A lexicon of modern facades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, 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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12 Responses to A lexicon of modern facades

  1. rontzisor says:

    Royal Ontario Museum; OCAD University; Walt Disney Concert Hall; Absolute Towers; Centre Pompidou


  2. Peter Van Erp (aka Peter Khan) says:

    The tin can is ugly, but it promised to be surpassed by Brown’s new Performing Arts Center, a bar code on pilotis if there ever was one. I think Brown went ahead with it purely because RISD had snatched the title of Ugliest Building on College Hill with their North Dorm, taking it from the Sci Li, the long time champ.


    • I don’t know, Peter, whether anyone has nominated the tin can as the city’s ugliest building, but it still deserves the title, probably (in my opinion) even after Brown’s new performance hall is completed. Pilotis? I’m not sure. I gather it is an attempt to construct a building as a drum section of a classically fluted column, albeit square rather than circular. I doubt it will work, but I am open to the idea – still, even if it does not, it can hardly be uglier than the Career & Technical High School, which combines ugliness with dime-store cheapness, even though it cost $90 million.


  3. LazyReader says:

    Brutalism went up in Europe, because of economics, they squandered their wealth, bombed their cities, extirpated brightest minds and sank into political turmoil. Brutalism was an excellent reflection of that mindset, meant for better things, Assuming they’d be demolished til more suitable buildings went up. That never happened and They stained Europe for 60 years. Fortunately they were slowly demolished and newer buildings with traditionalist mindsets went in it’s place.

    Brutalism went up in America because it served a purpose of corporate america who wanted ample space for offices/business, for as little money as possible.

    Brutalism or it’s interpretation; went up in Japan post war. By 1945 Every city in Japan had largely been obliterated. Knowing full well space was a premium, wood being too vulnerable a building material to future natural disaster and lack of building material. Economy in shambles and need for housing paramount. Japan is a society unto itself who vested the thought of humbleness overcoming narcissism. So they designed their buildings and put forth. Despite the modernism, Japan’s culture of hygiene, manners and doing well with less, and finding beauty even in austere environments has personified it’s cities with the most utmost sense of respectful “Brutalism” ever. With Philosophy of Every square foot counts. A garden nestled between two industrial buildings. They turn their alley’s into their own personal spaces. I said it before. Care, concern, attention to detail….those aren’t trainable skills, they’re mindsets. People with those mindsets do well in services that benefit the public. In Japan they make the most of what they had. Tokyo’s not the prettiest city in the world, decades of mishmash architecture and aged concrete doesn’t help….but the society forced to live it in, Made it’s due.

    Modernists today try to recapture that message, but cant, because the culture of adaptation to adverse condition doesn’t exist elsewhere. American’s aren’t used to going without, we haven’t had an energy crisis since 70’s or extensive rationing since WWII. The culture of “We’ll manage” doesn’t persist, so modern architecture is a culture of sterile surroundings perfectly preserved.
    We talked about Architecture of Star wars, but Watch Star Trek: Discovery, the USS Discovery is catapulted 900 years into the future (3189). Federation is a shell of it’s former self, despite all this, everything is clean. All in all, Federation’s headquarters made of the same Apple Campus headquarters style All white, ALL light stuff. One would think with the Technologies to “Replicate” Whatever they dream/think of, would surround themself with the trappings of the cultures that build civilization and home.


  4. LazyReader says:

    Columns of the future? For classicism to survive, it has to get out of it’s rut of form standardized. A hint of futurism can go a long way. Classical architecture was limited by material science at the time. I’d imagine these as columns of stone/ or concrete with stone sculpted, attached.



    • Not sure whether classicism will survive, Lazy, but it won’t survive by adopting ridiculous forms such as those at your link. That will only hasten its demise. The columns you decry as “standardized” are capable of an almost infinite embellishment, establishing as much creativity as is required to make things interesting, though the chief goal should be beauty, not interest, let alone novelty.


  5. I call the Providence Career Technical School ‘the tin can’. Good point about making the buildings more appealing from the sky rather than at street level. In fact, they are making them more attractive from the viewpoint of the parking lot nowadays. The new Mosque on Central Avenue in Pawtucket is a handsome building, but the facade faces the parking lot and the side wall faces Central Avenue. The parking lot view gets the facade; Main Streets gets to see a wall. If that doesn’t kill vitality to an urban village atmosphere, what does except an oversized parking lot between the facade and Main Street ala Johnston? We are being invaded by corporate drug stores or dollar stores who either build their buildings on islands in the middle of asphalt deserts ot the buildinds side walls border the sidewalk. This is akin to an epidemic of weeds edging the flowers out. Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, West Warwick to name a few have all seriously deteriorated into a state of a breakdown in vitality since the 50’s and 60’s. Is this not an indicator of a prediction of the 2000’s from a well known science fiction writer?

    “I only hope…when the city is abolished, the whole world isn’t turned into one giant suburb.”
    Arthur C. Clarke (1964)

    p.s. I don’t own a url


    • Thank you, John. The tin can is my least favorite building in Providence, leaving aside location and focusing only on design. It is a crime. I just looked up the new mosque on Central Avenue in Pawtucket, and it looks very nice. I can’t see two of its four sides, so I’m not sure, but it certainly appears they overdid the parking. Still, my take on parking lots in general is that at least they leave room for hope that someday something nice will be built upon them.


  6. Could you perhaps provide a link to Dhiru Thadani’s article? (I suspect you intended to but I can’t find one in the post above.)


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