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Wednesday feature: Towards a grown-up architecture

Zaha Hadid's design for the proposed New York Olympic village

Zaha Hadid's design for the proposed New York Olympic village

It seems rather silly in 2014 to still be writing about the International Style in architecture and its spin-offs. After all, it's been 100 years since the first proponents and designs came on the scene in Europe. But in reality, cities and people are still dealing with the repercussions of the modern movement in architecture.

The International style approach was predicated on the notion that with the new modern industrial age we can build essentially the same buildings anywhere. The framers of that ideology saw that as a good thing - in fact, a great thing. From Le Corbusier's iconic book Towards an architecture:

A great epoch has begun.

There exists a new spirit.

There exists a mass of work conceived in the new spirit; it is to be met with particularly in industrial production.

Architecture is stifled by custom.

The "styles" are a lie.

Style is a unity of principle animating all the work of an epoch, the result of a state of mind which has its own special character.

Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style.

Our eyes, unhappily, are unable yet to discern it.

Le Corbusier was a hell of a writer. His several books all brilliantly made the case for a new style of architecture (yes, a style) that wraps itself up in the zeitgeist. Virtually anyone who's attended architecture school and read the books cannot be captivated by his words and images.

But here's the thing: we now have the evidence on the ground of about 100 years' worth of buildings created from this mindset and it's not pretty. In our craze to adopt "modern" stylistic notions we've obliterated much of what was unique about places and attractive to human beings. Buildings have gotten bigger and uglier, and all virtues of the traditional city (such as scale) have been tossed aside. Architects may recoil at those sentences, but I'd say: believe your own lyin' eyes.

Just this week two separate blog posts from drastically different parts of the world grabbed onto the topic. Both lament the scale and uniformity of contemporary building, and what we've lost in the process. From Finland comes this critique of contemporary Finnish architecture:

As the pictures clearly tell, none of the projects exactly stand out and they all repeat the same functionalist apartment building design that e.g. tries to avoid opening up to the street. Only SRV’s project in Vallila has a laudable street connection on one side of the block. In some of the other cases zoning ordinances apparently have called for street integration as the buildings are physically connected to the street without setbacks, but the builders have responded to those pleas with blank walls facing the street.

...

The building and construction industry stakeholders might not have noticed, but the world has changed since the 1960s when their philosophy for urban development was in vogue. Economic structural changes have since  taken us from the industrial economy towards a service-based one. The ways how people live, work, consume, use and value urban space have likewise shifted. Sharon Zukin for example has already a long time ago insightfully described through case studies how these societal changes from a work-oriented culture towards an experience and lifestyle-oriented culture of consumption affect urban life in cities.

...

In sum, for an increasingly bigger bunch of us this suggests that we are nowadays better off in human habitats with an urban character that enable us to set up and sustain private and professional networks to our liking more adequately. Not so much in the Finnish neighborhood unit model our building and construction industry is geared and prepared to recreate irrespective of the context.

And from Minneapolis:

You may or may not have a preference for late 19th century architecture, but I think almost anyone would admit that the old streetscapes look a lot more interesting (They pull you forward – what are all those different things?) Think about what the area might look like today if it had still been razed, but the existing parcels had been redeveloped at their original size instead of having been consolidated. Sure, maybe there would have been 50 tiny parking lots at some point. But 50 tiny parking lots is a lot better than a few giant ones – it only takes one owner to sell to a developer and the ball starts rolling again. If you’re lucky, the area finally rebounds to its prior level of population, intensity, variety, etc. But the larger scale of current development seems to prevent that. I can’t very well buy a slice and build an apartment or a restaurant on the lawn of the ING Life Insurance building (but at least I vomited on it once when I was biking home from work with food poisoning).

Two of the main benefits of the city are diversity and intensity. With all the diverse
things going on, it’s more likely you’ll find things to do that are suited to your particular tastes. And with the intensity of different things going on, you’ll be exposed to things you didn’t know about, just for fun. Larger scales almost by definition undermine diversity and intensity. The bigger the thing is, the fewer of them can fit in a given area. The bigger they are, the farther away from each other they’ll effectively be.

This is all not to say that buildings can't be styled or sized in a contemporary manner and still be attractive and good for the humans. But in order to get there, everyone involved in the building professions needs to care about and focus on such issues - not just obfuscate or pander. In essence, it's time we had a more grown-up approach to architecture that recognizes our youthful follies (most architecture in the 20th century) and is willing to work for the betterment of others instead of glorification of self. The latter is the brash, ego-driven approach of the young: I'm a genius, watch out world, screw you as I'm going to do what I like. The mature approach is to acknowledge the needs and wishes of others, and use your expertise to help better their lives. As our society matures from the youthful excesses of the industrial age, our architecture needs to also take stock and move into adulthood.

Viva Medellin

Why I do this, cont'd

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