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.

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