Monday, October 19, 2015


"It does not matter how badly you paint,” said the English writer George Moore, “so long as you don't paint badly like other people."

The same might be said for architects, whose professional success is just as dependent on novelty the commercial success of artists is.  To achieve even a small measure of recognition, architects, like artists, have to stand out from their colleagues. Some do so naturally, others with strained intent. One thing for sure, though: it’s a rare architect who hopes to remain anonymous.
Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall,
at the Illinois Institute of Technology:
A really cool building—except in summer.

As another sage observer—New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable—once put it, “Architecture is not immune to the lure of celebrity and shock value in a society that cultivates the new and novel at any cost.” 

A quality of novelty, or even visual offense, is often inseparable from any progressive work of architecture. It took Americans decades to appreciate the hovering, solids-and-voids compositions of Frank Lloyd Wright. It may take us just as long to understand the colliding sculptural forms of Frank Gehry. Still, we can be reasonably assured that, however unfamiliar such works may seem at first, there’s some very deliberate thinking behind them.  

Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe housing project,
St. Louis:  It seemed like a good idea
at the time.
On the other hand, there’s no shortage of buildings that were at the leading edge of their time, yet whose novelty nevertheless fell mildly or even disastrously short of their users’ needs. High-profile examples spring easily to mind: Mies van der Rohe’s glass-box buildings for the Illinois Institute of Technology, whose occupants routinely plastered the windows with aluminum foil to avoid being roasted by the summer sun; Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, where patrons were obliged to view art while countering the gravitational pull of the building’s celebrated spiral ramp underfoot; and Minoru Yamasaki’s infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project, a carefully calculated social engineering experiment that failed on virtually every level before the buildings were imploded in 1972.  

And these, mind you, are works by the best and brightest of their day. In the absence of such genius, less skilled architects secure novelty by simply borrowing from current fashion. In the modernist era, this entailed stripping already formulaic buildings down to barren, antiseptic blocks. Today’s architectural hacks employ the opposite strategy, taking otherwise mundane work and hanging a lot of gimcracks on it. This, after all, is also an easy way to make something mundane look novel—as Victorian architects, 1950s auto stylists, and even Liberace might attest. 

This explains why more and more new buildings sprout arrays of nonfunctional sunshades, brackets, outriggers, and other superficial bric-a-brac, their architects in hot pursuit of some hey-look-at-me status. In contrast to the textural poverty of modernism, disconcerted clutter is now the crutch for uninspired design. 

Recycled brick and wood
in a Carr Jones-designed residence in
Piedmont, California:
Green architecture from 1932.
How ironic, then, that some of the most truly novel architectural works of the past hundred years have been carried out by architects who remained barely known in their own eras. The Arizona Spanish Revival master Josias Joesler, the industrial architect Albert Kahn, California’s green design pioneer Carr Jones—all were virtually overlooked by their more celebrated contemporaries. 

And all of them, alas, reaped the perverse reward of such a career: their truly novel ways of thinking did come to be fully appreciated, but only long after they’d left us. 

Monday, October 5, 2015


If you set out to create the worst window you could, you might go about it like this:
First, you’d design it to oppose the pull of gravity, and therefore require a Rube Goldberg contraption of weights and ropes, cables, or springs just to keep it from falling shut. You’d also make sure you could never open more than half of it at a time. Of course you’d arrange the sash so that your view would be blocked by a big dividing bar. And naturally, you’d also make it hard to maintain and a headache to paint. Lastly, you’d  conceal the operating mechanism to make it fiendishly difficult to repair. 

Is this the world's worst window?
If you managed to fulfill every one of these none-too-admirable goals, the result of your design would probably be a double hung window.

So much for my hypothetical bad-design contest. In reality, the origin of the double hung window is British. Its invention is often attributed to Robert Hooke (1635-1703), surveyor to the City of London and chief assistant to the renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren. Hooke assisted Wren during the rebuilding of London following the Great Fire of 1666. 

Since this catastrophe left most of the city in ashes, it was probably a perfect opportunity to pioneer a new type of window. And indeed, the oldest surviving double hungs date back to English manor houses of the 1670s, such as London’s Ham House. As old as these windows are, their appearance hardly differs from modern examples--they feature the same six-over-six muntin arrangement that’s still popular today.

Double-hung windows were ubiquitous in
Georgian and Federal architecture.
Naturally, when the English came to the New World, double hung windows came with them. Although very early American Colonial houses used simple-to-build casement windows, the homes of well-to-do colonists began boasting double hungs as soon as they became available. They remained an architectural staple throughout the Georgian and  Federal periods (the White House, you may recall, has double hung windows). 

The emphatically vertical architecture of the later Gothic Revival and Victorian eras--which demanded windows with tall, skinny proportions--meant their popularity only increased.
It was the multitudes of these strangely pinched-looking double hung windows that the young Frank Lloyd Wright noted with dismay on his walks through Chicago, and which he later dubbed “guillotine windows” in his prose. 

Victorian-era houses, too, are known for their
double-hung windows—this example
even features curved ones in the corner tower.
(Charles Copeland Morse house,
Santa Clara, California, 1892)
The Romantic Revival home styles of the early 20th century briefly challenged the primacy of the double hung, since their architects preferred the more Medieval-looking casement window. But by the time large-scale home building resumed after World War II, double hung windows made a huge comeback in mass produced, Colonial-Revival-esque tracts such as Levittown. Only the widespread introduction of horizontal sliding aluminum windows during the 1950s finally made a substantial (and lasting) dent in their popularity.

In fairness, there’s no doubt that today’s double hung windows, while still looking pretty much like their ancestors of the 1670s, have been greatly improved. For one, they use spring counterweights instead of that quasi-comical arrangement of ropes, pulleys and counterweights. They’re also far more energy efficient and easier to maintain than their predecessors. 

Still and all, they don’t make a whole lot of sense as windows. Robert Hooke was a brilliant man, but the double-hung window is one thing he got wrong.