Architecture into politics

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It was not captioned, but I believe this is a recent building designed by Quinlan Terry. (Dezeen)

In his Dezeen essay “To confront populism, all architects should become classicists,” Phineas Harper suggests that the architectural profession should compromise its aesthetics and embrace classicism in order to build social housing that is often blocked by NIMBY forces when it is designed in mod- ernist styles. He links to a populist UKIP party video. (The United Kingdom Independence Party led last year’s Brexit fight.) Its video, untitled, expresses anger at how classicism is stomped on and rubbed out by a professional elite of modernist architects, and pledges an official reverse in policy.

The video is linked in the essay by Harper, who feels its pain while evidently deploring its populism. Still, it is excellent. Watch it!

The idea Harper puts forth is ridiculous. Modernists are not going to turn classicist just to support their generally leftist political ideology. But Harper asks why not? And his essay makes many, many good points regarding, um, architecture. Here is one passage:

Whether in academia or in practice, most respectable architects stick doggedly to a late-modern century Swiss(ish) tame-form modernism with occasional extravagant set pieces provided by starchitects. Yet simultaneously we all know that classicism remains hugely popular with the public and planners alike. They might not know the difference between the Doric and Ionic orders, nor possess a detailed lexicon of astragals and finials, but they know what they like, and what they like generally has a cornice. If the public is the ultimate client for architecture, isn’t it elitist to consistently dismiss their taste?

More importantly, huge resistance faces the construction of essential new public buildings. Isn’t it morally imperative that architects swallow their aesthetic qualms and design in the style most able to garner the political support needed to overcome any barriers? There are buildings that urgently need to be built; hospitals, housing, schools and so on. Why, then, do architects consistently throw potentially derailing obstacles in the way of these projects by insisting on modern styling, knowing full well that doing so hardens public opposition and chips away at political will? …

We will happily make many other compromises to see work built – so why not style? We will work for dubious developers who we know are more interested in their shareholders than end users. We will squeeze out communal spaces, reduce ceiling heights and shrink rooms to the minimum standards at the behest of miserly clients. We will climb into bed on estate regeneration schemes that lead to the displacement of poor families, and will routinely overwork our staff while failing to give them proper credit. But work in a classical style? Unthinkable!

UKIP has basically done what I have for years urged the Democrats or the Republicans to do here in America: The first party to embrace new tradi- tional architecture as a policy issue could easily steal a march on its oppo- nents. Whether it will succeed or not, who knows, but this is what UKIP has done. This is what the GOP or the Democrats should do.

Enjoy both the essay and the UKIP video linked to the essay. And thank you, Hank Dittmar, for sending Harper’s essay and the three-and-a-half minute UKIP video to the TradArch list.

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A tale of two PPS events


Aerial view of Cathedral Square shows many entry points into the plaza. (Digital Commons @ RIC)

Over the course of four days the Providence Preservation Society hosted two events, one about Cathedral Square, which I’ll discuss first, and the other about the Jewelry District.

The first event, held at the Department of Planning and Development’s offices last Friday evening, featured a panel on Cathedral Square, part of the Weybosset Hill segment of the Downtown Providence 1970 plan (announced in 1960) and one of the blessedly few parts of that plan that was realized. Before the site was razed, it was an active part of town where Westminster and Weybosset met at the far end of the “bow” originating near the Provi- dence River. A panel including Boston planner Tim Love and landscape historian Charles Birnbaum described how Cathedral Square came to be but had little to say regarding why it failed.

Mack Woodward, of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission, wrote in the 2003 PPS guide to Providence, “The vast, lifeless plaza designed by I.M. Pei and Zion & Breen is an insulting contrast to the building’s vigorous design,” referring to the Cathedral of Sts. Peter & Paul (1878). Elsewhere, he wrote of the plaza: “Despite being designed by world class architects and urban planners, namely I.M. Pei and Zion & Breen, the space has been universally decried as an utter failure.”

I’d replace “Despite being designed …” with “Because it was designed … .”

After their presentations, I raised my hand and moderator Christina Bevilacqua, the famous curator of conversation, called on me. I noted that the panelists had not really discussed why the plaza failed, and asked whether it might have been more successful if its design were more in keeping with that of the cathedral, and downtown Providence generally. Predictably, being modernists, they both dodged the question.

In fact, it failed  at least in part because it was unattractive. It might someday succeed if its cold modernist façades could be covered up or replaced by tra- ditional façades. Also, the unused Bishop McVinney Auditorium should be razed so that Westminster Street can be reopened from Empire Street through the plaza. Then it could cross the bridge over Route 95 to reunite downtown with the West Side – with or without the Ponte Vecchio accou- trements suggested in 2004 by Andrés Duany and snickered at, for some reason, by Tim Love.

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On Monday, a much more productive and entertaining event was held about the history of the Jewelry District. Little was said about the I-195 Corridor, though its executive director, Peter McNally, was there. The event was sponsored by PPS, Brown University, the Jewelry District Association and Building Bridges Providence, which has pushed for the pe- destrian bridge now supposedly under construction.

The event featured 19 Brown University students in an architectural history course taught by Professor Dietrich Neumann. They all described their favorite of the pair of buildings each chose to research for the class. Most of them were traditional brick mill buildings, and many of the students whose building was gone used fancy computer footwork to superimpose its image on a photograph of the site today. The audience at Brown’s medical school in the Jewelry District (the Little Nemo Building) was thrilled by each of these instances. As I say, Peter McNally was in the audience. Maybe he learned something useful.

Hint, hint: Now that the downtown zone reaches into the Jewelry District, new development must by law “protect the historic character of downtown.”

All of the presentations were clear, persuasive and entertaining. The students were articulate and well spoken. Some could step right into careers as stand- up comics, but scholarship was their game on Monday evening. If they are typical of what Brown is producing these days, then we need not have any worries for the younger generation.

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Corbusier on Courvoisier

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This hilarious Barney & Clyde cartoon was sent to me by a correspondent in Washington, Arnold Berke, a contributing editor of Preservation magazine.

My reaction to the cartoon?

If only!

If only Le Corbusier had suffered from overindulgence in the pleasures of alcohol rather than the displeasures of autism. If only Corbu’s architecture, as translated by Weingarten, Weingarten & Clark) were as cartoonish as the loopy house in the strip, the International Style drunk on postmodernism. One might then have hoped that a tippling Corbu might have toppled from atop of one of his machines for living before inspiring so many towers of hopelessness for the poor, providing options for suicide and murder from their dangerous rooftops and other precincts of modern architecture.

Anybody see The Architect (from 2006, not the latest movie of the same name), with Isabella Rosellini and Viola Davis, about a designer of public housing who tries to dodge being guilt-tripped by angry tenants into demol- ishing one of his towers? Before he succumbs, a resident leaps off its roof.

If only there were no Corbu, maybe a lot of this might not have happened, and the world would be a happier place.

If only.

[GoComics offers Barney & Clyde, by Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten and David Clark, and other comics.]

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Christo laundry, wacko RISD

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Screenshot from the Jewelry District Association’s website.

The Jewelry District Association, in Providence, reports that Christo is going to cross the Providence River and line India Point Park with laundry, pegged on a giant laundry line. In my book, that crosses an important boundary, as does RISD’s art installation that has since winter draped a white rail gate in front of the RISD Museum’s main facade on Benefit Street.

Okay, so which of these is the April Fool’s joke? The Christo, it seems. Not that it would be all that surprising to have the famous cloak-and-stagger artist do a contemporary art installation in Providence. The city is near the top in lots of tourist polls measuring the latest “hot” places. And with good reason. It stands to reason that someone like Christo would be brought in to help the city attract visitors with something super stupid.

Christo covered the Reichstag/Bundestag in Berlin with cloth a couple of decades ago and more recently lined Central Park with orange cloth “gates.” The latter project resulted in a Colbert humor sketch that is by far the best thing to emerge from Christo’s entire career as an “artist.” If I could trade a few weeks of my dignity for a sketch that funny, I would consider it seriously. But I cannot take seriously the idea that Providence’s top cultural institution would allow such a joke, in the name of art, to be played on it.

So the RISD gate makes more sense as an April Fool’s joke. But it is actually the threat of a Christo event in Providence that is the joke. A friend sent me a link to the website of the Jewelry District Association and I read three or four paragraphs into the story it before it occurred to me to check the date. You guessed it. April 1, 2017.

(By the way, congratulations to the Jewelry District for its successful cam- paign to avoid official rebrandment as “The Knowledge District.” It will always be the Jewelry District to anyone who loves Providence.)

RISD has not returned my call yet about its own gate, pictured below, but I suspect that it is a work of art – one that scrapes its fingernails on the elegant blackboard of the RISD Art Museum’s original Georgian frontage on Benefit Street. As such, it is a perfectly conventional work of contemporary installation art in the early 21st century.

I assume there’s a date upon which the installation will be removed. I will report back when I find out. My main comment is that this is not quite as inelegant a blotch as Brown’s idiotic giant blue bear erected last year on Simmons (Lincoln) Field, but it is worse because it is in a more prominent location. In both cases, art and the public are both the loser. Art indeed!


Matt Berry, of RISD, just returned my call and told me that the work was indeed an art installation, called “White Wall,” by Cameron Kucera (RISD BArch 2019, Architecture), Makoto Moses Kumasaka (RISD BFA 2018, Furniture), and Vuthy Lay (RISD BArch 2019, Architecture). They are part winners of this year’s Dorner Prize. “The Wall” was installed on Feb. 16 and will be deinstalled on June 4. Here is a description:

White Wall, a winning entry for the Dorner Prize 2017, is a bamboo screen and performance space that formalizes the invisible socioeconomic obstructions to museum accessibility. This piece seeks to take the architectural conditions of the Radeke Building and redefine them as a platform for discussion, demonstration, and contact. Intervention art as well as institutional critique, this project is offered by the artists as a scaffolding for others to join the conversation.


Apparently temporary installation art on Benefit Street. (Photo by David Brussat)

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Ugly by accident or design?

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The illustration atop the famous critic’s website. (

Christopher Woodward, the director of London’s Garden Museum, wrote “Why Are So Many New Buildings Ugly?” for its website. He had read British critic Stephen Bayley’s 2013 book Ugly: The Aesthetics of Everything, and describes an exchange Bayley had with architect Robert A.M. Stern:

At one dinner party Bayley asks a visiting American architect ‘Could you set out to design an ugly building?’ Robert Stern, a star of debonair neo-classicism, laughs. ‘Of course. Architects do it the whole time!’ And laughter moves the conversation on. But Stern misses the point, notes Bayley. You can sketch a parody of what you think an ugly building looks like. But no one consciously sets out to design an ugly building.

Is ugliness a consequence of aesthetic intentions, or of the process of design and construction? More and more I think it’s the latter.

Yesterday, a commenter, Bruce MacGunnigle, alerted me to Woodward’s essay, and I went to Stern’s defense, arguing:

Bruce, I have begun to read the essay from the Garden Museum site, and I must say I have to agree with Stern. Perhaps architects don’t literally start out intending to design ugly buildings, but by dint of aesthetic principles they embrace which seek to contradict and contrast traditional ideas of beauty, they are coming about as close as you can to purposely designing ugly buildings. I will read the rest of the essay and possibly post on it, and will let you know if my opinion of what the author is saying changes.

Well, I’ve finished Woodward’s essay, and I see a sort of a flaw in my defense of Stern’s reply to Bayley. I was not tough enough on the bastards. I would argue even more strenuously that yes, modernists consciously strive to produce ugly buildings. Modernism, in rejecting traditional concepts of beauty, by definition exalts traditional concepts of ugly. And ugly is as ugly does. So, yes, modernist architects purposely design ugly buildings. If they occasionally fail to carry out the principles of modern architecture and create an insufficiently unattractive building, it is accidental.

Perhaps this seems tendentious, circular reasoning, but modernists have got to sleep in the bed they have made. They have tried to dethrone traditional aesthetics, and to a great extent they have succeeded, in that hundreds of thousands of ugly buildings have been built to the applause, over the years, of hundreds of mod-symp architecture critics (the only kind that can get jobs writing about architecture). Ugly design is almost all that is taught in schools of architecture. The very, very rich spend millions to build ugly houses, and more millions to put up ugly art on the walls. The development processes in cities and town throughout this nation and the world are rigged to give commissions to developers who will build ugly buildings. And yet while aesthetic modernists in every field of art, including architecture, have, to this very remarkable extent, succeeded in turning the world upside down, they have not changed the minds of most people. So, yes: they have failed. My defense is not circular but a reflection of basic common sense.

Regarding architecture, the people are literally smarter than the experts. To this extent, expertise, as Tom Nichols’s new book The Death of Expertise argues, is indeed dead. Nichols argues that it is being killed not by its own fatuity but by the internet, which gives people more access than ever to challenges to expertise. In the case of architecture, however, Nichols is dead wrong. The public is correct. I have argued for years that people, who all experience architecture constantly from near birth, have an innate solidity of judgment on architecture that they do not have in most other arts. The high percentage of the public that does not like modern architecture is a result of the survival – in the face of powerful cultural authority – of the individual’s intuitive (and highly intelligent) respect for beauty.

The museum director Woodward contends that ugly is not the result of intent but of “the process of design and construction.” Since he has almost finished renovating the Garden Museum, that is understandable. But he has put the cart before the horse. The process of design and construction is difficult at least in part because design and construction are nowadays often directed at the achievement of projects that make no aesthetic sense.

In the same way, the design and development process in cities is difficult because a developer and his architectural team must gain permits from committees whose members are generally sympathetic to modernist design but who are appointed by politicians who depend on the votes of a public that dislikes modern architecture. Thus, these panel members must dissem- ble – as I have heard them do time and again – in their recommendations to developers, pushing modernist design changes without making it too obvious that they are doing so. That causes confusion, misinterpretation of such rec- ommendations, and more time spent at the drawing board and returning to the panel to seek approval of revised plans, again and again.

Woodward may understand this now that he has led his museum through a year’s closure for renovations. The difficulties caused by design and con- struction are not the cause of ugliness but the result of what happens when the system’s preference for ugliness grinds up against the public’s preference for beauty.

If developers would embrace the public’s idea of beauty – and accept its preference for traditional architecture – there would be more simplicity in the process of development, fewer cost overruns, less frustration, and more beauty in the urban environment.

I’ve gotten off track, but the pursuit of ugliness, whether intentional or not, causes disruption in the function of the economy all the way down the line. I’m not sure that Woodward, Bayley, Nichols or even Stern would agree – though I’d hope that Stern would see the logic of the proposition. Anyhow, that’s why so many new buildings are ugly.

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No, not halfway to Houston

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Yesterday’s post, “Prov’s halfway to Houston,” generated some blowback in my own mind, especially when, later in the day, I came across two reports that lifted my heart and my hopes about Providence and its future. Maybe “halfway” to Houston is a little too pessimistic.

On my visit to the website of Greater City Providence in search of illustrations of the South Street Landing garage, I happened upon the agenda of the Downtown Design Review Committee‘s March 13 meeting. It had a rendering of the building proposed by Buff Chace to fill the parking lot of the Providence Journal, whose office at 75 Fountain St. (where I worked for 30 years) he had purchased a year or so before, along with the lot across the street. At that time he suggested to reporters that he had a building in mind for the lot, and hinted that it would be traditional in style. Well, as you see from the above illustration, by Cube3 Architects, he is a man of his word.

Of course, no rendering gives more than a general idea of what a building will look like upon completion. The drawing above suggests, however, that even without additional detail beyond what is shown, the building would add significantly to its setting – not a high bar on Fountain, but every little bit helps. Perhaps the pilasters on the building’s ground floor and middle floors and on the columns of its top floor could boast fasciae or other types of molding to bring out the vivacity of otherwise plain, static piers.

Another reason to smile at developments downtown – here I refer to the old downtown, not the recently expanded downtown of D-1 zoning, which takes in the Jewelry District and the I-195 Corridor – is at the gracious intersection of Westminster and Mathewson streets, where Grace Episcopal Church’s new parish hall or pavilion is taking shape.

To judge by the renderings below, it will look mahvelous!

Apparently, some early concepts for the pavilion were modernist. I did a couple of posts on the proposal, for which no design had been publicly released. (See “Failure of grace alert!,” “Reverend, grace and Grace,” and “More grace in glass additions.”) Whatever effect those may have had back in 2015, the final design by Centerbrook Architects looks suavely elegant in a decidedly traditional manner. The delicate tracery of its front glass façade sets an appropriate Gothic theme. Its gable roof hints to observers that the pavilion intends to fit into the setting of Grace Church, built in 1845 to Richard Upjohn’s Gothic Revival specifications. (Believe it or not, modern architects consider it a virtue to elbow the ribs of old buildings with con- trasting new ones that don’t fit.)

The pavilion will fill what was once a parking lot. In fact, the lot was created on the site of the old Nickel Theater, a gorgeous confection whose unfortu- nate demolition damaged its ecclesiastical neighbor. Speaking of which, it looks as if the demolition of the Fogarty Building between Fountain and Sabin streets, a block away, has been halted temporarily, at least in part due to fears of injuring the poopy postmodernist building in which the toymaker Hasbro has offices. (Its cubic logo does a regrettable pirouette up above.)

But rest assured, the “iconic” example of modernist Brutalism is coming down. The hotel destined to replace the Fogarty started out with a modernist design suitable for (again) poor Jefferson Boulevard. But the Procaccianti Group, bless it, switched to a traditional design. Another hotel going up just off of Burnside Park/Kennedy Plaza is also traditional in style, thanks to the intelligent sensibility of First Bristol Corp., which developed the pleasing Hampton Inn on Weybosset Street. Neither of the trad hotels soon to break ground are quite up to snuff from a strictly canonical classicist perspective, but they definitely push downtown’s stylistic needle in the right direction.

It seems that downtown developers (and their municipal overseers) are obeying the law that mandates that new development protect downtown’s historic character, whereas the developers of the I-195 Corridor are decidedly not obeying the law. The governor and the mayor clearly do not care. They do not care about strengthening the city’s natural brand. They sacrifice beauty and historic character to future profits that their own lack of care may be expected to negate. They are, to be gentle, nincompoops.

But again, maybe I am too pessimistic. It is not too late to flip-flop in a more alluring direction. Just do it.

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Prov’s halfway to Houston

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Proposed “River View Hotel” on South Water Street. (Kendall Hotel LLC)

Those who are running Providence these days should realize that a beautiful city can become an ugly city. It will not happen at once, but it is likely to happen before most people notice it, and too late to be stopped.

Providence seems hell-bent on ugly. In “Developer proposes Providence riverfront hotel on former 195 land,” today’s Providence Journal reports a proposed “River View Hotel” on South Water Street, along the embank- ment of the Providence River. The drawing above tells the tale. It looks as if it belongs on Jefferson Boulevard, in Warwick. (Someday I will have to apologize when Providence itself looks like Jefferson Boulevard.)

The five-story hotel will put its thumb into view corridors toward downtown from 195 and toward the waterfront and new 195 bridge from downtown.

For that matter, look at the new garage built at South Street Landing, near the old power plant being renovated as two state nursing schools. (That’s not a typo. The two schools are apparently not going to merge.) The garage is tarted up with shiny screened panels. On the ground floor are huge black-and-white photos of old Providence. These are supposed to help us forgive and forget the garage’s assault on the neoclassical power station, views of which the garage also blocks for those driving south on Allens Avenue.

Jef Nickerson, who runs the indispensable Greater City Providence blog, recently stated, “‘Eddy Street is so vibrant!’ nobody will say, ever.” He is correct, though he was probably referring to the lack of ground-floor retail along the street edge of the garage, not how ugly it is. But why would any retailer want to lease space in such a dog? (How, wonders Nickerson, did its developer manage to get an exemption for that? By promising to put up historic shots of how beautiful Providence used to be?)

The residential buildings proposed for the other side of the power plant, in the parking lot for the old Davol Square, take their architectural bearings not from the power plant but from the garage!

Right next to the news of the proposed River View Hotel is news that state officials are still churning about the proposed bus subhub at Providence Station, just a couple of blocks from Kennedy Plaza. Voters approved a bond referendum to build this white elephant, but officials still don’t really know what to do, except they are sure they want a “skyline altering” tower to go with it. (Just as I am beginning to feel kindly toward the modernist design of Providence Station, newly restored, they want to wreck it.)

Now, according to “R.I. DOT hits ‘reset’ button on ‘skyline altering’ project,” there is talk of putting state employees into the proposed tower. That means the project has had problems luring potential tenants. But what the transit folks thought they needed – a better connection between Kennedy Plaza and the train station – could have been provided with a bus loop at several thou- sand bucks a year. Instead, the public will pay multi-millions for a new bus hub with a skyscraper attached. So far, its appearance has not been hinted at, let alone illustrated with a rendering. Good luck with that!

In the past year there have been more than enough news stories of bad architecture we’ll have to suffer soon. Some call this development, but it would be so easy for the governor to ask developers to propose projects that bolster the state brand instead of undermining it. And they would probably agree. They are much more interested in retaining the good will of the state (and taxpayers) than in upholding their “right” to build ugly. The point is that we are speeding toward Houston. Unless we get off this bus soon, we will be there before anyone notices. Having thrown away one of our chief competitive advantages – our reputation for beauty – our economic pros- pects might also turn out to be up a creek.

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Garage at South Street Landing. (South Street Landing)

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Providence Station, newly restored and soon to have skyscraper attached. (Architect)

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South Street Power Station, built in 1913. (South Street Landing)

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Apartment buildings along waterfront. (Greater City Providence)

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Is terra-cotta rising again?

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Architect magazine has an article called “The Rise, Fall and Rise of Archi- tectural Terra-Cotta” that seems to have come out of nowhere. No, it was sent me by Kristen Richards, of the indispensable; what I mean is that there seems no rhyme nor reason to such an article’s existence in the mouthpiece of the American Institute of Architects. I may well exag- gerate its loathing for new traditional architecture, but the journal’s prefer- ence for modern architecture is beyond indisputable. After all, the article on terra-cotta is part of a monthly series called “Throw-Back Thursdays.”

But is there a “rise” of terra-cotta afoot? I hope so. The article’s author, Mike Jackson, writes, “While architectural terra-cotta largely disappeared by the mid-20th century, there is now an active market for terra-cotta restoration products to maintain the legacy of landmark terra-cotta buildings.” He has nothing to say, it seems, about the usefulness of terra-cotta in constructing new traditional buildings. And yet most of the New Jersey Terra Cotta Co. pamphlet from which Jackson draws his article’s illustrations is devoted to terra-cotta used as wall construction systems for new buildings. Maybe members of the TradArch list who read this can comment on whether terra-cotta is on the way back.

Either way, backward-looking though it may be, and assuming its editors are not rolling their eyes in dismay that they must put this sort of thing on their pages, Architect merits applause for running the piece. It is accompanied by some very interesting commercial promotions from the archives of the Building Technology Heritage Library, a project of the Association for Preservation Technology. Definitely worth a look.

Gary Brewer, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, writes of the firm Roman and Williams, leaders in the “slow design” movement specializing in craft interiors, but also branching out into whole buildings:

Roman and Williams’s Fitzroy apartment building which is under construction in the Meatpacking District is clad in terra cotta.  I was invited to their developer’s launch party at the Boom Boom Room (which R&W designed in the Standard Hotel) and if the crowd was any indication terra cotta could join the palette of materials of the hip set once the building is complete.  Building materials are not immune to the shifts of fashion.

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If dentists were modernists

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Jan Michl, whose paper on architectural historicism I discussed yesterday in “Pop the ‘historicist’ bugaboo,” wrote another paper, “Form Follows What?,” which he introduced with a riff from Woody Allen. Naturally, I encourage readers to read the whole paper, but get a load of this!

A letter received by Theo van Gogh from his dentist brother Vincent:

Dear Theo: Will life ever treat me decently? I am wracked by despair! My head is pounding! Mrs. Sol Schwimmer is suing me because I made her bridge as I felt it and not to fit her ridiculous mouth! That’s right! I can’t work to order like a common tradesman! I decided her bridge should be enormous and billowing, with wild, explosive teeth flaring up in every direction like fire! Now she is upset because it won’t fit in her mouth! She is so bourgeois and stupid, I want to smash her! I tried forcing the false plate in but it sticks out like a star-burst chandelier. Still, I find it beautiful. She claims she can’t chew! What do I care whether she can chew or not! Theo, I can’t go on like this much longer … Vincent

This is from “If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists,” a piece Allen wrote in 1978. In ten letters from van Gogh to his brother, Theo hears about the dental practices of other famous Impressionist painters. Beyond hilarious!

The cartoon, of course, is by Gary Larson.

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Pop the ‘historicist’ bugaboo


Jan Michl: “If the task was to design a new public square in a small town, the modernists, equipped only with their abstract, minimalist visual vocabulary, would have no chance of creating a common space with such unassuming, pleasant qualities as this one [Karlovy Vary].”

Jan Michl, the design theorist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, saw my post “Huxtable versus Huxtable” and sent me a recent paper called “Towards Understanding Visual Styles as Inventions Without Expiration Dates.” In it, he argues that the late British philosopher Karl Popper had come up with an alternative to Huxtable’s “historicism.”

According to Huxtable and most architectural historians, architectural history advances no further than modern architecture, where it reaches nirvana. That sounds arrogant, but yes, they do actually believe that all prior architectural styles are inappropriate to build in modernity because they re- flect the past, not today. That is the “expiration date” to which Michl refers in his title. This attitude architects call “historicism.” (They use the same word to criticize building designs inspired by historic architecture.)

As is often the case, however, the average man on the street sees things much more clearly, intuitively and naturally. Most folks do not discriminate against building styles based on when they were invented. They accept architecture of every type openly and judge it based not on when it was invented but on whether they like it.

[T]he common-sense feeling here ascribed to the public, that art of the past is a natural part of the modern present, has been seldom clearly articulated. … It has been incomparably more prestigious to side with the modernist cause and applaud the “avant-garde” positions than to espouse the perspective of the “philistine” public.

Modern architecture, according to historicism, is based on the idea that the course of history is set, and that with modernism, architectural history has arrived at its logical, rational, scientific conclusion. Traditional architecture, old or new, stands in the way of the new order by evoking sentiments that connect individuals to the past, causing them to resist new buildings that may or may not reflect our time but which definitely lack familiarity.

That is historicism in a nutshell. If it sounds vaguely Marxist, it is not. It is, say Popper and Michl, directly influenced by Marx, who put a stopping point – socialism, the goal of communist government – on Hegel’s dialectical anal- ysis of time and progress. The idea that human will and individual action can affect the course of history is traditional architecture’s original sin.

It is no accident (as Marx would say) that futuristic films featuring authoritarian governments that try to stifle free will almost always also feature settings of modern architecture. Look at Fahrenheit 451 or Blade Runner. In the Star Wars series, the bad guys live in places like the Death Star, while the good guys (that is, the oppressed) on various planets live in different sorts traditional villages, towns or cities. Are the directors of these films (such as George Lucas) aware of the philosophical debate that plays out in the sets they create for their films? I suspect not.

Popper sets up an ontological triad consisting of the physical world, the mental world, and the world of ideas for things created over time in the mental world. It is the latter entity, which Popper called “World 3,” that supplants historicism. World 3, or objective knowledge, is a “cultural com- mons” that enables each human to freely borrow from all of man’s past creativity. This, Michl writes,

represents a truly bold attempt to conceptualize a fact known or at least suspected by every productive person. Namely, that our human creativity is anchored in, and incessantly draws upon, a realm outside the individual creator’s head. … I submit that it implies a powerful alternative to the governing modernists’ “time- keeping” [historicism], and simultaneously a more realistic view of the nature of creativity in the field of architecture and design.

He adds later:

[I]t is neither something eternal nor divine, but entirely man-made, just as birds’ nests and spiders’ webs are created by birds and spiders. … Had Popper been still alive and active today, he would have probably resorted to up-to-date analogies in order to make the concept of World 3 more widely understandable, such as, for example, “World Wide Web,” “Public Domain,” “Open Source,” or “Creative Commons.” Creative Commons in particular might serve as an accessible synonym for Popper’s World 3.

Of the use of locutions such as “historicist,” “pastiche,” “faux,” and “not of our time” by architects trying to solve design problems, he writes:

[T]here can be many reasons for finding a formal solution objec- tionable, but not the one that points out that it hails from a past epoch – which is what the modernist critical arguments against contemporary non-modernist stylistic idioms invariably boil down to. As already suggested, such branding makes sense only when one subscribes to the [historicist] belief that there is an intrinsical- ly correct aesthetic expression pertaining to the modern period and that this correctness can be discovered only by designers and architects who have turned their back on the past.

The awkwardness of architectural periods that architectural historians have managed to talk around so adeptly is that most historical buildings of whatever “period” have more characteristics in common than not. That is because they all evolve to a greater or lesser degree from Greco-Roman classicism, which is a reflection of both nature and human nature. The traditional idiom, or language, evolved for centuries, honing refinements to building practice. Then modern architecture tried to throw it onto the ash heap of history and replace it with an experiment that rejects precedent. Imagine that! The degree of their success, given the poverty of their basic idea, is astonishing. But given modernism’s inability to develop its own co- herent architectural language despite the passage of a century, there is ever more reason to hope today that modernism will be forced to relinquish its hold on architectural authority.

Modern architecture suffered epic fail more than half a century ago, a truth evident to all outside the cocoon of modernism. That is why historic preser- vation went from being a niche hobby to a mass movement in the snap of a finger after 1960. Jan Michl’s revival of Karl Popper’s thoughts on the invalid- ity of a central mantra of the modernist cult will be an invaluable tool for readmitting beauty and other shunned qualities to architecture.

My effort to sum up these important ideas should be reinforced by reading Michl’s elegant, evocative and persuasive paper, which is here. A page sent by Audun Engh linking to 30 other papers on architecture, design and edu- cation in those fields is here.

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“The Bridge” (1976), by Jan Soucek. Michl: “In the [historicist] view of the modernist architects, the past and the present are seen as two separate worlds, and tht is why they ought not to be connected in any manner. Soucek deemed such a conviction preposterous.”

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