The resistable rise of the Tartarian empire
May 1, 2021 10:20 AM   Subscribe

In a seemingly inevitable mutation of conspiracies about the pyramids and other megastructures of antiquity, adherents of the Tartarian Empire theory believe that non-brutalist architecture is proof of an ancient multicontinental empire that "they" are trying to suppress. No, really. Inside the ‘Tartarian Empire,’ the QAnon of Architecture
posted by ivan ivanych samovar (75 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Seems like it would be hard for them to simply brush it away.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 10:22 AM on May 1


Seems like it would be hard for them to simply brush it away.

That's kind of a saucy comment, but something sure does seem fishy about the whole thing.
posted by LionIndex at 10:33 AM on May 1 [5 favorites]


Savoring the irony that this is just the architecture that Ayn Rand's Howard Roark despised... Clash of cults on architectural taste...
posted by Schmucko at 10:35 AM on May 1 [6 favorites]


Anyone have a way to read the article without creating an account?
posted by LionIndex at 10:35 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


LionIndex: It loaded fine for me. Maybe try a private window?
posted by May Kasahara at 10:37 AM on May 1


Tried incognito on chrome, which didn't work.
posted by LionIndex at 10:39 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Reached at his recording studio, Skaar, who works as a plumber, is not an architect or historian, but he has strong opinions on both disciplines.

Having strong opinions on things is the most advanced possible level of intellectual inquiry. Colour me adhered!
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:41 AM on May 1 [26 favorites]


It does presumably offer a better explanation for the demolishing of the original New York Penn Station than the actual one.

Just last year the lovely little MetLife "sky bridge" was demolished. Of course, the bridge was built in 1950, so it doesn't quite dovetail with this worldview, but still...
posted by BungaDunga at 10:46 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Who? Why? To what possible end?

Let's take a closer look at the blueprints for the Shandor Building.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:49 AM on May 1 [14 favorites]


Private window didn't work here either. Sending link to pocket (from firefox) did allow text to be read.

That said, best of the corporate, paywalled, private info leaching web just doesn't have the same ring.

That's just me. Ymmv.
posted by cfraenkel at 10:50 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


I went into the article thinking that it was a dumb theory, but it somehow gets even dumber once I actually read about it.

From the article: Many of the more easily refuted arguments spring from very basic misunderstandings of how the built environment works, as well as broader confusion about how buildings function in the economy and culture. [...] Similarly, their grasp of historic labor and material costs is shaky.

Yeah, no kidding, and that's not even mentioning architectural trends and construction methods.
posted by May Kasahara at 10:55 AM on May 1 [6 favorites]


It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that I became a librarian right around the time the concepts of “knowledge” and “information” became obsolete.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:55 AM on May 1 [45 favorites]


This theory seems custom designed to make Owen Hatherley as angry as possible.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 10:56 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


Anywhere there’s a perceived gap between the refined craftwork of an old building and the “primitive” technology of the horse-and-buggy-era people building it, space for Tartarian speculation pops up.
[...]
[US] State capitol buildings and city halls are frequently fingered as palaces of ancient Tartaria rather than Gilded Age municipal buildings. (These photos of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines highlight the contrast Tartarian theorists point out.)
[...]
One of the most adamant denials in Tartarian circles is that public buildings like schools and post offices were ever built with monumental proportions and elegant aesthetics. [...] But beyond that, there’s a broader refusal to believe that public architecture could ever have been built in an atmosphere of generosity and abundance. This is echoed by their astonishment at the double-height grand lobbies and arched doorways of old buildings, which they see as artifacts not meant for us. (Some theorists surmise that ancient Tartarians were giants.) The Tartarian community seems to have internalized the current era’s predilection for public sector austerity and the resulting aesthetics, which they abhor, more than they realize.

Which seems like a refreshing reversal of the usual if-not-Europeans-aliens conspiracies, but that part isn’t likely to stick.

Anyway, good article, does point out why and how the fancy public buildings were built and rehearses the Modernist claim that Modernism builds for a universal public good. So did the Neoclassic and BeauxArts movements claim! And perhaps Modernism destroyed more just because it was later in the S-curve of fossil fuel use.

A really sad article, too. Good find, thanks.
posted by clew at 10:57 AM on May 1 [6 favorites]


this is the exact sort of goofy conspiracy theory I'd have come up with with my friends

in elementary school
posted by BungaDunga at 10:58 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


[T]here’s a broader refusal to believe that public architecture could ever have been built in an atmosphere of generosity and abundance. This is echoed by their astonishment at the double-height grand lobbies and arched doorways of old buildings, which they see as artifacts not meant for us. (Some theorists surmise that ancient Tartarians were giants.) The Tartarian community seems to have internalized the current era’s predilection for public sector austerity and the resulting aesthetics, which they abhor, more than they realize.

In retrospect it seems inevitable that the culture that gave us the "Mound Builders" theory and Chariots of the Gods would end up turning the same logic on its own built environment.
posted by Not A Thing at 11:12 AM on May 1 [6 favorites]


Thanks for posting this, I would never had found this on my own.
And OMG this is insane. I teach undergraduates architectural theory and history, and since the internet became broadly available, I have had to deal with conspiracy theories. Actually, strike that. It began before the internet, but it was easier to cut down then. If you are using a novel as a reference, you are not doing history. (There are exceptions from this, and I know them).
Now, because of corona, it has become even worse, because the students legitimately rely on online sources. Google "pyramids" design and see what you get. (I don't know, because the algorithm knows I'm a professor, but I know what the students quote). Dan Brown needs to spend some time in the special corner of purgatory for people who invent crazy conspiracy theories. I imagine they have to build pyramids with their bare hands.

Also, it is really sad how we have all internalized the notion that public spaces must be cheap and bleak. I feel it is part of the Reagan revolution. If government is the enemy, obviously we need to fight all public goods, including architecture and planning.
posted by mumimor at 11:19 AM on May 1 [27 favorites]


archive.today link to bypass the Bloomberg paywall: here.
posted by Nelson at 11:23 AM on May 1 [14 favorites]


Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

posted by doctornemo at 11:40 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]


archive.today link to bypass the Bloomberg paywall

Thank you, Nelson.
posted by doctornemo at 11:42 AM on May 1


Many of the more easily refuted arguments spring from very basic misunderstandings of how the built environment works, as well as broader confusion about how buildings function in the economy and culture.

I like the idea of confusion about how buildings function.

"No, no, no! See, you go inside the buildings, yes, there you go!"
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:43 AM on May 1 [7 favorites]


The most mind-blowing thing about this nonsense is that at least some of the adherents appear to think that this empire was around as recently as ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO?! So, like, shouldn't our grandparents be able to recall stories from their grandparents about the great Tartarian Empire? Wouldn't it be mentioned in one of the frickin hundreds of thousands of books and manuscripts and inscriptions that we have from centuries ago?

shaking my damn head
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:54 AM on May 1 [13 favorites]


I feel like my proximity to the linked article, let alone clicking to retrieve the article, is causing some kind of stupidity radiation poisoning.

I realize with billions of people on the planet, many of whom have sufficient leisure and a global communications network at their fingertips, is ample reason for this type of nonsense. And we have not even scratched the surface of the intentional and weaponized forms of ignorance, but how does one not despair?
posted by elkevelvet at 12:05 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


feels like they're one step away from going full last thursdayism
posted by BungaDunga at 12:08 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]


there’s a broader refusal to believe that public architecture could ever have been built in an atmosphere of generosity and abundance. This is echoed by their astonishment at the double-height grand lobbies and arched doorways of old buildings, which they see as artifacts not meant for us. (Some theorists surmise that ancient Tartarians were giants.) The Tartarian community seems to have internalized the current era’s predilection for public sector austerity and the resulting aesthetics, which they abhor, more than they realize.

This whole thing puts me in mind of a Charles Pierce column:

The Post Office Is Not an Other. The Post Office Is Us.
There is a reason why we used to build buildings the way we built the post office in Geneva, with its mural and its marble, and its great arching windows and its Doric entablature. It wasn't because we were profligate. It was because we considered self-government, for all its faults, to be something precious that belonged to all of us, and that it should be housed in places that looked as though we valued it enough to celebrate it and protect it at the same time. They were monuments we raised to ourselves, because we deserved them.
posted by zamboni at 12:13 PM on May 1 [37 favorites]


"No, no, no! See, you go inside the buildings, yes, there you go!"

Then how do you explain the fact that there are some buildings that I am not allowed to go into??
posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:13 PM on May 1 [11 favorites]


Well, at least, it doesn't involve spaceships.

So far...
posted by y2karl at 12:22 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


The spaceships will come. The spaceships always come.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 12:27 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]


Indeed.
posted by y2karl at 12:29 PM on May 1


> These people are morons, and a strong argument for the revival of the gulag concept.

Flagged as offensive. My grandpa was in the Polish communist party (1930s-50s) and had stories. You do not know what you are talking about.
posted by Tom-B at 12:35 PM on May 1 [17 favorites]


This kind of crazy makes me think of Tlon, Uqbar, et Orbis Tertis. Or possibly of The Daeva Empire... it's some kind of weird metastasizing cognitohazard, only instantiating in our reality this time.

And now I'm wondering how you might pair it up with the 'shallow time'/ 'no 6th century' theory for extra wackadoo.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 12:39 PM on May 1 [7 favorites]


There's an interesting nugget of insight buried in all this. This kindof latent idea that because we don't have the political or social will to build things in this style anymore, that it must have always been impossible. These older buildings challenge the idea that our current built environment is the best we can do.

I imagine it's hard to internalize that folks 100 years ago might have done a "better" job.
posted by thebigdeadwaltz at 12:42 PM on May 1 [19 favorites]


Anybody out there read From Bauhaus to our House? https://amp.cnn.com/cnn/2021/04/27/politics/fanone-dc-police-us-capitol-insurrection-cnntv/index.html?__twitter_impression=true

Anyone else have grandparents who talked about going to the world´s fair? I mean, there are still people around who remember some of these things being built. Too much logic?
posted by olykate at 12:46 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]


Every day it seems more and more like the new age health and conspiracy crowd my ex's friends started dabbling with in the early 00s was on the absolute bleeding edge of popular culture. I wish to god one of my own friends would have slapped me and said, “No, it's not harmless. There is nothing well intentioned about it. Get-faaaaaaar-the-fuck-away-from-these-dipshits.”
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:07 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]


there’s a broader refusal to believe that public architecture could ever have been built in an atmosphere of generosity and abundance.

These people have a concept of the public sphere as little more than a mode of theft from deserving private citizens. (While their own safety and comfort is actually underpinned by it, of course.)

Just last year the lovely little MetLife "sky bridge" was demolished.

Ah, dammit, that slipped under my radar.
posted by praemunire at 1:22 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


This is ludicrous in a rather worrying way, but I did enjoy the suggestion that the Great Wall of China had been built to keep the Chinese out.
posted by Fuchsoid at 1:25 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Whoever started this thing seems to have sited it in Asia deliberately to forestall the usual Nazi-adjacent lost-Aryan-golden-age myths (Thule, Hyperborea and such). That the Nazis showed up and added to the canon the Tartarians being blue-eyed and red-haired is disappointing though not surprising.
posted by acb at 2:05 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]


I was gonna suggest these people collaborate with the phantom time people but someone beat me to it.
posted by eagles123 at 2:19 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


Every day it seems more and more like the new age health and conspiracy crowd my ex's friends started dabbling with in the early 00s was on the absolute bleeding edge of popular culture.

The best analogy I can think of is a plant that has been in half-light for a long time suddenly being placed in direct sun + thriving.

This kind of thing (conspiracy thinking, occult woo) has obviously always been a feature of US pop culture, but it's clearly more prominent and evident in the mainstream in some eras than others.

Post the last big boom in the mid-late 70s, you had to some spadework to find it in a lot of places - go to the weirdo bookstore or the slightly dodgy meeting in a musty church basement, figure out how to get on the mailing lists, join a cult, etc. In retreated a bit onto the margins in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s (though the internet started stoking the flame pretty much immediately, from what I remember of Usenet.) The combination of unrelenting mass stress + uncertainty w/social media produced another revival, and one that feels like it might not eventually recede like previous ones.

There's also the fact that a lot of aspects of capitalism that make good financial sense make no practical moral sense to a lot of people, and seem either perverted or evidence of something devious. In the decades after the Civil War, D.C. filled up with beautiful, expensive mansions built of very high quality materials that were almost all rendered socially and mechanically obsolete by the turn of the century and - with land values rising - many of them were razed less than 30 years after they were built. When I worked for the Historical Society here, I repeatedly heard people say something to the effect of, "but that's crazy!"

It's not hard to see how someone growing up in an environment where you can't see anything that isn't sterile, spec-built junk made of metal studs and drywall, w/out much history education to work w/, and surrounded by an economy and culture that seem to be in their death throes, might see something like the Singer Building as evidence of an alien civilization - in some ways, relatively, it is.
posted by ryanshepard at 2:29 PM on May 1 [21 favorites]


It makes me almost impossibly sad to know that for some percentage of the population the obly way they can imagine something public as beautiful is to believe it is part of a massive conspiracy.

I mean, all the offensive tinfoil angles aside, that’s just about tragic af.
posted by thivaia at 2:50 PM on May 1 [28 favorites]


Looks at Comedy section of library.

Selects “Motel of the Mysteries”

Reshelves in Nonfiction.
posted by q*ben at 3:01 PM on May 1 [9 favorites]


But more seriously, after years and years of architecture and art history classes I’ve been trained to react to most impressive edifices with thoughts about the concentrations of wealth that made such buildings possible. The idea that if something is beautiful it must have come from a benevolent and good source is so easily disprovable I don’t really know where to start with this one.
posted by q*ben at 3:05 PM on May 1 [10 favorites]


I had not heard about this until frimble mentioned it off hand in the MeFi staff slack the other day and oh my gosh it's fascinating. Like it's such an aggressively bad theory, and yet that makes it kind of exciting to try and even approach in a theory-of-mind way. It feels like a three-page-long aside in The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

The Bloomberg article also mentions in passing the Pruitt-Igoe apartment complex, about which I also did not know, and which sheds light finally on the meaning of that long-time MeFite's username.

There's an interesting nugget of insight buried in all this. This kindof latent idea that because we don't have the political or social will to build things in this style anymore, that it must have always been impossible. These older buildings challenge the idea that our current built environment is the best we can do.

It's a dystopian complement to Ursula K. Le Guin's well-trafficked comment on a hope for post-capitalism:
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.
We can imagine a better, different tomorrow. We can also, under the right circumstances, imagine the impossibility of a better version of aspects of the past. (For a complicated definition of "better" and "past", granted. But the Tartarian enthusiasts are probably not operating at a level where digging in on that distinction is even on the schedule, so.)
posted by cortex at 3:42 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]


> The idea that if something is beautiful it must have come from a benevolent and good source is so easily disprovable I don’t really know where to start with this one.

A few years ago I was out for a walk with a friend here in Toronto and we were marvelling at how much uglier and cheap-looking the vast majority of the modern public buildings are, and he wondered aloud why we can't or don't build things like that any more. I said "Well, there weren't any unions or labour safety laws and they didn't pay the workers shit, for starters..."
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:14 PM on May 1 [4 favorites]


Whoever started this thing seems to have sited it in Asia deliberately to forestall the usual Nazi-adjacent lost-Aryan-golden-age myths (Thule, Hyperborea and such).

Maybe. Himmler was really into ancient India as an ancestral Aryan homeland, though...
posted by BungaDunga at 4:36 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Let’s not rewrite history too much. The idea that the funding sources were wholly benevolent and that the labor laws were better when, say, Penn Station was built isn’t very factual. Wealth concentration was at an all time high when many of these buildings were built, and we used to be a lot cooler with the idea that people would die on construction sites. It was ok because they were usually poor or nonwhite. And don’t get me started on accessibility, energy efficiency, and life safety. In many ways it’s good that “we don’t build them like we used to.” But yeah, I enjoy a good entablature as much as the next guy.
posted by q*ben at 4:38 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]


We're still more cool than one might imagine with the idea of people dying on construction sites. The first thing my dad would do when he got his union newsletter was review the list of people who had died that month to see if he recognized any of the names. He often did. He saw a few gruesome deaths firsthand, but somehow came out relatively unscathed, save the 40 lb. plate that fell on his hand, the acid burns on his legs, shit falling on his helmet from stories above, and the fact that he was regularly getting electrocuted. And that all happened at high-end, OSHA-compliant-ish union gigs in the US.

Whoever started this thing seems to have sited it in Asia deliberately to forestall the usual Nazi-adjacent lost-Aryan-golden-age myths

I think this gives people way too much credit. I'd wager the Central Asia bit has far more to do with exoticism ("and you haven't heard about it because it started in the mysterious Over There") than anything else.

Unless it has something to do with a certain Central Asian despot who was running around erecting five-headed eagles and a giant book like it was NBD?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 5:12 PM on May 1 [5 favorites]


Yeah, q*ben is right, but, geez, I got choked up reading that Charles Pierce quote. The commonweal—it’s so, so beautiful.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 5:17 PM on May 1


Perhaps I’m too cynical; I’m sure that there were lofty ideals in many of the public works featured. I think I’m unable to be fully objective due to my history as a designer; I quickly exited from a “houses for the rich and famous” practice as I realized that it’s poisonous designing something beautiful for someone you dislike. I spent the next decade of my architectural career finding a role in public practice, designing infrastructure and education projects.
However, I’ve come to realize that it’s almost impossible to be in the design and construction industry without being complicit in the power structures in our world; when they change (as they did four years ago) it can be particularly jarring, but even when you’re broadly ok with government you’re faced with decisions and funding sources that are often hard to square with the goal of creating a better public sphere. These challenges are often even greater on big “statement” projects - for instance, a local central library project that shunted public education dollars to fill a budget hole.
I still feel like my job is performing a net good, but I’m probably past being able to have wholly positive emotional reactions to edifices.
posted by q*ben at 5:45 PM on May 1 [6 favorites]


Seems like it would be hard for them to simply brush it away.

That just proves that somebody went to a lot of trouble. That shows it must be really important. That in turn proves that there simply must really be a big secret here. See?
posted by Phanx at 7:08 PM on May 1


I cannot get myself to believe that this isn't actually a story by Borges.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:01 PM on May 1 [10 favorites]


A few of Borges' stories (most especially Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius [PDF]) are compatible with these buildings being relics of a purported Tartarian Empire, but what it really reminds me of is China Miéville's stories, particularly The City and the City. Fundamentally, however, it's Yet Another Conspiracy Theory about (((them))) keeping secret knowledge from we, the people, and I'd be surprised if its adherents didn't also believe in things like 5g radio conspiracies and the Sovereign Citizen movement.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:35 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]


A couple summers ago, a friend and myself happened to be both working downtown Toronto and started sharing photos of the worst newly constructed building entrances we'd come across. Things like:

-thin indoor tile has been set over concrete, falling off before the building is finished
-threshold designs that don’t account for the slope of a street, so there's a thin, fragile materials on one side
-mitered outside corners on stone steps, creating poorly supported, thin points of stone that have broken away
-badly thought out extruded aluminum window and door framing with gobs of caulking everywhere.

We focused on the entrances because this is the important bit - a multi-million dollar building’s interface with the street and with the very hands of the people who are using it. Nearly ALL of it look like it was designed and put together by people who spent most of their time doing shitty bathroom renovations.

Even the recent Libeskine addition to the ROM is very sad (but very “Toronto” because our neighbourhoods are filled with shitty additions to nice older buildings). Many millions spent and it's not really resolved in a satisfying way around the entrance. There's a window at eye level that reveals some of the internal building structure but there's no way to regularly reach in and properly re-paint or dust that revealed spot, so it always looks like crap...and it comes across as a “feature” of that public area.

It's no wonder that for young people, older buildings with custom bronze door lattices and proper masonry look like alien technology was involved.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:29 AM on May 2 [9 favorites]


I am excited to learn of a new conspiracy theory that lives in the space between obviously implausible and not appallingly evil.
posted by Merus at 5:04 AM on May 2


I am excited to learn of a new conspiracy theory that lives in the space between obviously implausible and not appallingly evil.

Sadly, I think the part where adherents don't believe that people can be public-minded or work together to do good things leads fairly quickly and directly to authoritarianism and fascism. Similar issue as disbelief that humans will be able to do anything about climate change leads to ecofascism.
posted by eviemath at 8:25 AM on May 2 [5 favorites]


[…] not appallingly evil.

I think attempting to overwrite the history and enduring mechanisms of European colonialism with a fantasy of benevolent, rotunda-loving giants is actually pretty appalling. Rather than a refreshing reversal, it seems to me entirely of a piece with (and not less egregious than) "theories" attributing Indigenous achievements to extraterrestrials, Europeans, Egyptians, et al.
posted by wreckingball at 9:02 AM on May 2 [4 favorites]


Yes, some of the best buildings in European cities were funded by the profits of slavery and colonisation. If they are testament to anything it is to parasitism on the rest of the world.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:54 PM on May 2


The Tartaria commentariat is laced with economic discontent; they often decry the evaluation and disregard of buildings purely as salable commodities, untethered from broader notions of cultural legacy and achievement. There’s a reoccurring and implicit understanding that buildings, like the Singer Building, get torn down when they stop making money — the only thing that really matters — and that the world is a vast field of predation, where the rich and powerful consume the poor and weak.

Another fine product of “the socialism of fools.”

The story about the Singer Building, in this context, reminds me of the plot device in Ghostbusters: a skyscraper created in the 1920s to be ancient and magical. Ideas are so mixed up nowadays that it’s not impossible that the conspiracy theorists were inspired by the movie.
posted by Countess Elena at 6:29 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]


Fascinating. All the more so because they're not entirely wrong. A vast, global cabal of powerful people did conspire to build surprisingly similar and out-of-place European architecture all over the world. It just wasn't a conspiracy. It was the opposite of a conspiracy: they went out of their way to bring in reporters and bragged about it in legislative records.

I am very curious how this lines up with the phantom-time/calendar-truthers. Seems like there's a lot of productive nonsense one could generate by combining the two.

I remain annoyed that so many of the people whose factual and ethical worldviews I disagree with also have terrible aesthetics. I don't want to believe those things are correlated.
posted by eotvos at 11:26 PM on May 2


Those who are shaking their heads at the state of architectural craftsmanship today should consider that survivorship bias is a thing.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:18 AM on May 3 [6 favorites]


Not meaning to turn it into a chat but I'm supposing the survivorship bias here is that I'd be assuming all buildings of a similar age displayed similar craftsmanship? ...but that assumes that generally the best work is what survives, so it feel like I'm putting another survivorship bias on that.

I can’t speak to the structural properties of newer buildings but it seems like the vast majority of of the people doing finishing work in new construction and renovations are trained to install a product where the installation system has limited scope, so you see very ugly improvisations by guys who have other jobs booked that they need to get to. Or, they have fabrication skills that might be fine in a bathroom tile job but don't scale properly to the materials needed in an out of doors, high traffic area.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:04 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


If people have been heavily preconditioned to find a certain type of architecture beautiful and showing taste aligned with power, then they will most likely find it beautiful even if it is not.

There are some horrible classical statues that were praised when first discovered even though my god they are hideous. And that had a lot to do with anything ancient equalling beauty for the original audience.

Some older buildings are great, but a lot are not that great for their function now (hospitals in particular) and ate miseries for those who work in them. Same as many modern buildings really. Except for Brutalism: I'm all for pulling those down, having studied and worked in too many awful Brutallist structures. Not exactly rational about it since the great leaks of 2018 in my current building.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 8:40 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


This is a big ask, but can anyone here give a very round, back-of-the napkin estimate for what it would cost to build something like the Woolworth Building today, as compared to a curtain-wall building of the same size?

I'm guessing the former is wildly more expensive than the latter, what with its bespoke terracotta facade, but it would be cool to have a sense of whether it's four times more expensive or 4,000 times more expensive.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 8:51 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]


I love that kind of counterfactual, evidenceofabsence. It might not be legal to build with specifically a salt-glazed terracotta facade now because the emissions from salt glaze are awful and since no-one does it at scale now no-one has figured out how to capture them. ( A chemist once laughingly said that the terribleness of the emissions is related to the incredible durability of saltglaze once it's fired -- we jumped it down a steep energy slope. Poetic if true. By my lights this is a reason to preserve or reuse the saltglaze we have and find an alternative substance, if not method, for the future.)

There was also an infrastructure of making architectural terracotta, catalogs of facade-parts you could order from the same manufacturies that could make increasingly customized additions. ANd the sculptors and installers started with simple designs and some of them went on to full fancy. So there's an alternate history in which decoration didn't get *so* unfashionable and it's expensive now, but not as expensive as in our timeline, because there's still an industry.

I also daydream about what a modernist world that hadn't been captured by.... everything it got captured by... would have built. I mean, the current standard for fancy office buildings is huge slabs of stone mined from increasingly exotic places, which I suspect is not great for its local labor either, and then the stone goes out of fashion or the building hit their design life span and THAT gets trashed. But if we designed for reuse and were accustomed to maintaining the buildings and didn't use "simplicity" as an excuse for "austerian underinvestment", I expect we'd build different things. (I realized I liked modernism more than I thought after visiting Amsterdam, where the modernist buildings do not have the to-hell-with-you vibes that I associate with almost all of them in the US.)
posted by clew at 11:35 AM on May 3 [5 favorites]


I'm guessing the former is wildly more expensive than the latter, what with its bespoke terracotta facade, but it would be cool to have a sense of whether it's four times more expensive or 4,000 times more expensive.

Ok, I couldn't find an exact costing, at 60 stories, but it's easy to find 40 story apartment buildings built for around $100m, and there is firm called Novare that builds the same plan in multiple cities that is about $50 million. So to get to 60 stories, you could double that to $200m, or as little as $100m.

According to wikipedia, the Woolworth building in NYC was the equivalent of $350m, or about 2X.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:06 PM on May 3


Also in my opinion, more buildings in the US now get torn down because their site plan is bad than because the building itself is bad.
posted by The_Vegetables at 1:08 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


evidenceofabsence, there is absolutely nothing keeping architects from designing a similarly ornate, bespoke facade in 2021 in NYC. The Woolworth's building was exceptional when it was built, and similarly exceptional buildings built now in that market are constructed for costs that could easily afford custom terra-cotta as a facade surface. For instance, Renzo Piano's NY Times building has a high-performance curtain wall with custom terra cotta louvers installed in front. What often keeps this kind of building from being constructed is the reductive nature of spec office development- "floor to ceiling glass" is to commercial leasing agents what "granite countertops and stainless steel appliances" is to the home building industry.

Also, current design trends with ornament have tended to larger scale patterns in recent years, so you get firms like Jeanne Gang and Diller Scofidio + Renfro playing with pattern and form, but not at the smaller, human scale present at Woolworths'. I am seeing work from students and younger architects revisiting ornament in novel ways (like Michael Hansmeyer's kind of Cronenbergian baroque), but large building design trends move incredibly slowly.

For "average" towers it might be more difficult as many facade solutions are driven by products, which often don't have a great deal of detail or dimensional depth; other factors like the increasing cost of labor and the cost of building systems that flat out didn't exist when the Woolworth's building was built make it tricky to achieve this kind of detail on a project.

TL;DR you could totally build the Woolworth's building today but building developers are too up-front these days about their inhumanity and too slavish to leasing trends to allow it.
posted by q*ben at 2:59 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]


FTA: "A vast, technologically advanced “Tartarian” empire, emanating from north-central Asia or thereabouts, either influenced or built vast cities and infrastructure all over the world. [. . .] Either via a sudden cataclysm or a steady antagonistic decline [. . .] Tartaria fell. Its great buildings were buried, and its history was erased."

This 100% - very much including the name "Tartaria" - sounds like the background setup for a Robert E. Howard Conan story.
posted by soundguy99 at 3:31 PM on May 3


According to wikipedia, the Woolworth building in NYC was the equivalent of $350m, or about 2X.

As Clew points out above, its facade was created using the resources bestowed by a huge terracotta infrastructure: not just the firms making it, but the design and construction experience that was then available. The longevity of terracotta elements seems to be peculiarly susceptible to subtle changes in design, material choice, firing, and installation, and the surviving examples therefore represent the very best from a technical perspective: ones that aren't as well made would have deteriorated much more.

I don't think the inflation–adjusted cost of building the Woolworth building at the time can come close to what would be needed to build it nowadays. That's not to say that a similarly attractive building couldn't be made, but I feel it would require a conceptual leap on the part of the architects and builders.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:13 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


On top of that, I guess there's the maintenance cost of repeatedly getting the façade inspected and repaired so that your fancy-dancy terracotta tiles don't bean anybody.

I can appreciate Jeanne Gang, but I would still be thrilled to see Neo Belle Epoque or an Art Deco Revival high rise. Sure, it would be hell of expensive, but it's not like we're short on robber barons.

And that Michael Hansmeyer set is gorgeous. Thank you for linking to it!
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:12 PM on May 3


The reason I'm so affectionate towards saltglaze architectural terracotta is, I was in Seattle and Portland for the last gasp of these cities being poor and not building much, and the terracotta buildings had survived decades of neglect *without* falling apart. And really truly neglect, on buildings leased out to noodle and head shops, where the trim survived because no one paid for new signs. Builders since have said that pretty much if it was attached correctly in the first place, it will stay there until the building frame flexes and cracks it off. Lots of 1960s facade materials were less happy. (tho Seattle must have been at the end of terracotta's learning curve, and the beginning of ?architectural plywood?'s.)

Modern saltglaze terracotta
, probably 1950s? Bit of a Jetsons/Worlds Fair feel. Must have been the last gasp of the local firm.
posted by clew at 7:10 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure about saltglaze in particular, but around here, ornamental terracotta buildings have become notorious for occasionally divesting themselves of ornamentation.

The handsome office building I worked in pre-pandemic had scaffolding up for years in order to repair its ornamental terracotta façade. It has landmark status, so the owner had to make sure that anything pried off was replaced appropriately, and it seemed like that took some doing.

I've sort of been assuming that, construction costs and ecological considerations aside, one of the advantages of putting up glass and aluminum high-rises is that ditching masonry means not having to repoint something every few years.

Then again, I suppose it's possible that the cabal suppressing the Tartarian Empire just has a thing for composite panels.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 10:30 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


I don't follow this stuff super closely, but this building in Dallas 1401 Elm just completed a $460 million dollar remodel, which included removing all the marble off the sides, cleaning and reinstalling, so it's not unheard of.

I think the cost would be comparable.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:26 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]


Whoa, evidenceofabsence! I don’t know if we didn’t have as many big cornices or they all fell off before I got here or what.
posted by clew at 9:44 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


Flat-Earthers Have a Wild New Theory About Forests: "The flat earth is still flat, but now it’s dotted with tiny imitations of the truly enormous trees that once covered the continents, and which in our deforested age we can hardly even remember."
posted by BungaDunga at 8:59 AM on May 9 [3 favorites]


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