Bad Mad Men

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See them (the bad mad men) lurking in the background? Please don’t remove the foreground (the bad mad, often angry, women)! So here’s Dan Bishop, production designer for Mad Men, describing (I think in Dwell magazine, as my source seems to have implied) some of the thinking behind the show’s famously ’60s set style:

“We stayed with a fairly warm palette, because I think Matt [Weiner, show creator] kind of just appreciated that. It’s just the whole show, in a funny way, we don’t want it to be – a lot of modern architecture is pretty cold, and we’ve never been, I don’t think anybody actually, is a particular fan of that.”

I’ve never seen Mad Men but have developed a sort of a “thing” about it because of its relentless promotion of modern architecture. Many observers seem to detect a nostalgia for ’60s style in the show. But maybe the architecture and interior design is really supposed to “reflect” what its producers consider the relatively sinister aspects of the behavior of men and women in a corporate culture that eventually went from bad to worse.

Percy was not pleased with the renovation. ... Filed under Case Study 3219: Cluck Cluck Fuck (Photo: John Clark; Dwell)

Percy was not pleased with the renovation. … Filed under Case Study 3219: Cluck Cluck Fuck (Photo: John Clark; Dwell)

Perhaps Bishop felt free to open up because he’d seen the regular feature in Dwell* consisting of photographs of hip young men and women caught in the act of contemplation in their modernist houses and apartments. The author of the feature pens the hipsters thoughts, generally depressing, often taking off directly on the sterility of their home environment.

[In searching for this feature online I came across a 2010 column on Mad Men by my former colleague at the Journal, Froma Harrop, mainly on aspects of the show’s culture other than its architecture.]

* The feature is not, in fact, from Dwell but about Dwell and the culture it flacks. It is from a website called unhappyhipsters.com. This I discovered in another column by Froma, called “Hipsters Without Walls.” She describes the website as using photos from Dwell to make fun of hipsters. Here is a recent selection from unhappyhipsters.com. One of them is above.

Here’s a rueful piece by L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne from 2010 about the Unhappy Hipsters phenomenon (which in my opinion has not slackened even in 2013).

A shoutout to Michael Mehaffy for shooting that quote to the TradArch list!

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Gone fishin’; back soon, II

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(Peanuts Worldwide)

On Tuesday I go under the knife for an aortic valve replacement, and I deeply thank all who have wished me well, both the first time (the operation was originally scheduled for Dec. 17) and this time. Nobody wants his chest jig-sawed open or folks wandering around inside his rib cage – even talented folks. And I have every high regard for my cardio surgeon, James Fingleton, along with his team, and all the fine people who operate Rhode Island Hospital at the highest standards. (Though whoever decided to demolish that nice old building a couple of years ago, well, I wish coal in his stocking next year.)

For those who consider my vacation from my blog to be their vacation from my blog, bad news! I have figured out (I think) how to post in advance so that I don’t have to write any blog posts during my hospital stay. I have lined up five posts, old favorites, scheduled for every other day between Tuesday, Jan. 28 and Wednesday, Feb. 5. The catch is that for those who get my blog by email, they will have to visit my blog to see the substitute posts. Luckily, that is very easy. Just type “Architecture Here and There” in Google and links to AHAT will automatically appear. Beijing and the Kremlin may learn of your interest in my blog, but who cares!

Anyway, thank you for your kind thoughts, and be assured that normalcy will resume in a week or so.

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Birds versus the glass box

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A bird stunned by a building recuperates on Chicago’s Wacker Drive. It survived. (Chicago Tribune)

The Wexford Innovation Center, completed last year in Providence’s I-195 corridor dedicated to technology, has been killing birds. No, they are not horrified to death by its ugliness; rather, they are disoriented by its reflective plate-glass windows, which birds think they can fly through. Big mistake. Maybe they are horrified by the ugliness and then by the impact.

The Boston Globe ran a story on this, “Outside of Providence’s newest building, birds keep dying,” by Dan McGowan, one of a Globe bureau here that also includes two former Providence Journal reporters. New York, San Francisco and Toronto have ordinances to make building glass less deadly to birds. Recent efforts in Chicago are described in the Chicago Tribune, whose story on glass buildings as ornithological assassins achingly quotes Chicago Bird Collision Monitors’ director Annette Prince:

“Migration is an astounding feat of nature,” Prince said. “It’s an amazing process that these birds go through. The fact they even survive is incredible. These little birds weigh only a few ounces and travel thousands of miles on their own energy. “So, it’s unfortunate that the birds we find here in the spring have made it all the way from South America, almost to their nesting grounds in Wisconsin, and they hit a window.”

Celebrated Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin followed up its reporters Tony Briscoe and Cindy Dampier’s lengthy news story with a column, so maybe the issue has reached critical mass – not a moment too soon.

Chicago may be the most dangerous American city for birds. A great many of the buildings downtown on its skyline, and especially those along its Lake Michigan waterfront, are sheathed in glass. Chicago’s proposed ordinance protecting birds concentrates on dimming or shutting off buildings’ interior and exterior lights after dark. A small voluntary alliance of bird protectors and building managers has been in effect since 1995 and is believed to have saved the lives of 10,000 birds a year. But crashes are estimated to kill up to a billion birds a year nationally, second only to deaths from predators such as feral cats. (Wind turbines kill approximately 328,000 birds a year.)

My naturalist friend Frederick Gorham Thurber reminds me in a comment on “O starchitect house blues!” that city buildings are not the only culprits:

The modern monstrosities in the woods are murder on endangered birds such as wood thrush and various warblers. Because of all the glass. One thing I notice is that the McMansions going up in the woods here are rarely occupied. A few weeks a year maybe. And then they bring me dead birds that hit the glass to ID.

(Thurber has recently published In the Wake of the Willows, a sequel to or fanbook of the classic Wind in the Willows.)

Buildings such as the Wexford Center in Providence, rising just seven stories, have tinted glass that makes them even more dangerous. Compared with low buildings up to three stories and high-rises above twelve, buildings between four and eleven stories kill more birds because they are by far more abundant in the nation’s cities than skyscrapers. Lights in glass buildings don’t always kill birds directly; many birds get disoriented, as do moths, by the lights, fly round and round, and die of exhaustion.

You’d think that buildings lit at night would be easier for birds to see and avoid than darkened buildings, but that’s not so. Naturally, my preference would be to ban modernist glass buildings altogether. Saving birds by reducing ugliness would, to use a possibly inapt phrase, kill two birds with one stone. But that will never happen. It makes too much sense.

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Daum: Four days in Berlin

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Building at the corner of Oranienbergerstrasse and Tucholskystrasse in 1986 (l.) and 2019 (r.)

This essay was written by Eric Daum, founder of the firm Eric Inman Daum, Architect, who traveled with his wife, Beth Niemi, to Berlin in November. Beth had been to East Berlin in 1986, and this essay is accompanied by pictures taken by her then and him last year. Eric, who serves with me on the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, won a 2019 Bulfinch Award for his beautiful Boch Chapel and Mausoleum. An earlier essay by Eric on this blog, about Providence’s Gloria Dei church, can be read here.

***

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Beth Niemi at Checkpoint Charlie, 1986.

My wife and I recently returned from a trip to Berlin and Vienna. Our trip focused on the typical pursuits of traveling architects: wandering around, looking at buildings, eating good food, and drinking good German beer. It was my first visit to either city and the primary purpose, for me, was to see, at last, the work of one of my architectural heroes, the 19th century Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. However, my wife, Beth Niemi, had visited both cities during the autumn of 1986, when we were both graduate students. During her visit to Berlin, she passed through Checkpoint Charlie and explored East Berlin, and took photographs that, when she returned, made many of our classmates, including me, jealous of the treasures of the mysterious East Berlin she had seen.

A year before, in Cambridge, we had both been enrolled in a design studio taught by visiting Italian critic Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani, whose Berlin studio was between the River Spree and the S-Bahn, an area now occupied by the new Berlin Hauptbahnhof [main rail hub] and once slated for Albert Speer’s Grosse Halle. My own projects for the studio were the most execrable of my unremarkable graduate school work, but as a group of budding designers, we fell in love with a divided city and wondered about how it might eventually be knit back together.

During the late summer of 1986, we each separately took the rite of passage of many architectural students and headed to Europe to see the buildings we knew only from lantern slides projected large in darkened classrooms. My own trip led me through Hanseatic Germany into Denmark, Sweden and Finland, terminating on my last Sunday with a stay in Brussels and a visit to the Waterloo battlefield. Beth and I met back in Boston for a drink mid-week and by Friday, she too was in Brussels as she commenced a far more comprehensive Grand Tour that included stops in Germany, Vienna, Venice and the Veneto, Florence, Sienna, Rome, the Ticino in Switzerland, Milan and finally ended her tour in Paris.

Beth’s photographs of East Berlin showed a drab gray city still displaying the damage of allied bombings, the horrific final Soviet attack on the city, and the stubborn Nazi defense, followed by 40 years of neglect under communist rule due to an absence of resources.

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Children headed down Tucholskystrasse in 1986, next to building at top of this post.

The Saturday evening before we departed last year in early November for Berlin, we hauled out her old slides, set up her Kodak carousel projector in my office, ordered Chinese food, and spun through images of a distant Berlin and Vienna. One image struck us both. Beth said that she recalled taking it and thinking she had captured something special. In the photograph, tow-headed children in brightly colored jackets are walking away from the camera down a gray street past damaged and hastily repaired buildings. Wondering where this was, we turned to that wonderful time-wasting tool Google Earth, and quickly found the site, Tucholskystrasse, at the corner of Oranienberger Strasse. (52°31’29.67″N, 13°23’34.24″E) We were delighted to realize that this corner was just a few blocks from our hotel and planned our return to see how the spot had evolved in 33 years.

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That same scene today at corner of Oranienbergerstrasse and Tucholskystrasse.

There were other corners we sought out to photograph on our recent trip to compare to Beth’s images from 1986. Close by on Oranienbergerstrasse sits the Neue Synagoge, or New Synagogue, whose façade Beth had photographed in 1986. The building was largely destroyed between attacks by a Nazi gang on Kristallnacht and subsequent Allied bombings in 1944; it had been partially restored since her last visit. We walked through wide areas of Berlin, between seven and eleven miles each day during our short four days there, and regretted leaving so soon.

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Neue Synagoge in 1986 and in 2019. The front façade was restored in 1988-93.

Our trip overlapped with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. We avoided the celebration at the Brandenburg Gate as neither of us speaks German, we hate crowds, and it was raining. We did go to the Berlin Wall Memorial, also close to our hotel, the following morning, which was a solemn and emotional visit to a grim artifact of totalitarianism.

Close to our hotel, at the end of the street, sits a historic cemetery, Dorotheenstadt, whose inhabitants include, Berthold Brecht, Georg Hegel, and my beloved Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Even mausolea in this idyllic urban cemetery, which resembled a scene from a Caspar David Friedrich painting, showed damage from the furious final Soviet assault on Berlin.

Though our stay was short, we had opportunities to see much of the city and hope to return soon. I finally saw Schinkel’s works in Berlin, spent a wonderful morning in the Altes Museum, wandered the length of the Karl Marx Allee, an enormous Stalinist housing estate stretching a mile or more east of Alexanderplatz, and we ate plenty of currywurst and drank lots of beer.

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Karl Marx Allee, 2019

I have one observation about the city that is based solely upon my own impressions and not supported by any deep reading of Berlin’s history. We were both fascinated by the scar left upon the cityscape by the Berlin Wall. Where Beth had passed through a military checkpoint on a restricted one-day visa, and was expected to buy GDR Marks, we freely crossed its former path daily. In places, the scar is almost invisible, in other places present and barren. New construction is ongoing in the once-cleared land as the city continues to transform into a lively, art-filled mecca. As we were staying in the former East in the Mitte neighborhood, just north of the River Spree, we were delighted by the rambling streets and the lovely restored 19th century buildings with their courtyards and little shops.

In contrast, the areas we visited in the former West Berlin had dingy modern buildings and little street life. The exception was the area around KaDeWe and on Kurfürstendamm, a garish shopping district of neon and blaring signage reminiscent of 14th Street in Manhattan. My interpretation is that in the wake of the war, as Berlin lay in ruins, the Western powers, flush with victory, poured American money under the Marshall Plan into rebuilding the French, British and American sectors as quickly as possible as a showcase of Western capitalist values. Architectural quality was, as a rule, not the goal, but rather a new gleaming display of wealth and opportunity, aesthetics be damned.

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Sophienkirche on Grosse Hamburger Strasse in Mitte, Berlin. Note the two flanking buildings of mirrored design, on the right, restored and on the left still bearing the scars of war and neglect, 2019

The resource-poor East made do with what was left, stabilized the ravaged buildings and muddled along. Beth’s interpretation was that “the restoration of buildings in the East was also a repudiation of the adoption of Western capitalist ideas.  It was as much about preserving German heritage and never wanting to forget what happened or what was there before.” Historical memory is potent in Berlin. As we walked through the streets of Mitte, we would come upon small brass plaques set in the sidewalk, often graced with a rose and burning candle. The plaque would name a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, the date of their abduction, and the camp of their destination. I have never before experienced a place which so widely and openly accepts its guilt for the wrongs it once committed. We were moved and stopped to read each plaque we encountered to perpetuate their memory.

After the Wall came down, formerly neglected neighborhoods were rebuilt and war-ravaged buildings restored. These have become among the most desirable neighborhoods in which to live as Berlin experiences a massive influx of youthful immigrants from throughout Germany and from around the world. Berlin is still considered an inexpensive place to live, though rents continue to rise. I think that the lesson is that benign (or malevolent) neglect can delay the demolition of a historic building until its preservation and restoration becomes viable and desirable. The resurrection of parts of Mitte and the adjacent Prenzlauer-Berg neighborhoods stand as testament to the appeal of traditional architecture and the scale of traditional streets.

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Berlin looking East from the Brandenburg Gate along Unter Den Linden, 1945.

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Schinkel’s Neue Wache with East German guard, then the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism 1986.

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Schinkel’s Neue Wache, now a Memorial to the Victims of War and Dictatorship, 2019.

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Apartment Block on Karl Marx Allee, 2019.

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Schinkel’s Altes Museum, 2019.

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Grave of Karl Friedrich Schinkel, in Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, 2019, Note the spelling of his first name which differs from every other source I have seen.

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Mausoleum in Dorotheenstadt Cemetery displaying scars from WWII, 2019

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Driehaus for Thai architect

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Bank building in Bangkok by Driehaus winner Ong-ard Satrabhandhu. (Ong-ard Architects)

The 2020 Driehaus Prize for Thai architect Ong-ard Satrabhandhu recalls my dinner today. I have just returned from a restaurant called Sawadee, where I continued my quest for an acceptable pad Thai after the closure, last month, of my favorite restaurant, Pakarang, where I’d been wolfing down perfect pad Thai for three decades. Then, poof! Gone.

Not quite “poof-gone” is the idea of Thailand in the Bangkok street above. Guess which building is the bank designed by the latest Driehaus laureate?

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Bangkok’s “Elephant Building,” by Ong-ard Satrabhandhu. (atlasobscura.com)

That’s a trick question. I presume it to be impossible to not to guess the one in the middle. The glassy building to its right in the shot could be a skyscraper. If you go to “downtown Bangkok” on Google, you can scroll down to the bottom and see no more than one or two images of Bangkok that might not be anywhere in the world. There may be more Thai restaurants in Providence than traditional Thai buildings in Bangkok per square mile. I’m sure that cannot be so, but that’s what it looks like.

The Driehaus Prize press release describes the architecture of Ong-ard Satrabhandhu as follows:

“The work of Ong-ard Satrabhandhu demonstrates innovation within tradition,” said Michael Lykoudis, Driehaus Prize jury chair and the Francis and Kathleen Rooney Dean of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. “His projects have a unique beauty that results from incorporating lessons gleaned from years of study across diverse cultures. The resulting buildings seamlessly blend with the vernacular traditions of Thailand.”

Obviously, the bank building in the image on top does not seamlessly blend with the vernacular traditions of Thailand. On the pictured block of that street, at least, no such tradition remains. Neither does Satrabhandhu’s work sit cheek-by-jowl with the sort of modernist buildings he learned to design in the architecture departments of Cornell and Yale during the 1960s, such as his silly Elephant Building in Bangkok. Even the sponsor of the Richard H. Driehaus Prize, the architecture school at Notre Dame, was modernist in those days. The school’s graduation – or shall we say, metamorphosis – from modernist to classical was revolutionary. Beauty dethroned ugliness in the concentration of the school’s curricula. Satrabhandhu’s early work, in the words of the prize jury’s citation,

clearly reflected his modernist education at American schools of architecture — designs of large-scale commercial buildings in Bangkok. His search for meaning in architectural form led him to explore historical sources that conveyed a sense of place with tranquility, and an environmentally responsible culture of building. This search eventually led him to classicism in its truest sense — the immutable tradition of a given culture and the universal components found across time and place.

In recent decades, Satrabhandhu has specialized in single houses and urban groupings of small buildings that blend the Thai vernacular with traditional Western, even classical, forms. That he was able to reach classicism from his modernist initiation bespeaks an independence of mind that, it might be said, distinguishes the architecture school of Notre Dame from almost every other such institution in the U.S. and around the world.

Leon Krier said of the Thai architect: “The authentic vernacular and classical creations of Ong-ard Satrabhandhu stand as vigorous, if lone, way signs to a civilized future.” I wrote a post about him, and on the difficulty of extricating oneself from the modernist trash can, in 2017, “The apotheosis of Ong-ard.”

Bravo to Ong-ard Satrabhandhu! More of his buildings and designs are featured below.

The sister award of the Driehaus Prize, the Henry Hope Reed Award, which honors its namesake’s intellectual work in the groves of classicism, was bestowed upon Clem Labine, the founder of several influential journals dedicated to traditional building. I will devote an upcoming post to the newly minted laureate.

Meanwhile, my quest for a pad Thai good enough to fill the shoes of that dish at Pakarang continues, and may never end. Bee’s is in front, but others, including Sawadee, are close behind, and still more don’t quite suit. If readers in Rhode Island have any suggestions, please let me know!

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The future of Providence

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View across Providence’s old downtown and up College Hill. (sprudge.com)

Dire. That’s a good word for the bad future of Providence if the erosion of its historic character continues at its current pace. In “Say no to ugly buildings,” an Oct. 28 oped for the Providence Journal, I listed the buildings that have opened lately in or near downtown. Here is that list:

In just the last couple of years alone, eight major new buildings have been completed in and near downtown, including the Wexford Innovation Center in the I-195 corridor, the River House apartments near the Point Street Bridge, the first of two proposed Edge College Hill residential towers on Canal Street, the low-rise Commons at Providence Station condos along the Moshassuck River in Capital Center, a Homewood Suites Hotel on Exchange Street, a Marriott Residence Inn on Fountain Street, a Woodspring Suites Hotel just outside of downtown on Corliss Street, and a large RISD dormitory near Prospect Street on College Hill.

All of these buildings reject the historical character of Providence, either purposely or with a sort of cocky ineptitude. They follow a decade in which all but one building, the lovely Nelson Fitness Center at Brown University, were designed as if to purposely trash the city’s heritage. Providence’s civic leaders are crying “Yes!” to ugly buildings, ignoring mandates in city regulations that historical character be respected.

Incomprehensibly, the same Nelson financed an “entrepreneurship center” in a piously ugly contemporary building finished last year on Thayer Street, ending a phase of new traditional buildings there. A deep foundation has been dug for Brown’s performing arts center in a starkly modernist design. Two fashionable East Side educational institutions, the Moses Brown School and the Lincoln School, have recently erected buildings that shred historical character at prominent locations on Hope Street and Blackstone Boulevard. The grounds of stately mansions on or near Blackstone are being eyed by developers for subdivision, which risks not just the estate but the entire neighborhood – eroding not just beauty but property values. Just look at what happened to the Bodell estate. The mansion of the Nicholson-Beresford estate on Blackstone was saved, but its romantic caretaker’s cottage and play house are history, and five or six houses of dubious desirability (most likely un-) are planned. The developer of the Bodell estate put a modernist house last, no doubt disturbing those who bought the first four traditional houses.

With the economy humming, what seems like a record number of teardowns on the East Side, accomplished or proposed, raises even more anxiety. The aquarium shop with the delightful mural of the deep sea on its Wickenden Street façade was demolished late last year. I hear the new owner wants to build something exciting in its place. Uh-oh. Across the street and up a block, the splendid colonial at 312 Wickenden (c. 1857), home to the dear Duck & Bunny snuggery, is said to be on the chopping block. (My sourcing on the D&B is top-notch, but only a major renovation that started last March is evident online.) Three old houses, at least one of them fine, may be sacrificed for a proposed hotel at Angell and Brook that is intended to look traditional, but so far two successive designs have been disappointing.

A host of other teardowns were cited in a November GoLocalProv piece, “East Side sees flood of teardowns as average house price tops $560,000.”

[Property broker Sally] Lapides says that Providence will benefit from the newer structures.

“What it says about the area is that it is highly desirable, there is a demand for new construction, people want to invest in Providence and there are people with money who are investing in our city. The new structures will bring in more tax revenue because the assessments will be higher on the new architecture,” says Lapides.

Of course, the area might not be highly desirable for long if Providence continues to shoot itself in the foot.

The “flood” includes a teardown near my house, off Hope; fortunately, that house is slated to be replaced by two relatively traditional duplexes. When a landowner razes an old building, the cost of demolition usually comes out of what is spent on the new one. Since the 1950s and ’60s, when old buildings have been torn down and replaced by new buildings, architectural quality has almost always suffered, whether the new buildings are modernist or traditional – the latter often by architects whose exclusively modernist education means they don’t understand traditional design techniques. In virtually the blink of an eye, it could no longer be assumed (as it had been for centuries) that a new building would be superior to what it replaced.

The anxiety stirred by this phenomenon caused historical preservation to shift from a hobby to a mass movement in less than two decades, not just in Providence but across the country and much of the globe. Preservationists saved many historic buildings, but for many years have been uninterested in protecting the settings of those old buildings by promoting new traditional architecture – which is considered déclassé by professional preservationists, whose livelihoods exist because of traditional architecture. You might think preservationists make strange bedfellows with modernists. Alas, you would be correct. If members of preservation groups knew what their boards and staffs think of their design preferences, memberships would halve overnight.

As a city like Providence expands, pressure to ignore preservationists and small property owners rises among city planning offices and developers. Meanwhile, passion naturally flags among those fighting the municipal development axis. They suspect they have no real allies. Hence the declining historical character in Rhode Island’s capital.

How long will it take for Providence’s streetscapes to be so pockmarked by modernist or bad-trad buildings that its beauty is lost? At this rate, I’d say no more than ten years.

It’s not that every modernist building is necessarily a bad one, though almost all of them are; but even a good one is sure to erode the cohesion of a block of traditional buildings – which, because they arise from gentle evolution spanning hundreds of years, fit together admirably even when they are stylistically different.

The good news is that the old commercial district of downtown Providence, known by some as Downcity (it doesn’t mean the entire downtown, please!), has almost entirely escaped the trends described up above. An unofficial moratorium on major teardowns in the commercial district started in 1979 (after the district’s Hoppin Homestead Building was razed) and ended in 2005 when the Providence National Bank was demolished in 2005. Most of the teardown sites of the past decade and a half remain vacant: that is, they remain opportunities to do the unexpected and build nice buildings instead. And only one major new building opened in the commercial district – the delightful pavilion at Grace Church, completed in 2017. Plus, two new traditional buildings of brick by Buff Chace are expected to open next year – one on the old Journal parking lot and another adding to a string of old buildings being renovated on Westminster.

The bell has already tolled for the city’s two new development districts, Capital Center (1978) and the I-195 corridor (2011). They are beyond redemption, even though four reasonably competent new traditional buildings in Capital Center – Providence Place, the Westin, its addition, and the Marriott Courtyard – showcased how major development could maintain the city’s historical character. These models were ignored, of course, there and elsewhere in the city. What else is new?

So far as I know, there are no blotches of God’s wrath on architecture on the boards for the old commercial district of downtown, whose historical fabric remains the best of any mid-sized city in the United States.

But shhh! Let’s not give anyone any ideas!

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Sir Roger Scruton, RIP

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Sir Roger Vernon Scruton, FBA FRSL (photo by Pete Helme)

Death took Roger Scruton today. He was the world’s deepest thinker on architecture and aesthetics, which were embedded in the conservatism of his broader philosophy. Scruton embraced tradition, holding that “the tried and true” are a stronger foundation than novelty and experiment for the good life, for public policy, for cities and towns, and for the creation of beauty in art and in architecture. The author of more than 50 books, a prose stylist of gentle precision, and a brave crusader for intellectual freedom in Soviet-ruled Eastern Europe, Scruton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2016.

I feel a particular sadness at Sir Roger’s passing, from cancer, at 75. I first entered the orbit of his ideas through his 1995 book The Classical Vernacular, which became my bible. In 1999, on a visit to London, I called him up out of the blue and he invited me to his small, book-lined pied-à-terre behind the Burlington Arcade. We went out to hear a lecture by the noted architectural historian David Watkin. In 2011, I spotted him at a symposium in New York but, going up to greet him, it turned out I’d mistaken him for Robert Adam, the celebrated British classicist.

When I started reading Scruton and finally met the philosopher, I was unaware that his conservatism stretched way beyond aesthetics, architecture and classicism. Yet it was a perfectly natural fit. Ideas that spring from, say, Edmund Burke reach out not just to the right but the left. A building that arises from practices hundreds of years in the making, the accumulated wisdom of trial and error by generation after generation of builders, is more likely to reflect the natural preferences of mankind than a building whose design is new, novel, just off the blackboard, untried and, most likely, untrue. The same goes for an idea or a form of government. A respect for tradition would serve all of us with equal capability in the realms of politics and policy, whether we agree with this or not.

“The classical idiom,” writes Scruton in The Classical Vernacular, “does not so much impose unity as make diversity agreeable.” I’m sure he would urge that a politics that embraces this liberality is far more likely to be a conservative politics – in short, one that liberals should find agreeable, too. In another of my favorite passages, he makes a similar point in discussing the social impact of a street lined with classical buildings:

The classical wall, which is humanly proportioned, safe, gregar- ious, and quietly vigilant, constantly reminds the pedestrian that he is not alone, that he is in a world of human encounter, and that he must match the good manners of the wall which guides him.

Sir Roger will be missed by classicists and conservatives, but also by people who disagree with him, or have never heard of him. His ideas will improve and beautify the world for everyone, whether they like it or not, and will do so, I am sure, long after his life and work bear the fruits of tomorrow’s happier society. Roger Vernon Scruton, RIP.

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Architecture reform school

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(Oops, I think I meant “Reform architecture school.”)

ArchNewsNow, compiled by the inimitable Kristen Richards, is a thrice-weekly compendium of news and opinion on architecture from around the world. Each collection of articles includes one or more features generated specifically for ANN. In recent weeks and months, ANN has hosted a series of these features on architectural education, curated by Prof. Nikos Salingaros, a globetrotting mathematician and architecture theorist at the University of Texas in San Antonio. He and Richards asked me to contribute an essay to the series, each article of which addresses a petition submitted last year by British students seeking to reform architecture schools. My contribution to the series, the 600th feature published by ANN, is reprinted in its entirety below:

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Lesson Plan #8:

Petition of the British Architecture School Inmates

Students are taught how to tinker with computers and how to plug into a corporate design culture that aids and abets precisely what drives the petitioners to seek reform.

By David Brussat
January 9, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series on the future of architectural education created and curated by Nikos A. Salingaros, Ph.D., Professor of Mathematics, winner of the 2019 Stockholm Culture Award for Architecture, and co-winner of the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award. See Lesson Plans #1 through #7 at the end of this feature.

Curator’s Note: When architects refuse to criticize their fellows, and delicately avoid disturbing an entrenched system in which they are comfortably embedded, where do we turn for sage advice on how to improve the world? To architecture critics and journalists, of course. They are commonly supposed to be impartial outsiders: fierce watchdogs working in the public’s (that’s our) interest. But, unfortunately, not many of them are truly objective. Having an informed and intelligent critic like David Brussat who courageously speaks his mind is a boon for the entire world. — N.A.S.

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What are the priorities for reform?

Recently, a petition was assembled by students from several architecture schools in Britain asking their schools and other pertinent institutions of the design world to do more to address climate change. I read it, and looked around to see if I was being watched. I thought Allen Funt might pop out and cry, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!”

“We are concerned,” write the petitioners, “that at present our education does not give sufficient weight to the inherently ecological and political basis of architecture.”

In Britain, as well as in America, climate change is the central and almost exclusive focus of every architecture school and every architecture firm. Second billing goes to whether there are enough women and people of color. These are justified concerns, but not critical to architecture at a time when its product fails to satisfy a huge segment, possibly a very sizable majority, of the market for buildings. Time spent trying to turn the big business of architecture into a think tank for climate change is time spent dodging the existential issues facing the industry. This sort of misdirection can come off as intentional, perhaps even conspiratorial, in a profession that doesn’t like to hear itself criticized.

An alternative to the architecture-industrial complex

Prof. Nikos Salingaros, in his own reply to the student petition at ArchNewsNow.com, applauds their desire to reform architecture education, and offers sage advice to students seeking change. “[I]s it realistic to expect architectural education to change? The current cult-based system is not set up to diagnose – let alone fix – deep internal contradictions. The best it can do is to protect its ‘business as usual’ approach to design by applying a band-aid. Hope exists only in developing an alternative education outside the mainstream” – easier said than done, Salingaros adds.

However, the professor notes that efforts to bring real reform to architecture make this a hopeful moment for students. The best comparison may be to the “slow-food” movement. It offers a more locally based alternative to the agriculture-industrial complex. Architecture could benefit from a parallel approach. Salingaros himself has led scientific research that mines neurobiology to identify how a living, healthy architecture can be nurtured by mimicking nature’s reproductive system. The “cult-based system” shields students from learning of such advances. They must seek knowledge from outside the insulated, isolated environment of architecture school.

Here are some things students should seek to learn from beyond the walls of their universities:

• The true history of how the architectural cult captured the industry’s establishment.

• How to structure architecture firms as bottom-up rather than top-down practices.

• How to locate and use the many new sources of traditional materials and techniques.

• How to work with clients to reach solutions rather than seeking to impose solutions.

• How to understand the incremental nature of genuine architectural creativity.

• How ornamental techniques open new avenues to solve architectural challenges.

What students learn today is how to navigate a top-down system based on inept revolutionary concepts developed a century ago that have not changed substantially since the Bauhaus. Design has become a succession of experimental fashions. Creativity of form, with novelty the primary goal, has led to a corporate architecture that stifles the sort of conceptual creativity that ought to drive evolution in the design process. Students are taught how to tinker with computers and how to plug into a corporate design culture that aids and abets precisely what drives the petitioners to seek reform.

This corporate mindset cannot possibly conceive any creative way for architecture to address complicated global issues such as climate change. Inevitably, the answer that arises from the architectural cult is lame – for example, LEED-influenced gizmo green, which seeks to solve problems arising from over-dependence on technology with more technology.

Learn from nature and from tradition

Neurobiology has affirmed that architecture achieves its life-enhancing powers through a process that resembles nature’s reproductivity – the opposite of what current architectural curricula teach students, and the opposite of how architecture operates today. Much like the natural selection discovered by Darwin, best practices in erecting buildings and cities have been developed by trial and error, which are then handed down by generation after generation of builders. Styles of architecture change slowly over time as new materials and technologies capture the attention of the market and gain popularity among practitioners. These best practices are inevitably replaced by new materials and technologies, with the most useful lasting the longest.

This “natural” way of architectural evolution had been happening for centuries until it was replaced in 1920-40 by today’s machine aesthetic – in which a promised efficiency was sacrificed to a bogus metaphor of “the future.” In many respects, the practices ingrained by centuries of architectural progress mimic the scientific principles behind today’s “slow-food” movement. And those principles come from nature, and are the same principles by which architecture operated for millennia. These same principles represent a much better way for architects to help address climate change.

Architecture before what architect and urbanist Steve Mouzon calls the “Thermostat Age” developed many ways to address the challenges posed to human habitation by weather, seasons, and climate. They include windows that open and close, thick walls that retain heat in winter and cool in summer, porches and deep windows that create shade, angling houses to catch the sun or invite prevailing breezes, and other methods of enabling architecture to harness nature to control comfort. These measures do not require electricity or gasoline. Some, in their purity, may be gone, but can still be adapted to our time. The corporate architecture of the so-called Machine Age, which teaches students to look down their noses at such “old-fashioned” techniques, should be shown the door. That is how architects can address climate change.

Break out of the cult!

Such possibilities will not be developed within the cult of architecture because it would upset too many of the socio-economic systems that have properly triggered the student petitioners. The students do not appear to realize that their petition calls upon architecture schools to reinforce those very systems in a misguided attempt at their reform.

To break out of the cult is, as Salingaros states, the only hope for real change. Here’s how individual students can plan their escape:

• Read beyond the texts assigned by your professors of architecture.

• Use your outside reading to ask probing questions of your professors.

• By their response, you may judge whether your current school is right for you.

• There are very few architecture schools with traditional curricula: check them out.

• Most communities have one or more traditional architectural practices: visit them.

• Visit local historic districts with an eye to the role of beauty in modeling the future.

• Keep your chin up. There is more you can do to leverage the cyclical nature of architectural history, so there is genuine hope that change will come, especially if you, yourself, push for it.

David Brussat was the architecture critic of the Providence Journal in Rhode Island for 25 years, until 2014. He still writes about architecture and design thrice weekly in Architecture Here and There, launched in 2009.

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See also:

Lesson Plan #7: An Implicit Rather than Explicit Model for Teaching Architecture

By Dr. Theodore Dalrymple

I would institute an annual prize, with substantial cash awards, for architecture students who would be given the task of designing a building that surpasses an iconic monstrosity in ugliness. 

Lesson Plan #6: Teacher, Don’t Teach Them Nonsense: Reforming Architecture’s Broken Education

By Mathias Agbo, Jr.

A curriculum overhaul alone cannot fix the problem; rather, the practice of architecture must first reform itself for any pedagogical reforms to make sense.

Lesson Plan #5: Letter from an architect to the gurus [teachers] and chelas [disciples] of architecture

By Shirish Beri 

From India, Shirish Beri writes this special letter out of the restlessness that arises from a genuine concern for the present state of architectural education and profession, as well as that of our society.

Lesson Plan #4: Response to Open Letter for Curriculum Change: A New, Biological Approach to Architecture

By Ann Sussman, RA, and A. Vernon Woodworth, FAIA

This response, in two parts, is from two instructors at the Boston Architectural College.

Lesson Plan #3: Beauty and Sustainability in Architectural Education

By Nicholas Boys Smith and Roger Scruton

We were greatly heartened to see architecture students call for a curriculum change to address the social, political, and ecological challenges of our time, and we want to say something about how their proposals intersect with the work of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. 

Lesson Plan #2: A Time of Change

By Duo Dickinson

The coming technological changes in architecture will impose a full deconstruction of the way we educate architects. 

Lesson Plan #1 “Signs versus Symptoms”: A Reply to the Open Letter from British Architecture Students Calling for Curriculum Change

By Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros

Asking for radical reforms in architectural education, this courageous appeal could help this latest effort be taken seriously, and not simply dismissed, as previous cries for reform have been.

Posted in Architecture, Architecture Education | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Why villains love modernism

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Cary Grant approaches Van Damm house in North by Northwest. (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer)

The title of the CNN website’s feature article is actually “Why movie villains love modern architecture,” but my headline asks a more pertinent question. It’s not just movie villains but actual villains whose architectural taste flies in the face of the taste of their victims.

But the issue of movie villains and their apparent preference for modern architecture is not the least inappropriate. That is because movie directors’ ideas for cinematic villainy arise, at least partly, from their conscious or unconscious ideas of the character of actual villainy today and in history.

CNN’s article by Jacqui Palumbo is about the newly published book Lair: Radical Homes and Hideouts of Movie Villains, by Chad Oppenheim, who inhabits the architectural rather than the cinematic realm of his book’s duality. He likes the modernist Van Damm house in North by Northwest. Of the fictional villains’ lairs in Oppenheim’s book, Palumbo writes:

[T]hey are pristine, awe-inspiring, high-tech, otherworldly, often impractical, and draw heavily on the tenets of modernism. The book poses the question: Why do bad guys live in good houses?

Permitting Oppenheim’s premise to go unchallenged would be to promote the basic confusion that characterizes what I imagine (not having read it) is an otherwise fascinating book. Why do bad guys live in good houses? Well, they don’t. For most people (that is, most victims of the villainy of most villains, real or fictional) they are bad houses, not good ones.

That mistake is the book’s primary confusion, but it portends a darker thematic confusion.

Around the world and throughout history (at least since the Bauhaus), the public has been broadly skeptical of modern architecture. An instinctive wisdom inhabits this skepticism. Director George Lucas felt some of that.

The villains’ lairs and the victims’ homes in the Star Wars series suggest that Lucas channeled this dichotemy, consciously or subconsciously. So many of his cinematic settings bear out that modern architecture and traditional architecture are associated, respectively, with bad guys and good guys: the Death Star versus Theed, the capital of Naboo, designed in a sort of rotund vernacular classicism. (See my 2016 post “Lucas, return to the Light Side“)

On some level, Oppenheim seems to understand that there is a perverse relationship between modern architecture and evil. CNN’s Palumbo writes:

Lair examines how modernist, futuristic, and utopian architecture has long been associated with amorality. Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, sleek homes, equally minimal and extravagant, made of glass, steel, and concrete, have become the archetypal home for the idealistic recluse with dastardly ambition.

Palumbo quotes an essay selected by Oppenheim to be included in Lair:

“Modern domestic architecture has become identified almost exclusively with characters who are evil, unstable, selfish, obsessive, and driven by pleasure of the flesh,” Joseph Rosa writes in an essay in the book. “Were they still alive, this might thoroughly shock the pioneers of modernism, who envisioned their movement facilitating a healthy, honest, and moral way of life.”

Would they be shocked? To be sure, this reflects conventional wisdom about the beginnings of modern architecture in prewar Germany’s Bauhaus school, supposedly shut down by the Nazis in 1933. Still, it may be more accurate to detect more than a hint of the sinister in the vision of Bauhauslers such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and the Swiss-French Le Corbusier. Corb hated streets and, like his compatriots, foresaw a very spare and regimented life for the inhabitants of the cities they planned. Socialism was their lodestar, but authoritarianism was often the mechanism. People were cogs in their visions of a machine architecture for the Machine Age. Happy faces were scrawled upon the planners’ sleek advertisements for a future much too far realized for comfort. The founding modernists’ vision comports poorly with the freedom and privacy that are lodestars of the society we exalt in the United States.

Oppenheim’s book reflects the insular attitudes of the 1 percent, in their silos, who hire amoral starchitects to build lairs for authoritarians and even totalitarians around the world. A good example is Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing, a modernist behemoth that seems to be stomping upon the Chinese public. But it is real, so it is not in Lair. It is not likely that its readers will understand the danger posed by its supposedly lighthearted subject. Lair is a confusing book that reflects a confused mind, which itself reflects a confused culture here and around the globe.

Sorry, but bad guys live in bad houses because they are bad guys.

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Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing. (skyscrapercenter.com)

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

A threat to Europe’s beauty

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Dresden’s Frauenkirche: Modernists want to stop reconstructions like this. (pixels.com)

Modernists are trying to reverse trends in cultural-heritage preservation by subtle interventions in several key conservation standards of the European Union. Writing from Norway, Audun Engh of the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism (INTBAU) warned me today that the modernists plan to “introduce recommendations that modernism (‘contemporary design’) should be a required style for new construction at EU-funded cultural-heritage sites.”

Mind you, that says “required,” and required in “cultural-heritage sites” – which translates into mandating ugly new buildings and additions in the most beautiful districts of Europe’s most beautiful cities. That modernists believe that this sort of change must be introduced means they recognize how preservation standards have shifted in recent decades. (Of course, they would not describe it the way I just did.)

One of the worrisome recommendations for the EU made by ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) reads:

When new parts/elements are necessary, a project shall use contemporary design adding new value and/or use while respecting the existing ones.

This falls into the category of shocking but not surprising. Early on, modernism sought to eliminate all historical structures, which were supposedly a roadblock to the societal transformation imagined by modernism’s founders. That went by the boards soon enough. Today, modernism is best seen as parasitic – interesting only when standing next to traditional buildings. Clusters of modern architecture are boring. Still, modernists retain an atavistic desire to block beauty whenever they can.

The recommendation quoted above is among the rare instances where the phrase “contemporary design” can be found among the ICOMOS proposals for an updated EU policy on such projects. Language referring directly to “traditional” styles is almost as rare. This document and past charters that set national and global preservation policy seem designed to deflect attention from the fact that two distinct groups clearly recognized by the public are involved in preservation – traditionalists and modernists.

This obfuscation of the language of the charters makes it easier for proponents of modernism to game the rules. Clearer language would make policy more easily understood by non-professionals, that is, the public. I suspect that even within ICOMOS, there is sustained conflict between proponents of traditional and modernist design.

Modernists involved in this decades-long debate also must find it painful to note that almost all the charters (perhaps except for the Venice Charter of 1964) now call for very strong language mandating that the public be deeply involved in the planning of projects – preservation and new construction – that are still largely the domain of “experts,” who remain infatuated by modernist styles that offer free reign to experiment with urban form. The public typically prefers to avoid changes in the look of where they live and work, and would rather retain the traditional features they are used to.

But change is slow. Mandates for transparency may make modernists nervous, but the general dominance of modern architecture in building design or city and town planning has not changed, and is probably increasing in spite of positive movement in realms such as global preservation policy. After all, the mayor of arguably the most beautiful city, Paris, has opened its doors to modernist skyscrapers, and the debate continues over whether to rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris as it was or in a modernist style.

Such projects would certainly be made more difficult by another ICOMO recommendation:

Reconstructions might only be funded in exceptional circumstances, and never for tourism purposes only.

For tourism purposes only? What a crock. No famous building is ever rebuilt for tourism purposes only. At the height of the modernist movement in the 1960s, the Venice Charter prioritized modernist interventions in traditional buildings and districts. Charters and treaties since then have rolled back such prioritization to the point where famous historical buildings are being rebuilt with commendable frequency in their original style, likewise with damaged historic districts. Tourism is never the only reason. Love is always a factor.

Dresden’s massive Frauenkirche and its surrounding commercial district are just one example. The recent near completion of Berlin’s City Palace, which oddly features three sides rebuilt in the original Baroque style and one side rebuilt in a stark modernist style, is another. The score in this latest example may be rephrased as 3 Trad > 1 Mod. Great! But modernists are taking note and trying to reverse the trend.

In America, the proposal in New York City to rebuild Penn Station in its original Beaux-Arts style, if adopted, would probably be game, set, match for traditional architecture over modern architecture, at least in America – and not only in preservation policy but in how commissions for major public and private buildings are chosen. Modern architects get at least 95 percent of such commissions (this is a guess), but that could change if the public ever comes to reject the central modernist idea that beauty in civic design is no long possible or appropriate in today’s world. Not so!

The EU should reject efforts to reverse policies that favor beauty over ugliness, however slow those happy policies may be to take effect.

Posted in Architecture, Preservation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments