Talk the talk on buildings

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University Campus UTEC, by Grafton Architects, 2020 Pritzker Prize winner, in Lima, Peru. (Pritzker)

Here is a post of mine from Feb. 7, 2018, “Talk the talk on buildings,” about the incoherence of architectural language. It was originally illustrated by a map of the 1901 McMillan Plan for the National Mall, a fine example of coherence. In reprinting the post, I have provided new illustrations that exemplify incoherence. They are buildings designed by this year’s Pritzker Prize winner. Here is the post:


An essay by Marianela D’Aprile, “What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Buildings,” on the website Common\Edge, gathers together some strands of discourse about architecture that I’ve posted on recently. Most particularly, I refer to a post called “Architecture’s deadly lingo,” about a lecture at Harvard’s GSD, and another, “Modern architecture is crazy,” in defense of Ann Sussman’s theories connecting the craziness of modern architecture with the suspected mental illnesses of its leading pioneers.

A fascinating panel was held [in 2018] by the National Civic Art Society, in Washington, D.C., with architects Michael Imber and Duo Dickinson discussing “Cultural Change and the Future of Architecture.” In the video of the event (an hour and 12 minutes), they danced around the problem of ugly architecture. Dickinson is the most accomplished of artful dodgers, and seemed to want to distract the audience from the myriad problems for the profession that arise from its dedication to designing buildings nobody likes. He sees the problems but doesn’t make the connection. Imber is an excellent architect and tried gamely to inject some common sense into the discussion, but was rumbled over by Dickinson’s Mack truck of bloviation. Toward the end Imber showed signs of Stockholm Syndrome. The segment where they discuss beauty had me wringing my hands in despair. The video of the event is perversely alluring.

Dickinson’s language isn’t as confusing as the random-phrase-generator prose used to introduce the lecture at the GSD, linked above, but in a way it’s more confusing because he is so good at stringing together sentences that mimic common sense but that don’t add up if you do the calculation.

In her essay, which came to me through Kristen Richards’s indispensable, D’Aprile writes that “[t]he desire to want to get rid of this dusty catalog of Buildings You Should Know Because Some Dead Guy Said So, is well-founded.” She wants to hear less about Paul Rudolph and more about Lina Bo Bardi. But then she goes on to complain that the profession’s discourse isn’t about architecture anymore. She cautions us about the dangers of

over-reliance on the canon to teach and practice architecture, which, as we know, can be an enterprise that redoubles many of the negative cultural symptoms of our capitalist societal structure (individualism, self-exploitation, competition; not to mention sexism, racism, ableism). But ultimately, the panelists’ intimations of how to change the state of affairs in the discipline of architec- ture aimed less at expanding or changing the canon and more at getting rid of it altogether in order to replace it with, well, some- thing else, something new, something not architectural at all.

Her thinking is strangely divided against itself. Neither she nor the GSD professors nor Dickinson nor perhaps even Imber, sensible as he may be, seem to realize that they do not discuss architecture because they cannot discuss architecture. Architecture today has no canonical design language with which to discuss architecture. Discussing architecture nowadays is like playing pickup sticks where sticks that are straight are not allowed. To compare one modernist building with another is rhetorically difficult if not impossible. To debate how buildings should help address the problems of architecture, let alone the problems of society, requires a consensus, to some degree, of what a building is and even what it should look like.

Several times in the Civic Art Society discussion, Dickinson and Imber wondered how architects can address the rapid change coming at us faster and faster. I wanted to get up and shout “Use architecture to create cities people care about!” Buildings should serve as anchors of stability people can hold on to and steady themselves in the face of onrushing evolution in our society, politics, technology, etc. Houses that look like houses, churches that look like churches, city halls that look like city halls – there’s a starting point. Why not try to recreate what humans were blessed to have for thousands of years – civic space that leveraged beauty to soothe the savage breast, in order to foster civility in the discussion of diverse viewpoints toward the goal of living together. We’ve lost that, but architects, who threw it away, will not admit it. Without admitting it, useful discussion cannot take place.

Architecture is sick. Maybe it is mentally ill – not because modern architects are mentally ill but because, wittingly or not, they work with tools and ideas that are purposely incoherent. That’s crazy, whether Corbusier was autistic or not. Architects are just part of the problem. The blindness of civic leaders, developers, planners, clients and others, including citizens who accept like sheep what those who design human habitat have dumped on us, share blame as well. But somebody must start to look reality in the eye. Might architects be the most logical candidates for the job? Let’s discuss.

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Urban Institute of Ireland, Dublin, Grafton Architects, 2020 Pritzker Prize winner. (Pritzker)

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Department of Finance, Dublin offices, Grafton Architects, 2020 Pritzker Prize winner. (Pritzker)

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, 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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4 Responses to Talk the talk on buildings

  1. Thomas H says:

    Car fumes at the “basement” entrance? Ticky tacky this-and-that linear details. The out-of-place shrubbery screws up the whole design. Railings, though, good enough to hang out the laundry.


  2. John the First says:

    The ‘Pin’, awesome banisters on the balcony, a nice added touch it with the stone material and the colours. But in the context of the whole building, pertaining to form, there is overall too much modern-caveman crudity in the form of straight lines, all these sharp angels, and all too flat surfaces, these are the exact opposite of elegance. This over-abudance of flat surfaces, straight lines and sharp angels hurt the perception. Probably industrial methods have caused a clique taste of such rigid biting forms (caveman-industrial-style) among those of lesser sensitivity. If car design is characterized by aerodynamics, and thus in lack of any such sharp forms and straight lines, in order to not ‘hurt’ or ‘cut’ the wind, these forms, except the banisters hurt and cut sensitive perception.
    As such, it’s just modern industrial style, mixed with some touch of (industrially fabricated) elegance.
    I dare say, I imagine that for a visitor from another planet with a more advanced culture, overall it looks like Earth caveman had invented the technological means to cut stone, then cut himself some big blocks out of stone, priding himself how sharp and straight he is able to cut, then applied some shapes which he had seen in examples from historical culture.

    On a positive note though, as soon as they start to cut curved lines, we end up with the LSD type of shapes, the well known pretentious neo-modernist buildings which the contemporary financial and technocratic institutional establishments love so much. These are trip for the sensitive mind, even worse than caveman industrial sharp cut, modern blockhead style.


  3. LazyReader says:

    Every architect wants to express. A good architect expresses, a bad architect tries to impress.
    It took thousands of years to collect the acquired traits. And dozens of cultures and the periodic acquisition of various technologies to build of what we call “Classical”.
    What we can ascertain of the future of architecture is that new building materials and odd assortment of engineering will allow us to build more complex and unusual designs. None of these buildings by conflict of their complicated and irrational geometry and complicated engineering and expensive materials is suitable for urban renewal. In the long run their destiny is the wrecking ball when the cost of maintenance and upkeep exceeds the financial value of what these structures can generate or what it costs of refurbish. That which is cheapest to build, cheapest to own is cheapest to keep around.

    Modern architecture is an oxymoron. It implies there’s a set timeframe of what’s old and new.
    Every generation of scientific principles and engineering permits us to design. Nor does modern vs classical imply specific manufacturing techniques. Mass production classical, the cast iron architecture of New York and New Orleans. Ralph lauren’s flagship store in New York……..built in 2011.

    Handmade craftsmenship? look at the Barcelona chair

    , a modernist masterpiece… that is not a mass produced piece.

    The architects are merely one ingredient in this soup of mental instability. Developers are the other. And it’s consumer base is the final of the triad. Perhaps in North America a certain idea of masculinity pervades society, so that people that run or keep society intact prefer to work/live in powerful looking buildings. American heroes are always portrayed in impressive places – Batman’s underground lab, Superman’s Arctic fortress, Iron Man’s skyscraper. As things improve in scale and size, independent details are no longer prevalent. Ornament takes a back seat to grandiose or height. Monolithic, sterile, alienating buildings are turning the city into a disjointed landscape of oversized objects. The overall populace doesn’t dare speak up, even if they did, they have no power to publicly condemn. How buildings today; distinguishes itself from the monolithic office buildings of the 1980s is through a gimmick or technology.

    The fact is Modern architecture is here to stay, to evolve and mutate. We can do one of two things, keep our voices loud to condemn the uglies. Or be silent.
    Show of hands, point to a piece of modernism you actually like and why in response.

    MY Pin.
    It’s not too large, invasive or overextensive. There’s texture to it, a sense of natural order.


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