Comment 16572

By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 03, 2008 at 00:03:07

Statius, thank you for a considered response. In reply:

"How could anyone sanely disagree with this?"

Well, many conservatives and most ideologues disagree with it.

"Your remarks on the building's lack of 'scale' are typical architectural conservancy anti-modernist rhetoric. Such rhetoric is problematic because there is often a general lack of agreement on what constitutes an appropriate 'sense of scale' for any given city."

By "sense of scale" I mean broadly that pedestrians standing beside it A) can easily determine approximately how tall it is (i.e. how many storeys) and B) aren't likely to feel as though it's about to crush them.

Note: I'm not suggesting that buildings shouldn't be tall (though careful consideration of the diminishing returns in economies of scale is warranted given the unfolding energy situation); only that they shouldn't be oppressive in their appearance and bearing.

An anecdotal observation: I'm generally not a big fan of very tall buildings, but when I had the pleasure of walking around Midtown Manhattan a couple of years ago, I felt very comfortable walking next to 60 storey towers that dwarfed Haussman's height restriction. They did so through the classical method of using ornament to convey information about scale by delineating storeys, framing windows, giving special treatment to the first to storeys plus the top floor, etc.

Manhattan's most iconic buildings come from the neoclassical, beaux-arts, art deco (a kind of streamlined classical style), and early modernist schools of architecture: the Flatiron, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, the Woolworth, the American Radiator - even the Seagram Building is essentially classical, though it reduces ornament to a minimum.

Classical buildings also tend to reserve the street level for more or less public uses. A streetwall of classically designed buildings is accessible and permeable.

Contemporary buildings, by contrast, consciously and conspicuously lack ornament. If anything, the building itself is a mega-ornament that may or may not (but generally does not) play nice with its surroundings.

They tend to put their functional workings on display but hide their entrances, and the main floor gets no special treatment, since the entire building is an ornament in itself.

Indeed, the drabbest, least interesting and most oppressive buildings in New York are the modernist and postmodern offerings: the blocky UN Headquarters (thanks, Corbusier), ganky UN Plaza, the ill-fated WTC towers, the featureless steel-and-glass Time-Warner buiding, and the pointlessly curvy "Lipstick" building at 885 Third Ave. (contrast the flatiron, shaped to fill the odd intersection of Fifth, West 23rd., Broadway and West 22nd).

Of course this is not an exact science and people won't react identically to a given building or configuration of buildings, but classical architecture in its many styles is based on a systematic set of guidelines and basic forms around design, engagement, and communication.

By contrast, postmodern architecture is a conscious rejection of these guidelines. Each new building reinvents the wheel - or to use the metaphor of architecture as a language made out of basic phonemes, each new building is its own language.

It may be that a new language is invented one day that improves dramatically on the vocabulary offered by classical architecture, but since architects refuse to let themselves be constrained by anything other than their budgets and the limits of materials and engineering, they are predisposed not to adopt such a language for common use.

As a result, each building disorients by design. To be perfectly frank, I think most cutting-edge architecture is simply fraudulent, or else so narcissistic as to be indistinguishable from fraud.

"At any rate, I think your aesthetic critique of these two buildings, while undoubtedly valid in some respects, largely misses the point. These buildings were proferred not as examples of "great" architecture qua architecture but rather as proof of the ability of a midsized regional industrial city to break out of the bonds of its stereotypes and embrace a new urban identity and aesthetic."

I think you actually missed my point. Hamilton has already demonstrated amply that it can "break out of the bonds of its stereotypes and embrace a new urban identity and aesthetic", as evidenced by the Internationalist City Hall and School Board, the Brutalist Hamilton Place and Central Library, the Cartoonalist Jackson Square and Eaton Centre/Hamilton City Centre, and so on.

Whether Hamilton can do this is not really in question; rather, we must ask, Should Hamilton do this, particularly where existing buildings are already excellent candidates for adaptive reuse?

Hey, if a developer wants to hire Frank Gehry to turn the parking lot at John and Rebecca into a giant titanium Meringue and investors are willing to back him, godspeed to them. I just seriously doubt that the resulting building will be good for pedestrians or its surroundings in general.

"The fact of the matter is that young, educated people want to live amongst current, interesting architecture"

From my experience and the research I've done (or, more often, read), young, educated people want to live in vibrant urban centres. That's only tangentially connected to the presence of "current, interesting architecture", as the robustness and vitality - both economially and culturally - of a city like Boston can attest.

Between its coherent downtown, vibrant streets, cultural amenities and copious universities, Boston manages to attract plenty of young, creative professionals with architecture that was mostly built in the 18th and 19th centuries. It notably resisted the "renewal" and "modernization" that decimated so many American cities in the mid to late 20th century, and is further notable for a fairly uniform density between two and four storeys (with the exception of the small financial district).

"I would thus suggest that your sustainability argument is not really apropos given the almost complete lack of development in Hamilton's core over the last quarter century, the almost complete lack of fashionable architecture in the city, the almost complete lack of anything suggesting a rich and faddish society in this city."

It seems you've got causality backwards in your analysis: you seem to be arguing that efforts to preserve functional buildings (successful efforts like the Pigott, and unsuccessful efforts like the Birks) have prevented the downtown from flourishing, but the evidence runs decidedly against this thesis.

In fact, the most successful sites downtown are the historical buildings - whether or not they meet your "world class" criteria - and the least successful sites are those that actually followed your prescription to replace "unremarkable ... blights" with buildings of "current, interesting architecture" - which have aged far more rapidly and far less elegantly than the buildings they replaced.

Hamilton has an underinvested, hollowed-out core due to the following:

  • Postwar "renewal" efforts that oblitered the coherent Victorian streetscapes that form the foundation of other successful older cities;

  • Endless sprawling development into the surrounding rurals with zoning regulations that enforce low-density, single use design and penalize infill.

  • A property tax system that discourages investment.

  • Investment in road and highway infrastructure and under-investment in transit.

  • Conversion of all major downtown streets to one-way to facilitate flow-through.

In short, the sad state of Hamilton's architecture is a symptom of its piss-poor governance, not the other way around.

Your FUD about "conservative urbanists" seems to be mostly a straw man, since you have not demonstrated that replacing rather than adaptively reusing the Lister would represent any improvement in outcome other than to the short-term bottom line of its owner.

Again: I'm all for being progressive if I can see evidence of improvement. Replacing a reasonably tall, structurally sound, architecturally significant building with a cheap prefab steel-and-glass building that has a shorter use life and a much shorter design life is simply not an improvement.

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