ruminations about architecture and design

Thursday, September 30, 2010

more modernism (this show runs all week)

I'm still plowing through Shand-Tucci's book on architecture in the Boston region and I periodically come across information that helps fill in pieces of the puzzle that is the story of American architecture. Shand-Tucci points out that the modern aesthetic had its origins as a suburban phenomenon. Gropius and his followers embraced the low density lifestyle of the towns that ringed Boston and built modest homes for themselves in the great tradition of Thoreau and the Pilgrims. They could commute to their jobs in the city in their cars just like everyone else and escape the "maddening crowds" by retreating to Cape Cod, where they built summer cottages on dirt roads with paths that led to sandy beaches.

Of course, the modern style never caught on with houses, and the suburban expansion was a function of the automobile and an innate human psychology that has curious territorial impulses. In an earlier post, I claimed that the success of modernism had less to do with aesthetics than methods. I'm not so sure about that. The details of high rises, which seem to be predominantly modern, have an economic component that gets mentioned from time to time. Could it have all gone down differently? For the urban setting, maybe.

The suburban phenomenon feels as inevitable as the force of gravity. The story of the detached single family home, the single story factory/warehouse/store, the parking lots, the relentless drive outward (and to warm, flat places) is like the dull roar of the ocean. No narrator or conspiracy is required. I can't come to grips as to why it feels so strange, however. When I drive my car to the local Wal-Mart and trudge across the parking lot, I can't help but wonder if this is all there is.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

unfair representations

According to reliable sources on the Internet, this is a view of Dover, Delaware. If you were to ask me if I thought this was actually Dover, I would not be able to reply honestly.
This looks like a picture of an ordinary, pleasant, functional, and possibly unique downtown streetscape in "middle" America.
This is not the Dover, Delaware that I recently experienced on a trip this summer. That Dover, which I have no pictures of, consisted of a few feeder roads off of an interstate highway that led to a four lane strip that was so thoroughly American in its banality that it was almost a work of art. There were examples of every franchise and box store that was trying to survive the Great Recession. Every building was surrounded by an ocean of parking lots, mostly empty. The only original architecture was the NASCAR racetrack and the campus of Delaware State University--which was well hidden from the road and was a miniature city unto itself.
But this scene of a Dover that exists somewhere else is an equivalent expression of banality. We cannot prove where it is, just as we cannot prove where the Dover I visited IS. This streetscape would satisfy a New Urbanist, and its existence is no doubt reassuring to the people who live there. Perhaps it is subsidized by the volume of commercial development along the strip. I can only conclude, if they are both real, then they are both legitimate.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

dept. of curious ideas

I came across this picture a few weeks ago from a link off the Marginal Revolution blog. It is a compound of Panopticon style prisons that were built in Cuba during one of the authoritarian regimes that preceded Castro.
I first learned about Panopticon prisons in a Philosophy class in college.
They represent a model for the possibility of continuous surveillance and observation--and consequently enjoy a position of strong symbolic significance in modern thinking. As a building type for penal architecture, they have been less successful (too much wasted space inside and circular geometries are notoriously unadaptable). They would make a good thesis project at an architecture school where there was a particularly ironic appreciation of theory. To my knowledge, very few have been built and this is probably the most extensive complex.
My only original observation is that the landscape around this prison is extradorinarily beautiful. When things in Cuba change, probably in less than ten years, I wonder what commercial or institutional development will happen here. Possibly, because it's in a remote location, it will consequently decay over time--enjoying a brief period as a mild tourist attraction for those people who venture inland.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Reproduced, but not Mass Produced, Art

This is a photograph of a Sol LeWitt wall drawing that was recently installed at Mohawk Trail High School in Massachusetts. The title of the drawing is #905, which could imply that this is one of over 900 copies of this work of art, or it is the 905th drawing that LeWitt designed.
The most important thing is that a rather drab and uninspiring high school lobby just got a bit more interesting. This particular installation was the culmination of a senior class project that was facilitated by some faculty members at the school. The inside scoop is that one does not simply go out and get a Sol LeWitt drawing on the Internet and slap it up on a wall. This involved contacting the estate of the artist, manufacturing the wall to the artist's standards and hosting a trained draftsman to perform the painting. I'm impressed by the organization that went into this, and a little jealous of an artist who is still producing original works despite being dead.
And, I will argue that this work is original. The circumstances of its commissioning, the labor involved, and most importantly, the context of the work give it an originality that is at least equivalent to the "original" example of LeWitt's #905. I also think that the egress door on the left hand side of the wall gives this an extra bit of character.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

what was modernism?

What was modernism? was the name of an English class I took in college. I was intrigued by the claim that modernity, which I considered to be the here and now, was actually something that was now in the past.

In the context of architecture, the word "modernism" carries less weight than it used to, and I am partly grateful for that development.
I am concerned, though, that we have lost touch with the spirit of the revolution that took place in the New England region shortly after the appointment of Walter Gropius to his position at Harvard. The consequences of his tenure at that school were profound, but I contend that modern architecture set itself in opposition to historicism not by its visual effect, but by its methodology. Gropius and his ilk were more interested in questions than answers. The legacy of the 19th century, expressed so completely at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, was one of absolute certainty and unequivocal faith in a stylistic system. If an architect was retained to design a church he could approach it from a Gothic perspective and be confident that the client would be satisfied and the parishioners filled with the requisite degree of awe. The modernist approached the design of the church with a series of questions, such as, "what is spirituality? what is its form? how can we reconcile the machine-age with four thousand years of worship? where will we park the cars?"

The Gropius House, pictured above, asked, and sought to answer, a different set of questions that pertained to the traditions of New England dwellings. Its success or failure as a vernacular architecture are less important than the spirit of inquiry that it fostered. Now, that spirit of inquiry can be directed at those icons of modernism that find themselves in the same historical position that they were once opposed to.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

In memory of

So, yesterday marks the anniversary of an important turning point in American and World History. To the best of my knowledge, I didn't know anyone who perished in the 9/11 attack, although I did have a friend who worked in the WTC for a brief spell in the late nineties.
In terms of architecture, there was always more emphasis placed on the Twin Towers as iconography than as useful space for human activities. So goes our bias.

My first day on the job at an architecture firm was THAT day. I remember the surreal feeling surrounding everything. Partly, I am grateful that I did not have television at home so that I was spared some of the images until later. I remember how a co-worker in my office remarked that there would be massive retribution for the attack. Indeed there was, but to what positive effect?

I also recall how I confided to a friend a few months later that the imagery of the towers collapsing was beautiful. She grinned, and agreed with me. Maybe we are all a bit sociopathic when it comes to destruction. For more on this subject, see Clockwork Orange, The.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

never trust first impressions

Yesterday I visited the new Media Lab building at MIT and I'm glad that I withheld any public comments on it until I had a chance to reflect on it overnight.

It is a fine, but not exceptional building. I think that the atrium space is a bit overdone, but it has the effect of drawing natural light deep into circulation spaces at the center of the building. The egress stair at the front of the building could have been planned and designed better, but that's easy for me to say since I'm sitting in an armchair now and didn't have to sweat through the design and revision process.

The Media Lab is an expression of wealth. The wealth of a school that has been around for over a hundred years and has nurtured the talents and passions of people who have made some remarkable contributions to human progress. As a monument to those the school and its architects made a sincere effort at creating spaces that refer to the cheap, functional and undistinguished buildings where some of that original alchemy took place. The most important tribute to the spirit of creation and re-creation that propels an institution like MIT will be when the school radically alters and renovates the space in the near future.