de Botton, Stephen Johnson, Vladimir Paperny

November 18, 2006 § Leave a comment

Three fascinating younger writers.

de Botton On the Architecture of Happiness writes about the pleasure and uneasiness with architecture, home and environment. it is a long and intelligent poem, reflection in the best sense, the kind we should all do.

de Botton has an elegant website at 

Johnsn, author of the new book on Cohleraa,

as the NYT says

Steven Johnson is the author of five books on the intersection of science, technology and personal life, including “Everything Bad Is Good For You” and his latest, “The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.” He also writes for Wired, Discover and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, and blogs at

seems fully at home in history and language, and is as topically present as Jarrad Diamond was in Guns, Germs and Steel. In this case Johnson is dealing with population density and the fate of mankind.

Vladiir is also extraordinarily well prepared.

vladimir paperny (los angeles)

Vladimir Paperny, writer, designer and cultural historian, graduated from Stroganov Art School in Moscow and received his PhD in Cultural Studies from the Russian State University for the Humanities. His PhD thesis “Architecture in the age of Stalin. Culture Two” was published in Russian (Moscow, 1996, 2006) and in English (Cambridge, 2003). He works at his design studio in Los Angeles, alternating between design and research (visiting professor at USC, UCLA, and Bristol University, UK).

He has written an article on the relation of architecture, modernism and destruction. He is tentative, broad ranging. Especially he draws on soviet avante gardism and the themes of modernism and authoritarian structure.

He is the only one I know of to make much of the fact that Yamasaki, designer of the twin towers, had a building project blown up because it failed – in St. Louis in 1972. Tom Wolfe does make the connection – before the fact, in his Bauhaus book.

 He writes

My point of departure is three pairs of photographs. The first pair juxtaposes the unfinished frame of Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall in Los Angeles (photo 1) and the destroyed carcass of Minoru Yamasaki’s Twin Towers in New York (photo 2). We are conditioned to expect a building frame to consist of (or at least contain some) rectangular elements. Gehry’s frame has none. We might see it as a “normal” rectangular frame twisted and distorted by the creative will of a modernist. The modernist vocabulary, as Anthony Vidler observed, has always included “displacement and fracture, torquing and twisting, pressure and release.”1 Some, on the other hand, would see Gehry’s frame as precisely the opposite, as a postmodern or anti-modern attack on the rigidity of modernist thinking.

The other photo shows Yamasaki’s rectangular frame deformed by a terrorist act. This violent deformation, as we will see, is also open to different interpretations.

The second pair is, again, Yamasaki’s Twin Towers (photo 2) and his housing project Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis (photo 3) being blown up by authorities in 1972 after it had been repeatedly vandalized by its residents, and attempts to revitalize it had failed.

The third pair shows the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in the center of Moscow in 1931 in the process of demolition (photo 4) to leave room for the proposed (but unrealised) Palace of the Soviets and the unfinished frame of this Palace before its demolition (photo 5).




influence of modern architecture in Santa Rosa

November 16, 2006 § Leave a comment

In too many cases it has proven to be a support, an excuse, for dollar defined design.

In this case the brick entrance is a barrier to seeing what is cming down the other side,  the overall coldness and univitingness makes it so as you approach you either want to get away or get inside as quickly as possible with a feeling of relief – from what? mere lack of hospitableness and pleasure for the eye. The sub shop looks like it is huddling under the overhang for protection, not comfortably awaiting human presence.

This building has the feel of a rock ledge about to cave in. The bad feeling from the building is emphasized by the flat dad facade of the building on the left. Being a pedestrian down that side of the street feels over exposed and like a wasteland. We are one block from the major center of the city.

Compare them to this re-do of an older building. Not terrific but much warmer, more interesting to the eye compared to the first example.




Here we have more cold undifferentiated facade, a mere excuse to get square feet for office building without regard for the experience of the town, its setting, its history, its people.

In each case, much of the basic design is following “modern”, with really cheap building materials and craftsmanship. All these are within a block of the major downtown intersection.  It reflects financial decisions about getting maximum square feet close to the pleasures of downtown, without being aware how much these buildings defeat the downtown experience for everyone else.

modern architecture

November 13, 2006 § Leave a comment

I finished reading today two books on my architecture project . First was the 1981 Tom Wolfe From Bauhaus to Our House. the second was the more recent 2001 WitoldRybczynski’s The Look of Architecture.

Both make a modern architecture look like a more minor project than I have thought. A few good designers and a lot of imitative junk. But even good designers made several mistakes.

Wolfe’s main  thesis is that the original impulse for Bauhaus modern was for worker apartments . That it became an elite enterprise is deeply ironic . The impulse and arose in the difficult period between the two world wars when socialism  seemed more vital and relevant than extreme capitalism .  The very name the “international style” was rather haphazard , appearing in an essay by Johnson based on Gropius’s 1925 book , International Architecture .

The jump came when theRockefeller supported Museum of Modern Art opened in 1929 in New York . The rise of Hitler had led many of the architects to emigrate to New York or the East Coast architecture schools . This is happening in parallel with Arnold Schoenberg ‘s abstract music . Freudians also came , of which I was a beneficiary through Fromm. The buzz around these figures masked the American achievements, for example in psychology,  William James . While the Europeans were looking to the Americans in music such as Scott Joplin and  Aaron Copland , the Americans were looking to Europe . Perhaps one can say looking without finding was the characteristic of the age .

The alignment between socialist origins and an elite clientele made the modern movement hostile to the middle class and to any sense of comfort or nostalgia . The oldest traditions of decoratie architecture, became heresy . Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright was constantly marginalized . What came to dominate was what was called the “Yale box”, an endless series of Cubes made of glass and steel arranged somewhat organically and painted white and undecorated . The boards of universities and corporations embraced this move because it was simple, cheap, and made technology and modernism look good . As Wolf e, says, “The building could scarcely have been distinguished from a Woolco discount store in a shopping center “.  and,  “An architecture whose tenets that prohibits every manifestation of exuberance, power, empire, Granger or even high spirits and playfulness . In short, the reigning architectural style in this, the very Babylon of capitalism , became worker housing. ”   Yamasaki , the architect of the world trade center , was an early advocate and built a housing project in Saint Louis in 1955 that was dynamited in a famous film document in 1972 . The similarity with the World Trade Center is painful to contemplate .

Creative impulses like Aero Saranan’s airport terminals at Kennedy and Dallas were scorned simply because they used curves . The modern architects moved strongly from office buildings to malls and museums , but the imitators can be seen in block after block of almost any town were cheap rectangular buildings of failing brick and cracked plaster are the results and remains of a hot but undisciplined economy. Modern architecture came to serve commercial interests, of client or develoer, and then entertainment in museums, malls, and theme parrks.

It is striking that only a small number of people  made names for themselves amidst the tight dialectic of moernism,  and these financed by a small number – given the size of the building boom, this small number of commissions . Most of the building was done by unknowns in imitative style in collaboration with developers looking primarily at the bottom line . In a way, the modern movement was not so serious. This book does a good job of naming the characters and showing their interconnections .

From a rhetorical poin of view, Wolf at critical moments compares events to the renaissance and scholasticism. Well done.

Rybczynski, writen 20 yars later, does not metnion Wolfe, and covers some of the same ruout in tems of its critique of modernism, but is broader in some ways, such as taking the problems of “style” seriously as an awkward way of looking at architecture.

One of the main points in the book is that architecture and clothing follow each other closely , but the problem for architecture is that the timeframe for  fashion is shorter than any building can afford to be . Also, that a building can be beautiful but not functional, or functional but not beautiful.

He makes the fine  point at the early modernists houses require formal manners and formal dress . This shift to the casual comes later and a key point seems to be Robert Graves ‘ little house in the Berkeley Hills that so impressed me when I first saw pictures of it, being built while I was a graduate student at Berkeley. I did drawings of it in and played with variations and it met my sense of elegant simplicity , small and affordable, flexible and sophisticated .

Like wolf he is dissatisfied, but not as snide , about the commercialism that took modern as its own . In this case, “tall buildings conceived as Nietscean symbols of corporate power ,or to put it more mundanly, architecture as advertising .”  He discusses how the architectural schools avoided the very popular Radio City Music Hall because it didn’t fit the sterile rules of the modern movement .  

like  Wolfe, he reaches to history at critical moments and quotes the French historian of commerce in the Mediterranean, Brudel, “fashion affects  everything , it covers ideas as much as costume , the current phrase as much as a coquettish gesture , the manner of receiving at table , the care taken in sealing  a letter .” Though I don’t know if anyone any longer receives at table or seals a letter with any style that all , or at all.

He puts a little more effort into the revival of the classical and the development of the gothic as preludes to the modern . It strikes me that he never mentions the Craftsmen movement . He describes how the emergence of of the modern was driven as much by a public taste for simpler forward looking design as it was driven by new technologies . He says “the international style makes  striking small buildings, but boring large ones .”  He ends with some classy descriptions of the work of Alan Greenberg and Hugh Jacobson, who designed a house for an old friend , but she rejected it because “it looks so much bigger than it did on paper” .

The last pages are a rush to get in the names of the well known  newer architects doing buildings that are between intended and random,”this is the way we live today, Gehry seems to be saying, why not enjoy it?”  

These two books ay out the territory and show that modern was a confluence of a small number ofstrangely motivated europeans and a rush of big money. This period is over.

why so much war is the dominant theme?

May 4, 2006 § Leave a comment

The amount of war is actually quite small, but it’s centrality in our consciousess has real effects – and causes. More is to be earned by the powerfl by trashing the world and hoping to get a piece, than by building the world.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the architecture category at Reflections on GardenWorld Politics Douglass Carmichael.