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"Don't you think there is enough anxiety at present?"
November 4, 2012 2:32 PM   Subscribe

CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER: The thing that strikes me about your friend's building -- if I understood you correctly -- is that somehow in some intentional way it is not harmonious. That is, Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony. Maybe even of incongruity.

PETER EISENMAN: That is correct.

CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER: I find that incomprehensible. I find it very irresponsible. I find it nutty. I feel sorry for the man. I also feel incredibly angry because he is fucking up the world.
A debate — old, but still relevant — between architects Christopher Alexander (whose new book The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth depicts the struggle between his worldview and Eisenman's at length) and Peter Eisenman (who here discusses his frustrations with liberals and the avant-garde).
posted by Rory Marinich (55 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't have time to read all this right now, but I look forward to reading everything and googling more information.
Thanks
posted by mumimor at 2:43 PM on November 4, 2012


I read the introduction to the last link and was looking forward to a cogent critique of the left in architecture, and instead it was a bunch of rambling about how his favorite architects are Italian Fascists, one of his clients is an ex-member of Franco's government, Arizona Repulicans like his work and German liberals don't, and that he wears Brooks Brothers suits, therefore "conservative architecture" is superior.

I'd never heard of the guy before this post, but if that's really how his brain works, I don't think I'd want to trust his buildings to stand up, let alone listen to what he has to say about theory.
posted by junco at 2:46 PM on November 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


It's the uglification of the world. It's a global process. The only places where beauty survives are where its persecutors have overlooked it. - Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
posted by Egg Shen at 2:52 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


junco: I came upon Eisenman while reading Tom Wolfe's From the Bauhaus to Our House. Wolfe was ridiculously vicious towards Eisenman and his kindred architects — so much so that I hunted down conversations with Eisenman to see the man defend himself. I ended up sympathizing with Wolfe's bias much more after hearing Eisenman speak.

(The Wolfe book was recommended in a footnote of Alexander's The Process of Creating Life, incidentally, which is perhaps the most triumphant and beautiful exultation of humanity I've ever read. I just got to the chapter where he champions, among other things, hand-painted Harley-Davidsons, urban ping-pong players, high-voltage transmission lines, and African jazz as examples of the beauty in our species. He has a remarkable ability to connect disparate instances of human living and find the thread that holds them all together.)
posted by Rory Marinich at 2:56 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


Despite all this, Eisenmann has been remarkably influential within the academia of architecture. I saw him speak when I was a student. He started describing his methods and tools and I realized I already knew how to do exactly what he was describing, but wouldn't, because I could do better. Haven't paid him much attention since.
posted by meinvt at 3:03 PM on November 4, 2012


Christopher Alexander, on the other hand, has produced writings that remain an important education and meditation on the nature of place.
posted by meinvt at 3:03 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's all very well to say: "Look, harmony here, disharmony there, harmony here -- it's all fine". But the fact is that we as architects are entrusted with the creation of that harmony in the world.

I'm not sure I agree with everything this Chris Anderson guy says (and I know nothing about architecture) but he's dead on about how empty and worthless post-modernism is in practice (or was in the 80s and 90s, fortunately it seems to be mostly dead now, and artists are again being encouraged to create things that have positive effects on people rather than the opposite). It's useful to say "Hey check out all these man-made structures that underlie stuff, some of them are messed up!" It's not useful to say "Destroy ALL THE STRUCTURES with these official ugly imaginary concepts or else you are a bad uncool maker!"
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:11 PM on November 4, 2012


The whole field of architecture is complicated. Eisenmann has definitely contributed something, which has been read differently in different contexts. I'm not an admirer of his architecture, but remember him as a bold and interesting scholar, open to new thoughts. THe American system makes it difficult for academics to be experimental. Literally, people are paid to reproduce their findings, not get smarter.
posted by mumimor at 3:12 PM on November 4, 2012


I'm very conflicted now. I love the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, but I had no idea who built it. Now I do, and that Archinet piece made me hate the guy. Halp!
posted by brokkr at 3:28 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Christopher Alexander is a demigod in the realm of defining and describing what human space is. A Pattern Language has been in my bathroom for six months and I am still reading through it. And while some of his ideas are rather more utopian and idealistic than practical, they're still worth understanding as one can navigate by them as guide stars.

Every city planner and architect should be required to study his research and thought process before being certified. Ahh, if I were king...
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:52 PM on November 4, 2012


On the one hand, who wouldn't want to live in Hobbiton? On the other, as an old friend is fond of saying (though in reference to music); 'No tension, no release".

I am looking forward to reading these.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 4:05 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Christopher Alexander is right. About everything.
posted by Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing at 4:09 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]


I'm very conflicted now. I love the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, but I had no idea who built it. Now I do, and that Archinet piece made me hate the guy. Halp!

I was talking this over with my roommate, and one conclusion we drew here was: architecture and sculpture are not the same thing. Sculpture can express and portray disharmony, chaos, anxiety, because its goal is to be evocative, to speak to us. Architecture, on the other hand, is more than evocative: it must be functional. Harmony and comfort and beauty are part of that function. Buildings are meant to be used.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:09 PM on November 4, 2012 [5 favorites]


CA: [...] Now, I will pick a building, let's take Chartres for example. We probably don't disagree that it's a great building.

PE: Well, we do actually, I think it is a boring building. Chartres, for me, is one of the least interesting cathedrals. In fact, I have gone to Chartres a number of times to eat in the restaurant across the street -- had a 1934 red Mersault wine, which was exquisite -- I never went into the cathedral. The cathedral was done en passant. Once you've seen one Gothic cathedral, you have seen them all.


Hooooly shit.
posted by Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing at 4:12 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Is it true what the analysis at the end of the debate link says that Eisenman and people like him have dominated architecture since then and Anderson's ideas have been marginalized? That makes me upset. Schoenberg is cool and everything but if he was mandated to be played in dance clubs and on the radio I'd want to kill myself.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:18 PM on November 4, 2012


Yeah, I can probably find Modernist (or post-whateveralist) buildings that I love, and the Holocaust memorial is brilliant, but dissing Chartres? Yeesh.
posted by feckless at 4:19 PM on November 4, 2012


There is nobody named Anderson involved in this debate.
posted by Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing at 4:19 PM on November 4, 2012


OK, reading further, the story about pitched roofs is hilarious.
posted by feckless at 4:21 PM on November 4, 2012


PE: "...I was reminded of this when I went to Spain this summer to see the town hall at Logrono by Rafael Moneo. He made an arcade where the columns were too thin...."

Here's the town hall in question.

There's a rule of thumb I have devised over twenty five years of practicing irrational design. If it looks wrong, it is wrong. It doesn't matter what arcane or esoteric intellectual concept the architect was trying to communicate. If the user looks at it and shudders, the designer has failed. If the user wonders what is missing, or what went wrong, the designer has failed. If the user is constantly annoyed for some inexplicable reason every time they look at it, the designer has failed.

Here's a couple of sculptures. One was designed by Philip Starck, the other by Constantin Brancusi. Maybe you don't like Modern Art, but these sculptures are both exquisite - elegant and sophisticated. Gorgeous. Guess what? One of them is a motherfucking juicer. That's good design.

Architecture - in practice - is about function. A good architect creates a functional building, with functional spaces. A great one does what Philip Starck did - takes it several levels higher, makes it art. Perfectly functional, beautiful (not necessarily) art that doesn't leave the user scratching his head. It should be immediately and intuitively accessible.

By the way, those columns on the town hall in Logrono are awful. They look cheap. They look like an afterthought. They look like something the maintenance staff threw up after complaints by the users that the sidewalks were wet after a rain. What the architects intentions were are completely and totally irrelevant. Well, unless he wanted to convey a sense of cheapness and ephemeral flimsiness coupled with a complete breakdown of the understanding of scale and proportion.
posted by Xoebe at 4:24 PM on November 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


Potomac Avenue: from what I can tell Eisenman's school of thought is still big among actual schools of architecture – maybe that's changed recently – but Alexander is more of a cultural "thing". Will Wright has talked about how The Sims was modeled off Alexander's architectural theories, fr'instance, and Alexander's "process-centric design" is big among both game developers and graphic designers. His insistence on writing really really long books and his marvelously ugly web sites prevent him from being a central cultural thing but his name pops up frequently in a lot of disparate circles.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:27 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


But, Potomac Avenue, Eisenman and his type have ruled "starchitecture" for quite some time. The big money goes to the buildings that represent some greater idea, play jokes, make references to things, and have deeply thought out ideologies behind them. Instead of to buildings that look nice, function well, and will last forever.

Here's a good example from a known curmudgeon.

I also think it's worth noting that in this debate, Christopher Alexander keeps talking about buildings. Eisenman cannot express an idea without bringing up Tolstoy, cosmology, 50-year old bottles of wine, and Mantovani.
posted by Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing at 4:28 PM on November 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


Here's the town hall in question.

It looks like the builders forgot to remove the scaffolding.
posted by Rory Marinich at 4:29 PM on November 4, 2012


I admire the efficiency of those columns.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 4:30 PM on November 4, 2012


You want harmonious? Go live in a cave. By definition, all construction is disharmonious with nature
posted by Renoroc at 4:34 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


1) Extremely slender columns are the opposite of efficient.
2) They are probably not even doing anything. I bet the roof is cantilevered.
posted by Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing at 4:35 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you wanted to use extremely thin columns as a structural or design element, something like a modern flying buttress would look pretty neat.
posted by modernserf at 4:46 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


modernserf, they do that with some frequency. The "buttresses" just look like beams that aren't supporting anything.
posted by Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing at 4:56 PM on November 4, 2012


An odd aside: Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language has given rise to a community in the software development field which now dominates the literature, at least in the object-oriented languages. There's Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture, Service Design Patterns, xUnit Test Patterns, Refactoring to Patterns, Enterprise Integration Patterns, Head First Design Patterns, Pattern Hatching: Applying Design Patterns, Implementation Patterns, Analysis Patterns, Organizational Patterns of Agile Software Development, and probably two dozen more.

I had previously read Alexander's book on architectural patterns, and the discovery of the cross-pollination was a bit strange. Architecture and software design are almost completely different, one intrinsic to the human experience and the other as artificial as anything that has ever existed; it's strange to see Thick Walls (197) referenced in the same context as Remote Façade (388).

Also of note, the Original Wiki is intimately involved in this odd combination of influences.
posted by sonic meat machine at 5:01 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


I want to agree with Alexander here, because the other guy is a jerk, but he seems to be taking this kind of iconoclastic stance that it's morally wrong to design a building that's unsettling. I think my life would be worse if I hadn't been in some buildings that aren't "harmonious" at all. On some level, I think it's good for me.

On the other hand, I think he takes this view because architecture is much more of a zero-sum game than other art forms. If a building gets built in a way you don't like, that's actually a loss for you as an architect, because there are a finite number of buildings going up and it's completely outside your control. So when he says that weird pomo architects are "fucking up the world", I can kind of see his point. People have to live in those weird buildings, they're going to stick around for a while, and being "unsettled" every day would get old fast.

For example, my understanding is that life in Frank Gehry's Stata Center at MIT is pretty miserable. The funniest story I remember is that the walls are curved, so you can't put regular furniture against them.
posted by vogon_poet at 5:08 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]


Architecture and software design are almost completely different, one intrinsic to the human experience and the other as artificial as anything that has ever existed

I think architecture and software design are rather different, but that isn't really the reason why. Buildings don't exactly occur in nature with more frequency than algorithms, and interfaces have been everywhere in the human experience at least since the first pointy stick.

There's plenty to criticize in the intellectual through line from the design patterns book to the present-day cult of Agile, but you don't have to work in software long before you start thinking of what you're doing as creating spaces that people are going to inhabit, in one way or another. The connections make a measure of sense.
posted by brennen at 6:37 PM on November 4, 2012


Post-modernism always felt particularly unpleasant and intrusive, since it involves forcing people to deal with your pet ideology, rather than setting up stuff in an art gallery or a literary reading and letting those who wish to partake, do so. There's such a wide, rich range of ways in which to creature beautiful and inspiring buildings, and it seems just kind of decent to try to design in ways that aren't designed to make the people who have to live and work in what you're creating miserable, confused, or irritated.

But then, few things in life have given me as much pleasure as watching post-modernism in art and in the Humanities dwindle, over the past two decades, into well-deserved obscurity and irrelevance, so I guess I'm not the most impartial of judges.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:39 PM on November 4, 2012



I want to agree with Alexander here, because the other guy is a jerk, but he seems to be taking this kind of iconoclastic stance that it's morally wrong to design a building that's unsettling. I think my life would be worse if I hadn't been in some buildings that aren't "harmonious" at all. On some level, I think it's good for me.


That's why we have theme parks. You go there, and have an unusual experience, which (if that's your taste) may involve visiting a structure that leaves you unsettled.

And then you leave and go home.

It's another thing entirely to have this experience because that's where your job is. That sucks. A lot.
posted by ocschwar at 6:59 PM on November 4, 2012



For example, my understanding is that life in Frank Gehry's Stata Center at MIT is pretty miserable. The funniest story I remember is that the walls are curved, so you can't put regular furniture against them.


I've worked next to it. Friends have worked in it.

OMFG, the problems.

That rumor that Chomsky almost fell from the vertigo? Not a rumor. And not funny. He's old.

The funny bit is how the irregular walls made it impossible to provide standards compliant ethernet wiring to some of the lecture halls. Literally fucking impossible. Some of the sockets are too distant from the routers to be compliant. So you have to know what routers and ethernet cards are extra-studly and will forgive you for plugging them in there. Great problem to have in a computer science building, right?
posted by ocschwar at 7:24 PM on November 4, 2012 [7 favorites]


Thanks for pointing out that Christopher Alexander has a new book out. How could I miss such an event? I'm definitely in the Alexander camp of design -- bought most of his books while I was in grad school. His "Nature of Order" books are beautiful (if a bit bewildering). When I read Mr. Alexander I think of Patrick Rothfuss' character Elodin. He seems to know deep truths about things that can't be described in a straightforward way. (Which comes across as being a bit of a crank sometimes.)
posted by dylanjames at 7:34 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


As an architecture major, who now builds software for a living, I need to comment on this:
Architecture and software design are almost completely different...

There are far more similarities between the two than there are differences. Its mostly differences in scale and dimensions - buildings are about organizing movement through space, and programs are about organizing interaction through time.
Buildings have designs and structures at multiple scales, just like programs do.
Both have to deal with conforming your plans to the nature of the materials (i.e. programming languages) that you are working with.

I find that all the things I liked about architecture are present in programming, and most of the things I did not like are absent. I can see my programs built in days or weeks, instead of years. I don't have to deal with a lot of pseudo-intellectual posturing and bullshit from the thought leaders in my industry, because the work speaks for itself.

Thanks for this thread, though - the debate and comments have made me seriously think about getting back into architecture for the first time in 2 decades. Christopher Alexander is truly inspirational. Another inspiration is Santiago Calatrava, who I think manages to balance the intellectual and the sublime while creating beautiful, functional spaces that seem to celebrate humanity.
posted by bashos_frog at 8:01 PM on November 4, 2012 [5 favorites]



An odd aside: Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language has given rise to a community in the software development field which now dominates the literature, at least in the object-oriented languages.


Makes sense that he would be more successful with software designers than with architects. If a software product sucks, people switch. But after you've sunk 100 million dollars into a building that doesn't suit your needs, you're stuck with it. Software designers cannot afford to ignore Christopher Alexander. Architects can.
posted by ocschwar at 8:14 PM on November 4, 2012


(Says I, because when a friend was given the "we're in the Stata Center. It sucks. But tough shit, deal with it" email when the building opened, he forwarded it to me. It's amazing to see how an institution whose supposed elite stature woudl give it leverage over an architect still was unable to wield any.)
posted by ocschwar at 8:34 PM on November 4, 2012


Architects who design primarily for something other than the benefit of those who will be in or around their buildings... really should find a new profession. If you don't design for the experience inside or at the street level, or if you design for it to be experienced as art but not on a daily basis, or if you design mostly for what it looks like from far away, then you're doing it wrong.
posted by parudox at 9:33 PM on November 4, 2012


It's amazing to see how an institution whose supposed elite stature woudl give it leverage over an architect still was unable to wield any.

This is really the crux of the issue. Everyone sees a crappy building, for whatever reason they think buildings are crappy, and wonders why the architect did that. In many cases, including with the Gehry building here, the architect is giving the client what they want. What MIT wanted, first and foremost, was a quirky building by a name architect. After the Bilbao Guggenheim, Gehry got projects like this out the wazoo. Why? Because he designed a building that effectively put Bilbao, an industrial port city, on the art map for a very large segment of the population, and that kind of thing became Gehry's brand, and every client he's had since then has been hoping for the same result. Plus, the Stata Center looks basically like an expanded version of the GingerFred building, and everybody looooves that one. But, why wasn't the department that was going into the Stata Center allowed any say over the design? Or, did the MIT Facilities office just drop the ball on that one? Is there no process at MIT for departmental review of new buildings? Doesn't the department put out a brief detailing what they actually want in a new building? It is really weird that Gehry could produce such an insufficient design without any negative feedback during the design phase.

Unless of course, everyone hates on the building just because it's a Gehry and who the fuck does he think he is? As Phillip Johnson said about Frank Lloyd Wright: you had to hate him.

When I was in school, our department needed a building expansion, and they were seriously looking at Steven Holl. Holl came in and presented his early designs for the project to a jury of students and professors (note: this was the architecture department), and his design got destroyed. The additions ended up being done by our own professors.

or if you design mostly for what it looks like from far away, then you're doing it wrong.

I get your point, but there are quite a few exceptions to that. Skyscrapers, shopping centers, museums located in parks, etc. The primary function of some buildings is to be a gigantic advertisement.
posted by LionIndex at 10:21 PM on November 4, 2012


Buildings are meant to be used.

I've seen some that didn't want using, from Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater to every store that has a "pull, don't push" or "use other door" sign, handwritten, taped to the inside of a glass, always glass, door.
posted by zippy at 10:39 PM on November 4, 2012


For what it's worth, the Transamerica Pyramid, now considered an icon of San Francisco, was hated by many in the city when it was first proposed. It was certainly considered unsettling, ugly, and unharmonious.

Now it is mostly considered beautiful and an important part of the city's identity. It is also very usable, and practical, and even earthquake resistant. Its tapered design lets in more light below than the typical rectangular skyscrapers.

I don't know what this has to do with conservative, liberal, or fascist politics. I don't think any particular political party was more or less against the building than any other. The building won over most people in the end.
posted by eye of newt at 11:04 PM on November 4, 2012


CA: Up until about 1600, most of the world views that existed in different cultures did see man and the universe as more or less intertwined and inseparable ... either through the medium of what they called God or in some other way. But all that was understood. The particular intellectual game that led us to discover all the wonders of science forced us to abandon temporarily that idea. In other words, in order to do physics, to do biology, we were actually taught to pretend that things were like little machines because only then could you tinker with them and find out what makes them tick. That's all fine. It was a tremendous endeavor, and it paid off.

But it may have been factually wrong. That is, the constitution of the universe may be such that the human self and the substance that things made out of, the spatial matter or whatever you call it, are much more inextricably related than we realized. Now, I am not talking about some kind of aboriginal primitivism. I am saying that it may actually be a matter of fact that those things are more related than we realize. And that we have been trained to play a trick on ourselves for the last 300 years in order to discover certain things. Now, if that's true -- there are plenty of people in the world who are beginning to say it is, by the way, certainly in physics and other related subjects -- then my own contribution to that line of thought has to do with these structures of sameness that I have been talking about.
Thanks, I now know why I hate Chris Alexander.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:41 AM on November 5, 2012


eye of newt:

'Course I'm respectable. I'm old. Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough
posted by Jeff Mangum's Penny-farthing at 5:42 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks, I now know why I hate Chris Alexander.

Care to explicate rather than just, y'know, be a thread-turd?
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:54 AM on November 5, 2012


I'll bite on the Christopher Alexander hate: When the "Pattern Language" stuff became all the rage in software, I went out and got the book and read through it, and though it still resides on my shelf, it sustained some damage from the number of times I threw it down forcefully.

His patterns lead to a number of recommendations that have annoyed the living crap out of me in buildings that I've lived in that implement them, and when we went looking to buy a house, we both had as our criteria to not have many of the traits he specified, and then have set to rectifying some of his other recommendations.

A Pattern Language is a reference that you can cite to your clients as to why that house that's poorly site-situated, in a subdivision optimized for automobiles, and badly lit, is what they really wanted even if they asked for something else.

It's the worst of architectural wankery: Unverifiable claims, with explanations for ridiculous theses that would make Malcolm Gladwell blush. It's not like this is rare in architecture, I'm currently on an urban planning kick and reading a lot of this from other architects, but A Pattern Language laid down bad lore as authority, and cemented a whole lot of annoying features into the requirements list of any new subdivision.

Having said that, A Timeless Way of Building is on my long-term reading list, and though I'm a fan of social disruption I don't think designs should be unsettling unless that's a demand of the building function.

And, really, it's not that I particularly dislike Alexander's work, it's that I think most architects are self-pretentious wankers and if you're doing a building you should cut them out and just talk to the engineers.
posted by straw at 6:25 AM on November 5, 2012


Okay, I'll defend Chris Alexander. ennui.bz, all he's saying in that quote is that reductionist explanations don't always get you the full answer. That's not terribly controversial. Neurology is a good example. We have a pretty good understanding of how individual neurons work, but it hasn't gotten us much closer to understanding how neurons create consciousness. CA says it a weird way, but the point he's making is that the trick of breaking things down into individual pieces isn't the only way to get answers.

Straw, I had pretty much the opposite experience with A Pattern Language. For many sites that I'd always found pleasing somehow, it explained why they worked. For many sites that I'd never been comfortable in, it explained what they missed. I wonder where exactly it is that you're seeing that explicitly implement his recommendations. My experience is that he's been largely ignored by most architecture. One of the few architects I know of who's a fan is Sarah Susanka, of the Not So Big House books. Her houses seem to have a cozy aspect that's missing from a lot of other design.

I know, CA can be a crank, and some of his patterns in the book are crap. But I wouldn't say they're all unverifiable. He's got one about how public squares shouldn't be too big, and they should be protected by something - walls, overhanging trees, etc. He's got a picture of a big sprawling square that's almost empty, and a small square with trees and benches that's full of people. That's the kind of thing that can be easily measured: what kinds of design encourage people to stay in a place? A lot of big-name architects don't care, and they'll say as much.

You don't have to love all the patterns to find value in the book. It says right in the introduction that the reason the book is titled A Pattern Language rather than The Pattern Language, is that what's presented is just one possible way of setting things up. The important thing is that there should be some kind of system of patterns, and that they should work for you.

Getting back to the debate, the most revealing part is when Eisenman says " Things that make me feel high in my gut are very suspicious, because that is my psychological problem. So I keep it in the mind, because I'm happier with that." No wonder he makes unsettling and inhumane buildings - at some deep level, he doesn't like being happy.
posted by echo target at 6:57 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


A Pattern Language is a reference that you can cite to your clients as to why that house that's poorly site-situated, in a subdivision optimized for automobiles, and badly lit, is what they really wanted even if they asked for something else.

The irony's layered on a little too thick here, so I can't tell what you're saying.

Are you saying that those are all actually good things? Why?

Or that they're bad things which A Pattern Language recommends? (It doesn't.)
posted by designbot at 7:10 AM on November 5, 2012


Chartres Cathedral is crazy. For years I had heard about it's excellent stained glass, masonry, sculpture, etc. Then one day I was glancing at a photograph of it, and I suddenly realized that it has completely different designs for its two main spires!
posted by ovvl at 7:32 AM on November 5, 2012


"Or that they're bad things which A Pattern Language recommends? (It doesn't.)"

I think they're bad things, and I think A Pattern Language recommends them. I'd have to go back to the book to find the numbers of the particular elements which brought up that rant, but: So what we have is a number of well justified opinions, engaged in for ostensibly all the right reasons, but in practice they seem to create exactly the sort of spaces I loathe. As I said, when we went house-hunting we made a list that included exactly the opposite of each of Alexander's recommendations in those fronts: Grid neighborhood for easier pedestrian and bike access and interaction with neighbors, brightly lit halls and passages (and where we didn't have these we upped the light in those spaces), big open windows.

And to echo target's invocation of Susanka: Yeah, I'm a big fan of small houses, so you'd think I'd love her stuff, but as I look at implementing her suggestions within my own space, I find that the pictures are pretty to look at but the practice doesn't seem to work for me. And I just finished Ross Chapin's Pocket Neighborhoods who deliberately writes as a companion to Susanka, and my social media one-liner was something along the lines of "architecture porn: exciting to look at, but I can't see developing a relationship with it". But that's a separate digression.

I don't for a moment want to suggest that I think that Eisenman is right on anything except as a side effect of the stopped clock property (and there's an artifact of the mechanical age, no?), the Lagrono town hall, the Tic-Tac-Toe World Trade Center and the Greater Columbus Convention Center all strike me as a punk sort of aesthetic, ugly as a reaction to a particular vision of beauty, not unsettling in a way that makes me rethink my notions of beauty, but... I really enjoy visiting the desert. The harsh uncompromising landscape that cares naught whether you live or die, the grand vistas of uninhabitability. Don't want to live there for a moment, but can enjoy a week or two in it. Maybe there's room for that sort of unsettling in some public work?
posted by straw at 8:38 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


For example, my understanding is that life in Frank Gehry's Stata Center at MIT is pretty miserable. The funniest story I remember is that the walls are curved, so you can't put regular furniture against them.
I must defend my favorite building on our campus. I think the Stata center is an absolutely fantastic building -- it might not seem as such from the perspective of someone visiting and thinking, "whoa, this is weird," but for the people who work, learn, eat, and socialize in it, it's fantastic.

Let me explain: whereas other buildings on MIT's campus (and indeed, on most academic campuses I've seen) typically consist of corridors connecting laboratories and classrooms, with perhaps the occasional lounge area or coffee shop, the Stata Center breaks down the barriers between these spaces. The entire first floor "corridor" area is filled with tables, chairs, a cafe, a cafeteria, a produce market, and opportunities for interaction. I'm constantly running in to students and professors that I know, because the Stata Center encourages these types of interactions. And, if we have time, it's easy to grab a cup of coffee, sit down, and chat.

The Stata Center is by far the most human feeling of all of MIT's buildings. While it might not look like it from the outside, I love every minute I spend inside it.
posted by Bahro at 8:46 AM on November 5, 2012


every store that has a “pull, don’t push” or “use other door” sign, handwritten, taped to the inside of a glass, always glass, door.

You should take a look at Don Norman's Design of Everyday Things, which deals extensively with terrible door designs.
posted by stopgap at 9:20 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


poorly site-situated
I think you might be talking about Zen View, or possibly Small Panes. Zen view has something to it, I think. There are a couple of bars downtown that are cozy and den-like, but if you go all the way through to one particular spot you get a sudden spectacular view of the capitol building. The effect is much weaker in the places that have an all-glass front that allows the same view from everywhere in the place. You could definitely go too far with this pattern, though, so I can understand your dislike if you're dealing with buildings that never get around to actually giving you the great view that they hint at.

Small Panes is one of the few patterns that I think is flat-out wrong. I won't argue with you on that one.

badly lit
The idea is to put lights where the people are. Hallways do work better when they're dimmer than the rooms they connect; we painted our hall a dark color and really like the way it draws you into the rooms. We're not reading or hanging out in the hallway, so it's fine if it's a bit dimmer.

There's no reason to have a poorly lit closet, though. When you're in the closet, that's where the people are, so you should have a nice bright light you can turn on. But there's no reason to leave that light on when you're not rooting through the sweaters. Closets should be dark when you're not using them.

I can't speak so much to the road/path layout part; I haven't read those patterns as closely. Basically I read the book to give me ideas on how to arrange the furniture (true story!)
posted by echo target at 10:02 AM on November 5, 2012


I believe you're correct on both Zen View and Small Panes, and I'm a fan of neither.

But I think (and I promise, this'll wrap this back around to the original subject in a moment), your point on "put lights where the people are" becomes kind of a "no true Scotsman" argument: Lights in closets are silly: They always get obscured by the contents of the closet. Lights outside of closets illuminating the closet space rock. This requires an extra light switch in the hallway, which causes interface confusion, and for the most part the dimly lit hallway for human space you're talking about is actually lit just fine by spill light from the neighboring spaces; when you turn on the light you're looking to occupy that space, rather than pass through it.

So what we end up with is a meaningless recommendation, one which someone who under-lights their hallway can point to and say "see, Alexander said I should", and the other side can say "Well, he didn't really say that..." and both sides can be right.

Which kind of gets back to the exchange from that original interview and from which this post is titled "Don't you think there is enough anxiety at present?". I can come up with great arguments for both side of this. "Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." Given the current level of public concern over climate change, is there enough anxiety? Hell, anxious customers are more receptive to certain types of merchandising, no?

So, yeah, I can find quotes and sentiments from both architects that I can agree with, which means they're succeeding: They're telling stories that reinforce their ability to point to their historical record and say "I was right", in a way that makes it difficult to point to any of those stories and rightfully point out "you were full of crap".

Architecture at the star levels is too often a matter of telling bullshit stories about what a building should be, rather than creating buildings and spaces which are flexible and adapt to changing needs and acknowledge that a well constructed building will far outlast the uses for which it's envisioned. Most of the stories told about how the building will be used aren't in fact derived from testing, they're derived from one ego's pronouncements.

Thus perhaps one of the things that makes cathedrals work for so many people is that the context in which they're used is relatively static. The rituals and uses of the cathedral remain static for centuries, so the building can be still relevant after half a millenium. Whereas architects like Frank Lloyd Wright design for use cases that are obsolete in a decade, and we're stuck with buildings that exceed the design life of their component materials, the government and business processes that take place in them, and the "Ming the Merciless" style villains that the heroes of that age were fighting, and future generations are right to point and laugh.
posted by straw at 11:14 AM on November 5, 2012


About the debate:

Very hard to defend anyone of those tools - I find them, each in their own particular way, insufferable. But they come from very different aesthetic places and course they will never get along.

But I prefer - by far - Eisenman's cynicism. He takes architecture less seriously as a way to fix the world. He knows he's not f*ing-up the world (he really is not). And the houses diagrams are beautiful and live close to my heart.

Alexander in the other hand did a immense work for architectural teaching and I like a lot of his ideas. But in the end misses the point of what rules (and architecture) can be. Aren't they meant to be broken? And really, in 2012 he STILL doesn't understand the value of strangeness/disharmony? That really puts me off...

Its clear to me that CA was not one of the cool kids. Its also clear that, although very intelligent, he has a terrible case of BAD taste (in terms of the current - as in last 100 years - architectural status quo). I've seen this in architectural school.. creates lots of frustration, anger and rules.

I think it comes down to very different views of what the architect can/should be. Artist? Designer? Service provider? Dependents who asks and who answers of course. Its amazing that architecture can (and must) be all those things.

PS: About the Chomsky vertigo: don't do that. Of course its not funny, but it says more about his state of mind/health than about the building. Those types of argument are the Godwin's Law of architectural discourse.
posted by vito_mf at 11:53 AM on November 5, 2012


This is as good a place as any to mention Frank Lloyd Wright's dog house.
posted by warbaby at 6:21 PM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


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