Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Form Follows Dysfunction

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When I decided to go to school for city planning, I did so because I was looking to codify my understanding of the street life I grew up within so that I could produce similar results anywhere and everywhere. I wanted to preserve the notion of an unbroken chain of building facades that presented a cohesive notion of public space, of storefronts small enough to present a variety of options within walking distance, and of a social fluidity where your neighbors knew who you were but still gave you a degree of anonymity such that they didn’t know who you were. Of course, all the examples of Beaux Arts, Romanesque Revival and Art Deco up in the ‘hood didn’t hurt, either.

When I think about it, historical preservationist movements are trying to do the same thing, although their methodology and reasoning betray a more pessimistic outlook. They seek to eliminate bad development, but their strictures more or less eliminate all development, which creates problems of its own. This is a fact some preservationists are willing to accept, as their first argument is that our history of good architecture is doomed to be bulldozed in favor of the banal and the ugly: Simply put, we don’t make ’em like we used to.

They have a point.

Indeed, when I grew up, my goal was to find a pre-war apartment, not just because it had architectural flourishes like cornices et al, but also because it was over-engineered and sizable, in contrast to newer offerings – a pre-war is larger, has more storage space, is more soundproof, and is easier to heat. The shoeboxes in new buildings simply didn’t compare. There are several theories why this is the case: Labor was cheaper then, and so were materials, zoning laws allowed for a more efficient use of the land, car ownership was lower; all serve to state why today’s short-term cost-cutting practices didn’t exist then but not how it came about or why it is seemingly intractable.

Of course, I speak in terms of square footage and population density, whereas the preservationist speaks in terms of architecture. But even then, it’s painfully obvious our current offerings are mere shadows of our former selves: Art Deco and Beaux Arts seem to be the last modernist architectural movements with widespread popularity and humanist leanings. The tragedy of Penn Station isn’t that the old one got knocked down – prominent New York landmarks have had a long history of being knocked down; we’ve destroyed many Gothic Revival and Second Empire low-rises in order to build our Beaux Arts and Art Deco high-rises – but that it got knocked down at a time when it would be replaced with an ugly internationalist steel-and-glass slab.

This isn’t to say that internationalist slabs aren’t innovative. They are. But they’re also ugly, and extremely hostile to pedestrians. It almost feels as if, after Art Deco, architecture got subsumed under engineering and all our innovations were of an engineering nature, naked and prominent, as if what fashion models on runway shows really needed were full length x-rays for us to appreciate their true beauty. There is clearly something interesting happening of an engineering nature for our much ballyhooed Guggenheim Museum or our must denigrated Lipstick Building – famous then for being ugly (Frank Lloyd Wright in particular had choice words for its architect, Phillip Johnson) and famous now for housing ugly people – and indeed is plain as day when it comes to Citigroup Center, which is facelessness itself were it not on stilts.

(Interestingly enough, the developers drew up secret evacuation plans should this building topple over)

Just about the only thing modern architects seem to be able to do is make grand geometric shapes, which have about as much resemblance to the original function of the building as concrete does to the rock it was made from. Modern offerings can, thus, hide their innovation behind a faceless glass facade, such as Sixth Avenue’s Bank of America Tower or our new Freedom Tower (a name that will forever be used ironically, considering how many police checkpoints you’ll have to go through to get there), or present their innovation as the facade, such as the tessellated Hearst Tower on Eighth Avenue.

It’s no wonder preservationists want to put the kibosh on everything – at least until we come to our collective senses. But will we? What’s stopping us now? We are not lacking for rich benefactors: Rich people are richer now than they have ever been in the history of mankind. Our labor’s getting cheaper by the day – tradesmen and experts alike have seen their wages stagnate and slip for forty years. Conservatives would cite New York’s construction unions, but they build equally ugly buildings in Right-to-Work states, too. The powers that be have simply ceased caring. After all, they’re not exactly oriented towards society at the best of days, and to make a jewel box of a building means, in a real way, giving to society.

Whatever joy there is in living in One 57th Street, for instance, is certainly not visible from the street. From Central Park its smooth, blue exterior resembles that of a dildo, and like a dildo it makes up for its lack of warmth with its sheer size.

(Prominently displayed on a shelf of its lesser brethren, equal parts gaudy and vulgar)

I fear that such a lack of social grace is merely the underpinning of a much greater structural problem of our republic: As Krugman pointed out yesterday, the top people in our country have ceased even conceiving themselves as being of the same stock as the rest of us. Should this continue unabated, it would predict societal collapse. It’s not so much waiting until another architectural fad comes along – somehow we’ve been stuck with “modernism” for more than seventy years – as it is merely watching on as our form simply follows dysfunction.

Of course, I type this from within an anachronism of architecture, wondering if I myself am not an anachronism of labor longing for an anachronism of urban life, but what I learned in school gives the impression that the preservationists are acting as the Little Dutch Boy, sticking their collective finger in the dyke, except this time waiting for structural repairs that may never come.

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2 Responses to “Form Follows Dysfunction”

  1. Jambe
    on Jan 28th, 2014
    @ 7:23 pm

    I like your writing. I have little to add but another quote from Jonathan Meades which you might like, this time about the city of Aberdeen:

    “Those who work in the oil industry are referred to–not altogether benevolently–as travelers. They’re transitory; guest workers. Companies come to Aberdeen to make money. Their employees are passing through; home is elsewhere.

    Though companies may build here, they don’t build with pride, or with any sort of obligation to urbanistic felicity. It’s all short-termism, cut corners, and corporate greed; they wipe their hands of the future. Had they any sense of history or of civic decency, they might reflect on the architecture which makes Aberdeen so remarkable a city. They might look at the planting effected by people who would never see their trees approach even adolescence.

    Impermanence apart, the oil industry established itself here at a time when Scottish architecture was in a pretty dismal state, all apologetic contrition and self-abnegation. Modernism had run out of steam, and instead of trying to reinvent itself, it attempted to compromise, to placate with silly gestures.

    The oil industry’s buildings are works of the most hackneyed mediocrity. They contemptuously overlook architecture’s public obligation. They loutishly ignore the fact that for the rest of us, buildings are scenery.”

    That final sentence encapsulates the blinding joylessness of modern stainless/glass high-rises and the gormless banality of flat concrete stacks.

    If architecture has any psychological effect at all, surely a modern city’s inhabitants are subconsciously induced to be as soulless and placeless as their buildings.

    It’s depressing that the New York skyline looks increasingly similar to the skylines of conurbations on the other side of the world. I’d be tempted to say it’s all emulation, that NYC exported something unique in generic gleaming gaudiness, but it is properly international, isn’t it?

    “International”. Hm. I like the idea of human rights and global awareness and such, but I think we can strive for those ideals without becoming a stylistic hivemind. I hope…

  2. The BearMaiden
    on Jan 29th, 2014
    @ 1:49 am

    I’ve only ever lived in “pre-war” buildings except for a brief period when I lived in a New Jersey apartment complex but even then those apartments were built to feel like a home. I live in Harlem (again)… I still–each and every day– stop in front of a building or brownstone just absorb the gargoyles, the cornices and the friezes, the parapets. I’m so afraid that one day they will be all gone…

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