Why you hate contemporary architecture
November 6, 2017 11:35 AM   Subscribe

It’s somewhat stunning just how uniform the rejection of “ornament” became. Since the eclipse of Art Deco at the end of the 1930s, the intricate designs that characterized centuries of building, across civilizations, from India to Persia to the Mayans, have vanished from architecture. . .no modern buildings include the kind of highly complex painting, woodwork, ironwork, and sculpture that characterized the most strikingly beautiful structures of prior eras.

Let’s be really honest with ourselves: a brief glance at any structure designed in the last 50 years should be enough to persuade anyone that something has gone deeply, terribly wrong with us. Some unseen person or force seems committed to replacing literally every attractive and appealing thing with an ugly and unpleasant thing. The architecture produced by contemporary global capitalism is possibly the most obvious visible evidence that it has some kind of perverse effect on the human soul. Of course, there is no accounting for taste, and there may be some among us who are naturally are deeply disposed to appreciate blobs and blocks. But polling suggests that devotees of contemporary architecture are overwhelmingly in the minority: aside from monuments, few of the public’s favorite structures are from the postwar period. (When the results of the poll were released, architects harrumphed that it didn’t “reflect expert judgment” but merely people’s “emotions,” a distinction that rather proves the entire point.) And when it comes to architecture, as distinct from most other forms of art, it isn’t enough to simply shrug and say that personal preferences differ: where public buildings are concerned, or public spaces which have an existing character and historic resonances for the people who live there, to impose an architect’s eccentric will on the masses, and force them to spend their days in spaces they find ugly and unsettling, is actually oppressive and cruel.

The politics of this issue, moreover, are all upside-down. For example, how do we explain why, in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, more conservative commentators were calling for more comfortable and home-like public housing, while left-wing writers staunchly defended the populist spirit of the high-rise apartment building, despite ample evidence that the majority of people would prefer not to be forced to live in or among such places? Conservatives who critique public housing may have easily-proven ulterior motives, but why so many on the left are wedded to defending unpopular schools of architectural and urban design is less immediately obvious.
posted by Carillon (140 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
 
no modern buildings include the kind of highly complex painting, woodwork, ironwork, and sculpture that characterized the most strikingly beautiful structures of prior eras.

that would cost more money and why would you want to spend more money than necessary on a building you may rarely see, much less ever work or live in?
posted by entropicamericana at 11:39 AM on November 6 [11 favorites]


I bloody love brutalist architecture, and hate the visual busyness of ornament in general. Then again, I am from a country that's practically shorthand for clean, flat design.
posted by Dysk at 11:40 AM on November 6 [25 favorites]


I love looking at brutalist design as well, but having had to navigate my college's library which was as brutalist as they come, it made me less enthralled by having to actually live in the space created, rather than enjoying the aesthetics purely as themselves. And you'd think square concrete would excel at holding books! But it never quite lived up to that.
posted by Carillon at 11:45 AM on November 6 [7 favorites]


I bloody love brutalist architecture

I think it's more useful to think of International style - at least brutalism is meant to leave an impression. As far as I can tell International style takes it as a goal to be unnoticed, forgettable, interchangeable.
posted by PMdixon at 11:49 AM on November 6 [10 favorites]


I really, really dislike the framing of the article, it assumes as obvious and 'honest' a bunch of the author's own prejudices, and paints all architects as simpletons who monolithically "harrumph" about things, when in reality if you ask any architect who's given a bit of thought to the issue about ornamentation, each one will give you a different and nuanced answer.
I don't think any discussion that starts of with such a biased article can endwell, so I'm just gonna sit here and wait for somebody to bring up 'starchitects'.
posted by signal at 11:51 AM on November 6 [54 favorites]


When I was visiting the V&A museum in London, one of the things that struck me was just how pervasive it's been, throughout all of human history, to ornamentalize the things we make. In that context, modernism is not just anomalous, there's something weirdly pathological about it.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 11:51 AM on November 6 [26 favorites]


Any building you construct is going to be dust in a thousand years anyway, so why spend more time and effort on it than you absolutely have to?
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:51 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]


I do love me some Art Deco. Off to RTFA.
posted by Splunge at 11:52 AM on November 6 [6 favorites]


I can't help wondering how much more the ornamented hospital cost to build, or how many fewer working days the construction of the unornamented hospital generated.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:55 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]


I really, really dislike the framing of the article

My first reaction, from the title alone, was, "I wonder if this is going to be like the stuff from the cranks who write screeds against contemporary fiction?"

The reason why you hate contemporary architecture is that you hate everything
posted by thelonius at 11:55 AM on November 6 [15 favorites]


A, Brutalism is not "contemporary architecture." Would that it were.
B, The reason I hate contemporary architecture is that ornamented or otherwise, it's fully in thrall to capitalism. End of story.
posted by adamgreenfield at 11:57 AM on November 6 [24 favorites]


left-wing writers staunchly defended the populist spirit of the high-rise apartment building, despite ample evidence that the majority of people would prefer not to be forced to live in or among such places

I will fite you IRL. Your framing of this isn't even wrong.
posted by adamgreenfield at 11:59 AM on November 6 [15 favorites]


I'm not a fan of post-modern architecture at all. For me, architecture is a world where form doesn't necessarily _follow_ function, but has to work in tandem with it. So much of, say, Frank Gehry's work doesn't work for its intended function well at all.

I've come around a bit on Brutalism. There's a lot of awful Brutalist work out there, mostly because I suspect it was quick and cheap to build, something that a lot of governments and colleges adored. You can also throw up a postmodernist building on the cheap too, which may be part of the problem with post-modern architecture's failures too. To build some of this stuff _right_, you need to put a lot more time, money, and effort into it.
posted by SansPoint at 12:00 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]


You know, ten out of ten for trying to write a lefty From Bauhaus To Our House, but I still think I liked it better the first time.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:01 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]




I do not like the framing of this article and i do not think that the authors understand that if a building form 500 years ago has come to us, it is probably because it was the best of it' contemporaries, or at least one that a lot of money was spent on.

That said, i really with i had been taught to design ornament at school. Just to be able to do it when "The Project" comes along.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 12:01 PM on November 6 [8 favorites]


Any building you construct is going to be dust in a thousand years anyway, so why spend more time and effort on it than you absolutely have to?

Because while it is standing, the people who live in and/or use it deserve to have a beautiful space that honors whatever it is they use the building for.

I used to work at an Art Deco landmark building near Grand Central, and introduced the new-hire orientation sessions. I always pointed out a couple of the cool features of the building itself, and people really appreciated it - many people had been dazzled by the lobby when they'd walked in, and really appreciated coming in to work through a place that actually looked beautiful instead of coming in through somewhere stark and plain.

Before that I worked as an Admin in the finance world. While i was working there, I visited Chicago - and saw the preserved Chicago Stock Exchange trading floor room in the Art Institute. It was beautiful - glass ornament in the windows, beautiful colors, simple but beautiful furniture. And it was for banking. I thought of my own office - a plain white room with some ugly photos or fake-antique maps scattered on random walls.

Working in a place that was beautiful would have made me feel as if my contribution was being valued. That what I did was important - "okay, you're going to be here doing something for us 8 hours a day, the least we can do is give you a lovely place to do it in." But the plain white box was making me feel more like "you get a desk and a chair, and your brain is entirely ours 8 hours a day. Suck it up."

Design matters.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:04 PM on November 6 [66 favorites]


1. Weeeeeelllll...If we can make elaborate beautiful things without also having a vast sea of underpaid laborers making them, I guess. Plenty of beautiful things were made by enslaved people, or people making so little money and with so little security that they were not much better off - even if those things were designed or their production directed by relatively well-compensated artisans. Every time I see some intricate piece of work, I find myself wondering whose fingers and eyesight were ruined producing it.

An awful lot of the beautiful buildings of the past were made by all-powerful patrons - the church, the king, the university - who could command, sometimes literally, the vast quantities of labor and materials and could do as they wished. I wouldn't exactly stand up and cheer for the Chinese imperial system, for instance, as beautiful as the New Summer Palace may be. Or the many buildings created by robber barons - San Simeon, anyone?

2. I think part of the shift today is that privacy is valued by the wealthy - all those ultra- modern buildings don't have very many windows and have a lot of blank walls. You show off by keeping people out and keeping them from seeing things, rather than by display.

3. Brutalism is wonderful, but keeping it wonderful costs money, and since a lot of brutalist buildings are at public universities or built for city governments, there isn't any. For instance, Habitat 67 is lovely - and private, and expensive, and has the greenery that comes with those things. The old Cummins Engineering building in Indiana is so pretty and green that you wouldn't believe it. Almost all brutalist buildings are really built for flowing water and trailing plants - built for nature. But nature costs money.
posted by Frowner at 12:09 PM on November 6 [42 favorites]


The whole liberal-vs-conservative underpinning really took what could have been an interesting commentary and just shit all over it.

(having an ad for a whack-job anti-Clinton--Bill, that is-- vanity book alongside the article didn't help, either...)
posted by notsnot at 12:10 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]


I'm not an architectural specialist, but my vote is for more Gaudi, less Corbusier.

I spent an evening at a Le Corbusier exhibit in the Centre Pompidou. His homes and even churches could be lovely, but apartments built with his modulor system left me with a profound sense of unease.

La Pedrera, on the other hand, is lovely and comfortable. It's also highly ornamented, and would be breathtakingly expensive to reproduce today. More organic forms wouldn't hurt, though!
posted by MengerSponge at 12:11 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]


There's some pretty cheeky cherry-picking here. I mean Brutalism is the hardest to defend school from a humanist standpoint -- and yet Glen Park station in San Francisco, while kinda eehhh on the outside, is a joy to walk through as a passenger.

And the photo selection! I'm not qualified to judge the Alexandra Estate (not being an architect OR a resident) but I do know there are much more aesthetically pleasing images of it out there than the grainy low-rez one the author took to stack the deck.

And I say this as someone who adores older & more ornamented styles in general.
posted by feckless at 12:11 PM on November 6 [16 favorites]


They come across as a pair of grumpy old men in the article, but the general point about ornamentation isn't wrong. I loves me some modern architecture, but generally tend towards the clean-line approach rather than the latest Gehry turd.

The modern age architectural stylings that have always made me catch my breath are those of Art Deco, its continuing evolution so sadly cut short by WWII. That really was the last time you saw ornamentation in architecture in any real amount, and it was joyously modernized and streamlined, and itself a pretty reasonable extension of the beautiful Art Nouveau.

A total lack of ornamentation can be beautiful in its own right, but it is passing strange that what seems to have been a logical outgrowth of Art Deco's streamlined and simplified approach has since resulted in none allowed at all, seemingly forever.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 12:13 PM on November 6 [9 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: A year ago, I started work at The Metropolitan Opera. It's a gorgeous building, if you like Mid-Century Modern Architecture. (Which I do.)

Of course, the office spaces inside aren't as gorgeous, but it's still kind of a thrill to be working in a building where the public-facing part is gorgeous.
posted by SansPoint at 12:14 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]


More seriously, I hate pieces like this because I could go through it and pick out points that I think are valid or insightful—I see some—and I'm actually even on board with some of it—but the whole thing is so smugly tendentious that it never rises above attractively illustrated click-bait.

This is my favorite part:
We should ask ourselves: why is it that we can’t build another Prague or Florence? Why can’t we build like the ancient mosques in Persia or the temples in India? Well, there’s no reason why we can’t. There’s nothing stopping us except the prison of our ideas and our horrible economic system. We must break out of the prison and destroy the economic system.
Come for the pretty pictures, stay for the William Morris cosplay.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:18 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]


To actually engage with the troll article, the reason modern buildings use less ornamentation is because it's cheaper. Those old, ornamented buildings people like the author admire so much? They were stupid expensive, built on the spoils of colonialism and slavery, and not intended for the common man. They were a form of conspicuous consumption aimed at pointing out how rich the king / governor / church was.

You notice how whenever people start making these comparisons, the new works are social housing and public buildings and the old, beautiful edifices are always palaces, churches, rich people's houses or government offices, and never actual old lower class housing? It's because actual old lower class housing was a) non-existent b) worse than current shanty towns c) just generally pitiful d) so shoddy it fell down a while ago or e) all of the above.

Comparing 20th century social housing with 17th century palaces is like comparing McDonald's to whatever food Louis XIV used to eat. The actually apt comparison would be to a 17th century lean-to under a bridge.

The whole point of socialist modern architecture was to build cities for everybody, to give everybody a roof and bathroom and a window with fresh air and sunlight and some grass, none of which where assured in the periods the article looks back on so fondly. Decoration was secondary to this need.

The whole article feels very misinformed and probably disingenuous.
posted by signal at 12:19 PM on November 6 [65 favorites]


As a construction manager and estimator, I can tell you ornamentation costs money. That is why you don’t see as much of it, any more. In my experience, economic considerations far outweigh aesthetic considerations in most designs.

Form follows budget, if you will.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 12:22 PM on November 6 [14 favorites]


signal: The whole point of socialist modern architecture was to build cities for everybody, to give everybody a roof and bathroom and a window with fresh air and sunlight and some grass, none of which where assured in the periods the article looks back on so fondly. Decoration was secondary to this need.

I'm with you, I'm with you. But just because you're giving everyone all these things, at least in theory, doesn't mean they can't look nice. But nice in a different way than your highly-ornamented beaux arts stuff. Ornamentation alone doesn't make a building look nice, to be sure.
posted by SansPoint at 12:25 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]


I love looking at brutalist design as well, but having had to navigate my college's library which was as brutalist as they come,


Carillon,

I'll see your Reg, and raise you Robarts.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 12:26 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]


signal: "The whole point of socialist modern architecture was to build cities for everybody, to give everybody a roof and bathroom and a window with fresh air and sunlight and some grass, none of which where assured in the periods the article looks back on so fondly. Decoration was secondary to this need."

But it is not secondary, which is the point. Sticking poor people in shitty ugly places because that's all they deserve is not socialist.
posted by TypographicalError at 12:29 PM on November 6 [10 favorites]


A, Brutalism is not "contemporary architecture." Would that it were.

My dear, why do you say that? Why do you say “t’were”?
posted by Naberius at 12:31 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]


And speaking of Toronto, Gehry's renovation of the AGO is pretty much my ideal of beautiful, useful, contemporary architecture.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:31 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


1970s Antihero: "When I was visiting the V&A museum in London, one of the things that struck me was just how pervasive it's been, throughout all of human history, to ornamentalize the things we make. In that context, modernism is not just anomalous, there's something weirdly pathological about it."

We're are living in one of the few times in history where labour is expensive; both for original creation and up keep. As an example I remember watching a master finishing carpenter labour for a week recreating a curved door moulding on This Old House once. 40 hours of highly skilled labour for 3' of trim. No one is paying for that now though if the GINI index keeps widening I predict beautiful buildings again in the future.
posted by Mitheral at 12:33 PM on November 6 [8 favorites]


thelonius: "The reason why you hate contemporary architecture is that you hate everything"

I like lots of things! Contemporary things, even. Not much contemporary architecture, though.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:35 PM on November 6


Carillon, I actually love the Reg. I spent many hours in those stacks and reading in the big chairs by the front windows. The building is a lovely marriage of humming activity and intense solitude. The only thing about it I would change is the fluorescent lights.
posted by mai at 12:35 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]


Even apart from a lack of ornamentation being cheaper, my honest first reaction is that instead of putting up something with an unpleasing or awkward design and trying to rectify that by putting pretty stuff all over it, maybe you should just design something with a beautiful shape to start with. Tastes differ and all, but *googles* Fountain Place in Dallas is still my go-to for this. Just a few simple shapes joined together and put under sheets of reflective glass, but the things it would do under a clear Texas sky or under storm clouds were gorgeous.

actually looked beautiful instead of coming in through somewhere stark and plain

Stark and plain can be beautiful. I mean, I'm sure you know that, and that you meant "somewhere never intended to be anything more than utilitarian" or something like that but the honor of all the stark, plain, and beautiful things and places demands a wee note.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 12:36 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Kind of weird that they're arguing against Modernist and Brutalist architecture as if that's a thing that's contemporary instead of something that's from 50-100 years ago.

Architects often get mad when non-architects conflate the terms “modernism,” “postmodernism,” “Brutalism,” etc. They love telling people that, say, “Frank Gehry is actually REACTING to postmodernism.” These terminological disputes can obscure the fact that everything under discussion is actually just a minor variation on the same garbage.

I mean, God forbid you have some passing familiarity with the past 100 years of the discipline you're planning to polemicize. "It's stupid because it's stupid!" isn't a particularly compelling critique. This is like the same doofus article conservatives have been writing about non-representational art for the past 150 years.

Also, Renzo Piano's Menil Collection is one of the most calming spaces I've even been in. It's all lightness and space and air.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:38 PM on November 6 [13 favorites]


Big Al 8000: Form follows budget, if you will.

How about "Form follows finance," for the alliteration?
posted by clawsoon at 12:41 PM on November 6 [15 favorites]


Those old, ornamented buildings people like the author admire so much? They were stupid expensive, built on the spoils of colonialism and slavery, and not intended for the common man.

I point again to the Chicago Stock Exchange Room. Or to the Arts and Crafts Movement - which was even referenced in the article - whose very raison d'etre was to produce beautiful and handcrafted objects for daily use by everyone, while ensuring that the crafters had a good income at the same time.

Hell, even the painted screens in Baltimore would count as ornamentation on a building.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:43 PM on November 6 [21 favorites]


I used to work at an Art Deco landmark building near Grand Central, and introduced the new-hire orientation sessions. I always pointed out a couple of the cool features of the building itself, and people really appreciated it - many people had been dazzled by the lobby when they'd walked in, and really appreciated coming in to work through a place that actually looked beautiful instead of coming in through somewhere stark and plain.

The National Portrait Gallery used to the Patent Office, and I'm amazed at the idea of public servants working in a building with such attention paid to being interesting and intricate.

why would you want to spend more money than necessary on a building you may rarely see, much less ever work or live in?

I wonder if part of the shift in architecture was the invention of television and a move from being in a space to being in a space but looking at an image of some other place. At that point, the decorations of your immediate habitats become much less important.
posted by Candleman at 12:44 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]


TBH speaking about Brutalist libraries like the Reg and Robarts, I found the Northwestern University Library one of the most confusing buildings as well. There were three spires I think? And then I made a wrong turn and ended up in a secret music library off to the side in a different building? It was a while ago so it's only half remembered but it was such a cool experience but one that really confused me at the time and I still remember that profound sense of I'm lost and I'm not even in the woods or anything.
posted by Carillon at 12:48 PM on November 6 [3 favorites]


actually looked beautiful instead of coming in through somewhere stark and plain

Stark and plain can be beautiful. I mean, I'm sure you know that, and that you meant "somewhere never intended to be anything more than utilitarian" or something like that but the honor of all the stark, plain, and beautiful things and places demands a wee note.


Yeah, I bet these folks really don't understand (and therefore likely hate) Japanese and Scandinavian Design.
posted by leotrotsky at 12:48 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]


What was created was already going out of fashion as it was completed in the years before the first world war. Baronial towers, a marble chapel, religious imagery everywhere. It must have seemed like the centre of Gods order for the universe- the rich man at the centre of his own world.

The house was only possible because of one thing- vast quantities of cheap labour. In the building (involving years and years of work by hundreds of skilled craftsman) and then in the running (an army of gardeners, housekeepers, kitchen staff etc.)

The interesting thing is that, in some respects it was never finished. Each column and stone cornice in the house was to be intricately carved- but not all of it was finished. Our guide told us this was because so many people were killed on the slaughtering fields of the first world war that the skills were simply gone.
- Mount Stuart house, Isle of Bute
posted by Lanark at 12:51 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Oh, plain-but-well-designed can absolutely be gorgeous. But the secretary's pool at your average financial institution is not anything that was designed by Isamu Noguchi, I tell you what.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:51 PM on November 6 [6 favorites]


Yeah, I bet these folks really don't understand (and therefore likely hate) Japanese and Scandinavian Design.

They understand it well. They don't understand why it's the and of architecture evolution. Neither do I.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:53 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


2. I think part of the shift today is that privacy is valued by the wealthy - all those ultra- modern buildings don't have very many windows and have a lot of blank walls. You show off by keeping people out and keeping them from seeing things, rather than by display.
i walk around a lot (here in toronto) and scope the newest projects , and my impression from here at least (as well as vancouver where i'm from) is that glass dominates ; all-glass is aspired-to , as much as is possible. i've read this as sort of the opposite of what u r saying ; wealth loves to display /vitrinify itself , as it loves to look down upon as much as possible from on high . u hide things on the internet and offshore , not in ur glass box !
posted by LeviQayin at 1:00 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Former communist countries have a lot of plain apartment blocks built of precast concrete, mainly because they were quick and cheap to build; reinforced concrete also uses relatively little steel, and the USSR produced too much sheet steel (hence the use of Russian steel in Fiats) and too little long products (columns, beams, etc).

In France, the grands ensembles, with those big concrete "bars", were made that way to save on construction cost and collective equipment (pools, schools, gymnasiums, etc.), in a context of rebuilding after the war and the depression of the 1930s, and where in the 1960s and 1970s there were bidonvilles in large French cities.

Some of the attacks on ornamentation were misguided and often couched in misogynistic or colonialist language; ornamentation was feminine and smelled of "the Orient" while stark buildings were "virile". Some ornamentation also had function, especially for water management, and that baby has sometimes been thrown with the bathwater; elements like cornices, sloped roofs and protruding lintels and sills actually contribute to the durability of a building as well as its appearance.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:08 PM on November 6 [9 favorites]


certainly a frank gehry building's curves are a form of ornament and a creator of great expense. could you build a simple rectangular brick building and ornament the hell out of it for the same price? I'm guessing so... And the makeup of your workforce would be so different, yes? skilled and apprenticed craftpeople vs unskilled laborers?

To my mind, I would much rather work with primitive materials and craft them, then work with modern factory materials, which are much less conducive to a craftperson's fine ornamental touch... I would like to say that "scale" is the bad guy, and it used to be better for the builders. but what do i know, i only live now, not then.
posted by danjo at 1:13 PM on November 6


Oh, plain-but-well-designed can absolutely be gorgeous. But the secretary's pool at your average financial institution is not anything that was designed by Isamu Noguchi, I tell you what.

Pop-linguistic pedantry: I'm not sure you're using "I tell you what" correctly there. The proper use, as I understand it, is that it ought should follow an unhelpfully brief statement rather than the full and complete one you thoughtfully provided.

Oh, plain-but-well-designed can absolutely be gorgeous. But the secretary's pool at your average financial institution... I tell you what.

As penance I sentence you to one RC-and-a-Moon-Pie.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 1:15 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


I miss ornamentation. I don't deny the utilitarian and aesthetic appeals of other styles of architecture, but there should be room for both. Hell, even prehistoric clay pots have patterns on them that serve no functional purpose and must have taken time and effort to add.
posted by Paragon at 1:18 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]


As penance I sentence you to one RC-and-a-Moon-Pie.

In my defense, your honor, everything I learned about southernspeak came from a Texan aunt who had lived on Cape Cod for 20 years, supplemented with the occasional Foghorn Leghorn cartoon. I was sheltered!
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:21 PM on November 6


So can the labor question be solved by robots? It can, right? Can we 3D print some beauty for our buildings?

Going by what people look for in home-redecorating shows, it's clearly a. light b. space c. some color d. simple ornamentation (usually in light fixtures, moldings, "shutters" and trim on the outside of the house; I would also add, in bathrooms, fancy sinks, glass-and-granite showers; in kitchens, shiny appliances and patterned tile and fancy countertops and wood facings; etc.)

There is a certain beauty in an space with very spare, clean lines, but it is much less personal, in a way. When you enter a building with a prominent bit of ornamentation, like say a stained glass window, seeing that window again gives you a little buzz of pleasure and comfort: hello, old friend. You are still here, just like always. You study it during slow moments, wondering for the thousandth time what the creator was thinking when they created this face, or that one.

A sheet of concrete doesn't have that individuality. It doesn't stick in your mind, except as a blank. You can find the lines of it pleasing, or even the texture, but one bit of it is very much like another. There is no story to it.

At least that's my feeling on it. I don't know about conservative vs. liberal, whatever.
posted by emjaybee at 1:22 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]


So now that 3D printed concrete is a thing will ornamentation make a come-back? If there's no longer a cost difference between flat and sculptured why not, right?
posted by Eddie Mars at 1:23 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]


You might also need scale and some way to come to agreements on ornamentation. We could still have relatively cheap ornaments with stamped sheet metal or molded concrete, but it seems that we don't because those things aren't popular enough for their manufacture to be industrialized. The printing machines may exist, but will builders buy them?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:31 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Pervasive CNC routing didn't give us wild, algorithmically generated molding everywhere. You can do a lot of interesting ornamentation cheaply and quickly with plaster in molds. 3D printing isn't going to bring ornamentation back all by itself because it's not a technical issue, it's a taste one. (On preview, dangit Monday!)
posted by phooky at 1:34 PM on November 6 [3 favorites]


For modern buildings with ornamentation I think of the Burning Man temples that are built every year. The ornamentation has usually been accomplished by CNC cutting of wood (not 3D printing but similarly computer controlled).
posted by metaname at 1:37 PM on November 6 [3 favorites]


If I had my way, I'd live in a sprawling Arts & Crafts villa, along the lines of Gamble House, although perhaps with some elements suggestive of the Vienna Secession, or a bit of Charles Rennie Mackintosh added in.

However, I still loves me some Modernist architecture. One of my favorite buildings in Chicago is Mies van der Rohe's building for the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration. It is one of the most perfectly proportioned buildings I have ever been in, and is completely integrated with its surroundings. I always thought his low-rise stuff worked better than the towers.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:37 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]


Those old, ornamented buildings people like the author admire so much? They were stupid expensive, built on the spoils of colonialism and slavery, and not intended for the common man.

I point again to the Chicago Stock Exchange Room. Or to the Arts and Crafts Movement - which was even referenced in the article - whose very raison d'etre was to produce beautiful and handcrafted objects for daily use by everyone, while ensuring that the crafters had a good income at the same time.



These two arguments are not incompatible. In its time, the Arts & Crafts movement took a radical, egalitarian (even utopian) stance against what they saw as the excesses of 19th-century capitalism. Many Arts & Crafts designers were Owenites, or other flavors of Socialist, and often lived in experimental communities. Their aesthetic was often conservative (being connected to the Pre-Raphaelites and referencing elements of Medieval design), but their politics were decidedly not.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:46 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]


And speaking of Toronto, Gehry's renovation of the AGO is pretty much my ideal of beautiful, useful, contemporary architecture.

Useful? I almost broke my ankle trying to navigate that weird curved staircase with its constantly variable tread depths.
posted by rocket88 at 1:49 PM on November 6


I found the Northwestern University Library one of the most confusing buildings as well. There were three spires I think? And then I made a wrong turn and ended up in a secret music library off to the side in a different building? It was a while ago so it's only half remembered but it was such a cool experience but one that really confused me at the time and I still remember that profound sense of I'm lost and I'm not even in the woods or anything.

Yup, three towers, plus the old original Deering Library building. I worked there when I was a student. Each tower has three floors of shelves. The towers could be confusing, but there was a logic to how they were arranged. (Like, all the literature type categories were in one tower.) I think they may have re-arranged since I was there but the old Deering building had the music library, the art library, and special collections - but the main way you got there was through the entrance kiosk between the two structures, and then down stairs and through a tunnel - you couldn't actually use the original front doors of Deering.

Anyway, it may be a tricky building to get around in, but it's at least interesting to look at. Unlike the theater building which is literally a collection of grey boxes, so utterly boring it's hard to find pictures of it online. Its only good side is the front of the Barber Theatre because it's a wall of windows.
posted by dnash at 1:50 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Before we burned so much coal and then the internal combustion engine, we did not have cities with such acidic, smoggy pollution that would so rapidly dissolve small or fine ornamentation. So that stuff would last "forever". But since we created such a corrosive environment and began seeing all these delicate structures blackened, dissolving and blurring, I think people just figured it was easier to do without. Otherwise we end up cleaning them at great cost, and that tends to dissolve their detail further. Maybe if we get past dirty fossil fuel burning and get back clean air, then we will get back into building ornamentation.
posted by meehawl at 1:57 PM on November 6 [3 favorites]


Kind of weird that they're arguing against Modernist and Brutalist architecture as if that's a thing that's contemporary instead of something that's from 50-100 years ago.

I find critiques of Brutalist architecture to be timely, even though the buildings might be 60 years old, because it's having a bit of a revival of interest. Certainly it has more defenders than it ever had before. My guess is that because most of the truly terrible examples of brutalism and modernism got Pruitt-Igoed years ago, the surviving buildings now look interesting to young design fans. And it's easy to miss the low-ceilinged, scratched and moldy plexiglass, bent-aluminum trim, dirty concrete crap-boxes that most such buildings actually were.

The article is giving me From Bauhaus To Our House flashbacks, even though I agree with it, and I find minimalism to be kind of tacky.
posted by surlyben at 2:09 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]


On a broader point, we live in a time where brutalism is back in style and minimalism is status-y among rich people, who are the people that can afford to build new houses and fund new buildings, and since having something modern and minimalist now equates with looking like you're of the stylish set, even more inexpensive new homes and apartment buildings ape the already-cheaply made (because this is 2017 and no one spends money on materials anymore) new homes and buildings of the rich and that's why the mid-century throwback mini-house/glass and metal siding apartment building with the all-cement and IKEA interior that has been bog standard new construction for the last few years will soon look as dated and depressing as the horrific Palladian/French Chateau/Prairie/Tudor chimaera mansions we all enjoy mocking today. Trends are a thing. Styles are cyclical. And just as the specter of 1970s Florida room rattan and primitive Americana* started to creep back into fashionable interior design around the same time that your cousin called to brag about buying a knock-off Eames chair at Costco, so to will ornamentation come back. The 80s was big on Art Deco revival. They sure loved the hell out of their pink marble. I was never really a fan, but hey, I'm just the girl that's (still, people, STILL) trying to get rocococore off the ground.

*Not that I endorse this tread because wicker is a pain in the ass, but I did love those giant thrones that everyone seemed to have in the late 70s/early 80s. I spent my childhood obsessed with sitting in them.
posted by thivaia at 2:15 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]


One of my favorite buildings in Chicago is Mies van der Rohe's building for the University of Chicago's School of Social Service Administration. It is one of the most perfectly proportioned buildings I have ever been in, and is completely integrated with its surroundings. I always thought his low-rise stuff worked better than the towers.


What do you think of his IBM building downtown? I always loved it as a onxy-y monolith that also looked like it could be a computer chip or something.
posted by Carillon at 2:15 PM on November 6


Monumental scale architecture is, by definition, a monument to something. And as the somethings change, so does the architectural expression. The important folks waving lots of money in the air get to build monuments to suit their (questionable) taste and/or sense of (self) importance. And architects are always happy to oblige. Architectural historians and critics however, are rarely consulted...
posted by jim in austin at 2:16 PM on November 6


And it's easy to miss the low-ceilinged, scratched and moldy plexiglass, bent-aluminum trim, dirty concrete crap-boxes that most such buildings actually were.

Any style of architecture makes for terrible buildings if it's badly built from too-cheap materials and poorly maintained.
posted by Dysk at 2:19 PM on November 6 [6 favorites]


I've been trying to learn how to build some minor furniture at home. Something I've noticed: quite often the elaborate trim on traditional styles of furniture (and in building interiors) is used to cover those joints and edges that never quite come out right. The super-clean lines and utterly perfect joints of Danish minimalism and mid-century-modern furniture appeared when the machine tools became sophisticated and common.

I hear something similar applies to fancy dresses; the cheap ones cover up sloppy seams with sequins and applique, so if you want a simple, elegant design, you're likely to wind up paying a fortune, because the tailoring has to be really good.

I wonder to what extent this phenomenon applies to the kind of institutional architecture and interior design they're discussing here. (I should admit that I've only skimmed the story.)
posted by Western Infidels at 2:21 PM on November 6 [22 favorites]


Come for the pretty pictures, stay for the William Morris cosplay.

That's fine, William Morris' friends were cosplaying 14th century Florentines because modernity was so horrible with those hideous metal contraptions like the Tour Eiffel and Paddington Station. Back then, the Aesthetic movement was on the tail of Gothic Revival. This discussion is anything but new.
posted by sukeban at 2:23 PM on November 6 [2 favorites]


To actually engage with the troll article, the reason modern buildings use less ornamentation is because it's cheaper. Those old, ornamented buildings people like the author admire so much? They were stupid expensive, built on the spoils of colonialism and slavery, and not intended for the common man. They were a form of conspicuous consumption aimed at pointing out how rich the king / governor / church was.

There was a time in the U.S. when we did make grand public buildings for the common man. Look at the courthouses and city halls. Look at the great public libraries. Look at the post offices. Look at the train stations. Look at the things the WPA built. Even the smaller public buildings--municipal stations, Carnegie libraries, local post offices with WPA murals--had details and some ornamentation, and were built to look good. They're still loved today.
posted by Hypatia at 2:51 PM on November 6 [17 favorites]


Kind of weird that they're arguing against Modernist and Brutalist architecture as if that's a thing that's contemporary instead of something that's from 50-100 years ago.

Yeah, I don't appreciate the muddying. An Art label that's become counter-intuitive is Modern, a style which really ended with WWII. Post war, post-modern, that's what contemporary is. Art Deco was nice, as was Art Nouveau, but Streamlined Moderne was where ornament was all blasted away - however, that didn't make it bad, far from it. After the war it evolved into the International Style, which is bland compared to the unfortunate Brutalist stuff but the contemporary examples in this article really are hideous -- I'm reminded of Kunstler's Eyesore of the Month.
posted by Rash at 3:03 PM on November 6


My dear, why do you say that? Why do you say “t’were”?

Because we should all be so lucky as to live in a place as humane as the Barbican, with its gorgeously Silent Runningish Conservatory, or I.M. Pei's Kips Bay Towers, which I was fortunate enough to call home for almost 20% of the time I've spent on this planet. We should all be able to seek shelter beneath something like the canopy Oscar Niemeyer designed for Ibirapuera Park, gather for shared public purpose in spaces as stirring as the one he designed for the PCF, and constitute ourselves as a public in ones as generous as Vilanova Artigas's stunning FAU-USP or Lina Bo Bardi's SESC Pompeia.

I could go on at interminable length, but my basic contention is that brutalism is the language and the material expression of the people empowered as such. It cannot be the only idiom in which all public architecture is conducted, because nothing should be total, but it is as stirring and noble and thoughtful a way of building for the many as has ever been devised. I won't have it snarked at by the ignorant any more than I'll let it be fetishized and recuperated as the visual sign of luxury condos for hipster doofuses. It's too big, too important and too permanent a contribution for that.
posted by adamgreenfield at 3:11 PM on November 6 [9 favorites]


Just wanted to say that streamlined moderne is the best architecture. Clean, uncluttered, attractive. Perfect.
posted by Dysk at 3:12 PM on November 6




I am a terrible human with bad taste, I guess. Around here, my least favorite building is IM Pei's Everson Museum. Ugh, just putrescent, I hate visiting it, and the art inside feels like it's being crushed by acres of concrete and hatred. My favorite building is the absolutely stunning Art Deco Niagara Mohawk* building that would be at home in a video game or movie set. Every time I see that facade I smile and think about the people who envisioned a future for Syracuse that was grand and imposing and aspirational, where a commercial space could be a place of beauty and design harmony. We didn't live up to it, but that's a different story.

*That's what our power company was called before British people bought it. Now we just call it it National Greed.
posted by xyzzy at 3:55 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Hypatia: There was a time in the U.S. when we did make grand public buildings for the common man. Look at the courthouses and city halls. Look at the great public libraries. Look at the post offices. Look at the train stations. Look at the things the WPA built.

Weren't most of those things built before universal adult suffrage? Grace and beauty are often used - in architecture and in manners - to reassure the ruled that their rulers are the best sort. (Or at least to reassure the rulers themselves that they're the best sort.) I wouldn't be surprised if a disproportionate number of beautiful courthouses and city halls were built in the Jim Crow South. (And I'd be interested to find out if that's the case.)
posted by clawsoon at 4:32 PM on November 6 [5 favorites]


Well, the idea that old buildings are necessarily more beloved than modern ones isn't always true: one of the great unsung pieces of modern design in Toronto is: City Hall. The UFO thing in the middle is the council chamber, the huge empty space is Nathan Phillips Square, which is about as close to the 'town square' as you can come, skating rink and all. If the CN Tower blew over tomorrow, this would be the city's identity building. The ornate Italianate 1890s building to the right is Old City Hall, which is now a courthouse. It's beautiful, of course, and the detail is lovely, but as a big, striking building-as-a-piece-of-sculpture, it's not even in the same league.

One of my favorite things about modern cities is the mix of old and new.
posted by jrochest at 5:00 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]


I do like me plenty of contemporary architecture. Is some of it bad? Sure. (Trot out Boston City Hall again.) But I love the Mikimoto building pictured about halfway down the article. It is fun in person. And walking around the Ginza neighborhood there are other creative buildings there that are quite beautiful and reflect the Mikimoto building in surprising ways.

I work in an early Metabolist building that is also brutalist in a way.

And that public poll of the 150 most loved buildings. How much of that is just received knowledge of what are good, popular buildings? Does the general public actually go visit buildings all over the country? Age has something to do with it. A building has to hang around long enough to pervade public awareness. Newer buildings are at a disadvantage in such a poll.
posted by Gotanda at 5:02 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]


There's a couple inter-linked trends behind the move away from ornamentation in architecture.

First, I'd point to the change in materials. A lot of ornamentation in older architecture happened because of the limits of materials. It wasn't physically possible to create buildings with the clean lines used in contemporary architecture because you needed a heck of a lot more support, and ornamentation was used to obscure the way that the building didn't actually meet the ideal expressed by the design. When modern materials became available, architects could start making designs that didn't *require* ornamentation to not look like butt. Won't always succeed, but they can at least try.

The second is mechanization. The Baumol effect means that increasing labor productivity via mechanization increases wages in all sectors, including sectors that don't have increased productivity. Traditional forms of ornamentation is one of those sectors that have seen increased wages without increased productivity through mechanization. So we don't pay for ornamentation because it's an extra cost, but it's important to remember that that's not because we're suddenly a bunch of soulless capitalists (although that doesn't help, I guess). Rather, it's because the labor for traditional ornamentation is considerably more expensive than it used to be.

The first effect is ultimately a matter of taste, but it has a great deal of importance in the world of professional architecture. The second can't be gotten around without the destruction of industrial society, or *maybe* staggering levels of poverty and income inequality, beyond what we've seen in modern times.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 5:11 PM on November 6 [6 favorites]


Many comments are citing decorative architecture as being more expensive than modern architecture. This may be true in some circumstances (I don't really know since no one who mentioned this included any citations), but particularly in cases of "starchitects" the cost of these buildings is immense and often over budget.

One example I'm familiar with is the I. M. Mei remodel of the Wast Wing of the National Gallery. Only 35 years after it was built it required millions of dollars in fixes - so that architecture aficionados can be impressed with masonry techniques I guess?

"The cladding will now have to be removed and restored at the cost of $85 million to the taxpayer. This works out to about 17% of the inflation adjusted cost of the original building ($500 million). Add to the financial cost the immense amount of fuel, energy, and building material waste produced by such a project, the justification for such buildings is becoming more and more difficult."

https://ggwash.org/view/3650/national-gallery-east-wing-crumbling-from-peis-inflexibility
posted by forkisbetter at 5:16 PM on November 6 [3 favorites]


The person who wrote that article seems to be confusing exterior ornamentation with the whole of what architecture is and does. A good building, just as any well-designed thing, will guide you through its purpose and foresee potential problems while trying to head them off. If it looks good for the times in which it was made, all the better. There are so many straw men in that article I hope the author has a big fire extinguisher in case someone lights a match. Case in point the hospitals in Spain. While the older Baroque-ish one is conventionally prettier, the boxy modern one while not particularly beautiful, looks clean and new and rationally laid out. I'd personally rather be in a hospital that is designed more around it's function than the aesthetics of the 1800's.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 5:26 PM on November 6 [3 favorites]


You know, ten out of ten for trying to write a lefty From Bauhaus To Our House, but I still think I liked it better the first time.

Thom Wolfe's, From Bauhaus to Our House, Wikipedia
posted by Brian B. at 6:39 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


forkisbetter: "Many comments are citing decorative architecture as being more expensive than modern architecture. This may be true in some circumstances (I don't really know since no one who mentioned this included any citations)"

Leaving aside outliers where cost of materials themselves is the difference I can't think of any architectural detail where the more ornate option is cheaper than the plain. I guess it could happen but the way to bet is on the plainer version being cheaper. And cleaning an ornate detail is going to be inherently more expensive than a plain detail.
posted by Mitheral at 6:44 PM on November 6


I found myself agreeing with some of the article's points while getting frustrated over its indifference to art-historical periods and apparent unwillingness to take any thinking about modern architecture seriously. It seems to me that some of the article's objections can be answered with a bit more historical perspective. for example:

For about 2,000 years, everything human beings built was beautiful, or at least unobjectionable. The 20th century put a stop to this, evidenced by the fact that people often go out of their way to vacation in “historic” (read: beautiful) towns that contain as little postwar architecture as possible. But why? What actually changed? Why does there seem to be such an obvious break between the thousands of years before World War II and the postwar period? And why does this seem to hold true everywhere?

At least in the European context, if people go out of their way to see old architecture, that means they go places that were not destroyed in the war, as countless cities and who knows how many millions of buildings were. It would be insane to try to rebuild those cities to look like they had, not simply because it would be impractical, but because we simply can't go back to the world before the slaughter of seventy million people, the degeneration of multiple European countries into fascism, the Holocaust, and nuclear war. Those events created our current, fucked-up world, and it seems that any art that is responsive to history would have to be permanently changed by those events. My memory could be wrong, but I remember the striking contrast between the colossal Cologne Cathedral and the post-war architecture that seems to make up most of the city of Köln. For me, that new construction, so incompatible with the old, is a scar left in the city's urban tissue, a reminder of the destruction.

And that cathedral, stunning as it is, reminds me of a passage from Walter Benjamin:

According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

As other people in this thread have said, those magnificent old buildings are not monuments to the people whose labor built them.

I say all this even though, to be honest, I dislike most architectural styles of the last hundred years and particularly hate concrete as a building material. Dirty concrete seems much uglier to me than dirty brick or wood, and its roughness seems somehow specially threatening to human bodies. But my preference for old buildings is part of a broader nostalgia, of which I am a little suspicious.
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 7:20 PM on November 6 [9 favorites]


So can the labor question be solved by robots? It can, right? Can we 3D print some beauty for our buildings?

As I understand it, this is kind of what's happening at Sagrada Familia right now, and responsible for its accelerating completion rate.

Leaving aside outliers where cost of materials themselves is the difference I can't think of any architectural detail where the more ornate option is cheaper than the plain. I guess it could happen but the way to bet is on the plainer version being cheaper.

There are exceptions to the rule as you state it, but generally the rule holds true for whichever detail is "fussier", but maybe that's obvious. Super-clean details that require extreme precision also generally require a tremendous amount of craftsmanship to get right, whereas sometimes the more traditional approach is so much faster that it's a lot cheaper, even if more material is involved. For instance, a wall base in a typical home with a base mold vs. without in a room with a height that's not quite modular to a gyp panel size: without a base, you have to be super clean cutting the drywall or you'll end up with ragged edges somewhere at the top or bottom of the wall where it intersects with the floor or ceiling, or you'll have to spend time mudding everything up and risk it looking gross anyway. If you're planning on using a base mold, you can just do whatever and cover up the junky edge with the mold.
posted by LionIndex at 7:51 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


I like Current Affairs (which is Robinson's baby) and I dislike Frank Gehry but I'm afraid this is pretty bad.
posted by atoxyl at 8:08 PM on November 6


This is the kind of hilarious, pretentious and sanctimonious jeremiad you hide from at cocktail parties.

Like, Peter Eisenman is bad because his residential house was poorly made — it went over budget and (while the client actually liked living there) has needed expensive repairs due to materials mistakes.

Totally unlike Wright's Falling Water, because Wright was a genius!

No skyscrapers because an architect should never try to pierce the sky, but uh betcha like some Christopher Wren.

I mean, why not just title the essay "Why Won't Anyone Listen to My Important Opinions on Wainscoting"?
posted by klangklangston at 9:21 PM on November 6 [6 favorites]


I don't love his tone or his unexamined assumptions, but this is, in fact, why I dislike contemporary architecture.
posted by desuetude at 9:43 PM on November 6 [1 favorite]


Lots of societies so traditional that labor was free -- far from the market, no lord or tyrant who found them profitable, free of everything but survival necessity -- made intensely ornamented things to live in or with. I like African Nomadic Architecture for the pictures, but one of the points made by the text is that academic descriptions of one of the societies as having 'no visual art' got there only by ignoring what they carried. The very reinforcing stitching on the braces of the tents was more decorative than it needed to be. I can't think of a pre-industrial culture that doesn't ornament anything; can anyone name one?

So I am extremely dubious of a claim that ornament was imposed on everyone by the rich. It seems more likely that the rich stole everyone else's ornament-making time and energy. And some modern unornamented architecture continues to collude in this, while other modern unornamented architecture is making the best of it, or even finding a new freedom and beauty. But it is not the only, nor the only honest, popular style.
posted by clew at 10:34 PM on November 6 [4 favorites]


That's another side of mechanization. When everything is made by hand, it might be some extra effort to put in some ornamentation, but it's not a different mode of production and it's not a big change in effort percentage-wise. Introducing additional manual labor on top of a fully or partially mechanized process is a bigger change, and production at scale means you start noticing how that adds up.

The logic of capitalism means that you care about that adding up, either because you're trying to squeeze as much profit out of it as you can, or because you're on the other side and alienated from the product of your labor, etc, etc.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 10:53 PM on November 6


When everything is made by hand, it might be some extra effort to put in some ornamentation, but it's not a different mode of production and it's not a big change in effort percentage-wise.
That's not my experience. Covering cloth with embroidery is an enormous "change in effort" after weaving it. Ornamenting a stone building is a lifetime's work!

"Mode of production" would need to be argued case by case, but the counterargument is that computers-and-machines make all our production now more similar than paint vs thread ever was before.

It's the alienating of the labor that matters.
posted by clew at 11:35 PM on November 6


LionIndex: As I understand it, this is kind of what's happening at Sagrada Familia right now, and responsible for its accelerating completion rate.

They use it for prototyping and building 3D models, it's pretty spiffy. But IIRC they have been always financed by donations and it's the steady flow of money that has been behind the speed of construction for the past decades.

That said, Gaudí was another reactionary who wished everyone returned to the Middle Ages, if anything because he was a hardcore traditionalist Catholic. La Pedrera, quoted way upthread, has "Ave Maria Gratia Plena" sculpted on the façade, and you can visit a flat kept as in the late 1800s and see the difference in the treatment given to the areas designed for the family and the service staff. So, eh.
posted by sukeban at 12:15 AM on November 7


Also Tom Wolfe can bite me forever.
posted by adamgreenfield at 3:24 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]


I love living in the more-than-100-years-old building I live in now, because it has pretty molding and nice stonework etc. On the other hand, the place I lived in before was a modernist place with a slating ceiling/wall and that was nifty, too. Mostly, I like living in an interesting space more than I like living in a box. So I do dislike the "make everything a plain box" style of architecture aesthetically, although I understand its practical purpose. (Ornamentation can be bad and overdone, too, however. In St. Vitus Cathedral, for example, the 18th century cherubs festooning one corner are truly hideous.)

I'm not a huge fan of Brutalism, which may in part be a result of having lived in Boston.
posted by kyrademon at 4:36 AM on November 7


Not all old buildings are ornamented. The Danish vicarage my parents are moving out of right now is from the early 1800s and is a plain brick box with a plain pitched roof.
posted by Dysk at 5:35 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]


> When everything is made by hand, it might be some extra effort to put in some ornamentation, but it's not a different mode of production and it's not a big change in effort percentage-wise.

That's not my experience. Covering cloth with embroidery is an enormous "change in effort" after weaving it. Ornamenting a stone building is a lifetime's work!


Er, there are degrees between the two poles of "hand-carved stonework" and "plain concrete blocks", just as there are degrees between "hand-embroidered tapestries" and, like, plain muslin.

Like, what about a contrasting trim on windows? A curved archway rather than just a plain rectangle? Painting a little rose on the door? Screenprinting? Even just around the cuffs?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:12 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


My occasionally unintentionally hilarious mother reminded me how much I've changed over the years when, in response to the sudden opening of marriage equality, confessed that she'd long hoped that I'd one day find a man who'd be my perfect mate, and who I'd marry and settle down with, and who'd be my partner in lovingly restoring a beautiful old Victorian house.

Why would anyone want to doom me to spend the rest of my life painting?

I mean, I get it, and I get where she's coming from, but in middle age, I've found that I hate Victorian architecture. I hate Victorian and all the rest of its wedding-cakey, garish, little-girls'-plastic-jewelry-box uptight, upright uber-Britishy nonsense. I hate its proportions and its bizarre caste-system space framing, and I hate the long, tall, respectable windows and the architects who drew those little magical lines that supposedly determine the "right" way to arrange forms and penetrations. I hate the birth of ornate decoration in cultures where abundant poverty meant there would always be an underclass to build these hideous band-saw puzzleboxes for the new Veneering families and Mr-and-Mrs-Quite-Recently-Important to raise their dull-witted entitlespawn in, and I revel in the fact that the reason the mansard-roofed broken-down Queen Anne is the model for the haunted house is that it is impossible to maintain a pile of cake icing curlicues dissolving in the rain once you've imposed this miserable, pretentious, impossibly upwardly asinine shit on the countryside.

Thing is—I never came around to brutalism in a backlash to a backlash. I grew up with this architecture, and I adored it. Just to give an example, I grew up in Scaggsville, Maryland, in a two-hundred year-old log farmhouse not far from the burgeoning new town of Columbia, Maryland, and Columbia was lush with amazing little bits of fantastic modern human-scaled architecture. Buildings would be low and horizontal, occasionally opening out into tall galleries with strips of clerestories that would bring morning light in, or paint the bare concrete, still lush with the woodgrain of its formwork with the golden wash of late day sun, and the ramps leading into, say, the cafeteria of the community college would be carpeted with a lovely rust-colored closed-loop pile that you'd descend, following the warm, inviting slab of the broad rough-milled plank that served as a handrail.

Local libraries had fantastic details like little portholes set at ankle level into walls, revealing little portraits of the outside, or L-shaped windows that shot up from the floors, then dodged left where the massive wooden beams and concrete buttresses crossed large, interestingly shaped rooms that managed to provide both open air and low areas and niches where one could curl up with a book in a built-in horseshoe of well-padded benches. The ventilation systems didn't lurk in rat-infested crawlspaces overhead, but were painted in colors to match their function, occasionally as participants in supragraphic accent artworks that would chase a bold orange arrow across a brick wall, then plunge around a corner to highlight the elevator's shiny steel doors.

I hear how alienating brutalism is supposed to be, but I'm not sure how it's any more alienating than the cold ornamentation of old, beloved skyscrapers and grand movie theaters with oversized details rendered in sheet metal and wads of cast plaster. What brutalism looked like to me, with its failure to hide everything under coats of paint, glass, and stucco, was home, and my home in particular, where the heavy logs crossed the room where, as a family, we'd hammered off the skim plaster to reveal the logs and the hand-molded, horsehair-reinforced chinking between the logs. It looked like the unpainted, oil-finished simple wood trim around each window and doorway, and like the simplicity of the era-mixed collection of clapboard and shiplap siding that kept our house closed to the weather.

I'm all for grand public structures with moderation, like the lovely WPA post offices and public buildings, but in general, ornamentation is like the overbearing frippery of churches—a false presentation of a shared aspiration hiding the ugliness of the culture that created it. In the US, we look to the UK for our idea of class, and we get it without realizing it—the grandeur of those dead empires in the old world is all the pirate treasure of thieves and slavers, built into elaborate majesty on the backs of slaves and beat-down countries, and it's notable that our current vulgarity-in-chief revels in glossy golden ornamentation on top of more ornamentation. Modernism was, and is, at its best a localized phenomenon, in which forms and structure can be a blank canvas in which we can play out our lives instead of just accepting the collective sickness of wealth.

My counselor in my youth lived in a place that brought it all home to me. His little house in Columbia was a horseshoe of rooms built in a brutalist and raw-wood-modernist style around a little garden, and the office where he'd listen to my prattling was just inside the large wooden doors to the garden, with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the garden and clerestories facing the street like the Usonian it emulated, and I remember, sitting there on a comfortable leather and wood chair in the Scandinavian style, being fascinated by a sculpture he had that was a large, river-smoothed stone about the size of a large loaf of bread, penetrated by a well-shaped hole and hanging from the ceiling on a chain of black iron rods. The walls on three sides were lined with bookshelves that went up to the clerestories and stopped, creating a gallery in the light where he kept a collection of plain old bottles in a variety of shapes and colors. The feeling of that space was something I've chased ever since, which is something I'll never say about the flamboyant exuberance of some of the high Victorian nightmare houses of some of my clients in my side career as a high-end art handler, where the furniture is wild, lush, and unusably delicate. In the old psychologist's office, you just felt like curling up in a chair with a book, with the sunlight playing across the slightly unkempt garden outside.

If people want the human touch, there's cob, a building material as brutalist as you can get, but we seem to aim at some bizarre middle ground between the age of empires and the industrial underclass while still buying the product that the tastemakers on high keep selling us. No one was better off in that era of ornamentation, unless they were at the very top of the culture. I'll take a nice simple space, trimmed out in the artifacts of my own genuine existence, any day.
posted by sonascope at 6:13 AM on November 7 [11 favorites]


When I was visiting the V&A museum in London, one of the things that struck me was just how pervasive it's been, throughout all of human history, to ornamentalize the things we make. In that context, modernism is not just anomalous, there's something weirdly pathological about it.

One of the best examples of this is smartphones. How often do you see an unadorned smart phone? They are almost all uniformly sleek and minamalist when they are bought and yet people immediately put them in cases with custom leatherwork, plasitic with rhinestones or rabbit ears.

They buy the elegant design and immediately abandon it for reasons.
posted by srboisvert at 6:15 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]


srboisvert: They buy the elegant design and immediately abandon it for reasons.

Isn't the mantra of selling real estate to go with plain white interior walls so that it's as easy as possible for the buyer to project their own imagination onto the space? Maybe it's the same for phones?
posted by clawsoon at 6:23 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


How often do you see an unadorned smart phone?

Several hours of every day - my own.
posted by Dysk at 6:24 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]


ne of the best examples of this is smartphones. How often do you see an unadorned smart phone? They are almost all uniformly sleek and minamalist when they are bought and yet people immediately put them in cases with custom leatherwork, plasitic with rhinestones or rabbit ears.
They buy the elegant design and immediately abandon it for reasons.


I am not sure that people are buying the smartphone for its design, however. But your point does stand.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:32 AM on November 7


How often do you see an unadorned smart phone?

My pocket-fittingly small iPhone SE wears a nicely low-profile rubber band that runs around its perimeter, cost me $5 at Five Below, and will never go in a giant clunky uglifying case, because carrying a rubber brick in my pocket invites far too many opportunities to remark that "I am happy to see you, but…". It is, thus far, unbroken because (A) I always remember that it's obnoxiously expensive and treat it thus, and (B) it always lives alone in my left front pocket, which is haram for keys, coins, metal objects, and other scratchy things. Besides, for personalization, there's wallpaper.
posted by sonascope at 6:39 AM on November 7


That's great, but it's not a universal experience. Some people groove on minimalism and that's fine. It's a problem when it's the only aesthetic permitted to be in play.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:49 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


It isn't and never has been. Even if the majority of new builds are comparatively unadorned, they sit almost everywhere alongside older, more ornamental buildings. It's hard to see the railing against minimalism as anything other than trying to have ornamented stuff be all that's allowed.
posted by Dysk at 6:57 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


Like, literally nobody is calling for all adorned and ornamented buildings to be torn down so we never have to look at one again, but there are plenty of people out there arguing exactly that for brutalist architecture.
posted by Dysk at 7:17 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


". It is, thus far, unbroken because (A) I always remember that it's obnoxiously expensive and treat it thus, and (B) it always lives alone in my left front pocket, which is haram for keys, coins, metal objects, and other scratchy things.

Paisan! A similar attitude has kept my 3GS looking much like the day I bought it, to my brother's head-shaking wonder.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:37 AM on November 7


There was a time in the U.S. when we did make grand public buildings for the common man. Look at the courthouses and city halls. Look at the great public libraries. Look at the post offices. Look at the train stations. Look at the things the WPA built. Even the smaller public buildings--municipal stations, Carnegie libraries, local post offices with WPA murals--had details and some ornamentation, and were built to look good. They're still loved today.

In my opinion, a lot of this has to do with city zoning laws. Signage, building heights, and setbacks have been codified to a crazy degree which doesn't allow any freedom. Many cities in the US for example have rules against murals, and many areas are limited to 1 story or on the extreme opposite to unlimited height. These overly stringent rules limit creativity and (more importantly, really) do price the land within narrow bands that again have effects on creativity.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:39 AM on November 7


I think this article was annoyingly written and full of cherry picking. But I felt like there were two key points:

1. We all have to look at this stuff. When the trend in architecture is big concrete blocks that are apparently difficult to create, well, enjoy your design conference where you brag about that, but I don't want to have to look at it.

2. Lack of ornament: this is related to #1. It costs a lot to create a concrete monstrosity. They could spend less money on a marvel of engineering and more on making a pleasant place, but that doesn't blow everyone's pants off with originality. Plus, being an artist, you want to create art. Not just a pleasant space. I get that.

While I hate the big concrete thing concept, the other stuff pointed out in the article doesn't bother me as much. What I don't understand is why there can't be color. If you can spend all that money making a space blob (thing at the very top of the article), you can spend it incorporating color somehow.

Also, where are all the windows? Someone mentioned Swedish design above. Swedish design includes a) light and b) a pop of color (even if it is just pale blue).

I know it's not the actual architecture that is the focus, but something like this is much more appealing and interesting to me than another big beige building with few and strangely placed windows.
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:27 AM on November 7 [2 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: "
I am not sure that people are buying the smartphone for its design, however. But your point does stand.
"

It's like half of Apple's market right down to the packaging it comes in.
posted by Mitheral at 8:47 AM on November 7


How often do you see an unadorned smart phone?

If you look at the most popular phone cases on amazon and elsewhere, it seems that clear, solid colored, minimal, and/or streamlined cases are considerably more popular than the more adorned ones. I think a lot of people value the design - just not the fragility.
posted by mosst at 9:17 AM on November 7


Swedish design includes a) light and b) a pop of color (even if it is just pale blue).

It certainly includes light, but the "pop of colour" thing is in no way inherent or necessary in Swedish design - rather, whites, beiges, creams, and unpainted wood abound, and if colour is to be found, it's most often completely monochrome.
posted by Dysk at 9:59 AM on November 7


rather, whites, beiges, creams, and unpainted wood abound

True. I guess my point would be more properly stated that there is contrast. Basically I don't consider the sparse nature of Swedish design analogous to one big unicolor expanse.
posted by Emmy Rae at 10:09 AM on November 7


I'm getting the sense that maybe we're all speaking of and thinking of different things when we say "Brutalist Architecture". Even the article may be a bit wrong, I think. I actually didn't mind the building with the weird crossbracing stuff, and I was just at a former Brutalist church and thought that was funky.

And as for color - neutral colors can be beautiful as well. I actually love the look of unpainted wood - that is, provided that the object made of unpainted wood is otherwise well-designed. Not necessarily ornamented, mind you (I tend to lean towards shaker simplicity with furniture), but...well made.

I think that bad design is like porn - none of us really know how to define it, but we all know it when we see it. And there is a lot of bad design out there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:15 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


big unicolor expanse

This is exactly how I would characterise the use of colour in Scandinavian design, actually.
posted by Dysk at 10:17 AM on November 7


Those beautiful little staircases, winding upper towers, and lovely cobbled streets look like an accessibility nightmare. In what ways can public spaces include beauty and comfort for people who are blind or who use mobility aids like wheelchairs? Where are the architects making fire exit routes that are beautiful?
posted by nicebookrack at 10:51 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


When everything is made by hand, it might be some extra effort to put in some ornamentation, but it's not a different mode of production and it's not a big change in effort percentage-wise.

Just last week, I took this tour they're running at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich of the restoration efforts going on for the Baroque ceiling of the main hall (the "Painted Hall"). It took a guy and his assistants twenty years (spanning multiple monarchs!) on platforms to paint that ceiling and walls. I think he would disagree with that assessment.
posted by praemunire at 11:03 AM on November 7


Everyone's trying to argue that this is all due to cost issues and that it's financially impractical to support ornamentation or buildings that look "pretty." This ignores that all those ugly monumental contemporary buildings are expensive. The Ghery-designed MIT Stata Center, budgeted for $300 million, had a final cost of $430 million. His Walt Disney concert hall cost $265 million. People are willing to pay lots of money for contemporary architecture. They're not avoiding ornamentation as a cost saving measure. They're paying for a lack of ornamentation.
posted by deanc at 11:46 AM on November 7 [3 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos, I think we're having different arguments -- I am referring to the extensive, difficult ornamentation found in many not-market-dependent traditional cultures as evidence that ornament is not actually something imposed on the powerless by our overlords. Given time and the ability to keep what we make, quite a lot of people decorate everything. Which is a reason to be suspicious of a system that says no one really wants to decorate anything, so we meet in agreement that an ornamented cuff might be acceptable in this world, or even a better one.

Contrariwise, I thought I disliked modern architecture tout entier until I saw it in the Netherlands, where there were modern buildings that did not abrade the passersby, and could stand right next to buildings of diverse styles and they all looked good! And they allowed both sight and sound privacy. Maybe they were even repairable. I still wonder if that is from a difference in funding, or zoning, or how architects rank each other, or what.
posted by clew at 11:48 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


Also, I can like unornamented sleek objects while decrying contemporary building architecture. What many architects fail to understand is that their buildings are not objects. I live and work in them, and if the design turns out to be bad, I am stuck with the building for 100 years. A poorly designed smartphone can be disposed of after a couple of years.
posted by deanc at 11:49 AM on November 7 [1 favorite]


Clew: I'm not entirely sure how you're assuming I'm arguing with you in the first place, honestly. I actually agree with you about ornamentation often being voluntary.

I was also speaking to the people who seemed to be saying that heavy ornamentation would lead to excessive cost on a building (or other object), but I don't necessarily recall that you were saying that as such. I was just talking to "whoever".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:05 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]


deanc: "This ignores that all those ugly monumental contemporary buildings are expensive. "

They'd be even more expensive with ornate details.
posted by Mitheral at 12:33 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]


His [Gehry's] Walt Disney concert hall cost $265 million

(half of which was the 6-story underground parking stucture) but just out of curiosity, does that include the renovations to eliminate the reflective death ray?
posted by entropicamericana at 1:59 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]


Just last week, I took this tour they're running at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich of the restoration efforts going on for the Baroque ceiling of the main hall (the "Painted Hall"). It took a guy and his assistants twenty years (spanning multiple monarchs!) on platforms to paint that ceiling and walls. I think he would disagree with that assessment.

Yeah, but there's a intermediate? The example I was responding to directly was "The very reinforcing stitching on the braces of the tents was more decorative than it needed to be." If you're stitching a seam, it's not a big jump to "slightly fancier stitching".
posted by vibratory manner of working at 2:27 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]


They'd be even more expensive with ornate details.

To be post-modern about it, the lack of ornamentation is itself a form of ornamentation that the patrons are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the architects to create. These monumental buildings are not low cost, stripped down creations; they are require lots and lots of money to create their unornamented, asymmetrical aesthetic. Patrons of architecture have simply decided that their money is best spent on that.
posted by deanc at 2:31 PM on November 7 [2 favorites]


If you're stitching a seam, it's not a big jump to "slightly fancier stitching".
You've invented this slightly fancier stitching, despite your quotemarks.

Folk elaborations of practical construction adds new materials, colors, curlicues, outlines (example, example). On what grounds are you telling me ten hours (my estimate; I tailor, repair and embroider) is not a big jump from one? Or, if you think a tenfold increase in cost is not a big jump, why we don't make it to decorate our buildings now?
posted by clew at 5:32 PM on November 7


Bad taste is bad taste. Doesn't matter what era.

That said, I am a firm believer that one's surroundings determine one's mindset, and IMHO sticking people into concrete boxes does not improve morale.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 6:11 PM on November 7 [3 favorites]


Any building you construct is going to be dust in a thousand years anyway, so why spend more time and effort on it than you absolutely have to?

I have to admit I chuckled since I was returning home yesterday, passing along several buildings with double that age and thinking how fantastic that is.
posted by ersatz at 11:24 PM on November 7 [3 favorites]


Speaking of old buildings, the pyramids in Egypt are rather starkly plain and unornamented. My understanding is that they were never covered in fussy details, even if they were partially clad with precious metal once.
posted by Dysk at 4:26 AM on November 8


IMHO sticking people into concrete boxes does not improve morale

the strip malls and big box stores will continue until morale improves
posted by entropicamericana at 5:44 AM on November 8 [4 favorites]


Speaking of old buildings, the pyramids in Egypt are rather starkly plain and unornamented.

On the outside, maybe.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:30 AM on November 8 [3 favorites]


The pyramids were plastered white and richly decorated. Any modern lack of ornament comes down to neglect in the intervening millennia.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:42 AM on November 8


A couple of thoughts:
Of course there were bad buildings in olden times, the ones that have survived are mostly the good ones.
Anglo-Saxon people seem to hate modern architecture more than other people. It's strange.
posted by mumimor at 7:12 AM on November 8


On the outside, richly decorated how? Because I can't find any reference to any posited detailing on the outside of Egyptian pyramids.

(And a lot of brutalist or otherwise unadorned buildings are rather different on the inside to the outside - fancy light fittings, staircases, and other internal features.)
posted by Dysk at 7:14 AM on November 8


I haven't read the article yet but just wanted to say, you should not praise brutalist architecture until you've had to work in a brutalist building ( many grand buildings are just office space, when it comes down to it.) I worked in the HUD building for several years and can say now amount of beautiful form can make up for long maze like hallways; little access to windows and many office designed with no access to natural light , whatsoever. The HUD building has been well described as ten feet of basement and that is kind. Every day that I left work I felt like I was being set free. Though I often didn't know what the weather was because I couldn't see outside. The same went for Arena Stage's old building, and the offices of the Hirshhorn: interesting on the outside, very, very, not fun as a work environment. I don't think a building gets to count as "well-designed" if it doesn't function for the people who have to inhabit it. For whatever reason, most Brutalist architecture I've encountered ( and I've seen plenty as a federal worker in DC) for gets or ignores the people inside, entirely. I'm glad it's dead and I hope it never, ever comes back.

Because of my experience with Brutalism I was ready to through out the modernist architecture baby with the bathwater until I watched Grand Designs on Netflix. it follows people building their own modernist homes . The reason most of them work is that their site specific and consider the needs of the family, first. ( It makes sense, as they're the ones paying for it.) I recommend the show to the modernist believers and the skeptics. it's more entertaining than, Flip or Flop, to be sure.
posted by CatastropheWaitress at 7:55 AM on November 8 [2 favorites]


Dysk, I am curious to see examples of the brutalist or minimalist architecture you find beautiful. You mentioned streamline moderne - any particular examples?

The brother school to my college boasted this architectural triumph which I always found oppressive. It has its good angles but I always hated the heaviness of the concrete. Meanwhile the chapel at my school was all light and airy. It felt like a space for human beings. It isn't heavily ornamented or decorated. Just feels nice to me. (Here it is from the outside.)
posted by Emmy Rae at 11:15 AM on November 8


While the article goes overboard on pretentiousness, and has a tendency to compare cathedrals to train stations, I do like its underlying point: Buildings should be designed so the people who live in them, work in them, and travel through or near them, find them pleasant.

Sometimes there's a clash between those goals - best internal design may result in a clunky-looking exterior; fascinating skyscraper may be impossible to navigate inside. But any bit of architecture should be able to justify itself by proving, X group of people who have to deal with this building a lot, will prefer it this way, because [reasons].

If the only people who want a building to look a particular way, are corporate directors six states away, they should invest in a good VR program instead.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:25 PM on November 8 [2 favorites]


There's a lot of minor examples of things that are adjacent to the same where I live. Leamington train station, the old post office and depot for instance. Hell, half of Cov city centre is at least brutalist adjacent - the old leisure centre (now sadly gone) l or Brittania Hotel (which would look a lot better if it weren't so poorly maintained) and a bunch of the (old) university buildings in the area. And then off course classics like the old Southbank Centre, Århus City Hall, or Skive Museum.
posted by Dysk at 12:26 PM on November 8


(And wow is that St John's Abbey Church gorgeous! Would love to see that in person)
posted by Dysk at 12:28 PM on November 8 [1 favorite]


I do like its underlying point: Buildings should be designed so the people who live in them, work in them, and travel through or near them, find them pleasant.

I'll tell ya what's pretentious: the idea that architects don't think about this stuff. I'm not sure it ever rises to estimating "pleasantness," but I don't know how you could be sure how pleasant people will find a building before it's built unless you never try anything new.
posted by rhizome at 5:05 PM on November 8 [1 favorite]


Some other amazing modernist places of worship:
MIT Chapel
US Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel
Thorncrown Chapel
posted by Rock Steady at 5:40 AM on November 9


Some links because I'm at a PC now, not on my phone:

Aarhus City Hall
Aarhus University Library
Aarhus Public Library
Southbank Centre Hayward Gallery
Former Leamington Post Office Depot
Old Coventry Leisure Centre
Leicester Athena
Pre-refurbishment Skive Museum
Water tower, Skive
Hong Kong Cultural Centre

There's less streamline moderne around in this part of the world than I'd like, but this is just the stuff that I can remember offhand that I enjoy or have enjoyed in places I've lived.

(Also that MIT Chapel literally brought tears to my eyes. The interior is just so perfect, and reminds me of early childhood visiting my dad studying at Aarhus University.)
posted by Dysk at 6:12 AM on November 9 [3 favorites]


The MIT chapel reminded me of Lewerentz' church, in the small Swedish town of Klippan. It is worth the trip, regardless of how faraway you are, and it is impossible to get it right in photographs.
posted by mumimor at 11:44 AM on November 9


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