Glass House Conversation: Traditional versus Modern

A YEAR OR SO AGO, I was invited to take part in a discussion on Traditional and Modern architecture at that was framed like this:

Traditional versus modern architecture; Proponents of traditional architecture cite a preference for historical styles. Modernist proponents, myself included, prefer architecture that responds to its larger contemporary context.

Where do you stand on the traditional versus modern debate, and why? Is there a contemporary compromise?

My response, below, was to talk about the architecture of time versus the architecture of place:


My interest here is not about style. I like all sorts of towns, cities and buildings, but what I design are Classical buildings and traditional towns and cities.

“Classical” does not mean “traditional” (or “neo-traditional”), and Classicism is a way of designing rather than a style. Most of the market doesn’t want ideological purity, and when it does, the bias is likely to be towards traditional.

More to the point, I grew up in the suburbs but I live in Manhattan, and what I’m most interested in is the design of walkable places. To talk about that in the context of this discussion, I think it’s better to talk about an architecture of place versus an architecture of time than about style.

The architecture of time is the architecture of the Zeitgeist, the theory that has sustained Modernism for well over 100 years. Frank Lloyd Wright was born just after the Civil War and designed important houses in the 19th century, and Modernism was the dominant cultural expression in America as soon as World War II ended. I think that time has ended.

The architecture of time has produced many great buildings, but it comes with two large caveats. One, its rate of return is terrible: for every Ronchamps or Bilbao there have been hundreds, if not thousands, of very bad buildings. Great Modern design is hard to teach, and the emphasis on experimentation and “unprecedented reality” produces many experimental failures (“Architecture is invention. All the rest is repetition and of no interest,” Oscar Niemeyer said). Moreover, the architecture of time also includes all the Modernist shopping centers, strip malls, spec office buildings and the like.

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Street Design in Salon

How cars conquered the American city (and how we can win it back)

Two quotes from the article by Henry Grabar:

John Massengale and I are standing in the middle of 1st Avenue at East 4th Street, in New York’s East Village, and he does not like the feng shui. He points to the thick, white lines in the roadway, directing drivers toward a left turn. “Automobile-scale striping,” he notes. “It’s telling you: ‘This is not a place for you.’”

Part instruction manual, part history, part manifesto, the book argues that it is the street, more than anything, that shapes the city. In traveling to cities around the world and interviewing residents, pedestrians and businesspeople, Dover and Massengale found a remarkable degree of agreement about which streets are nice and which are not. “If there is so much consensus on what makes a good street,” they ask, “then why are we still building so many bad and ugly ones?”

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Notes on New York Old & New


WE FREQUENTLY READ that New York is incomparably better today than 40 years ago. Yes and no. Crime is down, but buildings are up—to the degree that too much of a good thing is bad.

Fifty-seventh Street will soon have not only the tallest residential building in the world, but six others almost as tall are under construction or approved along the broad byway. They will make the street less pleasant to walk on, they look silly on the skyline, and they will make Central Park colder in the winter. The largest playground in the park will be up to 20 degrees colder at times because of the new buildings.

New Yorkers are finally catching on that these apartments mainly sell to foreign plutocrats for use as pied-a-terres and investment vehicles. Despite the wealth of the owners and the price of the apartments, they won’t produce much long-term economic benefit for the city, even though these towering symbols of conspicuous consumption will permanently diminish the view from the park and the experience of using the park.

Approximately 25 years ago, Jacqueline Onassis and the Municipal Art Society successfully led a campaign to cut down much shorter towers. Post-Bloomberg, the Real Estate Board of New York has more power than ever, and the MAS is frequently the cheerleader for projects they would have opposed when Kent Barwick was in charge. And we haven’t even talked about culture yet.

The owners of 31 West 57th Street have told Rizzoli that they plan to tear down the 1920s limestone building. There are already more places on 57th Street to buy $40 million condos than books. Soon there will be more towers and no bookstore.

Steinway Hall, the 88-year-old building down the block and across the street from Carnegie Hall where generations of famous and not-so-famous pianists have tried out pianos, was sold last year. So now there are more $40 million condos for sale than pianos too. The underground tunnel that connected Carnegie Hall to the piano showroom, allowing visiting pianists to walk over and select a Steinway for their concert has undoubtedly been locked. Carnegie Hall long ago kicked the artists out of the studios above the hall that had been there for decades so they could build their own tower.

Culture suffers. Non-resident plutocrats in towering fortresses are not a good trade for music and books. These visiting billionaires don’t create art, and it’s not even clear that they consume it. Conspicuous consumption versus the consumption and creation of art is one of the ways that New York is worse off today.

Maybe it’s darkest before the dawn. I read this quote today:

The new emerging paradigm is premised on a fundamentally different ethos, in which we see ourselves not as disconnected, competing units fixated on maximising consumerist conquest over one another; but as interdependent members of a single human family. Our economies, rather than being assumed to exist in a vacuum of unlimited material expansion, are seen as embedded in wider society, such that economic activity for its own sake is recognised as the pathology that it is. Instead, economic enterprise becomes aligned with the deeper values that make us human – values like meeting our basic needs, education and discovery, arts and culture, sharing and giving: the values which psychologists say contribute to well-being and happiness, far more than mere money and things. And in turn, our societies are seen not as autonomous entities to which the whole of the planet must be ruthlessly subjugated, but rather as inherently embedded in the natural environment.

Nafeez Ahmed, The global Transition tipping point has arrived- vive la révolution, The Guardian

Sounds like a good place for artists.


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You Thought Architects Designed Perfect Chairs? (Good, Better, Best)

THIS EXCERPT from an old post at Veritas & Venustas comments on some of the same issues that Witold Rybczinski just wrote about in a post and a Tweet:

Good, Better, Best

(originally published February 2004)

.. The concept is a way of grading things qualitatively, as Good, Better or Best. I first heard of Good, Better, Best when I owned a store called America’s Best Traditional Designers and Craftsmen. From my architecture practice, I knew a number of craftsmen who made wonderful traditional furniture, windows and paneling, and other types of cabinetry and woodwork. I also knew how difficult it was to find these woodworkers — who usually worked out in rural workshops — and how much more exposure greatly inferior craftsmen had. So I started a store to sell their work.

Once I was selling 18th-century-style American furniture, I had to learn more about it, and I learned all sorts of things I never heard about in architecture school. That included the secrets of traditional finishes, the qualities of various woods, how traditional joinery differed from contemporary practice, and knowledge of how construction details varied from region to region.

I went to museums and looked at the best American furniture collections, which trained my eye to see subtleties I hadn’t noticed before then. And I found lessons that applied to the design of architecture and urbanism.

The dimensions of the 18th-century chair embodied hundreds of years of experimentation. By 1700, chair makers had discovered the proper angle for the back, the perfect height for the seat, and the ideal depth for a cushion that would support the leg without cutting off the flow of blood behind the knee.

Chair makers perfected the form for the comfort of the human body and then used that form to make supremely beautiful art from functional objects. Sheraton chairs, Chippendale chairs and Hepplewhite chairs all had the same basic dimensions, and yet they looked very different because both their forms and their elaboration were very different.

The chair makers knew where to put their energies in making those elaborations. All the best chairs had several carvers working on them: The best carver would work on the top rail, the next best would work on the carving around the seat, and the apprentices would carve the feet. Not because the feet were less important than the top rails, but because they were farther away from the eyes of the beholders.

In 1951, the leading dealer of 18-century American furniture wrote an interesting article for Antiques magazine in which he ranked many pieces of antique American furniture as Good, Better or Best, and showed how to make those judgments. He later turned that into a book of the same name, which became one of the most influential books in the world of antiques.

The criteria for the judgments were simple: 1) design and proportion, 2) construction and detail, and 3) materials and finishes.

There are some obvious comparisons with the Modernist principles of architecture and urbanism, which swept away traditional design. Even though they invented “the science of Ergonomics,” many of the Modernist designers who made furniture only paid lip service to the functional paradigms for the comfort of people sitting in their chairs.

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The Shard Is The New Freeway

The ShardThe Shard, Dubai-on-Thames, Great Britain. Renzo Piano, 2003-2011. The tallest building in the EU.

IN THE 20TH CENTURY, experts told cities across the country they needed in-city highways to successfully compete with modern metropolises. In the 21st century, “iconic towers” like the Shard are the new freeways. “Paris lost 170,000 jobs to Lyon,” they whisper (suggesting somehow that Cleveland or Orlando might become the new financial capital of North America). “Your city will lose out in the global marketplace unless you build shiny, new mega-towers like Shanghai and Dubai.”

Now, we’re tearing down some of those old freeways, and we wish we could afford to tear down more of them. Pulling down 100-story towers will be even more expensive and difficult. We could save ourselves a lot of bad urbanism and future expense if we simply don’t build them.

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Vision Zero Changes Everything

CITING AN INNOVATIVE NEW MOVEMENT known as Vision Zero, Mayor DeBlasio and NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg have pledged to reduce traffic fatalities in New York City to zero in ten years. In response, the NYPD last week arrested six jaywalkers in the two-block area where three pedestrians were killed this month on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. A jaywalker who mainly speaks Mandarin Chinese was apparently knocked down and roughed up by the police. New Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said the arrests were necessary because 66% of pedestrian fatalities in New York last year were “directly related to the actions of pedestrians.”

Commissioner Bratton’s view and solution are the opposite of what the city should be saying and doing. New York City’s real problem is that like every other city in America, New York has a long history of making the car the king of our streets. This attitude goes back 100 years, when America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods all had naturally walkable streets. The police began then to view our streets in light of the ideas of a new and influential movement of that time, known as Organized Motordom. A coalition of car companies, oil companies, auto clubs, and the like, Organized Motordom was born because pesky pedestrians were crossing city streets, getting in the way of cars, and slowing them down—and also slowing car sales.

These two photos of Lexington Avenue at 89th Street show that one-hundred years ago the sidewalks of Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan were two to three times as wide they are now. The photo on the bottom was taken to document the construction of the East Side IRT subway under the avenue (the sidewalks have wooden planks because the construction wasn’t finished when the photo was taken). I took the photo on the top just last year—which shows that the buildings lost their stoops and large light wells when more and wider traffic lanes were added to Lexington Avenue in the 1950s.

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Two types of architecture: good architecture, and the other kind












THE ARCHITECTURE CRITIC for New York magazine wrote about the work of Robert A.M. Stern in an article entitled Unfashionably Fashionable. I commented:

“There are two kinds of music,” Duke Ellington famously said. “Good music, and the other kind.”

When I had Bob Stern as a teacher, the architectural academy and the architectural establishment were equally open-minded. Bob Stern, Peter Eisenman, Léon Krier, Michael Graves, Richard Meier and many others formed a disparate and friendly group that agreed with Duke Ellington, accepting many things (and each other), as long as they were good.

Today, we have ideologues controlling much of “the discourse” in the academy and the establishment. In musical terms, they are saying that everyone must work in the tradition of Philip Glass: Classical music, Hip Hop, bebop, jazz, folk, rock, indie rock, pop…are all verboten. They’re more close minded than the Tea Party.

Is this about to change? Things like the New York article or one in the magazine of the American Institute of Architects by Aaron Betsky in which Betsky calls the traditional work of former Stern employee Tom Kligerman “breathtaking in its sophistication and beauty,” suggest that maybe they are. The magazine has probably never published Kligerman’s work, and has certainly never praised it before.

Worth noting: like most people other than architects, the readers of New York are not ideological about traditional or modern design. You particularly see this in New York in the hangouts of the young and the hip, where you find traditional design, modern design, and places that comfortably combine both. Craftsmanship and natural materials, both conspicuously missing in the work of most Starchitects and New York’s gleaming tall towers, have been strong trends for years.

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New York, New England, New Marlborough

ONE of the many great things about New York City is that it’s easy to get from New York to many great places. We tend to head northeast to New England.

The Berkshire mountains in Western Massachusetts are distinctly not in New York, even though many New Yorkers visit the Berkshires. There are many beautiful ways to drive there, none of which require getting on an interstate highway. You can make the trip in 2 hours, or you can make it take all day. There are also trains to Dutchess County, New York, and people are working on a reviving the old rail line, which still has daily freight trains.


Old North Road, New Marlborough, Massachusetts

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WSJ: “An American Renaissance Gem”

“An American Renaissance Gem, How an industrialist
and his unlikely team built a Miami marvel”

The Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2006; Page P13
Book review by John MassengaleVizcayacover

Vizcaya, An American Villa and Its Makers
By Witold Rybczynski and Laurie Olin
Penn Press, 274 pages, $34.95

Some of our greatest buildings are not as well known as they should be. How many people outside of Atlanta are aware of Swan House, the best design by that city’s best classical architect, Philip Trammell Schutze? And if you haven’t been to Miami, you probably don’t know the Villa Vizcaya, a country house that is the equal of any in America.

Both houses, like many of the best American buildings and neighborhoods, were built roughly a century ago during the time of the American Renaissance and City Beautiful movements. The American Renaissance was a “rebirth” of classical art and architecture in the U.S.; the City Beautiful was an urban design and reform movement. The Depression slowed both American Renaissance and City Beautiful, and World War II brought them to a halt. When the war ended, modernism had vanquished their traditional architecture and urbanism.

To the winners go the spoils: Histories of early 20th-century American art and architecture were written by modernist proponents who criticized the achievements of the American Renaissance and City Beautiful designers or ignored them altogether. The preservationist James Marston Fitch, founder of the historic-preservation program at Columbia University (the first and most prominent preservation program in the U.S.), spoke for many when he dismissed the American Renaissance as “an aesthetic wasteland,” populated by buildings that were “a reactionary application of eclecticism” that “ultimately smothered all traces of originality.”

Vizcaya: An American Villa and Its Makers, by architect Witold Rybczynski and landscape architect Laurie Olin, is one of a number of popular and scholarly histories that in the past two decades have sought to redress this ideological imbalance. Mr. Rybczynski and Mr. Olin judge the villa as they find it today and in the context of the historical process that produced it, rather than through a filter of modernist criteria. Contrary to Fitch’s judgment, they find that the eclectic team that built Vizcaya produced a work of great and original beauty.

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You Can Lead A Bore To Culture, But You Can’t Make Her Think

This was originally posted on my old blog Veritas et Venustas in September 2008. I’m not reposting most of my old political commentary from there, but I’m making an exception for this one because it starts to get into an important issue: Modernist architecture is usually not progressive today, and traditional design is not necessarily conservative. Just ask President Obama.

With apologies to Dorothy Parker

PalinWink STEVE SCHMIDT and his Rovian crew have transformed the Obama – McCain contest by dropping Sarah Palin into it — and then doing that voodoo they do do so well. “At some point during the past week, the Republican ticket flipped. Sarah Palin became the principal candidate in the general election, with John McCain her much-diminished running mate,” Toronto’s Globe and Mail accurately reported today. “’It’s an astonishing and unprecedented development in American presidential politics,’ MSNBC’s political journalists blogged Friday on their First Read website.”

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WSJ: “Building for Beauty”

“Building for Beauty”bottoncover
The Wall Street Journal
November 18, 2006; Page P11
By John Massengale

The Architecture of Happiness
By Alain de Botton
Pantheon, 280 pages, $25

CLOSE to halfway through The Architecture of Happiness, populist philosophe Alain de Botton finally gets to his central point, when he quotes Stendahl: “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” For much of the 20th century, Modernism denied this connection between beauty and happiness. But in the 21st century, architects, artists, scholars and critics are returning to the subject. Mr. de Botton’s book is an interesting and perhaps important addition to the debate over the emotional effect that our cities and buildings have on us.

Thinkers have begun approaching the subject from many directions. Christopher Alexander, an architect and mathematician, explores the intersection of beauty, the senses and feeling in his four-volume series “The Nature of Order.” Israeli architect and professor Yodan Rofe walks people around his country’s cities, recording their sense of well being as they stroll. The result: Specific locations consistently made people feel better or worse. In a book called “Emotional Design,” computer science professor Donald Norman analyzes, as his subtitle has it, “Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things.”

Now joining this burgeoning area of study is Mr. de Botton, the Swiss-born author of “How Proust Can Change Your Life” (1997), a fixture on British television who lives in London. Taking architecture seriously, he writes, means acknowledging the importance of our surroundings, even “conceding that we are inconveniently vulnerable to the colour of our wallpaper.” The buildings we admire, he says, are ultimately those that refer, whether through materials, shapes or colors, to such positive qualities as friendliness, strength and intelligence.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

VIRGINIA WOOLF was one of my first posts on Veritas et Venustas, almost exactly ten years ago. I would write it a little differently today, because the ideas I wrote about then have moved forward over the last decade. Visit hip spots in lower Manhattan and Williamsburg and it becomes clearer and clearer that as a group the young are neither anti-Traditional nor anti-Modern. And while 10 years ago I described myself as a Classical architect, today a looser, more eclectic Classicism seems as attractive and viable as the purer Classicism that many of my friends practiced then (hence the name of this blog, and the first post here). My friend and colleague Andrés Duany is working on a book he calls Heterodoxia Architectonica to expand the Classical canon.

“Everything changed in December 1910,” Virginia Woolf famously wrote, and there are tipping points and turning points like that we sometimes recognize. In 1848, democracy swept across the European continent (often forcefully beaten back by authoritarian governments). In 1989, every Communist government in Europe fell within two months after the first breach of the Berlin Wall.

I’m old enough to remember when the civil rights movement turned a decisive corner in the early 1960s to become an idea supported by the majority of Americans. In The Best and the Brightest David Halberstam wrote that the turning point for opposition to the Vietnam war came when Walter Cronkite first criticized the conflict on the CBS nightly news. And I can point to the exact minute when peace, love and long hair arrived at my high school later in the 60s, radically transforming it overnight.

Woolf was talking about full-blown Modernism arriving in her upper-middle-class circles. The most evident sign was an emphasis on individual freedom. For many, this meant an emphasis on greater social and economic mobility that foreshadowed a broadening of democracy. For Virginia and her friends, it meant becoming proto-Modernists of the worst sort: depressed, self-involved, sexually ambiguous and willfully promiscuous. And nominally-Socialist but obnoxiously-superior upper-middle class intellectuals. (Yes, that does sound a bit like the late-late-Modernists a hundred years later.)

Non-architects might wonder why there are so many references to Modernism in Veritas et Venustas (Truth and Beauty). That is an important question, because a) normal people (that is, non-architects) usually don’t recognize the problem, and b) I’m not anti-Modern, as one might reasonably conclude. I’m an architect educated in the 20th century who’s made more than my share of loving pilgrimages to the masterworks like Fallingwater and Bilbao, and I once wrote an article on how to visit the buildings of Le Corbusier scattered all over Europe. With details such as how to stay in the hotel in the Corb-designed Unité d’Habitations in Marseille.

The answer to the question is two-fold. 1) At the beginning of the 21st Century we are at a new tipping point, which 2) the entrenched interests of the architectural establishment are fighting tooth and nail. Having argued for a hundred years that Modernism is the only appropriate expression of the time, they can’t accept that the culture has moved on to become eclectic and diverse.

For me, a Classical architect and a New Urbanist, this is restraint of trade. Representatives of my union, the American Institute of Architects, frequently work against my interests. The architecture critic of my hometown paper, the New York Times, constantly argues against everything my colleagues and I do (and he’s joined in that by virtually every architecture critic in the country.) My students tell me I’m a very good teacher, but almost no university wants to hire me, because most architecture schools are rabidly dogmatic Modernists. Somehow, they claim to do this in the cause of pluralism.

BUT, and this is an important “but,” their position is increasingly an esoteric, unpopular one. There’s no question that society in general has turned a corner.

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