Saturday, August 18, 2012

My reply to a post over at Front Porch Republic

(please note, I am much better at, and prefer classical style architecture. And whereas there are many architects who are better than me at the more modern styles, there are none that I know of who are better than me at the classical. A classical which is invariably post modern since no one is actually designing straight forward classical.

And during the short time I was in architecture school I too caught hell over my preference for the classical. A preference which was seen as stilted, when it was very much the opposite, I have always had the muse. My preference played a significant role in my conflict with my design teacher leading to his demanding I leave his class which in turn forced me to leave the school when the dean of students would not defend me, but instead suggested I transfer.)

I mention the above to so as to help eliminate any thought that my argument in defense of modern architecture is a defense of myself.

robert m peters writes: "Just down the road from me is a school, built in the 1960's, quite utilitarian, and I am sure, very practical with symmetry and balance, or tripartite separation, or rhythmic diminution. It is now abandoned and exudes no beauty."

On the other hand, the California missions were built using those same principles in an abstracted modern style, using utilitarian materials. But yet they are typically not abandoned, nor have I ever known of someone to describe them as not beautiful.

In fact, I wish more churches were designed in a similar style to the missions because the modernism of those missions is a nice transition from the modern architecture that surrounds us, because the stripped down California mission style with its absence of details is much more in keeping with our cultural memory while being fully at human scale.

Our cultural memory is grounded in the present. The cheap gothic using stone veneer traditionalist types desire is almost never well done because of cost and time constraints and as a result has all the loveliness of electric votive candles.

The neoclassical designs coming out of schools like Notre Dame are better, even if they are little better than kitsched up michael graves, because their real talent is not architecture, but in marketing themselves with pretty water colours.

Post modern architecture is a reasonable alternative to the more obviously modern styles because it too reflects our cultural memory. And to a certain degree it's difficult not to design post modern insofar as we naturally abstract the past while designing for a contemporary context.

The problem with designing post modern style is the designers who are doing it have no idea what they are doing and have virtually zero feel for the design. It's almost as if anyone with the muse is only designing modern, and only technicians without the muse are designing more classical styles.

Most modern style churches are horrid because they weren't designed for their intended use. You will not find the rhythmic diminution of horizontal motion from earth to Christ. A motion ending in Christ at the tabernacle and alter. They are boxes without direction. Or should I say, they were designed for their intended use by the heterodox who did not intend what the Church does.

But even those churches are capable of functioning as a churches because God made men very resilient to error, and they can over come them, if we just get it close enough. And if we try for the mark, like in playing horse shoes, our flawed efforts are typically good enough.

Not that we should be happy with just good enough, but on the other hand we should be well pleased that just being good enough is good enough.

The sacraments are designed for flawed men, which is why fearing the loss of heaven and the pains of hell are sufficient for confession to remove our sins. Or baptism works because we only have to intend to do what the Church does. The sacraments work if we just get it close enough. Similarly, with all other material signs, including our churches, they work if we just get them close enough.
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My, i.e. love the girls' reply
robert m peters writes : "Beyond the quaint cores is shanty modernity in its rot, including the boarded up fast-food joints and the brick-veneer suburbs, not unlike many, although not all, of the persons who frequented and inhabited them.

Far be it from me to defend the crabgrass frontier of fast-food restaurants and brick veneer suburbia, even if it is more defensible than mass transit advocating agrarians, or variations there of whose solutions are invariably worse than the blight they complain of.

Nevertheless, they too are not as detrimental as you portray them, those are not dead souls who inhabit them. My family lives in 1965 brick-veneer tri-level builder version prairie style, with drywall wrapped openings in walls that rarely actually join another wall in a coherent manner. The interior is exactly like a foamcore project one would find designed by some student in architecture school.

We did modify it a bit by tearing out all the carpets and painting the particle board floors. Covering them in turn with fun rugs we found at the local box store. And the walls are now various muted shades of green and brown with transitions of colours coming at the outside corners. And we covered the walls with books, because mass production efficiency makes owning lots of them possible, and so we have a very nice library. But nevertheless, the house is one of those brick veneer jobs.

We did own a 1,000 sq.ft. one story structural masonry house one block away from the home my father grew up in. The area was Jewish when my father lived there with his 6 six siblings in a 1,200sq.ft. house, with the same neighborhood being young upscale pagans when we lived there when we had only our two oldest children. It was one of those old neighborhoods where the trolleys passed through and ice wagons delivered ice.

We sold it and moved west to modernish suburbia 13 years ago doubling the size of our house and now have lots more land for fruit tree forests and similar for our children. Our old house is worth far more than the one we live in now in our working class neighborhood.

And so the the question is, which of the two houses is better for the formation of our children, our old one, or our current one? Our old neighborhood with small lots where our neighbors will go to hell for conspicuous consumption, but is similar to the culture I grew up in? Or our current neighborhood with far more land, and a much larger production builder tact home?

Which of the two houses is the better gesso prepared canvas to paint on? Given the choice, which is the better for the formation of our children. Granted, they are both flawed, but economics prevents me from doing better.

But the same can be said of others who live in brick veneer suburbia, economics likewise drives them to do the best they can within the limited resources they have. A situation which is typically why those neighborhoods sell, they are perceived as the best that can be done. And I suspect they typically are the best that can be done. Those tract house brick veneer neighborhoods are a reasonable compromise between the desire for an agrarian life within reasonable distance for marketing and other necessities. We want our neighbors, but not too close.

The typical suburban brick veneer houses are typically poorly accomplished attempts at harkenings to some variation of the classical. Building and zoning even requires front porches on them, not that anyone ever uses them except as a covered catchall for the bicycles, mail order UPS packages and what not.

As for the architecture of fast food restaurants, would they really be any better if the veneer was some classical style? I prefer the fittingness of fruit jello being served from a tupperware bowl.

Further, modern architecture doesn’t have much to do with your abandoned school because modern style buildings are typically just as likely to be at human scale as any other style. Most of the bad examples I know of have been designed by engineering firms with the inhabitants a secondary consideration, or with some other flawed understanding of their intended use.

There are plenty of old schools designed in a neoclassical style that are no less institutional than your abandoned modern one. The problem is not the architecture but the society that inhabits the building.
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robert m peters writes : "Buildings like people bare their souls as they decay and die. The soullessness of modernity is evident in both.”

I suspect this might be true of a society because a society is composed of those same souls, so that what is seen is the visible social nature of the members of the society. But a building decays for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the program that created it.
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The below are comments that were out of place, and so I moved them over here
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Robert M. Peters replies
August 19, 2012 1:15PM

Also, for the record, I am not an architect, which should be obvious. I do, however, have an eye for apprehending, although not always, perhaps rarely, comprehending beauty. Traveling a dirt road through the back country of my fair state in the late winter or early spring, I glimpse a clump of jonquils or daffodils spilling into a ditch as if they wished to lead the band of which they are the vanguard across the road, with the main body of the band huddled under an ancient oak or cedar, marking where once a house stood and a family communed. That is something I apprehend but admittedly do not comprehend.

I commend you for being steadfast, even unto being asked to leave the class and then to leave the school.

I am not familiar with the California missions of which you speak. None of the structures of which I spoke which exude a beauty are some attempt at neo-Gothic or even neo-attebellum nor are they Mafioso facades of which we have an unsightly plethora. They are, however, are, unlike most of your missions, abandoned and in varying degrees of decline and decay; yet, they exude a beauty that their post-WWII counterparts in the same state of decay do no exude and cannot. With the rest of your text pertaining to your first quote from my post, I agree.

To your response to your second quote of my post is indeed challenging, I freely admit that I, too, live in a brick veneer house built in 1971. We struggle against the elements of the fall to keep it nice and attractive; nevertheless, in its state of decay and rot, which will surely come, unless it is untimely bulldozed away for some grand project or is consumed by fire, which almost happened two years ago, it will not compare in dying beauty of the old homestead just down the road, beset by privet hedge and feral wisteria.

As to "institutional," I will stipulate that the instruction and school life in a particular school of the neo-classical style might have been "institutional," assuming by your use of the word in the context supra that you intended it to have a negative connotation; however, those buildings in decay, again, to belabor the point, exude a beauty and grace that their post-WWII counterparts simply do not.

That a building decays for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with the program that created it, not completely understanding why you used "program," I would stipulate to; however, why it decays does not tell us why a particular structure exudes beauty and grace in that decay and another, decaying perhaps for the same or similar reasons, does not.

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My reply August 20, 2012

Robert M. Peters writes : "None of the structures of which I spoke which exude a beauty are some attempt at neo-Gothic or even neo-attebellum nor are they Mafioso facades of which we have an unsightly plethora. They are, however, are, unlike most of your missions, abandoned and in varying degrees of decline and decay; yet, they exude a beauty that their post-WWII counterparts in the same state of decay do no exude and cannot."

I really don't have much experience of this. We have areas in the outlying metro area that have a blighted look, but that's mostly due to the way the immigrants treat their property, or enclaves in the industrial areas or next to where the highways were cut through. And those areas are primarily residential, or small shopping stores.

Or I suppose I consider it blighted, they're on he other hand probably happy as clams with how it looks with their low grade shop signs and weather beaten exteriors.

We have shops and shopping centers that decline, but they are invariably demolished and new construction of some type takes its place.

But of the old schools no long in use as schools? They are all desirable properties, either turned into multifamily developments (typically upscale), taken over for some other civic function, or valuable for the land they sit on for doing some form of mixed use or high density housing project.

But then again Denver is different than most cities, after urban renewal came in and evicted half the downtown so they could demolish it, the inner city over the years has not only recovered but is loaded with upscale mixed use multifamily residential projects in all the buildings in the area.
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The experience I do have has primarily to do with the methods and materials used in construction. Building that are built well using long lasting methods and materials are pleasing to the eye whether they be formerly abandoned multistory industrial concrete flour mill I used to look at over the years and is now high priced condos, or one of the original lower downtown brick warehouses that was built in a classical style that was once in disrepair and is now some form of commercial use on the first floor with residences above.

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