecture in Ameria to be American or building in France to be French. They are all to follow the same set of ideas that deconstruct the old norms. And the building always seem to be about control. The paths and walkways do not follow where the people actually walk, but are rigid in their design. The chairs are not built for comfort and old-fashioned attractiveness, but are sleek and hard. The buildings do not look to accomodate how people live and work but, instead, mandate that, "Here, we have office towers, and here we have industrial complexes, and here, we have large school buildings where ALL children will go, and here we have...".

The building are now so often set-back from the street and human interaction. They are lifeless. They do not instill in anyone the desire to have and raise a family. Just think about strolling throught the streets of Princeton, or Towson, Maryland or Providence or Charlestown. The homes are absolutely charming. The fences, the brick or stone walkways that ramble to the garden in back. You walk in the kitchen and see a traditional stove with CUSTOM MADE design on the back-splash. It has an ornate Hood over it that seems to be more attractive than the stove itself. These places are about people.

Yes, most of the homes look quite similar. But each has a touch of it's own. And Princeton looks like Princeton and Providence looks like Providence. They are not Internationalist and they are definitely not Brutalist. No human being that cared about making something better for their children and grandchildren would ever go through the trouble of building them something Brutal.

These are ideologues. And when the few Architecture schools show up that taut the traditional way of doing things, they are seen as the enemy. I believe that the one school in Portugal was actually shut down by the local version of the Assoc. of Architects. Not because of lack of demand.

Poundbury in England, spearheaded by Prince Charles and loved by the unwashed masses (who have no love for Prince Charlie) is absolutely reviled by the anointed Architects. Poundbury is quite English. The people that actually live at Poundbury...wait for it, wait for it...LOVE IT!!!!

It is charming, walkable, lovable, homey, warm...jeez, my head is about to explode.

Nothing about Poundbury makes and Architect say "Workers of the World Unite!". Everything about Internationalist and Brutalist building does.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on May 8, 2008 9:33 AM

Chris, I just want to make this clear: I am not damning liberals with what I said.

Liberals saved Greenwich Village. Liberals say Robert Moses for what he was, a power-hungry, totalitarian monster.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on May 8, 2008 9:44 AM

Benjamin, PatrickH - Thanks, hadn't been aware of it, put the info in a new posting. Arty whimsy can be fun, god knows.

Brian -- I don't think I've ever read the passage, but I'm buying it completely, tks. The connection between visual sense and tactile sense seems so key, don't it? I wonder how it happens? And severing the link does seem central to what many modernist/po-mo/etc types are up to. Funny that they genuinely seem to prefer that way of going about things. Why are they in the arts? To feel smart and superior?

Ricpic-- I know what you mean. So long as they're fairly modest about it, Modernists often seem really good at cleaning up and opening up overclogged old structures and spaces. Where they run into trouble is when they start creating their own forms. "Empty it out" and "clean it up" work pretty well as commands when you've got a lot that's pre-existing to work on, but they're lousy commands to follow when you're starting from scratch.

Ian -- That's a great (and perceptive, and commonsensical in the best way) rant!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 8, 2008 1:04 PM

Michael, I'm sure you've seen the pictures for Gehry's revised office tower and Nets arena at Atlantic yards in Brooklyn. What do you think of the new design? Building A
I didn't like the old "Miss Brooklyn" design, but this one's even worse. To me, it looks like the building's already falling down. I don't think I'm atypical of New Yorkers when I say that pictures of falling skyscrapers bring back some pretty ugly memories of 9/11. Why would they do this? Please, someone, tell me this is a joke.

Posted by: Julie Brook on May 8, 2008 3:11 PM


That is a really fascinating observation about interiors vs. exteriors. Perhaps the appeal is that modernist interiors open up cramped spaces, simple surfaces don't attract grime, large windows let in light and make small spaces seem larger. The very same approach in exteriors produces alienation, exposure, stress, tension, simplisme, etc.

I do know that I often find modernist interiors restful and energizing in the way I find traditional exteriors. And traditional interiors (can) stress me out as badly as modernist exteriors.

Very interesting point.

P.S. Michael, about the Schnabel residence, I have to say that I love it as much for the way it fits its setting as for its own particular boho funky glamour. It doesn't look (IMO) as if it's been plunked down at all. Really nice integration with the buildings around it. I'd like to see every one of the glass tower atrocities springing up in the Villages to be dynamited (Osama? Osama?) and replaced by structures that are built from the same philosophy as Schnabel's home.

Posted by: PatrickH on May 8, 2008 4:12 PM

I'd like someone to define the term "American architecture." What is it? A teepee? The only indigenous architecture would be native american structures. Everything else has beern imported European structures that were the normative style at one time or another, with a possible break from that in the 20th century with designs like Wright's and Green&Green's homes.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on May 8, 2008 6:03 PM

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