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Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture (currentaffairs.org)
56 points by oftenwrong 3 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 34 comments



> It should be obvious to anyone that skyscrapers should be abolished. [...] there is plenty of space left on earth to spread out horizontally; the only reasons to spread vertically are phallic and Freudian.

Because endless miles and miles of urban sprawl is so much more attractive than a skyline and a lot of surrounding countryside. I wonder how much more real estate the average metropolis would take up if downtown was flattened to a few stories?


How do you even write something like that? There are a ton of reasons to build up:

* More land is expensive, you don't need to buy more to build up * It's faster to take an elevator to floor 100, than walk through 100 floors

And more I'm sure, this is just off the top of my head.


This isn't a fair comparison in the US, where the majority of cities' downtowns are skyscrapers standing alone in a vast sea of parking lots and freeways. Compare Dallas to something like Paris, especially on population density.


I've never been to either city, but from looking at pictures, both seem to fit your description. If anything Paris looks "flatter", but maybe that's just the composition of these photos.

In any case, my point is that if we decide to always build out instead of up, whatever urban sprawl already exists in any city will only be made worse. City planners actively try to avoid sprawl for a number of reasons, including that it makes public transportation less effective, increases smog, and reduces access to green spaces.


That's the point. Skyscrapers are a rarity in Paris - now go look up the density of the city proper.


> now go look up the density of the city proper

Nah, I don't accept homework assignments from condescending people on the internet, sorry. Feel free to dig up the numbers yourself and post them here, though.

While you're at it, you might be interested in looking up New York City, which is far denser than Paris. What do you think would happen if all the skyscrapers in NYC were flattened out? Where should those people go? Shall we pack them into the city's existing footprint with all the other sardines?


Didn't mean to condescend. Anyway, Paris has 21,498 people/km^2 [0], twice that of New York (10,933 people/km^2), and without an equivalent Manhattan. For the majority of large cities in the USA (14 of the top 20), the given density is under 2,000 people/km^2 [1], including Dallas (1,493 people/km^2). That's the kind of thing I was referring to. Of course, New York and San Francisco are much denser; I was not talking about them, but the average American city. I'd like to give the article the benefit of the doubt that so were they.

ED: I should add that I don't consider New York an average American city because it's a success!

[0] (Wikipedia, but calculated from https://www.insee.fr/fr/recherche?idprec=3293086&q=paris&deb...)

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_cities_b...


Okay, I'm looking at the numbers more closely now and I concede that Europe's most densely populated city, an extreme outlier, is more densely populated than America's extreme outlier. I also concede that it is denser than Dallas, which is one of the least dense cities in the United States.

If you look at the population densities of median American and European cities, they're quite similar (~13,000/sq mi. or 5000/sq km.). Which makes me wonder why you insist on comparing two cities that are not remotely comparable. Seems like cherry picking.

> ED: I should add that I don't consider New York an average American city because it's a success!

I'm almost curious why you consider the "average" U.S. city "not a success", but this remark smells too much of the pompous anti-American groupthink that has become so popular on HN lately, so I know better than to expect a rational explanation.

Honestly, I'm starting to find your undeservedly superior attitude and cherry-picked data tiresome, so I don't think I'll bother with this conversation anymore. Have a nice night.


Yup. I'd rather make skyscrapers less boxy (use the multiple overlapping symmetries the author mentions), add lots of skyways between them, and, if feasible, figure out how to add some greenery on the sides.

Look at the Petronas towers for inspiration as a starting point for inspiration.


Is it wrong to like a lot of the examples of "bad architecture" listed in the article? Are we required to hate contemporary architecture?

From the pictures in the article, London's "Alexandra Road", the Poydras building, the Tour Montparnasse, and the Caltrans District 7 HQ genuinely look really nice. I would love to live in/near any of those buildings.

I don't understand why the author assumes "clean lines" and "geometric shapes" as being some depression-inducing "sickly" visual. Are things only allowed to look nice if they are wrapped in psuedo-victorian embellishments?


I agree with you, I like most of the examples shown that are supposed to horrify you. I like most of the traditional, "good" examples too, but not reflexively.

The points made are reasonable, though, and not the first time they've been made.


Yup. I don't like the old hospital because it seems to be made of ornament, which is too much. Some of the modern buildings look nice.

Also, the author seems to be saying that Walter Gropius only created jarring monsters, which isn't true. I'm not sure about him personally, but the Bauhaus, the architecture school he co-founded, produced plenty of pleasant-looking though minimally ornamented buildings. The original Bauhaus stuff looks so much better than the bland stuff that hack imitators created later.


I found all of them looked awesome. Also, I hate it when articles tell me what I should think or that my taste is wrong.


Brutalism, the focus of the piece, is not contemporary architecture. It was big decades ago after WWII but fell out of favor rather quickly.

Of special note: the opinion piece compares two hospitals. The nicer looking hospital is now a museum and has been for years. The interior pictures of the former hospital's rooms show massive rooms without AC, plumbing, or privacy. The article asks which hospital I would rather convalesce in? The ugly squat one with private rooms and plumbing, obviously. I don't care what the outside of the hospital looks like when I'm in side it.


That point is addressed in the piece in one of the photo captions:

> Architects often get mad when non-architects conflate the terms “modernism,” “postmodernism,” “Brutalism,” etc. They love telling people that, say, “Frank Gehry is actually REACTING to postmodernism.” These terminological disputes can obscure the fact that everything under discussion is actually just a minor variation on the same garbage.

I for one agree with that.

> The article asks which hospital I would rather convalesce in? The ugly squat one with private rooms and plumbing, obviously.

You know this isn't either-or, right? The old building might lack amenities just because of when it was constructed, but you can build new beautiful buildings that have them. There is no reason why modern requirements necessitate godawful buildings.


I actually agree with the bit about term conflation as well, but not the rest of the article.

They're comparing literally hundreds of years of architecture to a short 2-3 decade period following one of the most calamitous wars in history, when Europe was struggling to rebuild itself and function was more important than pretty exteriors.

You know this isn't either-or, right? The old building might lack amenities just because of when it was constructed, but you can build new beautiful buildings that have them. There is no reason why modern requirements necessitate godawful buildings.

Modern requirements don't necessitate godawful buildings, budgets do. In those rare situations where the budget is unlimited (i.e., see any building being built around Mecca), you end up with both beautiful exteriors and functional interiors. But otherwise, every dollar spent on a fancier exterior is a dollar that can't be spent on interior features. And occupants (residents or companies) care more about the interior than the exterior.



You need to actually read the NYT article. It's not about a revival of Brutalism in buildings currently being built or planned for construction, it's about modern efforts to prevent the destruction of existing Brutalist buildings from decades ago.


I was hoping for an explanation of why architects makes the choice they do in contemporary buildings, but instead its just a bunch of "architects are idiots" and "I hate this and you should too".

Absolutely no substance here.


I found it full of substance, with the main takeaway that architects are designing for other architects instead of the people who use the building.

I see plenty of parallels to software development, where there is a common tendency to design around engineering prowess instead of user experience.


It's interesting. Apparently, in mid-to-late 20th century, the discipline of architecture was bursting with self-described architects who rarely, if ever, had buildings created.

They instead focused on architectural 'theory', which meant anything from phenomenological approaches to space (Gaston Bachelard), to 'Architecture as Metaphor' (see book with same title by Kojin_Karatani, a critical theorist), hell, even theory-fiction (Benjamin H. Bratton).

A whole generation (or two, three?) of theorists have spent lots of time intellectualizing and philosophizing what, for a long time, seemed to be a design-oriented, practical discipline.

I wish I had sources for this -- it's only through informal conversations with practicing architects and theorists that I learned these things.


I thought that's exactly what the "Overcoming Fears" section of TFA did, to wit: the fear of (1) beauty [which is for "sentimental traditionalists"], (2) ornament, (3) tradition [because tradition requires effort, or you get 'McMansion'], (4) symmetry, and (5) [and most pertinent in my mind] looking foolish in the eyes of other architects.


> Postwar architecture has been characterized by fear and taboo. Architects are terrified of producing so much as a fluted column, because they believe their peers will think they are stupid, nostalgic, and unsophisticated.

Come on! There is absolutely no attempt to understand or level with contemporary architecture. It is pure ranting.

Or this gold nugget:

>It should be obvious to anyone that skyscrapers should be abolished. After all, they embody nearly every bad tendency in contemporary architecture: they are not part of nature, they are monolithic, they are boring, they have no intricacy, and they have no democracy. Besides, there is plenty of space left on earth to spread out horizontally

Yeah, walking around Manhattan or Hong Kong Island is boring and monotone.


> Come on! There is absolutely no attempt to understand or level with contemporary architecture. It is pure ranting.

This is getting it backwards: why should we have to understand or level with contemporary architects? Buildings are for the enjoyment of everyone. The whole complaint here, which is supported by sources, is that architects won't understand or level with us, and assume that our wants are kitschy plebian sentimentalism which can be handwaved away.

> Yeah, walking around Manhattan or Hong Kong Island is boring and monotone.

You say this sarcastically, but I think it's actually true. The only reason walking around Manhattan isn't boring is because it still has enough pre-war architecture that hasn't been torn down. Walking around the downtowns of e.g. Vancouver or Seattle, is quite boring, and I'm saying this as an overall-happy Seattle resident.


We've been demanding that people "level with" contemporary architecture since the 1950s, when I think they'd really like to just have a picnic or go to work without feeling like they're trapped in a maze of damp concrete.


> Yeah, walking around Manhattan or Hong Kong Island is boring and monotone.

That got me too. Even if they were boring and monotone, at least the skyscrapers are all confined to one area. The author's proposed solution seems to be "let's take all this ugly and spread it around over a few dozen more square kilometers".


The article cites the freaking sistine chapel here as an example of good architecture. No matter what you think of contemporary styles, one shouldn't compare things that were constructed because a few people had an unimaginable amount of money to spend on as lavish of a space as possible to functional structures.


Tom Wolfe's old book "From Bauhaus to Our House" took on some of these issues. In particular, modern architecture's alleged "form follows function" taking some bizarrely twisted thought processes to end up building flat-topped buildings in climates with large snowfall. Seriously? What were they thinking?


Yup. Here's my brief list of the "what the heck is the function that this form follows" in modern architecture :

-Light management: humans need light - so, naturally, modern concrete slabs dispense with windows. Solid wall, here we go! Enjoy your fluorescent flickers. Skylights? A thing of the past.

-Air and climate: humans need air to breath, and exhibit varying preferences for temperature. So, again, no windows! Heavens forbid someone would open one. If there are windows, they should be glass panes that can't be opened. And the AC should be centrally controlled, because there's only One True AC Setting. But only use single-pane glass, lest one thinks that costs were a concern.

-Rain. Rain! Humans, on some occasions, prefer not to get wet in the rain. And outside of Seattle, people have been known to carry umbrellas for that purpose. Naturally, a modern building must not allow anyone with an umbrella in. Make a door narrow and hard to open, and no overhangs! Make sure one gets wet while folding the umbrella in front of the door. Bonus points for making the ground floor subterranean, ensuring the biannual building flood. (You already covered that the roof must be flat-topped to accumulate snow and be more prone to leaks.)

-On the subject of doors, make the main entrance in the back. Dispense with side entrances. Nothing should deface the monolith of the facade. You should arrive by car anyway, and walk the desolate parking lot. The building is not to be accessed from the street. Bonus points for employing electronic locks to create exit-only doorways (apparent only after you try to get back).

-It is the woe of many architects that people desire to get to floors of the building other than the ground floor. Give them a dilemma: wait for a cramped elevator, or walk the staircase that looks like it's something the maintenance crew forgot to lock down. No natural light either way, even though people have invented glass millenia ago. And make the steps on the staircase as tall as possible to make the walk tiring and unpleasant. Spiral staircases - a taboo.

-People might try to navigate the building by memory. So make the layout labyrinthine, but without any visually distinguishing elements. Every corner should look the same. Bonus points for room numbering schemes that seem to have taken a cue from the Mad Hatter.

-Did I mention doors? The more doors, the better. Humans like figuring out which ones are unlocked by trial and error.

-It is quite unfortunate that the pure architecture has to abide to such whims of human physiology as the need to use the toilet. So make them hard to find. Bonus points for having men and women toilets on different floors, just for the kicks.

-Sometimes people talk to each other. Ensure there is no comfortable space for them to do that. Corridors will do just fine (remember, no natural light in the corridors, or everywhere). No semi-secluded corners - every space must be panopticon-like. Sound insulation is a non-concern.

All this is just from a handful of examples I've had the pleasure of working in, and replicated endlessly. The list goes on.


Maybe we don't have the same modern architecture ... My experience from Sweden and France:

- Windows are bigger than ever today, at least in Europe. It used to be that windows were not that big to keep warm inside, and because they were expensive to build, nowadays most buildings have super huge windows, and so do houses. They have actually grown so big that you need to find ways to STOP the natural light from the windows.

- Single glass panel? Where do you even live? Old buildings have that, in modern ones you have triple pane glasses, and central AC in big buildings is a necessity. Right now I work in a XV century building and the air is MAGNITUDES worse that what it was in a modern office we had, evne when opening the window, because the air flux is not optimized and there is no AC.

- Doors in old buildings are smaller, they have gotten much bigger due to requirements of accessibility, and you can actually open them with a button now.

- Never seen a main entrance in the back, and modern buildings don't even have parking lots because fuck cars and hurray for public transports

- Elevators are always over dimensioned and not so much a trouble, spiral stairs are still very common

- Likeliness is a real thing, but on the other hand it can be the same in old buildings as well, the thing is that usually they have changed a lot so places are different, but it will be the same with modern buildings with some time. Regarding the room numbering most places I was at had a very logical system and it was independent to the modernity of the building.

- There are much less doors than it used to be, spaces are actually too open now which is annoying for noise. I wish we had more doors in offices. On the other hand in apartments it's very nice, what were people thinking before ?I would say we have maybe half the walls there were 60 years ago, so half the doors. Who needs a freaking hall with doors to go in each room in a 70m2 appartment? Now they are finally opened.

- That has been a problem only in old buildings in my experience because they lack signs. Modern buildings always have really well indicated bathroom, sometimes unisex, with a big logo on the door, not just a random wooden door that could be a kitchen, a meeting room or the bathroom!

- Sound isolation is so much better now. It used to be bad (before 1940), it went horrible (1940-1970) and now it's finally OK.


>Maybe we don't have the same modern architecture ...

Yeah we don't. Welcome to the US.

> Never seen a main entrance in the back, and modern buildings don't even have parking lots because fuck cars and hurray for public transports

(weeps silently)

Also re: sound insulation:

>It used to be bad (before 1940), it went horrible (1940-1970) and now it's finally OK.

My definition of "modern" is, essentially, postwar, so it includes all the monstrosities from the 1950-1970 era. We are doing better now, that's true.


I don't know why the Alexandara Road was put in there as an example of dull contemporary architecture. It only looks that way in the heavily filtered image the author put up. If you look at other pictures, it actually loooks really nice, largely because it follows some of the principles the author himself advocates (integrating nature and aesthetic coherence).


Before anyone dismisses this as a one-sided attack on socialism through the language of architecture,

"[W]hy so many on the left are wedded to defending unpopular schools of architectural and urban design is less immediately obvious."

yet further down,

"Capitalism eats culture, and it makes ugly places. Money has no taste."

and,

"There is a widespread conception, reinforced by conservative classicists, that “beauty” is just a euphemism for European imperialist art."

It has strong words for both sides of the debate.


It's easy to pick and choose good and bad examples from different eras of architecture. It is unfortunate the author paints all contemporary architecture as cold. I would suggest the movies 'columbus' and 'my architect' to people looking for another perspective.




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