AN ALTERNATIVE DESIGN FOR 336 DECATUR STREET

A new building is presently being proposed for 336 Decatur Street, a vacant site in the Vieux Carré that sits directly across the street from Bienville Park and the statue of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.  It is a highly visible site where North Peters Street and Decatur Street split off forming the triangular Bienville Park and creating a unique trapezoid site that has frontages on three streets.  For awhile the site was occupied by a small, vacant gas station that had a large billboard on its roof.  The gas station and its billboard have since been demolished and now there is a great opportunity to build an attractive building that can enhance the neighborhood.  The project has been reviewed by the Vieux Carré Architectural Review Committee (ARC) several times throughout the past year.  Instead of pushing for the best design solution for the site, the ARC has unfortunately persuaded the architects to design a more modernist design.  A recent iteration had glass curtainwall systems at the North Peters-Conti Street corner and dark grey metal panels everywhere else, and with a gallery on all three sides.  The proposed building has a flat roof, part of which is supposed to be a roof terrace, and another part contains mechanical equipment that is concealed behind a taller facade that screens the equipment.

The preservation movement originally was a reaction to modernist architecture.  Demolishing old buildings and replacing them with new building is as old as architecture itself.  The expectation has always been that the new replacement building would be a better, more attractive building than the one that was to be demolished.  When historic buildings started to be demolished and replaced with new modernist buildings, historic architecture enthusiasts fought against historic building demolitions because they feared that what would replace the older buildings would not be satisfactory.  The tipping point was when New Yorks Pennsylvania Railroad Station designed by McKim, Mead & White was demolished and replaced by Madison Square Garden.  It was the very best architecture of the past being replaced with the very worst.  Later, Grand Central Terminal would be threatened with the construction of a large brutalist office tower over the top of the concourse.  The preservation movement was born.  Grand Central Terminal was spared, but unfortunately not soon enough to prevent the construction of the Pan Am Building (now the Met Life Building) designed by Walter Gropius and Emery Roth & Sons.

Part of this preservation movement resulted in the creation of numerous historic districts set up to protect entire neighborhoods and to provide guidance for renovation and construction within those districts.  Architectural review committees (ARC) were set up to review the plans of architects and make recommendations and advisements.  Interestingly, the buildings that comprise the historic districts, and give the district its character were done without the benefit of an ARC’s review.  The Vieux Carré Commission is the second earliest historic district in the country, second only to Historic Charleston.  Like many historic districts, the Vieux Carré has an ARC that reviews plans for any alterations to existing buildings and plans for any new construction.  They are supposed to protect the historic character of the district.

The preservation movement today is not the same preservation movement that existed 50 years ago.  Architectural preservation has become a lucrative business and modernist architects did not want to be excluded.  They infiltrated the movement, set up onerous rules that when interpreted to the extreme had new construction and additions to historic buildings built in a contrasting, modernist architectural style.  What threatened Grand Central Terminal actually happened to the Hearst Tower in New York City.  The Hearst Tower is a building that was originally designed by Joseph Urban for the publisher William Randolph Hearst, except that only the lower six floors were built.  In 2001, architect Norman Foster added an all-glass tower with a diagrid structure on top of, and within the gutted out facade of the six-story base.  It was designed to purposely contrast with the original podium that was built in 1928, and similar “parasitic” additions are continuing to be designed and built atop historic “host” buildings, and they are published and given awards by the architectural media.

I fear that the Vieux Carré Commission’s ARC has similarly been infiltrated by modernists.  Instead of projects being reviewed with a focus on what is best for preserving the character of the neighborhood, they are instead focused on buildings being “of its time” whatever that is supposed to mean.  If a building designed in 2019 is supposed to be “of its time,” how is it not going to be outdated and obsolete before the scaffolding around it is removed?  Instead, buildings should be designed “of its place,” something that is a bit more constant, and even then that should be a secondary consideration to everything aesthetical.  In no way should a design credo overrule aesthetic judgment.

Furthermore, modernism doesn’t work in urban settings.  Modern architecture was meant to replace historic neighborhoods, not fit in harmoniously; it was intended for tower blocks in open space and not set within traditional urbanism.  Modern architecture is anti-traditional and can never fit in with a historic district’s architectural character.  Modern architecture, when set into a historic neighborhood, can only contrast and stand out; it can never blend in.  When architects start off designing a building with the idea that the building has to be free of any historic architectural styles and therefore has to be modernist, they start off with a completely contrasting building that is alien to its historic neighbors.  Every design modification made to improve the initial design is an attempt to minimize the contrast of the two conflicting architectures, but no matter what, no modernist “of its time” design will ever blend in like a well designed traditional building.

What is happening in the Vieux Carré and other historic districts is that ARCs are discouraging architects from designing traditional buildings that would otherwise fit well in traditional neighborhoods, despite the fact that their purpose is to protect the character of the historic district of which they control.

The building that is proposed at 336 Decatur Street is no exception.  Its first Vieux Carré Commission submission was vaguely traditional and every one after that moved it more and more towards a modernist building.  At one point a building with a metal panel facade with an all-glass corner segment at the North Peters-Conti corner and a flat roof terrace.  The design did not fit in with the historic character of the  Vieux Carré and the project spent an entire year being reviewed by the ARC.  Why?  Because there is no way to make a modernist building fit into a neighborhood of traditional buildings.  Instead of taking the simple approach and encouraging the architects to design the best traditional building they can, they are coerced into designing a mediocre modernist building.  They suggest some modifications, and the revised submission a month later is still unsatisfactory.

To demonstrate just how easy it is to design a good traditional building, I developed this alternative design for 336 Decatur Street.  I spent quite a few hours developing the drawing sufficient enough to present it here, but the actual design was simple and it didn’t take very long to arrive at this solution.

The design is for a three-story building with a hipped roof that covers the entire building site and features a wrap-around gallery over the sidewalk on all three sides.  The facades have traditional double-hung windows on the third floor and traditional doors and transoms on the second and first floors.  The openings of the first floor are wider than the openings above because it is anticipated that some type of commercial use would be located on the first floor.  A slate shingled roof effectively conceals a lower flat roof that can conceal all the mechanical and exhaust equipment.  Because the building is in such a highly visible location, I developed the Conti Street elevation with a more tripartite facade, with seven bays, three at a projecting center panel topped by a pediment.  At the apex of the roof is a hexagonal cupola.

What also distinguishes this alternative design from what is presently proposed is that it is intentionally designed in a more generic traditional design.  What is currently proposed is a building that originally was designed for the restaurant/bar Margaritaville, but since they backed out, it has now been designed for a future speculative restaurant tenant.  What’s problematic is how the design is custom-tailored to a tenant that as of yet doesn’t exist.  What happens if the restaurant tenant closes?  Can the building find another restaurant tenant or can it be adapted for another use?  Consider all the restaurants that have opened and eventually closed in the Vieux Carré.  Hard Rock Cafe, Fashion Cafe, Planet Hollywood, Bubba Gump’s and Bella Luna all come to mind.  The difference is that all those restaurants were located in traditional buildings that are easily adapted into various uses.  A retail store is located where Hard Rock Cafe was, condos are located where Planet Hollywood was, a Walgreens occupies the space that was Fashion Cafe, etc.

The solution proposed in this alternative design is an open plan for all three levels, giving it much greater flexibility.  It could be occupied by a restaurant on all three levels, but it could also have commercial/retail space on the first floor and the upper floors could be subdivided into residential apartment units.  The building could also be an office building on all three floors or just the upper floors.

The purpose of this alternative design is to show what the result is when “of its place” is considered rather than “of its time” and once an alternative, traditional design is seen, it hopefully can’t be unseen.  All that matters is what will look best sited on this most prominent and highly visible site, perhaps the most visible building site to become available in the Vieux Carré since the construction of the Royal Orleans Hotel.  If one is still not certain about how little “of its time” matters in design, then consider what the  Vieux Carré would look like if 50 years ago the ARC didn’t insist on a traditional design for the Royal Orleans or the Royal Sonesta hotels.  Imagine if modernist buildings were built there instead.  I doubt that anyone looks at those modern-era traditional buildings today and laments that they were built in traditional styles, or were not built in more modernist styles.  If that’s the case, it proves my point.  “Of its time” doesn’t mean anything, especially to anyone viewing the building in the future.  Hopefully, something traditional like this will be built on the site and in the future, it will be obvious that it was the right decision.

THE CRISIS WITH TODAY’S MODERN ARCHITECTURE

Modern architecture has reached a crisis point.  The original intention of early modernists was to seek out an architecture that was non-traditional and free of historical precedent.  The mistake made by architecture schools was to abandon the teaching of classical architecture in favor of only modernism and thus creating the multi-generational gap in the continuous transfer of architectural knowledge and training from one generation to the next.  Just as the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution provides the right to bear arms, it also provides the right to NOT bear arms if one chooses.  Similarly, to truly be free of historical precedent in architecture, one should also be free to engage in historical precedent.  One is not free if they are restricted from pursuing a certain design solution that may seem relevant.  It was very unfortunate that this clear, logical way of thinking was not present when all the architecture history books and plaster casts were purged out of the architecture schools.  This anti-traditional architecture, with its lack of ornamentation and mouldings can only take you so far.

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Modern Architecture has reached that point.  Considering the Form Follows Function philosophy of architecture, there was nothing that could be done that wasn’t done before.   With no where to innovate, the Form Follows Function philosophy was replaced by Form can be Anything philosophy.  Now modern architecture has reached the point where any shape or form can be passed off as a great work of architecture, worthy of publication in any of the architecture trade journals. There are no rules, no guidelines, no principles, therefore anyone can do it. Anyone who has Sketchup on their computer, and is proficient at it can do it. There is no longer anything that separates or distinguishes great modern architecture from mediocre or bad modern architecture. Of course the architect still has to make sure there are proper exits and the building meets the latest building codes, but the last time I checked, architecture was more than passing city and fire marshal reviews.

It seems like the ultimate design freedom, but without rules or design principles there is no way to evaluate one form as being better than another.  There is no where to go; there is no way to improve.  There is nothing to master.  Once you’ve learned the computer skills at generating the weird shapes you can’t get better at it.

Classical architecture is a grammar.  It can easily be taught, it can be learned, and it can be mastered. Unfortunately, there is the misconception that applying classical architectural principles to today’s architectural problems is regressive, or going backwards.  They think it is not progressive.  In fact, it is necessary to move the tradition of classical architecture forward using today’s technology and if necessary adapt it to today’s technology and needs.  This is what was done during all of the revival periods.  Greek Revival architects didn’t design buildings like they were transformed back into the 5 Century BC; they designed mid-nineteenth century buildings using motifs found on Ancient Greek architecture.  They built with wood “balloon” frames, used double hung windows with glass glazing, clad the exteriors with clapboard siding, and used ornamental cast iron railings, all of which are materials and techniques that were unknown to Ancient Greek architects.

Today’s modernist architects do not believe that classical architecture is the way to continue down the road.  They continue to think that it is going backwards, meanwhile they are all off the road, in a pasture doing donuts and getting stuck in the mud.

21st CENTURY CLASSICISM

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The current state of architecture is in decline, and has been for the last 75 years or so.  It is the result of a collective decision by architecture schools to abandon the teaching of classical architecture in lieu of the new modernism, despite the fact that the early modernist masters, Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Adolph Loos, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others were all trained as classical architecture before their pursuit of abstract architecture.  I can’t fault the design exploration of these early architects, but the decision to abandon all prior wisdom and knowledge was a poor one.  The thinking of the time was that this new architecture was so extraordinary that there would never be any need of a historical style revival from then until perpetuity, and therefore no need to continue teaching classical architecture in the schools.  They could have looked at a timeline of the past 2000 years of architecture and seen how architectural styles come and go, how the evolve, and how revival periods occur, yet they concluded that within the next 100 years, 1000 years or 5000 years, the new abstract architecture would always be the relevant style.

I believe that preservationists were the first to sense that something was not quite right when replacement buildings for demolished landmarks were not aesthetically up to par with the buildings that they replaced.  Gone were the times when a building was demolished and replaced by a better, more beautiful building.  The emergency response by preservationists was to increase preservation laws and easements, create more historic districts, and to provide landmark status to buildings that were good representations of past architectural styles, or that were parts of a larger ensemble of buildings that were viewed as being more valuable as a group than as individual buildings.  What was the hobby of a few is now the profession of many, but the problem that exists today in the historic preservation business is the lack of design professionals that are capable of using traditional architecture as a precedent for design.  If a historic building is in need of restoration, and is missing its cornice, the likelihood of that cornice being replaced with a suitable replacement becomes more and more remote with each generation of architects.  If a fire damages or destroys an historic building, the restoration or equivalent replacement becomes increasingly more difficult with each passing generation.

The problem with modernism is that it works best when the building is seen as an object surrounded by nature, with no other structures around, but is often a failure when trying to relate to historic buildings and neighborhoods, or to other modernist buildings.  The failure rate of modernism is staggering.  When I speak of modernism, I not only include all the latest published works of whatever starchitect is popular at the time, but all the ordinary buildings that are also built, the mundane auto repair shop, the ordinary medical office building in an office park somewhere, the strip shopping center and big box retail centers, the “worship warehouses” that are supposed to be churches, and the utilitarian parking garages.  For every modern masterpiece that is produced – and there is no true consensus as to what is worthy of masterpiece status among even modernist architects and critics – a thousand or so failures are built.  These are the everyday modernist buildings that are built, that never get published, are never acknowledged as contributions to the continuation of modernism, but either destroy historic neighborhoods and streetscapes where they are located, or contribute to suburban sprawl where they all collectively create an unwalkable, automobile centric environment that lacks any sense of place.

Classical architecture, on the other hand, is easily taught and is easily learned.  There are pattern books and treatises on classical architecture, as well as 2000 years of design precedents that can be utilized by architects and builders.  It can be used by carpenters and farmers as well as trained architects.  The first architect of the US Capitol Building, William Thornton was a physician by trade; his design was good enough to win a national competition at the time.  A competent architect or designer can follow the rules of classicism, and the result will not be unsatisfactory.  It may also be unexceptional, but it will still produce a good building.  Historic districts are filled with such buildings where they are often labeled as “contributing” buildings, where they contribute to the character of the neighborhood.  A competent architect can continue practicing classical architecture master it, and be comparable to other classical architects throughout history.  If there is anything that can save architecture from a dismal future, it is the renewal of classicism in the twenty first century and beyond.

The problem that is confronted with architects considering using classicism for today’s designs is that there is the belief that using classical architecture is regressive, a return to the past, and therefore is not suitable for a modern society.  It is not possible for architecture to go backwards; architecture must continue forward.  Classical architecture continues the good ideas of the past and adapts them to new building technology that is emerging in the present.

When considering a Twenty First Century classical architecture, the words “modernism” and “classicism” needs to first be re-examined.  The word “modernism” refers to the abstract styles that currently dominated art and architecture, but the root word “modern” simply refers to the present.  It may be difficult to image that an architect like James Gallier (Jr. or Sr.), despite designing buildings in the Greek Revival style, always considered themselves to be “modern architects” because they were designing buildings that were of their time.  Although they were inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece, the designs produced are nothing like those of antiquity.  Balloon framing, double hung windows, clapboard siding and other technologies of nineteenth century building construction were combined with the decorative motifs of Ancient Greek architecture to produce what we appreciate as Greek Revival Architecture.

“Classicism” is often thought of as being an architectural style that preceded modernism, and it is this historical associations with the past that continue to make it difficult for architects to come to terms with its use in the presence.  In actual fact, classicism continued into the mid Twentieth Century and beyond, it’s just that those practitioners were omitted from the architecture history books because they didn’t follow the natural evolution of the modernism.  Despite its distinct visual characteristics, it is better to think of classicism as a language that is adaptable to whatever new circumstances are presented.  Just as English is a written/spoken language that includes words, punctuation, sentences, and grammatical rules, classicism is likewise a building language that includes architectural elements such as walls, columns, arches, domes, vaults, windows, cornices, etc.  It also has a set of rules that determine the arrangement of such elements similar to the way grammar arranges words into sentences and paragraphs.  The English language used by William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain, has continued to adapt to modern times so that we can discuss topics such as nuclear physics, bio-engineering and rocket engineering.  New words and terms must constantly be invented, but none would make since if we didn’t continue using old, familiar words and terms.

Classicism, as a language, must likewise continue to adapt to the present to remain relevant.  This has always been the case with classicism from its very earliest beginnings.  The architecture developed by the Ancient Greeks was limited to a trabeated system of posts, beams and walls.  The Romans developed an arcuated construction system of arches, vaults and domes, which had a superior ability to span larger openings than the trabeated system.  When the Romans adopted the architecture of the Ancient Greeks, they didn’t discard the trabeated system, they incorporated it into the language of classicism.  Where short spans are needed, such as a portico or temple front, the trabeated system is used; where longer spans are necessary arches are provided, and often the arches are framed by columns, pilasters and entablatures to suggest the presence of structure in the arched walls beyond.

Finally, it is necessary to look back at classical architecture of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century, the point where modernism began to dominate and notice how technically advanced classical buildings were at the time.  There were buildings such as McKim Mead & White’s Municipal Building in New York, which was a high-rise, steel framed building that was clad in stone, not too unlike today’s high-rise buildings.  There were buildings that included large spanning steel structures.  Some were engineering marvels in their own right such as the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair designed by George Post.  There are also examples of classical buildings with glass curtain walls such as the Tietz Department Store in Berlin, which unfortunately no longer exists.  The Manhattan Bridge is a large suspension bridge that spans the East River in New York.  A close examination of its steel framed towers reveals elements that suggest cornices, brackets and finials, and therefore can be considered a great example of classical architecture.  Who would have thought that an architectural language of trabeation (post and beam) and arcuation (arches and vaults) could also include suspended elements as part of its repertoire?

Municipal Building  Manhattan_Bridge_2007Chicago_expo_Manufactures_bldg

The downtown department store posed the dilemma of a high-rise classical stone façade, and its need for visible support at the ground level that was satisfactory to the eye, while at the same time providing large areas of plate glass window for merchandise display.  This architectural conundrum was solved by locating the plate glass storefronts to a forward plane, treating the display window as a large display case, and allowing the perceived building structure to rise up behind it.  I think of this and realize that regardless of the difficulty of the problem, there has to be an ingenious classical solution waiting to be found; it is no longer acceptable to assume that classical architecture won’t work in the Twenty First Century.

Architecture will be great once again when we lose the “envy of the past,” which is what I call it when one looks back on historic buildings, like the early preservationists did, and wish that today’s buildings were as beautiful as the ones of the past.  Architects need to stop making excuses for lack of beauty and craft, like blaming it on the times we are in.  If one believes that man’s destiny is to become better in the future then we need to not only be capable of building like we did in the past, we need to be better at it.  Could you imagine if the medical profession once had a cure for cancer, but collectively forgot the treatment over time?  They just stopped teaching the cancer curing treatment in medical schools until all the older generation that knew retired and died off.  How unacceptable would that be?  This is what happened to architecture.  Architects must continue to innovate, and building technology must continue to evolve, but we must pick up all the lost knowledge and wisdom of classical architecture that was forgotten.

How can one become smarter if for every new thing that one learns, some piece of prior knowledge must be purged from the brain?

RANDOM GOOGLE STREET VIEWS OF BUDAPEST

Below are random Google street views of Budapest.  Notice how much the surrounding architecture contributes to the experience and aesthetics of the street and compare this to the previous post on Random Street Views of Tel Aviv.

Budapest Street Scene 1 Budapest Street Scene 2 Budapest Street Scene 3 Budapest Street Scene 4 Budapest Street Scene 5 Budapest Street Scene 6 Budapest Street Scene 7 Budapest Street Scene 8 Budapest Street Scene 9 Budapest Street Scene 10 Budapest Street Scene 11 Budapest Street Scene 12 Budapest Street Scene 13 Budapest Street Scene 14 Budapest Street Scene 15 Budapest Street Scene 16 Budapest Street Scene 17 Budapest Street Scene 18 Budapest Street Scene 19 Budapest Street Scene 20

RANDOM GOOGLE STREET VIEWS OF LONDON

Below are random Google street views of London.  Notice how much the surrounding architecture contributes to the experience and aesthetics of the street and compare this to the previous post on Random Street Views of Tel Aviv.

London Street Scene 1 London Street Scene 2 London Street Scene 3 London Street Scene 4 London Street Scene 5 London Street Scene 6 London Street Scene 7 London Street Scene 8 London Street Scene 9 London Street Scene 10 London Street Scene 11 London Street Scene 12 London Street Scene 13 London Street Scene 14 London Street Scene 15 London Street Scene 16 London Street Scene 17 London Street Scene 18 London Street Scene 19 London Street Scene 20

RANDOM GOOGLE STREET VIEWS OF PARIS

Below are random Google street views of Paris.  Notice how much the surrounding architecture contributes to the experience and aesthetics of the street and compare this to the previous post on Random Street Views of Tel Aviv.

Paris Street Scene 1 Paris Street Scene 2 Paris Street Scene 3 Paris Street Scene 4 Paris Street Scene 5 Paris Street Scene 6 Paris Street Scene 7 Paris Street Scene 8 Paris Street Scene 9 Paris Street Scene 10 Paris Street Scene 11 Paris Street Scene 12 Paris Street Scene 13 Paris Street Scene 14 Paris Street Scene 15 Paris Street Scene 16 Paris Street Scene 17 Paris Street Scene 18 Paris Street Scene 19 Paris Street Scene 20

RANDOM GOOGLE STREET VIEWS OF TEL AVIV

New Urbanism is an urban design movement that promotes walkable neighborhoods that are inspired by older, historic neighborhoods.  In recent times, more modernist architecture is being built with these new urban developments, and often times it is allowed because there are no rules that forbid modernism, or require buildings to be done in a traditional style.  Often times the modernist building will have shop fronts and windows on the street to promote walkability, but what is neglected is just how much traditional architecture contributes to the experience of a street. 

Tel Aviv is a city that experienced most of its growth after World War II and therefore has all modernist architecture, and very little, if any, traditional architecture.  This is perfect, because it is now possible to see how much traditional architecture contributes to the overall aesthetic of the street by showing what it looks like when it is absent.  Here is modernism in the context of modernism.  Often times you see a modernist building in the context of an historic neighborhood, where the modernist building is dependent on the surrounding architecture to provide a counterpoint of contrast to the modernist’s work.  Here there is no contrast or counterpoint, just endless modern architecture.  In fact, it seems that the best streets of Tel Aviv are ones that have large enough trees so that a tree canopy hides the architecture beyond.

The random Google street views are just that:  Scanning across Google Maps, and randomly dropping the man icon onto a random location on the map to see what the street view is, and then saving the view for use here.

Future posts will show random Google street views of Paris, London and Bucharest, all cities with traditional architecture.  The purpose for posting random street views of these cities is to contrast the starkness of Tel Aviv’s street views. 

Tel Aviv Street Scene 1 Tel Aviv Street Scene 2 Tel Aviv Street Scene 3 Tel Aviv Street Scene 4 Tel Aviv Street Scene 5 Tel Aviv Street Scene 6 Tel Aviv Street Scene 7 Tel Aviv Street Scene 8 Tel Aviv Street Scene 9 Tel Aviv Street Scene 10 Tel Aviv Street Scene 11 Tel Aviv Street Scene 12 Tel Aviv Street Scene 13 Tel Aviv Street Scene 14 Tel Aviv Street Scene 15 Tel Aviv Street Scene 16 Tel Aviv Street Scene 17 Tel Aviv Street Scene 18 Tel Aviv Street Scene 19 Tel Aviv Street Scene 20