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Beware the starchitects, beware repetition

DC resident Jeff Speck wrote Suburban Nation, the best-selling book about city planning since Jane Jacobs. Greater Greater Washington is pleased to present 3 weekly excerpts from his new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.

We've come a long way since the seventies, when every city endeavored to build its own version of Boston's fortress-like City Hall, a structure that only architects love (yes, I love it). This style of architecture was called brutalism, supposedly after Le Corbusier's beton brutrough concrete—but the name stuck for other reasons.

Photo by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML on Flickr.

It was characterized by walls so abrasive they could rip your arm open. Happily, this technique is no longer in vogue, but many architects, especially the starchitects, still build blank walls where they least belong.

My old professor, the Spaniard Rafael Moneo, is probably the leading blank wall composer, a veritable Copland of Concrete. In his studios, like all of my architecture-school studios, nobody ever talked about how buildings need to give life to the sidewalk.

We did discuss such things as a faade's thickness and depth—"sickness and death," in Moneo's formidable accent—but these were architectonic qualities, not practical ones. Most architecture schools still promote an intellectual and artistic sensibility that has little patience for such mundane questions as whether a building will sustain pedestrian activity.

This issue was the subject of a now famous exchange that took place at the 2009 Aspen Ideas Festival between Frank Gehry and a prominent audience member, Fred Kent. Kent, who runs the Project for Public Spaces, pointedly asked Gehry why so many "iconic" buildings by star architects fail to give life to the streets and sidewalks around them. Gehry, who was once quoted as saying "I don't do context," claimed to be above this criticism, but Kent didn't buy it. I wasn't there, so we'll let The Atlantic's James Fallows tell the rest:

But the questioner asked one more time, and Gehry did something I found simply incredible and unforgettable. "You are a pompous man," he said—and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling. He was unmistakably shooing or waving the questioner away from the microphone, as an inferior—again, in a gesture hardly ever seen in post-feudal times.
Gehry was clearly having a bad day, but his imperiousness is worth recounting as a metaphor for some of his work—not all, but some. Kent was no doubt recalling his son Ethan's visit to Gehry's masterpiece, the Guggenheim Bilbao, an experience he describes in the Project for Public Spaces website's "Hall of Shame." After failing to find the front door and taking note of the treeless, depopulated plaza, Ethan observed a mugging, something he later learned was common there. He adds, "In the span of 10 minutes that we spent around the museum, I witnessed the first mugging of my life—and I've lived my entire life in New York City."

Robberies are no longer very common in New York, but the same goes for Bilbao—except for certain problem places. That one of these places enfronts the Guggenheim is partly Gehry's fault, the outcome of a landscape (more of a landscrape) conceived as a tabula rasa to show off the building to its best effect. Gehry is actually perfectly capable of contributing to attractive, engaging landscapes—as he has done in Chicago's Millennium Park—but he rarely does so with his buildings, most of which do not reward proximity. His Disney Hall, in Los Angeles, has about 1500 feet of perimeter, perhaps 1000 feet of which is blank wall of the most slippery sort.

But it's a concert hall, you say. . . it needs to have blank walls. Well, take a stroll around the Paris Opera, or even Boston's Symphony Hall, and let's talk again. These older buildings' facades are awash in engaging detail, so that even their blank walls don't feel blank. Walking next to them is a pleasure.

This discussion reminds me of a wonderful set of drawings by Leon Krier, in which he shows two buildings side by side from three different distances. From far away, we can see that one is a classical palace, the other a modernist glass cube. The palace has its base, middle, and top, while the glass cube is articulated with the horizontal and vertical lines of its large, reflective windows.

As we get closer, the palace reveals its doors, windows, and cornice, while the glass cube remains the same as before: horizontal and vertical lines. Zooming in to just a few paces away, we now observe the palace's decorative string course, window frames, and the rafter-tails supporting the eaves. Our view of the glass cube is unchanged and mute. We have walked a great distance to its front door but received no reward.

Krier presents these drawings as a powerful argument against modernism. But this is not merely a question of style. Any architectural style—except minimalism, I suppose—is capable of providing those medium- and small-scale details that engage people as they approach and walk by.

The high-tech Pompidou Center, by celebrating its mechanical systems on its exterior, gives life to one of the most successful public spaces in Paris. What matters is not whether the details were crafted by a stone carver or a cold extruder, but whether they exist at all. Too many contemporary architects fail to understand this point, or understand it but don't care.

But a preponderance of human-scaled detail is still not enough if a streetscape lacks variety. However delicate and lovely a building faade, there is little to entice a walker past 500 feet of it. As Jane Jacobs noted, "Almost nobody travels willingly from sameness to sameness and repetition to repetition, even if the physical effort required is trivial."

Getting the scale of the detail right is only half the battle; what matters even more is getting the scale of the buildings right, so that each block contains as many different buildings as reasonably possible. Only in this way will the pedestrian be rewarded with the continuously unfolding panorama that comes from many hands at work.

This fact seems to be lost on the vast majority of architects, especially the big names, whose unspoken goal is to claim as much territory as possible for their trademarked signature, even if it means a numbingly repetitive streetscape. It is rarely taught in architecture schools, where there persists a deep misunderstanding of the difference between city planning and architecture, such that most urban design projects are seen as an opportunity to create a single humongous building. Design superstars like Rem Koolhaas, in their giddy celebration of "bigness," have adopted this confusion as doctrine.

To be fair, egotism and the desire for celebrity are only partly responsible for this orientation. It also comes from an insistence on intellectual honesty. Just as a building supposedly bears the obligation to be "of its time," it must also be "of its author." For the designer of a large structure to pretend to be many different designers is to falsify the historical record, especially since the modern myth of the genius architect insists that every designer's personal style is as unique as his fingerprint.

I still remember (how could I not) the critic at my architectural-school thesis final review who said, "I don't understand: your two buildings seem to have been designed by two different architects." My fantasy-world response, twenty years after the fact: "Why, thank you, sir."

Speck's book came out on November 13. You can order it on Amazon. For more from the book, see also our first and second excerpts. Speck will also be appearing at Politics & Prose this Saturday.
Jeff Speck is a city planner who, through writing, public service, and built work, advocates internationally for smart growth and sustainable design. As Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2007, Mr. Speck oversaw the Mayors' Institute on City Design, and created the Governors' Institute on Community Design. Mr. Speck spent the prior 10 years as Director of Town Planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk and Co., and currently leads a boutique design consultancy based in Washington, DC. 


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"...architecture schools, where there persists a deep misunderstanding of the difference between city planning and architecture."

Yes. I think part of the problem is that for most of the history of "city planning," it was not considered a separate profession from architecture. Up until about the 1970s, most people engaging in city/neighborhood planning and urban design (and even landscape architecture) were in fact architects. (This is still the case at many architecture firms that advertise "master planning" services.) City and landscape design were seen more as secondary pursuits that could help enhance the primary focus, which was the building itself.

On a more personal note, this article was a happy reminder of why I chose to become an urban planner rather than an architect. Quality architecture is important, and I admire a beautifully-designed building as much as anyone. But even a perfectly-designed building means nothing if it is not appropriately sited or suited to its context. If they wish to design buildings that will stand the test of time, architects need to do a better job of working with city planners. Of course, this requires recognizing city planning as an equally valid profession, which may prove difficult for some of the more ego-driven "starchitects" mentioned in the article.

by Rebecca on Nov 15, 2012 3:38 pm • linkreport

I think part of the problem is that for most of the history of "city planning," it was not considered a separate profession from architecture. Up until about the 1970s, most people engaging in city/neighborhood planning and urban design (and even landscape architecture) were in fact architects.

Architecture has ended up suffering from the fact that the profession became a refuge for artists who were looking for something "practical" to study that would allow them to make a living. Thus the focus of their work came on creating singular objects, much like a sculpture, rather than something to integrate with the urban landscape.

by JustMe on Nov 15, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

Wonderful, wonderful op-ed! Having gone to a run-of-the-mill arch. school, I can confirm that "urban design" in these places is less about attempting to understand and work with complexity (as described by Alexander and others) and more about performing grandiose egotistical superblock stunts cloaked in fashionable archibabble.

It's shocking how little exposure arch. students get to non-fashion-based or non-ideology-based urbanism. Mainly they learn about "urbanism" from a handful of trendies, like Koolhaas' or Hadid's "chaos and uncertainty," or retro-nostalgic-utopian polemics from old loons like Corb or the Situationists.

Non-architects and citizen-observers are downplayed or ignored in favor of starchitects, old modernists (the tower-in-the-park lives on in the arch. schools), and flavor-of-the-month paper-architect academics. For example, only a handful of my classmates were assigned small portions of Jane Jacobs to read; the rest of us read ideological scriptures by starchitectural mountebanks. Allan Jacobs was never mentioned. Neither was Kevin Lynch. Nor William Whyte. Nor Christopher Alexander. Nor Donald Appleyard. Nor Mumford, Gehl, or scores of other guys and gals who studied and knew all the intricate ways people would interact with porous street walls. Those guys were not in the business of retailing egotistical fashions, so they were ignored.

The rule-of-thumb is that the more ambitious and "edgy" the arch. school is, the less urbanism (and architecture) it actually teaches. Harvard's GSD is really just an unusually narcissistic art school. SCI-arc is just a kindergarten with a shrine to the iPhone that fetishizes (invoke breathless awe) TECHNOLOGY as a fashionable "green" veneer. These places know nothing about urbanism and don't know how to engage it, no more than a Hollywood starlet knows how to engage someone walking by them on the sidewalk. Look at the crap proposals the graduates from these places churn out - almost all of them are warmed-over Corb radiant cities, except this time the towers are all torqued and slathered over with abstract "green" stuff or high-tech gadgetry.

Luckily the recession has put a considerable damper on the antics of these Marie Antoinettes. The tricky long-term goal, however, is getting these non-schools to shift away from the "every architect must be a special-heroic-artist-genius-revolutionary" teaching strategy towards a more modest approach that teaches students that a building is ALWAYS subservient to the greater fabric of the city it's in and that it needs to contain streetside porosity and comprehensible (i.e. not steeped in arcane theory) nested patterns that orient pedestrians at different distances - a block, a street wall, up close, etc. That is, the students need to stop designing for their circle-jerk design magazine covers and blogs (for IMAGE), and start designing for actual laypeople on the street (and stop dismissing them as "too dumb" to "get" the architect's arcane stunt).

by Marc on Nov 15, 2012 4:11 pm • linkreport

I couldn't agree with you more. You've pinpointed many of the issues with the current state of architectural education and why many buildings fail to promote a vibrant streetscape. I'd like to dig a bit deeper on some points.

I've got no issue with who likes or dosen't like the Boston City Hall, I like Bilbao and am an architect also, but I think the larger question is, shouldn't architecture schools recognize the public's interests also? I don't mean design the equivalent of a Britney Spears song or a McDonalds Happy meal, but when you have intellectuals like James Fallows and Jane Jacobs (two of my favorite) pointing out the ugly truth that archtiects refuse to acknowledge, isn't it time to call this bluff?

You correctly divorced the issue from style by illustrating the point with Krier's excersize on scale and detail. And while most archtiects are familiar with Krier's passionate distaste for modernism, it dosen't need to be an us versus them argument. As an archtiect who's designed in many styles, including modernist, I can attest that it's not about what party one aligns with but rather how well you do your job, and what many archture schools neglect is the pedestrian.

Modernism does play a role in this debate, though not as a style, but as a philosophy. Archtiectural schools by in large still maintain the modernist ethos that beauty is intellectually weak and decoration is a cover for lack of rigor, all the while decorating thier buildings with cool curtain wall "details" and/or beautiful words which most people will never read, see, or care about. I'm all for intellectual honsety, (who isn't) but is it honest to hang steel I-beams from the Seagrams building when the real structure is beneath the surface? Is it "of our time" when the same glass box was first done in Germany almost 100 years ago? These are questions that most archtiectural schools refuse to acknowledge becasue they've invested too much time supporting an ideology that has far out-lived it's relevance. Unfortunatly, when you point to these inconsistencies, you get labeled a reactionary who wants to force some conservative agenda on everyone, or a nostalgist who's stuck in the wrong century when all your trying to do is address a serious fault with a lot of contemporary urban archtiecture. The real conservative stance is the one that will defend this institutional thinking at all costs while most students can see the emperor has no clothes.

Gehry dosen't seem like a bad guy (all though I don't know him) and he's certainly talanted, but I think you're giving him a pass when you say that "Gehry was clearly having a bad day". I think he was trained to look down on pedestrians and lay people who don't fall in line with him, divorcing himself from just the kind of criticism that would improve his work. Just like his Eisenhower Memorial spang in the middle of a 19th century square versus the edge of 19th century Bilbao, context does matter. For him to call out a critic for being pompous is rich when you see his proposal for 80' tall giant pylons with a screen that blocks out the surrounding buildings.

"like all of my architecture-school studios, nobody ever talked about how buildings need to give life to the sidewalk. " Of course not, becasue the pedestrian is irrelevant, and isn't privilaged to know "real" architecture.
"It is rarely taught in architecture schools, where there persists a deep misunderstanding of the difference between city planning and architecture," Exactly. They might have re-intruduced pedestrian centered planning (New Urbanism), but to allow a different and truthfully more modern interpretation of how buildings are conceptualized is too threatening.

If the public demanded better urban architecture regardless of one's personal aesthetic preferences, our revitalized cities would be far better off. It's great we now study old urbanism and try to learn from its failures and successes, but it's time to do the same with architecture.

by Thayer-D on Nov 15, 2012 4:21 pm • linkreport

Let's also be fair... we can't put all the antiurban blame on starchitects. They may be coming up with absurd designs that ignore the street, but someone else is willingly paying for that design.

For better or worse, we live in an era of abstract imagery and iconography. Making an attention-grabbing stunt or gesture is more important that actually contributing anything coherent or meaningful, and it's certainly not just architects that do this. The institutions that ask for these buildings can be just as vain, egotistical, and anxious to "stand apart from the crowd." Every museum wants to attract attention to attract donors to attract money. Every down-on-its-luck city wants its own "Bilbao Effect" to attract tourists to attract money. There are tons of Paris Hiltonesque institutions and cities out there that are competing for attention and money on the basis of being shocking, outlandish, and attention-grabbing rather than on offering any meaningful content. And when this behavior comes in built form, it is by definition/nature antiurban.

BTW there've been a number of funny, excellent books written on the starchitecture racket over the years. Tom Wolfe's 'From Bauhaus to Our House' is probably the most incisive one, but some others include:

Form Follows Fiasco by Peter Blake
Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture by Malcolm Millais
Architecture of the Absurd by John Silber
From a Cause to a Style by Nathan Glazer

by Marc on Nov 15, 2012 4:43 pm • linkreport

The public doesn't demand better architecture because the public doesn't know what better architecture is. People still think big open unprogrammed spaces are great, and they fail to understand why nobody uses them. Most people, even those who live and work in cities, don't understand the elements that create a vibrant street and even if they can see that different environments affect them differently they usually don't grasp why.

Just look at the Mall - most people think it's some amazing asset, "America's Front Lawn" instead of the reality that it's mostly unpleasant, huge, and could be improved in about a thousand ways.

by MLD on Nov 15, 2012 4:52 pm • linkreport

"People still think big open unprogrammed spaces are great, and they fail to understand why nobody uses them."

Great point; you see this all the time in the demand for "open spaces" and "green spaces." For example, in the recent hoopla over DC's zoning reforms, didn't one of the early drafts even contain some sort of mandate for setbacks and/or "green space?"

We have little confidence in good urbanism, so we're retreating to that old Olmstedian or Thoreauian standby: that inserting "nature" is the only appropriate strategy for curing the ills of urbanism. It's almost as if we think that "green" literally means smearing more plant matter over everything, despite the fact that ancient "green" town cores like Florence or Siena often don't have a single blade of grass in them.

by Marc on Nov 15, 2012 5:02 pm • linkreport

@MLD: The Mall was meant to be a monumental space (literally) and a promenade. It's not meant to be like, say, Central Park, which recreated nature to look more like "nature".

by Rich on Nov 15, 2012 5:45 pm • linkreport

I am an architect and I've heard this argument a million times before. It's overdone, reductive, and at least 30 years old. If every block should have buildings of different sizes, then why do people love Paris, where many of the buildings were standardized in the 19th century? For every traditional building that inspires warm and fuzzy feelings and makes people long for the good ol' days before reinforced concrete, I can think of 10 that are ugly, forgettable, and contribute nothing to street life.

Personally, I don't like walking next to a blank wall of any kind, whether it's covered in tacky 19th century decorations or modern metal panels. Cornices and gargoyles don't inherently provide any sort of "life" to any streetscape. Street life comes from density, transportation, a safe pedestrian environment, certain uses (almost always retail), and only minimally from building design. Starchitects rarely work on on buildings that have any retail, so it's hard to blame them for the lack of vibrancy near their buildings, especially if politicians locate these buildings in non-vibrant areas with the express purpose of re-vitalization (Walt Disney Concert Hall for example). Manhattan's ridiculously successful 5th avenue has buildings of every style, and there is nothing human scaled about 60 story shadows covering everything in sight. It works because it has density, transit, is safe, and has tons of retail. Look at Park Avenue in the Upper East Side. It has only traditional buildings, but is totally dead because no retail is allowed and cars speed along it all day long. Or we can think about DC. There are plenty of deadening institutional traditionally designed buildings as well as the equally dull brutalist ones that characterize the southwest quadrant. The vibrant areas in residential DC owe their success to the factors I mentioned above, not their buildings' style or the archtiectural education theories popular at the time of their construction.

If you don't like modern architecture, fine, but there is nothing about it that inherently detracts from a vibrant streetscape. Let's also note that there are vastly different levels of design in both traditional and modern buildings. Buildings that are the same at 5 feet as they are from 1000 feet are poorly designed, and architecture schools DO teach that. Giant blank concrete boxes are not going to get design points from anyone, regardless of your personal tastes, and architecture school DID NOT teach me otherwise. I'm actually not a huge fan of Gehry, but the Guggenheim Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall do reveal different things at different scales. Saying otherwise is simply untrue. Furthermore, the idea that architects are taught "bigness," as if they could influence the size of their commissions, is absurd. Big buildings are a modern reality, not a design manifesto from the GSD or the Netherlands. Rem may talk about bigness, but the days of closing streets for World Trade Center style superblocks are over in every architecture school, and even in his own projects. Also, most classically brutalist buildings were built at the height of the automobile age and it's not fair to hold them accountable for the way some random bureaucrat from the local DOT surrounded them with 3' wide sidewalks and arterials with 50 mph speed limits (southwest DC).

by AlexB on Nov 15, 2012 5:49 pm • linkreport

Fabulous post, Jeff. Spot on. I have have never fully understood the preference for the cheap thrill of the architectural tour de force over the deeper satisfaction of placemaking and city building. When architecture and urbanism come together it can be a true delight that lasts for ages. Look no further than my favorite example, the US Capitol building. It "works" at the big scale of the city - the iconic dome viewed from a distance is beautiful and meaningful; and it engages down to the human scale of the corncob capitals and wrought iron railings. There may be a modernist building that does this, but I am not sure I know of one.

Thanks for the post.

by Ron Eichner on Nov 15, 2012 8:50 pm • linkreport

But it's a concert hall, you say. . . it needs to have blank walls. Well, take a stroll around the Paris Opera, or even Boston's Symphony Hall, and let's talk again.

Looking closer to home, how about The Hippodrome in downtown Baltimore? There's no reason to look to Paris for an example of a concert hall that enhances its urban environment. It's ridiculous that late 20th century architects would make buildings that do a worse job performing their functions than early 20th century architects.

I suggest that it was a mixture of laziness, arrogance, and customers who bought into the hype that let all these modernist starchitect abominations slide. After all, wasn't I.M. Pei's L'Enfant Plaza supposed to be the pinnacle of rational modernist architecture and planning? How long have we been wanting to redevelop it into somewhere that people actually will use rather than look at on a postcard?

Modernist architecture is just the same as most everything made between 1946 and 2008: disposable. It's like a runway fashion show: ugly and passé as soon as the show is over. Mr. Gehry and other dinosaurs like him need to either adapt a to new era or leave the field. The architecture schools need to update too or they risk losing all credibility just like the MBA.

As a non-architect, I suggest synthesizing the strengths of pre-war architecture like Beaux-arts and Art Deco and post-war styles like the International Style, Brutalism, Post-modernism etc. Perhaps use the clean lines and cheap materials like the post-war styles with the human-scale details and engaging the street like the pre-war. Oddly, it seems that it's already been done in vernacular buildings all around our region.

If the vernacular architecture is now better (in that the building both works for the people who use it AND it engages the urban environment, not abstract bs about what's more "cutting edge") than the high end starchitecture, why not shut down the architecture schools? Obviously I used hyperbole to make the point but it's still a point. Why does anyone even care what an arrogant dinosaur like Frank Gehry has to say? He's a one-trick pony that has kept designing monuments to himself for decades.

Architecture needs to remember that it's a craft. At the end of the day, you need a building that's on time, on budget, does the functions that its users paid for, and contributes to its surroundings at the human scale. How it looks from afar is very far down the list. If you want to make abstract sculptures, do that. Don't make a building that usually leaks, has structural issues, and kills its immediate neighborhood.

by Cavan on Nov 15, 2012 9:56 pm • linkreport

I think AlexB largely has it right. We have every right to criticize architects in an architectural framework but when thinking about urban design the effect should not be overstated. Tel Aviv's sea of concrete boxes doesn't quite embody architectural beauty or diversity but they don't seem to be having problems with street vibrancy.

by Shane on Nov 16, 2012 3:21 am • linkreport

I appreciate being fair, which is exactly what I think Mr. Speck was being, but I'd push back on the contention that we "live in an era of abstract imagery and iconography." Or that "The institutions that ask for these buildings can be just as vain, egotistical, and anxious to "stand apart from the crowd". We've always been vain and egotistical. Look at all the imitations of Henry Hobson Richardson's Pittsburg Court House or any other in vogue style. They all wanted the flagship design to signify that they've "arrived" of are "au currant". The difference is the architect's sense of responsability to the public. Just like we need to "code" some urbanism, it's not understood that one ought to work with the context as it once was, and that's due to the modernist ethos of negating the context and objectifying every building.

As for the public not knowing what "better architecture is", I think this is wrong also. Obviously the public wouldn't be able to articulate what's better as a professional steeped in the language architecture, but how does that make thier feelings any less relevant to an architects? Why do so many on this blog react viscerally to many horrible designs? By demanding better architecture I mean expressing their wishes, however expressed that buildings be beautiful, or what ever their issue. Just look at the outcry against the Eisenhower memorial. Architecture schools won't change on their own, but at least people can have a say in the puclic realm.

by Thayer-D on Nov 16, 2012 6:16 am • linkreport

@ AlexB,
"I am an architect and I've heard this argument a million times before. It's overdone, reductive, and at least 30 years old." The reason you've heard it a million times before and will continue to hear it is that nothing has changed in the last 50-60 years and won't until architectural education is reformed from the bottom up, not by out-lawing modernism, but by understanding how buildings interact with their environment as illustrated by Mr. Speck. To illustrate how convoluted this discussion can be I'd point to two inherantly contradictory sentences you laid out... "then why do people love Paris, where many of the buildings were standardized in the 19th century?" followed by "Personally, I don't like walking next to a blank wall of any kind, whether it's covered in tacky 19th century decorations or modern metal panels". It sounds like you wouldn't be one of those Paris lovers, but at least you acknowledge that people do love walls littered with "decorations". What architects refuse to acknowledge is that people don't care if the decorations are tacky or tasteful, they're just more interesting than the blank metal panels you and I abhore. Architects should be responsible for the tackiness of the decorations, not deny what makes for a lively street.

"Street life comes from density, transportation, a safe pedestrian environment, certain uses (almost always retail), and only minimally from building design" If this where true, why is Cleveland Park so much more lively than Woodley Park? Design. Mr. Speck wasn't negating the importance of those things you listed, he's pointing out the missing ingredient to many a street that fails. Using Manhattan as an example is a bit missleading becasue it's one solid block of density, so clearly the street level use would dictate traffic, why even Bauhaus 6th avenue in midtown is full of people, despite it's horrible street frontage.

"If you don't like modern architecture, fine, but there is nothing about it that inherently detracts from a vibrant streetscape." This is the trap that Mr. Speck studiously avoids although you seem intent on pushing his point there. He clearly states this isn't about style, but if we're talking about batting averages, modernism is on the ropes for the simple reason you already pointed out, their aesthetic reliance on blank walls, or as another commentator stated, the aesthetic reliance on abstraction and bold (read over scaped) moves. This is obvioulsy a by-product of modernism's historical hostility towards decoration and persuit of beauty, but not one that can't be overcome as many modernist buildings attest to.

I always find it helpful to look at other art forms to better understand this argument. Imagine the Berkley School of music in Boston saying that only Alternative Music was "of our time". They would be laughed out of town becasue as everyone knows, people like everything from classical music to modern Jazz and R&B. What they teach is how to undertand and compose music in any style. Why can't archtiecture schools understant that obvious fact of modern life?

by Thayer-D on Nov 16, 2012 6:35 am • linkreport

@ Cavan,
An island of reasonablness in a sea of confusion once again. "Why does anyone even care what an arrogant dinosaur like Frank Gehry has to say?" Becasue the architectural media and academic establishment prop them up in a symbiotic relationship. I just went to the Building Museum last night where Paul Goldberger (noted archtiectural critic) was awarded the Vincent Scully Prize. He's writing a biography on Frank Gehry, and once a commentator asked him about the Eisenhower Memorial, Mr. Goldberger started doing the architect two step. I actually like Mr. Goldberger's criticism generally, but when he stated that Pope's Jeferson Memorial and Bacon's Lincoln Memorial were "infused with the spirit of the 20th century" while the WWII memorial was an imitative pile of %#*$, I knew I'd entered the architectural twilight zone. Never mind that the WWII memorial is always full of people in the warmer months. When a good critic like Mr. Goldberger speaks in riddles, you know the archtiectural profession has a long way to go.

Sorry about the lengthy posts, this article of Mr. Speck is something I'v pondered since my school days.

by Thayer-D on Nov 16, 2012 6:49 am • linkreport

Oh man.

This makes me think of the Arena Stage.

What a missed opportunity that was to create an engaging streetscape. It's a gorgeous and interesting building (even on a 'human' scale), but doesn't interact with the streets it faces at all. All they needed to do was to put the entrance on Maine Ave, instead of (what feels like) the back of the building on 6th St.

by andrew on Nov 16, 2012 10:13 am • linkreport

Alex and Shane, the message I got from Speck's piece wasn't that Modernism or Brutalism make for bad urbanism per se (though I think they often do), only that blank walls - of whatever style - are supposed to be a common-sense urban design no-no by now. Yes, the 'no blank walls' meme has been discussed ever since Jacobs, but if you find the meme tiring, it's because many architects still refuse to listen:

The message I got was that ornament, retail, and other fine-grained patterning that responds to people differently at different distances does NOT guarantee street life (for various reasons all these things can still fail), but a blank street wall GUARANTEES an awful pedestrian experience and a lousy street. There's no excuse to design for guaranteed failure (blank walls) even if the alternative (striving for porosity in various ways) doesn't guarantee success.

As you guys pointed out, the art deco/moderne/modernist architecture in places like Tel Aviv and Miami Beach is marvelous and engaging because it's built on a fine grain of development (mostly smaller buildings) that come right up to the street with a continuous line of retail, but also because the residential stuff above - the complex modernist balconies, bays, niches, operable window strips, etc. - all suggest a human presence too, unlike blank expanses of concrete, steel, or glass. Yes, I too would much rather be there than along 300' of blank institutional wall, even if it was done in a classical fashion:

by Marc on Nov 16, 2012 1:08 pm • linkreport

Modernist starchitect Gehry building with street-level, human scale, ornamentation: The Stata Center. To stand next to it on the street is utterly mind-blowing.

by goldfish on Nov 16, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

My 2006 thesis project from Catholic University School of ARCHITECTURE:


-High profile architects who understand the importance of the public realm: Diller Scofidio (NYC's High Line & Lincoln Center), Bjarke Ingels (Copenhagen's 8-House & Superkilen & just about everything in his "Yes is More' book), David Adjaye (London's Idea Stores), Renzo Piano (London's Central St Giles), Richard Rogers (read his 'Cities for a Small Planet' book)

-New DC area developments that will integrate contemporary design with a lively public realm: CityCenterDC, Southwest Waterfront, The Yards, Burnham Place

by Jim M on Nov 16, 2012 1:48 pm • linkreport

Very nice work, Jim!

But your arch. school is notable for being one of a literal handful of normal ones... no posturing, just an emphasis on urban fabric.

Unfortunately lots of others are into this...'s become a cliche too:

Note how frequently the urban fabric in these arch school renderings is mysteriously missing!

by Marc on Nov 16, 2012 2:09 pm • linkreport

Dead on with your analysis of Tel Aviv, and a great example of what Speck was talking about, stylisticly agnostic.

Love your examples from the flicker link. Looks like fabric design or next generation of egg crate cusioning.

BTW, Coodos on your thesis Jim, very nice. I'd have to agree that Catholic isn't one of your average archtiecture school. You'd think especially in a time of recession that practical matters would tend to rise to the surface rather than have academia further bury student's heads to the realities they'll face in their professional life. Amazing when you consider how much people pay for these "educations".

by Thayer-D on Nov 16, 2012 2:26 pm • linkreport


I think I agree. I do think that the buildings of Tel Aviv contribute to the street vibrancy, but that is in because of their physical form, context and placement rather than the architectural beauty or diversity of the buildings themselves.

I'm not particularly a fan of blank walls either.

by Shane on Nov 17, 2012 4:43 am • linkreport

The building forms of Tel Aviv's "Bauhaus" architecture are just as much a part of their beauty as their juxtaposition on a street. The Bauhaus lable is misleading when one think's of K Street's glass boxes becasue in Tel Aviv, it's more like Miami Beach (with out the colors) than Mies's glass towers. The all-white veracular architecture of the Greek Islands and Chicago's early curtain wall structures both inspired the early modernists and especially the Bauhaus, but in a mediteranean context like Tel Aviv and when built on a fine urban grain with some Art Deco swoopiness, all of the sudden you have a beautiful and articulated street. The discussion is a little more nuanced than ornament=good vs. blank wall=bad. It's a blend of context, street rythem, building function, etc.

This is what's so messed up about spending all this time worrying about what style is "correct" or "of our time". There are even more influences to the early modernists than I mentioned, but it's like figuring out what ethnic or racial or even cultural blend some people the end of the day, who cares as long as you get along with them.
With architecture you'll find any number of styles any one American street, including some abstract concrete thing, which by the way looks a lot better when sitting in a back drop of 19th century buildings loaded up with tacky (or not) ornaments.

Architecture schools never use the word style becasue of the modernist inheritance that it's a vulgar word which debases the real essence of what archtiecture should be about. Fair enough, but the problem with that is it's the language everyone uses to describe a buildings aesthetic. That's why they call it archispeak, becasue it's designed to separate the profession from the public, problem number one. I remember in school professors only using the word when refering to traditional buildings. When it came to modernism, it was always reffered to as "formal language" as if the word itself would sully the buildings we where told where "of our time". It dosen't take long to see how this kind of orwellian talk can twist up a young architect's head. Kind of like hearing Paul Goldgerger refering to the Jefferson Memorial as "infused with the 20th century" when it looks like an exact replica of a Roman building.

Traditionally, people built in whatever style was passed down from master to apprentice. With the proffusion of the printing press and increased global travel in the early 19th century you start to see eclecticism speed up to what we now refer to as Victorian archtiecture, which is really an umbrella term for several styles. That eclecticism never ended as much as modernists tried to insist it did. Most of the modern technolgy they used as a justification already existed in the late 19th century, they just romanticised it as a pretext to say theirs was the only valid way of builing in the modern world. Just like we go to a Thai restaurant one day and get a hankering for some French Fries the next, or whatever, the genee is out of the bag, and in our ever increasing pluralistic world, it's silly to pretend otherwise. That's not to say if your a strict vegan or purist with your love of glass boxes that you shouldn't be allowed to indulge. But just as you might be aware of some digestive issues with a purely vegetable diet, as an archite t building in the public realm, you should be responsible to the issues of a purely blank walled street scape. Even with-in those eras of just one style, you'll see a variety of buildings in the early days when lack of transportation alternatives made all of our towns "mixed-use". From a blank walled "vernacular" church to the ornamented "Guild Hall", it can all work together if you are taught to work together, something that's sorely lacking in many archtiecture schools today. Architecture is a craft as Cavan said earlier, and like any other craft, it ought to be studied with-out false political or ideological blinders, becasue as history shows us, those things change, while our buildings live on (hopefully!).

by Thayer-D on Nov 17, 2012 6:50 am • linkreport

I also think Jeff had a great point about ornament, which I feel some architects (as even reflected in a couple of the comments here) dismiss as useless frippery, when in fact it may very well have literal function: that of visually and psychologically breaking down those long, blank, flat surfaces where you CAN'T have fine-grained retail, as Jeff discussed.

Yes, I'd rather be in Tel Aviv's White City looking in all the shop windows than along the side wall of Paris' Garnier Opera, but I'd also much rather be along the side wall of the Garnier Opera than along the walls of any number of brutalist DC government buildings:

Not every city street can and will be ideal - you won't be able to have retail everywhere, there will always be some institutional megabuildings, and there will always be "A" and "B" streets. So there is reason to explore how to break up their blank walls with detailing (whether historic or machine-aesthetic - itself an ancient historical style now, hand-crafted or mass-produced, as Jeff argued).

by Marc on Nov 17, 2012 2:44 pm • linkreport

The 1907 street film David Alpert posted showes another reason for the shift away from ornamented buildings. With people moving at speeds ranging from pedestrian to equestrian, the minds eye needs to be stimulated a lot more than the people driving past abstracted objects in the landscape.

A secondary function of this ornament was probably as a form of social cues like function- civic vs. commercial, or cultural- wasp vs. ethnic, and of course, socio-economic.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the renewed interest in cities during the 1980's coincided with post-modernism, not for the cartoon classicism of Michael Graves, but the break from modernism's near complete hedgemony with respect to urban architecture. The Cleavers of the 50's never gave up their colonial's for a box, maybe becasue it was thier own money on the line. Seems like ornaments, tacky or cool, are not incompatable with modern technology!

by Thayer-D on Nov 18, 2012 9:21 pm • linkreport

How about telling us what local DC bookstores we can buy his book from, instead of lazily linking to Amazon?

by OX4 on Nov 19, 2012 10:32 pm • linkreport

The issue is not defined by the building having ornamentations or not and in this regard not so much with those who would justify the current situation on the basis that the public, or “someone else is willingly paying for that design”—there are many, including unethical things that some people are willing to pay for. The issue is about an architecture that engages/or doesn´t with the city. Both modernist and earlier styles have been successful (or not) in providing good urban spaces. Having said that, I have seen very few examples, if at all, of so called postmodern architecture succeeding in delivering quality urban spaces, this may be due to the underlying thinking of it. My examples come from Melbourne Australia, where architects´ involvement with building design is as low as 12-15% and most of it characterised by attached ornamentation. Some of these projects can be interesting pieces to look at, as with shelving in a trendy gallery store. Among these, Federation Square (Melbourne) comes to mind—´interesting´ volumes with no obvious entrances (egotistical star architect´s sense of humour) and with open spaces completely exposed to the elements (no shading). This is a space that works so badly in urban terms that activities around these buildings have to be fully programed and with a 24/7 gigantic plasma screen (as if on life-support)—however an entertainment success for tourists. Note that there are many defenders of Fed. Square, like Guggenheim’s Bilbao, it has also put Melbourne in the map.
Fortunately, many of your comments and my own do not reflect all modern cities and their architecture. In many non-Anglophone countries in spite of the architectural mistakes, cities stand resilient and they are still a pleasure to walk—they can endure a few star architects. Whether or not the buildings are attractive, the streets have a pleasant coherence and have been/are thought of for people. I am referring in particular to cities in European countries, South America in cities such as Buenos Aires, Santiago and many others. This difference is also reflected in their architectural education and in the comparatively high degree of architects’ involvement in the making of the city.
I have to agree with some of you who have placed the responsibility for some of these atrocities to architectural education—our education. It is the authorities at our faculties of architecture that promote an uncritical approach to form (and only form). It is not surprising then that we have so little rapport with the general society. In this point I differ from Rebecca, because in most European/America (non-Anglo) there is a seamless connection between architectural, planning (geography) and urban design education. This assists the connection between architecture and the city, between universities and government departments and supports an interdisciplinary approach that is often be an issue somewhere else.

by Beatriz M. on Mar 2, 2013 8:54 am • linkreport

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