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Seven Misunderstandings About Classical Architecture
November 17, 2011 3:48 AM   Subscribe


 
Mmm, classicy.
posted by robself at 4:46 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I hope this piece becomes classic itself. I'm impressed by the natural way he goes from explaining the art of shadow casting to the different thermal expansion coefficients of classic and modern materials to the economical implications:
"We have built a large office building in London in traditional materials and construction. It had to be traditional for conservation reasons, and the client was prepared to pay more for it, but in fact it cost slightly less per square foot than comparable office buildings at the time. Furthermore, because it had a Georgian proportion of window to wall, it did not require air-conditioning and thereby reduced the running cost considerably.
The modern client not only needs a deep pocket and a short memory but he also needs an inordinate supply of combustible fuel to keep the building properly serviced. In the past the resources of the earth were scarce, and the buildings reflected a sense of moderation which is altogether lacking in the overglazed facades with which we are so familiar today. The real question is whether or not the designed article is good value for money."

Thank you for the link.
posted by hat_eater at 4:47 AM on November 17, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'd never thought too deeply about the concept of making the most important doors the biggest and the fanciest and the least important the plainest - but it makes so much sense on a practical level. Good architecture can really reduce the need for signs telling people which entrances to use and which door leads to the big meeting room as opposed to the store cupboard. And the Georgian ideal of windows equalling 10% of the floor space to make the room energy efficient is great, as well.

I love more modern architecture (especially well-done brutalist buildings), and am generally annoyed with anything new in a faux-classical style - but having read this, I won't automatically dismiss something newly built just because it has a bit of moulding or a couple of columns.
posted by cilantro at 4:59 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


It is unfortunate that most people who decide to have a go at "classical architecture" come up with buildings like this or this.
posted by cilantro at 5:09 AM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, these are rather terrible, simple != easy.
posted by hat_eater at 5:12 AM on November 17, 2011


Those faux classical buildings are 100x better than that brutalist nonsense that actually, physically hurts the eye.

That said, the thing I find most annoying is when the interior style and exterior style don't match. If a building with columns has cubicles inside, burn it down.
posted by DU at 5:18 AM on November 17, 2011 [9 favorites]


Think of the Pantheon in Rome, built in brick and lime mortar. It has a diameter of 142ft and has stood for nearly two thousand years. No reinforced concrete structure could last anything like so long because once air and moisture have penetrated to the reinforcement there is nothing which can permanently inhibit its breakdown. It does not even make a good ruin!

"It does not even make a good ruin" is the best way of putting it, and this whole passage warms the cockles of my cold, cold heart. (I have had arguments with my engineer brother about the joy/value of Roman concrete-- he insists that buildings that fall apart in a decade or so are a feature, not a bug. HARRRUMPH.)
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:31 AM on November 17, 2011 [9 favorites]


That was fascinating. I used to want to become an architect when I was a kid, and things like this make me regret not doing it. Architecture for the purpose of beauty is awesome, but the science of it is even more interesting.
posted by lucidium at 5:40 AM on November 17, 2011


It is unfortunate that most people who decide to have a go at "classical architecture" come up with buildings like this or this.

Or this?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:42 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I could talk to you all day about the joy and value of Roman concrete. (but I'm supposed to be writing my thesis about it)

I'm glad to see they're using traditional materials in addition to the classical styles. They spell out their reasons why in this essay.
posted by Eumachia L F at 5:43 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Honestly, "will it make a good ruin?" should be a basic architectural principle....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:44 AM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


It is unfortunate that most people who decide to have a go at "classical architecture" come up with buildings like this or this.

I knew one of those links would go to the hideous Poundbury fire-station.
posted by atrazine at 5:44 AM on November 17, 2011


Those faux classical buildings are 100x better than that brutalist nonsense that actually, physically hurts the eye.

No, not really. There's good architecture and bad architecture. The style is pretty much irrelevant. Those linked examples are simply bad architecture because they disregard most lessons of the FPP article. They were done with cheap materials and no consideration to classical proportions or functionality, never mind such details as shadowing.

Most brutalist architecture was pretty bad for very much the same reasons, linked not to the style itself but to the period in which it was built. In the '60s, a lot had to be built in a hurry with relatively few workers, whereas in the '70s budgets were tight and the workforce disgruntled. As a result, a lot of sh*t was built, not only brutalist sh*t.

But there actually was pretty good brutalist architecture. Not just the obvious stuff like this. I grew up close to this building and not only does it look rather good, but it has actually aged well (better than me, probably). Not coincidentally, it was built for the local architects' association...
posted by Skeptic at 5:45 AM on November 17, 2011 [10 favorites]


But there actually was pretty good brutalist architecture

Well-built, perhaps. Good? Not a chance. What an ugly, depressing "style".
posted by spaltavian at 5:54 AM on November 17, 2011 [7 favorites]



Those faux classical buildings are 100x better than that brutalist nonsense that actually, physically hurts the eye.


Personally, I think that the brutalist buildings look a lot better than the faux-classical stuff, but for a place to actually live or work in, I'll take the faux-classical almost every time. It's painfully ugly, but at least it has windows and doors, and it usually built with the human scale in mind.

I have mixed feelings about his comments on the longevity of materials and structures. Yes, a lot of new buildings are short-term -- but so were a lot of buildings back in the day; the ones that are still around are the ones that were well-built and with enough functional or aesthetic value to be worth repairing and maintaining.

People ask, 'How can you find men to do your class of work these days?' as if men no longer can or want to produce skilled work. The truth is that whenever there is good work to be done there are men to do it. We have never had difficulty in obtaining first class joinery; we prepare full size details and specify the quality, and provided a reputable builder is doing the work it normally needs no further explanation. The same goes for plasterers, bricklayers, slaters, stonemasons and even woodcarvers and coppersmiths. Generally, I find that the more intricate the detail, the more willing the tradesmen are to take on the work.

I thought this was interesting. My own experience has been more mixed; this probably varies depending on where you are, what kind of work is needed, and how deep your pockets are.
posted by Forktine at 5:56 AM on November 17, 2011


But there actually was pretty good brutalist architecture. Not just the obvious stuff like this. I grew up close to this building and not only does it look rather good...

Enormous rectangular blocks of gray != good in any sense.
posted by DU at 5:58 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks for this. Very nourishing, appropriate portion size.

Good architecture can really reduce the need for signs. . .

I am a firm proponent of self-documenting user interfaces for all things. In architecture, especially.

my engineer brother. . . insists that buildings that fall apart in a decade or so are a feature, not a bug.

This may well be true, and may be beneficial in the long run.

 
posted by Herodios at 6:05 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've known a lot of brutalist buildings that I can appreciate aesthetically, but I still end up getting pissed off when I can't figure out where the hell the entrance is.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:06 AM on November 17, 2011


DU quite a few neoclassical landmarks could also be easily dismissed as "enormous rectangular blocks of gray". This comes to mind, for instance. Or this.

If you look beyond the stereotype, however, you'll see that in the examples of brutalist buildings I linked to, both the general proportions and the details are right, and indeed closely match classical doctrine.
posted by Skeptic at 6:09 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was in the moulding and millwork business for about 20 years. I like the essay and generally agree with the writer.

A few points:

1. Mouldings are all about the interplay of light and shadow. They are also functional; many mouldings cover joints and provide a finished look. Much trial-and error went into the design of what we consider "classical" mouldings - columns were originally non-tapered, for instance. Ancient architects realized that rows of non-tapered columns looked top-heavy and appeared to curve towards each other. They eventually worked out that a curved taper in the column shaft eliminated that illusion. My point is that beauty was strived for, and hard won. Not using that knowledge is like reinventing the wheel.

2. It's really okay to use "cove" mouldings and "ogees". "Cavetto" and "cyma reversa" is just a bit old-school. Like many-centuries-old-school.

3. Building materials aren't just functional. Each area has its own architectural language. American colonial architecture is a reinterpretation of classical architecture executed in wood and plaster. Those materials are not as durable as stone, but they were readily available in the new world. There is no huge reason not to still embrace them.

While I think we would have generally better architecture if everyone followed the writer's philosophy, I say if a structure fits its setting, functions appropriately for its users, and is built with skill and attention and detail, then all is well.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:15 AM on November 17, 2011 [9 favorites]


One of those has no rectangular blocks and the other one isn't gray.

you'll see that in the examples of brutalist buildings I linked to

I clicked both, hoping to see the stereotype destroyed. Both were extremely ugly.
posted by DU at 6:20 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Architect Has No Clothes
Have you ever looked at a bizarre building design and wondered, “What were the architects thinking?” Have you looked at a supposedly “ecological” industrial-looking building, and questioned how it could be truly ecological? Or have you simply felt frustrated by a building that made you uncomfortable, or felt anger when a beautiful old building was razed and replaced with a contemporary eyesore? You might be forgiven for thinking “these architects must be blind!” New research shows that in a real sense, you might actually be right.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 6:22 AM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


That was written by Quinlan Terry? Truly, I have grown up believing him a total hack and a lackey of New Labor. And yet it makes so much sense.

But there's a politico-aesthetic concern here - as far as I know - which is unique to the UK: the way in which "classical" architecture and "tradition" have been mustered against working class and social justice movements, and for aristocratic control from above. You have only to look at 1. the perpetual attacks on Council housing which used (according to friends who grew up in it) to actually be pretty good in most places and 2. the authoritarian, from-above proposals by Prince Charles, who is certainly the best of the traditionalists politically in that he actually has some sympathy for popular and environmental concerns.

Now, in a sense you can read this as an abstract argument about classical architecture - just as you can read fifties horror movies as movies about monsters and monsters only - but there's also this alternative reading which situates the essay in a specific political climate, just as there's a reading of fifties monster movies which brings in the Cold War and anxieties about gender in an age of new commercial products.
posted by Frowner at 6:24 AM on November 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


(I actually have come to love brutalism. There are a LOT of beautiful brutalist buildings, but they are of course not classical buildings. The thing is, there's a snob/culture tendency to value classical architecture so much that it's the only thing we can see as beautiful - just like Vogue magazine retrains your eye so that you can't see the beauty around you, only high fashion beauty. Owen Hatherley has a lot of interesting stuff to say about modern architecture (and Quinlan Terry, in places). It was through reading his blog that I came to understand more about what modernist and brutalist architects were doing and started to see the stuff on its own terms. Like, you don't expect Shostakovich to sound like Mozart, and it's perfectly possible to understand and appreciate both, as long as you have some idea about what each is trying to do.)
posted by Frowner at 6:31 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Have you ever looked at a bizarre building design and wondered, “What were the architects thinking?”

As a matter of fact, and I'm not even making this up, yesterday afternoon I was idly wondering how rich I would have to be to pay Frank Gehry to NOT build any more buildings for the rest of his life.
posted by DU at 6:32 AM on November 17, 2011 [9 favorites]


One of those has no rectangular blocks and the other one isn't gray.

Actually, the Madeleine is one huge rectangular block behind all those columns, look at these pictures. And the Lincoln Memorial is grey. Very light grey, perhaps, but grey nonetheless.
posted by Skeptic at 6:33 AM on November 17, 2011


But there actually was pretty good brutalist architecture. Not just the obvious stuff like this. I grew up close to this building and not only does it look rather good...

Enormous rectangular blocks of gray != good in any sense


Before we move on, we are all clear on what we mean by 'brutlist', yeah?

A place to start: Wickuhpedia:
The British architects Alison and Peter Smithson coined the term in 1953, from the French béton brut, or "raw concrete".

Brutalist buildings usually are formed with striking repetitive angular geometries, and, where concrete is used, often revealing the texture of the wooden forms used for the in-situ casting. Although concrete is the material most widely associated with Brutalist architecture, not all Brutalist buildings are formed from concrete. . .

Conversely, not all buildings exhibiting an exposed concrete exterior can be considered Brutalist, and may belong to one of a range of architectural styles including Constructivism, International Style, Expressionism, Postmodernism, and Deconstructivism. . .

Another common theme in Brutalist designs is the exposure of the building's functions—ranging from their structure and services to their human use—in the exterior of the building. . .

Brutalism as an architectural philosophy, rather than a style, was often also associated with a socialist utopian ideology. . . Critics argue that this abstract nature of Brutalism makes the style unfriendly and uncommunicative, instead of being integrating and protective, as its proponents intended. The failure of positive communities to form early on in some Brutalist structures. . . led to the combined unpopularity of both the ideology and the architectural style.

Brutalist != Enormous rectangular blocks of gray.

I would describe, Habitat 67, for example, as attractive in concept and execution and over 40 years later apparently a desirable address.
 
posted by Herodios at 6:34 AM on November 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


I love the writing style. I perfect amount of curmugeonliness.
posted by empath at 6:35 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


"If you look at it from certain angles and strip away most of the outside" != "is a big gray block"

Also, I'm not sure stacks of shipping containers are a "desirable address".

But I should stop arguing against brutalism and content myself with the fact that it seems to have been a short phase.
posted by DU at 6:37 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


yesterday afternoon I was idly wondering how rich I would have to be to pay Frank Gehry to NOT build any more buildings for the rest of his life.

I live quite near one. It is situated in an area of parks, trees, and neo-classical structures.

I love it, and think it's a good neighbor in a good neighborhood.
 
posted by Herodios at 6:39 AM on November 17, 2011


stacks of shipping containers

How sad for you.
 
posted by Herodios at 6:40 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


But I should stop arguing against brutalism and content myself with the fact that it seems to have been a short phase.

Hah! You wish.
posted by Skeptic at 6:42 AM on November 17, 2011


Skeptic:

I'm curious why you think those two buildings are blocks of grey.

Both the Madeleine and the Lincoln Memorial are very classical orthostyle structures. They are all about pleasing proportions. The detail is understated, and primarily in the capitals and entablature.

I realize they may not be your cup of tea, but there is a whole lot more going on in their design than you seem to allow.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:42 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lord Grantham would no doubt approve.

Thanks for the link. His writing is as clear and well-thought out as his architecture.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:45 AM on November 17, 2011


Herodios-- "my engineer brother. . . insists that buildings that fall apart in a decade or so are a feature, not a bug.

This may well be true, and may be beneficial in the long run."

Honestly, it's a joke-- he gets paid to build modern ones, and I get paid in part to know about old ruins. What I think many people don't realize is that many very expensive buildings come with such short expiration dates.

Speaking of which, Eumachia L F, I look forward to your eventual books on the subject of wonderful, wonderful Roman concrete.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:50 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Benny, I never dismissed those two buildings. I actually like the Lincoln Memorial a lot, precisely for the reasons you state. I don't like the Madeleine much, partly because I have the feeling that the ornate columns don't quite match the flat walls behind, but also for no fault of the building itself but rather because, having been built as a free-standing building, it now feels quite boxed-in in the urban architecture. I merely put them forward as examples of "boxiness" in neoclassical architecture. There are of course many more examples, starting with Palladio himself.
posted by Skeptic at 6:53 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not all brutalist buildings are rectangular - this one, for example, recently demolished.
posted by hat_eater at 6:59 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


many people don't realize is that many very expensive buildings come with such short expiration dates.

Right, which we can hope will clear away some of the ugly, badly situated, poorly conceived ones to make room for. . . whatever comes next. Maybe something more sustainable that will 'make a good ruin' in the world without us.

(NOT to be confused with The World Without US Warning! Contains Niall Ferguson).
 
posted by Herodios at 7:04 AM on November 17, 2011


What I think many people don't realize is that many very expensive buildings come with such short expiration dates.

This really isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you realize the world has a finite buildable area, then you'd really like buildings to "biodegrade" because otherwise you need to dispose of them somehow.

That said, today's buildings don't biodegrade well. They just fall apart. They are more like styrofoam cups than, say, a gourd.
posted by DU at 7:07 AM on November 17, 2011


Honestly, "will it make a good ruin?" should be a basic architectural principle....
posted by GenjiandProust


Weirdly, that was one of main building-design concerns for Speer and Hitler.
posted by COBRA! at 7:15 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm going to have to jump in. The author is wrong.

The real misunderstanding here is his own of what modern architecture is and how it got started. Its beginnings can easily be pushed back to the nineteenth century with the writings and conceptual projects of Viollet-le-Duc. You can see the rumblings of modern architecture even earlier in the works of Étienne-Louis Boullée, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, and Jean Jacques Lequeu.

Modern architecture is the result of the 20th century and everything that lead up to it. Some of the first individuals to react to this great human paradigm were the architects; the folks whose lives and efforts were deeply intertwined with trying to understand the built environment and react to it.

"Our population is exploding!"
"We don't have enough craftsmen."
"Tenement buildings suck." (I'm paraphrasing here)

Not only were architects acutely aware of the impending sea-change that society faced from a technical perspective, but they also realized that the architecture that they were taught blithely ignored its own deterioration in meaning. Architecture students like Tony Garnier were among the first to comprehensively rethink the status quo, and as soon as people realized that modern architecture was cheaper to build, everything fell into place.

The thought that the world would have been better off without modern architecture is silly. Cities were headed towards a veritable clusterfuck and someone had to lay aside their French curves, roll up their sleeves, and figure out what to do.

I love Classical Architecture. I do. I went through an architectural education that emphasized both the modern and the ancient in almost all aspects. We learned to draw on drafting tables with proficiency, as well as NURB it up in 3DS Max or Maya. We had classes on architectural theory that juxtaposed works of architecture that were hundreds or even thousands of years apart. We also had classes on sustainability and designing buildings that take into account their environment (GZ brown aw yeah).

Despite my appreciation of the architectural works of my forebears, I can't take this essay seriously:
"Furthermore, because it had a Georgian proportion of window to wall, it did not require air-conditioning and thereby reduced the running cost considerably. "
To a trained architect, this is straight-up Timecube material.

It should be noted that modern architecture doesn't reject culture or vernacular. What makes modern architecture is the process by which it is created. Context is key.

As for residential architecture, it's something else. A person may want to live in a Victorian house, and I wouldn't fault them. The nostalgia feeds some part of their soul and they're happy. As long as they understand Victorian houses have Victorian problems.
posted by lemuring at 7:40 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


I would describe, Habitat 67, for example, as attractive in concept and execution and over 40 years later apparently a desirable address.

It may be attractive and desirable, but a brutalist building called "Habitat 67" just screams "Citizen, pick up that can."
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:42 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Terry isn't really a reliable source on understandings or misunderstandings of classical architecture, in my view. As I see it, a profound understanding of classical architecture must lead to insisting on building something contemporary now. Of course, all architecture includes references to previous architecture. That lies in the nature of building. But imagining that the language of architecture was fixed for all ages in England during the 18th century is ridiculous.

There's a whole village of straw men (houses?) in the argument here, too.
First: most of what is built is bad architecture, from any point of view one may take. There are several reasons for this, but choice of style is not one of them.
Second: it's not like your only choice is between classical and brutalist architecture. Brutalist architecture was a thing fifty years ago. It isn't now and hasn't been for a long time. There are plenty good architects, like Peter Zumthor, David Chipperfield, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, SANAA and many, many others working in many styles and forms
From here, one could take every single of his 7 points and show how they are not at the core of the discussion about classical architecture's value today. For instance, I don't think Terry's architecture is a pastiche because he gets his ideas from a pattern-book, but because it is a decorative imitation of something historical, rather than a living interpretation of the conditions, programmes, production-methods and economy of our day. Or, with Milan Kundera: "Kitsch is a folding screen set up to curtain off death." It is denying the reality of our human temporality
posted by mumimor at 7:43 AM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


...and Frank Gehry is crap.
posted by lemuring at 7:43 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


"I'm going to have to jump in. The author is wrong."

Thanks for your contribution, lemuring, it is very interesting. But rather prove the article wrong, you've merely asserted as much, and then listed a whole bunch of stuff you happen to know or think about classical architecture that doesn't really address the issues of the original essay. Your one criticism of a specific point in the article, about the ratio of window area to floor space, is not supported with reasoning, but with a mere argument from authority ("to a trained architect...")

So, again, while I think your contribution added to the thread, I don't think it needed the added drama of "the author is wrong" (unless, that is, you're really going to take the article to pieces, paragraph by paragraph, in a convincing way).

The article is about false assumptions about classical architecture. It is not an attack on modernism.
posted by nthdegx at 7:47 AM on November 17, 2011 [7 favorites]


We have never had difficulty in obtaining first class joinery; we prepare full size details and specify the quality, and provided a reputable builder is doing the work it normally needs no further explanation. The same goes for plasterers, bricklayers, slaters, stonemasons and even woodcarvers and coppersmiths. Generally, I find that the more intricate the detail, the more willing the tradesmen are to take on the work.

I work directly with the joinery companies who build this stuff for practices like QFT and from time to time with the architects themselves, and there is nothing about the relationship between the two that I recognise in these three sentences. Joinery companies do nothing but moan about architects, and finished joinery is invariably a compromise between what is designed and what can be built. This is anecfact. Also anecfact, contemporarily-built classical buildings tend to look like doll's houses.
posted by tigrefacile at 7:53 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


...and Frank Gehry is crap.
posted by lemuring


Until about a month ago, I worked in a Gehry building, and man, did I work up a complicated set of feelings. I really did love the exterior (even if I felt bad for a friend of mine who had to spend weeks every summer up on a lift polishing the metal), but there's a lot wrong with the interior. Most notably, a couple of dead spaces (with windows looking into them) between boxy interior walls and the curvy exterior walls. And big chunks of the upper parts of the curvy metal exterior were just standalone facades sticking up like movie sets.

Actually, the interior wasn't very well laid-out at all. Finding your way around or even getting from one part of the building to the other was a giant PITA. And don't get me started about the bathrooms or how shitty my office was.

I do think Gehry's refined it a bunch since the early 90s, when that building went up; at least I hope so.
posted by COBRA! at 8:01 AM on November 17, 2011


Until about a month ago, I worked in a Gehry building, and man, did I work up a complicated set of feelings.

I suspect that I know this building, based on your location. I've always hated it, actually. It doesn't fit well with anything around it (although there have certainly been a couple of godawful monstrosities put up nearby). But what I really, truly hate about it is how it's unsuited to our climate - watching the wood bits deteriorate really pissed me off (and they obviously weren't meant to deteriorate in some kind of wabi-sabi way). And the concrete parts, totally the wrong sort of concrete use for our climate. And the really stupid canopy roof thing that dripped water onto passers-by. It's just a color-by-numbers piece of starchitecture suitable perhaps for a very dry climate.

And the dead spaces inside, yes, and the flimsiness of the whole thing, and the way that it's a set of boxes with stuff stuck onto them. I'm fine with decorated sheds, myself, but the things sticking out really made me angry.

That's maybe the only building I've ever seen except for a few particularly oligarchical office buildings which actually made me mad. It's a contemptuous building, made without care for the people who will use it and walk by it, and made without care even for the institution which commissioned it and has a right to expect something non-disposable.
posted by Frowner at 8:25 AM on November 17, 2011


Most notably, a couple of dead spaces (with windows looking into them) between boxy interior walls and the curvy exterior walls.

Such as
posted by DU at 8:30 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Weirdly, that was one of main building-design concerns for Speer and Hitler.

Well, even a pig with a bad cold finds a truffle every so often....
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:41 AM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


nthdegx, thank you for your classy reply :)

As for the Georgian reference, the author is incorrect because windows will perform differently depending on the buildings/shading devices/trees that surround them, if they're recessed or not, and especially whether they are located on the south, north, or east/west face of the building. It's something one needs to calculate if the aim is to create a building that can comfortably do without air-conditioning. To say something like:
"It uses Georgian window-to-wall proportions, you know what that means right? ...That's right. No. Air-conditioning. Required."

It's funny, but also frustrating.

Misunderstanding 1:
Classical architecture is not pastiche, but his explanation makes it seem like it is. He doesn't talk about the importance of Space or Scale; how the interiors and exteriors of -good- Classical buildings are intimately related to the scale of their human occupants, their visual capacities, and their ability to inhabit the buildings. This, by the way, is something that all good modern architects sought to preserve, but adapt to the advent of new materials and methods of construction. Beyond the apparent beauty of Classical Architecture is a system that is about you, the human being.

Misunderstanding 2:
He's all over the place with this one. He starts out talking about the hierarchy of doors and how "back in the ole times" people knew to make fancy doors for important places. Boss's office: Fanciest door you can possibly imagine. He then goes on to say, "Take a look at this plan of a house. You might say it's the greatest plan in the universe. It's lasted centuries because it's so hard to beat on functional grounds alone. Go ahead. Try and beat it. You'll probably fail like the many that have come before you."

I know, I'm making him seem like a bit of a cartoon character, but that's what he seems like to me. For a better look at the intricacies of Classical Architecture presented in a casual manner, Architecture: Form, Space, and Order is fantastic.
posted by lemuring at 8:43 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I suspect that I know this building, based on your location. I've always hated it, actually. It doesn't fit well with anything around it (although there have certainly been a couple of godawful monstrosities put up nearby). But what I really, truly hate about it is how it's unsuited to our climate - watching the wood bits deteriorate really pissed me off (and they obviously weren't meant to deteriorate in some kind of wabi-sabi way). And the concrete parts, totally the wrong sort of concrete use for our climate. And the really stupid canopy roof thing that dripped water onto passers-by. It's just a color-by-numbers piece of starchitecture suitable perhaps for a very dry climate.

Yeah, you're right on all counts. It's weird, I'd noticed the deterioration of the wood and thought it looked shitty, but never thought to pin that one back on Gehry. A bonus for the water-dripping canopy: there's a second-story conference room behind it, with a large window that looks out onto the backside of the canopy. Very useful.
posted by COBRA! at 8:47 AM on November 17, 2011


"It uses Georgian window-to-wall proportions, you know what that means right? ...That's right. No. Air-conditioning. Required."

He's not making a blanket statement, he's talking about a specific project.
posted by Rock Steady at 8:55 AM on November 17, 2011


Wow, so many things in this thread I would take issue with. Let's see...

Brutalism: mostly people use this as a term of abuse for "architecture I don't like." I simply can't tell from this thread if the people railing against brutalism actually know what it is or not. There are bad brutalist buildings and good brutalist buildings like every other architectural style or movement in the history of the world. Marcel Breuer's Whitney Museum of American Art is, to my eye, a masterpiece; the J. Edgar Hoover building in DC is a nightmare. So? There are modernist nightmares, classical nightmares, postmodern nightmares aplenty. No architectural language will, in itself, save you from making a monstrosity or prevent you from making a masterpiece.

Poundbury. Metafilter has debated that building before. In that thread I argued, and would still argue, that that building (which is not a "fire station" but a regional headquarters for the Dorset Fire and Rescue service--there is a fire station attached to it, but the building is simply an office building) is a perfectly unexceptionable (and unexceptional) example of neo-classical design. The only reason people line up to take a dump on it is because a rumor got around that it was designed by Prince Charles--a rumor that appears to have no basis in fact. In the linked thread I asked everyone who was claiming that it showed complete ignorance of neoclassical design principles to give an instance of an actual error in the building's design. The most anyone could come up with was that they didn't like the downpipes from the guttering.

Gehry. How the hell Gehry came up in an argument about classicism vs. brutalism God only knows. Suffice to say that yeah, Gehry has designed some bad buildings and that, yeah, he's willing to sacrifice internal logic/coherency to the soaring sculptural exteriors of his buildings (in his late style). At this point, though, there seems to be little point in arguing that those external forms are generally unpleasing or represent an insult to the fabric of the cities in which they are found. That, clearly, is very much a minority view and should be of no more interest to those of us who admire those buildings than would be the view of whatever minority dislikes the buildings you, personally, happen to like. No one can make architecture that pleases everyone; Gehry has demonstrably succeeded in creating architecture that pleases most.
posted by yoink at 9:04 AM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


"It uses Georgian window-to-wall proportions, you know what that means right? ...That's right. No. Air-conditioning. Required."

He's not making a blanket statement, he's talking about a specific project.



I took that possibility into account. It still doesn't make any sense.

Georgian proportions on the sunny south side? the north side? the east/west with low angles of direct sunlight? Does the building face North at an angle? What's the microclimate around this building like? What kind of trees are planted around this building and where?

These factors can -easily- throw off a rigid system of window proportions. You'll end up with rooms that are sweltering hot, bone-numbingly cold, or both at different times of the year.
posted by lemuring at 9:12 AM on November 17, 2011


That, clearly, is very much a minority view....

...among a small group of architects, maybe. If you ask J. Random User, I don't think you'll find his architecture "pleases most". For instance, I've never heard a single good word out of anyone uses the MIT thing he designed.
posted by DU at 9:18 AM on November 17, 2011


That, clearly, is very much a minority view and should be of no more interest to those of us who admire those buildings than would be the view of whatever minority dislikes the buildings you, personally, happen to like. No one can make architecture that pleases everyone; Gehry has demonstrably succeeded in creating architecture that pleases most.

Most of whom? On a day to day basis, I rarely meet people who like the local Gehry - rarely enough that it's a surprise when it happens. That doesn't prove anything, but it does suggest that further information is required.

And surely if you work in or next to a Gehry (like the one discussed above) and you have actual complaints about how it works as a building that's pretty legit. A competent architect should not create an expensive building which can't survive the climate it's in without needing substantial repairs after only a few years - that's just stupid and inexcusable in an architect with an international clientele. A competent architect should not create a building in which people will do administrative work and have meetings and in which the office space and meeting space are stupid afterthoughts (as with the conference room which....looks out onto the back of the canopy.) If we want goddamn soaring forms without usable interiors, let's get some sculpture.

And yes, I think that a building which does not work for what it's meant to house is a bad building. The local Ralph Rapson towers are really attractive and have some wonderful rooms, but you end up waiting ten minutes (literally, I clocked it once) for an elevator because they're extremely tall and extremely heavily populated apartment buildings but have something like four elevators. I would like to like those buildings - and in many respects I do - but old-school vaguely archology utopian apartment buildings have absolutely no business not being able to move their residents around in a timely manner. The average wait for an elevator (per the New Yorker) is 33 seconds.
posted by Frowner at 9:37 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


That, clearly, is very much a minority view....

...among a small group of architects, maybe. If you ask J. Random User, I don't think you'll find his architecture "pleases most".



Bilbao was one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all completely united."
With Bilbao, Gehry presented a long-awaited solution to one of the most vexing problems in architecture at the end of the 20th century. Modernism, especially when deployed in urban settings on a grand scale, was largely loathed by the general public. . . Postmodernism, a movement emphasizing a return to decoration, historical references, and fewer desolate urban plazas. . . seems in hindsight like a frail fig leaf attempting to cover up the sins of what had gone before.

“Bilbao is truly a signal moment in the architectural culture,” says the Pulitzer Prize—winning critic Paul Goldberger, author of Why Architecture Matters (2009). “The building blazed new trails and became an extraordinary phenomenon. It was one of those rare moments when critics, academics, and the general public were all completely united about something.”
posted by Herodios at 9:52 AM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


The impulse to open an account under J. Random User is strong.
posted by xod at 10:08 AM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is really devolving quite a bit into hating-on-the-style-I-dislike instead of genuine debate over the role of classical (frankly, technically, neo-classical) architecture in the modern world. I think it does have a place and I'm glad there are architects truly willing to tackle the form with thought and gusto, but they face an uphill battle against the pastiche form.

How Brutalism and Gehry's Deconstructivism got roped into this discussion I don't quite know -- neither is a reaction against Classical architecture. One is an evolution of Modernism, and the other is a reaction to or critique of Modernism (speakly broadly). (Oh, and the Philip Johnson Chippendale building is Postmodernism, not at all Neoclassical.)

As far as I'm concerned the only posters making sense here are yoinks and lemuring.

I will say this: I find most of the hatred of Gehry understandable, but most against Brutalism to be often misunderstanding it. The Whitney truly is a masterpiece, for instance. Habitat 67, which shares almost none of the massing and overwhelming aspects for which Brutalism is oft disliked, is also pretty brilliant -- if not exactly pretty, per se. It's really the exact opposite of "Pick up that can" (sheesh, what a dumb meme in an architecture thread). So concrete looks urban and can get dirty, but the scale of the structures is broken up and humane, and there seems to be privacy and community built into the design. Compare that with the typical wind-swept housing project/estate of the era.

As an historic preservationist, I'm really kind of worried that generalizations and misconceptions about Brutalism, and modern architecture generally, are going to endanger many of them when the time comes.
posted by dhartung at 10:22 AM on November 17, 2011 [3 favorites]


Gehry has demonstrably succeeded in creating architecture that pleases most.

"Most" people who pay for vanity architecture projects, perhaps. We have a Gehry blob here in Seattle and I have not observed any particular fondness for it among the general population. At best it gets a sort of head-shaking bemusement along the lines of "what will those wacky modern architects think of next", or perhaps "well I guess Paul Allen is free to waste his money however he wants".
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:29 AM on November 17, 2011


Barring browsing through my college boyfriend's copy of Bannister Fletcher, I'm an ignoramus but thoroughly enjoying reading this thread. Thank you.
posted by infini at 11:03 AM on November 17, 2011


As Herodias points out, Gehry's Bilbao building put Bilbao on the map as a major tourist destination. There aren't enough architecture-biz insiders for that massive surge to have been fueled solely by them. The Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA is also a huge tourist destination--simply as a building to wander around (the hall itself is also, obviously, a massive draw, but independently from the building that wraps it). No, not everyone likes it (especially not the people nearby whose apartments were getting cooked by reflected heat), but, again, that is no more interesting as a comment about a work of architecture than "your favorite band sucks" is interesting as a piece of music criticism.

The claims about form/function are certainly real. Even the common areas in the Walt Disney Concert Hall are often cramped and traffic flows are often unclear and confusing. There's a perfectly reasonable discussion to be had about whether the beauty of the building's form does or does not excuse the compromises made in terms of function. I can see arguments on both sides. Personally I'm willing to put up with a certain amount of inconvenience in exchange for a visually thrilling building. I can understand entirely that others might not be.

I, personally, am far more outraged by a perfectly serviceable but utterly tedious and unadventurous design than I am by even an ugly building that at least represents an effort at achieving some kind of vision. The buildings that outrage me are all the dreary pseudo-Spanish-Mission malls and the oh-so-tasteful pseudo-Craftsmen, pseudo-Spanish, pseudo-Italian suburban homes that blight the Southern Californian landscape. They're the design equivalent of muzak.
posted by yoink at 11:21 AM on November 17, 2011


Discussions about architecture are always interesting; most people have an intimate and visceral understanding of architecture to some degree, whether they've thought about it or not. Everyone has experienced architecture, whereas not everyone has really interacted with art in any meaningful way.

There are a million tangents to go down, many of which have surfaced here. For instance, distinguishing between public and private architecture leads to very different discussions. Style is an issue no matter what, though.

Personally, the minimalist form-follows-function and deconstructivist approaches don't really float my boat - although I support the ideas behind them. I think it's because, to me, so many of the actually-built examples don't really live up to the hype: if you are going to deconstruct the language, then the result has to function better than than the alternative or the experiment is a failure. The many anecdotes from people who have actually used Gehry's designs and complained about their usability screams fail to me.

Architecture (again, my opinion only) is not just a science or a function, either. It is an art. Design is important. In fact the marriage of design and function is the aim of the whole discipline. Denying that (or actively working against it) ignores half the equation in my book.

YMMV, of course.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:47 AM on November 17, 2011


Although the spiritual, political, material and temporal influences are crystallised in wood and stone, and expressed in classical forms, the classical grammar remains neutral; like the paint on the artist's palette.

I think that's like saying the only art that you're willing to work on, or produce, is paintings.
posted by polymodus at 11:54 AM on November 17, 2011


I have been enjoying a blog by an otherwise-unknown-to-me British left-wing architect guy with an unaccountable fondness for the postmodern, Fantastic Journal. Just as with Owen Hatherley's writing, it really helps me see a style in a new way.

I, personally, am far more outraged by a perfectly serviceable but utterly tedious and unadventurous design than I am by even an ugly building that at least represents an effort at achieving some kind of vision. The buildings that outrage me are all the dreary pseudo-Spanish-Mission malls and the oh-so-tasteful pseudo-Craftsmen, pseudo-Spanish, pseudo-Italian suburban homes that blight the Southern Californian landscape. They're the design equivalent of muzak.

See, I'm not. It's like being outraged that the pop on the radio is bland and uninteresting - I don't expect it to be good because the system we live in militates against anything good being widespread, and because the people building malls and crappy houses are godawful real estate developers. I don't care what they do, because they are not even in the slightest my kind of people and because the only way to stop them is to change the system itself at an economic level. Whereas someone who is actually smart, who actually has a theory - to see that kind of person producing contemptuous, anti-democratic starchitecture (are we in Barcelona? are we in Tucson? are we in South Forks? Beats me, but the local elites wanted us to have a readymade "famous" building to attract the punters!)...anyway, that really irritates me.
posted by Frowner at 11:58 AM on November 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


Architecture (again, my opinion only) is not just a science or a function, either. It is an art. Design is important. In fact the marriage of design and function is the aim of the whole discipline. Denying that (or actively working against it) ignores half the equation in my book.

Reminded me to look this up once more - worth the read, imho.

Many years ago my friend, the late designer George Nelson, told me a story I will never forget. Early in his career George worked for a time with Frank Lloyd Wright. One day when George and the great prairie architect were taking a walk and talking, Wright was struggling to find a metaphor that would explain the essence of architecture. At one point he stopped and pointed to a flower, saying, "Architecture is like this flower….no, that’s not it." He then walked a bit farther, turned and said, "George, architecture is like being in love." After he told me that story George said, "Dick, I hope it doesn’t take you as long as it took me to figure out what he meant by that."

Well, I’m afraid that it did. But I’m beginning to get the idea. It is a paradox. In order to be a professional, one must be an amateur. The word amateur comes from the Latin amator, meaning to love. An amateur is one who does something for the love of it. Of course. Love and passion are the organizing forces in leadership and management, overriding technique or skill, just as they are in almost everything worthwhile doing—romance, parenthood, creativity. Paraphrasing Wright—leadership, then, is like being in love. And paraphrasing George—I hope it will not take you as long to understand that as it took me.

posted by infini at 12:11 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


The "horrible examples" linked to in this thread look like Photoshopping in a humorous category.
posted by Cranberry at 12:13 PM on November 17, 2011


This whole topic has really gotten me flashing back on my old millwork career.

The design/function antagonism has been around forever: Shaker millwork design was a religion-driven aesthetic that said decoration was willfull and prideful and unnecessary. Cabinets and tables and chairs were supposed to be tools. Shakers believed that they pleased God only when they built sturdy, quality tools that had no "prideful" design. Cabinet doors had flat panels, for instance, because adding a decorative raise to the panel was not necessary to its function as a cabinet door - and spending time decorating the panel was just boastful.

The funny thing is, if you look at quality Shaker cabinet doors, more often than not you will find a door panel that is flat on the outside, but decorated on the inside. The drive for even pious craftsmen is to express themselves - even if God says no.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 12:27 PM on November 17, 2011


are we in Barcelona? are we in Tucson? are we in South Forks? Beats me, but the local elites wanted us to have a readymade "famous" building to attract the punters

And of course you are strongly opposed to all classical architecture unless it appears in Greece, right? Oh, and all that imported Palladian crap in England should be torn down and shipped back to Italy?

It would be incredibly boring to live in a world where everyone was desperately trying to shoe-horn their architectural designs into some bogus "local vernacular" that in most cases would represent simply a non-local import that just happens to have been around for a while. What architectural style is acceptably "local" to Southern California? Spanish Mission? Yeah, that's oh so indigenous.
posted by yoink at 1:14 PM on November 17, 2011


Thinking a bit further about this, I've come to realise that probably, most mature architects know what constitutes a good building, wether it be a house or a monument. But only a few know how to actually build one. Even someone like Gehry seems to be overwhelmed by the complexity of modern construction. Terry has carved himself a niche, where he and his clients play at the old days. But there is no way his pretend architecture can be made useful for ordinary people, for improving the quality of life in large office buildings, normal family homes, hospitals, infrastructure, schools, universities, etc.
One of the reasons modern architecture became so succesfull after ww2 was the lack of skilled craftsmen. With the huge migrations which are still going on, there were and are never enough qualified workers to build in the traditional way. Building had to be taylorized, as they said back then. but architects weren't educated to deal with that, or very few were - the Smithsons have been mentioned above, Mies and the Eameses of course, Atelier 5 in Switzerland.. There are more, but not many more, and their heritage was obscured by the mistakes of the many. The logic of a modern building is completely different from that of a traditional one, and using the design methods developed in the traditional academy for designing a modern house will create a whole maze of problems, even before the other parties in a construction proces are invited in. How does the facade fit to the main structure is a very basic problem, that seems to confuse even well-known architects, and causes a whole host of long-term worries. A lot of the design proces will consist of solving problems you have created for yourself, rather than those given by the context and program. You will certainly overlook some. Then bring in everyone else, and the issues will start multiplying.
Everyone Else is always a lot of people, though it depends on the country, and this is a problem in itself. As I understand it, US architects are only rarely in complete control of structure, economy and interior design; that is an accident waiting to happen! Often, it is unclear who is responsible for what, and this confuses the process as well. In countries where responsibility is strongly regulated, giving the architect a lot of liability and control, the general standard seems to be better - Switzerland, Spain, Austria are examples of
this.
Concerning big name architects, and big corporate offices, there are also problems of internal management. Gehry or Hadid aren't exactly fussing over the paneling, they are flying across the World, while project managers whip around a bunch of unpaid interns. The client should know this, and most do. If you want a high quality of execution and functionality, you need a smaller name architect. (I mentioned some exeptions fromthis above).
Digital information management is supposed to change all this, and give us better performance in terms of climate and recycling, but that is not at all how things look right now. Architects seem to have difficulty keeping a clear overview when the project is constantly designed in full scale, and the use of objects in 3-D planning somehow magnifies the issues.
Finally, as with everything else in contemporary culture, industry lobbying determines a lot. construction industry lobbyists try to influence building regulations in every nation, and they are often succesfull. The consequences depend on which industry is stronger in your country. Most places, it is virtually impossible to build a traditional house with correct detailing, which is another reason the feel of neo-neo classicism is often wrong.
posted by mumimor at 1:39 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


And of course you are strongly opposed to all classical architecture unless it appears in Greece, right? Oh, and all that imported Palladian crap in England should be torn down and shipped back to Italy?

No, I'm opposed to dropping a generic "world" piece of architecture into whatever random city can stump up the architect's fees and is under the delusion that they can replicate the Bilbao experience...and thinks that shitty tourist jobs created thereby (if tourists haul ass to whatever second-rate Bilbao gets produced) can stand in for secure, decent-paying ones. Architecture that's primarily about tourism - and a second-hand, imitative tourism at that - strikes me as either stupid or insulting and exploitative.

Columbus, Indiana is one of the weirdest little cities in the US . It has "world" architecture just dropped in, but dropped in for a reason - it's a company town but the company family was progressive both politically (for southern Indiana) and aesthetically, and started offering to pay the architects' fees for any public entity who wanted a building designed by a select list of high modernist architects. And their factory and offices are also high modern. Plus a bunch of other businesses got competitive and started doing the same thing. So ever since the forties, this tiny burg has had landmarks of modernist architecture by both Saarinens, IM Pei and a bunch of other names. There's some incredibly beautiful buildings in wonderful materials, including a tiny handful of neat private homes. But there's also a cultural matrix which supports all this, and the architecture is only incidentally a tourist attraction. Fundamentally, the church is a church and the library's a library and the big Henry Moore bronze out front is a big Henry Moore bronze where the kids do skateboarding tricks. I've got family out that way, so I've been to the town a lot of times over the years. It's just a small, kind of provincial, kind of conservative town with a lot of world-class modernist architecture and a bunch of average citizens with an unusually developed aesthetic sense. It's cool, but it's not flash.

That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.
posted by Frowner at 2:47 PM on November 17, 2011 [4 favorites]


The Whitney truly is a masterpiece, for instance. Habitat 67, which shares almost none of the massing and overwhelming aspects for which Brutalism is oft disliked, is also pretty brilliant -- if not exactly pretty, per se.

I'm with you on Habitat 67, and there are a few brutalist structures that I think work, but I honestly can't see how the Whitney could be considered one of them. Seriously, enlighten me, because it looks like nothing but ugly depressing and wrong to me. Not even inspired. What am I missing here which could possibly make it a masterpiece?
posted by Navelgazer at 4:38 PM on November 17, 2011


No, I'm opposed to dropping a generic "world" piece of architecture into whatever random city can stump up the architect's fees and is under the delusion that they can replicate the Bilbao experience...and thinks that shitty tourist jobs created thereby (if tourists haul ass to whatever second-rate Bilbao gets produced) can stand in for secure, decent-paying ones. Architecture that's primarily about tourism - and a second-hand, imitative tourism at that - strikes me as either stupid or insulting and exploitative.

Well, fine; but that's a completely different argument; it has nothing at all to do with reflecting local vernaculars or what have you. If it's o.k. to have Saarinen and Pei (one of the original starchitects, you should note--and famous for his refusal to sttempt to blend in to the local context: hello East Wing, hello Louvre) in Columbus, then it's o.k. to have Gehry in Bilbao.

And your argument clearly doesn't begin to apply to the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, for example. It's not even, really, an argument about architecture at all--it's an argument about city planning. Cities shouldn't plonk down badly thought-out buildings in hopes that they'll become tourist attractions. Fine--who could argue with that? But should cities consider daring architectural landmarks in radically new, anti-contextual styles in the middle of well-loved and otherwise coherent urban spaces? If your answer is no, then so long to the Eiffel tower, say. So long to all the jugendstijl masterpieces in Vienna. So long to Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. So long to Guimard's Paris Metro entrances. So long to Lever House and the Seagram Building in Ny etc etc etc. Oh, and the original Guggenheim? Forget it!

All of these (and I'm sure you could expand the list as easily as me) were subject to precisely the "OMG this is a hideous, gimmicky, alien monstrosity that doesn't belong here" criticism when they were built. Now they're beloved icons--in many ways the very things that define the "local context."

"don't build crappy buildings that no one will ever love" is perfectly fine advice. So is "buy low and sell high" but neither one actually serves as a useful plan of action.
posted by yoink at 4:44 PM on November 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


Columbus, Indiana - it's a company town. . .

Sap's Donuts? The Sap's day-old shop in Columbus, Indiana once saved my life, when I blew through town with 5 guys, 5 bicycles, 9 bicycle wheels, and 11 dollars and we. . .

Oh, it's Cummins Diesel.

Well that's a cool Henry Moore, anyway.

And Oldenburg is just up the road, a town that looks like it was dropped in from the late Holy Roman Empire.
 
posted by Herodios at 4:46 PM on November 17, 2011


I honestly can't see how the Whitney could be considered one of them

Have you seen it in the flesh or do you know it only from photos? Most brutalist architecture photographs poorly. In photos the Whitney looks beetle browed and aggressive. Somehow in the flesh that isn't the impression at all.

If you do know it in the flesh then, well, degustibus non est disputandem. Have you ever been argued into liking an art work you didn't like?
posted by yoink at 4:53 PM on November 17, 2011


Its all that bronze...

Anyway, this reminds me of one of the basic principles from History of Design and appreciation of the 'masters' - understanding the why something may be considered a masterpiece allows us to form an appreciation for the work separate from our personal emotional response to the aesthetics. That is, for a design professional "because I know what I like etc" type of arguments don't fly.
posted by infini at 5:04 PM on November 17, 2011


yoink: Yeah, I lived in New York for almost a decade. I've seen it up close and personal a number of times. Maybe its just a thing of mine and a lack of windows seems super-oppressive. I don't know.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:13 PM on November 17, 2011


Well, fine; but that's a completely different argument; it has nothing at all to do with reflecting local vernaculars or what have you.

We may have gotten our arguments crossed - I'm not obsessed by local vernaculars and I would define "takes its surroundings into account" as "things look good together and are appropriate for climate and use" not "things are all similar". The Gehry building does not irritate me because it's large and shiny; it irritates me because its large shininess is not designed to survive our local climate, because it was build carelessly and because it doesn't suit its purpose or the needs of the campus where it's located - and because the ways in which it does not fit are not (to me) provocative or challenging but instead simply boil down to "the architect and the university want a splashy building here for reasons of tourism and cheap prestige, when there are many, many more pressing building needs on campus".

The IM Pei building in Columbus isn't really one of my favorites. It's more modest than a lot of his other work, though.
posted by Frowner at 6:40 PM on November 17, 2011


When it comes to Gehry, I think the architectural critics and the public have more in common than not. It's impossible to block that visceral reaction to his building even when reviewing it academically. The form/function argument that he's usually criticized for wasn't resolved with Walt Disney Concert Hall. But it's a splendid, visually striking building which was the reasons it was so well received by the public and the reviewers who were willing to overlook the usual criticisms of his building philosophy.
posted by savvysearch at 9:32 PM on November 17, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thanks for your reply, lemuring. Re: windows...

"As for the Georgian reference, the author is incorrect because windows will perform differently depending on the buildings/shading devices/trees that surround them, if they're recessed or not, and especially whether they are located on the south, north, or east/west face of the building."

Yes, those factors influence daylight/window performance and design, but they don't disprove the simple fact that, all things being equal, a typically-Georgian configuration of windows is about the best conceivable window layout for achieving a useful daylight factor in an interior space. The issues you mention are not so much a but, they're and and.

It's besides the point, but a typically Georgian configuration of windows will also maximise the number of occupants that have a nice view of you tree (short of having a wall that is one big window) -- and that also counts for something.
posted by nthdegx at 1:11 AM on November 18, 2011


understanding the why something may be considered a masterpiece allows us to form an appreciation for the work separate from our personal emotional response to the aesthetics. That is, for a design professional "because I know what I like etc" type of arguments don't fly.

Well, yes and no. That is, yes of course one can explain to someone why a work was innovative or influential or how it drew on an unexpected range of historical influences etc. etc. One can explain "importance" in that way (I do that for a living, as it happens, in a different artistic field). But none of that really gets to "why do you like this aesthetically." I think that, in the end, that really does come down to degustibus. Indeed, as you say in your comment, those arguments are "separate from our personal emotional response[s] to the aesthetics."

But, still, if I were to try to say something about why I consider the Whitney a masterpiece (and, for me, it is one of those works that I saw and loved immediately, without any intellectualizing at all) it is because it harmoniously contains and resolves a series of interesting contradictions. It's monumental (the forbidding granite surface, the inverse ziggurat form, the monolithic parti etc.) and yet actually rather small and even humble in its context--sitting quite happily within its lot. It suggests at first glance a rigorous devotion to orthodox modernist geometries (a series of stacked boxes), but then you find those wonderful asymmetric windows popping out from the surface as if the building is straining and not quite succeeding to contain some irrepressible force of energy. (Those windows, by the way, are similarly delightful when you come across them inside, offering sudden and unexpected portholes out onto the city that offer chance dialogues between the works in the galleries and the scene outside; I find it odd that the building was criticized as windowless above--it's actually strikingly more windowed than most galleries of its day and before--compare the windowless National Gallery of Art West Wing or the windowless Metropolitan Museum of Art paintings galleries etc.). The contradictions continue as you approach the entrance--at a glance you think you're approaching a fortress but in fact you find a seamless and utterly open transition from outside to in--and the wonderful surprise of the sunken courtyard that you cross over to enter--a final reveal, as it were, of the surprising openness and even timidity of a structure that at first glance seemed so utterly foursquare.

So. Now, I'm sure, everybody who reads this thread will fall in love with the Whitney, just as I did.

God I hope they find something sensible to do with the building now that the museum is moving to a new location. If it ends up being torn down or no longer being publicly accessible it will break my heart.
posted by yoink at 11:16 AM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Gehry building does not irritate me because it's large and shiny; it irritates me because its large shininess is not designed to survive our local climate, because it was build carelessly and because it doesn't suit its purpose or the needs of the campus where it's located

Build quality may or may not be the architect's fault. But sure--Gehry, as I said before, has designed some bad buildings, which puts him in the same boat as every other practicing architect with more than handful of buildings on his resume. And, sure, no one should build a building that will not survive in its setting and which will always be unloved and unwanted.

I don't see how any of that relates to your original complaint about "starchitects" building buildings where you don't know if you're in Tuscon or Bilbao just by looking at them (I like Eero Saalinen's North Christian Church--I doubt anyone would guess "Columbus, Indiana" over Finland, Australia, Uzbekistan, Fiji or South Africa if shown a photo of it and asked to guess where it was). It certainly doesn't add up to a coherent attack on Gehry in general as an architect.

But if all you were saying was that people shouldn't build badly built buildings that no one needs or will come to need then sure. I don't think anyone will disagree with that.
posted by yoink at 11:23 AM on November 18, 2011


Gaudi does that to me.
posted by infini at 11:23 AM on November 18, 2011


why I consider the Whitney a masterpiece

I came in here to say what yoink said, only not as well. The use of negative space is brilliant, and the way that the entrance, well, accepts you as you approach is extraordinary.

I really urge anyone with a knee-jerk negative reaction to buildings in Brutalism or any somewhat related style (The Whitney is actually a little more deconstructivist) to step back and look at the material and what it's saying in its context. The Whitney (maybe one day the "Old Whitney"?) is in an urban environment that is already full of concrete and stone. What it does by cutting into itself and surprising you with hidden modernist glass walls is impress upon you the importance of how you use these common materials. It manages to be both larger than it seems and smaller than it seems.

I'm familiar with a number of vaguely Brutalist structures on the UW-Madison campus. I like some, dislike others, but here's a walking tour that demonstrates how they create an interesting urban environment to experience.
posted by dhartung at 1:44 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


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