29 September 2008

Do People Really Like Modern Architecture?

"[O]ur plutocrats, bureaucrats, board chairmen, CEOs, commissioners and college presidents . . . are willing to accept that glass of ice water in the face, that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one's bourgeois soul, known as modern architecture. And why? They can't tell you. They look up at the barefaced buildings they have bought, those great hulking structures they hate so thoroughly, and they can't figure it out themselves. It makes their heads hurt."
Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House, 1981



Anonymous said...


I recently read a book on this subject that I recommend. It is "Architecture of the Absurd: How 'Genius' Disfigured a Practical Art" by John Silber, former president of Boston University. Pretty short, really more of an essay, but basically he says star architects like Gehry & Libeskind use their charisma to persuade otherwise rational institutions to build hugely overpriced buildings that often don't perform well, either technically or functionally, for the sake of being able to say they have a "(insert name) building". He also recounts LeCorbusier's attempts to get some of his more insane schemes built with phrases that go something like "It is so obvious that this plan is genius, how can you not build it?". Thankfully the entire center of Paris was not torn down.

Matt Scheidt

Mark Miller said...

Some of it's awesome. The Guggenheim and the Saarinen church with the spike steeple in Columbus, IN come to mind. Locally, I like the Lipson Alport Glass building.

Most of it is absolutely hideous though. Like the Kroger building before GBBN re-skinned it. And the Vontz Center. Being an engineer, there's something about bricks in tension that just offends me to the bone. I guess some architects are so desperate to be original they forget that buildings should make sense.

Anonymous said...

Someone once said about the Kroger Building that, "We could put mirrors on it, and it would go away."

Randy Simes said...

As with all forms of architecture...it can be done well and it can be done poorly. In the case of the Gateway Building it was a parking garage first and everything else was an afterthought.

I don't think anyone foresaw the area taking off as it has...which is unfortunate, because I'm sure they're looking back now wishing they had done a better project there that would have been more than a parking garage with a few condos slapped on one side.

Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this today when I dropped the kids off at the new Fairview school. As you approach from behind you can see the roof and cupola of the old school across the street over the top of the new flat roofed school. It occurred to me that we don't even try to build anything beautiful anymore. A lot of parents worked very hard on the design of the new school and the most they could hope for was to try to contain the absurd ugliness that afflicts most of CPS's new construction. Of all the options, they did the best they could to make it functional and non-offensive. Beauty is no longer an option.

Anonymous said...

We should keep in mind that Wolfe was specifically critiquing architecture of the modern movement ... the international style. He wasn't speaking to the Frank Gehrys or the Daniel Libeskinds yet.

Although, his main point is still relevant... that theory/starchitecture is taking precedent over the human side of building.

I just read the Silber book myself! Found it randomly at the downtown library. I actually went to Boston University,and had him as a guest lecturer in one of my philosophy classes. (He was a staunch supporter of a guest policy that barred students from having guests over to their dorms past midnight. So, we students hated him of course.) He's pretty smart, but also a grumpy old curmudgeon. I would take more stock in what he was saying in the book if the buildings he built at BU weren't so mediocre. (probably less than mediocre)

I agree that a new school today would have no hope of achieving the character of the old Fairview school. It would just simply cost way too much money. (although, the new CPS school in the East End is cool)

I just don't see many options today ... I would hate to see replica housing built in OTR (like City West) It just looks so cheap to me... I actually don't mind the gateway garage ... could be a lot worse in my mind.

What would you all propose for OTR infill?

I like ... Onion Flats Arch. Firm in Philadelphia as one example:

Anonymous said...

I like the 2nd picture....frames nicely that horrible condo building with a truly great example of architecture in the American Building.

You really only need to go to Paris to realize that modern architecture is at least overrated, and at worst, an full-blown assault on everything we hold sacred......

CityKin said...

It has taken me a long time to get here, but I have finally had enough of this crap.

It is hard for me to come up with good examples of what I would prefer, but I did post about one in July.

I think the whole profession needs to start back over, and get back to it's roots. I feel we are in revolutionary times in the sense that the old economic, fossil energy, political and aesthetic/arts movements have been completly "played-out" and we are about to enter a new era.

CityKin said...

Hopefully it will be a new Humanistic era.

Anonymous said...

I really don't understand your conception of Modernism. It seems to encompass everything built after the 50's.

Can you expalin that and possibly articulte what it is that you think architcture should do beyond waxing nostaglic?

CityKin said...

Modernists in the 1930's wrote manifestos defining themselves, and it is all public record if you want to be borerd to death and read it. It was all machines, efficiency and the inevitability of an international modern style. Post modernism and Deconstructivism/Constructivism are just branches, later developments of this thought process. Compare to Mannerism at the end of the Classical-Baroque period.

And think about this for a minute. What is the CORE beauty the core strength of good architecture? It is it's ability to define and make beautiful SPECIFIC PLACES. By it's own definition the International Style is a failure on this basis account.

It is not waxing nostalgic to build a specifically Cincinnati or Ohio River Valley building. It would not be waxing nostalgic to build a building that is ABOUT the beauty of a gateway location such as Vine and Central Parkway or emphasis the beauty of a place like Linn and Liberty (this is where the photos are taken).

Architects have completely lost their bearings on what buildings are supposed to do. Fifty years ago it was all about purity of form, now it is all about shifting grids and twisting cubes. What a joke architects have become to the average person who must live and work in their manifestations.

I say: bring back place-building, beauty and ornament. And lacking other references, I would say look to buildings and traditions of the past that did this successfully.

Why should we shed our rich past? Why is ornament banned? Because Adolf Loos called it a crime 70 years ago? The orthodoxy is so crippling, architects cannot see the prison they are in.

Anonymous said...

I don't see why it is modernism that you are attacking, rather it seems to be mass production.

There is no Cincinnati style. Even this was imported. The houses long Dayton street are ornamental facades that are meant to refer to the old world.

Is this place building, or cultural reproduction, as opposed to representation. If it is the latter, are we not just subscribing to a different set of manifestoish values that happen to be the ones that you personally think are beautiful?

CityKin said...

See, your type of thinking says that all beauty is subjective, and thus not acheivable. This is not true. Places of beauty are objectively beautiful, full of harmony with their place and orientation.

Italianate was the style in vogue in the late 18th century and much of it remains in Cincinnati. That does not mean we should continue builiding Italianate buildings, or even that Italianate was the best choice in 1875. However, we should learn from the better examples of the past that used local materials, emphasized entrances and verticality, maximized natural light, and had Bases-Middles-and grand Tops. At least start with some basics. Why is a skewed box that slams into the sidewalk more fitting of our time than a building that embraces the ground upon which it sits?

Anonymous said...

I agree with the importance of local materials, good site planning, verticality where relevant, and all that.

But to blame all the mistakes and bad decisions in on Mordernism just seems bitter and misdirected.

To answer your question: I love modern architecture. Especially the buildings that are clear departures from previous ways of building and that respect their context without attempting to emulate it.

CityKin said...

I hope you don't mean departure for jsut the sake of being different. Many architects are currently trying to outdo each other in this regard and the results are extremely wasteful. It comes down to what end the architect is trying to acheive. A "statement" or a "place".

As a follow up to your earlier comment about there not being a Cincinnati Style, I partially agree. I wish it was flourishing, but it is not. It is there, but it has not been developed or grown for many years.

Anonymous said...

By departure I mean following a trajectory or continuum that acknowledges the past. You can have innovative form that is a product of contemporary building technology, social dynamics...

To me that form that arises out of what is current is as high a priority as using local materials, and knowledge, to build meaningful places.

Anonymous said...

I love modern architecture. The most modern possible. I can't imagine why anyone wants to live in an old.. 'money-pit' - think of it along those lines.

For instance, I think a dwelling should provide a clean.. bright.. comfortable shelter, and further, to do it as care free & healthy as the state of the art can provide.

I could go on & on..