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November 16, 2009

Neiman's Interior Space

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My gut reaction is that modernist architecture is often ill at ease with grand spaces. Sure, it's easy to whip out t-square, triangle or architectural design software and simply specify a space for contractors and workers to actualize. The tricky bit, so far as modernists go, is humanizing such spaces. That requires making use of (ugh!!) decorative elements.

One solution is to combine modernism with explicitly classical details. Consider the restaurant and entrance atrium of Neiman Marcus' store by Union Square in San Francisco. Here are photos I took a few weeks ago:

Restaurant level

Looking down at entrance by Union Square

The site of Neiman Marcus for many years was the location of the City of Paris store that eventually became cited as an architectural landmark (details here). After City of Paris closed, Neiman Marcus razed the structure and replaced it with the present building.

The centerpiece of the City of Paris was a dome with a glass image of a sailing ship, and this was restored and incorporated in the corner of the new building facing Union Square. It can be seen in the top photo, above. As the lower photo indicates, classical details are included at various levels of the atrium.

Although I remember seeing the City of Paris building, I can't recall having been in it. So I have no opinion regarding whether or not it should have been preserved. The Neiman Marcus building is blah on the outside and okay-retail-space inside.

Except for the Union Square corner shown above. That bit I like a lot.



posted by Donald at November 16, 2009


The notion that creating humanized spaces "requires making use of (ugh!!) decorative elements" is inherently wrong ... while the thoughtful use of decorative elements can make a large space feel more human, there are other means of achieving the effect that are not necessarily incompatible with modernism, such as including elements within the larger space that are designed to correspond to the human scale.

Posted by: mh on November 17, 2009 10:31 PM

mk -- Obviously this is really a large, deep topic and we're both using shorthand remarks. I'll agree that ornament alone does not ensure a human environment -- it depends upon how the ornament is done. But the addition of human-scale ingredients to a spare, modernist structure also is not a solution either because humans didn't evolve in a sheer, geometric world such as modernism (in its classical form) tried to impose. In other words, scale is not nearly enough, IMHA.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 17, 2009 10:50 PM

Ornament is essential. That's because we're people.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on November 18, 2009 5:22 AM

While "humans didn't evolve in a sheer, geometric world" it is equally true that we did not evolve in brick boxes with palladium windows. If connection to how humans evolved were to become the measure of architecture shouldn't we be building artificial caves or portable structures that can be easily moved across the savannah? And for that matter when I think of ancient or traditional architecture I visualize boxes, pyramids, columns beneath triangular pediments, spherical domes ... in short geometric shapes combined to enclose space for human activities. One's aesthetic and image of what is "traditional" architecture is a cultural construct. Traditional Japanese architecture, for example, might be seen as far closer to modernism than to French Baroque. This underlying notion that somehow social engineers have imposed modernism on a hapless and unwilling public fails to convince.

Posted by: Chris White on November 18, 2009 9:43 AM

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