Archive for the ‘Modernism’ Category

Shame on the American Planning Association – Call Bad Development, Bad

Monday, July 16th, 2012

The American Planning Association held its annual  conference in Los Angeles in April. As part if its conferences, there are a number of “mobile workshops” which take attendees out into the host city to provide educational and learning experiences.   One of these or shops was on the Bunker Hill area of downtown LA. In the words of the conference catalog:

“Explore this transit-oriented, pedestrian friendly remake of a 1950s and ’60s era downtown. ”

The reality of the area is that it is a tragic example if late 20 century redevelopment with fortress architecture, large building setbacks, big blocks, one way streets with fast traffic, mono-uses, and unwalkabke streets. Not to mention that the blurb (though I didn’t go on the tour – it may have discussed) doesn’t talk about the displaced who lived here before the development took place and nowhere appear to be invited back.

Check out the pictures!

Los Angeles - Bunker Hill Area

Los Angeles - Bunker Hill

















The APA should be ashamed of itself for allowing this kind of depictions in its official publications. If these are educational endeavors, they should communicate truths, not falsehoods. It the APA can’t criticize bad urban planning, who can?

Should Modernism be preserved?

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

I love Modern architecture.  One of the highlights of last year was when I visited Phillip Johnson’s spectacular Glass House in New Canaan, CT.  The house has a serenity, an intelligence and a beauty that is difficult to describe in words.  It makes you feel, it makes you connect to it.  I am so grateful it has been preserved and made available to the public.  Other Modern favorites are Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Chicago lakefront apartment buildings.  The Seagram Building and Lever Building in New York are must see attractions in my book.

But should all Modern building be saved? No.  Too many are second rate, bad, dysfunctional.  For example, should anyone weep over the Walter Gropius’s MetLife building in New York?  No.  If it were to be torn down, all that we would lose is a firsthand example of how architects can be arrogant or unable to resist the pressure of commerce.

I don’t buy the arguments that someday, we will miss these buildings when tastes change.  A couple of years ago, James Levine presented a Boston Symphony Orchestra season long program of Schoenberg and Beethoven.  After a year of concerts, lectures and exhibits, I still don’t like Schoenberg.  I now understand why I don’t and also understand why after nearly a century, the public doesn’t either.  Modern music fails to resonate with people’s psychic needs.  It doesn’t connect. Much of Modern architecture is the same.  The public is never going to come around.  Stop waiting.  Most of these buildings should go.

Lewis Mumford and Modern housing

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Today I’m going to live on the edge and critique Lewis Mumford, one the giants of American urban planning and sociology.  According to Wikipedia, Mumford was born in 1895 in New York City and died in 1990. As part of my research for my forthcoming book, Building American Public Health, I read his essays from the New Yorker (he was the magazine’s architecture critic for over 30 years) as well as his very influential book, The City in History.  I read many other of his writings as well.  Mumford was a founding member of New York City’s Regional Plan Association and he strongly promoted mid 20th century orthodox urban planning:  strict separation of land uses, superblocks, and rationalization of the unruly chaos of city living.  He was very concerned with crime, most of his criticism of Jane Jacobs in his review of her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, focused on what he saw as her misguided approach to crime control – the eyes on the street and 24 hour uses as ways of keeping evil doers at bay.  The essay is not easy to find and it is at times sexist, but it is worth reading.

Mumford has an interesting relationship with Modern architecture.  He was one of its early promoters and he saw the cruciform and Y-shaped building of early Modernist housing as very health promoting, mostly because they separated people from cars and provided access to sunlight and ventilation.  In contrast, he called Park Avenue a high cost slum and predicted that the apartment buildings sprouting up on the Upper East Side would never hold their value once people realized how little light and air they allowed in.

I was in New York City recently and had a chance to compare Park Avenue in the east 70s, an area with apartment buildings tight to the street, to the Chelsea Homes in the west 20s, a mid-century Modernist superblock development. It’s sad to say that Mumford had it wrong.  Fortunately, New York City public housing has held its quality over the years, even the high rise housing.  But no one who could afford it would prefer the Modernist inspired superblocks/skyscraper in the park of the Chelsea Homes to the conventional buildings of Park Avenue.  Even Mumford, to his credit, turned eventually turned against the Modernist superblock ideal of housing.

The Heroic Project – Modernist Concrete Buildings in the Boston Area

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Unlike most (all?) of my students, I have a deep love of Modern architecture, even if many of the building are hard to love – it’s sort of like those people who keep porcupines as house pets.  You want to put your arms around these buildings even if they are inherently unhuggable.

I admire the Modernists because they so strongly believed in the ability of architecture to promote health and their  strict guidelines, and their many written works, all display a strong belief in the power of the built environment to improve humanity.  Though many of the architects who have come after them still try to incorporate social justice and health into their work, overall, these issues have moved away from the foreground of architecture.

It turns out I am not the only one who loves Modern buildings.  There is a an international organization aimed at promoting and preserving Modern buildings called Docomomo.  They have a website ( ) , sponsor conferences and have 53 local chapters around the world.   Though I don’t believe that we need to save every Modern building, many  are part of our heritage and should be kept safe from the wrecking ball.

The Boston area has a reputation for architectural conservatism and there are far too many plain brick buildings that display any imagination.  They may be nice because they blend in with their surroundings, but they do not inspire.

But many of the great Modern architects settled in Boston during the period after World War II:  Gropius, Sert, Bruer and along with other important Modern architects, they have left us with a legacy of great Modern buildings.  These include Peabody Terrace, the Carpenter Center, and the Harvard graduate dorms in Cambridge.  One building who’s designer I had not been aware of is Boston’s Madison Park High School, designed by Marcel Bruer.  As a large concrete brutalist building, it still works and is a great building.  Obviously, I have never gone to school there, but I have visited the building many times and I like how it flows, its feeing of both enclosure and openness, and the calm of its stately design.  It certainly communicates that whoever commissioned the building had a respect for its users.

I learned about Bruer’s involvement in Madison Park through the website of a group called The Heroic Project.  This grew out of a great exhibit at the Pinkcomma gallery on heroic architecture.  The Heroic Project is seeking to document Boston’s concrete Modern buildings and put out a monograph on them.   They are looking to raise funds for the project and I strongly urge everyone to support them.  The Heroic Project’s website (a  must visit) is .  Pinkcomma’s website, another must visit is .

What should be done with Boston’s City Hall?

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

The first several blog posting covered both public health and urban planning.  The next several will be more focused on one area or the other. They illustrate the range of issues in each of these important domains.

Form follows function, Louis Sullivan famously declared.  So what form  does a dysfunctional building take?  Most likely it would look more or less like Boston’s City Hall.  Designed by Gerhard Kallmann, Noel McKinnell, and Edward Knowles, it opened in 1969 and it has consistently ranked at the top of most disliked buildings by the people of Boston, though it also wins awards from architects.  It is a classic example of Brutalist architecture.  Brutalism is derived from the French for concrete poured into wood forms so that the mold of the form can be seen in the finished product.  The name also reflects the reactions that people usually have to these kinds of buildings.  They feel brutalized by bureaucracies and/or uncaring architects.

I worked in the building and can report that the building is worse on the inside than its exterior suggests.  The main entrance is from City Hall is from City Hall Plaza though the building’s official address is on the opposite side, two floors down.  How is that for confusion from the very start?  Some floors extend across the entire building, others end part way.  Corridors twist and turn, lighting is designed to make people look like residents of a morgue, and rooms are either too hot or too cold – the season is irrelevant.  Have I mentioned the acoustics? The open area on the third (entrance) floor is very loud, the second floor acoustics make the various windows that serve the public – birth certificates, parking tickets, etc., impossible for communication. The brick plaza around the building is cold and heartless despite the efforts to host markets, activities and concerts there.  The brick plaza is a good place for demonstrations, however, because there is nothing to destroy, nothing that can burn.  I probably like the building more than most people.

But what can be done with this building?  Mayor Thomas Menino wanted to sell the building to a private develop as a tear down and move city hall to the South Boston waterfront – a colossal bad idea.  There have been proposals for a café, theatrical productions, wall hangings, and who knows what else.  But nothing has come of these.  The building seems impossible to modify.  In the meantime, City Hall continues to win approvals from architects.  Harvard’s Design Magazine ran a series of articles praising it a couple of years ago.  Any proposal to demolish the building is greeted with rallies by architects filled with as much passion and self-righteousness as must have been spent on protecting Grand Central Terminal.

I am going to propose a truce:  the building will be kept as Boston’s City Hall.  We residents of Boston will simply live with it, much as we live with the cold spring weather, the insane traffic, and the lack of decent Mexican food in this city.  Boston has so many other charms that we put up with the problems.  Let’s be grateful that City Hall is in a perfect location, adjacent to all four subway lines.  It is convenient to state and federal offices, downtown, the North End and the buried central artery.  City Hall Plaza is uncontested space (it was not always so – the famous picture of Ted Landsmark being attacked by protesters with an American flag on the plaza is seared into the public’s memory of Boston’s racial history).  Be thankful that the building has not had a indoor air quality and for all its problems, the building is probably the best example of Modernist architecture in the city.  Cambridge has many wonderful Modernist buildings, but Boston does not.  So given Boston’s great architectural history, City Hall deserves its place in the city.

But architects need to understand that the building is a failure.  It ignores the street (more of the Dock Square Side is given over to an underground parking entrance than to pedestrian access).  It brutalizes its users, it’s energy inefficient and failure to perform its duty as a public building.  The building doesn’t deserve any awards.

We, the people of Boston, will pledge not to tear down City Hall.  But architects should pledge not to build it up, either. Truce?