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

ADVICE FOR THE CLASSICAL ARCHITECTURE STUDENTS

This post is inspired by a Facebook post by Architecture MMXII.  An anonymous architecture student writes:

“Hi, I’m in uni studying architecture (going into second year in September),  I was hoping you could give me some advice. When I design in a classical manner, my lecturers say ‘we don’t design buildings like that anymore, and that’s just copying, no imagination, etc. What do I do? How can I respond to these criticisms? As i have seen from your photos, architects still design in a classical manner.  Please help.  Thank you.”

Here’s my advice to him/her, and all other architecture students interested in designing in the classical tradition:

1.  The architectural style of the building is of little importance.  Just as there is more to a person than the color of their skin or their ethnicity, there should be more to a building than its architectural style.  A building is built for its intended purpose (program) and needs to comply with current building codes and local zoning ordinances.  The purpose for the building codes, and purpose for hiring an architect to design the building, is to protect the safety of the public and the building’s users. Become familiar with the building code.  Make sure your building has sufficiently sized fire exits that are remotely located, and make sure that there are no dead end corridors that could trap someone during a fire.  If the building is to be used by the public, you may also need to make it wheelchair accessible.  Become familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Design Guidelines to assure that clearances on each side of doors are met, corridors are proper width, and that wheelchair turning radiuses can be achieved wherever necessary.  The purpose for insisting this is because you never want to present a traditional project that does not meet code.  If you present a project that does not meet code, you are falling into their “You-can’t-build-this-way-today” trap set up by your design professors.  If you can demonstrate that your building satisfactorily comply with the building codes, and that your building is wheelchair accessible, you have more credibility in your argument that you can in fact build this way today.

2.  Do not compromise the program and building siting for the sake of tradition.  Make sure that your building is designed to meet the program as best you can, and that you didn’t have to force the program to fit into the traditional design.  The traditional design should work naturally with the program.  For example, don’t force the program to fit into something symmetrical, if it doesn’t work.  perhaps an asymmetrical composition will work better.  Make sure that circulation paths are worked out and the necessary spacial adjacency requirements are met.  Make sure that the building is properly sited, the loading dock is not facing the public square, the principal rooms are positioned so that they have views of the lake, etc.  You have more credibility if you presentation shows that you were thoughtful about the site orientation, how the building is sited, how the building satisfies the program all functional requirements.

3.  Become familiar with how traditional buildings are detailed.  Whether designing modern or traditional buildings, it is always best to design with technologies and systems that are most familiar and readily available.  More builders and contractors are familiar with brick veneer over a stud framed wall than the latest high tech rain screen.  A simple shingled hipped roof is better than a bunch of offset flat roofs with multiple penetrations.  Make sure that you have some thought about how your building will be constructed, and that you know, for example, that the cornice, besides being a decorative element, is often a device used for guttering the rain water, or throwing it away from the exterior wall.  While the other students may propose projects that have weird shapes and angles that may be difficult to waterproof, and may have no clue how to waterproof their projects, you want to demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about construction techniques, and that you are using time tested materials and techniques, that are most readily available and most familiar with builders and tradesmen.  This is also how you are more likely to fall within the construction budget.  Whereas the fancy high tech wall system may cause the modernist project to exceed the budget, and there may be no other solutions other than the system as it was designed, a traditional architect has more available options at his/her disposal.  Gypsum board can be substituted for plaster, stucco finish or brick veneer substituted for stone, asphalt shingles substituted for tile or slate shingles, etc.

4.  Do not copy.  If you are going to design in the classical tradition, avoid the obvious copy or reference to a specific historic building.  Do not design a building that somewhat looks like Monticello, and is obvious that you were inspired by Monticello and Thomas Jefferson’s work.  Instead, be inspired by all types of classical buildings, including the anonymous buildings in small town centers that are not in history books, or that are not well known.  If you are accused of copying, your response should be to request a specific example.  “What building do you think I copied this design from?”  You should also keep all your developmental sketches so that you can show the progressive development of your scheme.  This is often used when architects are accused of plagiarizing other architect’s work.  The developmental sketches are often used to prove that the work was developed by the defendant architect, and is not a copied work. 

5.  Learn the classical language of architecture.   you will have to study this on your own.  Make sure that you get all the details and proportions right.  Make sure that the entablature is properly aligned with the columns/pilasters below, make sure the pilaster/column bases align with the pedestals below, etc.  Make sure the proportions are right and make sure you understand the importance of hierarchy of architectural elements when it comes to composing your facades.  If something is not right about your design, such as the details or the proportions, it will be obvious to the jurors.  Although they may have no idea what it is, or be able to correct it, they will label it pastiche.  Design your building as if it were a load bearing masonry building, even if you propose it to be masonry veneer on stud framing.  By this I mean make sure that arches are located not too close to building corners, the alignments of architectural elements don’t give the appearance of over burdening the columns and pilasters above or below, rustication is used on the lower floors, not the upper floors…obvious things.  

6.  Determine your audience before presenting your project.  If you are presenting in front of a jury of traditional architects, then by all means explain the building’s traditional inspirations, but if you are presenting in front of jurors bent on modernism, then explain the building’s response to site and program.  Remember that a modernist juror can’t give you any advice on how to build a better looking classical building, or offer any advice on how to correct any details that are not quite right, so don’t bother asking them.  Avoid discussing the style of the building. Explain how the building is sited, how it works diagrammatically, how it accomplishes the program, how circulation is arranged, how certain rooms are adjacent to other rooms, etc.  If the they bring up the issue of the building’s style then downplay the importance of the building’s style and try to steer the conversation back to functional and programmatic issues.   

7.  Don’t worry about your grade.  Make sure that you work hard on your design and put a lot of effort into it.  make sure that you produce all of the drawings required of the assignment and more if you can manage it.  Produce beautifully detailed drawings, and as I said before, keep all of you sketches to demonstrate your work effort.  If your design professor doesn’t like that you produced a traditional design, he or she may give you a C; don’t worry about it.  If he or she gives you a D or a failing grade, bitch and complain about it, and show them all the drawings you’ve produced and all the sketches and developmental drawings that demonstrate that you’ve made a strong effort in the design.  Argue that your efforts are worthy of a higher grade and that a D or failing grade is for those that put very little effort into the assignment or who didn’t complete all the required drawings required.  Most professors will concede and move the grade up a letter rather than go to battle with you, but it you have to, go for it.  Complain to the dean or college professor if you have to, or find out if there is a way that the grade can be arbitrated.  If you end up with a C in your design class, remember that architects usually don’t care about academic grades, and architects that practice traditional architects are least likely to care about grades. so don’t worry about it.

Finally, when you get out of school, you should seek employment at an architectural firm that specializes in traditional work.  You will find that there is a greater market for traditional design than modernist work.  When you take your architecture license exam, the graders are only interested in how well you satisfy the building code, the zoning and the design program.   Once you are a licensed architect, you can practice architecture however you want.

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