Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Seduction of Place

I was looking for something to read the other day and found The Seduction of Place --The History and Future of the City in my library. I read this book by Joseph Rykwert several years ago (it was published in 2000) and forgot all about it. My retention level is low. I seldom remember the plots for old movies (which means, if I wait long enough, I get to enjoy them two or three times) and I barely remembered reading this book. But it had many dog-eared pages, indicating passages I wanted to return to (a bad habit, my mother tells me) so I knew I had read it top to bottom at least once. Judging by the number of dog-eared pages it was an excellent read. So, I decided to read it again.

Rykwert has written several books about architecture. He is Professor of Architecture Emeritus and Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania. Born in Poland, educated in England, and a teacher and lecturer at numerous institutions, his book has a breadth of scope as wide as his experiences. The Seduction of Place is as much about urban planning as architecture. In fact, as a critic of urban planning, he is the equal of well-known teacher/critic/planner Edmund Bacon. (Who, incidentally, is only one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon, his son.)

The Seduction of Place is a sweeping history of cities. Rykwert covers everything from fortified medieval towns to utopian Bauhaus fantasies. But his true skill is explaining how the agendas of dreamers are always tempered by economic reality. When the synergy of idealism and practicality are successful, we are seduced by the resulting places.

As an historian, Rykwert reveals fascinating facts about familiar places. Gothic cathedrals, he claims, were not designed to be seen the way we see them today. The exposed structural skeleton, the flying buttresses, of

Gothic cathedrals are much admired by modern architects. But, Rykwert asserts, this “is certainly not how they were conceived by their builders.” Rather, a “great medieval church was primarily a fa├žade within the city, a front…. yet within it was a soaring vault and a glittering, luminous array of stained glass…. You see the bulk of the main building only in glimpses, but denuded of its accretions and barnacles, of the workshops, the shops and stalls that clung to it, it is impoverished, and, in a way, also betrayed.” This was a stunning revelation to me, but it makes sense. The structural bones of Notre Dame or St. Chappelle were not important; the feeling of the spaces was what mattered (and matters still).

Rykwert devotes thirty-one pages to the development of New York and the history of skyscrapers. This provides a foundation to discuss the symbolism of tall buildings and the primacy of New York as the “capital of a Globe.” He writes that the “cultural hegemony of New York seems, at the moment, more total than those of Paris or London ever were...
As always happens when a new capital emerges or is established, other cities will both envy and try to emulate it. That is why the word 'Manhattanization' had to be coined for the process of making towns or cities more or less like Manhattan. A compliment like that has not been conferred on any other metropolis. Not even 'Romanize' had that sense when its empire was at its greatest.
Though published in 2000, the book provides relevant observations on tall and super-tall buildings and their impact on our sense of place. The book is recent enough to describe the super tall Jin-Mao and World Financial Center towers in Shanghai’s Pudong district.

In this context, his most disturbing observation (for an architect) is that
[The] business of high buildings… has really passed out of the hands of architects, because a wholly new kind of designer has now come into being. .. they operate in large offices that handle many millions’ worth (in various currencies) of work each year. Such offices offer financial advice, quantity surveying, and structural service engineering, all of which actually determine the actual configuration of the building, but the architects’ and decorators’ actual designing is limited to advice on the surface dressing (mirror glass or Gothic or Renaissance or Chinese or some sheathing details derived from Art Deco patterning)… Being a relatively powerless group, architects are a convenient scapegoat for the more forceful generators of the city’s ills.
Other relevant topics are in Rykwert’s scope. He discusses the museum-as-icon craze that began with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim and continues to this day. He has much to say (none of it good) about the ascendance of gated communities in Las Vegas and other U.S. cities and their impact on the urban fabric. He reviews the evolution of planned cities from Canberra to Chandigard to Brasilia. (Rykwert is much more tepid about Brasilia than his aforementioned contemporary Edmund Bacon.)

Rykwert’s passion is the city. His book is a contribution to the understanding of cities past so architects and planners can better improve or create cities in the present. “All worthwhile building,” claims Rykwert, “must involve the making of places, that is, enclosures that people can inhabit and appropriate without doing themselves violence.”

1. Book cover.
2. Plan of London, Christopher Wren.
3. Wikimedia Commons.
4. Pudong, Jacob Ehnmark.
5. Brasilia, Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mud Huts and Skyscrapers (Culture and Design)

When talking about architecture –especially when making value judgments – culture and environment cannot be separated from design. The underlying influences upon architecture are integral to its understanding and to its creation.

Architecture does not exist in a vacuum. It is a product of individual minds, but minds live within the context of specific cultures. That is why architecture of the Italian renaissance looks quite different from, for example, Nepalese architecture from the same period. Architects of the European renaissance were exploring new spatial relationships with a vocabulary based on ancient Roman forms.

In contrast, architecture in Nepal was compressed and dark. Form was carved into anthropomorphic forms never seen in the west. Religions, social values, political systems, and climate are completely different between Italy and Nepal. So it is not surprising that the two cultures produced two obviously different architectures. Neither type of architecture would logically exist in the milieu of the other unless by some sort of cross-cultural pastiche, like an amusement park. (Disneyland’s Epcot Center is an example of this type of architectural chicanery.) It is easy to deduce that the basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice is a product of a different culture than Patan Durbar Square near Katmandu. Despite having been built at roughly the same time, the architectural clues to their identities are obvious. It would not take too clever a detective to deduce from small fragments of evidence the true source of almost any architectural style. It is in the DNA of buildings. San Giorgio Maggiore employs a large dome, Roman columns, and the suggestion of a large interior space. It speaks of Italy. (Although the knowledgeable observer will also notice eastern influences that come from trade and political connections between Venice and the Ottoman Empire.) Patan, on the other hand, exhibits rich sculptural surfaces with little indication of spacious interiors because they do not exist. It has the thick weight of Hindu architecture.

This comparison could be made with any number of cultures and the differences would range from the significant and easily identifiable (England:Egypt; Russia:Brazil) to the more subtle (China: Japan; United States: Canada).

Cultural differences occur for many different reasons. Northern climes tend to produce architecture with very steep roofs because they shed snow easily and keep excess weight off the structure. Mediterranean climates  allow low-pitched roofs. Gentle roof lines are often a result of a gentle climates. Those are environmental factors: just the beginning of a complex matrix of influences.

The discussion becomes really interesting when we delve into judgments of good versus bad architecture. Or beautiful versus ugly. How do we define these things? Is there one set of standards by which all architecture can be judged? If you think these questions don’t really matter, I can provide at least one example where it was very important to some people. This came up in a personal way when I was teaching architectural design at the University of Oklahoma. I had two Iranian students who always presented the most unusual solutions to class assignments. To be blunt: I found their projects willfully bizarre. I did not know much about their background or the cultural history of their birthplace. They were refugees from the Islamic revolution in Iran, probably from privileged families, and certainly had values and references different than mine. Maybe, in the context of their culture, their design solutions were not strange. Maybe they were quite appropriate in the context of esthetic issues important in Iran. Perhaps these students intended to apply similar solutions in their homeland at some future time. Who would know or be able to explain to me the full background of a completely alien culture? I realized I didn’t have any fair basis with which to judge their work. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder than what beauty does a stranger see? In the case of these Iranian students, I gave them passing grades as long as they completed the technical requirements of the assignments. Whether or not they were creating “good” architecture I have no idea to this day. (This is my general attitude toward architectural education: I don’t believe good architecture can be taught, but a good teacher will establish an environment in which capable students can thrive.)

Maybe there are some universal reference points common to all architecture. We are all human beings (we’re not talking about imaginary intergalactic architecture) and human scale provides one criterion for what is appropriate in architecture for man. Leonardo DaVinci made man the center of artistic expression as does the entire science of ergonomics.

An experienced architect knows that certain things relating to human scale work very well and others do not. A small room (a powder room, perhaps) with a very high ceiling feels uncomfortable; it is like being at the bottom of a chimney. Even when a home has ten- or eleven-foot ceilings, we might frame a powder room at nine feet to better relate to human scale. Conversely, large rooms with high ceilings can be very exciting. They can also be overwhelming. Introducing lower elements (doors, ledges, partial walls) in contrast to high ceilings can humanize a space. Human references introduce warmth. Almost paradoxically, grand spaces seem even more grand if we can relate to them in some personal way.

The Greene brothers, (Charles and Henry) were master architects at manipulating scale. In projects like the Gamble House (1908) in Pasadena, California, their architecture rises to three stories while conveying the feeling of a comfortable bungalow. This magic trick is conjured from low-slung porches, broad roof overhangs, and details directly related to human scale.

In the Gamble house, low spaces burst into higher volumes that elevate the gaze and the spirit. One specific example can be found on the rear porch where low cross ties on the columns introduce a scale that is seeable and touchable right at the average height of a person.

Presumably this humanizing effect would have a similar impact on all people regardless of cultural origin because it is based on a common attribute of all people.

If human scale is a measure of architecture, cultural experience must still affect human response to specific architecture as it plays with scale. How would an individual whose experiences are limited to the scale of single-story mud huts react to the towers of Rockefeller Center? Would it be with awe? Or terror? Would the feelings be the same for a student at nearby Colombia University? We bring with us to any experience the sum total of our history, even if only subconsciously.

Architecture Without Architects, by Bernard Rudofsky, demonstrates that vernacular architecture (such as mud huts) has artistic value. To fully determine that value we need at least some understanding of the culture of which it is a product. How well does it fulfill the need for shelter? What are the cultural references embodied in the shapes? What is the context in which it exists? The same holds true of skyscrapers. We don’t really know if they are good designs unless we know something about the programmatic requirements behind them, the context of their surroundings, and the expectations of the culture in which they exist. We may know some of this intuitively (or think we know) but should be cautious about placing value judgments on any architecture until we know the full story behind it.

Architects are expected to understand the cultural environment surrounding their projects. This is known as contextual design: to be aware of and recognize the context in which a building exists. This could refer to the physical geometry (scale and style) of nearby buildings as well as the social expectations of neighbors. This seems like a simple and appropriate idea. However, it is fraught with problems and the degree to which context should be considered (or whether it should be considered at all) is the topic of considerable debate among architects. The logic of considering the contextual relationship of new buildings seems irrefutable until you realize that most breakthroughs in architecture don’t consider context very much. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum (1959) in New York gives very little consideration to neighborhood context. Its fluid lines are in stark contrast to the rigid geometry of Manhattan. Yet it is a widely admired work of architecture. It is great at least partly because it presents a fresh alternative to the conventional context in which it was built. It invites and allows us to look at the world in a different manner. However, without the culture in which it was created (a world of grey boxes) it would stand for (or against) nothing.

In fact, the Guggenheim shuts itself off from its Fifth Avenue neighborhood, turning inward to a self-referenced environment. So much for context!

Despite this, Frank Lloyd Wright was a product of the culture in which he worked. He was of Welsh decent raised in nineteenth century Wisconsin. As unique as his work was, it stands framed by the work of other pioneers of modern architecture who shaped the contemporary zeitgeist. His work was informed by the experiences available to him as man well-read and traveled. In other words, the culture in which Frank Lloyd Wright thrived provided the context in which his work was produced. It is a product of a particular time and place.

We prize innovation in any field. Innovation stands in contrast to something that already exists. It fills a need or crosses a gap or opens a new path but it does so within a cultural context. Wright’s Guggenheim, alien as it seems to the architecture of 1950’s America, is still a product of the twentieth century; it could not have come out of fourteenth century Italy or Nepal.

To be aware of cultural context enriches our appreciation of architecture and deepens our resources when creating it. It doesn’t mean we excuse ugliness when we spot it, but if we choose to judge architecture (always a risky endeavor) we should do so with all the facts. When was it created? For what purpose and for whom? What were the budgetary limitations? What were the programmatic criteria? What materials and technologies were available? What were the historical influences on the architect? What client-driven limits were placed on the architect’s creativity? All of these things and much more are part of the culture that surrounds a work of architecture. Understanding leads to appreciation… or, perhaps, tolerance. Every new project, whether mud hut or skyscraper, is an opportunity for an architect to learn. If a building rightly fulfills its purpose it provides an opportunity for the rest of us to learn as well.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

More Zoning Politics

I never intended this blog to delve into politics.  It's about architecture: the fun stuff like design, psychology, materials, and  significant architecture. Yet I find myself posting a third entry on the proposed new zoning code for the city of Denver. Zoning isn't about architecture, though it does affect architecture. It's mostly about politics, as individuals and neighborhood groups develop agendas about controlling what happens around them. Below is a letter I wrote to Councilmember Peggy Lehman with copies to the full City Council and Mayor Hickenlooper. The letter has been widely circulated and picked up by at least one neighborhood newsletter as an editorial. If you live in Denver, the new code will affect you directly. If you live elsewhere, similar issues come up on a regular basis in most cities. If you find these comments useful please feel free to reproduce them in any form. 
Here is a link to the new code:

Dear Ms. Lehmann:

As a resident of Council District 4 and as an architect specializing in residential design I am concerned about the final draft for the proposed zoning code for the City of Denver. It still contains numerous arbitrary and unworkable ideas that do not benefit the city.

The fourth and final draft is a rewrite of previous drafts that were laden with conceptual conflicts and impossible restrictions. Members of the design community (private planners, architects, and investors) have given freely of their time to digest the voluminous proposal and analyze its impacts. Numerous changes were made in response to these efforts. Between Draft #3 and Draft #4, approximately 50% of the text has changed. This responsiveness on the part of Community Planning and Development is commendable. However, the amount of “redlines” also indicates the depth of equivocation in the new code. Four new drafts in the last few months contained major changes at each step and scant weeks between drafts for the rest of us to “crunch the numbers” and see what it really means. There is inadequate time or opportunity to analyze and correct the current, and supposedly final, draft.

Numerous problems and ambiguities remain in Draft #4. I cite just one here: the height limits for “S” (Suburban) zones. There are many such proposed zones throughout the city. To visualize one, picture the area of University Hills north of Eisenhower Park, slated to be “S-SU-D.” As you know, these blocks contain extensive new development that has replaced small, post-war housing. A suburban district evokes images of large sprawling homes on ample lots. However, this particular “suburban” neighborhood has unusually small homes that are not up to modern code and energy expectations. These older structures are excellent starter homes and rentals, but many owners dream of improving their lot in the future. This neighborhood contains perfect candidates for upgrade or replacement because the existing stock does not meet current market needs. Older homes in this neighborhood are of no historic value. They are energy sieves and cannot compete with the amenities offered in new homes outside of Denver. It is a good thing for neighborhoods such as this to experience redevelopment because it enhances property values, adds to the city tax base, draws diversity to the urban center, and provides housing that meets the needs of families and professionals. Certainly, it is a sign of the desirability of District 4 that such development has taken place on a large scale. However, the proposed Draft #4 imposes a de facto ban on two-story homes. This would effectively quash further development in University Hills.

Two story homes are technically permitted, but if an architect were clever enough to design a house under the 27’ overall limit (dimension A, below) the best you could get is 8’ ceilings to keep within the 20’ side wall restriction (dimension B, below). Eight-foot ceilings are not what the current market expects. In actual practice, not even eight-foot ceilings would be achievable since that works only for perfectly flat lots. Most lots have less than perfect conditions (a slope or a high water table, for examples) that would skew these numbers to ridiculous results. The probable effect is that a two-story house would be impossible to build in University Hills.

The drawing below is from Draft #4. The red numbers (added by me) demonstrate that, in redeveloping neighborhoods like University Hills, new housing will be unmarketable, unlivable, or unbuildable. This would be true regardless of lot size.

To illustrate this point, the house pictured below is typical post-war construction in the blocks north of Eisenhower Park. Redevelopment of homes such as these would cease under the rules proposed in Draft #4.

The recently developed homes below (also in the blocks north of Eisenhower Park) would be in gross non-compliance with the proposed new rules.

In parts of Draft #4, the “bulk plane” concept reappeared (after having been eliminated in earlier drafts). I believe the current bulk plane is a fair and workable concept; it should be restored to the “S” zones so neighborhoods like University Hills can continue to be renewed. As the economy recovers, we need the tax base, vibrancy, and new life that a refreshed housing market brings to Denver.

We are getting closer to a workable code but need more time to produce a final draft that addresses this and numerous other issues. I urge the Council to allow a period of review and response by the design community and all interested parties before voting on Draft #4.


Michael Knorr