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September 30, 2008

A False Future Glimpsed

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Towards the end of my high school career I'd often hop a bus for downtown after school and get off near the Seattle Public Library's main branch, an old, gray Carnegie donation. Then I'd spend an hour or so browsing the art, architecture and some other sections before walking the two blocks to my father's office to hitch a ride home with him.

Most of the architecture books I studied dealt with Modernism, and I had totally bought into its ideology/religion at that time. Maybe one reason I did so was because hardly any significant Modernist structures had been built in Seattle by the mid-1950s, so I had no idea of the visual damage they would cause. The International Style (the Museum of Modern Art's name for it) buildings I saw were in the form of drawings, models and photos in books and architecture magazines. They looked clean and exciting. Particularly seductive was the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Here is one of his proposals from around 1920.


This sort of thing would give my college architectural history professor heart throbs. Form following function. Truth to materials. And you can see it all! Clearly!!

Too bad for Mies and the Prof that real buildings almost never came off that way. Except at night when rooms are lighted, glass-clad buildings simply reflect stuff, a characteristic more recent architects have exploited.

Nevertheless, once in a while one can glimpse in reality what van der Rohe and his kind had intended. Below is a recent photo I took of a building under construction in Toronto. Lighting conditions were just right to give it the effect Mies was striving for.




posted by Donald at September 30, 2008


Back when Mies first designed those "see-through" buildings, the technology of thin-films and heat reflective glass was in its infancy (if it existed at all). He drew those plans like that because modern plate glass really did not exist. By solving the problem of how to reflect infra-red and other heat inducing wavelengths, we also created the reflective quality of the modern glass-clad buildings. That technology made the modern skyscraper possible. A nasty trade-off which has blighted thousands of urban areas.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on September 30, 2008 7:52 PM

Donald wrote:

. . . and I had totally bought into its ideology/religion at that time. Maybe one reason I did so was because hardly any significant Modernist structures had been built in Seattle by the mid-1950s, so I had no idea of the visual damage they would cause.

Benjamin writes:

I once bought into it also -- and even today in NYC lots of people still apparently buy into it. Why?

One tentative theory: People don't distinguish between a superficial visual appeal in the photographs and actually living with a building day in and day out (though all kinds of weather, etc.).

And once the buildings are in place (e.g., Silver Towers [although this isn't a glass building]), people lose sight of what once was or could have been in terms of real life experiences. And it seems to me that traditional architecture "loses out" to orthodox modernism, in visual representations, especially with photographs which don't seem to capture well the value of traditional architecture and THE ENVIRONMENT that it creates.

My disenchantment with orthodox modernism really began to blossom, as you suggest, when I began to actually experience the buildings in real life, especially in a detailed way or on an everyday basis.

- - - - - -

In my Modern Architecture "101" class in college (in the late 1960s), I remember the instructor pointing out some problems with modernism in general and with Mies van der Rohe's glass skyscrapers in particular (even though he was pro-modernist).

One of the problems he pointed out was that the see-through effect is quickly lost once the building is occupied. (And he may have also pointed out that even in an empty skyscraper, only a few floors are ever see-through anyway because the ceiling and floor planes render the see-through effect impossible for the other floors -- unless they are also constructed of glass and the building is totally unoccupied.

If I remember correctly, one quirky problem he also pointed out was with Lever House -- the men's rooms were placed on the outside (of this thin buiding) and the architect didn't flinch from continuing with his glass walls (but just added blinds). Many years later I remembered this when I was working as an office temp in Lever House and went to the men's room. Indeed the walls were glass and in this particular men's room the blinds were open (and either broken or difficult to close). (Funny thing, though, a little later I happened to temp in the offices directly across the street and found out that no one, in this office anyway, had ever noticed the men's room with the glass walls across the street. (Lever House has since been renovated, and I'm not sure if the set-up is still the same.)

- - - - -

When I was a kid, the Lever House was new and it really created waves. My mother was so taken with it she took me into Manhattan to see the "glass building." When I saw it, I was really disappointed. As a kid, I actually expected a totally glass building with not only glass walls but glass columns, glass floors and ceilings etc.!

- - - - - -

The mirrored-glass skyscraper is relatively new and creates a see-through effect in a different way -- by mimicking what's on the other side.

The on-line "City Room" blog of "the New York Times" had an illustrated post about one of these new see-through (when the weather is right) buildings, 7 World Trade Center (which is the one building that's been built so far). ("The See Through Skyscraper," David Dunlap, Sept. 2, 2008.)

I posted comment #17, and was delighted when the "Times" contacted me to get my permission to print an excerpt from my comment in the print edition of the "Times" as a "comment of the week." (They printed the last line of the comment.)

Here's a link to the blog post and my comment #17:

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on September 30, 2008 11:33 PM

My question is, how do we undo the "visual damage" caused by sturdy and still functional buildings? Tearing them down isn't likely, unless they go broke. How about dressing them up, with stone or brick or wood? Now there's a movement for you-- réfaçadisme.

Réfaçadistes can give prizes to architectural students who can best envision their cities in new clothes. Start with easy, bland cities like Seattle or Chicago, then something tougher like Frankfurt. The champion redesigner can then tackle the most horrifying skyline on the planet-- Nelson Rockefeller's Albany.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on October 1, 2008 2:25 AM

A dumbed down explanation as to why Modernism might reign: it's kinda cool.

Personally, I hate Modernist Architecture and modern urban/suburban design/planning, but even I, upon seeing the second picture of the Glass Skyscraper being built thinks, "Cool". It looks neat.

I can remember seeing a photograph of a traditional city block being built one rowhouse at a time and, at the time of the photograph, there was only two built. And, it looked odd. Two Brownstones right next to one another and absolutely nothing else around it. Just bare land (i.e. no grass, no trees, nothing). Soon enough, it would be a complete city block, with density and excitement, but, at first it just seemed bare ans somewhat dull.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on October 1, 2008 11:23 AM

Teasing out the appeal of Modernist architecture is fun, isn't it? Especially given how poorly it plays out in practice ... Seems to me that two of the main selling points it offer is 1) it can sound mighty good in theory, and 2) it can look mighty good in photographs. Its failings are mostly in how it behaves, what it's like to be around it (work in it, pass by it, live in it), the long-term effects it has on spaces on neighborhoods -- nothing you can spot or even experience much in theory, or in a photograph. Meanwhile traditional architecture-and-urbanism barely has a theory and can look like a shambles in photographs. But it proves to be livable in uncountable (and hard to account for) ways. It works. It's like clothing that fits well, suits you, is a pleasure to own and wear, etc ... Where, despite how shiny and exciting it can seem, modernism in practice is a shambles. It's like clothing that looked splendid in the magazine, the showcase, and on the rack but is a misery to actually wear.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 1, 2008 2:40 PM

Benjamin, my firm (at the time) was working on renovating one of the floors in Lever House in 2000. Once the construction started we went on a learning trip there.

Yes, the restrooms (not just men's rooms) are placed along the exterior perimeter. These are multistall restrooms. At the time there were no doors in the stalls; I assumed they'll be attached at later phase, but the designer told me they will not. He did add another panel of glass in front of the exterior [glass] wall: transluscent, @partial height - I think, about 4'6"h. He wasn't supposed to alter the exterior, as the building is considered landmark.
What I remember the most - was the difficulties he described his team had with the ceiling. Ceiling height is low (I think it was 9'0" slab-to-slab), and he had to fit A/C, heating and ambient lighting in it; traditional hung ceilings and ductwork couldn't incorporate 10"max plenum. So he ended up designing a special ceiling system, with modular interlocking aluminum elements that were usable in variety of layouts and for variety of "fillers", be it a continuous air return, sprinkler, smoke detector or a recessed luminair. It looked spectacular and costed a small fortune.

Posted by: Tatyana on October 1, 2008 2:46 PM

MB, this might be semantics, but I disagree as to what looks good in photos. A person might prefer the Guggenheim in Balboa to some traditional farmhouse (each, a single structure with open surroundings), but almost all other comparisons of traditional to modern will favor, I believe, the traditional.

A long and wide shot of Rowhouses or Brownstones compared to a Suburban development. A single family home from the Victorian, or Georgian or Federal era (or, any era before the Great War) compared to a single family home from anything in the last 50 years. Major Avenues from 1908 compared to Major Aves from 2008.

In general, I think that the general public almost always prefer the traditional to the Modern and Post-Modern.

I am keeping this comment short, but my sample INCLUDES people who like and buy the modern McMansions.

Posted by: Usually Lurking on October 1, 2008 2:49 PM

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