Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Architecture

Last year I lamented the fact that are so few books about architecture, and that architects do not engage with the general public in the way should. I'm always stunned by the fact that of all the things that surround us every day, buildings get the least amount of discussion. Most of us spend the majority of our lives in buildings. Unless you live in a rural cabin, you are surrounded by buildings, especially if you live in an urban area. And yet, for most people, buildings just "happen" - they're put up by specialists, and most people give them almost no thought whatsoever. There are tons of blogs about money, economics, politics, cars, technology, movies, etc. But architecture is an afterthought. The largest thing we do as a society, apart from major public works, factories, and possibly feature films, is put up buildings.

Why is this? In her latest column, New York Times art critic Allison Arieff asks the same question:
“Buildings are everywhere,” writes Alexandra Lange, “large and small, ugly and beautiful, ambitious and dumb. We walk among them and live inside them but are largely passive dwellers in cities or towers, houses, open spaces, and shops we had no hand in creating.”

Buildings are discussed — indeed aspects of them obsessed upon — but almost exclusively in the context of economics. This building went over budget, that surplus of houses led to the foreclosure crisis, that condo broke the record for residential real estate, etc. To the layman, then, architecture is conveyed as little more than something that costs a lot and causes a lot of grief, rather than something with the potential to enhance our daily lives.

But as the architecture and design critic Lange points out in her new book, “Writing About Architecture,” we need to engage our citizenry in architecture in ways that move from passivity or accusation (i.e., Nimbyism) and to do so we need more … architecture critics.

Why Don’t We Read About Architecture? (New York Times Opinionator)

Arieff notes that architectural criticism is actually on the decline. She is reviewing a book called "Writing About Architecture," which attempts to look at architectural writing, and why it connects or fails to connect. In many instances, it boils down to impenetrable jargon:
To wit (with all apologies to the author, who will remain unidentified):
ANALYSIS: a territorial and social fragmentation, a typical “no-man’s land” undergoing the urban exodus, the settlement of the old and inactive persons, the absence of public place in the body scale substituted by the car. PROBLEMATIC: How to attract a new living to facilitate the social and urban mixity?
We can’t entirely blame the perpetrator of this crime, for it is this style of writing that is rewarded within academia. Indecipherability signifies superior intelligence. (The field of architecture is not alone in this — just ask this former Ph.D. grad student, who shudders at sentences she wrote while under the heady spell of such Continental theorists as Barthes, Derrida and Foucault.) And while I’m not suggesting we hew toward the lowest common denominator, architects and those who write about them are doing themselves a disservice by insisting on the impenetrability of discourse.

Why? Compare the above author’s approach with the one taken by the urban idol Jane Jacobs, who was uniquely successful in using her love of her surrounding built environment to make the case for preserving and expanding it. She writes in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”:
The stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet. I make my own first entrance into it a little after eight when I put out the garbage can, surely a prosaic occupation, but I enjoy my part, my little clang, as the droves of junior high school students walk by the center of the stage dropping candy wrappers. (How do they eat so much candy so early in the morning?) … When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo. This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop with bottletops and plastic cowboys; this is the time of bundles and packages, zigzagging from the drug store to the fruit stand and back over to the butcher’s ….
I can tell you from personal experience that the use of jargon is endemic. Sometimes it can be a useful shorthand when professionals talk to each other (it's not windows - it's fenestration...), but more often than not, it's just to make us feel smarter than the ignorant public. Architecture is ultimately construction, and construction isn't rocket science, so we needed lots of fancy words to make it seem like rocket science. It's exactly the same as art - a disengagement with the public, a retreat to specialists, a removal from everyday life, and pretty soon "modern" architecture ended up like "modern" art - a luxury good for the one percent (to some extent, it always was - buildings are expensive, but we used to design people's houses, believe it or not). The impenetrable philosophical babble that architectural criticism retreated to mirrors that of the art world as well. So too do architectural forms - which have become abstract sculptures driven by out ability to engineer steel skeletons rather than to serve users or match the context.

Although Arieff's review does not mention him, I wonder if the book mentions James Howard Kunstler. Kunstler's been a terrific gadfly - and he writes about the built environment from a populist view and with a vernacular vocabulary that anyone can understand, and he's not afraid to declare that the emperor is devoid of clothes.He writes about architecture and urbanism the way the common man sees them, often with colorful turns-of-phrase, probably because he is an outsider to the field. For example, he describes dark-tinted all glass buildings as "Darth Vader helmets." And I particularly like his assertion that modern architects strive to confound the public to show everyone how smart they are. I think he's fundamentally right - so many spaces provided by the starchitect crowd are extremely difficult to construct and practically induce vertigo, just to create a dramatic space via overwhelming spatial complexity. At first viewing, it does look spectacular. Over time, it just gets disorienting, difficult to maintain and hard to use.

I think Kunstler's example is a good one. We need to start using word like "lovable" again, the way Steve Mouzon does. That's the level we need to be having the conversation on. We need to realize that the public just doesn't like modern architecture very much. That's not all our fault, of course. As Kunstler has pointed out, in the last century even a small corner brick building had all sorts of little artistic flourishes that signified that construction was a social act; today true innovative architecture seems confined to art museums and the occasional corporate headquarters, with everyone else abandoned to concrete cinderblock warehouses and EIFS-clad fast-food shacks. Kunstler's work gave people a vocabulary to talk about the ugliness and alienation of suburbia because it was written in English - free of jargon and with his novelist's flare for evocative phrases. Let's hope that other would-be architectural writers follow his lead.

On a final note, here's another of my favorite architectural writers, Lloyd Alter, writing about the value of architecture and discussing the barbaric destruction of one of the world's great pieces of architecture, the old Pennsylvania Train Station in New York. He writes:
 I often use Pennsylvania Station as an example of what we can learn from old buildings; it was a wonderful example of how one could use natural light. Not only is that glorious roof made of glass, but the floors were too, lighting the platforms below without the use of electricity, by installing prism glass in the floors. It was a marvelous building; its destruction was the definitive tragedy that started the preservation movement in the United States.
Quoting Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times:
To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift. To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.

What is the value of architecture? It can be measured, culturally, humanely and historically, in the gulf between these two places.

“One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat,” is the familiar lament from Vincent J. Scully Jr., the Yale architectural historian, about the difference between the former and present Penn Stations.
Quote of the Day: Michael Kimmelman on the Value of Architecture (Treehugger)

I think the "old" Penn station ,designed by McKim, Mead and White based upon the baths of Caracalla, was probably the high point era of world architecture, at least from an aesthetic standpoint. We had mastered the use of "modern" materials like steel, glass, and concrete, yet had not yet abandoned concepts like form, space order, craftsmanship, context, precedent, ornamentation, monumentality, and elegance.


One of Kunstler's many "Eyesores of the Month" - an example of his no-nonsense architectural options. Agree or disagree, you can't say he's not clear.


  1. Speed and little else was called for in the rebuilding after WWII in Europe and Japan and the suburban sprawl in the U.S. Our first house was a 1951-vintage cheesebox -- untreated 2x4 baseplates nailed right onto a thin uninsulated concrete slab. Termites, rot and mold!
    The McMansions everywhere today are really built with cheap junk, despite the gaudy finishes. The hideous apartments and stores slapped together in millions across the country cheapened our tastes; no one expected anything solidly constructed or inspiring.

  2. The massive buildout of sprawl was what drove the postwar "boom", along with all the allied consumption and activity that went along with it (cars, appliances, furniture, vacuum cleaners, blinds, utilities, road construction, etc.). You can't do that forever. It's one of the artificially ginned-up ways we kept the "consumer" economy humming. Effectively it was a fifty-year-long bubble. We're already vastly overbuilt. Plus, you can't have an economy based around major long-term purchases where workers are low-paid and disposable. It's a contradiction in "American-style" capitalism.

    The difference in quality between the stick-built plywood one-story shacks that we call "houses" and a true house is astonishing. Quantity comes at the expense of quality. Houses used to be built by highly-trained carpenters with quality lumber. Now they're thrown together as cheaply and quickly as possible to make a buck, with gargantuan size and things like heated attached garages up for quality. It's sad.

  3. What's sad is that you don't even get plywood -- Aspenite walls and roofs everywhere. Our second house, new-built by a clown of course still in business (into McMansions now), had a very large kitchen/dining room with 5/8" Aspenite floors! You could feel the bounce walking across it.
    Having learned the hard way, I watched the construction of our present home every other day and politely pointed out parts of the design that weren't up to any code (no second door, believe it or not). I do wish we could have afforded 2x6 exterior walls at the time.
    Watched yet another unneeded hotel go up east of Harrisburg this winter, right next to six lanes of interstate highway (restful at night, I'm sure). Two-by-four walls sheathed in Aspenite then slathered with that EIFS junk -- a fast-food building; just a big Taco Bell. And they call that an investment?

  4. I honestly hadn’t heard of Aspenite, but I work mainly in commercial design. I wonder how many people are aware of how the elimination of old growth forests in America has led to the adoption of such products. Too bad we can’t experience heavy timber barns that are still standing like they do out east. A friend of mine who’s an engineer told me about surveying an old heavy-timber and strap built mill that they are tearing down for some project. Breaks the heart. I don’t know what the civil engineering project is, but I do know that once such buildings are gone – they’re gone forever, and the materials and knowledge to build them are unfortunately also lost (or preserved as a hobby).

    We build for the short term more than any other historical civilization. I had a friend who joked that America will be the first culture to leave behind no physical traces of its existence. Another coworker has a wife who grew up in the old country (Armenia) who tells him that what they are living isn’t a house – a house is made of stone, not sticks.

    And how about this: Here is a Pretty Good Idea for a New Building Standard: The Pretty Good House. (Treehugger). I'll have more to say about houses in the near future.


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