Crank up the cliche machine

Housing cluster in California by Christopher Alexander. (luciensteil.tripod.com)

Housing cluster in California by Christopher Alexander. (luciensteil.tripod.com)

I am reprinting Denver architect Jeff Sheppard’s reply to my reply to his reply to my post because my host, WordPress.com, supplies no avenue to continue discussions beyond two or three levels, depending on how you count. In Growing dull in Denver,” I urged Sheppard (and Denver) to avoid buildings by Bjark-Ingalls Group (BIG) for stylistic reasons, but ignored aspects of his column in the Denver Post that did not relate to my concerns. He replied saying I should address his concerns. I replied saying that I had a right to pursue my own agenda, assuming I did not misstate Sheppard’s words in bending them to my use. He then issued this reply to that:

David: I appreciate your comments yet I sense that your argument boils down to style versus content. With such a myopic viewpoint I believe you are not doing justice to the multitude of successful planning and multifamily projects that exhibit an appropriate expression of our time while also creating inspired and diverse living conditions. Many of these projects exhibit principles that are addressed in the circa 1970’s book by Christopher Alexander, titled A Pattern Language, and are quite valid today. What is most interesting about the book is that it does not delve into style, instead it describes principles/ “patterns” that, when properly employed, lead to spaces and buildings that are memorable, inspirational, functional and contextually appropriate. I believe the projects mentioned in my op-ed piece utilize these patterns while not resorting to the veiled thinness of a falsely duplicated history.

The illustration at the top of this post should sufficiently expose the hollowness of Sheppard’s clichés. Is Christopher Alexander’s architecture a thinly veiled example of falsely duplicated history? Apparently so, according to Sheppard. Alexander would reject almost every sentiment in Sheppard’s reply. Nikos Salingaros, who has worked alongside Alexander for decades, condemns Sheppard’s mossbacked modernist clichés in terms even harsher than my own. Style is a vital aspect of content, and Alexander’s patterns, while they are often minimalist in style, are an outgrowth of a natural morphology, based in biology, by which traditional and classical architecture have evolved, and which has been rejected entirely by the modernism that Sheppard and BIG embrace.

This fact is rendered obvious by style. Sheppard’s contention that BIG and its fellow modernist firms “utilize these patterns” promoted by Alexander is clearly false. Sheppard should try to understand Alexander before using him to hide behind. Falsely duplicated history indeed!

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Crank up the cliche machine

  1. Erik Bootsma says:

    Thus the danger of having very fuzzy principles of design. They allow the modernists to “take the territory” of the classical theorists. Co-opt Alexander but ignore his actual produced work. Just like co-opting Micheleangelo, etc ad nauseam as “pre-moderns” to justify all sorts of crap that looks nothing like the original.

    Just doesn’t pass the sniff test.

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  2. Nikos: I look forward to reading the book. Sounds like it will be a great addition to ‘A Pattern Language’. I’m still amazed each time I read through the book how relevant it is and ,most likely, always will be.

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  3. David: Once again you’re missing the point and making incorrect references. The phrase ‘thinly veiled and falsely duplicated history….’ refers to what is now being constructed in Denver as well as many other cities throughout the U.S. Banal stucco boxes with mere surface treatment, screening uninspired living environments. With extremely limited budgets and zoning regulations that try to force style through prescriptive regulations, many of these projects end up falsely mimicking history with their feeble attempt at creating detail, hierarchy and texture. These buildings actually do more harm than good. The projects that consider today’s lifestyle and needs while still respecting the patterns described in Alexander’s book are the successful ones. Yet according to your belief it would appear that anything with a traditional face would be an appropriate solution no matter where or what it is. A rather myopic view of architecture. You may want to re read the book yourself.
    Love the discourse though. There is always something to learn from the traditionalists. Great architecture requires many layers. Layers that are revealed over time.

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    • “False history” is a conventional modernist trope used to condemn traditional architecture that has been built since modernism took control of the profession. Perhaps you used it to mean the crap being built in Denver, but the way you used it was likely to cause most readers (or at least me) to believe otherwise – that you were referring to new buildings that are of traditional design, as opposed to new buildings that are “of their time” – another trope that appears in your reply that reflects shoddy thinking that modernists don’t even try to defend anymore, but merely assert. I am not in favor of poorly designed traditional work, but because you don’t include any pictures of what you are condemning with your piece, only of the possible (modernist) solutions, I don’t know what kind of crap you are really talking about. To be sure, most Denverites are likely to know. It sounded like you were praising BIG et al. for being “of our time” and warning against traditional work, which is “false history.” Please correct me if I am wrong, and send pictures!

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  4. Hello? Someone mention my name?

    While I have not done an extensive analysis of the complete architecture of BIG, what I have seen in pictures (nothing in person) does not reveal the use of Alexandrine Patterns. The same goes for the other examples that Jeffrey Sheppard offers as “good” contemporary architecture.

    Let me first of all thank Mr. Sheppard for stating a very pertinent and true statement about Christopher Alexander’s work: “It does not delve into style, instead it describes principles/ “patterns” that, when properly employed, lead to spaces and buildings that are memorable, inspirational, functional and contextually appropriate.” And yet, when it comes to built examples, I’m afraid that we disagree. A basic confusion between style and adaptation continues.

    Blog responses are not the best place to analyze the reasons for this confusion. Over at ArchNewsNow, a new book of mine will eventually be published. I intend to explain the Pattern method in detail, as well as how it can be misinterpreted. Hopefully, those online chapters will help in the present debate.

    Best wishes to both you, David, and to Mr. Sheppard.
    Nikos

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