Architecture Here and There | Style Wars: classicsm vs. modernism
This blog – written by David Brussat - An experienced writer and editor working for some of the nation’s most accomplished architects and design theorists – aims to promote a revival of classical and traditional architecture in Providence, R.I., and around the world.
Proposed Tulip observation tower at center left. (Architects’ Journal)
On July 15, London Mayor Sadiq Khan nipped Lord Foster’s proposed Tulip in the bud. Fine. But why? It does not “represent world-class architecture,” quoth the mayor. “Mayor rejects ‘unwelcoming, poorly designed’ Tulip,” stated Architects’ Journal. One study declared it looks like “a surveillance tower,” which it was to have been, except for the use of tourists, not prison guards. “Of insufficient quality,” echoed a mayoral aide, adding that it would “harm London’s skyline.” Really? How could he tell?
Look at the photo above of London’s skyline. Look at the buildings around the Tulip cropped into the photo across the street from the Gherkin (also by Foster). By what standard do any of these buildings qualify as “world-class architecture”? Which are “welcoming”? Which do no harm to the skyline of London? Not a single one of them. No doubt the hardest job in the world is service as a member of the Pritzker Prize jury. Modern architecture has no comprehensible set of standards by which to judge the quality of its prize submissions. It’s a movable feast, if that’s the sort of thing you find tasty.
One observer of that photo no doubt sported images in her memory of the London skylines of the distant past, skylines in which church spires literally aspired and the Tower Bridge actually towered. She wondered whether it was really London and not, say, Qatar. Surely her question was rhetorical, because in fact it really is not London, not the London beloved for centuries around the world. Although some tourist precincts survive intact, that London has been gone for at least a couple of decades.
Even 40 years ago, when I first visited London, many streets were pimpled with low- and mid-rise modernist buildings, often filling in for the rubble left by the Luftwaffe. The only real tower I recall seeing in central London then was Lloyds of London, designed in the ridiculous inside-out style of Richard Rogers, weighing in at a mere 14 stories and still incomplete in 1979. It was shown to me by my host, a boyhood friend enrolled at the London School of Economics, whose girlfriend and eventual wife we met at the building, where she worked for the Rothschilds. That was long before I ever thought of being an architecture critic, and five years before Prince Charles’s famous speech condemning a proposed addition to the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.”
Those words killed that project, just as Mayor Khan’s words appear to have killed Lord Foster’s Tulip. The difference is that the Prince of Wales knew whereof he spoke.
(Residents of Providence will wish Mayor Elorza had Mayor Khan’s authoritative powers over the fate of buildings.)
The Tower of London, with the Shard rising in the background. (BBC)
Nir Buras, founder of the Washington chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, sent out to the Pro-Urb (New Urbanist) discussion group an article from the BBC that has much to say about buildings and which of them will survive the longest.
The headline of “The Simple Rule that Can Help You Predict the Future,” by Tom Chatfield, is a bit dodgy, as if it were click-bait inhabiting the murky bottom of many “news” websites. The “simple rule” is called the Lindy Effect, and it can’t, as the headline seems to imply, predict your future.
“What makes something endure for centuries? To find out, we must start with a principle called the ‘Lindy Effect.’ ” That is the subhead of Chatfield’s piece, and it is on target.
Chatfield cites author Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2012 book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder that the Lindy Effect – named for insights derived from the conversation among comedians at a New York delicatessen called Lindy’s – only predicts the longevity of inanimate objects such as buildings. Taleb writes: “Things that have been around for a long time are not ‘aging’ like persons, but ‘aging’ in reverse. … Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy.” Chatfield adds:
Because the only judge that matters when it comes to the future is time, our only genuinely reliable technique for looking ahead is to ask what has already proved enduring: what has shown fitness and resilience in the face of time itself, surviving its shocks and assaults across decades, centuries or millennia. The Tower of London may seem modest in comparison to the Shard skyscraper – which sits across the Thames at 11 times the height – but it has also proved its staying power across 94 times as many years. The Shard may be iconic and imposing, but its place in history is far from assured. When it comes to time, the older building looms larger.
The Lindy Effect works not just for buildings – our main concern here – but other things that do not die according to schedule, such as human beings, trees, or other biological phenomena of nature. The Lindy Effect predicts how long books, ideas, religions, art, myths, machinery, ethics, the careers of comedians, and other manmade artifacts of culture will last.
Chatfield adds that London’s buildings
are subject to the same forces of wear and tear as everything else on Earth: they may be tough, but they cannot remain in good condition without human support. And it’s for precisely this reason that the Lindy Effect is so useful when it comes to understanding them. The longer something has endured, the more significance and symbolic meaning it has accrued – and the more tests of function and fashion it has passed. The modern city of London, like most cities with hundreds of years of history, bends and weaves itself around its monuments. Over the centuries, fortune and favor have fixed them into a city’s identity. Within days of the fire at the 800-year-old cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris earlier this year, the watching world had pledged over a billion euros to fund its reconstruction. It’s unlikely the Shard would have commanded quite the same response.
This may remind readers of Steve Mouzon’s splendid 2010 book The Original Green, in which he declares that the most environmentally sustainable buildings are those which are the most loved. In short, buildings that have been around a long time – or new buildings that look like they are based on the same principles of those beloved old buildings. He identifies traditional architecture as placing the gentlest carbon footprint on the Earth, much more so than buildings anointed by such fraudulent means as LEED, which traffics mostly in “gizmo green,” or. absurdly, gadgets designed to reduce the destructive impact of existing gadgets.
Here is Chatfield’s description of (you might say) Taleb channeling Mouzon:
When it comes to human creations – buildings, artefacts, ideas – there’s a similar adaptive superfluity in play. Even the hardiest buildings are fragile in the grander scheme of things. But the emotions and ideas that lead us to admire, maintain and emulate a handful of them are robust.
Or, in brief, as Chatfield states in closing his article:
When you look across the present moment, almost everything you see is noise. In the long view, it amounts only to distraction. To bastardize a famous quote by the author William Gibson: the future is already here, but the most important parts of it happened a long time ago.
The New Statesman magazine, a British rag, has apologized at last for using monkeyed quotes from an interview in April to defame Sir Roger Scruton, who lost an important government post as a result. Who knows whether Scruton would like to return as chairman of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, still run by the craven housing minister who sacked the conservative philosopher and architecture theorist virtually moments after the obviously bogus quotes emerged.
Read “An Apology for Thinking,” Scruton’s own eloquent description, in The Spectator, of how his words were purposely butchered by the deputy editor of the Statesman, George Eaton, who remains at his old post and, one may assume, unchastened. As usual, the Statesman’s deceit and media reports of it circulate widely but apologies, if they ever come, sink like a stone, read mainly by those already familiar with Scruton’s incapacity for thinking what he was wrongly accused of saying.
A rumor floated that Scruton’s replacement as chairman would be the head of the Royal Institute of British Architects, which is as staunchly modernist as the American Institute of Architects. But, miracle of miracles, the post was filled, at least temporarily, by a very sensible person – Nicholas Boys Smith, head of Create Streets, an organization with what we here would consider a New Urbanist outlook.
Throwing caution to the wind, Boys Smith recently said, “Beauty should not be just a property of old buildings or protected landscapes but something we expect from new buildings, places and settlements,” adding, “We need to deliver beauty for everyone, not just the wealthy.”
No doubt the modernists, who were part of the drive to oust Scruton that went into high gear following his appointment, are out there looking for ways to assure Boys Smith as brief a tenure in his post as Scruton had. Maybe those words will be enough.
That should wrap up this succinct response to the latest turn in L’Affair Scruton, except to regret that it is also the latest turn in the politicization of architecture. The style wars – which will and should continue until beauty resumes its rightful place in the design of buildings and cities – have long shown signs of a division between conservative traditionalists and liberal modernists. This is unfortunate, because people of all stripes would benefit from a return to beauty in the civic arts. However, the tactics that were used to attack Roger Scruton were tactics of the left – ostracism – which are rarely seen on the right. Similar tactics are used by the architectural establishment to keep traditional architecture down, even though (and indeed because) it is preferred by most people.
Since Britain and America are democracies, choice in how architectural commissions are distributed should be more broadly based. Perhaps the fact that a powerful journal has been forced to apologize for maligning Sir Roger suggests that what the public thinks about architecture is a rising factor in how cities are built. No less than beauty, fairness has long been absent from the world of architecture. Time to bring it back.
Entries to GoArchitect’s “people’s” design competition for Notre=Dame. (GoArchitect)
GoArchitect offers “The People’s Notre-Dame Design Contest,” supposedly as distinct from the international design competition announced after the cathedral fire back in April. So far as I can tell, the announcement has not been followed up officially with a structure under which the competition would be held, rules for entry, etc. Furthermore, in May the French Senate mandated recreating the cathedral’s “last known visual state.” This would contradict the President Macron’s call for “an inventive reconstruction,” and presumably nullify the proposed official international competition.
GoArchitect’s competition, whose winner will be announced on July 31 after voting that is under way now at the above link, has a $1,000 prize but no official influence on what is built. After the French Senate’s action, the competition’s CEO stated: “It would be a terrible loss to the democracy of design if the French Senate closes the door to the debate and exploration of the future of Notre-Dame Cathedral.”
Huh? “The democracy of design”? What in blazes is that? If democracy played any substantial role in design, the architecture of cities would be noncontroversial. It would please most people, as it did for hundreds of years. It would somehow manage to reflect the fact that the public overwhelmingly prefers traditional to modern design. Of course, the public has almost no say in the look of buildings or the design of cities. The vast bulk of what gets built today is widely disliked. Remember, even Frank Gehry called it 99 percent crap. If nothing else, the “people’s competition” proves that democracy plays little or no role in design.
Just go to the GoArchitect link above and examine the entries. Because the images are small, I could find only two or three entries that seemed intended to reflect the will of the French Senate – which, I suppose, reflects in some degree the will of actual voters in France. More so, certainly, than the result of this “people’s competition.” Several dozen of the 225 entries seemed to be reasonable attempts to innovate upon the roof and spire of the cathedral without entirely disrespecting the original. But the largest contingent were obviously ridiculous entries seemingly intended to insult the history of the cathedral and blow a spit ball at those who revere the building.
Among these latter, I suppose my favorite is entry 10102, in the middle of the top row up above. It features a rooftop pool with a “river” running through it. Wowie! The river flows into and out of the roof pool along a flyover on stilts. As is conventional in blind design competitions, we are not invited to doff our hats to the architect that came up with that idea.
I know there are people out there, readers of this blog who enjoy really, really bad architecture. I know this because they keep sending me emails with links to the most outrageous things, hoping, perhaps, to get my dander up and thereby inspire another of my popular “Can you believe this?” posts.
To these wonderful folk I say keep ’em coming! In the meantime, click on the link above and enjoy!
Such masochism has the effect, no doubt, of raising awareness that people’s intuitive dislike of such garbage is shared by most other people. And that knowledge may feed into a rising disinclination to let architectural elites and the developer buddies continue to pollute the world’s built environment. Accolades to the French Senate for reflecting that awareness, and putting its foot down on President Macron’s tomfoolery.
No. 10240 is one of the few entries that seem to replicate the original. 10220 may be another.
Out to Lunch. Old Solutions to New Problems. (PL Diesslin)
One of the endearing features of electric and hybrid cars is the silence of their engines. So of course that feature is about to meet its maker. U.S. and E.U. regulators are calling for noisemaking electric engines for safety reasons. Maybe the newfangled fake engine sounds should mimic real engine sounds. That would make more sense, vrooming more softly, possibly with a melody. Actually, automakers are far ahead of government. They’ve been souping up the menacing bass growl from under the hoods of pickup trucks and muscle cars for years now. Fooled ya!
Electric automakers anticipating efforts to ruin their products’ silence are trying to beat mandates to the punch. They have gentle sonic compositions in mind, bless them, although Harley-Davidson’s electric motorcycles will supposedly emit the sound of pigs snorting. Ha-ha! Inevitably, however, the systems gurus will give drivers a menu of options that will allow automobile owners to display their own highly refined musical tastes.
Imagine each driver being able to choose the music he prefers for the car he owns. Imagine reaching the rear of a slow-moving traffic jam. Imagine the cacophony! The Beatles, the Stones, Jimi, Frank, Elvis, Barbra, Cher, Miles, the Duke, “The Marseilles” or any passage from Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (a staple on the Fourth everywhere except Providence) or Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” All at once! (One can and probably should imagine worse.)
Apocalypse Now (military.com)
I have my own favorite. For my very modest, dinged to the max 2009 Hyundai Accent, give me Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from Apocalypse Now. That’ll clear out the road ahead! Actually, for most situations, such as driving through streets near schools (now 20 m.p.h. by law), give me the Ode to Joy. Give me that and I’ll creep through Providence, schools or no schools. Or for that matter, with the news about the Providence schools, why not play Mozart on all school buses? Maybe that will improve scores in the recently damned system. And every school cafeteria should play the aria from Le Nozze di Figaro that Tim Robbins sends over the prison loudspeakers in The Shawshank Redemption creating momentary bliss for the inmates. Play it in every school cafeteria. This would pacify the student population, soothing its savage breast. Don’t just put speakers in car engines, install them on all of the lampposts that line every road and play that aria all the time, everywhere. This would create a universal road-rage-free zone, and reduce the crime rate in cities.
Conversely, I would like the meanest, muscle-bound sports car to issue forth a soft putt-putt-putt-putt-putt-putt. Watching it travel down the road and imagining the feelings of its knuckleheaded driver would generate instant Shadenfreude – satisfaction at the misery of others. Better than a psychiatrist!
Hmm. Maybe something good will come out of safety concerns. For half a century we’ve all had to put up with that bleepin’ “BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!” whenever a truck backs up. We can blame it on Jimmy Carter, but that doesn’t help very much. Maybe now trucks will be forced to adopt sonic vehicular reform. Progress marches forward. At least we can hope.
The Harvard Graduate Center (1949), by Walter Gropius. (
Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school, died fifty years ago today. A new biography is out, Gropius: The Man Who Built the Bauhaus, by Fiona MacCarthy. Two major houses published it simultaneously, Faber & Faber in the U.K. and the Harvard University Press in the U.S. In this, the centennial year of the Bauhaus, the book could only be a hagiography. Its conclusion: “Everyone wants to think of him as one of the world’s great architects; he wasn’t. He was one of the world’s great philosophers.”
Everyone?! Hey, don’t put me in that basket of deplorables.
Nor Ann Sussman, the architect, writer and researcher who has explained how the three most notable founding modernist architects’ work was a direct expression of their mental illness – Le Corbusier by autism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe by PTSD, and Walter Gropius also by PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, acquired in both cases from terrible combat experience in World War I.
MacCarthy’s book exhaustively recounts the history of Gropius’s wartime experiences (in which he won an Iron Cross), the history of his role in the founding of the Bauhaus and the “reform” of architectural education in America, and the history of his, shall we say, complex personal relationships (including his marriage to the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler). But the author fails to recognize or acknowledge the intimate connection, which she herself has described in horrifying detail, between his trauma and his architecture.
To oversimplify, sufferers of PTSD, their brains frozen in fear, seek relief from trauma’s confusions in simplicity, and simplification is the chief characteristic of modern versus traditional architecture – whose rejection was the purpose of the Bauhaus.
Gropius House in Lincoln, Mass. (Wiki)
That the three modernists were psychologically abnormal is a long-accepted fact of their biographers. Sussman’s contribution has been to track scientifically the influence of these striking abnormalities upon their architectural sensibilities – and hence to show how illness is baked into the philosophy of their architecture. Her research tracking the human visual response to the blanknesses of modern architecture has strengthened the argument that human neurobiology causes the widespread preference for traditional architecture over modern architecture.
After her lectures, Sussman is often asked whether she is saying that all modernist architects are crazy. No, she responds, but they have all embraced crazy ideas. Today’s modernist architects are mostly ignorant of the original basis for those ideas, but the buildings they design reflect them all the same. The recent celebrations of the Bauhaus in magazines and museums reflect the cult status of modern architecture, as explicated by Nikos Salingaros, perhaps science’s foremost delineator of how neurobiology, not personal taste (as in “it’s just a matter of …”), determines architectural preferences.
Salingaros’s work may be the most trenchant, so to speak, explanation for how this great gap in MacCarthy’s book escaped detection by the editors at Harvard and Faber. This is what editors are paid for – to vet not just the grammar of a manuscript but its basic connection to reality (in the case of nonfiction). Shame on them. Why did they let this pass? Because modernism is a cult – it refuses to brook dissent. It is totalitarian. Even editors at major publishing houses are afraid to cross swords with modernism.
That Gropius wasn’t a great architect may be the understatement of the decade. The building atop this post, the Harvard Graduate Center (or the Gropius Complex – truly le mot juste!) completed in 1949, was the first major modernist university building in America. The Gropius House, completed in 1938, is the house he built for himself and his family. That says it all, does it not? At bottom is the Bauhaus school, built in 1925, whose alleged design by Gropius is challenged in James Stevens Curl’s pathbreaking new history of modern architecture, Making Dystopia (Oxford University Press, no less!).
But he was a much greater architect than he was a philosopher. MacCarthy’s book pays no attention at all to the fact that Walter Gropius’s only legacy is the creation modernist dystopias that bleed happiness from human hearts around the world. No thinking person could or would accomplish that. In other words, to call her book a hagiography is an example of praise by faint damnation: In its essence it is, in fact, pure fiction.
The Bauhaus school in Dessau, Germany. (landlopers.com)
Initial design for proposal on Parcel 6 from architect of shipping container offices. (PBN)
Last week the I-195 commission publicly rejected the Spencer Providence proposal for Parcel’s 2 and 5 on the eastern half of the Route 195 corridor. Of three options presented more than a year ago, it was by far the most widely favored in the Fox Point community. The Spencer proposal, unlike every other project along the corridor (including the Fane tower), would have fit into the historical character of the neighborhood – a feature whose obvious advantages appears to puzzle members of the commission.
Spencer Providence would also have had a grocery store, a grocer having already signed a lease pending the proposal’s approval by the commission. Perhaps the grocer was aware of the community’s support for the project, and figured that the commission would push it forward. The commission seems instead to have backstabbed Spencer by calling for a grocery store to be included in a proposal it solicited more recently on the land next door, Parcel 6, well after Spencer had made its proposal.
The Box Office. (boxoffice460.com)
The Parcel 6 proposal was given a boost last week by the commission. Its developers are responsible for a dreadful office building made of stacked shipping containers (left) in the Promenade industrial district. Shipping containers? In Fox Point? The tedious design atop this post is preliminary, but even it displays evidence that the designers hope to carry their container motif into this project. Give us a break!
Well, we are not going to get a break because the General Assembly has passed Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s bill to strip Providence of its authority to participate in the planning and design of anything built in the I-195 corridor. This was not a bill to streamline the process, as advertised, but to steamroll the citizens of all 39 cities and towns where the state wants to develop land it owns over 20 acres. Earlier, the bill was amended to “define” 20 acres in a flexible way that seemed, to this observer, intended to enable future corrupt land dealing among the state and potential developers.
Corruption is wrong, but I am even more upset by the state’s insistence upon ugliness as a key feature of state-sponsored development. (And one way or another, almost all projects in Rhode Island are state-sponsored.) The hurt that corruption does to citizens is sneaky and shows up mainly in the rising cost over time of running the state – partly caused by the disinclination of honest developers to do business in a corrupt state.
Yes, corruption is wrong, but so is the refusal to encourage developers to build projects that are beautiful, or at least that fit into the historic character of the state and its cities and towns – which is widely mandated by zoning laws and comprehensive plans. In a democracy, the public’s preference for traditional design should be influential.
Ruggerio’s legislation illustrates what Nietzsche called the “will to power,” but also it also facilitates what we might reasonably call a “will to ugliness” that is already ubiquitous in development here and elsewhere.
The will to ugliness arises because most design professionals – architects, educators, development staff and even preservationist professionals – buy into a century-old design philosophy that architecture “of our time” must embrace a machine aesthetic and reject new buildings that refer to past styles, even if they are preferred by the vast majority of the public. There is no logical argument for this and there never has been, but it is dogma among design professionals anyway. The public tends to detest the results.
Unlike political and financial corruption, which operate hand in glove to offend the wallet silently in the future, the ugliness of almost all public and private development offends the eye in real time, every day. It is pointless to say which is the most abhorrent. It may be argued that ugliness is the more direct and immediate harm. It robs each citizen of beauty, which is part and parcel of the pursuit of happiness. Scientists find more and more evidence each year that ugliness causes anxiety and illness. Why? Because traditional design mimics the reproductive characteristics of nature, whereas modern architecture rejects the learning that is embodied in the past.
Research shows that architectural preferences reflect more than just personal taste. Traditional design is intuitive whereas modernist design is learned. That means that it can be unlearned more easily than political and financial corruption that has been with us far longer than mere aesthetic error, which originated with a few disgruntled men in the 1920s.
It is unlikely that the I-195 commission is capable of unlearning the error of its ways. But it is not impossible.
Since building what people like is easier on the development process than building what people don’t like, learning the right way to develop can be easily done, swiftly, with no need for legislation, and at almost no cost. Which is good, because the future of Providence depends on it.
Spencer Providence proposal rejected by I-195 commission. (Greater City Providence)
Section of the Jardin de la Fontaine, in Nîmes, as seen in 2017. (Attila Nemet)
Here is a passage from A Little Tour in France, by Henry James, published in 1884. In this passage he is in Nîmes, a town in Provence best known for the Maison Carrée, a survivor from Roman days that inspired Thomas Jefferson’s design for his capitol building, in Richmond, Virginia. Of the Maison Carrée, James writes that “[t]he first impression you receive from this delicate little building, as you stand before it, is that you have already seen it many times. Photographs, engravings, models, medals, have placed it definitely in your eye.” This may be what happened to Jefferson as well, who saw it about a century before James described it in his little book. (Chap. XXVIII)
Drawing by Joseph Pennell from A Little Tour in France, by Henry James
The passage below was inspired by some ruins in Nîmes, in a park today known as the Jardin de la Fontaine, not far from the Maison Carrée. He writes that “[h]ere are the same terraces and steps and balustrades, and a system of water-works less impressive, perhaps, but very ingenious and charming. The whole place is a mixture of old Rome and of the French eighteenth century; for the remains of the antique baths are in a measure incorporated in the modern fountains.” He then mentions the ruins of a little temple to Diana, and continues:
The remains are very fragmentary, but they serve to show that the place was lovely. I spent half an hour in it on a perfect Sunday morning (it is enclosed by a high grille, carefully tended, and has a warden of its own), and with the help of my imagination tried to reconstruct a little the aspect of things in the Gallo-Roman days. I do wrong, perhaps, to say that I tried; from a flight so deliberate I should have shrunk. But there was a certain contagion of antiquity in the air; and among the ruins of baths and temples, in the very spot where the aqueduct that crosses the Gardon in the wondrous manner I had seen discharged itself, the picture of a splendid paganism seemed vaguely to glow. Roman baths, – Roman baths; those words alone were a scene. Everything was changed: I was strolling in a jardin francais; the bosky slope of the Mont Cavalier (a very modest mountain), hanging over the place, is crowned with a shapeless tower, which is as likely to be of mediaeval as of antique origin; and yet, as I leaned on the parapet of one of the fountains, where a flight of curved steps (a hemicycle, as the French say) descended into a basin full of dark, cool recesses, where the slabs of the Roman foundations gleam through the clear green water, – as in this attitude I surrendered myself to contemplation and reverie, it seemed to me that I touched for a moment the ancient world.
The passage merely shows how classical architecture can inspire flights of fancy of a sort that one might not expect to have walking down between the rows of Miesian glass boxes of Park Avenue in New York City.
Temple of Diana ruin at Jardin de la Fontaine. (Monumentum)
Proposal by two grad students to transfer Obama Center to Midway Plaisance. (Notre Dame)
Chicago can solve the crisis of its proposed Obama Presidential Center by transferring it from Jackson Park to the nearby Midway Plaisance, the strip of land best known as the sideshows of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. So say a pair of enterprising urban design graduate students at the University of Notre Dame, working under Prof. Philip Bess. They propose to relocate the planned presidential museum to the underutilized Midway and transform it into a grand boulevard anchored by a recast Obama Center.
Of course, this is unlikely to happen. It is supposedly a mere academic exercise (notwithstanding that, accolades to Marie Acalin and Roger Foreman); but great ideas often extend important conversations. For example, their proposal joins that to rebuild New York’s Penn Station as designed in the early 1900s by Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White, a proposal that reinforces the idea that modernist disasters can be fixed by using older, more humane methods of city building.
The status of the Midway today is not a modernist disaster but a lesser problem – a relatively unadorned and under-used green space left behind by the march of time. Here’s how Bess describes the potential transformation of the Midway in “Imagine the Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s Midway Plaisance,” written for the Chicago Tribune. The proposal
reimagine[s] the Midway as a baroque-scale urban boulevard, defined spatially to the north and south by new academic and residential buildings, and terminated at each end by monumental architecture. A grand urbane vision informed by Rome, Paris, Washington, D.C., and Chicago’s own Daniel Burnham, their work engages pressing issues of land use, race and class mistrust, neighborhood gentrification and equal justice under the law by proposing traditional Chicago building types, form-based-zoning, incremental development and land-value-taxation … .
Bess, who led another group of grad students in a 2016 project to reimagine Providence’s I-195 District and its proposed 6/10 Connector, adds that the Chicago proposal could “ennoble the Midway, the University of Chicago, the Obama Presidential Center, the adjacent Woodlawn neighborhood and ultimately Chicago itself.” It would “confirm [the Obama presidency] as a watershed achievement of aspirational American ideals of freedom, justice and equality.”
Progress on the Obama center has been slowed by a suit based on public-trust doctrine in Chicago law – mandating protection of historic city land – protests against possible gentrification in the South Side vicinity, and a poorly conceived design uncongenial to historic Jackson Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. At the very least, the grad students’ proposal could improve the Obama center’s prospects by rebranding it on the Midway as a place Chicagoans could love – mooting some of those issues and vaulting the Obama Center above both its off-putting modernist style and the tawdry persona of the typical midway. It would transform them into civic grandeur – albeit with a Ferris wheel at one end. (The first Ferris wheel was built on the Midway for the 1893 fair, and the term “midway” itself came to denote the lunch-‘n’-game-booth sections of state fairs and other playgrounds.)
As the Obama Center proposal’s challenges have deepened, starchitects are sending in their even wackier alternative proposals to dislodge current architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams.
Bess argues that the grad students’ placement of a 250-foot obelisk inspired by the Washington Monument amid two traditionally inspired Obama Center buildings would do a far better job than any modernist design at fitting the Obama phenomenon into the American historical trajectory:
The entire Obama Presidential Center ensemble would thereby link the Obama presidency simultaneously to both the ideals and the flaws of the American founding, to the history of African American emancipation and to the biblical foundation of the mid-1960s civil-rights movement’s opposition to the Jim Crow regime of legal segregation.
Bess raises the obligatory doubt that traditional architecture would be an appropriate environment for such a commemorative task. Bess addresses that doubt with a parallel doubt that crony capitalism’s modernist veneer is any more appropriate. Naturally, the proposal has been criticized by the design elite in Chicago (including Tribune critic Blair Kamin), which is itself a good reason to embrace it.
Chicago and Barack Obama should give this “academic exercise” (which Kamin wishes it would remain) a closer look.
Proposal by Bille Tsien/Tod Williams for Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. (Obama Foundation)
Town in Germany climbs hills above the Rhine River. (johnmartincoachholidays.co.uk)
Globetrotting mathematician and theorist Nikos Salingaros hits the nail on the head in his recent analysis of urban ills in “A Schizophrenic Approach to Building Cities,” published on the Meeting of the Minds website. Actually he hits many nails on the head, and while I will quote a few passages here, the essay deserves to be read in its entirety. Usefully, he links readers to his sources throughout. Here is his opening paragraph.
Two currents — so far, irreconcilable and mutually exclusive — are shaping our cities. On the one hand, we have vast construction projects churning profits for multinationals, local firms, and indirectly for stockholders. The media is inundated with their exciting images, and the developing world appears as a testing-ground for the more ambitious (and pharaonic) among those schemes. But are they good for humankind?
He answers his own question in the next paragraph by citing the alternative:
Salingaros is based at the University of Texas but lectures worldwide and has long worked with architectural theorist Christopher Alexander (author of A Pattern Language). Salingaros has made a name for himself by identifying the many similarities between traditional architecture and the biological traits of nature. Buildings and cities reproduce by using the best practices of builders developed by trial and error as handed down by generations of builders over the centuries. The process mimics the descent of species in nature, and for this reason he calls the resulting architecture and urbanism “living” design.
This view of change over time is familiar to any biologist. For a biological system, sweeping away the past and starting anew, without the benefit of the past’s genetic evolution, would constitute a catastrophic and destructive event—the genetic equivalent of starting life over with single-celled bacteria. Evolution is not about doing away with the old … and starting with a radical newness. Instead, building blocks of the past are recombined to achieve ever more adaptive complexity and resilience. The process is not static, but neither is it only about change: it is rather about preserving and building on the tested and proven accomplishments of the past.
I noticed this phenomenon in 2003 during a trip to Germany. My brother and I took a train running along the hills above the Rhine and found that many towns and villages seemed to creep up toward the crest of the valley as if they had grown out of the soil. (We were dismayed to see one enchanting village marred by a BP gas station with its obligatory huge flat lime-green roof, the only hint of modernity amid the village’s sea of clay tiles.)
Salingaros’s scientific clarity in describing the two mutually exclusive philosophies of city design extends to their economic, physiological and psychological ramifications. He suggests that the powerful architecture and planning establishments are acutely aware of the problems they perpetuate, and seek in response to “co-opt the ideas presented by the humanist side”:
Salingaros is, if not optimistic, hopeful that cities can embrace living design by promoting mixed-use development and a wide variety of scales typical of older cities that have not yet been neutered by modernist sterility. Cities, he says, need to subordinate automobiles to people. He identifies resilience as the vital characteristic of cities that work, changing over time in ways that learn from and reflect the natural patterns of historical development:
Resilience comes from linked processes and structures working on many different scales. Solutions are found in self-built spontaneous settlements and in traditional cities. Historic evolution took place towards healthier environments through biophilia and design patterns, but city form as decided by design ideology linked to power cannot re-configure into a new system. By worshipping “images of the future,” society doesn’t re-use older successful solutions, and this limitation prevents resilient systems from forming.
Salingaros does not expect the proposals being made for living urbanism to surmount the current reign of modernist sclerosis. And yet: