June 17, 2008

Urbanity in BArcelona

September 25, 2006

Two houses or ‘the perils of poor imitation’

I have no problem whatsoever with wholesale copying of traditional / pre-existing / vernacular forms by current developers/owners. The cult of ‘originality as authenticity’ is an empty and bankrupt as the romanticist reverie in which it is rooted.

More practically, while any competent engineer can copy (and possibly improve upon) a 19th century building, almost no modern architect can build a quality house ‘inspired’ by those form the past.

My contention is that in general we have become worse, less talented architects. I don’t know why, but the evidence is everywhere.

Let’s look at two houses in Fisher’s Lane, Chiswick, London. They are two sides of a semi-detached unit. On the right is a house built in pre Bauhaus days. It is a modest house, built with inexpensive material. The white plaster moldings raised brickwork string courses enliven its simple appearance. The cove in the entrance is certainly handy on a rainy day. The bow windows let in a lot of light. The forecourt is occupied by a small but attractive front garden.

To its left, I watched as this was built from the ground up. The scale and materials are almost identical – perhaps this mandated by the council, perhaps the owner is a decent person. The most obvious difference is the fact that this façade is dominated by the ugly garage door. Given its pre-eminence and the value of land in Chiswick you’d think they could have invested a few hundred pounds to put in a less disconcertingly industrial door. The Front entrance is made out of good material but, as is the fashion, it is flat, with no relief around it and no depth. It is less practical and less attractive than the older doorway. The French windows on the first floor certainly will let in a lot of light, but, again, they are devoid of most detail (the flat lintel is a valiant exception) and the framing looks cheap. Conversely, they seem to have invested some money in non-functional balconies. The dormer is larger than the one in the old house and not badly designed but, again, the cheapness of he detailing lets it down. Note also that the front of the building is effectively a paved parking spot. How many damn cars do these people own? How many do they need?

September 08, 2006

They are afraid...very afraid

The picture below shows the new Schermerhon Symphony Cneter, in Nashville, Tennessee, of all places. I am sincerely moved by the idea that a building of such magnificence is permissible in this age of crushing conformism (to the lowest common denominator of jagged glass abortions). Conversely, I am depressed by the fact that in London anything of this quality would be absolutely "forbidden" by the uglyrati.

Predictably, the mainstream trendy-buildingoids press lashed out with venom and ridicule. One particularly offensive hack reffered to it as a "a fancy bordello in a colorful frontier town".

Why the opprobrium? They are afraid. No one but the group-thinkers at starchitecture magazines buys the cretinous mock-nihilism of the latest fad - deconstructivism -- and old-school minimalism hs devolved into post-brutalism. The classical renaissance is nipping at their sorry heels; all they can do is snarl back.

The three property models that are key to a great city

Ownership type
Outcome Public ‘Large’ private ‘Small’ private
Iconic/landmark buildings 1 0 0
Technological innovation 1 0 0
Ample amenities/infrastructure1 1 0
Internal unity of design 1 1 0
Highly maintained urban space 0 1 1
Care f/overall viability/popularity 0 1 1
Engage w/ surr. urban fabric 0 0 1
Accessibility by general public 1 0 1
Adapts to tenancy trends/needs 0 1 1
Respect for preceding owners 0 1 1
Accept diversity in tenants 0 0 1

While the potential combinations of real property ownership/ usufruct may be infinite, three main modes in modern advanced societies tend to account for most urban property: public-sector, large single-owner (or condominial) private ownership and small/ fragmented, private ownership. The degree to which the optimal mode of ownership has been discussed actively has varied in time and, at present, all three seem to coexist in most cities and towns.

It is striking, however, to what extent this specific aspect of urban ‘planning’ or urban form policy has been glossed over in discussion of urban form effects or outcomes, as opposed to causal factors. That isn’t the case where, for instance, transportation is concerned. Any urban policy commentator will be aware of the implications of transportation infrastructure choices on urban form and the urban experience. Maybe ownership form is so basic an aspect of urban form that it is sort of taken for granted.

To arrive at some sort of policy conclusion, I examine each of the three main types of urban property holding in terms of positive urban form characteristics they are likely to foster. From that matrix, I derive a discussion of strengths and weaknesses for each property type and how these can be maximized and minimized, respectively.

Probability of desirable outcomes by property type

The key word that qualifies the matrix of outcomes/property types is ‘probability’. For each outcome, one can certainly provide many examples that contradict what the matrix postulates. A ‘1’ mark merely signifies that a given outcome is ‘likely’, given some form of property, while a ‘0’ signifies that it is ‘unlikely’.

I infer these greater/lower probabilities, which are then reduced in binary form (sort of like a probit function and the latent underlying) from observation of many locales, internationally, over many years. For instance, some of the best-maintained places I’ve seen were public buildings. On average, though, private owners maintain more assiduously. That’s an observation that any reasonable person would substantiate.

Also, there are many desirable urban form outcomes that are not included in this specific matrix simply because the probability of their attainment does not seem to depend on property type, but rather other cross-owner factors like geography, cultural mores, etc.

Public ownership

· Strengths – Public owners are more likely to provide iconic/landmark buildings and to take the risk of technological innovation (environmental, etc.) than either type of private owner. Public ownership also ensures public accessibility to large developments, which private developers may limit or bar.

· Weaknesses – Public owners are more likely to allow dereliction and underinvestment. They also have a tendency to be rigid in their intended use, be less responsive to lack of viability/popularity, tend to exercise eminent domain and other ‘bullying’ rights over preceding/neighboring owners. Furthermore, public owners are likely to develop large, unified complexes that do not engage well with the existing urban fabric.

· Policy – most of the weaknesses expounded above can be limited or even eliminated by restricting public ownership to a small percentage of major, municipally iconic buildings, preferably non-contiguous to each other.

Large-scale private development

· Strengths – Large private developers have many of the abilities of public owners, like internalizing benefits of amenities and infrastructure and achieving design unity but without the rigidity, tendency toward depreciation and detachment from viability/popularity problems of the public sector.

· Weaknesses – Large developers have many of the positive proactive characteristics of all private owners but will probably result in reduced accessibility by general public (especially of residential or mixed areas) alienation from the existing urban fabric and conformist in the types of tenants accepted.

· Policy – Large-scale private ownership can provide much of the day-to-day excellence of urban form but risks becoming excessively detatched and controlling. It is also less likely to be innovative or iconic. The access/engagement issues can be tackled two-fold: by repression of crime and anti-social behaviour resulting in a reduced wish/need for isolation or through statutory measures. Tech innovation or major buildings can be incentivized, though that may prove difficult in practice.

Small-scale private ownership

· Strengths – The single-building, small private owner cannot help but be engaged with the surrounding urban fabric and diversity is guaranteed (every building has a different potential owner/use/tenant). Single-building owners cannot deny neighbourhood accessibility or easily trample the right of surrounding owners. They have the same private attachment to maintenance, viability and popularity as large private developers but greater flexibility and adaptability to new tenancy trends.

· Weaknesses – Small owners do not have the resources and the externality internalization capabilities to provide infrastructure and amenities, let alone iconic landmarks. They are unlikely to be technologically innovative or create design unity.

· Policy – Small, diffuse ownership is the connective tissue of a town. It is the growth matrix. The diversity, accessibility and connectivity of small ownership along public streets is necessary both as an incubator of smaller development/enterprises beneath the notice of a major private developer or the grandiose public plans. Nonetheless, some aspects of the built environment can only be provided by bigger players, where both private and public sector have specific strengths.

The end result that emerges from this meta-analysis, is that a successful and satisfying urban form has the highest probability of being achieved in a context where the default ownership is small, private but where substantial areas may be completely or largely controlled by large private developers and a small but significant and ‘representative’ number of key locations are publicly controlled.

It is worth noting that, in the absence of large private landlords, public intervention is necessary to make certain infrastructure and amenities possible. Too much public ownership, however, is likely to lead to maintenance problems and rigidity of uses / planning, not to mention excessive disregard for viability and popularity of development as well as excessive exercise of eminent domain.

In the absence of some public ownership, a town is likely to be somewhat corporate and nondescript, lacking many amenities and with some or all ‘key’ non-retail areas closed to some portion of the public.

It is difficult to even conceive of a town where there is no or very little diffuse private ownership but if we care to look at what examples exist, the alienation / anomie is clearly a major issue (think very large public housing projects or large purely commercial developments like La Defense).

P.S. A particualr example of large-scale private ownership is the London estates system. You can read more about it here.

September 01, 2006

A walk in Notting Hill

A while ago I took a walk around parts of Notting Hill. The variety of architectural and urban form lessons we can draw from just that area is amazing. For once, I'll concentrate on positive examples rather than juxtapose the great with the crap.

The character of Notting Hill near the top of the hill is set by thew row of white stuccoed 'wedding-cake' houses. Despite the rigorous unity of design and color, there is little sense of repetitiousness or monotony. Instead, we witness serenity and order.

A fine baroque building, this is my wife's favorite church edifice in Notting Hill. While the material and to some extent the scale are different from that of surrounding buildings, the whole is harmonious. The Church adds interest to the street and is the focal point at the end of the street that intersects at the T-junction facing it.

Note that the bottom was painted to cut down on stone-cleaning cost. The top is sandstone au naturel. London grime sticks like glue to sandstone.

Renovation works. This building, and especially the wooden shop-front below it, which date from the 1830s, were falling apart when I moved to London in the mid-90s. But look at them now, resplendent and commercially viable. Why did Notting Hill go from a slum to hyper-desirable real estate? Arguably the quality of the traditional architecture had lots to do with it.

An interesting architectural attempt at strict contextuality conjoined with a modernist stylistic phraesology. I think this works very well, but one can't help think that the building on the left would look fine even without the one on the right, while the opposite might not be true. There is a growing opinion that even successful 'modern' (i.e., minimalist) architecture is parasitic in relation to classical architecture.

A rather grand take on the traditional late Georgian/early Victorian brick and stucco residential row house, this free-standing building could work both as a large mansion of a short block of terraced/town houses.

You want late Victorian? A splendid folly, with bumptious cornices, turrets, and balconies supported by brackets and pulpits. Plus, it looks directly onto Hyde Park (and south facing, which at this latitude is a blessing). Every element in this building could be cheaply made by machine nowdays and as cheaply installed on a steel frame. But, somehow, that is 'inauthentic' and 'dishonest'. Hmmm. I'll take it any day.

Worst, less bad, best - building forms

A short walk in the City can be instructive. These buildings are relatively close to each other (indeed the two modern ones are side-to-side).

First the WORST. It faces a busy road, admittedly, but its other sides (not visible in photo) are just as unfriendly. I could not find an entrance other than that weird, hyper-hostile, brutalist rough-concrete spiral-from-hell at lower left. At least here in London this sort of stuff was partly built on bombsites, rather than by tearing down nice old buildings. Still, an awful eyesore.

The following building is LESS BAD.

Just off photo (left) there is a clear, pedestrian-friendly entrance with a nice sidewalk. The color of the building is not fully appreciable from my picture but it is a very warm tawny stone, set off by lightly tinted greenish windows. I think the building lacks long-term visual interest and relief of mass trhough peripemtrla transparency (glass walls) has environmental and practical shortcomings. Nonetheless, it is a huge improvement on the atrocity above. Only thing is, imagine a street all of buildings like this. A bit dull.

The last, BEST building – Yes, in architecture I am an unreconstructed reactionary. Why? It works. This building has plenty of windows, gorgeous relief of mass and visual interest at ground level, and nice proportions despite being rather large. I’m not crazy about the pedestrianization of most roads but this is in an area where 99% of people go to work by public transport (the City) and the buildings are served by alleys. There is nothing I don’t like about this building.

August 29, 2006

One example of poor post-modernism

Postmodernism, with few notable exceptions, has quickly become dated for a number of reasons. Like most sarcasm and jokey banter, it loses much in the re-telling. "I guess you just had to be there". Also, with many current modernists retracing their roots to the more hopeful Bauhaus, "glass and light" look and away from brutalism and structuralism, the postmodernists have lost their 1980s monopoly on ‘modern’ structures that don’t make you want to top yourself.

Below is one of my favorite post-modernist hate objects, No. 1 Poultry. Before anyone sez they "kinda like it", I suggest brief perusal of my previous rant/post on objectivity in architectural quality.

I dislike the overwrought contrast of the two different claddings in bold pajama stripes, the pseudo-nautical, pseudo-art deco allusions at the 'prow' of the building.This building even compares unfavorably to the one below, albeit a modernist pseudo-organicist corner building that looks constructed out of dinosaur ribs and alien spaceship portholes. At least ‘dinosaur-alien’ building is crisply white(ish) and easy to read.

But..corner sites are tough!! (you say)These gentlemen seemed to be able to handle it with some aplomb (this building is basically across the Poultry horror, between Cornhill and Lombard St. It features in a common 19th century print of the nearby Bank of England and Royal Exchange I have at home.

Back to our whipping boy. While the frontal fenestration is ample (if artless), further along the sides, the architect decided to go for a fortress-like look. To the best of my knowledge this serves no practical purpose other than depriving the building’s inmates of natural light

Conversely, below you can see the back of the Bank of England. The bottom two stories HAVE to be fortress-like (as they contain bullion and currency deposits), but the architect atones for it with almost Wren-like elegance (critics might say bombast) in the upper stories.

They even regale us (just off to the right in the preceding picture) with this little jewel of a detail.

August 25, 2006

London's Guildhall - a study in contrasts

North of Gresham Street, around its own square, you can find London’s Guildhall.

“As the home of the Corporation of London, Guildhall has been the centre of City government since the Middle Ages.

The word 'guildhall' is said to derive from the Anglo-Saxon 'gild' meaning payment, so it was probably a place where citizens would pay their taxes. The present Guildhall was begun in 1411 and, having survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, it is the only secular stone structure dating from before 1666 still standing in the City.”

This is a much rebuilt construct, however, with Elizabethan, Georgian and Victorian additions. The whole is extremely balanced and harmonious.

The picture above is looking north, late in the afternoon. To the left (east), an addition was built in 1999 to house the art gallery. This is not an awful building, as new buildings go. It is similar in scale and outward material. The attempt to be ‘modern’ while also suggesting a hint of gothic massing, however, is kind of squalid. But it is apparently against some unwritten law to try to match the original building in all but the most superficial, witless way.

But hey, things could be/have been worse. To the right (west) of the Guildhall rises this inexcusable crime against humanity. In full brutalist display, this is the sort of building people were getting awards for in the 1960s (I cannot find info/data on this…thing). Extending the clothing metaphor I used in my ‘subjectivity’ post, this building is a 1970s Bulgarian polyester suit, itchy and badly cut, ugly beyond compare.

And now, some detail (effectively the entrances or what surmounts them) for each of the three buildings. at this point I think the material comments itself.

One last note of interest: London's Guildhall, the heart of medieval London, underwent renovation. The yard in front was excavated to provide new cellars, and to the right, a Roman amphitheatre was discovered.

Still preserved under the entrance way to the amphitheatre, was the original timber drain, its wood perfectly preserved, and still carrying water. There was even a 'silt-trap' whether the silt was encouraged to settle, and could be cleaned out.

August 24, 2006

The subjectivity fallacy

If you care about the quality of architecture and urban form, you will invariably have heard the following response to your rantings: "But...it's subjective, isn't it?"

You have to choose. When confronted with a building and asked: "what do you think?..." you have to choose whether to judge it as an evanescent moment of theatre or as a suit of clothes someone will have to wear for a few decades.

If the response that question is usually along the lines of:
-"It's different!"
- "I like it, the _____ bit, it looks awesome!"
- "It sure stands out!", etc.

Then you are probably blurting out the visual, epidermic effect the appearance of the building elicits. You are judging it as an object, se stante, and your engagement with it is ephemeral, superficial.

Some things are fleeting, and they can only be judged on the basis of immediate perceptions. But buildings are not, as rule, so impermanent; especially new, large, publicly funded buildings (which are often the sort you will be asked to "critique" and pay for).

No, buildings stay with us; and the city, its people, the building's actual users are like someone who will have to wear that suit, day in, day out, for many years.

Is it well-cut (built)? Is it practical (we can mean this broadly, rather than prosaically)? Does it complement or clash with the other clothes (buildings) in your wardrobe (city)? Is it handsome? Is it quality?

The easily pleased, the novelty seeker, the instinctive optimist will all say that different people like different types of clothes; that taste is subjective. But if we premised that these clothes were to be used for a purpose? We may still prefer somewhat different styles but how subjective would it be, really, to discern quality of fabric? How subjective that an orange-and-mauve, polyester, slightly tight suit would not be as good a choice (remember, day-in, day-out...for years) as a sober, well-cut, super-200s?

Readability, natural illumination, relief of mass, scale, perspective, detailing, materials, texture, complementarity to the extant environment, accessibility, texture, suitability to its purpose; how subjective are these qualities in a building?

In the picture above, look at the difference between the surface of the older building and the new, brutalist addition. One can wilfully claim to like the latter better, but what does that say about them?

Another contrast between the two buildings in the pictures above. There is no legitimate quality based on which building 2 is not inferior to building 1.

Why art deco architecture is great

Whenever the topic of preference among architectural ‘styles’ arises, the objection of subjectivity follows closely on its heels. I have addressed this somewhat overrated problem previously. Ultimately, there is no way to settle the issue conclusively and therefore the approach favored here, to set out in detail the justifications behind the opinion, seems more fruitful than attempting to achieve ontological exactness.

Miami Beach flaunts what is undoubtedly one of the largest, densest concentrations of late ‘art deco’ architecture anywhere in the world. I have recently had the privilege to visit it, having previously read about the history of its original development in the 1920s-1930s and its rescue from oblivion and destruction in the 1980s-1990s.

The definitional question of what, exactly, constitutes art deco architecture is not entirely moot. However, in the context of Miami Beach, the unity and cross-referencing of decorative and compositional themes and the chronological and geographical compression of the buildings permits a robust empirical interpretation of what art deco architecture is and is not. Ancillary to that point, I would draw a distinction between stray art deco details (such as decorative motifs, neo-deco pastel colors and architectural neon illumination) ‘plastered’ on essentially ‘modernist’ buildings and art deco buildings proper.

So, why do I like art deco? There are several interrelated reasons. Art deco is an organic, unforced extension of the classical tradition. It reconciles engineering pragmatism with aesthetic beauty. It represented a machine-age alternative to the excesses of ‘modernism’. It is astoundingly adaptable in scale and geometry. Last but not least, it is a style that respects the preeminence of the client over the architect (I suspect this sentence would cause most living architects and, more so, architectural critics who read it to spontaneously combust).

Art deco and the classical tradition
Among post-Palladian architectural styles, art deco is not alone in often adhering to the classical precepts of ‘golden ratio’ proportions, bias for symmetry, main mass relief, parallelepipedal volumetry and lateral subordination to the façade. However, the incidence (never 100%) of classical orthodoxy among art deco buildings far surpasses that found in modernist and post-modern buildings to such an extent that it stands apart among the main stylistic trends that emerged in the aftermath of widespread metal-frame construction. Empirically and historically, I contend there is strong evidence to suggest that aesthetically beautiful building styles have tended to evolve within a continuum of a ‘classical’ style. Art deco achieved this and in doing so generally pleased and suited the owners and users of such buildings.

Art deco cheap and cheerful
Art deco buildings generally attract and hold your eye thanks to the use of ornamental motifs, chromatic and textural contrast, as well as of course their general adherence to classicist proportions. At the same time, art deco buildings are clearly modern in their use of steel and concrete construction techniques, simplified and streamlined profile and general acceptance of modern machine-age (i.e., advanced industrial) techniques and materials. Whereas it is rather a challenge to erect an ‘authentic’ Palladian or gothic building using modern construction techniques, the same cannot be said of art-deco buildings. Indeed, it would be difficult to build an art deco building without modern techniques. Consider, for instance, the relative durability and solidity of an art deco ‘eyebrow’ (the thin, flat concrete strips or slips that jut out of the main walls to provide some shade to windows or doorways) achieved by simply extending the concrete slip a few inches beyond the wall line to the delicate and maintenance-heavy stucco cornices on masonry buildings.

Art deco vs. modernism
While the contest was not merely two-sided, it is fair to say that between 1900 and 1930 the two main competing (and, initially, overlapping) trends within ‘new’ architectural styles were art deco and ‘Bauhaus’ modernism. Modernism won. For much of the 20th century, it triumphed while art deco languished. It is not accidental, however, that modernism rose to pre-eminence broadly coincidentally with a number of alienating political trends: a) the triumph of totalitarian states on one side and bureaucratic, industrial-conglomerate, semi-planned economies on the other; b) the deepening of nihilistic tendencies within the broad stream of ‘romantic’ (i.e., anti-rational) ideologies.

Without delving too deeply into philosophy, it is readily apparent that austere ‘less is more’ minimalism, arrogant dismissal of cultural and aesthetic antecedents and open contempt for popular preferences and ergonomic considerations will appeal to an anti-humanist mindset. Modernist advocates loathe art deco precisely because it is intuitively, classically appealing to wide strata of the population and because it shows that aesthetics and functionality do not have to be sacrificed in order to achieve engineering simplicity and affordability. Houses are indeed machines for living in; that is tautological. The question is whether you’d rather ‘live’ in a machine like a vintage gull-wing Mercedes or one like a cheap, shoddy 1970s Detroit rust-heap.

Assuming that western civilization is (gradually and fitfully) receding from its infatuation with anti-humanist ideological tendencies, could art deco make a comeback? Modernism long ago succeeded in equating an interest in organic aesthetic beauty with philistinism. But the sterility of that approach has been amply revealed by the forced conversion of most modernist architects (Philip Johnson, first among them) from the asceticism of structural purism into the meretricious, sarcastic whoring of post-modernism. And that, today, is largely the choice we are confronted with: atrocious people-hating architecture or Las Vegas’ idea of Venice.

Can art deco make a broad-based, stylistically authentic, geographically coherent comeback? I would guess not. Enough time has elapsed to consign it to being considered a ‘period’ style. We may get art deco-ish postmodern buildings (there are more than a few in Miami Beach itself), but I doubt we’ll see another Chanin Building, Another Chrysler Building, another Colony Hotel. I hope I’m wrong.

Versatile art deco
Most organically evolved, sequential styles of classical architecture were able to produce admirable examples of buildings ranging from small houses to large cathedrals and palaces. Some of the more heavily ornamental styles (think Rococo) or sparser styles (think early Italian romanesque) were less successfully applicable to, respectively, very small and very large buildings, to be sure. Nonetheless, it was not until the introduction of very tall, extremely large, industrial buildings that these pre-modern styles began to exhibit some limitations. Pugin’s virtuosity at Westminster’s Houses of Parliament is not easily repeated in applying authentic gothic motifs to very large buildings. How many architects could pull of a Boeing 747 hangar or car plant built in the style of Wren or Bernini?

But consider art deco. The large-footprint, relatively squat Hoover factory in West London is an art deco masterpiece. So is the relatively tall and thin Chrysler Building. So are the three-story, small frontage facades of the Ocean Drive hotels. Art deco scales well from the monumental down to cottage size. Imagine what the post-modern glass menagerie of London’s Docklands, The hollow boxes of Paris’ La Defence and, why not, Miami’s indifferent downtown district would look like if they had been built between 1920 and 1930.

That is why deco’s great.

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