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May 28, 2009

Response to Chris

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My recent treatise about architecture and shadows elicited a few comments from Chris White. Among his points:

The park vs. "public space" images [in the posting] 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.

A few responses.

Why would I, in a short blogposting, make an effort to undermine my own point? Earth to whoever may be reading this: What we at 2Blowhards often try to offer isn't the "fair and balanced objective truth" but a counterbalance to the conventional wisdom. The conventional architecture-and-urbanism press loves experimental, fashionable, stylish "excitement." I try by contrast to point out the wonders of traditional architecture-and-urbanism.

Besides, fair and objective has been done already. From the '60s through the '80s, the sociologist William H. Whyte (together with many research assistants) observed, photographed, filmed, and noted down how real people in real situations make use of public spaces. In 1988, he pulled his work and speculations together in a great book called "City: Rediscovering the Center." It isn't just an interesting and substantial work, it's a joy to read. Whyte was a civilized, sophisticated, and urbane guy with a subtle sense of humor and an amusing way with words. Whyte was a major cultural figure, as far as I'm concerned. Read up on him here.

So let's get real. What does common experience tell us? On a sparkling day, walking through a traditional park, is it really hard to snap photos like this one --


dappled_light11.jpg


or this one?


happiness0103.jpg


And aren't we all familiar with deserted and off-putting empty spaces? This scene didn't take a lot of effort on my part to notice and snap:


modernist_space01.jpg


Nor did this one:


seagram03.jpg


One easy lesson to take from this: Modernism (and its stylistic descendants) can be reasonably conceived-of as "the defiance of common experience." Modernism: Endless experiments based in theory and speculation, very few of which work out. Tradition: Practices based in experience that almost always succeed.

Another lesson: If public space is to serve any useful purpose it shouldn't be dealt with as "empty space." It needs to be crafted and created as a positive thing in its own right.

But Chris' point continued to irk me. Maybe he was right. How much had I rigged the visuals in my blogposting?

Thinking about his challenge while puttering around the SoHo Apple Store the other day, I found myself devising a way to achieve "objectivity" in a minimal-effort way. On my way home I'd be passing through three markedly different public spaces. The first would be stark and high-modernist -- the open space at the base of a couple of concrete apartment towers. The next would be modernist but flossier -- a space that's half a courtyard, half a park and that has been decorated with planters and trees. The third would be Washington Square, a traditional Greenwich Village park.

It was a beautiful sunny day. Why not turn on the carry-everywhere mini-vidcam I just treated myself to and simply record what I would run across? Let the games commence.

Example #1: The modernist open space at the bottom of some concrete apartment towers.



Can we agree that, so far as public response goes, this space is disastrous, perhaps even a tragic waste? I was reminded of a great line from William H. Whyte: "It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished."

What makes the space in my vid so unsuccessful? A first guess: It has no identity. Here's an exercise: Try to put a name to to the space in this video. Is it a park? A lawn? The feeling I get is that it's just some random dirt and grass. Do you see any benches? Any chairs? Talk about unwelcoming. And how well does that sad giant Picasso stand in for the kind of fountain that often works so well in a trad park?

Example #2 -- a modernist courtyard softened by plantings.



Despite much that's pleasing here -- the plantings, the presence of sittable benches and ledges, the effort that has been put into maintaining the trees -- this public space functions for the public about as well as the previous one.

Why? I'll hazard two guesses. 1) It's a conceptual mistake. Though the public is in fact free to use this space, it's in practice almost impossible to figure out what this space is. Is it a courtyard to be used only by the people in the apartments around it? Or is it a park anyone can enjoy?

This confusion is compounded by a typically pompous and idiotic modernist move. You can't see it in the video, but the space is elevated four or five feet above the level of the passing pedestrian. This makes the space rather hard to see -- it puts the space out of consciousness. And, to the extent that you do take it in, it puts it on a psychologically-as-well-as-physically different level than day-to-day life. It's pretty, but it's also removed.

(A short parenthesis: Modernists just love putting their creations up on pedestals. Think of all the stark geometric skyscrapers you've seen that sit up on plazas five or six steps above sidewalk level. Why do modernists do this? Simple answer: They want their creations to be taken as freestanding artworks. You're meant to experience these buildings as autonomous creations, rather like sculptures on stands in a museum.)

Example #3 is a traditional park.



And ain't that a lively scene? And doesn't it contrast markedly with the previous spaces?

What helps it work so well? Eager to hear what visitors have to say here. For myself, in addition to what I've pointed out in the video itself, I'll also observe the role that conceptual clarity plays. This "space" looks like a park; it acts like a park; and it isn't perched up at shoulder level. You don't wonder what it is or how to use it. You just wander in and enjoy, if you feel like it.

BTW, one widely-noted benefit of traditional practices: The results are usually instantly comprehensible. While making your way around modernist spaces is often a matter of looking at signs and interpreting systems -- it's like solving a puzzle -- traditional spaces don't demand that you figure anything out.

By the way, how about a big round of applause for my stunning filmmaking, eh? Slowly, slowly I begin to be able to use Final Cut. It's an amazing program in terms of what it enables you to do, but it's also mind-bogglingly complex. Is it really for weekend hobbyists like me? I doubt it.

To me the most important point here has to do with batting averages. I'm well aware that for many people the statement "90% of everything in the arts is shit, that's just always the way it is" is an eternal truth. No sensible person is supposed to be able to argue with it. Well, I'm going to argue with it anyway.

What I've found is that the rule holds pretty well -- but only in the higher-flown realms of the arts: in literary fiction, for instance, or in celebrity-modernist architecture. But I've found that it doesn't hold true at all where arts based more in traditional practices and in audience responses go.

While lit-fict is almost always a letdown, I find that an amazing number of creations in the crime-novel genre (my favorite genre) are serviceable entertainments; many of them are far better than that. Showy experimental architecture and urbanism lays an incredible number of rotten eggs. But architecture and urbanism that's based in tradition and whose mind is respectfully on the public almost works pretty well.

The point isn't that modernist approaches to "empty space" can't be made to work. The point is to ask the question: Why on earth would anyone take that tack? A comparison: A talented songwriter might well be able to use the techniques of 12 tone rows to create whistlable tunes. But doing so would really be taking the long way around.

If "decent," "workable," and "pleasing" is the goal -- as, by the way, it almost always should be in architecture and urbanism -- then why not start by accepting tradition (hey, another name for tradition is "what has shown itself to work") and go from there? Memorable may not be achieved, but acceptable is pretty well guaranteed. And -- especially where public facilities go -- acceptable is pretty damn good.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at May 28, 2009




Comments

No, you must have rigged the photos. And I wouldn't put it past you to have snuck down to that modernist park after hours and installed those horrible concrete chairs yourself!
Why, when I was leaving the bar at around 4am or so the other night, I'm convinced I saw some guy dragging slabs of concrete about in a secretive and furtive manner. Well, actually 2 guys and they looked exactly alike. Help from your modernist comrade, no doubt! I got my eye on you, Blowhard!

Posted by: 12 Stepper on May 28, 2009 2:50 PM



Location has a lot to do with the success of a public space. I'm not familiar with the context within NYC of the first 2 spaces, but Washington Square Park is smack dab in the middle of a very busy area. That's not to say I like the other spaces. The first one is a disaster no matter the location.

Posted by: JV on May 28, 2009 3:14 PM



The big difference between architecture and arts like literature is that parks and buildings don't have to be earth shattering masterpieces for them to be worthwhile. They just have to be pleasant places to live and work. The same with clothes. You don't have to blow everyone away with how you look everytime you step out the door, you just have to look nice.

Posted by: Thursday on May 28, 2009 3:33 PM



You mention the Apple Store. That *is* a successful experiment in modernism -- all glass and angles, but packed at all hours of the day and aesthetically pleasing.

Of course, that's Apple, and most people can't pull that off.

The reason people go for modernism is that it's "new and improved". You can't build a reputation as someone doing innovative stuff if you're just using a traditional building. Would you expect the Googleplex to look like a nondescript brownstone? No, you'd expect and want whooshing angles and some cool shit.

Anyway, you have a strong point as to livability and whether modernism is suitable for every day residential and commercial spaces. It's not. But for high tech and research, it's awesome.

Posted by: asdf on May 28, 2009 5:26 PM



JV, that's the point I was going to make, but I think placing parks in busy places is deliberately avoided by modernists. Mostly they seem to be aiming at places for quiet contemplation and a respite from the city commotion, you know, to elevate the masses. Something like that was behind Corbu's green spaces, I believe.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on May 28, 2009 5:31 PM



There's nothing quite like an open-air dungeon to warm the masses into their daily meditations.

The Apple Store is packed not because of its soothing physical qualities, but because it's a see-and-be-seen place. Gut out the products, and remove the association with Where Cool People Go, and no one would want to hang out there.

Posted by: agnostic on May 28, 2009 5:50 PM



Michael B:

To me the most important point here has to do with batting averages.

One of your best pieces ever! As Thursday alluded to, Traditional architecture produced competent results fairly reliably. Genius was rare but the average was pretty good. Modernism seems to work only rarely, the average is quite dismal.

I understand Greenwich village is a lefty community. I always surprises me to see how the lovers of modern architecture tend to live in traditional neighborhoods. Even here in Australia, the trendy types tend to live in the 19th Century suburbs with all of their associated architecture. All the while repudiating the architecture with which they have surrounded themselves. Just an observation.

Posted by: slumlord on May 28, 2009 7:12 PM



One of your best posts ever, Michael, I agree. This is what the web should be all about -- combining text and media in ways that reinforce and expand both.

Also, I snorted my coffee when I got to the end of the first flick -- 'un film de Michael Blowhard', indeed!!

I don't even know where to begin on the question of 'public space' here in Hong Kong. It's so scarce, and there are so many people about, that the same rules don't really apply.

But one point you might want to consider: sometimes public spaces are designed intentionally to repel the masses, even though they're presented as 'public'. I wonder if that's the real purpose of the first space you filmed. Remember Tom Wolfe's dictum: in the big city, you need to insulate, baby! And a vicious modernist 'plaza' + fence does a nice job of that, no?

Posted by: mr tall on May 28, 2009 9:15 PM




I hope I'm not ruining some kind of plan of MB's by disclosing the location of these two modernist open spaces (and I guess if I am, he'll just delay the appearance of my post), but they are 1) the grounds of the I.M. Pei-designed Silver Towers middle-income housing development on Bleecker and La Guardia Place (I'm giving the location for those wanting to get some sense of its context via a Google Map satellite photo of the area) and 2) the grounds of the Washington Square Village middle-income housing development across the street from it (so the "address" of this development, for the Google Maps text box, is also Bleecker St. and La Guardia Place).

Washington Square Park itself is only one very short block to the north of the Washington Square Village development. Plus there are quite a number of other small parks nearby, and Union Square Park (another moderately large park similar in size to Washington Square Park) is also only a short walk away to the north. Both Washington Square Park and Union Square parks are extraordinarily popular. And the small neighborhood playgrounds, gardens and squares in the area are are also very well used.

Last year there was a proposal to landmark the Silver Towers development (the proposal passed), and I wrote a number of posts on the City Room Blog (which also has some additional photos) relating to the use (or lack of use) of the open space around Silver Towers. (The City Room Blog post on this controversey can be easily found via a link that MB kindly provided in his Feb. 21, 2008 post, "Architecture Linkage.")

My posts in the series are posts #10, #17, #21, #24, #28, #30, and #35. A number of these posts are critiques of the comments posted by "SoHo Guy" and "Hilary" which praise this open space. My post #28 in particular mentions that on a number of occasions I made it a point to compare the Silver Towers open space with that of other neighborhood open spaces by walking by them on the same day at, more or less, the same time. And there was no comparison in terms of the amount of use. (I guess the perfect experiment would be to have numerous film makers coordinate the timing of their filming via cell phones.)

A number of points:

Although the design of the Silver Towers space is indeed modernist off putting, and was meant to be that way on purpose (it's supposed to be a "look / don't touch" open space environment), the Silver Towers development is a privately owned development and the owner /residents, despite their claims to the contrary, enforce a public keep out / no ball playing, etc. policy via signs and security guards. (I've seen skateboarders, for instance, chased off the grounds by security guards.) There used to be an amazing plethora of variously worded "keep out" signs, but I've noticed that some of them have been taken down since I reported them to the Landmark Preservation Commission last June. (Don't know if there is a connection or not.)

The Washington Square Village open space is on top of a parking garage located between (and hidden behind) two immense slab apartment houses and a small strip of stores. When the development was first built it was falsely promised that this open space would be accessible to the community at large, but again this is privately owned property and a very strong impression is given that the public is not welcome. (Plus it's almost impossible to find.)

While the open space itself is not as off putting, in my opinion, as that of Silver Towers (although much harder to find and more of a private backyard space for the the housing development) it too was also designed as a modernist "look / don't touch" private sitting park (and it originally had an innovative landscape design meant to be appreciated in large part from the balconies of the surrounding apartments). However, I must say that there are probably a great many better examples in NYC of modernist spaces that are in themselves a turn off. Here the culpret (sp?) isn't really modernism, per se, in my opinion, but more instead the whole "urban" "renewal" "turf" mentality and set-up. In other words, if everything had been designed in modern traditional style instead, it still would be vastly underused.

Speaking of redesigned orthodox modern buildings and how they affect the surrounding open space, I've been meaning to send MB a link to some great pictures of a "tower-in-the-park" (really, "tower-in-a-lot") housing project where the buildings have been redesigned along modern traditional lines. Although the redesign does seem to make the open spaces more appealing, I still think the real damage is done by the tower-in-the-park, single use, urban renewal set-up itself. But the photographs are fun! Hope to send it soon via a separate post.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on May 28, 2009 11:04 PM




Here's the link to the photos of a modernist housing project that's been partially redesigned to be more modern traditional:

http://thewhereblog.blogspot.com/

In case the link doesn't work, the photos can be found on the "Where" blog in a May 21, 2009 post entitled, "From Projects to Pediments," (which I found via a link on the "Market Urbanism" blog).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on May 28, 2009 11:15 PM



I was hoping Benjamin would show up. Thanks for the all the information.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 29, 2009 7:25 AM



Perhaps Modernism suffers from the defect E O Wilson identified in Marxism: "Nice theory, wrong species".

Posted by: dearieme on May 29, 2009 8:06 AM



Well done, sir!

The arrogance of ignoring the fact that a space is designed for humans...

Posted by: JewishAtheist on May 29, 2009 8:07 AM



It's odd how modernism can be so much more successful with interiors, furnishings and various small-scale objects than with building exteriors and public spaces. A friend has pointed out to me that much of Michael and Donald's critiques of modernism do indeed focus on exteriors, which are inherently public and in that sense unavoidable. And much of the anger behind that critique is fuelled by the fact that so much of this ugliness is unavoidable.

Points by asdf and mr tall make me wonder: I've never seen the Apple Store, so I don't know what it looks like outside, but most of the praise I hear around refers to its interior. Whether the store's interior is the reason people go there, or whether it's as agnostic said a see-be seen place, it seems clear that Apple designed the store to draw people in. But it's equally clear that some of the spaces MvB pointed to are, as tall and b hemric stated, specifically designed to drive people away--"look don't touch" indeed!

I think modernism has been around long enough that its builders know exactly what effect they're going to produce by designing a building or place in a certain way. If it repels attention, stresses the mind, exhausts the soul, wounds the spirit, that's because it was meant to. If it is, like the Apple Store, a place that draws, attracts and holds people, that because it was designed to do just that.

It seems to me then that modernism is not really the issue. It's the deliberate use of architecture as power play, as warning, as threat, as weapon, that's the real problem. The bad modernism isn't bad because of some inherent aesthetic limitation: it's bad because it's designed to hurt people. Designed by courtiers to the powerful, funded by the powerful, for the powerful to keep themselves where they want to be.

And us where they want us to be. That's the problem with modernism. So much of it is in service to social aggression.

Posted by: PatrickH on May 29, 2009 9:35 AM



"I understand Greenwich village is a lefty community. I always surprises me to see how the lovers of modern architecture tend to live in traditional neighborhoods. Even here in Australia, the trendy types tend to live in the 19th Century suburbs with all of their associated architecture. All the while repudiating the architecture with which they have surrounded themselves. Just an observation."

You've only scratched the surface of how liberalism really works. The vast dichotomy between what liberals say and do (to others, mind you) and how they actually live is immense.

PS Blowhard, I'll be out tonight. And I'll be watching for you! If I see any funny stuff, I'm gonna get neo-classical on your ass!

Posted by: 12 Stepper on May 29, 2009 9:46 AM



This is an excellent point: 90% of everything isn't shit, but 90% of self-conscious, wannabe meaningful, ars artis gratia is shit. This goes to the schism between craft and art. As machines and technology have removed the original purpose of crafts, would be craftsmen have had to "innovate" to make themselves useful. Painting versus photography is the classic case here. Why pay big money for a competent but unremarkable portrait of yourself when a cheap photo does just as well? The same mentality has taken over the other arts, even when, as is the case with architecture and urban planning, we need unremarkable competence.

Posted by: symeon on May 29, 2009 11:19 AM



There's another difference between Apple stores and modernist "parks" besides interior/exterior. At an apple store, your attention is focused on the products. It's not a place where people sit around lazily. And Apple wouldn't want the customers distracted by trees and the wonderful breeze.

Posted by: JewishAtheist on May 29, 2009 12:32 PM



Re: the Apple Store thing:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1bye46emWM

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 29, 2009 1:24 PM



So, PatrickH, it sounds like you're saying modernism has the same purpose as Versailles: to intimidate and impress. In fact, in a way Versailles is a "tower in a park". How scandalous if Corbu was influenced by the Sun King.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on May 29, 2009 2:12 PM



Modernist exterior parks are super weak. I agree. Just plant some trees and make things in a human scale.

Posted by: lemmy caution on May 29, 2009 5:37 PM



Hahahaha. The captions of the first film are HILARIOUS. Where are the people? Un film de Michael Blowhard, indeed.....

Posted by: onparkstreet on May 29, 2009 6:17 PM



Nice movies! Very effective.

A few characteristics seem to stand out for a place to attract people to park: a convenient and welcoming location, covered with something living, something moving, somebody shopping, someone singing...

Modernist exterior is more suitable for meditation, conducting dialogues with oneself or with the surrounding, but not with other people.

Posted by: Pupu on May 29, 2009 6:46 PM



Hey, has anyone noticed that the ostensible addressee of this post hasn't said a peep? It's fairly uncharacteristic of him. Speaking of, it's like he's disappeared.

Hey Chris! I'm interested in what you have to say as a response. You know as a spectator and all that.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on May 29, 2009 7:28 PM



Scandalous, ironic and deeply French somehow, Todd. :-)

But I think that the Sun King corresponds more closely to the corporate and political bigwigs with deep pockets who fund the modernist monstrosities today. Corbu would be the equivalent of a courtier, say, or perhaps a fanatical cleric of some kind that Louis XIV found useful. Corbu was nothing if not sincere...a true believer in his own way.

Not that I think our starchitects of today are anything but genuine cynics about the world they work in and with. Despite a certain horror I feel when I contemplate the mind of Le Corbusier, I do respect him as an honest, sincere man, and a real visionary. Not like the heartless smirking ironists who inflicted that droopy apartment building on Michael's neighbourhood...or who write so glowingly about that crap in the NYT. They know how people feel about their buildings...and they build them anyway. Compared to them, Corbu was an innocent. He can be forgiven for his naivete. Not our starchitects, though. They have no excuses.

To paraphrase that Jesus guy some of you may have heard of:

Do NOT forgive them Father! They know EXACTLY what they're doing!

[Sorry Jesus! Guess I'm a cynic too!]

Posted by: PatrickH on May 29, 2009 7:52 PM



PatrickH, you and I are thinking along the same lines again.

Yes, I agree that much of the brutality of modernist exterior space is designed and built in the full knowledge that 'the people' will hate it.

Here in Hong Kong, modernist exterior spaces abound. When there's real crowding grass and trees get beaten down pretty easily, or they must be maintained at high cost. Concrete and steel (and ceramic tile, the big fave here) are durable.

But there are often more basic reasons for building unfriendly public spaces. The big property developers here often must promise the government that they'll provide X square feet of 'public space' in return for gaining planning permission to build. But the last thing they want is the public actually using that space. This issue is especially acute here because each Sunday 200K domestic helpers spread out all over HK in search of public space in which they can put down blankets, spread out their food, and have a day of picnicking and socializing (they have few other places to go, for the most part).

In this scenario, brutal, exposed-to-the-elements, uncomfortable modernist public areas are features, not bugs. I don't know how well this applies in NYC or other cities, though.

Posted by: mr tall on May 29, 2009 10:30 PM



For the past four days, Michael, my wife and I have been wandering around in New York City and observing precisely the effects you just described so well. Thanks for the clarity.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 29, 2009 11:53 PM



---Hey, has anyone noticed that the ostensible addressee of this post hasn't said a peep? It's fairly uncharacteristic of him. Speaking of, it's like he's disappeared.

Hey Chris! I'm interested in what you have to say as a response. You know as a spectator and all that.---

From what I gather, Mr. Gomes, Chris White lives in Maine. That's right, Maine. Funny, the guy who was bitching about how M. Blowhard was picking on Modernist spaces lives in one of the most rural states in the nation that has beautful natural spaces and is very heavily wooded. Imagine that! Once again we run smack into the dichotomy of liberalism: Do as I say, not as I do.

Posted by: 12 Stepper on May 30, 2009 1:20 PM



Cripes, mr tall. That's chilling. Depriving no doubt tired underpaid domestic workers a chance to spread out their blankets and have a picnic on their one day off...that's just inhuman. Ethnicity? Are these domestiques Filipinas?

Chilling and heartless. I wonder if something like this is happening in the US, but with the animating darkness, so to speak, being the thing that really truly dare not speak its name here--not race! not sexuality! that's all people talk about!--but the great ugliness at the heart of post-modern post-liberal America...class.

Keep the hoi polloi from enjoying their picnics. From spreading their blankets, breaking out the sandwiches and the ice tea (or harder stuff), and having a good time.

God, I'm really beginning to dislike the Powers That Be in this darkening time. They really are cold, cold, cold, all the way down to the depths of the cavity in their chests that used to hold their hearts.

Posted by: PatrickH on May 30, 2009 2:19 PM



More miscellaneous thoughts -- Part I:

1) By the way, both the Washington Square Village "park" (apartment house backyard) and Washington Square Park have the same orthodox modern (circa mid-1960s) aesthetic: low concrete walls / benches, and minimalist, so-called "lollipop" lighting fixtures (I think balloon-on-a-stick lighting fixtures is a better name for them) -- as does / did the Silver Tower open space (at least more so originally). In Washington Square Park, this aesthetic is being replaced, so it seems, with a more traditional one via the current renovation -- which hasn't extended yet to where your photos were taken.

Also, this part of Washington Square Park has generally been one of emptier parts of the park, and its current popularity seems due, at least in part, to the renovation of other parts of the park.

Why has this been one of the less popular parts? It may have to do, at least in part, to the high buildings across the street that block sunlight (especially in winter), but it may also be due in part to it's "trendy" (for the 1960s) orthodox modern design which I've always found somewhat off-putting.

So while I don't disagree with your original thesis, I think the situation with these examples (i.e., Washington Square Village and Washington Sq. Park) is somewhat complicated (e.g., their popularity or lack of popularity being due in large part to factors other than orthodox modernism), and thus they aren't, perhaps, the best examples to illustrate your points.

2) I also think it's important to define what one means by [orthodox] modernism. I don't think podiums, for instance, are really a distinguishing feature of orthodox modernism (although orthodox modernists did use them a lot).

Beaux Arts architects also occassionally seemed fond of podiums -- look at the famous New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd St. And their podiums also created problems. (Disciples of William H. Whyte, I believe, were brought in to fix the problems created by the NYPL podium. I believe they brought in refreshment stands, movable seating, etc.) Also "classical" Bryant Park, behind the NYPL, is also on a podium, and William H. Whyte was, indeed, brought in to try and ameliorate the problems the podium set-up caused.

Plus "classical" Union Square Park is ALSO on a podium. (And it too has been redesigned over the years to ameliorate the problems created by its podium design.)

3) A great example of the difference between an orthodox modern podium and a modern traditional one (in this case a very innovative podium that is stylistically Beaux Arts) is the "podium" / viaduct upon which both the headhouse of Grand Central Terminal and the Met Life (originally Pan Am) building are situated. (I put "podium" in quotes because the viaduct is usually not thought of as a podium, but architurally speaking it is a podium, with the headhouse of GCT being setback and atop it.)

Look at how the architects of GCT humanized the viaduct/podium, and contrast that with how it's treated by the architects of the Met Life Building (and their successors during subsequent renovations) have treat it.

4) Also another nice illustration of the horrors of a modernist "podium" vs. a modern traditional non-podium is the blockfront of nearby Madison Avenue between 42nd and 41st St. On the east side of the street is a variety of charming individual modern traditional skyscrapers that intermittently step-up a slight "hill"; on the west side is a recently built new building with a monolithic, orthodox modernist podium "effect."

- - - - - -

To be continued.

# # #

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on May 30, 2009 7:18 PM



More miscellaneous thoughts -- Part II

1) The fencing that you mention with regard to Silver Towers (as well as other fencing on the grounds as well) wasn't actually part of the original design (mid-1960s), but a later addition (mid or late 1970s?). But it nevertheless, I think, illustrates problems with orthodox modern architecture, especially when it comes to good urbanism.

When the Silver Towers complex was first built, the ENTIRE area was totally free of any kind of fences whatsoever (even low ones). The grass came right up to a concrete rain gutters that divided the grass from the sidewalk. And this was an intentional part of the original aesthetic, I believe. The original design was intended to "schock" by being so unlike anything else in Manhattan.

And while it did shock at first, after the shock wore off it was just plain boring -- and also incredibly impractical. So lots of fencing was added (much of it not shown in your film.) Plus, it seems to me that the tenants (actually co-op owners) also rebeled against the minimalist bleakness of the original landscape design and started planting trees and shrubs, etc., that were not part of the original program, which not only destroyed the unfettered openess (and bleakness) of the original landscape design but also made fencing even more imperative.

In addition, the development's podium includes berms that drop off sharply at LaGuardia Place and West Houston St. These berms are covered with grass and they have suffered a lot of erosion. To deal with the erosion, the tenants (co-op owners) have created amateurish and ugly ad hoc terracing.

I think these problems with the original design illustrate the impracticality and elitism of much of orthodox modern architecture when it comes to good urbanism.

2) MB you missed what might be the worst of the Silver Towers open space horrors: the kiddie playground / sandbox just to the east of the tower that is located on W. Houston St. This play area looks like a spoof of a modernist's idea of a play area for kids.

3) While Silver Towers has taken down some of the plethora of old "outsiders keep out"
signs, it has apparently replaced them with modern, and more "centralized," high design "outsiders keep out" signs. (Maybe these are the construction work being undertaken in your film?)

4) If you photograph the kiddie play area from the north side of the playground, you can also see the fine modern traditional new apartment houses across Houston St. to the south. They are modern day versions of the loft buildings that the area is famous for.

# # #

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on May 30, 2009 9:02 PM



Wow, I go off line for a couple of days and come back to find a portion of a comment I made in a previous thread has taken on a life of its own! Sorry I haven't weighed in until now, but here goes.

My first reaction to Michael's challenge is to agree absolutely that the spaces depicted in his three videos show a progression from sterile and unfriendly to warm and lively. [Special kudos to MB for his fine efforts with Final Cut.]

My second reaction is to note that the choices are (as they should be) chosen to make a point and are thus still "partisan" rather than "neutral" choices. So, especially given the exact details of the locations provided by Benjamin Hemric, I again suggest that I fail to find these three spaces equivalent in all ways except their design. If you were to head up to Gramercy Park you could get some fabulous shots of a lovely park surrounded by traditional architecture that would likely be nearly deserted because you need a key to enter the gates. If timed correctly the Plaza at Lincoln Center might be a great place to make Michael's point ... or with different timing might appear quite the jolly public space.

We remain at the same impasse. Michael is setting forth the proposition that "Modernism (and its stylistic descendants) can be reasonably conceived-of as "the defiance of common experience." Modernism: Endless experiments based in theory and speculation, very few of which work out. Tradition: Practices based in experience that almost always succeed. To me this is such an overstatement and distortion that I find it highly problematic and entirely too close to one of those lawyer gags that starts with a prosecutor asking a question like "When did you stop beating your wife?" Almost any response, including "I never beat my wife." keeps the defendant off guard and the topic fully under the control of the prosecutor.

Despite adding "and their clients" after "modernist architects" every now and again, the blame in this comment is again being assigned to modernist designers as if they existed independent of the clients and programs behind those designs. mr tall very perceptively brings up point that clients often want "public space" to insulate the building from the public rather than attracting the public to use the space. Perhaps they have bargained with the governmental agencies granting building permits, assessing tax rates, etc. trading the inclusion of "public space" in their designs for various other concessions. For many such clients a cold and off-putting "public space" is indeed a feature not a bug of the program.

At the risk of endlessly rehashing the same points again, it is not that I am against traditional buildings or landscape architecture, but rather that I also enjoy much modernist design as well and find the entire TRADITIONALIST versus MODERNIST: A Battle for the Soul of Western Civilization approach to the issue to be a somewhat misguided crusade.

PatrickH gets closest to the real point when he notes: "The bad modernism isn't bad because of some inherent aesthetic limitation: it's bad because it's designed to hurt people. Designed by courtiers to the powerful, funded by the powerful, for the powerful to keep themselves where they want to be." In which case, when looking to assign blame or aim the pitchforks perhaps the proper targets are the real estate developers and corporate building owners rather than the architects they hire.

If I can figure out a good way to do so, I'll send along a few photos of the oil tank farms, or some of the office buildings downtown that could make Michael's point about boring bland modernist boxes to prove that Maine ain't all pine trees and lobster boats.

And, FWIW, I'm really enjoying and impressed by Benjamin Hemric's knowledgeable and fair-minded comments.

Posted by: Chris White on May 31, 2009 5:08 PM



Completely off-topic:
Good Lord, do they play that infernal Dixieland jazz all day long? I'd be suicidal if I had a window or door anywhere near that. Suicidal or in jail.

Posted by: Scott on May 31, 2009 9:40 PM



It would be an interesting experiment to have that same band be playing in each of the different open spaces and see what transpires. I wonder if you get more "attendance" in those first 2 horrible areas.

Posted by: Darby Shaw on June 2, 2009 12:25 AM






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