Tag Archives: architecture

From Tiny Acorns

We live in a time of unadornment, and have for many years. New buildings are just boxes, with meager attempts at visual design, such as mirrored windows. For decades, stripped-down, modified Modernist-style has been king, and every industrial park, medical complex and suburban office aggregation is reminiscent – no, identical – to the one you passed just down the road: unfriendly to pedestrians, uncaring of environment, unaware of surroundings, unknowable because there is nothing there to know.

This is no new revelation: the lines of this battle and public assault were drawn long ago; it’s just amazing that the winds of fashion or time or human vagaries and fickleness haven’t blown sand over the old lines and led us to the making of new ones. Like many things now, this, too, is indicative of a slump. Controversial Postmodernism looked, for a while, as if it might enliven the cityscape – and the discussion – even if only in odd ways, but it soon was co-opted and subsumed, and now seems as just an eccentric interlude, a test-run of warped iconography and Chippendale toppings before its predestined use as the architecture of Las Vegas and Disney World.

Beyond the commercial building, the same one-note malaise infects the housing stock. Actually, here in our town, it’s two-note. Here, where the red-brick rowhouse is the lingua franca of house-building, there are, spreading like unimaginative but persistent bacteria, the three-story, bay-windowed, one-car-garaged, part stuccoed, part-bricked, part-stone-face, part-sided, lone dwarf-conifered structure that in the suburbs is called a townhome. In the city, where they are being built in profusion, three or four crammed into lots designed for one or two, the same blueprint used in ex-urban developments is being applied. They don’t fit, they don’t accommodate and they don’t age well. The term “cookie cutter” comes to mind; “boring,” too. Built fast, sold expensive, they are as much extruded as constructed, with lowest-grade materials slapped together by unlicensed, barely-skilled workers hired by fly-by-night, carpet-bagger, self-described “developers.” Exploitation aside, these organisms are – to all those who do not dwell inside them, admiring the granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances – characterless intruders.

The other form of new construction here is the modified Euro-style residential unit – informed by Bauhaus principles, sleek and rectilinear, with worker-housing lines and industrial materials, with a whiff of Scandinavian Utopian-community architecture about them. For a while, they were exciting additions to the neighborhoods: cool and stylish, imported and forward-looking. What wasn’t seen, looking forward, was how soon they would proliferate, and by the hands of fast-buck contractors looking to cash in on a trend, to the point where they have now become, if not ubiquitous, then monotonous, and without their original spark and surprise. What wasn’t seen, either – or what wasn’t cared about, even if seen – was that a mass of them, devised by recipe, would soon look like Soviet-era living spaces, or higher-aesthetic public housing – and which, like new cars rolling off dealers’ lots, look immediately dated, rapidly losing monetary and style-points value.

Odd that we tolerate sameness, save for color or flower-bed choice, with our homes, for it is not as if we are a creature with no interest in external adornment: we sculpt our hair, paint our faces, spend fortunes on clothing and jewelry, all to decorate ourselves, to define a more distinct, beautiful or striking or singular us. (Of course, this is a semi-fallacy, because we cut our hair in popular fashions, cosmeticize and accessorize ourselves to resemble the current hot luminary. We conform in our striving to show our difference, and those who are truly different are shunned or mocked.)

Still, we alter our outsides, even in rote ways – but, when it comes to our houses, all the adornment takes place behind the facades, in the rooms, where only residents can see them – unshared. Are we so estranged from our shelters that we do not see them as extensions of ourselves and, therefore, worthy of extended identity?

We were in New York City recently, and, with some time before our bus home, we strolled up and down the numbered streets, on the Upper East Side, in the 60s and 70s, crisscrossing the easternmost avenues. There are magnificent, real, venerable townhouses lining those streets, and while many are classic brownstones, they come in similar but varied styles and colors. And, every once in a while, we would encounter a house that had been modernized, or had been built new in recent decades where once an older house had been; they stood gleaming and brazen and out of context, attached yet detached – cool, flat statements of an architect. Still, among the houses of these streets, the adornments are primarily inside the homes, not out – you can spy the painting and mouldings, photos and weavings, through gaps in the curtained windows (except in the modernized homes, which have, for the most part, used metal or smoked glass to screen from view any errant peeping).

But what is missing, despite facade variations, despite the modernized materials, is personalization – the truly personal expression: a resonating link between the person inside the house and the house’s public face to the city, to the street, to the passerby, to the human-scale experience  – to the creation of placeness, a statement that is, intentionally or not, art.

So, soon, we nearly ceased to look at the places, each beginning to look like the next or, worse, feeling like the next, or the one across or up the street. And we ceased, too, to be stopped by or drawn to the newish kids on the block, each with a sameness in their often-strained difference.

It was just about then when we saw it. It was a grayish brownstone house, somewhat less regal or commanding or rich-looking than many of its neighbors. But it had a band of something, some design, stretched across its front, just above the first-floor entry door and windows. It seemed like something extra, but nothing special. We almost missed it. But we looked again and saw it: what that perhaps 18-inch-high strip of dark metal had punched out of it was a series of squirrel shapes – a long row of them, as if in a conga line. And, more, we then noticed that atop the newel posts flanking the front stoop were sculptures of, yes, squirrels.

Why? Who knows. But all of it was too expensive, too thought-out, too well-done an act to have been merely a whim. The metal band, the squirrel statues – these meant something to the people inside who designed them or paid for them to be designed and installed. Was it a tribute to the city’s second-most widespread wildlife form in the city? (Perhaps somewhere, maybe in Greenwich Village, there was a similar homage to the pigeon?) Was it a play on someone’s name? Or was it just a work of subtle, friendly, individualistic, idiosyncratic art, symbolic of something or nothing, fashioned to catch the eye of people walking by, and make them stop, and smile, and wonder? We don’t know. And, frankly, we don’t care. It broke up the monotony, it brightened our day, it personalized a city that can drub the spirit of anyone. It was, in its way, a buried acorn, happily discovered when needed.

And we were reminded of the sentiments at the end of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”; that is, if one person does such a thing, they might be considered odd, but if more did it, it could be seen as an organization, and even a movement. Think of it: a movement to break down the divide between dwelling and dweller, and between them and the public at large. A movement to take back design, or alter it, to truly personalize the little shelters we call home. To make the concept of placeness, or arslocii, an operating concept in all our lives. To find our inner squirrel.


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Size Matters (but not the way you might think)

We took a tour, last week, of Philadelphia’s Art Deco architectural treasures. We live in Philadelphia, and happen to be familiar with all the buildings that ended up being on this particular show-and-tell, organized under the aegis of the city’s Preservation Alliance. But, when one is in pursuit of examples of placeness as art, it’s easy to overlook the right-in-your-own-backyard obvious and known; guided group perambulations-with-purpose have a way of jogging one’s memory and taking disparate elements and free-floating thoughts and bringing them together in coherent focus. You come to realize, suddenly, that the things you didn’t know you were thinking about were, really, things you were thinking about a lot – just maybe in different ways.

Philadelphia is a wonderful place to look at the history of architecture in the United States – so much of what has been built over the past several hundred years still stands and is being used, beneficiaries of a strong conservative bent, a general thriftiness and development that began at the Delaware River in the 1600s and marched in an organized, gridded fashion westward and outward, leaving a timeline of changing styles, construction advancements and reformulated population patterns, needs and wants in its wake. Colonial? It’s here. Victorian? Yes. Gothic Revival? Beaux Arts? Federal? Check, check and check. One can glance down almost any street in the downtown area, known as Center City, and see a row of office and residential buildings cheek to jowl, each from a different period, living in an organic harmoniousness.

There isn’t much Art Deco in town; it was, perhaps, too shockingly outre for staid, Quaker-ish Philly in a period roughly spanning the years from just after World War I to just before World War II. The 19th century still held stylistic sway at the start of this time and, later, restraint and retrenchment in the name of recovery was in the air. What there is of Art Deco here isn’t as flamboyant or defining as the examples to be found in, say, New York City, or Miami, or Los Angeles. But there are some nice examples – mostly built to be headquarters or regional outposts of large corporations or broadcasting companies, Big Oil and Big Transportation.

The tour guide showed us these buildings – all tall, with soaring verticality, many with terra cotta ornamentation, some Moderne, others Mayan-influenced. We entered lobbies modest in girth but glittery still, with streamlined elevator doors, monumental mail boxes, terrazzo and brass, aluminum and gilt. Impressive spaces created as coordinated and complete visions, from door knobs to desks to signage – all with the look of the promise that began roaring in the ‘20s and careened, a bit drunk, into the financial and world-war abyss. A sliver of time, with an outsized and ongoing influence. For the United States, one of the last times of un-ironic optimism though, like most of our optimisms, doomed.

We at arslocii are Art Deco aficionados – buffs, even. We live in reimagined Deco surroundings, we’ve traveled long distances to see Deco buildings and artwork, we believe firmly that it was a glowing time and that Donald Deskey, Raymond Loewy and Henry Hohauser are demigods. Yet, as our tour guide pointed out the set-back facades, the patterned grille work, the glazed spandrels, the symbolic renderings – all this, coupled with our affinity for the modality, and yet … we were left lukewarm, admiring but unmoved, appreciative but not enraptured.

There was no placeness there. But why? These buildings, inside and out, were intentionally designed to be different, to be art, to be places redolent of placeness. Their out-of-placeness should have, could have imbued them with placeness.

What was wrong with this picture?

And, then, we saw them: Just across the street from one of the tour buildings were two short, relatively inconspicuous structures, literally overshadowed by the Deco tower we’d just exited. This attached pair of modest commercial properties – one very Deco-ish, the other a bit older in affect – struck us, instantly, as having everything that was missing from their bigger siblings, including and especially placeness: their simple but perfectly proportioned and resonant lines, their shy but glamorous attitudes, their under-adorned but bejeweled facades. They weren’t trying as hard as the big buildings to be big: no huge gestures, no forced glitter … yet, wonderfully alive and, it seemed, real. Authentic, not just of style but of heart. And built to human scale. If one finds them breathtaking – and one should – it is because of their honesty and not the flaunting of their corporate owners’ budgets.

What it comes down to, it seems, is scale – in physical size, in architectural ambition – and the seemly gesture; accessibility – physically and intellectually – and the successful provision of just enough and not too much. A viewer feels that he could wrap his arms around these two buildings in a happy embrace, and they around him.

Lessons learned here: One can stand tall without being tall; one can have placeness without being built to be a place. It’s a magical thing – alchemical, even. And inexplicable. It just happens. Thankfully, it happens here.

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