“Buildings endure. Fashion rarely does.” (comment at the Design Observer)

THIS IS WORTH REPOSTING because it was through this post that I met my friend Robert LaValva, who founded and runs the New Amsterdam Market. I made the following comment at Design Observer in response to a post on the South Street Seaport that brought up the usual Disney comment (= Not Modernist). The Seaport is at the end of Fulton Street, a short walk from my office at the time:

MY OFFICE is at the corner of Fulton and Nassau streets. Sometimes at lunch I’ll walk over to the river and either on my way back or on my way to the river I’ll usually walk down Fulton. Each time, I’m struck by what a disaster Robert Moses’s urban removal on both sides of the Brooklyn Bridge was. It’s an enormous hole in a fabulous part of the city. Most of the massive postwar buildings from Water Street to the FDR Drive are almost as bad for the city.

The fact that you have to cross an architectural DMZ to get to the Seaport increases the Disney factor when you get there. But the difference between the poor urbanism of the Seaport and the bad urbanism of Mosesland and the buildings along Water Street is that the Seaport can get better over time, while the buildings in the urban removal section never will.

Urbanism always has to take time into account. You don’t like the stores and restaurants that are in the old seaport buildings this month? Wait a few years and they’ll be gone, replaced by something else. That’s true now more than ever, because the period of unprecedented spending we’ve been going through is over.

You think the cobblestones are a little hokey? They can be replaced. But the anti-urban housing from the 1960s on the on the other side of Pearl Street is full of people’s homes, so those buildings will be a lot harder to change, particularly if they were ever turned into condos. The only way to fix Water Street is to replace most of the current buildings there.

Because of the factor of time, I have to disagree with one comment: “and not in any simulacrum of historic style. The new contextuality had to do with size and color, not with simplified cornice lines and repeated materials. The buildings (by Cook + Fox, architects of One Bryant Park) are handsome and the block feels solid, replete.”

The new buildings are handsome, but the comment about “the simulacrum of historic style” is a cliche of Modernism that has caused a lot of harm to cities over the years.

In traditional architecture and urbanism, the first role of an urban building is to shape the public realm. In Modernism, the first role of a building can vary from being an interesting object, to being an expression of technology, to being a monument to the architect’s genius, to being something cheap and big. Many Modern buildings do all four. All four frequently interfere with shaping the public realm and making an outdoor place where people want to be.

In New York, our traditions and the price of our real estate mean that most buildings come right up to the sidewalk, and that’s the most obvious way to shape the public realm, which is essentially the space between the buildings. (But look at how the housing in Mosesland simultaneously erodes the public realm of the street and makes boring spaces within the block.)

Other cities are more likely to have problems with parking lots and wind-swept plazas sitting between the public realm and the object-buildings set back from the street, although New York’s 1961 zoning did give height bonuses for plazas. On the whole, we’ve come to realize that most of those plazas were mistakes.

Once you’ve shaped the public realm, you come to the issue of what the building looks like. We’ve been through an ideological period when architects said that the only “real” expression of our time was Modernism.

At the time they said that, in the 2oth century, maybe they were right. But we’re in the 21st century now, and it’s increasingly obvious that we don’t have to be Modern anymore. Today’s New York Times has an article about a good new traditional USC film school building, designed by George Lucas. Princeton recently built a new Gothic college, because when they surveyed their students they found, like virtually every other university, that their students loved living in the traditional dorms and hated the Modern ones.

The new building was paid for by Meg Whitman, a young Princeton graduate who runs eBay. At the same time, the Trustees placated the university’s architecture school — who trotted out all the ideological cliches about style — by allowing an octogenarian trustee to pay for a new science library designed by senior citizen Frank Gehry.

Making good streets, neighborhoods and cities is not about style. Modernism has many great buildings, but its rate of return (the number of good buildings compared to the number of bad buildings) is poor, to say the least. On top of that, the number of great places — streets and neighborhoods — Modernism has made after a 150 years of trying is unacceptably low.

That’s true even in New York, where we have some of best and most urban Modernism. Our examples show that good Modern building can enliven a traditional street, but that a street of Modern buildings is boring. If you disagree, show me an example that makes your case.

We need to get over the cliches about style. Buildings endure. Fashion rarely does.

About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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