Walking the Walk


Urban design from the front lines

Kevin Klinkenberg

Using urban design to make our lives more enjoyable and create wealth

This site is for all those interested in the making of cities and towns, and especially the lives of the humans that inhabit them. Kevin Klinkenberg is an architect and urban designer who's practiced from coast-to-coast. 

Architects: Get Local

Last month, at the Savannah Book Festival, author Daniel Pink had this to say at the beginning of his talk,

I love coming to Savannah. If you were tied up in a trunk and released in Savannah, it’s one of the few places in America where you would know where you are.

Pink’s comment drew a few laughs, and a lot of smiles as the audience recognized the truth in his statement. Unfortunately, it’s a sad truth. For decades, we’ve relentlessly been in pursuit of creating generic places across the globe. Savannah stands out, not simply because of its visual quality, but mostly because the combination of buildings and landscape truly is unique and fits the place.

We humans have seemingly disparate desires to connect with our environment and to shape it to our will. That powerful tension over time forced the creation of places that amazingly did both. By sheer forces of trial and error, we evolved cities and villages across the globe that fit their locale’s unique conditions, but also spoke to the human need for beauty, order and durability. We did this literally for thousands of years, until the modern age.

When the modern age actually began is a subject for better minds than mine, but there’s certainly no doubt that the greatest change has happened in the last 100 years. In this time, we completely invented new notions of transportation, community, food, entertainment, communication and so much more.

And of course, architecture.

In a number of aspects of current life, we’re re-thinking the changes we made, and taking steps to recapture some of that centuries-old wisdom that we abandoned. In the world of food, for example, the locavore revolution has taken society by storm, and is giving us healthy, great food once again.

My wish is for the world of architecture to do something similar. About a week before hearing Pink, I tweeted this out in frustration one day:

Architecture needs it's own locavore movement. Reject imported, industrial practices. Embrace local and traditional.

More on that in a bit.

I mention all this because the newest issue of Better! Cities and Towns has an excellent essay from architect John Massengale along the same lines. John has his own blog, and introduces himself this way:

“Hello, my name is John. I’m a recovering architect.”

John has been writing about architecture and urbanism for a few decades now, and does an excellent job in the B!CT piece breaking down architecture’s obsession with time instead of place. He wrote this as a response to a question thread on the site Glass House Conversations. The entire piece is appended below, but I’ve pulled out a few specific sections that struck me, and added some thoughts of my own.

This whole topic likely seems bizarre and arcane to those outside the world of architecture and design, but in reality it’s at the core of why most architects see the world so differently than most non-architects, and why architects struggle with the “local.”

At the heart of the mindset, though, is the obsession architects have with time/history (and especially the rejection of tradition) versus place. Massengale writes:

“…I think it’s better to talk about an architecture of place versus an architecture of time, rather than about style. The architecture of time is the architecture of the Zeitgeist, the theory that has sustained Modernism for well over 100 years. Frank Lloyd Wright was born just after the Civil War and designed important houses in the 19th century, and Modernism was the dominant cultural expression in America as soon as World War II ended. I think that time has ended.”

Zeitgeist, or the spirit of the time, is an intellectual construct from the Enlightenment. It’s a populist reproach of the “Great Man” theory of history, and certainly not without value. I’m not writing here to debate the proper way to frame history. The issue is how architects and architectural theorists have co-opted the idea, to intellectualize the practice of architecture.

What architects have done is used the zeitgeist idea to create an intellectual space that makes it impossible for them to truly embrace tradition. The theory goes that the only true value of architecture is to seek out and define this particular moment in time, with materials, methods and designs that are indicative of “now.” Anything other than that approach is simply building, not real architecture. By implication, you are clearly a rube, a no-talent or a mouth-breather if you’re not aspiring to define a time or unique style of your own.

Chefs do not have such a quandary, to their credit. One of the central themes of the foodie movement is that those old traditions, with real ingredients, taste better and are better for us. They emphasize local sourcing of goods, find inspiration from regional and local traditions, and look for creative new approaches based on those local traditions and ingredients. Even if those ingredients and traditions were imported a hundred or two hundred years ago (which they likely were), they are still cherished and meaningful to people today.

It’s an approach that architecture could learn from. Embrace the local, as well as local traditions, instead of fighting them in the name of originality. Those traditions speak to our humanity, the good and the bad. And embracing tradition and place actually has the secondary effect of breathing new life into contemporary interpretations.

In fact, if you question those architectural traditions, don’t you also question the validity of eating that heirloom tomato & local arugula salad?

This clip, featuring renowned chef Jose Andres on the show "No Reservations" says it best. Starting at about 2:10, he philosophizes about tradition and cooking:

Jose Andres on Tradition

“If you don’t have a connection with the past, it’s impossible to have a connection with the present and the future.”

Like John, I’m also not arguing that all architecture should look or feel one way. I enjoy buildings of many different stylistic approaches, and can appreciate any well-thought out design solution, regardless of aesthetic. But I do care deeply about the overall visual appeal of our cities, and what we can do to encourage beauty, whimsy and fun. Those qualities enhance a place’s walkability dramatically, which in turn makes them immensely more sustainable. Beauty simply does encourage people to walk and bike, and our record of success in this regard has been lousy for the last 100 years or so.

As Massengale notes on a practical note:

"Periodically, publications like Time Out will ask its readers to pick their favorite street, and the winner is always a street like South Portland Avenue in Brooklyn, a street laid out by a surveyor that is straight as an arrow, with simple repetitive row houses built on speculation without the assistance of architects. Enlarge the area of discussion to the creation of towns and cities, and there’s no contest. After more than 100 years of trying, during the wealthiest period in the history of the world, where is the great Modernist city, town or neighborhood?"

If this were the world of agriculture, we might look to demonize multi-national corporate conglomerates, like Monsanto. They make for great foil as we analyze why our food culture is so industrialized and homogenous, rightly or wrongly. We can easily point to those practices and say “we’re not healthy because…”

In architecture, however, there are no similar corporate giants to point to. But the obsession with industrial methods of design, production and style are no less pervasive.  This is how Massengale describes it:

"Before the hegemony of the architecture of time, all architects thought their first responsibility in designing a building was reinforcing that public realm.

The object buildings, the expression of technology at the heart of the architecture of time, and the emphasis on the expression of originality usually fight against that. And the so-called “avant grade” side of the profession that dominates the academic and media discussion pursues goals that by definition means their buildings can’t play well with others. “

Towards that end, at this time Modernism needs to over- come its obsession with the expression of technology and the creation of controversial objects."

It’s hard to describe to non-architects how the process of architectural education could lead eager young minds in a direction where beauty and a responsibility toward a building’s neighbors are not important. And yet, it’s true. Design a building in school that is simple and blends with its neighbors, and you’re likely to receive a mediocre grade at best. Design something that is expressive of an abstract idea, and purposefully contrasts with its neighbors, and you are on the path to receiving a high grade. This is true in school after school, with very few exceptions across the country or world. The process encourages students to think that the CVS in the center is what we should be designing, instead of the buildings around it:

I should add that the trickle-down effect of this mindset is what is particularly damaging. Most buildings, after all, are not designed by high-minded architects. But when the brightest minds sanction an approach that (let's be honest) gives a middle finger to tradition and context, it only emboldens those who strive to do the bare minimum. That intellectual justification eventually leads to the tens of thousands of situations like the image below, which was likely not designed by one of our best or brightest:

There’s so much more to say on this topic, and I could bore the reader for hours with analysis of architectural thought and practice. It is fascinating to me that architects, who generally embrace the locavore movement in food, resist it in their own profession. The International Style approach and its many descendants spring from the same ideology as industrially produced food systems.  They emphasize universalism, de-emphasize humanity and celebrate industrial production and aesthetics. The same faceless building can be anywhere, and kudos to materials that are not naturally produced. It’s the TV dinner of architecture.

The profession would do well to turn away from the making of architecture as an intellectual activity, and look toward its roots as a craft-based, visceral and emotional. Architects and students should spend less time thinking about German philosophers and phenomenology and more time on why a house in Charleston should have high ceilings and one in Houston should not have curtain walls.

Too many of us (myself included) don’t understand why a certain detail was constructed to shed the rain in that particular climate or region, or why classical detailing evolved from human proportions and concerns. We’ve taken the humanity out of architecture, and replaced it with too many intellectual rationalizations. The more absurd the rationalization, the more acclaim it’s likely to gather.

In my mind, the solution is simple. Get local. Embrace the traditional. Get real.

Note: The following piece is a response to the question, “Where do you stand on the traditional versus modern debate, and why? Is there a contemporary compromise?” that was posed on the blog Glass House Conversations (glasshouseconversations.org) associated with Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Author: John Massengale

My interest here is not about style. I like all sorts of towns, cities and buildings, but what I design are Classical buildings and traditional towns and cities.

“Classical” does not mean “traditional” (or “neo-tradition- al”), and Classicism is a way of designing rather than a style. Most of the market doesn’t want ideological purity, and when it does, the bias is likely to be towards traditional.

More to the point, I grew up in the suburbs but I live in Manhattan, and what I’m most interested in is the design of walkable places. To talk about that in the context of this discussion, I think it’s better to talk about an architecture of place versus an architecture of time, rather than about style.

The architecture of time is the architecture of the Zeitgeist, the theory that has sustained Modernism for well over 100 years. Frank Lloyd Wright was born just after the Civil War and designed important houses in the 19th century, and Modernism was the dominant cultural expression in America as soon as World War II ended. I think that time has ended.

The architecture of time has produced many great buildings, but it comes with two large caveats. One, its rate of return is terrible: for every Ronchamps or Bilbao there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of very bad buildings. Great Modern design is hard to teach, and the emphasis on experimentation and “unprecedented reality” produces many experimental failures (“Architecture is invention. All the rest is repetition and of no interest,” Oscar Niemeyer said). Moreover, the architecture of time also includes all the Modernist shopping centers, strip malls, spec office buildings and the like.

Second, the architecture of time is more about making objects than places, and Modernism has produced very few great places, and absolutely none to rival the great places like the Piazza San Marco in Venice or even New York’s Park Avenue or the typical residential street in Park Slope, Brooklyn (built almost entirely without architects or urban designers).

Periodically, publications like Time Out will ask its readers to pick their favorite street, and the winner is always a street like South Portland Avenue in Brooklyn, a street laid out by a surveyor that is straight as an arrow, with simple repetitive row houses built on speculation without the assistance of architects. Enlarge the area of discussion to the creation of towns and cities, and there’s no contest. After more than 100 years of trying, during the wealthiest period in the history of the world, where is the great Modernist city, town or neighborhood?

Modernism also tends to work best in a traditional context. The Seagram Building on Park Avenue was a glass gem in a traditional masonry setting that added variety and interest to Park when it was built.

Lever House, almost across the street, was the same. But go there today and walk south to the blocks that where glass boxes have entirely replaced the earlier masonry buildings and the street loses much of its appeal to pedestrians, even though the wide street itself brings variety and sunlight to midtown Manhattan. Richard Florida’s Creative Class, which chooses the character of where it wants to live and work before taking a job, is why Silicon Alley is located downtown in neighborhoods where Modernism is still the exception rather than the rule. Like most people, Millennials like both Modernist and traditional architecture, but they clearly prefer traditional urbanism.

The architecture of place is about creating and reinforcing places where people feel good, making a public realm with comfortable outdoor “rooms.” It uses the “timeless principles” described by Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs to do that. These principles work across what New Urbanists call “the Transect,” the range of patterns from the densest downtown like New York’s Wall Street to the smallest walkable village or hamlet. In the 21st century, one of the most important uses for those principles is the creation of walkable, comfortable places that entice us to get out of our cars. “You can’t spell ‘carbon’ without ‘car.’” they say. Before the hegemony of the architecture of time, all architects thought their first responsibility in designing a building was reinforcing that public realm.

The object buildings, the expression of technology at the heart of the architecture of time, and the emphasis on the expression of originality usually fight against that. And the so-called “avant grade” side of the profession that dominates the academic and media discussion pursues goals that by definition means their buildings can’t play well with others. “Great buildings contradict everything else,” fashionable architect Gregg Pasquarelli said in a discussion in New York magazine about the best buildings in New York. “Maybe that’s what a city is: confrontation and complication. In New York, the name of the game is to have one’s own envelope,” his former Dean at Columbia replied. The builders and architects who made the New York we love—like the developers of Park Slope and the architects like McKim, Mead & White who built our great monuments like Penn Station—believed exactly the opposite.

I was born in New York and the suburbs I grew up in were less than 10 miles away from Philip Johnson’s Glass House. After I got my driver’s license, I used to sometimes go peer over the wall at the edge of the property, and once or twice Johnson came out and shook his fist before I drove away.

The Glass House is a great work of architecture, and one of my favorite buildings. It is a folly in the woods that draws on lessons of history, but it is also an object building and resolute expression of the zeitgeist of the postwar time when it was built. I should say that Johnson’s zeitgeist is not mine, and one has to ask if Modernism, an architecture of time, expresses the current zeitgeist, or if it is just a style.

We are the first generations in the history of the world who realize that the way we build will determine the future of our planet, for better or for worse. We need walkable and sustainable cities, towns and neighborhoods, and that is overwhelmingly what the young want. They’re happy with many styles, but they want cities and towns where they can lead their lives without cars. More important than the style of second houses for the rich in the Hamptons is the construction and reconstruction of urbanism where people want to be.

Towards that end, at this time Modernism needs to over- come its obsession with the expression of technology and the creation of controversial objects. The fixation on the aesthetic perfection of the energy-wasting glass curtain wall is irresponsible towards future generations, and the idea that the style of a design by Jean Nouvel for obscenely expensive Manhattan pied-a-terres for the super-rich is somehow a progressive action is delusional, anti-social, and anti-urban. The discussion of how to make and reinforce places that are environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable is much more important than talking about architectural style. But style in the broadest sense, the style and character of buildings that people love and that make good urbanism, can be a big part of that discussion.

 
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