Sunday, April 17, 2011

Where's the personality?

A stroll down a historical street yields a host of emotions, so full of character are the buildings. Some are cheerful, others somber, many elegant, a few charming. These oldtimers can be light or heavy, but above all there is an imbued honesty never found in contemporary buildings. There's no tricks to make them stand, no hidden steel beam covered by wood, no steel frame behind a drywall cover. No, with old buildings what you see is what you get. A stone wall is a stone wall, brick is brick. 

St Alban's Quad
Whimsical and charming yet still elegant, traditional architecture is imbued with a wealth of emotions
Today, buildings and cities lack character, the personality utterly nonexistent, mystique impossible. In their quest to strip buildings of decoration, Modernists stripped them of everything else as well, leaving buildings as nothing more than geometrical shapes in the sky. The wild and unrestrained buildings of some contemporary architects, while in some ways a step in the right direction, almost never make any concessions to local considerations. Whether in England or the Middle East, their buildings look the same. Some of this architecture in particular seems bound by the limitations of computer modelling, the geometric edges and curves softened by a software's meshsmooth modifier, the way they are because of what is easy to do with software. But I don't mean to single any particular architect out, for many of today's architects are guilty of gross negligence. Their ignorance of site and context is baffling, and immensely frustrating. Over and over, their buildings play right into the hands of poor planning, sited on a big plot of land or surrounded by a huge parking lot.

Famous architects are much more influential than any urban planner and they have a duty to join the urban debate. There is no glory in designing a popular museum if it doesn't on some level improve the quality of its surrounding context. Otherwise the architecture is as shallow as much of today's pop music, good for a few listens and forgotten once the next hit comes along. 

To get back to character. I simply don't see any hiding among the crazy shapes. These buildings have no face, no common grounding with which the city dweller can relate. Without these all important features one cannot say they have a soul. They will not sag with age, not develop a patina, or age gracefully into ruins. No, at most they will crack and crumble to reveal steel reinforcing rods, that hidden ingredient without which they could not stand. Like a robot, they may be fascinating, at times awe-inspiring, but one cannot have a conversation with contemporary architecture. No dialog or long term relationship can spring from an object with no soul. Standing one after another, these characterless buildings have clustered into a collection of objects which can hardly be considered a city, devoid of community, engagement, and life. 

2 comments:

  1. Although I agree with you for the most part, I must point out Calatrava's Museum of Art in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although many locals hate it, and it certainly is reminiscent of his work abroad, it definitely works with the landscape. The beautiful "bird" hovers along the water's edge about to take flight. The wings are functioning sun screens with a beautiful elegance. The inside allows a wonderful vista of the lake, while windows and structures create interesting plays of light and shadow. This building does everything architecture is supposed to do. If anything is wrong contextually about the surroundings, blame the brutalist architecture of the nearby bank buildings or the plain-jane original art museum.

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  2. I agree Calatrava has designed some amazing buildings. The interior in particular of the Museum of Art is stunning, one of my favorite modern interiors. I haven't visited the building in person, so I can't judge its context, but I think you are probably right about it being superior to the surrounding structures. In my post I was referring not so much to modern architecture as Modernist architecture, the period spanning from the 1930's to roughly the 60's/70's and represented by architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. Though again, not universally bad, but certainly overrated. And one only needs to read their writings to grasp their disregard and sometimes disdain for the past and context. Thanks for the comment.

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