On Bad Architecture

A wise professor once told me to never trust architects. He was only half-joking. Architects do good work, of course; they’re visionaries who manage to translate vague ideas into the solid, real buildings that we use every day. I’ve met, and even studied under, some brilliant ones. (“Some of my best friends are architects!”) That said, the downsides of the profession are all too obvious. Studying architecture gives some people a certain sense of power and superiority, an inflated belief in the ability of buildings to change the world of people. They become religious crusaders for principles of design or exemplify some of the worst traits of those solipsistic modern artists for whom self-expression is the only thing on earth that matters. Seven attempts to defend awful architecture in a recent New York Times magazine piece show just how obnoxious they can be.

Alright, alright, they’re not all bad. The most compelling of the seven is the response to the Tour Montparnasse: yes, it is a bad design, but it was also the only hope for keeping central Paris from becoming anything but a living museum. Haussmann’s city, all uniformly dated and with little variety in the housing stock, does not have the density necessary to make it affordable. The middle classes and poor have been priced out of the city center, leaving it as a playground for the rich and a realm for tourists to wander, but otherwise dead. The reviewer of the Empire State Plaza also has some decent ideas for doing something with an otherwise awful space. Beyond that, sadly, no one really takes a human element into account beyond a facile ideological treatment. It also shows the importance of getting the design right, or else the hope of the affordable city will be dead upon arrival. Washington D.C., take note.

But then we come to things like the defense of the Centre Pompidou, which more or less boils down to saying that, for something to be “democratic,” it must be “shocking”, which is a code word for “ugly.” We’ve had a stable democracy for a few centuries now, so why on earth should a “democratic” building be shocking? Democracy implies public participation, not some conceited architect marching in and imposing a design on the unsuspecting populace. The result is incoherent: it’s democratic but imposed, shocking in the name of a form of government that aims to make politics boring by channeling it through institutions and equal rights. If this is the sort of architecture we must suffer if we want to be democratic, then long live the aristocracy. At least they have standards.

Wedging humans into soulless concrete silos or shocking them repeatedly, it turns out, does not make them very happy. Most people have little appreciation for the vagaries of modern design unless they have practical implications, but unlike modern art, which can be consigned to forgotten corners of museums when it is bad, bad architecture gets imposed on everyone. And yet architects continue to spew vomit about the importance of ‘liberation’ in their creations, as if this were the highest ideal. I don’t want a building I am in to liberate me; in fact, I’d rather it keep me safe from liberation. And when buildings are designed to “reject” neighborhoods, no one should be surprised when the neighborhoods reject them in turn. People and places all must weave their way into an urban fabric, and this requires subtlety and creativity, not tiresome double-speak employing a bevy of buzzwords to make an idea sound like it’s on some cutting edge.

This is where architects will claim to be misunderstood, and nod toward the ideals they aim to uphold. See the defense of the Vele di Scampia and the utopian socialist-modernist thinking behind it, in which Ada Tolla informs us that the architecture is actually brilliant, but it was everything that came afterward that turned it into the setting for the Neapolitan version of “The Wire.” This is all rather fitting, since it sounds like the argument made by many socialists after their project went all wrong: the idea was perfect, but all those stupid humans being human got in the way. Realities of human nature have never been a very important point for idealists of any stripe. If we’re sympathetic, we might be able to view Le Vele as a cute experiment and lament the poor implementation, but it was all in vain if no one bothered to learn anything from its categorical failure.

Tolla at least recognizes this, and is right to note that simple demolition isn’t necessarily the answer. My old professor learned this first hand, as he once played a role in a Minneapolis scheme to demolish crowded, drab public housing units. The architects came in touting the transformative power of New Urbanism and built a bunch of pretty houses that improved no one’s lives and left the city with far fewer housing units than they had to begin with. The designs have changed, but the rhetoric remains the same, as does the end result. Witness a map of how poverty has bloomed outward in Chicago since the destruction of its hellish projects, or how the misery of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe has been replaced by the sad drama of Ferguson. The buildings may have exacerbated problems, but they were never the root cause, and anyone who treats them as such is in for a rude surprise.

Throwing aside the ideology, there is one other claim that appears several times in the Times piece: hey, at least it’s big and impressive! (One wonders if architects need a certain blue pill in their lives.) This isn’t to say monumentality and austerity can’t be impressive in a modern building. Consider the austerity of the Vietnam Memorial, or perhaps the empty room overlooking Boston Harbor at the end of the John F. Kennedy presidential library; the massive new Freedom Tower, a symbol of defiance, also comes to mind. What all those spaces share, however, is a sense of history; the monumentality and austerity conveys something specific to that particular space, and it is usually a sense of loss. Something haunts these spaces, and fills the emptiness with meaning. Without that meaning, monumental architecture is bleak and sterile. The defense of the Berlin Airport makes some sense in this context, whereas the Empire State Plaza recognizes no great part of history other than Nelson Rockefeller’s ego.

This isn’t a rejection of grand or monumental things. Grandness inspires and serves as a rallying point for cities and nations. But it should be worthy of the name: if everything aspires to grandeur, does anything at all manage to be grand? Aspiring to grandeur creates a natural hierarchy of places, and the ones that claim the top spot must truly be special. Make no mistake, we need these places to orient ourselves, and they can and should inspire. Of late, some revisionist historians have started to look back on Robert Moses with some sympathy: sure, he steamrolled over a ton of people as he ran the show in mid-century New York City, but at least big things actually got done. Certain problems require big thinking, particularly in third-world countries where population growth is so explosive that a lot of people need housing very quickly.

Grandeur and monumentalism don’t imply a lack of interest in detail and intricacy. Consider the precision of the beauty of European cathedrals or Islamic mosques, full of niches or corners where every little detail is ornamented in some way. Contemporary architects such as César Pelli usually mind the details and make sure their buildings’ nods to the past aren’t stupid artistic abstractions. Their work shows genuine care and attention, and they go beyond simply slapping up blank walls that try to speak for themselves. Walls need to have seen things to be able to speak, and no architect can manufacture history or community.

Those must emerge themselves, often slowly, and over time. Frustrating, perhaps, to those whose egos compel them to go forth and shock the world. And we urban planners probably shouldn’t throw stones, considering our own checkered past. No one has all the answers. This calls for debate, not ideology, and a careful understanding: who are we building this for, and why are we building it anyway? Anyone who aspires to build things for other people ought to have an answer.


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