Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Check the movie pages lately, and you’re liable to think time is standing still. According to film critic Roger Ebert, 2011 will bring us a record twenty-seven film sequels. Among the franchises represented--or rather, re-represented--are Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Muppets, and Mission: Impossible, themselves derivatives of creaky old television fare. This insistent recycling of worn-out pop culture points up an interesting paradox: While studio execs will nonchalantly blow fifty million dollars on yet another pumped-up remake, they seem utterly mortified by a fresh idea that might entail a particle of risk. Instead, they cling to the safety of familiar old TV pablum, slowly dragging cinema down to the level of the boob tube.

Speaking of creative bankruptcy, there’s also a nasty bit of architectural recycling I’d like to see left back in the twentieth century: It’s the reflexive and uninformed use of classical design elements, in which a grab-bag of historical details are applied without concern for scale, proportion, or even common sense. Since the popularity of traditional architecture began to rebound in the 1980s, such haphazard detailing has become ever more widespread. Worse than simply being inauthentic, such design seems to signal that residential architecture, like cinema, is creatively bankrupt.

Traditionalism is a comforting throwback to the past, and its popularity rises whenever people find the times either too fast moving or too unstable. It happened after the Industrial Revolution and during the Roaring Twenties. Today, it’s the upheavals of the Information Age and the effects of a lingering recession that have people pining for the old and familiar.  
While traditional architecture can have unquestionable majesty, achieving it is not just a matter of plastering on a bunch of ready-made gimcracks. In too much of today’s architecture, elements such as columns, arches, and quoins are applied without any real understanding of their historical purpose; instead, they’re simply stuck on at random, like bits and pieces poked into Mr. Potatohead.  

Since traditional architectural elements are rooted in historic usages with very clear rules, they can’t just be combined willy-nilly. For instance, an arch crowned by a keystone--an assemblage born of masonry construction--will always look phony when carried out in your typical paper-thin wood framed wall. Likewise, a Corinthian column, no matter how authentic its detailing, has no reason to exist unless it’s visually holding something up. Compounding the problem, even well-designed projects seldom have the budget to do real justice to traditional elements, usually resulting in buildings tarted up with clumsy details made of Styrofoam. 

But architects and builders aren’t solely to blame for this dead-end recycling of traditionalism. A good chunk of the blame lies with civic design review boards, who’ve become infatuated with the idea that all architecture should reflect its “context”--the look of the existing surroundings. In too many cases, this simply amounts to a directive requiring architects to design in a traditional style, whether that aesthetic is valid or not.  It’s a concept that’s both retrograde and simple-minded--at its best merely maintaining the status quo, and at its worst yielding a series of increasingly bland, skim-milk derivatives of buildings that are already copies of yet other buildings.  It’s no way to move forward, for cities or for architects.   

Anyway, while all this stuff shakes out in the new millenium, I’ll be waiting for the latest sequel of Francis the Talking Mule.

Monday, May 9, 2011


We live in a dazzling new era. In almost every field, vibrant innovation brings great promise for the future. How sad, then, that the housing industry is racing headlong into the 19th century.  

Granted, we’ve seen quantum leaps in residential energy efficiency--most of them compelled, mind you, by government legislation. Beyond this, developers seem content to let meaningless gimmicks and foam plastic frou-frou represent their best ideas for the 21st century. Personally, propellerhead gizmos that fill your Jacuzzi while you’re out stuck in traffic are not my idea of a lifestyle improvement.

While all else moves bravely forward, today’s new homes are instead regressing to the overblown proportions of Victorian times. Now, as a student of architectural history, I love Victorians as much as any paint remover salesman. But that doesn’t make them a paradigm for the future.  

Victorian homes were in large part a response to the industrial innovations of the 19th century. By the 1850s, a new construction technique known as balloon framing (which gave us the familiar 2x4 stud wall) was finally doing away with the laborious joinery of post-and-beam construction. Around the same time, the wire nail machine replaced costly hand-wrought nails with dirt-cheap mass-produced ones. These breakthroughs went hand in hand, suddenly making it both cheaper and faster to build homes of unprecedented size.  

The availability of mass-produced, machine-made ornament quite literally put the icing on this Victorian cake, eliciting a mania for decoration that has only recently been approached again.   

By the close of this era of increasingly bloated homes, it was already obvious that you could have too much of a good thing.  

The vast, high-ceilinged rooms of Victorian houses squandered space and trapped heat, while their labyrinthine floor plans made for a lot of wasted steps. And of course those wedding-cake moldings were quickly revealed to be a maintenance nightmare. If this doesn’t sound familiar to owners of today’s new homes, it will soon enough. 

These kinds of failings are a big reason Victorian design was held in such contempt after the turn of the century. A few decades of living in needlessly oversized and overcomplicated homes had given people some real insights into practical living.  The result was a popular movement aimed at designing smaller, simpler and more efficient homes--a concerted backlash against the Victorian era.  

Builders at the threshold of the 20th century had the good sense to recognize and respond to these demands.  It’s notable that even during the boom years of the 20s, they didn’t feel obliged to offer enormous homes for the prospering middle class.  On the contrary; houses became the smallest they’d been in a century.     

Nowadays, the thought of looking to developers for smaller and more practical houses would strike most people as laughable. Meanwhile, as more and more pompous (and profitable) extravaganzas go up, fewer and fewer working people can afford to own a home at all.   

A hundred years ago, builders were meeting the demands of a new era filled with changes and challenges. Today’s developers are once again in a turn-of-the-century mood.  Too bad it’s the wrong century.  

(This post was reprinted from an entry in my blog Architext, which you can view at <arrolgellner.blogspot.com>.)