Le era (er, error) de Corbu

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Plan Voisin (1925) would have obliterated much of central Paris. (Fondation Le Corbusier)

Here is what Alistair Horne has to say about Le Corbusier in his book Seven Ages of Paris. It is on page 330. In my opinion, he lets the guy off too lightly.

… [A]fter 1919 most new building shifted towards the public sector, with a marked slowing – particularly in the 1930s – in the building of luxury apartments, now stark and become simply “machines for living” with little that was decorative. Instead cinemas started to proliferate. The style of architecture changed, with a brief flash of inventiveness with the arrival of Art Deco in the mid-1920s – almost exclusively for the worse. It was perhaps just as well that there was a depression, with money short, otherwise the Swiss Architect Le Corbusier might well have been able to refashion Paris in his own image. Le Corbusier had plans to destroy much of the centre of Paris on the Right Bank, replacing a grid of shoebox towers over 200 metres [656 feet] high. Perhaps for once Parisians had reason to thank the tangle of municipal building regulations descended from Bonnier’s 1902 prescriptions.

Plus some further animadversions upon what Mencken, in his 1931 essay “The New Architecture,” sloughed off as nothing more than a fad. (If only!)

In practical terms, the one enduring (though visually questionable) success Modernism in Paris could claim was the great Trocadéro complex built for the World Exposition of 1937, although some contemporaries with long memories thought the structure little better than the pseudo-oriental mishmash left over from the last Expo, which it replaced. A man called Freyssinet wanted to construct on Mont Valérien a tower 700 metres [2,297 feet, most of half a mile] high, up which you could drive a car; instead, here, on the site designated by Napoleon for his Palace of the King of Rome [his son], uncompromisingly angular structures (of the sort Mussolini was building in Rome and Stalin in Moscow) were dominated by the Soviet and German pavilions. Symbolic of their time3s, there an aggressive Nazi eagle glared across at the new Soviet Adam and Eve, striding optimistically towards an unrealizable future. Like the regimes they represented, both pavilions would disappear – though the central feature linking them would survive to house the new Modern Art Museum and the Museum of Man.

Well, okay, Alistair Horne is suitably skeptical of Corbu and modern architecture. Below is the Trocadéro, and below that the old Trocadéro to which Horne refers. (Wikipedia) I like both more than he does. When I first saw the (later) Trocadero from the Eiffel Tower, it did not occur to me to condemn it as a modernist blotch on the beauty of Paris but as a work of “stripped” classicism – the architectural establishment’s conventional response, in the years leading up to the fall, to the challenge posed by modernism: classical lines with most of the ornament shaved off.

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Chace plans downtown digs

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When it was announced several years ago that Providence developer Buff Chace would purchase the Journal Building and the parking lot across from it on Fountain Street, he expressed the hope of erecting a new building on the latter site. Now Chace has in fact announced a six-story residential project with a grocery store on the first floor facing Washington Street and a restaurant facing Fountain. Good news!

Here’s the Journal’s Saturday story: “6-story building proposed for downtown parking lot.” Mark Reynolds’s article ran without any illustrations of the proposal – perhaps there are none yet – but a couple of quotes inspire hope that the building, if built, will add to the character of downtown.

Chace says he intends his first effort at an entirely new building will be “a modern building that is harmonious with the downtown historic fabric.” For those who see some unwanted backsliding in the word “modern,” any new building that has plumbing and other such advanced systems is a “modern” building, no matter what it looks like. I don’t think he meant “modernist.” Anyway, zoning requires the design of new buildings in downtown to protect its historical character. Nobody expects it to be made of marble. “It has to be affordable, too,” he says, “Otherwise it doesn’t happen.” So, he says, it will be a brick building. Good.

Chace told Reynolds that this will be “the first time that he has built a building from scratch in downtown.” Not his first attempt, though. A decade or so ago he hoped to build a new building, elegantly classical, across Union Street from his Alice Building on what is now called the Grant’s Block, where he hosts free movies weekly in the warmer months. He showed me a picture, which I could not find in my files, and it was lovely. But while looking for it I came across an earlier proposal from a version of the Downcity Plan (led by Chace and his friend Andrés Duany, the New Urbanist guru) for a couple of new buildings, traditional in style, on the Grant’s Block, which is the illustration at the bottom this post.

Later, Chace and Duany imagined, in 2004 or ’05, as part of a charrette to expand the Downcity Plan, placing a new building on the Journal’s other lot on Fountain, behind the Biltmore Garage, and a second new building that would have replaced the Journal’s executive garage (the green snubnose eyesore) and the modernist addition above it with a hotel (I think) facing a renovated Emmett Square off Kennedy Plaza. An illustration of that proposal is at the top of this post.

Pardon me while I roll my eyes. Howard Sutton, who was then the Journal’s publisher, went nutso at the audacity of someone even thinking of (let alone actually drawing!) fictional buildings on land they did not own. What a baby! It diminished Sutton in my eyes – after all his vaunted editorializing in favor of revitalizing the city.

Good grief! So it’s time something was built on that old parking lot, which I know so well. I recall the Journal demolishing several buildings on it back in the 1980s, I think. Likewise on the block behind the Biltmore Garage. These are mistakes that merit correction, and I am pleased that Buff Chace has proposed to make a start in that direction. Good on him!


New buildings proposed for Grant’s Block, circa 2004. (Cornish Associates)

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More from ‘7 Ages of Paris’

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Opera Garnier, in Paris. (hotellouvremarsollier.com)

Here are a couple more passages from Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris: The first two are from his section on the Second Empire:

With so much borrowed from the past, was there (leaving aside the new apartment blocks) any such thing as a Second Empire style? In church architecture, certainly, there was little to boast about: the Trinité was built in pseudo-Renaissance style; Saint-Augustine, crammed ingeniously into a narrow triangular space, was a Romano-Byzantine pastiche constructed around one of Baltard’s iron frameworks. Perhaps the age is best epitomized by Charles Garnier’s new Opéra, which in its florid magnificence symbolized the wealth of the day, its affection for the new rococo, with just a touch of vulgarity. …

Controversy continues to surround the merits of Haussmann’s new Paris. At the time it had its vigorous critics. The conservative Goncourt brothers said it made them think of “some American Babylon of the future”; Gautier agreed, “This is Philadelphia; it is Paris no longer!” (though he had never seen Philadelphia). George Sand, however, construed it a blessing to be able to walk without “being forced every moment to consult a policeman on the street corner or the affable grocer.” Emile Zola, in his novel Un Page d’amour, tried hard to depict the great city as “an enormous storm-tossed ocean, or a distant and alien Babylon,” but to the end affection triumphed over distaste. “I love the horizons of this big city with all my heart … depending on whether a ray of sunshine brightens Paris, or a dull sky lets it dream, it resembles a joyful and melancholy poem. This is art, all around us. A living art, an  unknown.”

In the section on the Belle Epoque, Horne continues:

The departure of Haussmann, the collapse of the Second Empire and the chaos of the Commune brought a halt to public works and private buildings in the early 1870s. The great era of Haussman was over, and nothing like it would ever be seen again in Paris. In the early 1880s, private building revived and even reached a peak that surpassed the previous boom of the 1860s. But, after 1870, under the Third Republic the city grew more slowly. By the 1900s, the rate of building permits had sunk to around 2,000 a year. Under Garnier, who became doyen of architectural taste in the École des Beaux-Arts, a greater freedom was afforded the architect until the end of the century. This was in marked contrast to the strictly controlled street uniformity imposed by Haussmann. Apartment houses grew taller and more motley in their exoticism and luxuriance. Glass and metal bow windows began to bulge out over the street. Briefly, very briefly, the craze for Art Nouveau seized the city, surviving mainly in the entrances to the new Métro stations commissioned at the end of the century. Paris borrowed from William Morris, while Manhattan borrowed from the Parisian apartment block. From a municipal commission set up in 1896 to re-examine building regulations, Louis Bonnier emerged as the high priest of change and variety. Under his influence façades became more and more florid, often to the point of the ridiculous and the fantastical. Once again building regulations permitted structures to hang out over the street, as they had done before Louis XIV, making the new apartment blocks look top-heavy. Individualism and variety became everything. Haussmann would have rolled in his grave. Despite the demand for higher and higher buildings, though, Bonnier fortunately opposed the novelty of the American skyscraper as inappropriate.

It’s hard to know what to make of all this except that the back and forth of building fashion in Paris, between sumptuous opulence and restrained opulence and back again, has left the world with a Paris whose beauty forms a symphony in counterpoint that we can all admire. Maybe Haussmann would not have rolled in his grave.

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Yale lecture: Krier on Speer

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Zeppelinfeld Tribune, Nuremberg, Speer’s first work as Hitler’s architect. (screenshot)

Léon Krier does not seem to dislike modern architecture as much as I do, but he may dislike it with much more passion. The architectural theorist, master planner of Prince Charles’s new town Poundbury, and practitioner of his own edgy brand of classicism finds it easier to find a way to praise some early modernists that I find it easier to deplore, even Corbusier and Mies. His disapproval of modern architecture is much more detailed, nuanced and comprehensive than my own. My eyes are hurt by it but his soul is hurt by it. Therefore, he has the intellectual chops to level praise as he likes. This would include praising the talent of a monster like Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect.

Krier wrote a book, Albert Speer: Architecture 1932-1942, reissued in 2013, on Speer’s work, and that same year delivered this lecture on Speer at Yale. Given the spirit of the age in the groves of academe, I am surprised the lecture was allowed to proceed.

Here are several passages from Krier’s talk:

The book’s intention is not at all to applaud violence and the Nazi system, but to show how far it is a modern system. It is a modernist system and the success of it is absolutely modern. There is nothing traditional about Nazi society, just the emblems and some of the signs and the uniforms, but it is an extremely modern system, extremely modernist in fact, and the classicism was really only a very small byproduct which was reserved for special occasions. The main question the book addresses is can a war criminal be a great artist? The answer is yes. …

What I tried to prove was that he was an extraordinary talent. The question is what do we do, morally, when realizing that someone has extraordinary talent while being a war criminal. He was deeply involved in the Holocaust, the destruction of the Jews, there is no doubt and I never doubted it, and I never believed the story Speer recounted in his memoirs, and [in an interview] I told him so. I said I don’t believe your story, it was just a way to save your skin. It is impossible that you wouldn’t know what happened in the death camps. But he is a great architect. So the question is why can’t we admire a great architect who is a criminal? …

Why was classicism uniquely associated to a criminal regime, and condemned, never to be practiced anymore without bad conscience, excuses or justifications? Why just architecture? Why not the motorways? Why not the Volkswagen? Why not the industries that built the bombs, the industrial methods that set up Auschwitz and destroyed the Jews? How is it possible that we accept as innocent, as morally neutral, the modern technology which served to conquer, bomb and kill, and condemn as morally guilty the architecture, which served a symbolic purpose, is still not worked up nor integrated. We live still in that confusion.

It must be clear to anyone who has thought about this honestly that we are still in this confusion because demonizing traditional architecture by any means, fair or foul, is necessary to maintain modern architecture as the establishment of the profession. Honesty would compel fairness in the treatment of architectural style, would require, for the first time in many decades,  leveling the playing field for major commissions. Given the heavy and longstanding preference of the public for tradition, fairness would doom modern architecture to a far lower status in the design and construction of our built environment.

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Haussmann’s urban removal

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Rue du Jardinet, demolished to make way for Boulevard Saint Germain. (imgur.com)

Preservationists and architects should be enemies: the preservation of any old building postpones work designing a new building to replace it. Baron Haussmann’s demolition and rebuilding of much of old Paris in the third quarter of the 19th century created many jobs for architects. He failed to upset preservationists – as a movement they did not exist then – or anybody, except for those who owned or occupied the buildings slated to be urbanly removed, or, perhaps, those who resented the enrichment of others whose property remained and suddenly increased in value. Haussmann created a Paris that many believe was a vast improvement over what existed before. Ever since, Parisians have bathed in the glow of the solid reputation of the City of Light as the world’s most beautiful city. (Romans and some others might plausibly disagree.)

Despite what Alistair Horne contends in The Seven Ages of Paris (2002), there is little debate today over the legacy of Haussmann and his boss, Louis Napoleon. But that was not always the case, at the time or later. The exiled nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte had overthrown the Bourbons after their return to Paris following his uncle’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. After Louis’s 1851 coup, loans started flooding in to complete or expand upon the urban program of the emperor. Try to imagine the narrow, stinking, dangerous streets of old Paris with their leaning, desiccated, centuries-old structures renovated into the sort of charming historic district common today. Well, it did not happen. The idea, rather, was to glorify Paris, not to spruce up its seedier quarters to please the wealthy in ways they would not understand for another century. Here, after listing many projects receiving credit, Horne describes the debate over the result:

Such was the breakneck speed of Louis Napoleon’s and Haussmann’s programme. Once again Paris became one immense building site, of mud, dust and rubble. The Hôtel de Ville [city hall] was besieged – not by insurgents this time, but by battalion-sized teams of masons and carpenters. The question remains, still hotly debated: was “Haussmannization” a net benefit for Paris, or the reverse? The financial cost was astronomical. There were several priorities: functional – to clear the congestion of old Paris; economic – to relieve the heavy pressure of rents; aesthetic – to create a city beautiful in her grandeur and architectural unity; and strategic – to lance the festering abscesses of the old city that had been, from time immemorial, the lairs of assassins and rogues, such as the Buttes-Chamount, and of riot and revolution in the east of Paris. Largely secondary were hygiene and social welfare – the amelioration of life for the poor.

Like his illustrious and insatiably restless uncle, Louis Napoleon was an unswervingly hands-on despot. And his technical know-how was often superior. He was passionate, and knowledgeable, about the use of industrial-age wrought iron and glass. “I just want huge umbrellas, nothing more!” he demanded of Victor Baltard when it came to reconstructing Les Halles. The result was seen not only in the new food market, until its removal out to Rungis a century later, but in the (old) Bibliothèque Nationale with its delicate iron pillars, in the Rhinelander Jacques Hittorf’s cathedral-like Gare du Nord and in the handsome remnants of Louis Napoleon’s Marché du Temple. In marked contrast to Prince Albert in London, who so favoured the neo-gothic, Louis Napoleon disliked the gothic style; consequently it was little used in public buildings of the period. Windows in the new Hôtel Dieu would be pastiches of Henri IV rather than Abbe Suger. Perhaps fortunately for Paris – given the horrors, such as the Centre Pompidou, perpetrated on it by modern architects in the latter part of the twentieth century – both he and Haussmann believed in classical, traditional forms, restrainedly adapted for the new era.

I’ll second that emotion! Nevertheless, as Horne quotes Haussmann as he himself put what he did in his own words:

We ripped open the belly of old Paris, the neighborhood of revolt and barricades, and cut a large opening through the most impenetrable maze of alleys, piece by piece.

What Haussmann and Louis Napoleon should have done versus what they did do – which I spare no ink adoring – would nevertheless make an interesting debate.

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Rue St. Nicolas du Chardonnay, near the Pantheon, circa 1850. (imgur.com)

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Modernist fundamentalism

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Florence, one of many world historic cities that grew organically. (wimdu.ca)

Soon after I posted “General Motors’ America” yesterday, I yearned for a deeper understanding of the reason why GM so avidly embraced modernist concepts of design and planning. So it was good to receive from architectural theorist Nikos Salingaros a copy of an essay, “A Vision for Architecture as More Than the Sum of its Parts,” that he and urbanologist Michael Mehaffy wrote back in 2013. They posit that modern architecture is based on what they call “geometrical fundamentalism,” which they describe this way:

“Geometrical fundamentalism” is, we argued, a fervent ideological belief in the urgent necessity to denude the human environment of all but abstract, putatively “rational” forms, composed into one-off works of art — lines, planes, cubes, and the like — in the misguided belief that these are actually more advanced and “modern” — hence “Modernism”. (But as we will discuss, they are not more advanced, but in fact are dangerously primitive.) In that essay we only briefly referred to the origins of this peculiar but pervasive kind of fundamentalism, and its profound impact on today’s human and natural environment.

They continue:

In particular, a perennially dominant school of “modernist” architects, energized by a heady mix of economic power and quixotic idealism, became essentially co-opted by industrial interests. Their role in the new economic-industrial regime was to serve as fervent boosters of this denuding practice, by peddling a bogus marketing image of a utopian industrial future. Despite cycles of criticism and disavowal, their legacy continues unabated today, in the many “rococo” variants of modernist design.

Here is where General Motors and its “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York come in:

[T]he rapacious industrialization of the environment came packaged in a marketing campaign aimed squarely at consumers’ deepest Freudian desires and fears. Perhaps the most seductive marketing concept of all, on display to such powerful effect at the General Motors diorama at the 1939 World’s Fair, was the allure of an exciting new technological future. This intoxicating “futurism” was a concept pioneered by Le Corbusier and other early modernist architects. Industrial behemoths like General Motors readily understood the seductive appeal of this exciting technological novelty — New! Improved!

But a related concept, no less attractive to General Motors, was that anything older — like old streetcar lines, or the streets and street-friendly buildings on which they ran — were intolerably old-fashioned. The streetcar lines must be bought up and demolished; the inner-city neighborhoods, with their tight walkable streets, must be abandoned.

This legacy, they say, continues today. Not all is lost, however. Mankind still has choices and makes them – can barely avoid making them, consciously, or not. They write:

We conclude on a hopeful assertion: that real choice does in fact exist for a more bottom-up, evolutionary approach to planning and design, one that offers the basis of a new era of ecological humanism in architecture, at a time when such a reform is desperately needed.

The article by Salingaros and Mehaffy goes into considerable detail about the nature of geometrical fundamentalism, its history, and how it unfolds in almost every aspect of our daily lives. Reading the whole article admirably places yesterday’s post about General Motors and the Federal Highway System into a scientific context, one that should help those interested in reversing past mistakes in the built environment.

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Houston, a city that has grown inorganically. (houstonagentmagazine.com)

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General Motors’ America

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“Contrasting cities of today (top) and yesterday (bottom) in the General Motors Parade of Progress Souvenir Edition promotional brochure, circa 1936.” (Collection of Nathaniel Walker)

How did modern architecture boot classical architecture from its control of the design and planning establishments in America so quickly? After all, it took only about 30 years from the time modernist design hit the streets and the time, about 1960, by which it was the establishment. In 1931, Mencken wrote, “A new suburb built according to the plans of, say, Le Corbusier would provoke a great deal more mirth than admiration.” In 1932, the Museum of Modern Art held its infamous exhibit on “The International Style,” exposing modern architecture to Americans for the first time. By 1960, tradition had been purged from the practice of design and planning, from the curricula of schools of architecture, and had been frog-marched out of the architectural media. Its practitioners surrendered and retired. Its artists and craftsmen went bankrupt, their sons went into other fields. In terms of cultural time, all of this happened in the snap of a finger.

My efforts to unravel this mystery generally focus on how society – high society, in the main – handed top academic jobs to modernists just because they were refugees from Nazi Germany, and how they then acted to purge tradition from the schools. In the face of this challenge, traditional architects fought back (if you can call it that) by bending over to compromise with the modernists, leading to much “stripped” classical work, or, often, premature retirement from a suddenly uncongenial profession. Meanwhile, to judge by critical essays in the journal Pencil Points, tradition had been unchallenged for so long that its defenders had lost the ability to express their aesthetic principles. I would now add industrial-strength propaganda to the mix.

A good example of propaganda used to foist an unnecessary and arguably unwise but massive shift in the American way of life was the campaign by General Motors to make the automobile a “fourth American necessity” with food, clothing and shelter. In 1929, the director of research for GM, Charles F. Kettering, described his job as “to make people dissatisfied with what they already have” – and transform society into a guinea pig for the concept of “planned obsolescence.” Kettering and his fellow execs designed and carried out a propaganda campaign that for two decades pounded GM’s corporate agenda into the American cranium.

That campaign is described in appalling detail by College of Charleston architectural historian Nathaniel Robert Walker. He argues that historians have tended to highlight the roles of government planners and design professionals in this societal transformation, while neglecting the role of industry. In Walker’s lengthy essay “American Crossroads: General Motors’ Midcentury Campaign to Promote Modernist Urban Design in Hometown U.S.A.” – in Buildings & Landscapes, a journal published at the University of Minnesota – he describes the depth and breadth of GM’s role in that effort:

For the automobile to join the ranks of basic human requirements, adjustments would need to be made in the infrastructure of daily life, especially in cities, where walking and the electric streetcar were still important modes of transport. Kettering and his fellow General Motors executives would soon suggest the required reforms, showing the way forward to universal daily automobile use and, consequently, to total automobile dependence. …

It was believed the consumption entailed by nonstop motoring, together with the economic activity generated by the destruction and re-creation of American towns and cities, would contribute to widespread and self-perpetuating prosperity by generating insatiable demand for industrial products, especially cars. This ambition meant that it would never be enough to simply build rural highways connecting cities to one another. American highways would have to be cut through the civic and commercial cores of communities, utterly and permanently transforming them.

From GM’s pavilion at Chicago’s “Century of Progress Exposition” in 1933-34 to its celebrated “Futurama” exhibit (see video at end) at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, interspersed by years worth of traveling exhibits seen by millions in cities and towns nationwide, the campaign concluded abruptly with the passage of the National Highway Act, which codified GM’s goals in law and turned its attack on America’s cities and towns on behalf of industry’s bottom line into national policy. Walker continues:

GM was not alone in prescribing creative destruction as a stimulant for America’s cities; indeed, by the 1930s the term “obsolescence” had “become ubiquitous in the fields of real estate, finance, and city planning,” condemning even sturdy and unblemished buildings, and sometimes whole neighborhoods, to an early demise as a glad concession to the economic dynamism that would replace them with something new. A broad “cult of the new” had become an increasingly dominant feature of American consumer culture since the close of the nineteenth century, as many manufacturers, merchants, and advertisers deliberately worked to produce “a new consumer consciousness,” opening the average American’s “imagination and emotion to desire.”

In his 2011 exhibit “Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of the Architectural Future” at Brown University, Walker explained how expression of the idea of the future shifted over time from traditional styles handed down over the centuries to untested modernist styles that prefigure the “Jetsons” cartoon show. It may be usefully asked whether an industrial society requires a machine aesthetic. I do not believe there is any intelligent argument for any such necessity. More to the point here, did General Motors wrongly seek to force societal change to accelerate from a more natural pace to a more abrupt and disruptive pace? It is, in my opinion, difficult to argue that America is better off, or that people anywhere lead lives of greater contentment as a result. Arguably, a slackening of that pace in the design of our built environment would serve as an anchor enabling people (and society) to more easily accommodate rapidity in other types of change.

According to Walker, GM sought to infuse the very culture with the idea that what America had built thus far was “obsolete” and that the only valid modernity was a future based on ever more equipment and ever more speed. And to the extent that this idea of progress required a new aesthetic, the supposedly streamlined design not only of automobiles but of buildings (which do not need to overcome much wind resistance) was jack-hammered into the popular American imagination starting at a young age.

More than Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier, whose work GM emulated in its displays, and even more than Norman Bel Geddes or Robert Moses, whose work it directly sponsored and promoted, GM was strategically positioned to capture the imaginations of everyday Americans – to affect their perceptions of their hometowns and their expectations and hopes for the future of the same. The company exhausted tremendous resources “to set a boy to dreaming” for a new, modern, high-tech, and high-speed alternative to the “obsolete” sidewalks along Main Street.

“Industry has joined science with art,” GM asserted in literature promoting its cross-country parade of propaganda. Perhaps. Asserting so did not make it so, and if it were so it might not necessarily be “progress,” let alone something considered unarguably good.

The Parade of Progress’s urban design exhibit was primarily dedicated to transportation infrastructure, but aesthetics were also deployed to sharpen its message. Echoing the before-and-after rhetoric of the domestic interior displays, two mechanized cityscape dioramas were presented, one of 1900 and one of 1936. In the city of 1900, buggies and trolleys plodded through the city grid, whereas in 1936 motor-cars and streamlined diesel trains flowed on and along an urban freeway at a rapid pace unencumbered by intersections. The appearance of the architecture in each diorama heightened the contrast between old and new; the smaller, wooden-and-brick, ornate mixed-use streetscape of 1900 was pitched against the gleaming highrise business district of 1936, with many of its simple, streamlined masses broken by horizontal ribbon windows and, in one instance, capped by a rooftop airstrip. This didactic display was understandably described in one newspaper as a comparison not only between old and new modes of travel but also between past and future eras of living – as a presentation of “The City of Yesterday and That of Tomorrow.”

How difficult it is to determine, at first glance, which image is today and which is yesterday! Except for the high-speed rail, the International Style building at the far left, and the overall scale of the cityscape of “tomorrow,” both seem far less “modernist” than many cities and even smaller towns are nowadays. It only goes to show how far toward a Jetsons “future” cities have come and how the GM vision has been realized since its “Parade of Progress” opened eight decades ago. It ran from 1936 to 1939, until GM’s Futurama pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, and then ran for a longer postwar stint, updated, from 1941 to 1942 (with a break to retool for war), and then, updated again, from 1953 to 1956. In 1939 there was no interstate highway system. It is hard today to think that the future that the Futurama had in mind was 1960. Bel Geddes almost persuaded GM to send a model of the Futurama around the country by zeppelin, but this (unlike the concept of superhighways) was torpedoed as too unsafe.

The degree of difference between the model and the present city of the 1930s was extensively debated – should the future city be an evolution or a revolution? Some staff members pointed out how baroque radial city plans, such as that of Washington, D.C., or Detroit, were efficient movers of street traffic, but Bel Geddes tersely countered, in a gesture toward revolution, “This type of plan is obsolete now.” At the same time, Bel Geddes felt ambivalent about the idea of existing cities being penetrated by the biggest roads. Limited-access express boulevards superimposed over old city grids were certainly desirable, but he believed that twelve-lane superhighways should probably be limited to city peripheries. This may seem a minor distinction today, but it would later put a degree of distance between Bel Geddes’s work and GM’s view of the ideal future city.

The popular success of the “Futurama” designed by Bel Geddes for the GM pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York further exposed the rift between the plans of Bel Geddes and the even more radical plans of GM.

R. L. Duffus, critic for the New York Times, expressed frustration at the power of the Futurama to infiltrate the minds of the public: “Maybe we would enjoy [Bel Geddes’s] kind of United States and maybe we would be terrified by it or wonder what was gained by going to so many places at such speeds. But the crowd is almost silent, wholly fascinated. Despite all disappointments these Fair-goers still worship the future.” The public was not alone; in a turn of events that surely thrilled GM, Bel Geddes was invited by President Roosevelt to the White House for a special summit on future traffic programs. [New York planning czar] Robert Moses, however, was less complimentary about the Futurama. … He publicly criticized as “bunk” Bel Geddes’s belief that the largest superhighways should be kept to open countryside rather than driven through the hearts of cities. Bel Geddes responded by willfully maintaining his position in a book he published in 1940 to capitalize on the success of the Futurama, entitled Magic Motorways. GM would soon purge such ambivalence from its urban design campaign by turning away from Bel Geddes and instead enlisting Moses to help develop future exhibits.

Here, in Walker’s description, is how the new version of the urban exhibit, dubbed “Our American Crossroads,” operated (see video at end):

Whereas the original 1936 Parade of Progress urban exhibit had consisted of two separate city models, one old and one futuristic, Our American Crossroads used machinery and an audio recording by actor Parker Fennelly to brilliantly combine three epochs into a single model that, over fourteen minutes, mechanically evolved from old to new before the viewer’s eyes.

The exhibit performance began with the tiny, backwards village of Pleasant Corners in the year 1900. Dirt roads linked a general store, a blacksmith’s shop, a humble schoolhouse, a quaint church, and a thin scattering of Victorian farmhouses. Its scarce citizens were described as either very old or very bored. Then, primitive motorcars slowly began to trickle into town, confounding the sleepy villagers. The exhibit’s large dirt road mechanically flipped over to be replaced with a paved one, courtesy of the state government. The trickle of motorcars became a quick and steady stream. The local economy shuddered to life, and old buildings were rotated out for enlarged and improved versions. Houses popped up as commuters moved to the area, abandoning city neighborhoods for a subdivided piece of former farmland. A bank, a playhouse, and new shops all rotated into view. By 1920 the formerly bucolic place had become a full-fledged town, all courtesy of the paved road and automobiles that connected it to the larger world. Then, that road rotated yet again to reveal a four-lane, high-speed freeway. The pace of change quickened. The buildings, until now mostly traditional in style, were flipped out for modernist specimens, with flat roofs, large streamlined masses, and horizontal and corner windows. A motor inn made a conspicuous debut. The cars in the display were by this point whizzing past quite quickly, and there could be no question Pleasant Corners had become a suburban dynamo, with no end to progress in sight. Anyone resisting the required advances had been proved an old fool. Main Street had become a roaring highway, and obsolescence had been overcome.

A third version of the urban exhibit, called “Out of the Muddle,” expanded the theme of radical change even further. To solve the traffic problems caused by flooding the zone with cars, on-street parking was barred, with automobiles funneled onto parking lots created by demolishing old buildings, with two-way streets giving way to one-way streets.

This futuristic vision was admiringly described as a “dream city” by a number of reporters. Today, it is perhaps best understood as a corporate-vernacular rendition of the automobile-centric modernist planning theories espoused in works such as The Athens Charter, published in 1943. A side-by-side visual comparison of the “dream city” and the old downtown in the lower register of the exhibit makes it clear the latter would have to be either abandoned or totally demolished for the former to take shape. The mild scruples of Bel Geddes regarding urban superhighways had been ousted. In both parts one and two of Out of the Muddle, the new ideal presented was a revolutionary change in traffic circulation as well as in the essential nature of building; the grid and its coordination in scale to the human foot were gone, and in their place rose a sprawling suburban landscape of far-flung houses and towers set in manicured parks. Here, the “fourth American necessity” would always be required for the most basic participation in economic and social life.

Some 19.5 million Americans saw the Parade of Progress. At the time, that was one in eight Americans. Quite extraordinary. And its influence on the American built environment was profound. But by the same token, 40 years earlier some 27.5 million Americans living in a less populous nation visited the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, in Chicago, over six months, to see the White City – a classical city quarter built to full scale, but designed to be torn down after the fair. Those visitors represented a quarter of the U.S. population at the time. Nor did the exhibit come to them – they had to travel to the exhibit, mostly by train (local or interstate), with neither the automobile nor the aeroplane yet in existence.

Were it not for the City Beautiful Movement inspired by the White City’s classical architecture, who knows what impact GM’s effort would have had on cities? In the three decades after 1893, many cities sought to refashion downtowns, civic centers and commercial districts according to an urban style expressly devoted to beauty. Were it not for that, the existing American city would have been even easier for the modernists to mow down. GM’s campaign certainly shows how propaganda was another powerful facet in taking down the architectural establishment between 1930 and 1960.

Walker’s essay explores the power of the ideas spread by General Motors and its allies. The product of their ability to kidnap our future and hold it ransom to the needs of the bottom line of industry is much clearer today than it was during GM’s campaign for the automobile. The most extraordinary facet of Walker’s essay is the skepticism he brings to the subject, the way he raises his eyebrow, to say the least, at the baldfaced bromides deployed to defend the indefensible. Maybe even more surprising than what has been lost is how much beauty remains part of our built heritage. After all, America is not all crudscape, not yet. One need not be against cars – I certainly am not – to recognize that their dominance in our lives has had its downsides, on civic design in particular. Thankfully, another movement has arisen in the past half century to resist further erosion. Let’s hope the preservation movement, after a few decades of inattention, comes to understand the importance of a very deep rethink of its role in civic design. Nathaniel Walker’s scholarship, erudition and eloquence is likely to bring that about sooner than otherwise.

Here, from Wired magazine online, is a video of five minutes showing the 1939 World’s Fair “Futurama” exhibit. You must see it to believe it. More extraordinary than the exhibit itself is the narration of the video, taken, I must suppose, from the exhibit itself. And here is a video of the American Crossroads traveling exhibit.

(I am trying to find a way to link to Nathaniel Walker’s full article. For now, the journal that published it hesitates to promote a public link to its contents.)

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Audiences in moving chairs observe the Futurama at the 1939 World’s Fair. (Chateaustyle)

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Elusive ‘why’ of preservation

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Hotel Pennsylvania, in Manhattan. (Wikipedia)

The Hotel Pennsylvania, in Manhattan, is said to be at risk of demolition again and of replacement by a building sympathetic to the current Penn Station. The old hotel, designed by McKim, Mead & White and opened in 1919, is across the street from Penn Station and near the Foley Post Office. The latter, like the original of the former, is also by McKim, Mead & White, the most successful architectural firm of America’s Gilded Age. The hotel’s Café Rouge hosted performances by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and the Dorsey Brothers. It boasted the most longstanding phone number in New York City (PEnnsylvania 6-5000, or 212-736-5000).

None of those facts are enough to cancel the hotel’s doom. Preservation organizations have not rallied to its defense. Its fate depends on whether New York – its citizens and leadership – comes to realize that preservation at bottom isn’t just about saving old buildings but the spirit of the city itself. That means preservation must rethink its raison d’être. Don’t hold your breath.

It is not surprising that preservationists hold so many conferences on what preservation is all about. The Providence Preservation Society sponsored one here last fall, the College of Charleston is holding one there in February, and another will be held by the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, on March 16-18, focusing on how to address those pesky heritage issues.

Preservationists are always wondering what they are all about because for decades preservation has allied itself not with tradition but with the rejection of tradition, not with history but the rejection of history, not with beauty but the rejection of beauty. Professionally and intellectually, the preservation movement now fashions itself rejectionist, and is thrashing around in bed with modern architecture, itself famously, callously, thoughtlessly and inexcusably rejectionist. But most people, including members of preservation societies, are not, and find themselves alienated from goals that they did not sign up for. That is why preservationist organizations hold conferences trying to understand – or pretending to try to understand – the very obvious mission for preservation.

Some preservationists and some of the work of preservation organizations still reflect a respect for tradition in architecture and cities, but most preservationists have gravitated toward a perceived need to defend unsympathetic new construction in historic districts or, in the relative absence of traditional buildings at risk in many cities, a perceived need to save utilitarian structures, including modernist buildings, that hardly anyone outside of their professional circles – including their societies’ members – gives much of a hoot about. Here is a passage from promotional literature about the UPenn symposium:

Concepts of heritage have evolved dramatically in the past 50 years, from the stately mansions of founding fathers to neighborhoods and landscapes, from sites of conscience to the intangible and ephemeral.  Throughout the world, leading designers have embraced the complex challenges of remaking historic places, creating sophisticated ensembles that range from seamless to provocative.

Nonetheless, the basic principles of contemporary design in historic settings, as first codified in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards in 1966, have remained unchanged.  The directives that additions and new construction in historic settings be “differentiated” yet “compatible” remains challenging, controversial–even mystifying—for designers, regulators, property owners and the general public.

Notice the effort to appear neutral as to tradition and its rejection. But you can easily imagine which leg the symposium’s thrill will travel up.

My post from last November looking forward to the Providence Preservation Society’s annual dance around this topic, “Symposium: Why preserve?,” wondered whether panelists would address whether preservation should return to basics. They did not. In Philadelphia they will, at least if Steven Semes has anything to say about it. The author of The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism and Historic Preservation, one of my bibles, is a scheduled speaker. In Charleston, I am on the schedule, so we’ll have to see what happens.

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Bobby Burns’ Edinburgh

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View of Edinburgh (Dickins)

Aside from a quick nip past Scotland’s poor modernist parliament building, this video of Edinburgh focuses on the delights of the architecture of the Athens of the North. The narrator’s gentle brogue lifts the heart, even becomes a sort of music as the architecture pushes the narration into the background. Ah! Even though some of it did not exist during poet Robert Burns’s life, most of what’s seen here would calm his spirit. (I would love to see his poeticization of the parliament building.) We’re attending a Bobby Burns dinner nearby, hence this venture to Auld Reekie. Enjoy.

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Atayants’s classical Russia

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From winning entry for St. Petersburg judicial quarter, by Maxim Atayants.

The Russian classicist Maxim Atayants’s winning entry in a 2014 competition to design a new judicial quarter in St. Petersburg for the supreme court to be relocated from Moscow was, according to architectural blogger Peter Keller, revoked a year ago. I have changed this post to reflect that fact. The new architect proposes a modernist design. This nullifies a hopeful post I wrote two years ago about Atayants’s proposal, “Potemkin justice for Russia?

Here is Kellow’s reporting from his Traditional Architecture World blog a year ago:

In a major blow to traditional architecture, the choice as winning design by Maxim Atayants for the new Russian Federation Supreme Court in a competition has been revoked. This decision has been taken by the chairman of the Administrative Department of the President of the Russian Federation. Although this is a department directly under President Putin, it is my understanding that this decision was not taken by Putin himself, who is not very interested in architecture, but by the present chairman of the department, who took over in May 2014. It remains to be seen if there is an outcry sufficient to alter this decision. The design by architect Yevgeny Gerasimov of the replacement Supreme Court is lamentable.

Still, the beauty of Atayants’s proposal ennobles it into eternity. Its rejection paints a snarl on Russian society’s pretension to art. More renderings of his project are at Andrew Cusack’s website. A lecture by Atayants on this video, “Making a New Classical Urban Fabric,” discusses some of his other projects, including an athletes’ quarter for the Sochi Winter Olympics that has now become a ski resort. There are lots of fine images here of work planned, that same work built, and other work planned or built. Some of those images I have placed below.

Atayants seems like a mild-mannered fellow, although the successful Russian architect and developer will, in this day and age, raise some eyebrows simply by who he is. And of course one must assume that since this sort of thing is happening in Russia, it must, in spite of his judicial quarter’s rejection, have the approval of Vlad the Impaler Putin.

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[Note: Peter Keller warned me last night via a comment that his sources in Russia say that Maxim Atayants’s winning entry to design the new judicial quarter in St. Petersburg was subsequently rejected, and that another architect has the job. Peter has sent me by email a confirmation of this. The construction industry article I quoted, now removed, did NOT confirm that Atayants’s proposal is moving forward: my error in leaning too much on Google and not reading the article closely enough. I urge anyone with knowledge that adds to Peter’s account to please send it along. I will do a post on this sad turn of events a year ago.]

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