Monday, May 20, 2013


Today’s city planners are terrified by the prospect of a blank wall.  They, along with their micromanaging brethren on civic design review boards, would much rather see a pastiche of meaningless fakery than an honest piece of wall with nothing on it. 

The horror vacui of planners and design review boards is a well-meaning but ill-informed reaction to modern architecture of the postwar era, which has long been pilloried--often quite rightly--for its mechanistic repetition, superhuman scale, and dearth of ornament.  

True, bad modernism could be bland, overbearing, and humorless. Yet the contemporary response to these shortcomings is just as troubling: It suggests that any amount of phony two-dimensional detailing is preferable to leaving some parts of a building blessedly plain.

Ergo, with planners and design review types all clamoring for the atmosphere of a halcyon past that never was, developers and their architects dutifully whip up increasingly hammy facades to oblige them. So it is that the strange bedfellows of city planners and big developers are behind the Disneyfication of suburbs and downtowns everywhere. 

The trend reaches a pinnacle of frivolity in commercial architecture, which is especially susceptible to both commercializing silliness and bureaucratic meddling. To disguise the large, monolithic structures developers find so vital to profitablility, today’s typical shopping street borrows a technique familiar to any mallgoer and turns it inside out. Individual storefronts are appliqued to a single megastructure and dolled up with cartoonish “traditional” detailing in styrofoam and stucco. The facades march along one beside the other like rows of wallpaper samples. In the very worst offenders, color is in fact all that sets apart one purported storefront from the next:--the surfaces are simply carved up with stucco joints, Mondriaan style, and painted in the colors of the moment.

One need only experience the commercial work of architects such as Florida’s Addison Mizner or Arizona’s Josias Joesler to see that it needn’t be so. Both men created lyrically comfortable shopping plazas--Mizner in the mid-1920s and Joesler in the late 30s--without resorting to the brazen facadeism typical of today’s work. They did so by creating a host of variations within a single overarching style, and by juxtaposing occasional exquisite detail against generous areas of plain surface. Neither feared the blank wall, because both understood that such contrasts only amplified the power of their work. 

In comparison, the sort of frenetic ragbag facades now favored by planners and design review boards seem more a means of flouting modernism than any sort of quest for timelessness. As New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp put it a few years ago, 

“Horror vacui--fear of emptiness--is the driving force in contemporary American taste. Along with commercial interests that exploit this interest, it is the major factor now shaping attitudes toward public spaces, urban spaces, and even suburban sprawl.”

In recoiling from the long shadow of modernist failures, too many planners and design review officials are simply rushing blindly in the opposite direction. They’ve lost sight of the fact that something--anything!--isn’t always better than nothing.   

Monday, May 6, 2013


If there’s one complaint I hear again and again from contractors, tradespeople, and anyone else involved in the practical end of building, it’s this: “Why don’t architects have to serve an apprenticeship in construction?”
My usual two-word answer is, “Excellent question.” It seems self-evident that a person entrusted with designing an entire building should have at least a passing knowledge of how that building will be put together.

Alas, this is far from the case. Unless they’re motivated enough to train themselves, architects come away from their professional educations with practically no understanding of field construction. Typically, after four to five years of academic training, they have to serve several years apprenticeship under a licensed architect, and must pass an exhaustive series of examinations before being licensed--a process which, necessary as it is, nevertheless contributes little to an architect’s practical knowledge of building. 

The American system of architectural education (and, in fairness, that of many other nations as well) not only accepts but reinforces the virtually absolute separation that currently exists between design and building. Over the past century, only a relative handful of architects--best known among them Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri, and Christopher Alexander--have advanced the idea that hands-on experience is integral to the competent practice of architecture. Students of Wright’s schools at Taliesin and Taliesin West, for example, were expected to dig ditches, mix concrete, and perform myriad other unglamorous chores usually left to the lowest echelon of tradespeople.  

Why would a prospective architect benefit from doing such physical construction? For one, it’s probably the only way to gain a truly tactile appreciation for building materials--both for their innate beauty, and for their innate limitations. On a computer screen, creating a complicated design in poured concrete is neat and easy. Building such a thing in the field is usually another matter. When would-be architects find themselves obliged to produce work--perhaps of their own design--that’s needlessly complex or even impossible to carry out, they quickly learn to appreciate choosing the right materials for the job and the simplest means of putting them together.

Field work also helps focus the occasional meanderings of the creative mind on the real objective of the design process, that of realizing a project in four dimensions. Coordinating different phases of the work, not to speak of simply getting materials and equipment to the site, are routine construction challenges that can cost time and money, yet which architects without field experience seldom take into account.

Lastly, enduring the physical and mental demands of construction also brings an appreciation for plain hard work, and an understanding of just how much human effort is involved in raising a building. Whether for the laborers down in the ditches, or the contractor trying to juggle a dozen different scheduling requirements, practically nothing in construction comes easily.

Learning all these things firsthand might earn architects something we don’t always have in our profession--the genuine respect of those entrusted with building our creations. Now, once again, why don’t architects have to serve an apprenticeship in construction?
Excellent question.