Thursday, March 11, 2004
"It Takes A Village, But We Ain't Got One"
What a strange day in the news. The New York Post ("It Takes A Village") and the New York Times ("Critic's Notebook: Let the Design Sprint Begin") both reported on the architectural plans announced yesterday as part of New York City's bid to host the 2012 Olympics.
What's so strange about that? All of the plans show the current architectural fashion for urban design that forgets everything New Yorker Jane Jacobs ever taught us about "urban removal" four decades ago in her great book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. We're right back to where we were when Starchitects like Jim Stirling were building award-winning housing projects in Britain and America which became such behavioral sinkholes that they were dynamited within a few years of their construction.
In St. Louis, we had award-winning Pruitt-Igoe. In Britain, the housing authorities had so many complaints about Stirling's design that until they dynamited it, they used the housing like solitary confinement for their worst tenants.
Early Modernists had the virtue of ignorance and good intentions on their side. Not being able to build their designs for the middle class, they thought they would improve the lives of the poor by bringing Modernism to them. In retrospect, we can see this was experimenting on the the poor, not completely different than the the Russian radiation studies carried out on unsuspecting victims, or the American military’s secret program of giving LSD to enlisted men to see what happened. Modernist theories of architecture and urbanism were equally untested.
Today, after Pruitt-Igoe and Jane Jacobs, architects can't pretend to have the virtuous ideals of the early Modernists. They know what urban and social disasters these Megastructure and Towers in the Park schemes were. Yet the inhuman, alienating spaces of the schemes have to be seen to be believed - there's a slide show for each scheme at http://www.nyc2012.net/village_finalists/
Ironically, the Times had a long story the same day on Thomas Gordon Smith, the Classical architect and educator who transformed the architecture school at the University of Notre Dame into a center of Classical design.
Make no mistake, we’re talking about more than style.
Forget about the architectural fashion victim ideas like the "transparent" tower that every other so-called avante-garde seems to be using these days, including in the Olympic Villages and at Ground Zero (N.B., there is no such thing as a transparent tower – the towers have things inside of them like furniture, curtains, people, rooms, walls and floors). As Jacobs and fellow New Yorker Holly White showed decades ago, there are spaces that make us feel good and spaces that don’t work. And it is the type that don’t work that the fashionistas at work in the Olympic Villages are scurrilously reviving. While New York City is full of Modernist buildings which work in the city with no problem.
And for his part, Thomas Gordon Smith is also talking about something deeper than style. To quote the Times,
His specialty is quietly battling trends. While high culture often demands the shock of the new, and mainstream home builders erect endless variations on faux traditional, he builds houses, civic buildings and the occasional monastery with the irony-free rigor of an ancient.Talking about the Ground Zero competition (but his comments apply equally to the Olympic Village schemes), "New York could use more of neo-Classicism's ‘stability, balance and harmony,’" Smith said.
That's the opposite of what the congenitally unhappy author of the Times' "Critic's Notebook" is usually looking for. He's famous for saying on a Charlie Rose program about museum architecture that what sets a good museum apart from the rest is a place for illicit sex.
Smith is all about trying to use timeless values, while Muschamp and his favorites at the Olympic Village are trying to relieve their tedium and achieve "unprecedented reality" and esoteric architecture. The irony is that their "unprecedented" work in "the spirit of our time," far from timeless, is firmly rooted in the Modernism of the 1940s and 50s.
It's easy to make the argument that they, not Smith and the Classicists, are the historicists.
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Muschamp opines this morning on visions. Five architecture teams have prepared designs for an Olympic Village, to be in Long Island City, Queens, to help New York win its bid to be host to the summer games in 2012. The [Read More]
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Perhaps it's worth adding that the man responsible for choosing all the Fashionistas for the Olympic plans is the same man who was hounded out of his job at the LMDC because the architectural establishment in New York thought he was too close to the New Urbanists.
Not because he is – he is too much an architect of his time and Yale training to join a movement like New Urbanism – but because he backed Peterson & Littenberg rather than the Starchitects like Eisenman and Foster.
Peterson Littenberg are urbanists from the Cornell / Colin Rowe school who use orthodox Modernist buildings and Traditional urbanism. Which is not at all what groups like New York New Visions and critics like Herbert Muschamp wanted at the World Trade Center site (the day after the Ground Zero semi-finalists were announced, Muschamp crowed in the Times that the New Urbanists had been successfully kept out).
By the end of his life, Rowe was very supportive of New Urbanism, but Peterson Littenberg feel the need to distance themselves. Perhaps to make it easier to work in New York?
Posted by: John Massengale at Mar 11, 2004 10:00:13 PM
Thanks for that post.
The "irony-free rigor of an ancient" is laugh-out-loud funny. I suppose this means he tries hard to actually make structures that are beautiful and useful...or perhaps, more generally, he does what an architect ought to do, without snide attitude and a childish desire for the novel? And this means he must be in some way "ancient" to the press. Bwhhahhhaha
I don't know much about this field, but how do most typical architecture schools deal with the proven failures of their teachings?
You say they can't possibly not know--clearly that's true--so what is their method for dealing with this? Do they have stock counter-arguments that try to distinguish their projects from those of the past?
I ask because I suspect, much like the fields I study (Philosophy, Political Philosophy, and American Government), and like much of what goes on in the modern academy, they probably just ignore such things. (And I'm sure, as in all the other fields, that given their current supremacy, they can get away with this).
Just wondering though.
Posted by: Kodiak at Mar 12, 2004 5:25:32 AM
> they probably just ignore such things
I would say that as in so many areas today, they are in ideological, strident opposition.
I suspect this is the last gasp of the dying. Among non-architects, Modernism as a style is going strong. But only as one of many styles. It is quite common for someone to want to work in a high-tech office, live in a traditional neighborhood, and stop in at the newest fashionable restaurant on the way home. That restaurant might be Modernist, traditional, PostModern . . . or anything but the ideological expression of the "only way" to build today.
That's precisely why they're gasping. The myth of Modernism as the only expression of our culture is gone everywhere but among architects, artists and those who hang out with them, like gallery owners and professional journalists.
Posted by: John Massengale at Mar 12, 2004 10:42:20 AM
I agree with your last point, John. There is no such thing as the one true path.
I actually LIKE small scale modernism. I probably would, given a lottery prize, much rather work with an architect like John Pawson (I am deluding myself though, I like clutter too much), or some of the better Bay Area modernists than a "classical" architect-for a personal house or apartment interior. I just don't like the work of Quinlan Terry very much, for instance. (Although, if you could recreate for me this one small Greek Revival cottage in Ann Arbor, Michigan-I would change my mind!)
Unless modernism follows something like David Sucher's Three Rules, though, it seems to create horrible streetscapes, in general. I like the light and space of modernism but hate the blankness or even worse, the pure chaos, of much modernist or decon desgin.
Posted by: Brian Miller at Mar 12, 2004 5:37:18 PM
Funny you mention Ann Arbor. There is a very nice new English Palladian House in the country not far from there. If you're out there its probably the nicest new classical house I've seen in a while, and UofM did the tour of it!
Posted by: Boots at Mar 17, 2004 4:36:53 PM