Cybrarian at Large  

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Michael and Friedrich of The 2 Blowhards, A.C. Douglas, Philip Murphy of The Invisible Hand, and Felix Salmon (links to their sites are on the left, under "Architecture, Anyone?") have been having an interesting debate off and on since December, that started with the WTC design finalists and veered off into architecture in general. I realize I’m late (so what else is new?), but I’m finally going to put in my 2 cents worth.

First, though, let me give a bit of background. I have no training in architecture, but I do have an artist’s eye, and an appreciation for the many forms beauty takes; so my new, post Sept. 11 interest in architecture has seemed to me a natural extension, a new sort of beauty to enjoy. I’m also a librarian, with loads of curiosity, and to go along with it, a certain skill and persistence in tracking down information.

As for beauty in architecture, I know that it will always have a subjective component, but I’ve been hunting for any hints of objective standards to serve as a balance. So far, I think the closely related ideas of the integrity/completeness of the whole and the harmonious relationship of the parts to the whole (“unity without monotony and variety without chaos”) are good starting points. I’d apply these, along with any specific “canons”, such as the classical orders, to judge between examples of each architectural style. As for choosing among the various styles, I would agree that there is a large element of subjective preference involved. However, I would also point out the importance of details like context, fitting structures to the terrain and climate, and so on.

That said, I appreciate just about every style except deconstructionism, which, so far, I strongly dislike on philosophical as well as aesthetic grounds. (See my previous post, “Awful Architecture, Clueless Critics, Corroded Culture”; I’ll also be saying more about this in a later post).

Before I move on, Michael and Friedrich, no offense, but weren’t you maybe over reacting a bit when you banned A.C. Douglas from your comments? I always thought that a bone fide troll had to post REALLY vulgar and disgusting comments, usually involving profanity? Could, umm, everyone maybe lighten up a wee tiny tad bit?? I enjoy reading ALL of your sites, and hate to think any of you are “on the outs”, because your responses to each other help clarify issues (for me, at least).

Let me start, sir, with a belated blog roll for sending me information on Movable Type, and with sincere thanks for indirectly encouraging me to edit my posts more carefully. But I have to take issue with your comments on Jan. 15, in which you state that the “common man” shouldn’t have any control over the aesthetics of public buildings:

“On first hearing, that notion sounds perfectly reasonable. I mean, after all it's the common man who will be paying for those buildings, and who will have to live and work in and with them once they're built. Why shouldn't his aesthetic tastes be consulted, and his wishes incorporated in their design?
For the same reason that not even the most rabid populist would so much as think of suggesting that the opinions of the common man be consulted and incorporated in the actual construction of those buildings, or in, say, the design of a rocket ship to Mars, or in the methods used in the diagnosing and treatment of a lethal new disease. In such cases, we want the opinions of gifted specialists -- trained, qualified, and experienced experts -- to prevail at all times…Why? Because they know their stuff and the common man doesn't.
Just so in aesthetic matters of public moment. The common man is largely an ignoramus aesthetically, and knows only what he likes… If aesthetic decisions of public moment had in past been left to a consensus of the tastes of the common man, painters would still be painting with spit and vegetable dye on cave walls and on the walls of makeshift hovels. You know, the caves and makeshift hovels in which we'd all still be living and working."
When you talk about the common man’s lack of taste, you do raise nightmare visions of pink flamingos, black velvet paintings, lamps with bases shaped like Elvis, a black house with pink shutters (there is, or was, such a house in my city)…take your pick. But I still have to say you’re making a big generalization here, which is not only a philosophical fallacy, but because it is, comes across as condescending, if not arrogant. And I’d like to ask if by “common man” in this context you mean anyone who doesn’t have relevant education, or just the low brow types who have pink flamingos in their yards, black velvet paintings on their walls, etc.? In your post of Jan. 15, you reiterate the need for experts to save the common man from his own ignorance.
No, the tastes of the common man controlling aesthetic design decisions of public moment just won't do. We need gifted specialists -- trained and qualified experts, the very best possible -- making all such decisions. And we need gifted specialists -- trained and qualified experts, the very best possible -- keeping tabs on those decision makers: encouraging, scolding, and goading them on from their journalistically privileged critical position, and offering trenchant, sharp-eyed and informed public commentary on their doings in and for the public interest.
You know. Experts like Herbert Muschamp.”
On Jan. 11, you expressed even more confidence in the wisdom of the experts:
“But architecture’s obligation to utility is a most special one…that must never be glossed of indifferently attended to. The measure, however, of how faithfully an architect has fulfilled that sacred obligation is not the degree to which he gave his client what he (the client) wanted, but rather the degree to which he gave his client what he (the architect) thought he ought to have as an answer to the detailed program of the building supplied him by the client…As Meis said (quoted by architect Bertrand Goldberg as quoted in Michael’s post, 2 Blowhards, Jan. 9), ‘I will teach people to live in my buildings.’”
I’ve read Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture. I’ve also dipped into Ada Louise Huxtable, Vitruvius, Mumford, and Rushkin, and if you have any books to suggest, I’ll gladly try to find them, too. I readily acknowledge the crucial place of experts; in the interest of keeping an open mind, I just don’t want to be too heavily influenced by just one or two, because so many seem to have their own personal keys to **TAA-DAA!!** Instant & Absolute Architectural Truth (And Beauty, even)…
But I’m not sure how convincing your comparison of aesthetics to the actual construction of buildings, or of a spaceship is, since aesthetic questions, no matter how much one’s taste may be offended, don’t have the same life or death import.
And I find Meis’ comment REALLY arrogant - OK, OK, yes, the architect has a vital role; yes, the architect has the detailed knowledge of what can and can’t be done that the client lacks. And I KNOW I can’t design a building, much less do the engineering. I also realize that simply reading doesn’t make me an instant expert, though I hope it will make me at least a well-informed layperson. As such, though I admit I’d like some context for that remark, it almost sounds to me as if Meis wanted to “shoehorn” the masses into his buildings, as if they were interchangeable cogs in a machine, with no concern about whether the masses would find his buildings easy to use or not. OK, maybe the masses are “shoehorned” into other buildings; the problem with what Mies said is an apparent total lack of concern for what the masses might think. And, IMHO, this AIN”T the same thing as introducing the masses to new ideas in architecture.
I do think architects and critics need to somehow(though I’m not sure precisely now) consider their clients and tenants, especially when it comes to large public projects, because these clients and tenants are the ones who’ll have to live or work in, pass by, and hang out around, whatever gets built. Granted, the common man or woman doesn’t know anything about structural engineering, and his or her ideas about beauty may be really vague, but at the least, he or she has some ideas about utility or usefulness. And I do think common folk have a right to be suspicious, and to speak out, when the experts put up buildings that sometimes don’t even have sound structure. A few examples of what I’m talking about:

  • Henry Hope Reed starts off his book The Golden City (Norton Library, New York, 1970) with a series of paired photos contrasting pre-modernist and International Style/modernist architecture, to the detriment of modernism. There is a striking contrast, on p. 34-35, between the David Rockefeller home, pleasant and substantial looking, if not quite awesomely beautiful, with a spot of garden in front, and the former guest house for the Museum of Modern Art, which has a brick façade on the ground floor that is unbroken save for a plain, cheap looking wooden door, and which is liberally streaked with rust from the spandrels and mullions of the windows above it, that seem to make up the rest of the façade. All in all, the place looks like it might house a down-at-the-heels business – there’s nothing welcoming about it at all. You can also go to p.44-45, and compare the great hall of the Cunard Building, with a high ceiling and plenty of windows that make it light and airy, and which is made, IMHO, welcoming by liberal amounts of well-done ornament, and the lobby of the UN Secretariat, with a low ceiling and, at least in the photo, not nearly enough lighting. The only attempt at decoration is the checkerboard tile on the floor, and the whole effect reminds me of a hospital, rather than the HQ of an organization that was founded on a burst of idealism that aimed to change the world for the better. Now the rust-streaked brick façade seems to indicate to me, at least, sloppy design. But beyond that, they show, at least IMHO, that the modernist rejection of decoration and ornament might be one reason that modernists seem to design structures that are (or quickly become) cheap and dingy looking, inside and out, with a resulting air of having been slapped together by the lowest bidder. (Note – all the buildings referenced are in NYC)

  • ”Cheap and dingy,” of course can go beyond beauty to point to problems with utility and structural strength. Exhibits A and B are two buildings designed by Peter Eisenman; the first is the Arnoff Center for Design and Art, at the University of Cincinnati, which is described by Philip Langdon as follows:
    “Students have complained of cave-like classrooms and tortuous circulation. The entrance is hard to find…in the glum shadow of an adjoining parking garage…The exterior is clad in flimsy imitation stucco panels because Eisenman’s many odd projections and diagonals were expensive to build, forcing the school to resort to cheap materials…now that (its) surfaces have started to erode, its arbitrary geometry of angles and grids cannot save the building from shabbiness.” Langdon notes that this “rapid deterioration is virtually an Eisenman trademark,” and goes on to discuss the second exhibit, his Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, which “has had problems with leakage, condensation, poor temperature and humidity control, excessive light levels, and abnormally high maintenance costs, (and) is failing in so many respects that the university has had to undertake a $7 million renovation of the barely 12-year-old building.” (“Avant Garde Against Humanity: the Rise and Fall of Anti-Social Architecture,” The American Enterprise, Jan. – Feb. 2002).
    Umm, Mr. Eisenman, were you so concerned about making a huge statement with your buildings that you simply forgot to pay any attention to good design? I mean, come on, Peter, it sounds like you made so many mistakes that you batted O for 3 here, and in baseball, that would be a case of. “Th-ree str-ikes! You’re OUT!”

  • Exhibit C is New York’s Lincoln Center, which, according to Myron Magnet, is in such bad shape that it will require,
    “$1.5 billion…to repair it. Its travertine marble sheathing is melting away like sugar in Gotham’s polluted air; its flimsy modernist architectural construction needs major restoration, in a hurry. That $1.5 billon would go very far in paying for a completely new complex…And were it spent to restore the current complex…the same underlying structural problems would almost certainly require another gargantuanly expensive restoration only three to four decades in the future” (“A New Lincoln Center, “City Journal, Autumn 2000)
    Well, I really think that architects should have realized by now that slapping large amounts of marble on facades in cold or polluted climates is NOT a bright idea. For instance, one of the largest skyscrapers in Indy, when it first rose back in the 60’s, had bands of very pretty white marble, with touches of light gray, in wide bands along the one setback and the roof, that flowed on down the façade in narrow mullions, all of it a very effective contrast with the dark glass of the windows and the black spandrels. Only problem was that within a few years the nice marble started falling in big chunks onto the streets and sidewalks below, endangering passersby, and leaving incredibly tacky gaps along the roof and setback, smeared with large streaks of the adhesive that hadn’t worked, and no doubt leading to very heated discussions between building management and some contractor or other… They’ve since renovated the façade, and while I don’t know what material the new trim is, I betcha I know what it isn’t

  • Exhibit D is Peter Eisenman’s famous or infamous House II (and my, what a warm, cozy name THAT is!) This was commissioned by Florence and Richard Falk to reflect Noam Chomsky’s theories of linguistics. In a New York Times “House Proud” article by Gwenda Blair, Mr. Falk admits, “I don’t know what it meant, but is sounded good.” Ok, granted that anyone who commissions something to be built based on anyone’s linguistic theories is just asking for trouble, I do think Mr. Eisenman might have “abdicated his responsibility here by not being clearer about what he had in mind (but didn’t the Falks pay attention to the blueprints?). At any rate, the article describes what the Falks found, to their great surprise, when they came back from vacation:
    “a house with a flat roof, impractical in an area renowned for heavy snowfalls, and numerous skylights that leaked. Worse, positioned directly under the skylights were a series of openings through the upper floor…(which) created a remarkable sense of openness and light, but also a hazard for the Falk’s 1-year old son…And then there was the wall thing – more specifically, the lack of walls…Between what passed for bedrooms were half-walls, and even in the bathroom there was no privacy…The result, Ms. Falk said, was a ‘wow’ house that impressed visitors. ”but they didn’t have to live there’” And what was the great architect’s response to the Falks? Mr. Eisenman is quoted in the same article: “I don’t design houses with the nuclear family idea because I don’t believe in it as a concept. I was interested in doing architecture, not in solving the Falk’s privacy problems.” In all fairness, I have to admit that Genda Blair also says that another couple who finally bought the place actually likes it – but then, they don’t have any children. (“White Elephant in Vermont Reincarnated,” New York Times, 10/10/02). As Paul Mansour of The Scourge of Modernism (post dated 10/11/02) observes, “So when Mr. Eisenman designs office towers for lower Manhattan that are unfit for business, all he needs to say is that he doesn’t believe in free markets, which he probably calls ‘hegemonic capitalism’”.
    Peter, Peter, Peter…you certainly can cram an amazing amount of arrogance into a couple of sentences …or is it simply your carelessness? Whether it’s one or both, when you separate architecture from your clients’ needs, including their basic safety concerns, you REALLY abdicate your responsibility, which should include dealing with little details like safety. At the least, you could have asked the Falks about those skylights. Since you seem to take such a self-absorbed approach to architecture, maybe you should turn to art or sculpture instead, so you won’t create any more accidental safety hazards. I mean, Gimme a break!!

Well, I trust I’ve shown why the common person has some reason to be a bit suspicious of the experts, and there’s another point I’d like to wrap up with, which is that even Le Corbusier could step back from his usual authoritarian tendencies to suggest the importance of considering the client or tenant as he urged tenants to demand from their land lords practical, built in items, such as, “Fittings to take underclothing, suits, and dresses in your bedroom…In your dining-room fittings to take china, silver, and glass…In your living rooms fittings to hold your books and protect them from the dust…”(Towards a New Architecture, pp. 116-117). In short, architects and planners, especially on large public projects, DO need to keep the “common person” in mind in the area of beauty, but even more important, when designing for usability and structural strength; this may seem like a very basic idea, but it needs to be stressed because some architects seem to have forgotten it. And even if the "common people" don't have a decisive voice (and I can see the problems with that!), maybe they still might actually be able to pull the experts back down to earth once in a while..

  posted by Liz L @ 11:23 AM

Wednesday, May 07, 2003  
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