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June 24, 2009

Textures of French Buildings

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A favorite sport hereabouts is bashing modernist architecture, which we do for reasons that make good sense to us, at least. Much of that glass 'n' reinforced concrete 'n' metal cladding strikes us as pretty sterile and not people-friendly.

Aside from one brief jab, the focus of this posting is on an alternative: buildings and townscapes with lots of visual interest due in part to materials and ornamentation that creates a textured surface -- usually with a partly random pattern or effect. The following photos were taken on my recent visit to France.

For starters, this is the ground floor lobby of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the museum devoted to art since 1900 or thereabouts. It's large, and the smooth, concrete floor sets the tone. Does it give anyone a warm, fuzzy, welcoming feeling?

And this is part of the exterior. Perhaps having been inspired by a shirt emerging inside-out from a clothes dryer, we see here the architectural concept of placing much of the "mechanical" bits on the exterior. The result is textural in its way, so I give Renzo Piano credit for trying even though I loathe the thing.

Since we're in Paris, let's check out the area above one of the entry door sets of the Notre Dame cathedral. Note the decoration on the indentation from the outer wall to the entry door plane as well as the relief sculpturing above the doors. It contrasts the plain wall, so that surfaces play off one another. This transition zone could have been simplified, but I'm not sure if that would have been better than what we see in the photo.

This building on the rue de Rennes always intrigues me thanks to its odd, Art-Nouveau tower on one corner. The little balconies by the windows and other details provide surfaces that keep the eye interested, but not overwhelmed.

Here's another big-city building, this in Lyon. It has a "flatiron" plan and is more ornate that the rue de Rennes structure. The bold, horizontal extrusions help clarify the structure and to some degree offset the ornamentation. I don't consider this great architecture, but it's interesting and doesn't bother me so I can't condemn it either.

Elsewhere in Lyon is its opera house, shown here. It has been renovated and that shows. At least it contrasts modernist and traditional architecture in one convenient package. However, surface texturing is light in both cases.

Dropping a notch in city size, this is Rouen and its famous Gros-Horloge or clock. Yes, it's interesting. But check out the surface materials of the buildings shown in the picture. The one on the left has half-timbering and the next one seems to have wooden shingles. At the right is cut stone with the seams emphasized. The clock tower itself has a smooth, stone surface that contrasts the ornamented clock and its setting.

The clock tower in Aix-en-Provence's old town district. Aside from the very top, it lacks ornamentation. Yet there is visual interest in the tower due to variations in the materials used -- in this case, white and yellow stone.

This is a house near the harbor in Antibes on the Riviera. The surface is comprised of variously sized and colored stones along with small areas of brickwork near doors and windows.

A few blocks away is the Picasso museum. Again, the design is simple while interest is provided by the textured stonework. Windows are emphasized using cut stone rather than bricks, as was the case for the house.

More half-timbering, this time in Amboise on the Loire River. Rather than a smooth plaster, the areas between the timbers are brick, enhancing the surface texturing.

A wooden structure is the Église Ste-Catherine in the Norman port town Honfleur. Note the contrast between the relatively smooth plaster and half-timber at the bottom and the shingle work on the tower. Although this building has geometrical interest, the texturing makes it much more interesting to the eye than if the surfaces had been left clean, as in a modernist structure.

Elsewhere in Honfleur, down at the entrance to the inner harbor, is this structure which seems to be the result of additions tacked on over the centuries. The result is an interesting variety of surface textures created by the various building materials.

Even the texture of doors can add interest. Here is a metal one sporting rivets or studs near the cloister on Mont Saint-Michel.

This building on a side street of Sarlat in the Dordogne is worth noting because of its peculiar half-timbering. Instead of plaster or bricks, the timbers simply enclose the same kind of stone comprising the main wall.

As you might have noticed, roofs can add textural interest to a building. Here are some roofs and walls elsewhere in Sarlat.

Not far from Sarlat on the Dordogne River is the town of La Roque-Gageac, squeezed a litttle ways up a steep hillside. In this setting, the roofs contribute the most to visual enjoyment.

A few kilometers downriver is the town of Beynac-et-Cazenac. This view on the twisty pathway leading to the castle shows how even stonework on the streets and walls contributes to a total visual interest package. No antiseptic geometry here: it looks lived-in. How can modernism possibly compete with this?



posted by Donald at June 24, 2009


"No antiseptic geometry here: it looks lived-in. How can modernism possibly compete with this?"

Well, yeah, it's centuries old! I wonder what modernist buildings will look like in 300 years? Genuinely. Will the aging process give the smooth surfaces some texture? What did these very old buildings look like when they were brand new?

Mostly though, thanks for introducing me to the Dordogne River and the town of La Roque-Gageac. Completely gorgeous.

Posted by: JV on June 24, 2009 2:24 PM

Obviously, that was a whirlwind trip across France. Did you go by train?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 24, 2009 9:01 PM

I hate modern architecture too but I'm not sure that the George Pompidou centre should be the bete noir for traditionalists (although admittedly it has inspired a lot of crap).

It does have some good elements to it-

(1) although it's modernist the urban design is not too bad. There is a square courtyard out front which is surrounded by low rise buildings on the other three sides and no motorway in sight. I sat in a cafe overlooking the square and building for a couple of hours and had a nice time.

(2) Because this building was a first it actually has its own sense of history and creates a unique sense of place which does have a buzz about it. Being in Paris and standing outside the centre is a very different experience from standing outside an office park in suburban USA.

(3) Also, I do find it an interesting idea to put the inside of the building outside and to watch all the people as they ascend and descend the building. I wouldn't want all buildings like this but one doesn't hurt.

None of the above means I like modernist buildings generally, just that George Pompidou does have some positives which make it better than 99% of the modernist stuff that has followed.

Posted by: Matlock on June 24, 2009 9:42 PM

Was the Dordogne crazy crowded with tourists? Giant buses and sold-out hotels? That's the rep...I'm trying to decide whether to head down there again but I'm scared because it's high season.

Posted by: MQ on June 25, 2009 12:23 AM

Matlock, could it be that the Pompidou building has been around long enough to have developed its own sense of place and context within its setting? Is that actually more important than the design itself? I think these factors are essential to understanding how we react to architecture. What's the saying? Yesterday's innovation is tomorrow's tradition. Or something like that, I'm way off on the quoting, but you get the idea.

Posted by: JV on June 25, 2009 1:15 AM

Those buildings will make nice mosques...

Posted by: Daoud on June 25, 2009 9:25 AM

Gorgeous visual tour, and excellent main point. Organic or natural materials nearly always deliver loads in the way of warmth and visual interest, comfort and delight.

I'd add that the pleasure they give might-as-well-be tactile. You look at a wall or a roof and you can feel the textures, the temperature, the weight ...

Modern materials pretty much repel the senses -- they're cold, smooth, and texture-free. You feel like you're adrift in a world of plastics and weirdo metals. It all feels weightless and abstract, as though you're surrounded by video screens and spinning computer graphics. Very displacing and alienating.

As for modern buildings and aging -- most of them won't last long, and the ones that do stick around for longer than that generally prove to be 1) insanely expensive to keep up (the Pompidou Center started to rust on Opening Day and has required a whole lotta money to maintain since -- there are good reasons to keep all those pipes on the inside of a building!), 2) Ugly. Rusted-out metals and cracked synthetics don't have the allure of aging stone or brick.

Incidentally this isn't just me being weird and personal, it's been widely noted that modernist structures have to be kept in a gleaming state of seemingly-built-yesterday or else start to look like hell.

Hey, I was talking to a building-superintendant-guy at a fancy jewellike new swoopy glassy building in the Village the other day. One thing he told me that was pretty funny was the tale of how much money and time had to be spent on keeping the exterior of the building shiny and clean. The window-washing arrangements were major, continuous, and expensive.

Makes sense: After all, in NYC, windows get grimy in a matter of weeks. If your entire building is a huge window, and if gleamingness is what it's selling, you're going to have to make unending major efforts to keep that baby as shiney as it needs to be.

Anyway ... Most modernist-type buildings are built for the short run. This is (so I've been told) partly because of post-WWII zoning and codes, and partly because of more recent financing arrangements (depreciation, etc). And they're expected to be replaced in 20-30 years.

Throwaway constructions, in other words, mainly meant to have a striking impact in the short-term. They're like flashy magazine ads for themselves, where trad buildings feature the human touch -- weight, a sense of the people who made 'em, the "natural" qualities of the materials used, proud of what time does to them, here for the long run, etc.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 25, 2009 9:41 AM

JV and Michael -- If modernist building don't get the upkeep Michael mentions, they indeed go to pot comparatively rapidly. Reinforced concrete, for example, gets mildewed or otherwise smudgy in a few years unless precautions are taken -- and in the long run can be subject to cracking and chipping effects that stonework handles more gracefully.

That said, stone structures can have problems too, though that might be dependent on the kind of stone used. I visited Chartres Cathedral only once, in 1996, and the exterior was in a bad way. Very sad to see. Hope there has been a restoration effort. Stone will smudge and mildew also, but again more gracefully, usually.

Charlton -- After our time in Paris, we rented a car for the rest of the trip. For me, trains are the last choice if my goal is to get away from larger cities.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 25, 2009 10:38 AM

Modernist buildings don't age well not simply because of material degeneration but because they're so hard to add to. Take a look again at the "structure" in Honfleur: it's clearly what Donald says it is, the result of additions tacked on over centuries. And yet it works both as fascinating parts and as an organic whole.

Modernist buildings of the more geometric smooth glassy ferro-concrete type just don't seem to be able to change in this way. They don't "age" at all really, they just rot, deteriorate, fall apart the way a hunk of junk in a landfill does; they sometimes even smell bad doing it. And you can't add stuff on. They were created as solo stand-alones. And that's how they die.

Posted by: PatrickH on June 25, 2009 10:55 AM

Pupu has always been intrigued by the wedge-shaped buildings that bifurcate city streets. There is something very grand about them, perhaps because of the central-symmetry they project and the liveliness of the square at the sharp end of the wedge. Squares are always appreciated in cities even though they are nightmares for traffic.

Posted by: Pupu on June 25, 2009 12:18 PM

You know, one of the books that deserves more mention on this site is Stuart Brand's "How Buildings Learn". It is to architecture what Jane Jacobs' book is to urban planning. The Pompidou centre gets a thorough rubbishing in his book.

The criteria of judging the success of a building goes beyond the aesthetic qualities of the building alone, but rather on how it interacts with the community, how hard it is to maintain and of how practical it is to modify as the use of a building changes with time.

I loathe the Pompidou centre, but its failings are not just aesthetic,(I think it more a novelty rather than a serious building) rather it is a horribly expensive building to upkeep. After twenty years it had to be completely refurbished as its services and structure were decaying at a rate far faster than that of those old houses in the Dordogne. Sloping roofs for instance, are incredibly forgiving of poor tolerances, flat roofs need precise(and hence expensive) craftsmen.The Pompidou centre is not just ugly, it's designed as if the weather and money did not matter.

Buildings (like all other things) elicit a response in us. If we like something, we tend to try to avoid its disappearance. The fact that the many of France's old villages have remained intact is testament that there is some form of positive response that we get from that type of environment. The fact that many are repulsed by modernism may lie in the fact that it offends our human nature.

Posted by: slumlord on June 25, 2009 9:20 PM

Slumlord: You know, one of the books that deserves more mention on this site is Stuart Brand's "How Buildings Learn".

Looks interesting. I noticed that the author had left a comment with a link for a video of a 1997 BBC series based on his book.

Posted by: Moira Breen on June 26, 2009 9:03 AM

Moira, It really is that good. It's one of those books that brings it all together. American intellectualism at its best. It should be mandatory reading in all architectural schools.

Posted by: slumlord on June 26, 2009 5:42 PM

There is something about sunlight on a weathered brick wall that I absolutely love....I get sad when they tear down one of our built-in-the-20s 'plebian' workhorse chitown buildings. No wonder people want chicago brick.

Posted by: onparkstreet on June 27, 2009 9:54 AM

I second slumlord's enthusiasm for "How Buildings Learn." It's a great one. The TV show based on it was great too.

There's a whole shelf of books that make up a kind of alternative history of (and alternative way of thinking about) architecture and urbanism -- Chris Alexander, Salingaros, Jane Jacobs, William Whyte, Krier, John Turner, Colin Ward ... People who talk observantly, perceptively, and sensibly about our experiences of spaces, structures and social arrangements ... Why aren't these the books that are handed out to beginning architecture students? We'd all be better off if they were. Sanity can be a wonderful thing.

Anyway, "How Buildings Learn" has a much-deserved place on that shelf.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 27, 2009 10:01 AM

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