Friday, June 24, 2005
London Times Book Review: "Are Architects Venal, Vacuous and Ego-Driven?
In Belgium the phrase “espèce d’architecte” is a grave insult. Deyan Sudjic has, for more than a quarter of a century, written about architecture, edited architectural magazines (Blueprint, Domus), curated architectural exhibitions. He has been Synthetic Modernism’s dogged laureate. He has been notably sympathetic towards the institutionalised avant-garde of the architectural establishment. Which is what makes his book, The Edifice Complex, all the more astonishing.
It is a work of damning apostasy. Sudjic is not merely biting the hand that fed him but mauling the entire body. His implicit lesson is: a principled architect is an architect who does loft conversions. The qualities on which a career in the big time depends include venality, opportunism, egomania, self-delusion, a vacuous manifesto, an insatiable appetite for sycophancy and a willingness to treat with tyrants. A gift for plagiarism is also useful.
Of today's Starchitects, the only one who has designed a building I've visited that's struck me as truly beautiful is Frank Gehry. And that was only in one case, Bilbao (Disney has problems with its context, imo). I've visited 5 or 6 others, but found none of them more than interesting.
Who today has made a streetscape as beautiful as the one in the picture below? I love the the solidity of the masonry arcade and facade shaping the street, in perspective.
Does anyone think Bilbao is more inventive?
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why are all new urbanists so impatient? the streetscape you show is not overly remarkable but in any case takes its character from its age as much as anything.
i live in a version of ville radieuse bout 20 minutes from tokyo city centre, and it is surprisingly liveable. my flat is large, south exposure, 30 year old trees everywhere; gardens are planted willy-nilly by the inhabitants so there is no order to the greenery but i always enjoy the (insane mix of) flowers and the ocassional strawberry grown by my neighbor. the most important thing about urban life is the LIFE and not what it all looks like. My place is old and the repitition of the white boxes is admittedly annoying but it is one of the most comfortable places i have ever lived (on three continents). everything I need is within walking distance, or for something exotic (like a new MP3 player or a Toys r us shop for the kids) a stop or two down the subway line.
so, this is a long way of making the point that simply because a place doesn't match your craving for graphic clarity doesn' mean it isn't good design. And modernism is just another style, no better or worse than all of the gratuitous acst of nostalgia that you tend to promote.
as for sudjic, criticism doesnt equal dismissal. he also thinks jane jacobs is full of it, and is critical of sloppy thinking and rhetoric, of which jacabos is often guilty. all part of the academic process, ennit? dogma and exageration don have much room in such places if the critics are honest. thats all he is sayin. so what?
Posted by: will at Jun 25, 2005 8:45:26 PM
"why are all new urbanists so impatient?" you say
Why "all"? Why "new urbanists"? Why "impatient"?
Posted by: john massengale at Jun 26, 2005 9:45:27 AM
ok, perhaps not all, and the rhetoric comes in flavors, depending on the audience. But, in general, new urbanism is an attempt at creating the graphic substance of history (not the actual substance of course, cuz that would be expensive) all in one go instead of letting things emerge on their own. hence the impatience. wait a few hundred years and you might get the streetscape you like, even WITH the Gehry-poor urban gestures.
Modernists weren't impatient, they just liked speed. and after thirty years of being lived in even my modernist campus housing estate feels like a new urbanist dream. walkable, neighborly, mixed use, 2 minutes from the subway, its all there...
but, getting back to impatience, it seems to me it is built into the neo-classical formula because it assumes completion when construction is finished; leaving no room for change as a result of local inhabitation. Wanting the place you live in to be entitrly DONE and perfect from the get go is to me the ultimate in impatience. urbanism works best when it is allowed to run slightly out of control, allowed to stew and simmer for awhile. It is ironic that the NU position on planning is so rigid in this way. Because it was the very same type of rigidity that caused the problems it purports to solve to begin with.
And in any case this won't get better from NU dogma and rejoicing about the waining popularity of Modernism. I mean defining yourself as NOT MODERN is like Kerry being NOT BUSH. In the end it matters more who/what you ARE...
Posted by: will at Jun 26, 2005 11:44:22 AM
The problem with your generalizations about New Urbanism and me is that you don't know much about New Urbanism and haven't read much of my blog. If you did, you would know that New Urbanism is not anti-modern, and that some of my favorite buildings are Modern. I have pictures and discussion of some of them on the blog.
There are two fundamental problems: 1) Modernism has plenty of great monuments, but the rate of return is so low -- for every good building, there are a thousand mediocre or worse; Modernism has plenty of great monuments, but few or no great PLACES, where the buildings add up to more than the building.
If you disagree, name them. You may love your Ville Radieuse, but we know that 99% of the world hates them, and we know why.
New Urbanists talk a lot about the importance of time for urbanism. New Urbanists create urban frameworks with building typologies which allow change over time. Unlike most Modernist buildings which are purpose-built for very specific functions.
There were six CNU founders. One, Dan Solomon, hates traditional design. Two others, Lizz Plater-Zyberk and Andres Duany, were the founders of Arquitectonica (also Google their project Aqua). Peter Calthorpe doesn't really care about style. The last two, Liz Moule and Stef Polyzoides, have designed many Modernist buildings.
Dan Solomon led a Charter discussion that led to Leon Krier refusing to sign the charter.
Posted by: john massengale at Jun 27, 2005 10:35:14 AM
The other problem is today's Hyper-Modernism and Avant-Gardism, which is what Sudjic is complaining about, and plain old Modernism. The latter started as an important social and progressive movement. The former is about Starchitect egotism.
Sudjic feels even more strongly about this than me. Your comments about Jane Jacobs miss this.
Posted by: john massengale at Jun 27, 2005 10:48:13 AM
I think Will does make one important point: the tedious over-regulation in many New Urbanist communities (Celebration comes to mind). Such regulations can help forestall the kind of evolution he speaks of. Of course, mind-dumbing homeowners association rules are not unique to New Urbanist projects, but these projects appear to take them to the next level because appealing to the upper middle class in a higher density environment means you "need" to forestall the messiness that American suburbanites seem to find so appalling.
I think 99% hate them may be an exageration, too. Residents of low income projects that warehouse the poor and suffer from management neglect-sure.
Posted by: Brian Miller at Jun 27, 2005 1:21:59 PM
Will doesn't make that point, you do. His comment is clearly one coming out of the ivory tower academy, where they don't deal with things like HOAs.
99% is conservative. Much less than 1% of the world chooses to live in them. Most people living in them have no choice, and hate them. Why do you think they are blown up around the world?
Posted by: john massengale at Jun 27, 2005 6:30:33 PM
until i moved to my flat in tokyo i was convinced that corbusier was a monster and responsible for hell-ish places all over the earth. and in general i still believe that his ideas are problematic. the lesson of life here is not that 99 percent of the world hates corb, but that people are very flexible.
By and large (if social problems are not overwhelming) the inhabitants determine the way a community works or doesn't work on their own, as long as there is room for them to act. It doesn't hurt if the ghetto is avoided, but that has nothing to do with modernism. In my litle ville the income and demographics is rather diverse and perhaps part of the reason the whole thing works. there is no ghetto here. the flats are for rent or purchase (in the same building), the city grid passes through the whole complex (ie, this is not a superblock) and hundreds of people walk through the grounds every morning on the way to the subway. basically the area is thoroughly inhabited and the modernist style is able to accept all of this. Would new ubanism do as well? As far as i understand New Urbanist suburbs/commmunities are pretty exclusionary...
on sudjic, yes i do see your point, but it is useful to recognise that sudjic is more anti-hyperbole than anti avant-garde when it comes right down to it. and jacobs is as guilty of that as koolhaas. in that sense there isn't much difference between "death and life" and "delirious. Or, to get closer to home, anything by Jim Kunstler is even more stocked with hyperbole than even something as wonderfully ridiculous as JUNK SPACE (though i enjoy reading Kunstler and Koolhaas nonetheless).
Yes I know there are varying opinions in the new urbanist core, but if there is one overriding vision i believe it is that NEW urbanism has no room for human whimsy and is planned from the top down; the worst of the modernist agenda to a tee. i know some NU-ers have written about bottom-up concepts but so far the designs are not showing this. On the otherhand there is a recent project in shinonome (tokyo) that is founded on the idea that people will affect the shape of life in their community themselves and that the architects/planners will step back. It is an amazing attempt at including bottom-up life in design though too soon to know if it will work. I have my doubts personally, but am delighted to see that someone understands the city needs to be less restrained not MORE.
As for your inclusion of modernist buildings in your blog, yes i have noticed, but it feels token, sort of like saying I have gay friends but don't support gay marriage. That may not be your intent and no offence is meant.
Posted by: will at Jun 27, 2005 7:13:38 PM
To follow up and clarify what I meant (and what I think Will DID mean, by the way, as shown in his latter post), there is not only little room for "whimsy," but the rigid rules seem to preclude much room for change. Is this, again, the nature of the "beast (i.e., the "planned community") as we build it today, irrespective of style? That's why, as pleasant as photos of the streetscapes are, I'm not sure Kentlands or Celebration would be for me. There is nmo messiness.
Posted by: Brian Miller at Jun 28, 2005 12:27:10 AM
Kentlands is widely criticized, by its designer, by me, and many others. Its designer has said many times that it will change and get better over time: you've read some of those on pro-urb. He led a charrette paid for by the residents of Kentlands to proposed some changes.
Are you aware that the utilities in the parking lot are laid out so that the parking lot can be filled in with blocks and buildings?
You and Will are implying that New Urbanists are not willing to learn from their mistakes and others. The history of New Urbanism shows that's not true. It's a very pragmatic movement.
Posted by: john massengale at Jun 28, 2005 9:39:28 AM
actually to be honest i have noticed that the plans and theories of new urbanism have evolved considerably in response to experience in the real world. and i see a lot of positive ideas within it.
however i have always been very uncomfortable with the over-reliance on prescriptive concepts/ideology. the dogma is very heavy in the movement no matter if it is tinged with acceptance of modernist styles or not and my impression so far is that the pragmatism is more the result of the process of getting things built; and not a real shift towards accomodating the varied lives of people. kind of like zaha hadid (who is by the way not bad at urban gestures at all). i mean kentlands was a place self-selected for success. the people that moved there were/are invested in the concepts of new urbanism at least to some extent, and yet they are diverse enough to find it imperfect. For me the lesson is that planners need to be more open to different kinds of inhabitation, allow more styles of buildings, roads, et cetera. the challenge, as i am sure you know better than most, is that america has so thoroughly separated the tasks of life into different places that merely mimicking walkable communities will not change lifestyles significantly. how to deal with this is an enormous challenge, and my intuition is that new urbanism isn't up to it. I would happily be proved wrong mind.
Posted by: will at Jun 28, 2005 8:29:57 PM
On the other hand, there are those of us who do despise modernist architecture in its entirety, see it as a giant mistake, blame it for everything but the common cold, marvel that anyone could disagree, laugh at the idea that it could ever be just another style -- if only! -- and who would be immensely pleased if it could be erased from the face of the planet. That one development outside Tokyo excluded, of course.
Posted by: Michael Blowhard at Jun 29, 2005 6:55:21 PM
Take a look at NU REDUX: Good, Better, Best. Speaking for myself, I can say I've been very critical of a lot of projects.
Below are a couple of paragraphs from the post. Elsewhere in it I gave a TND a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10. BTW, NU is now up to 11% of the market.
Ironically, some of the biggest failures of the CNU come in the area where it is supposed to be the strongest: in the making of beautiful places. The CNU’s critics say that’s all New Urbanists care about, but getting TNDs built is a long and complicated process, with many compromises along the way. Many CNU members are unhappy with the quality of the places that have resulted.
This reaction is both idealistic and pragmatic. New urban designers idealistically strive to make the best places we can (we are designers, after all, because we respond to good design). And we realistically acknowledge that the most important factor in public acceptance of New Urbanism has been the successful completion of good models.
Posted by: john massengale at Jun 29, 2005 10:53:44 PM
Are you familiar, John, with some of the new, admittedly flawed, NU developments in the Charlotte area (I know its outside the sacred precincts of Manhattan, but :) ) Birkdale Village, while flawed, is interesting. A Charlotte architect posted a long thread over at Cyburbia.org.
Posted by: Brian Miller at Jun 30, 2005 12:00:11 PM
Three or four years ago I visited a few. I don't know Birkdale.
Posted by: john massengale at Jun 30, 2005 12:18:38 PM
Is 'espece d'architecte' really an insult in Belgium? Weird, how specific.
Posted by: anonymous at Aug 25, 2007 6:33:02 PM