Witold

DEMO OR NOT DEMO

Portland Building (Michael Graves, arch.) 1982

Portland Building (Michael Graves, arch.) 1982

From the ball and chain desk.
The recent demolition of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital, and the announced demolition of Williams & Tsien’s Folk Art Museum, raises the vision—or specter, depending on your point of view—of future demolitions of not-so-old buildings. What happened to the preservation of the past? I have always believed that the undoubted popularity of the historic preservation movement depends less on some abstract notion of heritage conservation and more on the actual architecture being preserved: in the past, that has meant the well-built, well-designed, and much cherished buildings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Now that mid-century modern buildings are coming under the wrecker’s ball, the question becomes more complex. Many of these buildings are not well-built, are cavalierly planned, and are definitely not cherished by the public—some are actively disliked. They are also designed differently. Traditionally, buildings were meant to be durable, not merely physically but aesthetically. That implied a degree of conservatism when it came to design, eschewing the latest fashion, and leaning on past precedents. When architects cut the cord to the past, and focus only on the here-and-now, architecture becomes more exciting and more fashionable, but it also becomes shorter-lived. Rough concrete, googly shapes, oval windows, and built jokes age as badly as hula hoops and pet rocks. No wonder that preservationists have a hard time garnering public support for Brutalist architecture. And postmodernism is next. The Portland City Council is considering whether to demolish the Portland Building, a postmodern landmark by Michael Graves that requires the infusion of $95 million in repairs and improvements. (No one is suggesting destroying Ray Kaskey’s wonderful statue, though.) And one can imagine what will happen in a few years when deconstructivist buildings, many of which are exceedingly poorly built as well as distinctly oddly designed, are put on the block.  Spend money fixing them up, or write them off as a bad architectural moment?  Expect opposition, outrage—and more demolitions.

BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE

Sharecroppers on porch, Missouri, 1938 (Russell Lee)

Sharecroppers on porch, Missouri, 1938 (Russell Lee)

The Atlantic’s website “Cities” argues that some urbanist buzzwords should be retired, including placemaking, gentrification, and smart growth. A good proposal, even if the Atlantic is itself responsible for the proliferation of many the self-same buzzwords—the website is subtitled “Place Matters.” Buzzwords are everywhere. Trouble in the Iraq war—what we need is a surge. No sooner did Obamacare falter than we learned that there were navigators, who would fix the problem. The right buzzword comes first; reality will follow. Buzzwords seem to emerge from two considerations: marketing and media. If you have an untested idea or hypothesis, such as smart growth or creative class, providing a label, preferably a catchy label, gives the idea an air of legitimacy. After all, if it has a name, it must be real. In our Twitter culture, a colorful name also saves time in lengthy explanations. This appeals to the media, since a new name can stand in for actual news. Would Occupy Wall Street, or the Tea Party, have gotten as much coverage without a colorful name? Which brings me back to the Atlantic list. Placemaking is a term often used by architects and urban designers, and it implies that a sense of place (obviously a good thing) can replace a sense of placelessness (a bad thing), if only the design suggestions of the self-styled placemakers are followed. But is a sense of place really a function of design? It may be for the tourist or the stranger, who experiences places briefly. Nothing is as disappointing to the tourist as visiting a place that looks like other places, and most of the American built environment is superficially similar. But as the late J. B. Jackson long ago pointed out, that environment is full of meaning, for those who use it. A strip mall may not look like much as you drive by, but for someone who attends the Judo school, or goes regularly to the beauty salon, it is a real place. Conversely, most attempts to instill a sense of place through physical design end up looking like themed restaurants with ersatz “mementos” on the walls. (The most blatant of these is the “Cheers” airport pub chain.)  I shop in a banal Pathmark, but I recognize some of the staff, I know where things are, it is familiar. The supermarket has a small place in my life, among the stirring places (the concourse of 30th Street station), the lyrical places (the Wissahickon), and the cherished places (our house). In other words, a “sense of place” is less a physical attribute than an individual experience. The old folk adage puts it well: Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.

DESIGN DREAMS

Tin-can radio designed by Victor Papanek

Tin-can radio designed by Victor Papanek

“I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be ‘architected,’ ” Kanye West recently told Harvard students in a widely-repeated quote. Architects especially loved it, but Lucas Verweij, a Berlin-based writer, argues in Dezeen that claims such as West’s are excessive. Verweij writes that the expectations placed on design—“design can solve the smog problem in Beijing, the landmine problems in Afghanistan and huge social problems in poor parts of Western cities”—are overblown and cannot be met. “We are in a design bubble,” he writes, “it’s a matter of time before it will burst.” I’m not sure about the bubble—it seems more like a passing fashion to me—but the current idea that every problem is fodder for the design profession is certainly misguided. Can a designer really be master of all trades? The proposition that design can be effective at all scales dates back to Walter Gropius, who claimed that the designer could assume broad responsibilities, from a teacup to a city was how he put it. (Grope’s teacups are OK, his urbanism, not so much.) But design is primarily about the how; the what is determined by a host of circumstantial conditions—social, economic, and cultural—over which the designer exercises no authority. More than 40 years ago, Victor Papanek, a Viennese-born industrial designer, wrote Design for the Real World, in which he made the case for design-as-problem-solving as opposed to design-as-styling. It was compelling stuff—I remember a Third World transistor radio housed in a can, run by candle-power. But were such radios ever produced? The forces of globalism ensured that it was the cell phone, not the the tin-can radio, that  revolutionised the world, including the Third World. And the revolutionary aspects of the cell phone are the work of engineers, not industrial designers. The much-vaunted “design” of Apple products, for example, is chiefly (obsessively) minimalist packaging. Pace Papanek.

MARKETING AND INVENTION

Placing te cornerstone of the Ecol house, Montreal, June, 1972. From left to right, Salama Saad, Witold Rybczynski, Arthur Acheson, Samir Ayad, and Wajid Ali.

Placing the cornerstone of the Ecol house, Ste. Anne-de-Bellevue, June, 1972. From left to right, Salama Saad, Witold Rybczynski, Arthur Acheson, Samir Ayad, and Wajid Ali.

I watched a PBS Newshour segment last night on Singularity University. Well-named, this really is a singular organization of the sort that only California can spawn—where is Evelyn Waugh when we need him? Singularity is an unaccredited university, that is, it doesn’t give degrees and it has no student body, although it does have faculty, some of whom appeared on the program, interviewed by Paul Solman. It’s obviously liberating to be a professor without the irksome burden of students, for they were all remarkably happy, relaxed, upbeat types. In fact, they reminded me more of cheerful marketers than academics, and what they were selling was an optimistic vision of the  future. It was unclear if the visionary technologies described by these self-styled creative thinkers actually existed. But  “pushing the frontiers of human progress through innovation and emerging technologies” was apparently good enough for the Newshour. In an earlier life, I used to be a university researcher, looking for ways to make building materials out of recycled industrial waste. We rarely elicited the interest of the media—it was the 1970s, when news still meant hard news—in any case, we were more interested in doing the work than talking about it. Obviously, we had things backward. We didn’t realize that the trick is to promote now, and  invent later.

FUNNY NAMES

Blue House, London (FAT)

Blue House, London (FAT)

London architecture office FAT has announced that it will shut down its studio next summer, after “exploring the potential of the projects as much as possible,” reported Dezeen. (Architectural firms like FAT don’t have offices, they have studios.) One less funny-name, I thought to myself. The big boys and girls—Foster, Gehry, Safdie, Stern, Hadid—simply use the name of the principal, as architects have always done. Piano adds “Building Workshop,” which is a harmless enough affectation. Presumably, their buildings speak for themselves. Indulging oneself in a catchy, or at least memorable, moniker, is partly an attempt to stand out from the crowd, and partly a branding tactic: We are not simply a business, we are hip, artistic, creative. Hence names such as Morphosis, Asymptote, and Snøhetta, or the more outrageous BIG, MAD, and FAT. Interestingly, I can’t think of a classicist firm that has adopted either faceless initials, or a funny name. Greenberg, Porphyrios, Simpson, and Appleton, follow the old convention. But perhaps that is a part of their brand: We aren’t chic or fashionable, we just deliver buildings, the old-fashioned way.