A lexicon of modern facades

Illustration by Thadani of how lexicon can be used on computers. (Dhiru Thadani)

Among the many differences between modern architecture and traditional or classical architecture is that modernist buildings, which often do not look like buildings at all, receive what I call derisive monikers from members of the public. Traditional and classical design, on the other hand, results in buildings that look like what they are supposed to be. Churches look like churches, banks look like banks. Houses look like houses. (What an idea!)

Recently, in Providence, new bus waiting kiosks have appeared in downtown that look like ironing boards, or (to me) like apparatuses that belong in a torture chamber. Other familiar names for modernist buildings are Big Pants, an official nickname for the CCTV headquarters, in Beijing, adopted in order to forestall some other nickname for a building that, to me, looks like it is stomping on the Chinese people. Also in Beijing is the Bird’s Nest, its Olympic stadium. Others think it looks like a massive tangle of barbed wire. I don’t know whether Beijing’s headquarters for the People’s Daily newspaper has a nickname. I’m sure it must. It looks like a giant penis. Not to pick on Red China, London has its own dildo, referred to as the Gherkin, meaning cucumber, which is often used as a … oh, never mind. Urban psychoanalysts, especially female, have for ages referred to all buildings taller than wide as phallic symbols.

You could list dozens more, but you don’t have to because Dhiru Thadani, the D.C.-based architect and urbanist, has done it for you. He has just developed a lexicon for typical styles (or “styles,” modernists might say because they claim not to believe in styles) of modernist building design. The derisive monikers he has come up with for each style are apposite, and for the most part describe with cunning accuracy what most people will see as the clear inspiration for these works to which the profession of architecture has stooped. Many of the styles below probably appear in your own community, buildings that the public rolls its eyes at and wishes were somewhere else.

Here is the lexicon, which also depicts the modernist building styles:

Many readers will recognize the original buildings from which the styles take their names. Despite familiar assertions to the contrary, modernist architects are deeply indebted to copying the past for their productivity. So readers may have seen one or more “derivative” buildings that bow down, or get down on their knees, in deference to the originals.

Thadani expertly explicates his lexicon in text accompanying his article in Public Square, the space usually filled by new urbanist Rob Steuteville. I recommend reading the whole thing, which is relatively brief, but here’s one passage I love:

It is ironic that today’s modernist architecture has reverted to being skin deep with no regard to express the functional use of the building. Many new buildings are designed to be appreciated from the air, as if to assume that all citizens have helicopter access. The pedestrians and street views are ignored. The majority of buildings do not contribute to the beauty of their context but rather try hard to stand out using absurd anti-gravitational strategies.

I will give a prize, of sorts, to the reader who can identify, in my comments section, the most original buildings represented in the lexicon.

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9/11: Peering into the abyss

90 West St., circa 1995, from rooftop garden of my cousin’s building in Battery Park City.

My last post quoted briefly my Oct. 4, 2001, column in the Providence Journal called “Peering into the towering abyss,” but the link seems to take readers to a sign-up sheet for the Journal archives instead of the text of the column. That’s what I found when I clicked the link on my iPhone, but when I clicked the same link on my iMac, it took me directly to the text. So I have no idea how this will work out for readers on other platforms. Therefore, I reprint the column in its entirety:


Peering into the towering abyss

I am close enough to the ruins of the World Trade Center to know I should be glad I cannot get closer. Pictures hardly prepare you for the magnitude of the wreckage, which smolders still, not to mention the acrid stench that comes and goes but stays with you. A few people outside the no-go zone still wear air filters or hold handkerchiefs up to their noses. They are probably the ones who can’t stop thinking about what they are smelling.

The photograph above was taken in happier days, from the roof garden of my cousin’s building in Battery Park City. The towers loom up, dwarfing the building that engaged my attention even more than the two towers, a lovely old building. The towers were there, for better or worse, and, for all I knew, always would be. Late that night, I went back up to shoot the old building again. The soft lights transformed its ornate roofscape into a golden jewel. In the dark beyond, you could barely see the towers.

The towers were the world’s tallest for only a couple of years, until Chicago’s Sears Tower opened, in 1974. Actually, one of the twin towers was six feet taller than the other. Their architect, Minoru Ya-masaki, stood an inch above five feet.

After the terrorists destroyed the towers, and after the fog of horror cleared a bit from my mind, I thought of that old building so close by. Did it still exist? No photographs or footage had revealed its fate, at least none I’d seen. I mourn the lost towers and the lost lives, but when I visited New York, I had to find out what had become of that old building.

I found a room Sunday at the Gramercy Park Hotel. I went out into the rain, had lunch nearby, returned, tried to arrange dinner with the sister of a friend, and ended up seeing an off-Broadway play, Woman Killer, and, later, saw comic routines at the New York Comedy Club. (“The more Arab the driver, the bigger his flag.” “Instead of rebuilding two buildings with 110 stories each, how about eight buildings with 25 stories each? Call it the Manhattan Projects.”)

The next morning, after checking out, I headed south. I walked, puttering around, marveling at the Beaux Arts municipal district, City Hall Park, the Woolworth Building, etc. Procrastinating.

Finally, just before noon, I reached the edge of the no-go zone, and accepted without protest the assurances of a couple of police officers that there was no way I’d ever get anything like close to “ground zero.” I was directed down Chambers Street to construction headquarters for damage information, but could speak with no officials. They were very busy.

But near the end of Chambers, from a pedestrian bridge, I finally saw my old building. Its address turns out to be 90 West St. It was built in 1905. In the photo at the right, taken with a zoom from the footbridge over West Street, it stands just left of the white crane battered and bruised, but alive. At its foot is the debris of 2 World Trade Center. Between them was tiny St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, built in the 1830s. It was obliterated.

I gaze upon this distressing scene, shoot a few pictures and move on. Back on Broadway, I again head south, peering west toward ground zero at every intersection. First Fulton, then Dey, then Cortland, then Liberty. With the crowds I linger, spellbound, taking pictures of ground zero. We continue to walk only after police lose patience, shouting, “Move along!” and threatening to confiscate cameras.

Thoroughly depressed, I wander toward Battery Park, then take a subway to the Port Authority Terminal (owner of the World Trade Center) and a bus for Providence, where the tallest buildings are less than a quarter the height of the late twin towers.

How curious that so many well-known architects and critics, even after the towers’ demise, can find so little good to say of their aesthetic charms. Powerful symbols, sure, no denying that. Even Ada Louise Huxtable, who in 1972 wrote that “these are big buildings, but they are not great architecture,” held firmly to that stance in writing their epitaph.

Perhaps buildings, like people, can attain greatness if not beauty in death. Many people shrink from the idea of building tall again. I do not know whether the towers should be rebuilt. A colleague says that would be to court a repeat disaster: Imagine two buildings each with 110 13th floors. Only a lunatic would rent space or take a job there.

Well, I’m not sure I agree. Maybe the murder of these two buildings, and their thousands of occupants and hundreds of rescuing heroes, can generate enough unity and strength of purpose in the civilized world to vanquish terrorism. Maybe then we can rest easy, build big, live large and watch the spirit of two buildings rise from tallness to greatness. Abraham Lincoln was no beauty, either.

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9/11 revisited, 20 years on

90 West St. (right), at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, circa 1995. (photo by author)

I saw 9/11 as it was happening on a TV screen through one of the large windows of URI’s Providence campus (the Shepard Building) facing Union Street. I was on my way to work at the Journal – two blocks from my downtown loft – where I saw the two buildings, Tower 1 and Tower 2 of the World Trade Center, topple. Two weeks later I visited the scene and wrote “Peering into the towering abyss.”*

I was determined to learn whether one of my favorite buildings, a 1905 Beaux Arts tower at 90 West St. on the edge of Ground Zero, had survived. Finally I saw it. It had been damaged but was still standing, still beautiful. In my column from a couple of weeks after 9/11, I noted that for all their symbolic resonance after their demolition, few considered the twin towers beautiful. My conclusion:

90 West, damaged during 9/11 (photo by author)

Perhaps buildings, like people, can attain greatness if not beauty in death. Many people shrink from the idea of building tall again. I do not know whether the towers should be rebuilt. A colleague says that would be to court a repeat disaster: Imagine two buildings each with 110 13th floors. Only a lunatic would rent space or take a job there.

Well, I’m not sure I agree. Maybe the murder of these two buildings, and their thousands of occupants and hundreds of rescuing heroes, can generate enough unity and strength of purpose in the civilized world to vanquish terrorism. Maybe then we can rest easy, build big, live large and watch the spirit of two buildings rise from tallness to greatness. Abraham Lincoln was no beauty, either.

Since then I have written many columns and blog posts about rebuilding Ground Zero but none about the terrorist attack on America or America’s wars launched in response to these despicable acts. Three thousand Americans died on 9/11 and more thousands of U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are still in Iraq, minimally, and have just left Afghanistan, ignominiously. There has been no second major terrorist attack, but after rapid wins in both wars, U.S. and allied forces lost focus and have been in surrender mode for years. We’ve now withdrawn suddenly from Afghanistan, a withdrawal President Biden is calling a victory. His willful obtuseness only deepens the national humiliation.

I have written no columns or blog posts about how America has changed since 9/11. It is not my gig, but I do have my feelings, which grumble occasionally and tangentially in my posts. Life in America has eroded, and America’s prestige in the world has declined. Some people find that worthy of applause. Not me. Large sectors of the nation have officially embraced themes that demonize our citizens, our history, and the principles of our founding. And in addressing the pandemic, our first impulse was to surrender. We shut down our economy, increasing the pandemic’s cost without controlling it. It may be argued that we are not a free country anymore, that the nation lacks a working constitution, not to mention a free and independent press, and that the last election was stolen. Censorship – official, unofficial and self – has largely voided conversation throughout society on the subjects that divide us. The unity we pretend to seek is a joke.

This is a sad indictment of America since 9/11. My gig is architecture, and in architecture things seem no better. Developers continue to construct faceless buildings whose gargantuan size and cold sterility only reinforce authoritarian themes present in our politics and our response to the pandemic. A movement toward a living architecture has managed to carve out a beachhead in the field. It is based on neurobiological discoveries that explain the public’s broad traditional preferences. But classical architects and their advocates are too timid to embrace their very rare opportunities to confront the modernist establishment.

Naysayers used to warn after 9/11 when a policy of caution was advised: the terrorists have already won! I hope not. I like the spirit of Flight No. 93, whose hijacked passengers forced it to crash in a Pennsylvania field on its away to attack either the U.S. Capitol or the White House. As he and his fellow passengers charged the cockpit, Todd Beamer is said to have cried “Let’s roll!” Something like that can-do (indeed, must-do) spirit might be useful in America today.


*In some versions of this post, the link to my old column “Peering into the towering abyss” brings readers to a Journal sign-in form, not the column itself. For example, the link works from my iMac but not from my iPhone. I don’t know whether it will work from platforms used by others. I plan to run that column in its entirety as a post in a couple of days, so readers who cannot access it through the link on their screens can read it anyway.

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Telosa: The next BIG thing

A street in the proposed new city of Telosa, with 1930s-style aeroplane, or, closer up, a drone. (BIG)

Men have sought to establish utopias for centuries in the mind and even on land. Plato posited his “Republic” long before Sir Thomas More coined “utopia,” but More considered his Utopia (1516) a satire. The founders of successive attempts at utopia in New Harmony, Indiana, failed at least three times. Many other attempts before and since have been made in America and elsewhere: the precise alchemy remains elusive. The founders of modern architecture had utopian conceits but these have resulted almost exclusively in the opposite, as James Stevens Curl makes clear in his 2018 history, Making Dystopia).

Downtown Telosa, with sustainable skyscrapers and same aeroplane. (BIG)

Now, it seems, we have Telosa, a planned utopian community of five million on 150,000 acres, conceived by the tech billionaire Marc Lore, lately of Walmart. Lore has hired Bjarke Ingels, of the Danish firm BIG, to design Telosa along the lines of what Rob Steuteville believes fits under the big tent of the new urbanism. Look at the image on top. Do you see? And at left is Telosa’s new urbanist downtown!

My point is not so much to roll eyeballs at the supposed “agnosticism” of the Congress of the New Urbanism as to illustrate how the fields of architecture and urbanism – beyond the slice of them that unfolds in traditional languages – are little more today than a jumble of words.

If what BIG has drawn for Marc Lore is new urbanism, then new urbanism is just a jargon salad with no real meaning. Of course, I believe that the new urbanism is a real thing, and that, properly conceived, it promotes what would otherwise be called the old urbanism. Too many who have attached themselves to CNU are, in fact, NGO wannabes seeking magic bullets to slay the dragon of climate change with technology that 1) increases the energy output of buildings, and 2) diverts architects and urbanists from their true mission of designing beautiful buildings and cities that work.

However, it’s hard to sustain that belief. In a recent CNU Public Square column, Steuteville wrote: “BIG has revealed only a handful of images, but these make clear that the overall design has a lot in common with New Urbanism.” Huh?

Sustainability would be Telosa’s middle name, if it had one. It does not even have a proposed location yet, though most observers think the idea is to build it in the desert Southwest.

Lore conceives of the city’s plan as based on the latest archispeak buzzword – the 15-minute city, in which all residents live within 15 minutes of their workplace, shopping, or whatever else they need. Another example is the name given to the proposed city’s tallest building, dubbed Equitism Tower, a gloss on yet another, more socially resonant buzzword – equity – which means the exact opposite of equality, which was the conceptual basis for most utopias throughout history. Equality of opportunity is no longer good enough: equity now means equality of result – in other words, a blueprint for dystopia.

Successful cities around the world and throughout history evolved not according to a single plan or central concept but according to the whims of social and market forces, aligning growth with the reproductive qualities of nature. Not coincidentally, the growth of cities resembles the growth of architecture writ large – with thousands of builders adapting the latest advances in design and construction technology, and incorporating the knowledge gained in that ad-hoc manner to an expanding collective wisdom in architecture and city building, most of which has been abandoned by modernists. Marc Lore does not seem to have anything like a traditional urbanism in mind.

Someone online reacted to news of the announcement by Lore of Telosa by pointing out that a city of five millions – or of 50,000 in its supposed first phase – would need a huge system of bringing water to the community. He added that desalinizing water from the Pacific and piping it into the desert might cost a huge chunk of his fortune, leaving him unable to finance the cost of finding a way to finance (and then build) his imaginary city. A couple others speculated at new discoveries that might make that more feasible. Keep on dreaming!

Still, that’s a good idea. Dream on! Lore should indeed throw his money down a rabbit hole. He should hire a top-flight modernist civil engineer to handle whatever highfallutin’ goofy “infrastructure” Telosa might need. Why not hire the London firm that plans to goof up downtown Providence? It is called Arup, which is Swedish for “disrupt.” Or at least it could be.

Meanwhile, BIG should hire as subcontractors a host of great modernist architects such as Frank Goofy, the late Zaha “Ha Ha” Hadid’s firm, Dildo Scrofulus + Rent-free (Diller Scofidio + Renfro), SHoP Architects (does the “o” stand for “of”?), which designed the fitness center rejected by Brown in favor of a facility designed by Robert A.M. Stern (the only wise decision made by Brown in half a century), Renzo Pianofortissimo, and any of many other modernists seemingly as conceited as Ingels regarding the names of their firms.

The idea would be to put them to work designing the biggest nonstarter ever conceived. That might distract them from their normal duties, which seem to be to inflict their designs on as many cities as possible. Telosa has smitten the world of architectural wordsmithy (I plead guilty), spawning a sort of Olympics of the Imagination. Marc Lore fits right in. Let the games begin!

[An engaging take on Telosa by Jessa Crispin ran in the Sept. 20 UK Guardian.]

Gridded layout of Telosa. Could it resemble the new urbanism from a distance? Nah. (BIG)

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WaterFire back in Providence

At WaterFire, view of crowd on pedestrian bridge, with skyline in background.

Providence has gone two years, since the fall of 2019, without WaterFire, the capital city’s signature work of art, a blessing to citizens of Rhode Island and visitors from much farther afield since 1994. It is the event’s usual crowds of people, maybe 40,000 or more, a dozen or so times a year, that doomed it to covid lockdown last year and into this spring and summer. But Saturday night WaterFire returned, full of vigor, and the livin’ was easy.

I would not have missed it for the world. For a long time during the event’s early years, I called myself the “Bard of WaterFire.” One of my old Journal columns was headlined “I cover the waterfront.” My wife googled me before our first date (in a gondola) back in ’04 and found “Sex and WaterFire.” The idea of WaterFire as a sort of mass orgy waiting to happen still pulls me downtown, though only four or five times a year nowadays, not as often as in times past.

For those unfamiliar with WaterFire, it features approximately 85 fires of about 33 pine logs piled pyramid style in metal braziers and anchored every 20 feet or so along the channels of the Providence and Woonasquatucket between downtown and College Hill. Black boats full of black-clad volunteers stoking the braziers chug quietly up and down the rivers. Symphonic, operatic, jazz and other music from distant cultures wafts gently from speakers strategically hidden along the embankments. Sometimes I chide WaterFire’s creator, Barnaby Evans, if the music creeps up too loud. He was there last night to put up with my tut-tutting, but to soften it I noted that a couple years’ worth of graffiti had been entirely scrubbed from the waterfront. Evans pointed out one tag that I had missed, under the lip of Memorial Boulevard’s embankment, testifying to the tagger’s daring in applying his pathetic signature (my words, not Barnaby’s).

The key to WaterFire’s success, aside from the energy and commitment of its maximum leader and his crew and volunteers, is the intimate quality of the Woonasquatucket and Providence rivers. Few cities can boast such rivers, let alone flowing as they do between the city’s downtown and its most historic neighborhood. The continued dominance of classical architecture in the vicinity, while at risk thanks to the lack of imagination shown by decades of city fathers and the city’s art and design elites, is responsible for much of Waterfire’s success. Topping it off is the masterfully traditional design of the city’s new (1990-1996) waterfront by the late architect and planner Bill Warner.

It seems that city and state leaders had to have their arms twisted to dedicate a total of $600,000 to put on this year’s truncated WaterFire schedule. Three more full lightings and five partial ones are planned, including a partial lighting (in the Waterplace basin only) this coming Thursday evening.

Before adding photographs taken during last night’s event, I can think of no better way to conclude this rambling celebration of WaterFire Regained than the concluding paragraph of my long-ago “Sex and WaterFire” essay:

While most cities have a secluded place to go for necking, few cities celebrate romance in the heart of their downtown. In WaterFire, Providence has such a place. How much love has bloomed along these embankments? Strip WaterFire of its final profundity and the intensity remains. Providence is blessed, indeed caressed, by WaterFire.

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Tall buildings all fall down

Fifteen buildings of in Yunnan, China, were imploded on Aug. 27. (Taiwan News)

Is there something off-kilter about the photo above from a video sent to me yesterday by architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros? Yes, there is.

At first I thought it was a video of Pruitt-Igoe, the St. Louis public housing project, all 33 eleven-story buildings of which were demolished in between 1972 and 1976 – an event described (falsely, alas) as “the end of modern architecture” by postmodernist architectural historian Charles Jencks. Interesting factoid: the 33 buildings were designed by Minoru Yamasaki, better known for his twin World Trade Center towers, infamously demolished on Sept. 11, 2001, by the terrorist group al-Qaeda. The demolition of Pruitt-Igoe was memorialized in about nine minutes of the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance.

Woolworth Building rises behind Public Advocates building. (Wikipedia)

A moment’s reflection concluded my delusion. In fact, the photograph above from early in the video at this link records the demolition of the Liyang Star City Phase II project in the Chinese city of Kunming. Note the tilt of several buildings at the start of their demolition last Friday. The dynamite expunged $154 million worth of property in 45 seconds. Some 5,300 people in 2,000 units were evacuated (before demolition, one trusts). The 15 buildings were allegedly demolished because, in the opinion of the Chinese authorities, the eight years since the beginning of construction was too long. How many buildings were occupied and why they were among those torn down was not explained. In other words, this information must be consumed with a very large pinch of salt.

Another video of the demolition gives a much clearer idea of its context as a minor dent in the skyscraperopolis that is Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. I am not quite as confirmed an opponent of skyscrapers as my friend Nikos, who sent me the video in the hope that I might find it interesting. He was correct. And most skyscrapers are an ecological abomination, needing too much energy to build and operate without housing enough people to justify their carbon footprint. Paris with its gorgeous Haussmanesque flats of seven stories or so has an equivalent density using architecture of much greater sustainability. I suppose I’d have applauded the assassination of this group of skyscrapers in China even if they had all looked like the Woolworth Building (1913) in Manhattan. What a mockery of beauty that would have been!

The Chinese are known for the number of neighborhoods and even whole cities that have been built but are not yet occupied. No doubt the progression from legal one-child families to two- and now three-child families since 2016 plays a role. Those empty population centers have not been torn down. Could that be because some are knock-offs of European architecture and hence popular?

Chinese President Xi has banned “weird” architecture in China, and cited the CCTV tower (which looks like it is crushing the people) and the People’s Daily headquarters (which looks like a penis), both in Beijing. But the skyscrapers demolished in Yunnan are not weird or lewd but dull. On the other hand, Xi has also banned “copycat” architecture, such as, presumably, neighborhoods inspired by European architecture, which perhaps qualify as weird copycats. They are not all built with equal architectural verismilitude, to say the least. What about all those other cities filled with tedious towers, throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas? Are those not copycat buildings? Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer. Pop go the overinflated egos! Meanwhile, Olympic construction in China has obliterated traditional hutong neighborhoods that go back many centuries, and possibly other examples of Chinese heritage whose demise remains unknown to the public. Shame!

It seems to me that the entire city of Yunnan should be demolished. But what good would that do? Chinese skyscrapers and Chinese power plants resemble each other in that so many are being built that, however many are torn down, they still swamp all efforts to put a lid on the globe’s carbon footprint. Too bad! I will continue to oppose ugly modernist towers and support the construction of beautiful new classical towers, however rare they may be. I suppose I can count them on the fingers of no more than a pair of hands. No fear of their interfering with the war on climate change. Again: Too bad.

Demolition in 1072 of Pruitt-Igoe complex, built in 1956-1958. (Finnbar5000)

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Landscape urbanism revisited


Not long ago, in response to my post “Steuteville’s public square,” a pile of emails and comments was generated by my query as to whether something called landscape urbanism still exists. One email called for another look at its continued existence, lest the matter be lost in the flurry of comments. To which urbanist theoretician Michael Mehaffy replied:

Landscape urbanism is yet another attempt to be the anti-new urbanism. … [A]s a brand it has mostly disappeared [but] as a practice it is still pervasive because it is simply yet another reactionary form of modernism.

Mehaffy described LU as “sprawl in a pretty green dress.” He did concede LU’s “contribution of ecology to urbanism.” To which architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros added:

I see this as just a desperate grab for commissions. A bunch of faculty from the Harvard GSD [Graduate School of Design] just made up the brand name Landscape Urbanism then decided they had to displace New Urbanism in order to get those jobs. Obviously they could not compete with industrial modernist planning … [s]o they used pretty landscapes and made up a whole bunch of propaganda words about using native plant species, etc. But they then imposed the same modernist industrial buildings, since that’s all they know how to do.

In a comment, Mehaffy, agreed, adding that

[t]he trouble with Landscape Urbanism is that it is simply a scheme to “shrub up” the old modernist failures, and thereby re-supply some of their symmetry deficit. It works up to a point, but only superficially. And it is one of a number of “predatory” strategies to steal symmetries from other sources, and (temporarily) camouflage what is essentially design malpractice, from the point of view of human well-being.

I could easily construct a whole post quoting Mehaffy and Salingaros back and forth in reply to my original post. In 2018 they won Traditional Building’s Clem Labine Award – see my post “Joint prize for dynamic duo” – in which I attempt to explain their work in partnership with each other and with computer- and urban-language guru Christopher Alexander.

Together, the three of them, along with another pathfinder, architect and cognitive theorist Ann Sussman, essentially perceive that whereas traditional architecture is additive – has been building on its own progress for hundreds if not thousands of years – modern architecture is reactive. It can only conceive of progress (if you want to call it that) as a sort of aesthetic oneupmanship, always reacting to attempts at novelty by other modernist architects.

(Among other matters, Sussman’s research uses eye-tracking software to show that observers of architecture tend to avoid looking at blank spaces in buildings, and focus instead on buildings that feature traditional detailing and ornament.)

The additive character of traditional architecture resembles the reproductive character of nature, whereas the reactive character of modern architecture must address the limits of innovation. Since for modernists “copying the past” is not permitted, or at least not admitted, practitioners inevitably reach a point where the next new thing appears increasingly absurd. Its theorists consume themselves in an unending effort to differentiate the latest novelty from its predecessors. They never even reach the point of explaining how the latest novelty compares favorably with what traditionalists call the “living architecture” of their work. Modern architecture produces confusion among its adherents and anxiety or even repulsion among its victims (the public). To read a critical review of the latest work of a celebrity modernist shows that the absurdity of its design is matched only by the absurdity of the gobbledygook required to describe and defend it.

Research, polls, surveys and anecdotal evidence bear out this alienation of the public from modern architecture, whereas no science exists (that I’ve seen) that posits affection for modern architecture or its contribution to human well-being.

Traditional architecture (including its roots in Greek and Roman classicism) demonstrably contributes to positive human health outcomes. Modern architecture causes illness. It either disorients its users or bores them.

So intent are modernists to seek out the increasingly rare sources of novelty in their designs that they often forget primary tasks, such as to signal the location of a building’s front door. On the other hand, the tool of symmetry in traditional design not only places the front door in a usually central location; it also uses embellishment to boldly distinguish a front door from other doors that might be visible to an approaching observer. Salingaros refers to the modernists’ neglect of this as “symmetry deficit disorder.” To cite the title of Christopher Alexander’s most famous book, ornament is pattern language writ small. At different scales, architectural detail promotes the clarity of a design’s symbolic intent.

I see I have strayed from the question of whether landscape urbanism still exists. Of course it still exists. To quote Salingaros again:

Wikipedia is right, in that so-called Landscape Urbanism is not urbanism at all. You can see it is just industrial modernism in attractive new clothes, simply because it uses the same obscurantist modernist language to hide its lack of design substance.

It seems that symmetry – and let’s not even get into the question of beauty, which has long caused anxiety among modernists – is as verboten in the design of modernist landscapes as in the design of modernist buildings. It must be difficult for landscape urbanists to decide whether to lean toward symmetry or toward the organic patterns of nature in designing a green setting for modernist buildings and communities. Either way seems to edge too close to traditional models of landscape architecture. Split the difference, yes, but how? And how to do so without accidentally replicating the novelty of other landscape urbanists?

It’s too bad landscape urbanists have not discovered the potential usefulness of trees, shrubbery and other plantings to disguise or otherwise block modern architecture from the observation of passersby. Or maybe they have. Mehaffy recalls Frank Lloyd Wright’s cocktail party joke: “You doctors are lucky. You can bury your mistakes. We architects have to plant vines.” That might explain the continued existence of a debate over whether landscape urbanism still exists.

[Illustration of and caption for two landscape urbanism examples atop this post is from an article by D. Kelbaugh in a 2014 edition of Semantic Scholar.]

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Penn Station post Cuomo

Empire Station Complex, blue; Penn Station behind proposed new towers. (Community Board Five)

Andrew Cuomo’s resignation, effective in one week, could provide an opening to rebuild Penn Station as designed by architects McKim Mead & White in 1910. Is the next governor, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, of a mind to support the plan? No one seems to know. First, she would have to stop Cuomo’s plan to expand rather than rebuild Penn Station and demolish up to 50 buildings, including the Hotel Pennsylvania, the Stewart Hotel and the Church of St. John the Baptist – all to make way for 10 towers in the so-called Empire Station Complex, a congestion magnification scheme facing broad opposition and unlikely to win city votes for whomever runs for governor next (including Hochul). She has a lot on her plate.

Also unknown is the view of Eric Adams, the city’s presumptive next mayor, whose campaign focused on NYC’s largely self-inflicted crime wave. Bringing common sense back to law enforcement in the Big Apple is certainly key to any redevelopment plan hopeful of success.

The many public advocacy groups opposed to the Empire Station Complex should join together and place the plan to rebuild Penn Station at the center of both their publicity and political strategies. Unity around a proposal of such likely popularity could have a profound force-multiplication effect.

An opposition umbrella group, the Empire Station Coalition, held a forum Aug. 13 to discuss the situation. It may be seen on YouTube. The 12 organizations include ReThinkNYC, whose plan supports the proposal to rebuild Penn using the MMW blueprints within a broader proposal to bring through service to the station and rationalize regional rail service. And it includes Human Scale NYC, which was founded by panel moderator Lynn Ellsworth, who told the audience:

[T]he real-estate industrial complex of our city has pretty much taken it over. Through campaign finance contributions to our politicians, to ownership, or the regulatory agencies getting their appointees on board, to organizing the legal or legislative systems so that the governor, mayor have all the power.

Ellsworth suggested federal intervention as a possibility, perhaps through President Biden’s transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, and the looming billions of a proposed federal infrastructure bill. New York state legislation to subject the Empire State Development Corporation and its Empire Station plan to the city’s authority (from which it is now exempt) is another option.

With or without the sensible Regional Unifed Network (RUN) proposal offered by ReThinkNYC, the proposal by architect Richard Cameron of Atelier & Co. to rebuild Penn Station using Charles Follen McKim’s design would sell itself easily to any New York leader truly intent upon prioritizing the public interest in beauty and economic growth. It is feasible both practically and financially. It would remove Madison Square Garden from atop Penn Station and rebuild it nearby. The plan envisions redeveloping much of the area to expand the neo-classical feel of Penn Station into a global entertainment district appealing to the traditional architectural tastes of the public. In short, it’s a plan for the people of New York rather than for the owners of Vornado Real Estate Trust, who own most of the property now targeted for redevelopment under the Cuomo plan.

You’d think that as she prepares to govern with an eye to re-election in a year or so, Kathy Hochul would want to run as fast and as far as she can from Cuomo’s priapic Empire State Complex. That means she ought to run in the direction of rebuilding Penn Station, undoing what Ada Louise Huxtable called the greatest cultural crime in American history – the 1963 demolition of the original station.

As historian Vincent Scully notably stated, “One entered the city as a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” That’s not just a big problem for the city but for the nation and even the world. The first female governor of New York State could be the one who fixes that problem.

Rebuilt Penn Station. (by Jeff Stikeman for the National Civic Art Society)

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Entitling Historical Concepts

Eric Piasecki’s photograph on the front cover of “Visions of Home.” (Historical Concepts)

Most architectural firms have names listing one or more partners, McKim Mead & White being a chief example familiar to classicists. In recent times some firms have chosen names seemingly designed to impress you with their creativity, such as SHoP Architects, headquartered in the Woolworth Building, of all places, or S/L/A/M (now SLAM) Collaborative, headquartered in Connecticut.

And then there is Historical Concepts, an unusual name even for a traditionally oriented Atlanta-based firm that mainly designs homes for the wealthy – often the only commissions that can be had by classical and traditional architects, because modernist architects have rigged the commission system for decades.

The other day, a book arrived whose arrival was the result of a comedy of errors entangling architect David Andreozzi (of Andreozzi Architecture, naturally) in Barrington, Rhode Island. The book’s author, Andrew Cogar, had sent it by accident to me. Since the enclosed note thanked me for something I had not done that involved the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, whose New England chapter is led by David Andreozzi, I figured the book must have been intended for that David, not this one. So I arranged to transfer it to him over pizza at his son’s new pizzeria in Providence. Apparently, David A. mentioned this to Andrew Cogar, whose graciousness resulted in the arrival of a second copy of the book, Visions of Home, at my address.

By the way, Cogar gave me a tour of Atlanta when I was there long ago as a juror for the ICAA Southeast chapter’s annual Shutze Awards, the equivalent of our chapter’s Bulfinch Awards. Maybe this ancient event triggered the delightful comedy of errors.

Since the wrapping of the first copy was too complex and ornate for me to open after I discovered the book was not meant for me, I am grateful to have received a copy of my own, which I have read with great pleasure.

I will not review the houses on display in the book, except to say they are all very lovely. Rather, I want to remark upon the title of the firm, Historical Concepts. Andrew Cogar is now head of the firm, but the book’s introduction was written by the firm’s founder, James L. Strickland, and here’s how he explained the rationale for the firm’s unusual name:

Why Historical Concepts instead of, for example, James L. Strickland Architects? Fair enough. I chose our name for two reasons. The first was that our animating idea was the creation of contemporary homes rooted in the timeless values of history, and I wanted potential clients to understand this the moment they heard our name. The second, more important reason had to do with my longstanding interest in the people with whom I work. I always believed that I was designing not just houses but a philosophy of practice … .

That says it all, because the concepts that are involved in building beauty along traditional lines require both the talent and the patience to look backward as well as forward. A firm named Historical Concepts will not be capable of functioning along those lines if its workers belong in a firm called, say, Pickup Schticks. Two years ago I wrote a post, “Romance and the style wars,” about the movie The Diary of Anne Frank, in which her romance with Peter Van Daan builds with such subtlety that it is not revealed until a gentle kiss near the film’s conclusion:

That is the traditional progression into love. It can be speeded up or even slowed down further to reflect the personalities and circumstances involved. The more or less subtle steps along the way might perhaps be compared with the succession of classical moldings that mark the transformation of a wall into a ceiling …, or, on the exterior of the house, by the diverse levels of ornament – such as (in rising order) the astragal, cymba reversa, dentils, ovolo, modillions, fascia and cyma recta – that make up the entablature of an ornate classical roof cornice.

Thus: the beauty of nature’s creativity versus the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’m of hyper-innovation that drives today’s dominant architectural concept. I am just as sure that every worker at Historical Concepts understands the difference as I am sure that it flies over that head of every egotist at Pickup Schticks.

Love and rape are not the only pair that might reflect truth: Freedom and slavery serve equally well, with Beijing’s CCTV tower, by Rem Koolhaas, leading the way, stomping on the people as cogs in a mighty machine that may be heading our way. But hey! Let’s conclude with the concept of tradition as the architecture of love and, as depicted with such beauty in Andrew Cogar’s fine book, home.

(The book was written by Andrew Cogar with Mark Krystal and Cogar’s partners at Historical Concepts. The photographs are by Eric Piasecki.)

CCTV, home of CCP propaganda in Beijing, designed by Rem Koolhaas. (NYT)

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Liverpool loses heritage status

Liverpool in 1915 as troops muster before St. George’s Hall for service in World War I. (BBC)

Seventeen years after its bestowal, Liverpool has lost its status as world heritage site by an act of Unesco, the United Nations’ chief cultural agency.

Sixteen years ago, in June 2005, I attended a symposium at RISD, which had partnered with the Royal Society for the Arts to compare efforts in Providence and Liverpool to revive the two cities. At the symposium I met Arthur Mark, a mover and shaker with ties to the RSA who lives in Rhode Island. Last night I had dinner with him, not having seen him since before his 90th birthday last year. I mentioned that I’d read that Liverpool had just lost its world heritage status. I also called to Arthur’s attention my column in the Providence Journal about the symposium, “Can civic renaissance be bottled?” He reminded me that Will Alsop, the British starchitect, had criticized me, asserting that “newspaper critics” always “oppose progress.” Alsop had no idea I was in the audience, but others did, and pointed me out as evidence in favor of Alsop’s proposition and, more generally, as the skunk at their modernist garden party.

I have reprinted my column below, and remain firm in my belief that civic renaissance can be “bottled” – if civic leaders will finally understand that civic renaissance depends on preserving architectural heritage and preserving the setting of that heritage by building new buildings – of traditional styles – that people will love. Liverpool did not heed that advice, and as a result has lost its coveted global heritage status.


“Can civic renaissance be bottled?”
June 9, 2005
My father studied in Liverpool for a year after he married my mother and before they had me. Beyond recalling the tedium of postwar rationing and the joy of popping over to visit the Continent, they said little to me of their stay. Still, I was very excited to learn that the Royal Society for the Arts, based since 1754 in London, and the Rhode Island School of Design were to hold a symposium comparing the birthplace of George M. Cohan (born July 3, 1878, at 536 Wickenden St.) with that of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
The symposium was held Sunday through Tuesday, at the RISD Auditorium, in Providence. It drew from the design and planning elite hereabouts, but also from the ranks of RSA fellows around this country.

Much grist for comparison came in the form of ambitions dashed. By the turn of the last century, Liverpool and Providence had grown rich from commerce. By 1950, however, fortune had frowned so grimly upon the head of Narragansett Bay and the mouth of the Mersey that neither city could afford — as so many others, in both countries, did — to rip down their downtowns and build anew.

So for both, poverty seeded destiny. With the beauty of Providence, readers are familiar. Liverpool likewise has truly impressive architecture. Its Three Graces — the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building — were erected dockside in the robust Neo-Classical styles of the early 20th Century. Block after block of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian buildings, such as St. George’s Hall, completed in 1854, dominate the city center. Without them, no less than in Providence, renaissance would be unimaginable.

Both revivals have their critics. As always, benefits are not equally spread. In both, the gritty residue of social and cultural inequality has itself been sold as key to the authenticity of a renaissance — a quality known on both sides of the Atlantic as edginess, or edge. “Can it be bottled?” panelists from both cities asked — rhetorically, of course, as all agreed it could not.

If not, can it at least be preserved, like the old buildings that renaissance seems to require?

At most symposia, as in life, questions outnumber answers. At this symposium, answers were officially discouraged. Some answers, however — such as “Edge cannot be bottled” — were asserted repeatedly as conclusive. So was the idea that Providence needs more modern architecture, though all seemed to agree that what it had was not very good. (I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Edward Larrabee Barnes and Paul Rudolf have little-noted buildings here.)

The yearning for another celebrity architect to “parachute” into town was palpable. RISD President Roger Mandle, while noting that celebrity architect Rafael Moneo is doing RISD’s museum expansion, defended the “canvas” of Providence’s historic architecture, as did Rhode Island College Prof. Mark Motte. But they seemed a tiny minority.

In fact, this reporter felt like the skunk at the garden party, and was pleased to be singled out as such after celebrity architect and panelist Will Alsop, of London, observed that newspaper critics always “oppose progress” (i.e., modern architecture). Oh? In Britain maybe they do, but not in America!

Alsop himself won the competition to design Liverpool’s Fourth Grace, to join the first three alongside the Mersey docks. Alsop’s monstrosity, if built, will elbow the heck out of the three existing Graces. Blessedly, delays assure that it won’t be up by 2008. Liverpool has been designated the European Union’s “City of Culture” for that year.

I was not surprised when a Liverpudlian panelist, Eddie Berg, pointed out that while Alsop’s design had won the official competition, it came in last in a public referendum. Of course, that was nonbinding.

The importance of a public role in directing the revival of Liverpool and Providence was another of those questions whose correct answers could be assumed. But, so far as I could tell, nobody wondered why the broad public’s clear dislike of modern architecture is always so studiously ignored.

That’s because nobody wanted to hear the answer to that question. The answer, actually, is simplicity itself: For the same reason that we preserve the old buildings that people love, new buildings should be built in styles that people will love.

Why does every renaissance city have historic architecture at its base? Because that’s what people want, and that’s where people go. Build cities as people built cities for centuries, and the questions facing most cities — of sustainability, transportation, commercialism, etc. — will not be so vexing. They were not so vexing, after all, until planning and design turned edgy after World War II.

Every city a renaissance city? Bottle that answer, you royal fellows, if you dare.

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