Friday, July 09, 2010
“Nostalgia” - or Community and Place?
Havana: Nostalgia Is a Dangerous Business is the title of an interesting book review at Design Observer. In the review, it seems to me, the architect Belmont Freeman uses the word "nostalgia" as many Modernist architects use it, as a pejorative description intended to suggest a soft-minded yearning to live in the past. As I say below, that is not why I am a traditional architect and urbanist. (please note, the comment continues after the jump)
What we are talking about is an architecture of place versus an architecture of time. Modernism argued that the world had changed and architecture must change with it. It argued for the expression of technology and it argued for a progressive social movement. I'm sympathetic to a lot of its arguments, particularly the social ones.
That was 100 years ago (Frank Lloyd Wright would be 143 years old if he were miraculously still alive). We must recognize that just as they argued then, times have changed. We can see the virtues and the problems of Modernism, and we can see we are no longer living in the world that Wright, Mies, Gropius and Corb wanted to reform. Modernism won a long time ago.
As Corb and Wright dreamt, Modernism brought us the super-highway, the dispersal of the city and, very often, the destruction of the street as public realm. In retrospect, the tragedy of the commons includes the denigration of the public realm and the common good.
Nouvel on the left, Gehry on the right, in New York City
In retrospect, the super-materialism of Modernism ignored many human needs and desires. Modernism was a progressive social movement that produced some of the worst social housing in the world. Some examples like Pruitt-Igoe, which won an AIA national award, were so bad they were blown up. When Le Corbusier, a great artist and a genius, saw what the residents of his housing had done to his designs he said, "'You know, it is always life that is right and the architect who is wrong.'' That can be applied to a great many Modernist experiments, particularly the experiments on housing the poor, who had no alternative to taking what the architects and housing authorities gave them.
Today it is the New Urbanists who carry the social banner, not Koolhaas, Hadid and Libeskind. In the 21st century, there is nothing "progressive" about designing in a technological style. But there is often something anti-urban and even anti-social about continuing the "experiments" of Modernism. I put "experiments" in quotes because one has to ask how long one experiment repeated over and over can be considered "experimental." Yes, there is something experimental about the style of Hadid's computer-dependent designs, but the underlying emphasis on novelty, architectural egotism and technological determinism is old, and Hadid's architecture is no less anti-urban than Corb's was. And is there anything "new" about Norman Foster's or Richard Rogers's buildings?
Belmont Freeman (who was one year ahead of me in school, when there was a great deal of experimentation with the freedom of Post-Modernism) implies that traditional architecture is a "nostalgic" power play for the bad old days of corrupt Cuban governance. That position is in sync with the Modernist ideology that tradition is only of the past and that it must be swept away. In fact, traditional and Classical architecture have fundamentally different tectonic qualities, and they produce fundamentally different places.
In the practice of traditional and Classical design, the making of place - the city, the neighborhood and the town - is the first duty of any building design. In the ideology of Modernism and the currently fashionable Autonomous Architecture, the creativity and personal vision of the architect comes to the forefront, which is precisely why we live in an age of Starchitects. The object (the building) becomes more important than the city: in Autonomous Architecture, students are explicitly taught that the buildings around theirs will be torn down over time and what is important is that the ideas of their building be internally consistent. After 100 years of Modernism, the expression of the ego and the individual over the good of the community has become unmistakably explicit.
Of course most Modernist architects are not ideologues, and community boards and preservationists everywhere argue for contextualism, so we all know examples of contextual Modernism. Here in New York City, there are many good examples. But there are so many that we can now see that they are parasitic: they depend on good traditional neighbors on a good traditional street to look their best and to be part of a larger ensemble. Mies's jewel-like Seagram Building amid the masonry palazzi of Park Avenue shone brilliantly. But line up a few boring glass boxes on Sixth Avenue, and the street falls apart. Or put Starchitect Frank Gehry's IAC headquarters next to Starchitect's Jean Nouvel's latest luxury high-rise on West Street and the street is no longer a place where pedestrians are interested in walking (the fact that the "boulevard" they stand on is the Modern traffic engineer's version of a boulevard doesn't help, but the building designs deserve a very large share of the blame). A century of Modernism and tens of thousands of Modernist buildings have in fact produced a shockingly low number of places where pedestrians enjoy walking, unless the Modernism sits in a traditional urban fabric surrounded by traditional buildings. Like, for example, Gehry's great Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
An architecture of time versus an architecture of place. But at some point we revolt against an architecture of time that is so anti-place. That is the nature of the zeitgeist Modernism argued for. We learn not to repeat our mistakes, and we learn that materialism and ego make us yearn for human civilization and community.
Of course Andrés Duany is right! He knows exactly what is in store for Havana, and the extreme danger it faces from outside "developers".
Havana must be protected from destruction and replacement by banal modernist, po-mo, and decon garbage when the inevitable building spree starts. Belmont Freeman surprises me by innocently asking: "Can we not trust Cuban architects or foreign designers, who in the city’s longstanding cosmopolitan tradition might be invited to work in Havana, to sustain that excellence in the 21st century?" Who is he kidding? We can only trust the most famous foreign designers to completely destroy Havana's sense of place, which is what would eventually draw tourists back. No one is going to visit Havana when it looks like 1980s US suburbia or gutted downtowns.
The problem here is the inverted value system. "Good" for a certain group of architects means strictly aligned with the cult of Geometrical Fundamentalism, whereas "bad" means anything that is humanly-scaled and consequently reminiscent of traditional or Classical buildings where the architects paid attention to connecting emotionally with the user.
Just in case we might agree with Andrés, we are warned in the strongest possible terms of siding with the worst excesses of colonialism and privilege: "the exercises in nostalgia: the books that set out to celebrate Havana’s faded glory and romantic past... wistful recall is more often than not a lament for a lost life of privilege." Let's then support real grass-roots revolutionary and liberating architecture just like the two high-tech buildings in New York City shown by John Massengale (a luxury high-rise next to the headquarters of a global internet company). All right?
Posted by: Nikos Salingaros at Jul 9, 2010 7:09:54 PM
I hope that you and Nikos Salingaros will join in condemning the anti-place excesses of modernism as they begin to surround the old city of Paris.
Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher at Jul 12, 2010 7:29:27 AM
Live from Ugly Paris - Paris is the new Houston.
Posted by: john at Jul 13, 2010 1:21:46 PM
Here is an older interview in French, which unfortunately seems not to have made a bit of difference:
I circulated private mails to friends about Monsieur Sarkozy's hideous plans, but cannot organize anything in France since I don't have a support group over there. Nevertheless, my Italian friends were alerted to the coming wholesale destruction, and responded on their blog:
"Whoever has been to Paris, return there as soon as possible to enjoy it. Whoever has not, rush to see it because if things go ahead as planned, the Paris they will see will be something entirely different". To which I added the quote from Euripides: "Those whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad".
I admit that I have been distracted trying to protect Rome from a similar modernist destruction, so I left Paris to its own miserable fate. And, really, what can a dozen of us on the outside do to help if the French dumbly accept what's in store for them? In Rome, on the other hand, there are thousands who are up in arms against modernist, po-mo, and decon garbage. Therefore, I feel my efforts are better spent trying to save Italy from the Starchitects. My group is working closely with Italia Nostra, and I would like to optimistically believe that we are beginning to have an impact.
Posted by: Nikos Salingaros at Jul 13, 2010 9:22:22 PM