Thursday, July 26, 2012

THE CIVIC TASTE BRIGADE: Part Three of Three Parts

Suppose you wanted to go out and buy yourself a new suit of clothes, or perhaps a new car.  Now suppose that, after you’d chosen the one you liked, you had to appear before a board who would rule on whether they found your choice acceptible.  If they didn’t, you had to change your ideas until they were satisfied.  Sound Orwellian?  It isn’t.  This is essentially what a civic design review board is empowered to do.  The only difference is that the taste being dictated is that of your own home.

As we saw in the last two columns, design review is an increasingly common civic institution under which building plans are evaluated, not just for adherence to health and safety codes as in the past, but also for aesthetic merit.  Alas, in far too many jurisdictions, this arguably well-intentioned idea has mushroomed into a disgracefully intrusive process that throws roadblock after roadblock before anyone wishing to build a home or addition, never mind how simple or invisible.  In at least one metropolitan city, for instance, hapless homeowners are now required to submit photographs of the homes of their twenty nearest neighbors before their plans can even be evaluated.

The pity is that, in return for such draconian burdens on citizens, the design review process has brought no quantifiable improvement to the built environment.  In fact, by allowing momentary aesthetic vogues to masquerade as building regulations, it has probably done just the opposite.

However dissatisfied we may be with the state of our cities and suburbs--and we ought to be--civic design review is a cure that’s far worse than the disease.  If the history of architecture has taught us anything, it’s that aesthetic ideals are fluid and cannot be distilled into commandments. Nor does judging building plans against a slew of totally subjective aesthetic regulations--essentially, legislating taste--lead to more sensitive or more appropriate design. On the contrary, cities with stringent design review guidelines are often among the worst transgressors in the cultivation of gross and overblown pastiche architecture.

Across the nation, design review boards are busy micromanaging design details, materials, and even color choices for architects and homeowners. Applicants are typically compelled toward approvable outcomes by so-called guidelines, such as one town’s none-too-subtle suggestion to use “natural materials (i.e., wood siding and fieldstone).”  Hint, hint.

Meanwhile, in contrast to this kind of tyrannical aesthetic control, obsolete zoning practices continue to encourage McMansionization, suburban sprawl, and pedestrian-hostile design.

If we’re serious about improving our built environment, the proper avenue is not through the arrogant dictation of aesthetics, but rather through the objective, specific, and above all unbiased mechanism of more intelligent zoning regulations.

Municipal governments have long held the power to enforce matters of health and safety, and rightly so.  Over time, these powers have evolved to rein in unreasonable density, bulk, energy consumption, and other quantifiable aspects of construction--again, rightly so. Yet presuming to dictate the ethereal, subjective, and ever-changing entity of architectural taste, especially on a citizen’s private property, crosses a dangerous line. Simply put, your taste is none of the government’s business.

I will be traveling for the next five weeks and will be unable to post until late August. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

THE CIVIC TASTE BRIGADE: Part Two of Three Parts

“The fallacy of contextualism,” wrote Former New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, “the masquerade of matched materials, the cosmetic coverup of architectural maquillage meant to make a building “fit” surroundings that frequently change, are a trap into which many architects jump or fall.”  

Or, I might add, are pushed. Last time we talked about how the design review process has entrenched itself in the bureacracy, so that it’s now all but accepted that your city government has the right to define “correct” architectural taste for you.  Today we’ll examine how contextualism, the sacred cow of design review boards everywhere, has come to be used to throttle architects and homeowners alike.

In architecture, “context” refers to the greater physical and social surroundings in which a building will exist.  Architect and gadfly Robert Venturi was among the first to plant this notion in the minds of architects and planners.  In his 1950 master’s thesis, Venturi argued that architectural meaning derived not by designing from the inside out, as the modernists fervently believed, but rather that it sprang from the context in which a building was placed.  This was a revolutionary idea in a time when modernist architects routinely designed buildings as precious, self-contained objects existing in a contextual vacuum.  

Alas, Venturi’s premise--among the early critical salvos that would eventually topple modernism--has now come to be tyrannically misapplied by design review boards across the country. The idea of design deriving from context has been bawdlerized to imply that new buildings should defer to and even mimic their surroundings, while the enforcement of this dogma has become a bureaucratic end in itself.  

As even the most cursory grasp of architectural history will make plain, however, there has hardly been an important work of American architecture--let alone a revolutionary one--that has kowtowed to its surroundings in the way design review boards now widely insist upon.  On the contrary, breakthrough works from Sullivan to Wright to Venturi to Gehry have invariably drawn criticism, ridicule, and public disdain for their “otherness” before ultimately advancing the cause of architecture.  

But so-called serious architecture isn’t all that suffers under this make-it-match brand of contextualism.  Few of the quirky roadside icons Americans treasure--whether dairies housed in giant milk bottles, water towers shaped like pineapples or ketchup bottles, or motel rooms in stucco teepees--could withstand the crushing conformism of today’s design review process, which invokes contextualism to throttle such unruly ideas to a uniform level of inoffensiveness. Had America’s architectural past been subjugated under this kind of leaden rule, we would now find ourselves in an infinitely more boring nation.  

As for Venturi, in his recent book with Denise Scott Brown, “Architecture as Signs and Systems,” he writes:
“My approach (to context) has been much acknowledged, but also much misunderstood and simplistically exploited, especially by bureacratic design review boards who don’t understand that contextural harmony can derive from contrast as well as from analogy.”  

Venturi further brands the reflexive insistence of design review boards to “make the new look like the old” as “perverse” and, in terms one wishes might resonate through City Halls across the country, cites the misuse of contextualism “at a time when hundreds of bureaucratic design review boards and committees pervade our Kafka-esque era, persecuting architects and stultifying architecture...”

Next time:  If not design review, then what?

Monday, July 9, 2012

THE CIVIC TASTE BRIGADE: Part One of Three Parts

For a century or so, zoning and building regulations have existed to ensure public health and safety.  Now and then, they’ve affected architectural aesthetics--for example, New York’s light-and-air zoning laws indirectly created that city’s characteristic stepped-back skyscrapers--but dictating how buildings should look was never their intent.

This is no longer the case. Over the last few decades, more and more city governments have adopted a process called design review, in which building plans are judged, not just for adherence to health and safety codes, but also for aesthetic merit.  In many jurisdictions, conformance with a design review board’s recommendations has become a de facto requirement for obtaining a building permit, so that in effect our civic building departments now decide what constititutes “tasteful” architecture for the rest of us.  

Is this such a bad thing?  Doesn’t design review prevent people from building too bulky, too tall, or too close to their neighbors?  In a word, no.  Those aspects have long been simply and effectively controlled by zoning regulations, and design review adds nothing to this enforcement power.  Instead, it presumes to make subjective judgments about whether a given design--perhaps yours--is “good” or “bad” according to temporal standards that are far from unassailable.  

For consumers, there’s also an important difference between the longstanding use of zoning regulations and the so-called guidelines of design review.  Zoning regulations are specific, quantifiable, and can be easily verified: a project either complies with them or it doesn’t.  

Design review guidelines, on the other hand, provide no such clarity.  They are necessarily vague, physically unquantifiable, and impossible to verify, simply because architectural taste is highly personal and totally subjective.  Applicants are thus saddled with the maddening task of meeting amorphous design goals based on unquantifiable standards, which are then supposed to be fairly judged by a design review board. rife with varied and often conflicting personal biases. 

All this is done in the name of discouraging “bad” design--with the powers-that-be naturally supplying the definition of good and bad.  Or, as the website of one California city smugly puts it:  “(Design review) provides a framework by which elements of poor layout and design of a project may be prevented.”

The trouble with such do-gooder “prevention” is that all judgments of taste are invariably tainted by the aesthetic bias of their own time.  I shudder to think how the above city’s design review board, had it existed in 1900, might have treated the work of a young Frank Lloyd Wright.

This same aesthetic myopia also explains why design review guidelines often include absurdly voguish standards, such as requiring buildings to have “traditional” detailing or limiting them to a prescribed range of colors. One ultra-posh suburb goes so far as to righteously forbid the use of aluminum windows, as if this were performing some kind of cultural service. Given modern architecture’s debt to aluminum, it’s an idea that makes about as much sense as banning hats for being out of fashion.   

Such wrong-headed and historically ignorant decrees in no way promote timeless design.  In fact, mired as they are in the aesthetic biases of the day, they do just the opposite.  Had any of our greatest architects--or, for that matter, any of our tawdriest merchants--had the misfortune to encounter the design review process as it stands today, our national landscape would only be the poorer for it.

Next time:  Design review and the sacred cow of contextualism.

Monday, July 2, 2012


People love things that come in threes, from musketeers to little pigs to stooges. Compelling arrangements of three also show up in more hifalutin’ places: A symphony has three movements, a play has three acts, and a novel has its proverbial beginning, middle, and end.  

The peculiar power of three-part compositions appears in architecture as well.  Take, for instance, the division of the classical column into base, shaft, and capital--a sort of beginning, middle, and end in three dimensions.  In one form or another, this same vertical composition appears in everything from classical temples to skyscrapers.  It also appears in the individual parts of buildings, such as the way interior walls are divided into base, wall, and crown, and even in the design of moldings, whose profiles are often built up with three elements of different hierarchies, more or less like miniature buildings.

What makes three-part compositions so effective?  One answer may lie in the way we think.  Our brains strive to find rational patterns in everything we experience, yet paradoxically, they also seem to get bored when things fall into place too easily.  What the human mind really seems to crave--and what may even constitute the very essence of beauty--is a comprehensible pattern that contains unexpected variations.  Three-part arrangements seem to furnish the ideal venue for this delicate balance.

Visually, groups of three also provide just the right degree of complexity without losing clarity of composition.  Consider an arrangement of windows:  A group of two can’t quite get a rhythm going, while four or more can start to look redundant.  Not so a group of three, however:  Like Goldilocks’s porridge, they’re not too little, not too much, but always just right.  

Three-part arrangements can also be easily tweaked to create visual movement without destroying their symmetry.  For instance, the Palladian window, named for the sixteenth-century architect Andrea Palladio, is a classic three-part design featuring two side elements flanking a larger central portion with an arched top.  The simple addition of this dominant central arch creates movement while still retaining the inherent calm of bilateral symmetry.  

Three hundred years after Palladio came the Chicago window, first used in early skyscrapers, but better known for brightening the living rooms of countless bungalows of the Twenties.  It featured a pair of double-hung sash flanking a large central picture window--another unbeatable dot-dash-dot arrangement that creates more visual tension than would three equal-sized openings. 

Beyond such aesthetic subtleties, though, there’s a practical reason why tripled windows, doors, or archways work better than ones with two or four elements:  They have an opening in the center instead of a mullion.  This seemingly obvious advantage is routinely overlooked by architects, which is why so many people at kitchen sinks end up staring at a mullion instead of a beautiful view.

There you have it, both the mystical and the mundane.  If you’re looking for a timeless basis for design, maybe all you need to do is count to three.