Architecture as Experience: The Case for Excellence in Design

During a press conference this past October, superstar architect Frank Gehry responded to criticism of his work by raising his middle finger to a Spanish journalist and saying, “Let me tell you one thing. In the world we live in, 98% of what gets built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design nor respect for humanity or anything. They’re bad buildings and that’s it.”

Gehry’s sharp retort sparked a firestorm in the press; op-ed pieces in The New York Times, Forbes, Architect Magazine, and countless blogs have chimed in with their own responses, and the inevitable responses to the responses soon followed. Despite the brash way in which the conversation started, it is a conversation about our built environment that is welcome and long overdue.

"I do not build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build." -- Howard Roark in The Fountainhead

“I do not build in order to have clients. I have clients in order to build.” — Howard Roark in The Fountainhead

The Inescapable Art
Blair Kamin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, described architecture as the inescapable art. “You don’t have to go to a play that the theater critic pans, a movie that the film critic hates or a restaurant where, according to the food critic’s taste buds, the chef can’t cook,” Kamin writes, but terrible reviews won’t make buildings disappear, and the public can be stuck with the consequences of bad design for decades. Architecture — good, bad, or mediocre — forms the setting in which we live out our lives and it affects us in profound ways whether we consciously realize it or not. Good design is more than just superficial window dressing; it’s the difference between Mac OS X and a Unix terminal prompt, and it’s the difference between a city that’s an attractive destination and a city that merely exists.

Cincinnati is blessed with a cornucopia of notable architecture that other cities in its league can only dream of having. In addition to the well-known favorites like Union Terminal, Carew Tower, and Music Hall, there is also a wide variety of contemporary architecture that has helped put Cincinnati back on the cultural map. In addition to the usual cast of flamboyant “starchitects” like Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, and Zaha Hadid, Cincinnati is also home to projects by less flashy but no less talented firms like Moore Ruble Yudell, Architecture Research Office, and Gwathmey Seigel Kaufman. There are also homegrown firms such as FRCH, Glaserworks, and John Senhauser Architects creating notable projects in Cincinnati and beyond.  When it comes to the quality of its built environment, Cincinnati punches far above its weight.

The sad irony, though, is that relatively little of what gets built today is actually designed by architects. Despite the resurgence of the urban cores of Cincinnati and other cities throughout the country, most new construction is still in the suburbs and exurbs, planned and designed by developers and retail chains according to carefully-honed formulas created to guarantee the greatest return on the dollar within the shortest period of time.

Suburban “McMansions” aren’t designed by architects to be lived in; they’re designed by developers to look good on realtor listings and be sold. Big-box retail stores, fast food outlets, and car dealerships are built from prototypes designed not to inspire or to even be pleasant, but to generate short-term profits with maximum efficiency. Some nameless architect may have stamped the construction documents somewhere along the process to ensure the structure meets applicable codes, but his or her influence on the end user experience was likely minimal at best. In the case of most single-family houses built by developers, an architect was not likely to have been involved at all.

False Choices
This is no doubt the “98% of what gets built and designed today” that Gehry was referring to, but it has remained largely unmentioned while pundits squabble over the implications of his diatribe. Some commentators have chosen to blame celebrity architects such as him for the current state of our built environment, nostalgically harking back to some mythical past in which architecture was driven by the local vernacular. What they fail to mention is that, like it or not, badly-designed sprawl is the vernacular today, and it has gone global. Blaming a few starchitects for the quality of our built environment is like bashing Kraftwerk for being too esoteric while the latest Nickelback album is at the top of the charts.

That said, architects and architectural academics are often accused of being elitist and out of touch with reality, and in many cases the criticism is well-deserved. Too many architects have read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as the manifesto it was meant to be rather than as the cautionary tale it should have been. Architecture is a collaborative discipline above all else, and there is no room at the table for an ego the size of Howard Roark’s. Too often, the prestigious design awards and glossy magazine articles have been for projects built for sheer spectacle rather than for lasting quality. Spectacle is what sells magazines and generates fodder for discussion around the water cooler, but sometimes the most appropriate design solution is to do less designing. Being a conscientious architect means knowing when to make that call.

What’s missing from the discussion is the vast middle ground between avant-garde starchitecture and crowd-pleasing vernacular design, and the idea that architecture, above all else, should be a human experience, rather than an abstract object to behold or a mere commodity to the bought and sold. It’s not a question of modernism versus traditionalism or suburban versus urban; it’s a question of bad versus good.

Healthy cities need an attractive mix of architecture; this mix includes high-profile starchitecture, anonymous background buildings, new and old, traditional and modernist, and everything in between. What matters is that what gets built is of consistently high design quality. A smattering of notable buildings within a context of ugly schlock is insufficient; what’s needed is a cohesive cityscape of well-designed buildings where the overall quality of the urban experience is greater than the sum of its architectural parts. To use a baseball analogy, one or two sluggers won’t save the season if the rest of the team is in a slump.

Good design doesn’t just happen; property owners and the general public need to realize its value, and commission talented architects who will deliver it. Samuel Hannaford didn’t leap out from behind a bush one night and create Music Hall by sheer force of will; Music Hall exists because the City of Cincinnati wanted a venue befitting its highest cultural aspirations, and they commissioned Hannaford to design it. Music Hall, while notable enough in its own right, also exists within the fabric of a historic neighborhood. Relatively few of the neighborhood’s Italianate row houses would be particularly notable as individual structures, but together they form the streetscape of Over-the-Rhine, one of the largest intact historic districts in the country. Music Hall and its surrounding neighborhood enhance and compliment each other in ways that would be impossible if either existed in isolation.

Lions Park Scout Hut by Rural Studio (photo: Timothy Hursley)

Lions Park Scout Hut by Rural Studio [Timothy Hursley]

Engineering Value
Cost considerations are often touted as an excuse for poor design, but this is a cop-out. It’s easy to clad a terrible building in exotic materials and pass it off as a notable work of architecture (see: numerous projects developed by Donald Trump), but a talented architect can creatively turn cost constraints into a brilliant design solution.

The iconic cross-braces on Chicago’s John Hancock Center meant being able to eliminate a third of the structural steel that would’ve otherwise been required for a building that tall. At a much smaller scale, Auburn University’s Rural Studio designs hand-built structures of sublime beauty for disadvantaged communities in rural Alabama. These structures, often created from recycled materials and found objects, cost pennies on the dollar compared to more typical construction.

When Washington, DC was planning its Metro system, the transit authority assumed the cheapest way to construct the underground stations was to give them straight vertical walls covered in tile, flat ceilings, and a forest of columns similar to what’s found on older subway systems. Their architect, Harry Weese, was able to demonstrate that a vaulted station shell made of waffle-slab concrete actually cost less to build than a more conventional design. This motif became the most celebrated design feature of the system, subtly recalling the coffered ceilings of the District’s neoclassical civic monuments but without reflexively copying them.

What is Good?
All this talk of good architecture begs the question: What does it mean to be good? Is it something that can’t be defined, but we know it when we see it? Aaron Betsky, former director of the Cincinnati Art Museum and now Dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, recently penned an article that explicitly addresses this question:

I do not think there is one style or one approach that has all the answers. I am wary of what I think are pseudo-scientific approaches to measuring such things, though I am open to ways in which we can more clearly articulate and judge what is good and what works. However, instead of taking solace in formulas or a rote recitations of traditions, we should always ask the question what is appropriate, what is needed, what is possible, and what are our dreams and aspirations. We should build with what we know, for a reality, but also towards a better — again in a social, environmental, and aesthetic sense — reality.

Betsy concludes the article by saying, “Architecture should be neither weird nor boring, neither alien nor alienating, neither wasteful nor wanting in the qualities that make us human.”

To this we might add: In order to be good, architecture should be honest in its materiality and its place in history, and be responsive to its context. Wood should look like wood and not be painted to look like marble. A building built in 2015 shouldn’t attempt to look like a building built in 1895. A sentimental appeal to nostalgia is no excuse for faux-traditional buildings that cheapen their context with knee-jerk imitation, but a building designed for downtown Cincinnati should be sufficiently distinguishable from a building designed for a suburban office park in Southern California.

Good architecture should engage all the senses in a meaningful way, and acknowledge the web of meanings and experiences that we have come to associate with the built environment. Brick is more than just a cladding material; it imparts a sense of stability and permanence. Glass and stainless steel are associated with notions of high-tech precision. A fireplace is more than just a decorative feature in the living room; the sound and smell of burning firewood recalls fond memories of family camping trips, a bonfire on the beach during a church retreat, or a brisk fall evening with close friends on the patio at Neons. A door made of solid wood has a more substantial feel to the hand than a flimsy hollow door made of pressed paper, even if they both look the same at first glance. Whether we are consciously aware of them or not, these things matter.

Local Interest
The discussion about the nature of our built environment has been happening in Cincinnati for quite some time; debates about the streetcar, gentrification, redeveloping the riverfront, form-based codes, and historic preservation all revolve around what kind of place Cincinnati wants to be. Is it a place where one merely goes to see a Reds game once or twice a year before getting back on the freeway to a house in the suburbs, or is it a place to live and work 24/7 throughout the year? Is it a dumping ground for the indigent, a playpen for the affluent, or home to a diverse mix of people and activities? All these issues are closely related to matters of design.

The Cincinnati Enquirer recently published an angry screed by Hyde Park architect Robert-Pascal Barone that sharply criticizes a number of recent projects. Although the article contained a few valid points, the overall tone read as a shrill rejection of anything built in the city after 1950, which undermined the possibility of a constructive dialogue.

This was an unfortunate missed opportunity, because it’s a dialogue that needs to happen. Belligerent naysaying does nothing to improve the city, but even the most successful projects are not exempt from intelligent critiques that offer lessons for future projects. Cincinnati has progressed beyond the point where new development for the sake of new development, no matter how ill-conceived, should get the red carpet treatment by default. The city deserves top-shelf design, and is now in a position to demand it.

Moving Forward
There is reason to be optimistic that we are once again making good architecture a priority. For the past 20 years, the University of Cincinnati’s Signature Architect Program has raised the profile of the university and has led to UC consistently appearing on lists of the world’s most beautiful college campuses. More importantly, it has greatly enhanced the quality of campus life and has had a snowball effect on other projects around town.

In recent years the city has stepped up its efforts to save and preserve the architectural landmarks that previous generations have built. The dilapidated Metropole has been beautifully reborn as the 21c Museum Hotel, Hamilton Country taxpayers recently approved a modest sales tax increase to restore Union Terminal, and the long-awaited restoration of Music Hall continues to gain support and funding.

Much work remains: the Terrace Plaza Hotel still sits vacant downtown, and despite the pace of redevelopment in Over-the-Rhine and other close-in neighborhoods, each year sees a number of vulnerable structures succumb to neglect or outright greed. The city needs to be more proactive about preserving its history, rather than merely reacting when a problem becomes a crisis.

Smaller cities like Cincinnati have a unique role to play in the design world, and offer advantages of access and affordability not found in the usual hot spots like New York and San Francisco. In a recent CityLab article titled Why Architects and Second-Tier Cities Need Each Other, Amanda Kolson Hurley notes:

New York, Boston, Chicago, and other major metros have a lot of construction activity, but also a lot of architects. It’s a competitive field made more so by the sheer number of talented firms in the same handful of cities. That contributes to the culture of stress and overwork that many architects bemoan, some of them — women in particular — even leaving the field in frustration. By contrast, an ambitious architecture practice can carve out a niche for itself in a second-tier city, where the scene is often dominated by “legacy” firms that play it safe.

Hurley goes on to highlight the example of Louisville-based De Leon and Primmer Architectural Workshop, which recently won an AIA Honor Award for their Wild Turkey visitor center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Neither Roberto De Leon nor Ross Primmer are Louisville natives; they met in architecture school at Harvard and made a business decision to open their practice in Louisville because, like Cincinnati, it was primed for growth. Cincinnati has the additional advantage of being home to one of the top architecture schools in the country, and many faculty members have their own small practices producing innovative design.

Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky (photo: De Leon and Primmer Architecture Workshop)

Wild Turkey Visitor Center in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky [De Leon and Primmer Architecture Workshop]

Cincinnati would do well to aggressively harness that local talent as well as put out the welcome mat for transplants from outside the region. Fairly or unfairly, Cincinnati has a reputation for being a conservative, insular city that is wary of outside ideas and talent. As such, it needs to work extra hard to put that stereotype out to pasture. Civic and corporate leaders should make a point to consider emerging architects for new projects and include them in discussions about the city’s future. For its part, the architectural community needs to resist its natural inclination to circle the wagons, and make an effort to engage the public and ensure their needs are being met when designing new projects.

Most importantly, the general public needs to demand a consistently high standard of design and hold its leaders accountable when opportunities are missed. Uncritical boosterism is often a veneer for complacency, which is a far more destructive force than vigorous debate. Sometimes the boat needs to be rocked. Cincinnati has a rich history and enviable assets, but it cannot rest on its laurels. No city has ever made itself a prime destination by bragging about how magnificent it used to be.

Get Involved
At the national level, the American Institute of Architects has launched an ambitious media campaign to highlight the role of architects in shaping our built environment, and by extension, the role of the built environment in shaping our lives. The campaign features web videos, television ads, and social media content under the hashtag #ilookup.

For those wishing to become more involved in conversations about the future of Cincinnati’s built environment, the Cincinnati chapter of the AIA and the Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati have full calendars of activities and events, and the annual ArchiNATI festival offers unique opportunities to engage with the city’s built environment.

In addition to the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, other nearby architecture schools at Miami University, the University of Kentucky, and Ohio State University routinely host lectures and other events throughout the year that are usually free and open to the public.

If all that sounds daunting, start by simply grabbing a sketchpad and heading off to explore some corner of the city that looks interesting. Look up, and you’ll rarely be disappointed.

David Cole is a native of Fort Thomas, Kentucky with a strong interest in architecture, urban design, transit, and social justice. He earned his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning, and is pursuing professional registration as an architect while working as a designer at the New York office of STUDIOS Architecture.

If you would like to have your thoughts published on UrbanCincy, simply contact us at editors@urbancincy.com.

  • As someone who hates Macs, loves beauty, and uses a Unix terminal prompt daily…

    (Allow me a slight digression: the command prompt works like a computer works. A Mac looks all shiny and smooth and elegant and that is NOT how a computer works; the Mac’s appearance is disjunct from its function. Even as an object it’s alien in my hands. Everything in the world, my hands included, is more wonderfully complex than the Mac appears to be. I hate Macs and everything they stand for in the ‘design world’. End of digression, sorry.)

    I wonder what you think about the vernacular architecture of such things as exposed brick, beams, and fireplaces, etc. Might not the volksgiest actually consist quite simply (among the moneyed and educated lasses) of that familiar nostalgia for an 1850-1900 boomtime? Might not the self-conscious exposure of the relics of that time, the materials of that time almost disclose them as a fetish which we imagine will bring something of those times (back)? A friend of mine literally insists that wherever he lives needs to have exposed brick. This is I think to say that he sees certain inadequacies of the present, and uses certain visual markers to guage his distance from it, in at least one dimension.

    And I don’t think this is necessarily reactionary, except in the way that something like the italian renaissance was. Not something to scold cincinnatians for, for their backward ways. Rather, it may be that they honestly want to study the old texts, sensing something in them. If they study wrongly, perhaps the fault is in the translations. Perhaps something of the communal life that was the context of these works, the world in which Music Hall could have been built, the necessary prerequisite for understanding them, has chipped and faded and washed away.

    And if that were the case, what would we need to recover before architecture could blossom again, the healthy outgrowth of an actually confident and creative city? To make beautiful vernacular architecture, you need a beautiful people. We may, as a city, have some money and respect that we haven’t had in a while, may be able to fend off the crap, but I think this is only the bare base for a beautiful people, and their art, to flourish.

    So, what is it for people to demand good design? I think this is something very different from a demand for ‘good design’ in computers.

    Brilliant article. Gave me lots to think about!

    • EDG

      I don’t see Millennials’ desire for exposed brick having anything to do with Victorian architecture, it’s really just about loft/industrial chic.

    • David Cole

      What EDG said. The whole idea of exposed brick, beams and ductwork could actually be considered a very modernist idea. In most prewar residential construction, all that stuff would’ve been buried inside the walls and ceilings.

    • But a sense of and respect for history is hardly modern.

    • Neil Clingerman

      ^-To your digression: Anyone who works in the Tech Industry has these thoughts about a unix terminal vs a mac, but I think the author had a more general audience in mind.

      Unix terminals are awesome for some things – manipulating data files for instance or running complex processor intensive backend tasks, but pretty terrible at others (playing videos – I knew a tech professional who would run mplayer from the command line just to show off his elite (1337) computer skillz).

      Though seriously the analogy is a good one its just one that makes people who work with such stuff pause for a minute.

    • David Cole

      Agreed; I was simply making an analogy, not commenting about the merits of one operating system vs. another. The exact same analogy could be made with MS Windows and a DOS command prompt.

    • With all due respect, I’m not sure it is a good analogy (digressing again here, not really criticising what is actually a really good article). As an artist/designer, I think I’m becoming something of a purist in the form/function (or reality/model-of-reality) debate. While I certainly don’t use the terminal for everything or even most things, or even >5% of things, I like that it reminds me what this thing is that I’m dealing with. It reminds me that the machine doesn’t have buttons, but algorithms and processes and insanely incomprehensible speed and that bad input results in disaster.

      I’m slightly worried that a whole generation which grows up with computers, most of which will have gloriously seemless GUIs, will be able to forget how they work, to think that they think. But of course, now I’m wandering down a slippery path, for most people don’t have any real appreciation for the way their own bodies work either and most of them are doing OK. They think that they think and that seems to work. Maybe I shouldn’t be worried. Maybe you’re right. Hmmm…

    • Neil Clingerman

      If you want to go that route (which you do confess is a slippery slope) even a Unix terminal is not an accurate representation of how a computer really behaves, only those of us who write assembly language really have that kind of connection, operating systems themselves are a layer of abstraction over what a computer actually does… Unless you are at a terminal and flipping switches you are always going to be removed from the core function of a computer, everything else we developed is some abstraction that allows us to do more sophisticated things easier. And this is way off topic ;).

    • Computers are so damn crazy.

      I want everyone writing their own code (already high-level and compiled, I know) and managing ther own biochemistry day-to-day. We use so many things that we hardly understand…

  • EDG

    Great line re UC’s Signature Architecture Program: “Often referred to by students as “the cash register”, due to its curved copper roofs (similar in form and material to Graves’ O’Reilly Theater in Pittsburgh), the building has come to be much appreciated by the student body. One aspect in particular in the building’s construction that has paid off, is Graves’ elegant use of traditional building materials, which have allowed the Engineering Research Center to age gracefully in comparison to its nearby neighbor, the Aronoff Center for Design and Art.” http://www.galinsky.com/buildings/cincinnatiengineering/

  • Great article, touching on several important points and ideas. One thing I would like to bring up is the criticism of overt sentimentality and “faux-historic” designs, because it’s a fine line between that and being sympathetic, contextual, or heaven-forbid, derivative. For some people any building that doesn’t look like shards of broken glass or some amorphous blob is kitschy and pedestrian, while for others any building that’s not derived from classicism or a real vernacular methodology is just an ugly ego stroking exercise. Even the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for historic preservation note that additions and alterations should be sensitive to their context but still of their own time. These goals are often in opposition to one another, and it can lead to a rather compromised and mediocre design. It’s an issue that the profession has yet to resolve, one that may in fact never be resolved.

    Anyway, there seems to be a double-standard when it comes to modern versus traditional designs. A lot of modernist dogma is about constantly reinventing the wheel, and finding what are ultimately very flimsy justifications for the kind of blobitecture, spearitecture, or any of the confounding designs that are out there. Despite this, right now we see much rehashing of mid-century typologies, with a lot of copycatting of the currently trendy designs too. In this day and age you can do just about anything you want with built form, and while it’s apparently ok to copy Mies or Liebskind or Gehry, it’s not ok to copy Wright, Hannaford, Sullivan, or McKim/Mead/White. It’s similar to the people who call automobiles modern and streetcars old-fashioned, even though they were both developed at the same time and have both continued to progress technologically and design-wise over more than a century. They’re both old, and modern architecture is old now too. Just like with modern art, once you get to the contemporary and the abstract, where else is left to go? Why not just embrace all the approaches rather than systematically rejecting everything that came before? Otherwise you eventually reject everything and there’s nowhere left to go.

    What should really matter is execution, not only in design but construction as well. Brick veneer and injection-molded cornice brackets are no more fake than folded titanium panels or walls made to look like crumpled masses. Heck, many Italianate cornices were made of pressed tin, itself a derivation of older techniques. A signature element of Mies’ works are his exposed steel corner columns, except they’re not actually exposed, what we see is a cladding over the fireproofing that covers the actual columns. That doesn’t make his designs fraudulent necessarily, since they still project the same message (columns at corners with curtain walls attached to them), just like a fypon cornice bracket still communicates the same message as a wood one (holding up the roof overhang and protecting the facade below, terminating the top of the building). As long as these messages are communicated properly through good design that understands where they come from, then it’s all good, IMO.

    • Matt Jacob

      I couldn’t agree more. Many of the points you bring up make me wonder how we’ll ever infill a neighborhood like OTR when they place so many limitations on “copying” the old traditional styles while really just making it difficult for innovative new designs that build off of these existing styles. Personally I’d like to see new infill take these old designs to a new level of craftsmanship. With new materials like fiberglass and methods like 3D printing, the sky is the limit.

    • EDG

      I like the contemporary part of Mercer Commons on Walnut. The orange is very close to the color of brick and the ground floor and floor to ceiling ratios are a good match. Other than knowing it’s contemporary, the only thing that sticks out is the parapet.

    • Neil Clingerman

      I’m a bigger fan of the building Quan Hapa is in and the one across from it, both do a great job of being modern while paying homage to the neighborhood.

    • Neil Clingerman

      Yeah you are getting at the number one thing that bugs me about that particular dogma of contemporary architects with your comment about Italianate cornices. I’m going to take this one step further and argue Italianate is a revivalist architectural movement – its a repeat of earlier renaissance era Italian buildings which themselves are an interpretation of Roman designs.

      I guess what bugs me the most here is that its okay for eras prior to the 1940s to have revivalist themes, but anything after 1940 is kitsch – so Art Deco with its references to Egyptian buildings or colonial revival or Gothic revival was okay in its day, but now its kitsch to have a revival movement. I’m not sure I understand why this is the case now?

      Also, I’m going to agree when you mention execution is everything – it really is and this article would agree with that point unless its a revivalist architectural style…

      And that actually is the only thing that bugged me about this article – it really addressed this issue in a comprehensive and thorough way addressing all sides of the issue while still properly forwarding its own viewpoint.

    • neroden

      To phrase the question in the most provocative way: Why shouldn’t we have Googie revival?

    • Neil Clingerman

      I like Googie, though it is by its nature Kitsch. LAX airport from a pure form standpoint is a lot of fun to look at (function though… ugh kind of a nightmare).

    • EDG

      Art Deco CVS in Carmel, IN

    • Neil Clingerman

      Not everything that is revivalist has to be kitsch, Chicago’s main library branch, built in the late 1980s:

      http://www.bustler.net/images/news2/thomas_beeby_2013_driehaus_prize_02.jpg

    • EDG

      A lot of people call that po-mo monstrosity kitsch, and don’t forget the completely nonfunctional interior

    • Neil Clingerman

      Decoration is not a sin (though modernism is quite nice when done right). I’ll just leave it at that. Architects need to get over themselves on that.

      Also I’d rather see that kitsch CVS than the standard cookie cutter one, they are at least trying.

    • Guest

      I want to make it clear that I don’t have any fundamental objection to modern architecture, it’s just that more often than not it seems to become self-destructive, adversarial, and most disappointingly, inhuman and anti-urban. Much of modernism was brought about as a rejection of all things past, due more to political ideology than anything. Nevertheless, the urban became rural/suburban, vertical became horizontal, decorated became unadorned. The thing is that those are rejections of the things that make buildings relatable to their users, human beings. Urban places are where people live, doors and windows are vertical because people go through them or stand at them, decoration and fine detail are things for people to look at when they walk by to hold their interest. Instead it became about whizzing by in an automobile, fetishization of technological achievements, and living outside society rather than within. To quote Jurassic Park, these designers “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

      Sometimes starchitect designs get their heads so far up their asses (sometimes literally) that they lose the very messages they’re trying to convey. Take Eisenman’s Aronoff addition to the DAAP building. In a plan diagram it’s a pretty simple arc connecting the several somewhat disjointed preexisting buildings. A perfectly logical and practical idea. In section there’s actually a regular grid of vertical columns that follow the plan. The key move is that as you go from east to west, the mass of the building that tilts out towards the north and MLK gradually twists to where it tilts back towards the south by the time you get to the Clifton Avenue side. So the rhythm of columns on the east side of the building are expressed on the inside, while as you go west they become expressed on the outside. You can see that here as the building goes from leaning out on the left (east) to leaning in on the right (west): http://goo.gl/maps/PfTP9 It’s actually a pretty interesting idea, but it gets totally lost in all the other kajiggering going on with the colors, panels, windows, and the rest of the fluff in the design. Not to mention the fact that it’s a completely insular design, which shuns the world outside. That’s perhaps an apt comparison to DAAP itself, but that’s not a good idea to design around, it’s one to try to fix instead.

      There are good modern buildings though. The Contemporary Arts Center is actually successful good from an urbanistic standpoint. It maintains the street wall, is open to the sidewalk, and at least on the Walnut Street side is pretty vertical (though not the 6th Street side sadly). Frank Gehry’s Fred & Ginger building in Prague is kind of fun and playful while actually being respectful to the adjacent buildings and urban build-to lines. It even punctuates the corner, which so many modern buildings eschew. https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4128/4994194408_fd033f3efe.jpg I think UC’s Onestop Center is a fine building too. The Engineering Building at UC, while certainly postmodern, does two things that the buildings by Eisenman or Gehry can’t. It terminates the axis of University Avenue very well, which is something that requires a bit of formality and even symmetry to achieve. A building shaped like a crumpled wad of paper can’t achieve the same effect, even if it’s being laid out on a platter as an objet d’art. Also, by using novel design choices like straight walls and simple materials, it allowed money to be dedicated to making functional and pleasant spaces on the inside as well. There’s nice wood doors, tall ceilings, windows and transoms (how cool is it to have windows into labs from the hallway?). Compare that with DAAP which has already required a multi-million dollar re-cladding and it’s still a stark environment filled with drywall and vinyl tile.

      It seems like modern architecture shines best when it’s going for the sublime. The Barcelona Pavilion, Farnsworth House, and even Fallingwater, are all great designs that deserve the accolades they receive, in part because they’re trying to achieve something understandable and relatable, not to mention intimate.

    • I want to make it clear that I don’t have any fundamental objection to modern architecture, it’s just that more often than not it seems to become self-destructive, adversarial, and most disappointingly, inhuman and anti-urban. Much of modernism was brought about as a rejection of all things past, due more to political ideology than anything. Nevertheless, the urban became rural/suburban, vertical became horizontal, decorated became unadorned. The thing is that those are rejections of the things that make buildings relatable to their users, human beings. Urban places are where people live, doors and windows are vertical because people go through them or stand at them, decoration and fine detail are things for people to look at when they walk by to hold their interest. Instead it became about whizzing by in an automobile, fetishization of technological achievements, and living outside society rather than within. To quote Jurassic Park, these designers “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

      Sometimes starchitect designs get their heads so far up their asses (sometimes literally) that they lose the very messages they’re trying to convey. Take Eisenman’s Aronoff addition to the DAAP building. In a plan diagram it’s a pretty simple arc connecting the several somewhat disjointed preexisting buildings. A perfectly logical and practical idea. In section there’s actually a regular grid of vertical columns that follow the plan. The key move is that as you go from east to west, the mass of the building that tilts out towards the north and MLK gradually twists to where it tilts back towards the south by the time you get to the Clifton Avenue side. So the rhythm of columns on the east side of the building are expressed on the inside, while as you go west they become expressed on the outside. You can see that here as the building goes from leaning out on the right (east) to leaning in on the left (west): http://goo.gl/maps/Pgf9W It’s actually a pretty interesting idea, but it gets totally lost in all the other kajiggering going on with the colors, panels, windows, and the rest of the fluff in the design. Not to mention the fact that it’s a completely insular design, which shuns the world outside. That’s perhaps an apt comparison to DAAP itself, but that’s not a good idea to design around, it’s one to try to fix instead.

      There are good modern buildings though. The Contemporary Arts Center is actually successful good from an urbanistic standpoint. It maintains the street wall, is open to the sidewalk, and at least on the Walnut Street side is pretty vertical (though not the 6th Street side sadly). Frank Gehry’s Fred & Ginger building in Prague is kind of fun and playful while actually being respectful to the adjacent buildings and urban build-to lines. It even punctuates the corner, which so many modern buildings eschew. https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4128/4994194408_fd033f3efe.jpg I think UC’s Onestop Center is a fine building too. The Engineering Building at UC, while certainly postmodern, does two things that the buildings by Eisenman or Gehry can’t. It terminates the axis of University Avenue very well, which is something that requires a bit of formality and even symmetry to achieve. A building shaped like a crumpled wad of paper can’t achieve the same effect, even if it’s being laid out on a platter as an objet d’art. Also, by using novel design choices like straight walls and simple materials, it allowed money to be dedicated to making functional and pleasant spaces on the inside as well. There’s nice wood doors, tall ceilings, windows and transoms (how cool is it to have windows into labs from the hallway?). Compare that with DAAP which has already required a multi-million dollar re-cladding and it’s still a stark environment filled with drywall and vinyl tile.

      It seems like modern architecture shines best when it’s going for the sublime. The Barcelona Pavilion, Farnsworth House, and even Fallingwater, are all great designs that deserve the accolades they receive, in part because they’re trying to achieve something understandable and relatable, not to mention intimate.

  • neroden

    I’m fine with faux-historic. But most of all I believe in “form follows function”. (The light version of it, anyway.) Calatrava is infamous for designing *nonfunctional* buildings, and Gehry’s designed quite a lot of those too. A good architect pays attention to the purpose of the building and makes it fit for purpose, like Richardson did for railway stations, or like McKim/Mead/White did. There are still architects like this, but the “starchitects” have been deeply nonfunctional since Frank Lloyd Wright, whose designs are mostly unlivable, unusable garbage.

    A good architect:
    FIRST makes the building functional, and
    THEN attempts to make it attractive.

    Whether that’s done with clean lines or baroque decoration, the function must come first.

    • charles ross

      Gosh, that’s just like what they say for computer programs: First make it work, THEN make it fast.

  • charles ross

    I am in awe of that Scout hut! Wonderful things still happen.

  • TimSchirmang

    As a discipline, architecture is in a tough spot. There is an inherent tension
    within the profession itself, somewhat revealed in this article and the others
    it references, that may simply be unresolvable. As David Cole points out,
    architecture is a collaborative discipline, but two of the ‘collaborators’ are
    dialectical enemies. On one hand you have objective, functional structure and on
    the other, subjective, aesthetic appearance. Almost by definition, architecture
    involves wrangling these two elements together, usually in one chance, with the
    results permanently on display in, and used by, the public.

    Often, architecture is subject to left side of the brain constraints, but judged for
    its right side of the brain characteristics. Building developers are more
    oriented towards the functional aspect of architecture and are motivated
    primarily by cost-efficiency and economic success. Members of the general
    public experience, perceive, and judge an architectural work almost entirely by
    its subjective, aesthetic elements. This is increasingly true in a
    140-character, instant judgment, society.

    This tension between functionality and aesthetics must also play out in the minds of
    architects and be a source of perpetual creative frustration. As the stress
    builds under the boring restraints of economics and engineering, its
    understandable why a starchitect comes up with something goofy like the DAAP
    building. “Let me be creative for once. Right angles are boring!”

  • art

    lol, belligerent naysaying does nothing to help the city? complete and utter gobshite. it sure does, yet thats not what prb did. people from southern ohio – suburban appalachia – dont like to be critiqued. this is an autocratic hermetically sealed town with an echo chamber full of cacaphonic mediocracy – in all aspects, especially in the built environment. we need more robert pascal barones. now have the turnip truck whip back around and pick you.