Comment 16531

By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 02, 2008 at 08:59:38

In response to statius:

"I love the progressive spirit here."

Of course I cannot speak for RTH as a whole, but personally, I consider myself progressive in the sense that I generally support ideas based on empirical study rather than a priori morality. I don't support new ideas or methods merely because they're new: they have to be better that existing ideas or methods.

To put it bluntly, most new architecture is crap by any reasonable standard I can come up with. It's megalomaniacal, designed to be appreciated by helicopter, visually oppressive at street level, and engineered to last for maybe 20 years.

All aesthetics aside, I don't believe we can afford the luxury of fashionable, throw-away architecture in a society that will soon have to deal with the very real problem of persistent energy constraints.

As Jason points out elsewhere, a rebuilt Lister would not last as long as a restored lister - that should tell you something about modern construction methods and the economic models that justify them.

"Look at the Urbis building or Beetham Tower in Manchester"

The Urbis building is far from the worst example of new architecture, but it's not great, either. It offers no sense of scale to the pedestrian - just a smooth steel-and-glass facade that offers curves and diagonals for their own sake and squanders a wedge-shaped slice of land beside it that is overshadowed and fails to operate as a public space. At a similar scale of height, Haussman's Paris is much more convivial.

Similarly, the Beetham tower is devoid of architectural 'hooks' that might provide scale. It's a banal, steel-and-glass tower with arbitrary runners stuck on one side and a pointless extension that juts out near the top. Nothing makes pedestrians feel disoriented and unsafe like overhanging structures that seem to be unsupported. Also, the building occasionally "whistles" in the wind.

If these buildings are the best today's architects can come up with (and they can certainly come up with much worse), I'm not persuaded they meet my criteria for "progressive", i.e. new and better.

"the Lister ... was basically just functionalist commercial architecture when it was built, and that is all, I think, that it remains"

I agree completely. In fact, RTH published an essay in March 2006, titled, "A Humble Workhorse Again", that made a similar case:

However, the very fact that the Lister is a modest example of its period underscores my point about the decline in architectural and building standards since the early 20th century. Today, no builder would even contemplate trying to reconstruct the Lister to its original, robust standards - the cost would be prohibitive.

It's ironic that poor societies cannot afford the luxury of cheap buildings, so they invest in buildings designed and constructed to endure for a very long time. LIUNA argues that it's cheaper to demolish and reconstruct Lister than to restore it - mainly because a reconstructed building would be cheaply built of prefabricated materials and designed to last only a few decades. What a waste of energy and resources!

"albeit in probably hopelessly decayed state"

Jason responded to this, but I'll add that despite LIUNA's best attempts to expose Lister to the elements, Lister remains structurally sound and an excellent candidate for adaptive reuse, as several architects have noted.

"The old 'they sure don't build 'em like they used to' argument."

Many things are built much better today than they were in previous decades (automobiles spring to mind). However, the economics of construction, as I've noted above, does not lend themselves to the construction of enduring buildings today. We're a rich society, and we design buildings to be fashionable, not enduring. As fashions change, we rip down and reconstruct our disposable buildings so they remain au courant.

With global energy production sliding into permanent decline, this is a luxury we can no longer afford.

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