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May 08, 2009

Architecture and Shadows

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Another in a series of postings designed to wake a few websurfers up to elements in the experience of the built environment that are simple, important, and too-often-overlooked. Listen up, America, goddammit.

Today: light and shadows. And a fast comparison to kick us off. First, traditional brick and stone:


Next, mid-20th century modernism (the UN building, in fact):


Ignoring many of the worthwhile observations that could be made about this juxtaposition, for today I want to ask: What's the main difference between the above images in terms of light and shadow? Obvious answer: Traditional architecture-and-urbanism offers loads more in the way of light/shadow delight than modernist architecture-and-urbanism does.

Another comparison. First up, some modest tenement apartment buildings:


Look at the variety of shapes made here by the light and the shadow. Take note of the way the light and shadows emphasize mass -- those buildings feel solid. Don't let your eyes be shy about taking the ironwork -- the fire escapes -- into account. Those rungs, diagonals, slats, and verticals add a dimension that isn't to be ignored. They remind us not just of the sun but also (because they change so markedly as the day goes by) of the passage of time. You might say that, given the density, touch, and complexity of detail and texture, this view looks and feels like a painting.

Now, a brand-new apartment building in the current wobbly / off-kilter mode recently erected just a few blocks away:


What's the experience of light-and-shadow here? Not to be coy, let me suggest that the easiest answer is: "None whatsoever." I get "gleam," I register "glassy," and I certainly pick up on "swoopiness." What I don't get is any of this: solid, deep, substantial, calm, organic, complex. The whole structure in fact looks like it was extruded direct from a plastics factory. Or maybe it's a screencap taken off your computer's screensaver.

But don't some modernist (and modernist-derived) buildings at least try to take the light-and-shadow thing into account? Sure -- not many, not often, but still. So what's the result? Let's take a look.

Mid-20th century modernism:




There's certainly some contrasts going on here between light and dark. No arguing about that. But what's the effect?

What I mainly pick up from these attempts isn't "the human touch," it's "geometrical abstraction." In fact, let me go a little further with that reaction: What I really pick up is "rabid, monomaniacal devotion to geometrical abstraction at all costs." Human? Only if your idea of "human" is Arnold in the first "Terminator" movie.

A reminder of something we can all recognize as human:


Check out the patterns of light and shadow in that modest row of houses, and let the implications, suggestions, and meanings of those patterns ricochet around your brain a bit. Shelter ... The human touch ... Organic matter ... Evolved, near-biological shapes and forms ...

A quick revisit with the values the architectural establishment prefers:


The word "bleak" might well present itself here. So might "flat," "abstract" and "reflect-y." Let me venture another word too: "unwelcoming." OK, it's a little interpretive and judgmental. But is it far off?

Is modernism -- as some of its partisans claim -- just another style, to be indulged as one member of a large, loving family? Or is it (as I maintain) a hostile disruption of a great and rewarding tradition, a finger in the face of a major evolved human accomplishment, namely traditional architecture and urbanism? Well, in the next photo, how much do the two buildings have in common?


"Disruption" doesn't seem like too strong a word to me.

But how can we be sure that people genuinely prefer organic, complex light-and-shadow patterns that combine regularity and chaos? (Note: not "random noise" but "chaotic elements.") Besides: Where's our vision? Where's our imagination? Why limit ourselves to what's already been done?

Easy response. Here's a traditional space in a traditional park:


And here's a recent creation:


In a traditional space, people gather willingly and happily, while the chic, design-y space puts people off.

(Worth keeping in mind is a term the academic establishment likes to use: not parks but "empty spaces," or "public spaces." Gotta love that kind of medical-scientific neutral "objective" terminology. Gotta wonder too what effect using terms like those have on the brains of those in the "design community.")

How much is there to the observation that trad work combines regularity (balance, rhythm) with chaos (ie., natural patterns and the unexpected)? It's basic, really. Here's a closeup to illustrate how this works:


You have your grid -- ie., your regularity. But you also have your irregular qualities too: the fingernail-like scrapes, and (quite strikingly here) what's called the "rustication" of the large stone blocks. It's all artfully enhanced, of course. But a good park is similar -- a harmonious conversation between the natural and the artificial.

Looking at the closeup above, you can pretty much weigh, feel, and measure the mass and depth of those columns, stones, etc. In fact, these feelings probably reach deep into you; they strike off sensuality and imagination. It'd be fun to make a drawing of that, right? After all, there's a lot there for your senses and brain to get absorbed in, and to engage with.

My park-vs-empty-space comparison was fun, no? But was it a fluke? Another example. Trad park:


Modernist empty space:


The elements in the trad park are straight out of "pattern books" -- accumulations of structures, shapes, and things that have proven to work, and to work together, as well as the formulae by which to assemble them. The modernist space is all concept and geometry.

Another thing to notice: No attention whatsoever has been paid by the modernist designers (or by the people who commissioned this work) to supplying a light-and-shadows dimension that everyday people will enjoy. Result: People don't settle into this space, they hurry through it.

One of the bigger mysteries of contempo buildings and design: Since the "what do people, left to their own devices, prefer?" experiment has been run so very often by now, why do architecture schools and the people who commission big projects ignore this body of readily-accesible knowledge?

But do they? You bet. To illustrate, here's an architectural-training drawing from the traditional world:


Notice how directly and matter-of-factly the drawing takes the whole light-and-shade thing into account.

Here's a CAD drawing from the contempo world:


Seems fair to call this image airless and lightless, no? It may or may not be reasonably nifty as a piece of two-dimensional design. But clearly no attention whatsoever has been paid to texture, or to light and shadow, or to the effects of them.

That's right: Traditional architecture training and practice routinely took note of light, air, texture, and shadow -- more generally, of how things would feel. Modern architecture students are not only often able to avoid basic drawing training, they've never had it pounded into them that patterns of light and shadow (and what these elements and qualities imply and call to mind) are one of the major ways by which buildings and spaces affect us emotionally. It's as though they're being deliberately trained to be tone-deaf to the ways the rest of us will take their work.

(By the way, I'm aware that CAD drawings can be made that are as attentive to texture, depth, and light-and-shadow as traditional drawings are. The point isn't that it can't be done, it's that it's seldom done.)

So the modernist world goes on subjecting us to what it has always promoted -- concepts, geometry, glassiness, steeliness -- with ever-more-absurd and inhuman results.

Let me end with a snap of one of NYC's brand-new bus stops:


Yep, that really conveys "shelter," doesn't it? As you might suspect, the architecture establishment has given our new bus stops a number of awards.

Bonus links:



posted by Michael at May 8, 2009


Since the "what do people, left to their own devices, prefer?" experiment has been run so very often by now, why do architecture schools and the people who commission big projects ignore this body of knowledge?

They don't ignore it. They actively work against it. The point of modernist buildings is precisely to make people feel like sh*t. The political and corporate powers that commission big projects do so deliberately to impress upon the masses the powers' own ineluctable, faceless, crushing inhuman eternal presence.

They want you to feel stressed, unwelcome, down and out and low and weak and small. And they want to push everywhere into the human world to impress everyone in that world just how worthless, powerless and secondary they are. Wasn't that droopy apartment building raised up in your neighbourhood, Michael? Why do you think they raised that thing so sloppy-high that you can't ignore anywhere in the Village? That's the point of the exercise. The wealthy get to look down on your charming boho walkups and human scale streets and parks...and you get to look up at that thing.

What is so sickening is how little effect the opposition has had on this. It's still going on!

Osama bin Laden, I asked before and ask again, where are you now that we need you?

Posted by: PatrickH on May 8, 2009 1:10 PM

Seems this is another manifestation of political correctness emanating from our nation's campuses. Architecture so featureless and bland, it's only intended purpose is to offend the least amount of people possible. We've sterilized our speech, why not our buildings?

Posted by: Bill on May 8, 2009 1:55 PM

Coming from L. A. I grew up around a lot of crappy architecture along with a lot of really amazing architecture. I don't mind the lack of shadows, but maybe that's the Califonian in me. There were never that many shadows around anyway. What I mind is the lack of quirkiness and charm.

Posted by: Cori on May 8, 2009 2:00 PM

A picture like this, it makes me want to cry, it's so beautiful. Not a glass or steel box to be seen:


Posted by: Bryan on May 8, 2009 2:22 PM

I think something should be said about the cost-cutting that modernist architecture provides. From what I understand, the materials and labor involved to build your typical modernist glass building cost much less than to build a traditional building. Another factor would be structural soundness and flexibility. Out here in California, modern buildings, while not usually as aesthetically pleasing as the older buildings, are much more stable during an earthquake. I'm open to someone with more experience in these matters to correct me. I'm only going by what I've read.

I'm not advocating for modernism. In fact, almost all modernist exteriors are ugly as shit. But I don't think it's as much of a conspiracy thing as some others so. FWIW, the most pleasing and functional buildings for me, particularly in a house, have a traditional exterior and a modernist interior. My ideal is basically a remodeled brownstone, craftsman or Victorian. Spacious modernist inside and organic goodness outside.

Posted by: JV on May 8, 2009 3:44 PM

There were three great eras in human-centered architecture: Greco-Roman; Renaissance, which fused Greco-Roman principles with individualism; and Beaux-Arts, the late 19th century eclecticism that took innovation even further, but was still conscious of its roots. (I deliberately omit Gothic, which for all its magnificence isn't human-centered, but God-centered.)

The ancient Greeks and Romans had very specific ideas about space and proportion, following templates that seemed to them to be part of the natural order of things. You can argue with that, but it's hard to doubt that they knew something important about what makes buildings and spaces fit for people.

As we've lost our connection to classicism, we've lost the intellectual or intuitive grasp of earlier generations of architects that enabled them to create joy for the eye while designing structures that fulfilled a function.

Lacking — no, contemptuous of — that tradition, modern architects can only make an egotistic "statement." The results aren't always terrible, and occasionally are both striking and attractive, but even then the viewer isn't quite satisfied: he senses, even if unconsciously, that this wasn't made for him, but for an architect's and corporation's vanity.

The other reason modern architecture is usually hellishly impersonal, at least in cities, is world overpopulation. A proliferation of high-rises results, and the higher the building, the more difficult it is to give it human meaning. Its very height tends to overwhelm us.

The world should make a conscious decision to reduce its population by two-thirds at least, and then reset is aesthetics to traditional architectural standards.

Posted by: Rick Darby on May 8, 2009 4:24 PM

The problem is which two-thirds to cut. Volunteers are in short supply.

I think Michael's comment about the older building looking hand-made underscores a dismaying general trend - outsourcing our aesthetics to machines. Take music, now many vocalists are recorded with auto-tune, and the general effect of modern recording is to make music machine-perfect. The effect is the same as the glass box skyrise, the texture is impoverished.

After many years working with synthesizers and digital recording, I've switched to acoustic piano. Pianos are still handmade so each one is unique, even two of the same brand and model will be distinct. I love my piano, I have warm feelings toward it as an object (thought not sexual yet).

I have never felt that way about a mass-produced assembly line product. Some can be beautiful objects, for sure, but ultimately I'm left cold. As JV points out, it's cheap to make buildings the modern way, at least in the short term. We've exchanged fewer, but more human artifacts for a overabundance of indifferent shite.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on May 8, 2009 6:43 PM

You can kinda tell that these designers aren't the type that spend much time outdoors lounging.

I don't think that comfort and organic is impossible under the modern rubric, just not under the design principles of today, which is all steel and glass.

There's room to innovate, frex there's this bank building in my hometown that looks like a cross between some Polynesian coral megaliths and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Very modern, yet very pleasing to look at, due to the resemblance to white coral and the deeply recessed windows with Bougainvillea planters in them.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on May 8, 2009 7:36 PM

Dawm! PatrickH is one of my favorite commenters ever. He needs to spend more time at Roissy's.

Posted by: PA on May 8, 2009 9:52 PM

I wonder just how tall you could make a Classical Style Skyscraper?

Posted by: Robert R on May 8, 2009 11:20 PM

I like Patrick H too.

Posted by: Thursday on May 8, 2009 11:31 PM

Robert, the Empire State Building is an Art Deco masterpiece and it's plenty high.

Posted by: JV on May 9, 2009 1:04 AM

That bus stop says so much. What Hector Guimard could have done with a bus stop....

Posted by: pam wesson on May 9, 2009 5:12 AM

Why are we filling our skylines with off-putting spaceship styled buildings? Because there is a push to escape upward out of the cityscape, to blast off. Architecture as escapism. Architects like the challenge: "How can I take steel and glass and stone, things of this earth, and make them look un-earthly? Wouldn't that be a good trick?" Let's not forget, however, that buildings are not only experienced from the outside but also from the inside. One wonders how well some these structures work from the inside out and what kind of experience they afford internally.

Posted by: Thra on May 9, 2009 7:39 AM

Gentlemen, you make me blush!

The problem with Roissy's is there are too few comments from the likes of PA, Thursday and some others (our friends Clio and Michael B, Johnny Five, the marvellously tungsten-spined OMW, Days of Broken Arrows, some others) to make visits to the comments section really worth the time. Are things improving over there?

P.S. I, ah, don't exactly get along with the proprietor of the place, although he can be amusing. His epitaph for post-modern ultra-feminized America is a classic:

Here lies America
She achieved closure

But I can just read his stuff and skip the 800+ comments fests that consist of interminable exchanges between the same five people, half of whom seem to be latent homosexual neo-Nazis (wait, that's redundant).

Also, if chic noir isn't commenting there, I'm not interested either. Chic is sweet and beautiful within and without and I miss her [faints dead away! drops to the floor! eyes roll back in head!] interjections. To say nothing of Hope, whom I supposedly "drove away".

Sigh. My adventures in Roissy's chateau were of a mixed, not to say, bittersweet nature, to say the least. Sigh.

Posted by: PatrickH on May 9, 2009 9:32 AM

And let's not forget the Woolworth Building, nearly a thousand vertical feet of Gothic gloriousness.


Which reminds me of a posting I've wanted to do ... To give away the punchline (and why not?): The way the history of the skyscraper has been presented is all wrong, and is modernist myth. According to the usual, early skyscrapers (like the Woolworth) were bumbling, misguided steps along the path to glass-and-steel geometry. Clarity, truth, and inevitability all demanded that we shake free of all that masonry and all those columns and decoration -- that it's in the nature somehow of the Platonic skyscraper we all aspire to to be "pure" -- geometry, glass, steel, etc -- and that it took the architecture world a few decades to achieve.

My retort: baloney. There's nothing Platonic, pure, or inevitable (let alone desirable) about geometry, glass and steel, even where tall buildings go. And the first few decades of skyscrapers weren't a mistake but instead the high point of skyscraper creation. What you see with the Woolworth etc isn't pure form yearning to get free, it's the creative and admirable efforts of talented designers and buildings to incorporate the new possibilities offered by new building and construction materials and techniques into the fabric of western civ. OK, the building was going to be really high (and would need elevators, etc, and the stone/brick/masonry wouldn't be load-bearing) -- given all that, how do we make it play ball with everything else we already have, and which helped us get to this point?

The columns and decoration on early skyscrapers don't represent any kind of failure; they represent the most-excellent efforts of people to make their work contribute to the fabric of existing society.

The way the modernists tell the various stories of art history are real traps. They structure these stories so that their own eminence and importance look inevitable, and un-quarralable-with. They want to make it impossible to take issue with their work and with their position in society. "It's simply the case that glass-and-steel-and-geometry is where it was all headed," for example. No it wasn't. That was a particular taste-set that a particular bunch of people got behind (and which the rest of us have disliked ever since). "All painting leads to Impressionism which in turn leads to cubism etc" -- that's another example. And bullshit to 'em all.

We badly need more accounts, and a wider range of accounts, of art history than what we're usually given. BTW, I hope everyone realizes that that's part of what Donald's up to with his appreciations of popular and figurative artists. Me, I mostly just complain about what we're given. Donald's actually contributing a new account.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 9, 2009 10:39 AM

BTW, everyone go click on the link Bryan supplied in his comment. It really is to weep, but in a good way.

As for the cost of building ... I only know what I'm told. But what I hear is a few things. 1) these glass and steel things won't last more than a few decades. 2) they're cheaper than building in trad styles, yes, but only because of the way that mortgages, financing, write-offs, etc are structured these days -- in other words, as with factory food and suburban sprawl, the system has been optimized to make it easy to create a certain kind of product, and has been biased against what many if not most people would in fact prefer. 3) if you're thinking about the long term, it makes far more sense to build in trad styles and using trad techniques. Your building will actually physically last, and it won't go out of fashion. But the social-political-economic structures that have been put in place make it next to impossible for people to concern themselves with the long term.

If anyone has better info or actual personal experience with these matters, please let us know about it.

As for me ... Well, I'm certainly not shy about looking at the bulbous-swoopy new architecture and seeing in it a visual-physical representation of the crazy economic-financial world of the last decade. Swoopy glass=credit-default swaps, or something like that. May it all come tumbling down (and let's forget about "stimulating" it back to life). Back to basics, that's me.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 9, 2009 10:51 AM

Just for fun: an example of a New Trad (in this case New Classical) architect:


Who says you can't do trad styles in the modern world?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 9, 2009 10:53 AM

It was astonishing to me to see in the panorama to which Bryan linked, a vision of a truly modern city (the truly modern city, the IMO pinnacle of achievement of the modern industrial age, to whit early 20th century Manhattan), a truly modern city that in its organic wholeness, its intricacy of pattern and structure, of light and shadow, of material and form in perfect unity, was somehow also perfectly traditional, in the C Alexander/Salingaros/paleo/Scrutonian sense(s) of the word.

That link did make me weep, because it showed that there is NO intrinsic opposition between modernity and tradition. NONE AT ALL. We had it, right there in NYC, in the Manhattan skyline, the perfect almost Platonic embodiment of modern energy and ambition and skyward drive, joined somehow in a kind of complete Aristotelian hylomorphic unity with traditional life, human scale, this actual earth, with intricacy, pattern and,, dammit! Life!

That's what hurts about that great link from Bryan...Manhattan is so damned modern and so damned alive. We had it. We had it whole. We KNEW HOW TO DO IT.

And we let it all go. Yes, to look at that picture is to weep.

Posted by: PatrickH on May 9, 2009 12:57 PM

As with various other socio-political and aesthetic discussions here, there are curious contradictions between the positions taken on various topics. Here we have a perennial favorite 2BH post with blame for our built environment being heaped on architects and academics with scant attention to the place of global, corporate, free market capitalism in the equation. Why? Because to examine too closely the underlying economic forces that have produced the vast quantity of blank glass and steel box buildings being dissed would point out that the fault lies mostly with "conservative" corporate clients and real estate developers rather than the commie-lefty-academic wing of the elite.

As Michael notes, "the stone/brick/masonry wouldn't be load-bearing," this, therefore, means that the added construction costs associated with such elements (which would, not so coincidentally, go primarily to skilled, often unionized, blue collar tradesmen and artisans) are easily deemed unnecessary. This means architects suggesting such aesthetic, but non-structural, elements are highly likely to find those suggestions easy line items for the CEO of Acme Global Widgets, Inc. to trim from the budget for the new headquarters. So, if the clients are going to reject them anyway, why not accept the inevitable and design another variation on the type of building they will actually green-light?

As the current state of Wall Street and Detroit can attest, for decades the "free market" business model mantra has focused on next quarter numbers at the expense of long-term thinking. Since this thinking is the POV of most of the clients and funding sources for the sort of large scale urban architecture being discussed here, doesn't it make more sense to castigate the financiers, real estate developers, and corporate clients more than the starcitects?

Similarly, the park vs. "public space" images make their case as much or more through the choice of camera angles, time of day, weather and temperature variables as by any intrinsic virtues or defects in the spaces themselves. (Note the bare trees in the 'public space' image.)

FWIW, I'm one of those folks who love a wide array of "traditional" architectural styles as well as much of high and post modernism. Shadow, light, human scale details, naturalistic elements, and craftsmanship are all wonderful attributes in architecture. Still, if you're going to cast about for villains in this area maybe you should be looking more at corporate board rooms rather than architectural studios.

Posted by: Chris White on May 9, 2009 3:08 PM

Chris - Do your glasses need polishing today? I'm always careful in postings like these to mention the people who commission this work as well as the designers. A couple of examples from this posting: "No attention whatsoever has been paid by the modernist designers (or by the people who commissioned this work) to supplying a light-and-shadows ..."; "Since the "what do people, left to their own devices, prefer?" experiment has been run so very often by now, why do architecture schools and the people who commission big projects ignore this body of readily-accesible knowledge?" And from a comment of mine along the way: "I'm certainly not shy about looking at the bulbous-swoopy new architecture and seeing in it a visual-physical representation of the crazy economic-financial world of the last decade. Swoopy glass=credit-default swaps, or something like that."

If you're taking this blog to be an advocate of globalizing neoliberalism I'm completely flabbergasted.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 9, 2009 4:54 PM

Bryan's linked photo was sumthin' else! I first visited NYC in 1956 and spent many weekends there 1962-63 when I was in the Army. Thanks to the Depression (there's something good in almost everything), there wasn't much new construction in Midtown from 1932 to 1950 aside from Radio City (as it was called). So by the time I got there, Park Avenue was only part way into its transformation and Sixth Avenue was barely getting going -- the Time-Life building was up along with maybe a couple of others. I am pleased that I was able to witness what was classical 1930-vintage New York when it was still the dominant style. This makes me feel sorry for younger readers who have to work a lot harder to view that New York in person.

I liked your discussion of light and shade. It makes lots of sense. Think of all those Beaux-Arts school wash rendering where sunlight is assumed to be falling at a 45-degree angle.

Some newer modernist buildings make an attempt at creating depth. But this is often done by layering glass and support structure elements, the result akin to viewing an object through clear plastic theft-protection packaging. I'll post a photo or two sometime unless you beat me to the punch (and feel free to do so).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 9, 2009 8:10 PM

Cass Gilbert, who designed the Woolworth, was born in Zanesville (home of the Y-shaped bridge) and grew up in St Paul. He also served a term as president of the AIA.

It's funny to compare the AIA's laminated guides to the downtowns of St Paul and Minneapolis. They were clearly written by different people, with different mindsets.

St Paul's lovingly describes all the old buildings, several by Gilbert, and a few going back to the 19th century. (Michael might have written it.) The Minneapolis guide, in contrast, focuses on the new, with only a couple token old buildings mentioned. The Art Deco cluster on or just off Marquette Ave is left off altogether.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on May 10, 2009 2:04 AM

'Dbe fun to run a contest to "makeover" modernist and postmodernist monstrosities. Wrap something, anything, around these "bleak houses". The winner could be crowned Marquis de Façade.

Let's see... what's the worst skyline in America? I'd nominate Albany, New York's, Easter-Island-on-the-Hudson. Get out your coloring books and make that look pretty!

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on May 10, 2009 2:14 AM

Chris White-

Was the United States more or less capitalist when the New York of Bryan's link was being built? Do the new buildings look more or less like something from modern North Korea in contrast to buildings from New York in 1932?

Maybe the logical conclusion is that as progressives get more power they tend to push things toward the Soviet model in various ways. Untangling the influences that lead to these effects is complex but as progressives get more power, something pushes everything in the direction of the Soviet Union from the 1950s. It's not technical and organizational improvements because USSR circa 1955 wasn't the peak of human civilization. Something else must be pushing that way.

Michael -

Thanks for the survey of photos. It's like you made a compilation of the things I see every day that bothered me about modern architecture but didn't realize until I started reading this blog. I worked in the building in the last shot of "Modernist empty space" (the one with the Heartland Brewery). That space was hugely unfriendly. Just behind where the photo was taken are some long curved marble benches. They don't even fit people's backs. To sit on them you need to lean forward and rest your elbows on your knees. The whole area is unpleasant most of the time. Too hot in summer (with no shade), too cold in winter (with nothing to block wind).

Posted by: Steve Johnson on May 10, 2009 10:03 AM

"Was the United States more or less capitalist when the New York of Bryan's link was being built?"

Steve, I would say it was a different type of capitalism back then, but not sure it was more or less. Not as globalized, governments not as much under the control of corporations, etc.

I'll agree that the architects who came up with modernism were probably leftist, but the corporations that gobbled their designs up were mostly not.

Posted by: JV on May 10, 2009 12:40 PM

The architects who came up with modernism were not so much leftist, though most of them were, as disdainful of the middle class. Philip Johnson was a fascist sympathizer, but that was okay, because fascists disdained the bourgeoisie as much as did radical lefties.

The point of modernist architects, who are really just toadies, courtiers if you will, is to aid their masters, patrons, funders, government and corporate, with buildings that oppress the middle class, make them feel powerless and alone, and which violate their values, especially pleasure, comfort and life at the human scale. This is precisely the point: to impress upon the middle classes that they not only have no say in the buildings they live and work in, but to actively assault their sensibilities, making their lives materially and spiritually less rewarding, more stressful, just plain worse every single day of their lives. Thereby, of course, putting them firmly in their place.

Pour epater le bourgeois! cried the bohemian rebel when asked to justify his disturbing art. Same thing today, except that the bohos aren't rebelling anymore. They're working for the Big Boys now, helping keep the ordinaries, the yous and mes, the people, in their lonely, atomized, stressed, exhausted and compliant place.

This goes way beyond leftism.

Posted by: PatrickH on May 10, 2009 3:38 PM

Chris White:

Here we have a perennial favorite 2BH post with blame for our built environment being heaped on architects and academics with scant attention to the place of global, corporate, free market capitalism in the equation.

When Prince Charles bemoaned the the damage that the modernest architects did to England it was the architectural profession ,not the capitalists, who viciously attacked him and ridiculed him.

Patrick H:

The architects who came up with modernism were not so much leftist, though most of them were, as disdainful of the middle class.

Disagree: The Early modernists saw themselves as vanguards of the new political man. Their disdain of the middle class--from which many of them came--stemmed more from the values they had, i.e traditional Western Culture, than their material status; they were anti Western Culture. The Modern Architects saw themselves as more than building designers, they were designing new ways of living. Le Corb's plan to demolish widespread sections of Paris was based on the fact that He as architect, was better able to orginise people's lives then they themselves were. The Traditionalists never thought that way, they wanted to make beautiful and impressive buildings that would impress the man on the street and not just their architectural colleagues. The traditionalists were concerned about beauty, the modernits ideology.

Posted by: slumlord on May 10, 2009 6:09 PM

Let me try this from another angle.

You offer a critique of modernist architecture and urban design examining the element of light and shadow, geometric versus organic elements, architectural drawing versus CAD renderings.

The comments thread immediately agrees that modernist architecture is terrible. But rather than sticking to aesthetics, the comments relate it to politics. Giving Patrick the benefit of the doubt I'll presume he didn't fully consider what he was saying when he longed so wistfully for Osama bin Laden to grace us with an encore after his earlier critique of modernist architecture, accomplished by destroying the most prominent modernist buildings in NYC a while back.

It seems to me that we set up this artificial construct that is built around an all-inclusive right/left polarity. Bankers are right, artists are left; traditional architects are right, modernist architects are left. If you're on the right you say government is inept and bureaucratic while the private sector is efficient and productive; if you're on the left you say government is inept and bureaucratic, but all we have to restrain the global corporations, which are rapacious to the point of plundering the planet to insure the next round of bonuses.

My initial comment was, therefore, venting about (a) dragging politics into it, while (b) doing it myself by attempting to say that in all but a tiny number of signature, starchitect-designed, building projects the real choices and decisions are made by the guys with the money.

How I think about aesthetics seems, in many ways, to be similar to Michael's, although we obviously part company on certain details. The primary aspect I'm thinking of is the non-hierarchical, non-judgmental, "take-it-all-in" attitude Michael shows toward music and porn and so on. Regardless of what genre, style, or school of art, or in this case architecture, it seems to me very few practitioners produce great works, many are competent yet uninspired, many are also dreadful.

When it comes to the built environment, planning and zoning, and aesthetics I have far fewer complaints about buildings like the curvy luxury condos than I do about all the gianormous WalMarts' big box stores squatting in the middle of acres of macadam all over the place. And, while I love most new or old New England extended farmhouses or a shingle style "cottages", I find many of the larger residences done in "contempo-trad" style to be distorted and ungainly, their traditional elements emphasizing that they have the architectural equivalent of a thyroid condition.

Posted by: Chris White on May 10, 2009 7:27 PM

Le Corb's plan to demolish widespread sections of Paris was based on the fact that He as architect, was better able to orginise people's lives then they themselves were. --Slumlord

And this differs from Baron Haussmann in that...?

Much of what we celebrate in Paris is the result of Haussmann's arrogance, which, unlike Corbusier's, had concrete results. Like with Corbusier, it was all slum clearance (tell us, "slumlord"!) and eminent domain. Politically, they were on the same page; æsthetically, they were in different wings of the library. Haussmann had taste.

Another difference: Haussmann was a native Parisian. He was working on his city.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on May 11, 2009 12:49 AM

Chris White:

But rather than sticking to aesthetics, the comments relate it to politics.

I don't think it's politics as much as it is metaphysics. The Left/Right divide is a consequence of one's chosen metaphysical position. One's metaphysics also influences one's concept of beauty and eventually architecture.

When it comes to the built environment, planning and zoning, and aesthetics I have far fewer complaints about buildings like the curvy luxury condos than I do about all the gianormous WalMarts' big box stores squatting in the middle of acres of macadam all over the place.

I don't know why, because both aesthetic monstrosities originate from the same school of thought. The WalMart is the apogee of the form follows function school of thought.

Old Right fogies like myself would argue that that judgments about architecture are quite valid since there are better and worse forms of architecture. New and exciting isn't good enough, beautiful and enduring have more substance. The Old architecture worked, and I don't mean just Classical Western Architecture. Asian, Indian, Spanish and Islamic architectural forms seem to please in a way that Modernism doesn't. I think the dividing line between Modernism and the rest lays in the concepts of decoration and scale. Modernism specifically rejected ornament and modern technology put no limit on scale. Michael, for what its worth, I think the Woolworth building is beautifully decorated but originally it was massively out of scale; it's probably one of the few skyscrapers that has aged well because as New York became more populated with skyscrapers its scale has become more appropriate. When an architect is not allowed ornament, distinction can only be achieved through different forms and different construction materials. Weird shit boxes of any scale and novel materials are the inevitable consequence.

The old architecture was all about rules. Windows should have a certain proportion, columns should have a certain spacing and so on. The mouldings that were so liberally applied were designed to cast pleasing shadows for the benefit of the onlooker. In fact all the rules were based upon what people naturally found attractive. Above me, as I type, is a book, "The Theory of Mouldings", it's a whole book about how to cast light and shadow to make a building interesting. Whats interesting about the book is that it's also a book that recongises human nature and extols architects to design around it. Modernism cast the rules aside.

Still Chris, to be fair, you're right that it's not only the architects who are responsible for the current urban decay. All the shit boxes were paid for by someone who controlled the purse strings. All those bureaucrats, town officials, CEO's and nouveau riche, through considered choice, paid for the rubbish. The modern urban environment is a result of the aesthetically devoid being funded by the aesthetically challenged. In a poorer age of robber barons, money was always found for decoration and ornament, in our more affluent and environmentally responsible age, we're too tight to spend on those goods. J.P. Morgan dressed better than Warren Buffet.

Posted by: slumlord on May 11, 2009 7:46 AM

Old Right fogies like myself would argue that that judgments about architecture are quite valid since there are better and worse forms of architecture.

Whereas an old fogie like me would argue that there are not better or worse forms of architecture per se, but that a given building needs to be considered in context. A 55 story modernist tower might blend in with little difficulty in NYC or Chicago and be an enormous eyesore (or aspirational pinnacle of achievement) in Ithica, NY or Billings Montana.

It is also worth noting that in the images offered the traditional buildings with admirable decoration are all relatively small (under 10 stories) whereas the glass & steel boxes are generally very tall skyscrapers.

Posted by: Chris White on May 11, 2009 12:44 PM

Do fire escapes actually do any good, or are they just a regulatory excrescence? We don't have them where I live, in Stockholm, essentially a whole city of 4-6 storey buildings, and I haven't heard about an epidemic of fire deaths. And yes, the facades do look better without fire escapes.

Our bus stops are more or less identical to yours, however, but with a much higher frequency of kicked-out panes, since we drink so spectacularly heavily at weekends.

Posted by: robert61 on May 11, 2009 5:57 PM

I don't think it's politics as much as it is metaphysics. The Left/Right divide is a consequence of one's chosen metaphysical position. One's metaphysics also influences one's concept of beauty and eventually architecture.

All right, someone else here has read A Conflict of Visions!

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on May 12, 2009 12:55 AM

Is there no one to put in a good word for globalizing neoliberalism?

Anyone seen the Tokyo night sky recently? It's awesome.

That's what the modernists are trying to evoke -- awesomeness. In both senses of the word. PatrickH picks up on the sense of "to be awed is to be overpowered". But sometimes you want to be overpowered. A cool building *is* supposed to impress you.

I mean, do you want a corporate HQ or research lab to look like a boring 50's headquarters? That aerial shot of 1932 Manhattan has a lot of boringly similar buildings.

I mean, what's wrong with a building which just evokes thoughts of whiz-bang technology from the outside? As long as the inside is climate controlled with T1 jacks, terraformed gardens, whooshing and silent elevator banks, and a 24 hour gym...that's functional from the inside yet cool from the outside.

(All that said, Michael Blowhard is onto something with that stone stuff. Big f'ing stone in a grid. Looks sick. You could make an extremely cool building by taking stone and fusing it with a modern sensibility -- titanium + glass + stone).

Posted by: asdf on May 12, 2009 8:38 AM

Tokyo city(and most others for that matter) are a bit like fat chicks. They look much better by night than by day. Paris on the other hand (at least the old bits) is a like a beautiful woman, beautiful both day and night.

Posted by: slumlord on May 19, 2009 8:37 PM

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