Showing posts with label Architecture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Architecture. Show all posts

Sunday, December 29, 2013

All Too Simple

Ours is a complex age, contemporary wisdom advises. Everyone is so busy and there are so many people bustling about, doing different things. Manmade electronic satellites are whirling around the earth, for crying out loud. And that internet. No one ever exclaims, "What a complicated world: There are so many ideas!" The antidote to complexity is naturally simplicity, right? If we take a blade to complexity we can whittle it down to something more manageable.

This is the fool's game, for while simplicity is the opposite of complexity, its antidote is unity. People perceive the hustle and bustle of life, with all of its commerce and commotion, to be complexity because they presume there is some conglomerate entity, called society, which out to have a definitive character. The society which deviates from that character appears disordered. The phrase social engineer is often propped up by the paranoid and derided by political movers, but what does he do who attempts to move the masses of the polity?

Simplicity is harder to judge with respect to other aspects of life. Living seems complicated when it is not unified by purpose and the universe seems a maze of physical laws in the absence of a prime mover. Philosophy and physics are the tortured pursuits not for simplicity but for a principle of unification. As in philosophy and physics, though, it is challenging to comprehend the presence of simplicity in aesthetics because it is difficult to understand the unifying principle of complex art. How easily to explain that an overture is structured around the deviation from one expected note in the first few bars, or to trace out the vanishing point of a painting? Of course it is very easy to apprehend the purpose of great art and one, thankfully, need not be an expert to appreciate Bach and Shakespeare.

That nature tends to hide, however, does mean, though, that simplicity makes a dangerous mantra. Roger Scruton has pointed out that much simple modern art is simply a disguise for an artist's lack of creativity, from Duchamp's urinal to Koons' kitschy balloons. Artists have worked furiously to be creative within genres and limits; just compare Schubert's lieder, Mozart's concerti, Shakespeare's histories, or Rembrandt's portraits. And yet sterility persisted in the name of simplicity until it reached its apex, utilitarianism. One of the most egregious intrusions of this trend has been in architecture, specifically architecture with the most specific of purposes: churches.

Of church architecture, architect Ralph Adams Cram wrote that, "Every line, every mass, every detail, is so conceived and disposed that it exalts the altar, as any work of art leads to its just climax." [1] As a demonstration of this principle and the danger of adopting simplicity as a master, let us look at a church altar and its reredos, aka altarpiece.

The altar and altarpiece below reside in the chapel at Alton Towers, home to the Early of Shrewsbury in Staffordshire. Anyone who doesn't sympathize with the Crawley's of Downton Abbey and their quest to preserve the estate should know that Alton Towers was sold in 1924 and, with the exception of Alton's chapel, the property is best known today as Alton Towers Resort, "Making Britain Happy" with eight roller coasters and five water rides. [2, 3]

Anyway, Alton's chapel is beautiful and in the following images I've progressively eliminated the visual complexity of its altar and reredos. Let us see what the simplification reveals.

We could have reduced the structure further, leaving only the altar, but the points are apparent. Notice foremost that contra complaints about baroque detail distracting us, our attention to the altar fades in proportion to the removal of the detail, especially the loss of contrasting colors, shapes, and textures, namely the vertical elements which raise the parallel dimension of the altar upward. We also can see how, far from being busy, the structures neatly scaffold atop the altar. Finally, even those tiny details first eliminated serve to exalt the altar, adding contrast by their shape, direction, and texture, and a unity by their symmetries. All of the detail points to one purpose: Soli Deo gloria.

In contrast we may say paraphrasing architect Duncan Stroik, [4] that architectural reductionism reflects a liturgical reductionism. While we have examined diminution, the opposite is true too, for neither by addition or subtraction can we impose meaning irrespective of form, but must pursue through creativity, with existing forms and in tradition, an exalting unity.

[1] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 84
[4] Rose, Michael S. Ugly as Sin. 2001. p. 153
–– H/T to the Modern Medievalism blog for the picture of Alton's chapel.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Fine or Beautiful

Something curious happened to many NYC neighborhoods during the last five or so years. Houses once characterized by aluminum awnings, concrete steps, and little patches of green underwent a sudden process of prettification. Aluminum awnings were replaced with shingled ones, concrete driveways were ripped up and replaced with spiffy paving stones, and iron fences yielded to chromed replacements, because you always want your front yard to have that cozy, automotive feel. Many lawns were paved over in part or whole in deference Convenience, queen of the modern Pantheon.

Unfortunately, most of these upgrades proceeded in poor taste, resulting in prettification instead of beautification. The chrome is shiny and garish, and where once yards sported subtle sections of green, they now extend a sea of paving stones, dizzying and offensive to the eye. The materials are finer, but they're no more pleasing. The pictures over here are a prime example.

Look at all of the beautiful decorative work around the windows and doors. How subtle, pleasant are the detail and decoration, and how loud and flashy the chrome. And that deck...

My thinking is that the impetus came not only from new, younger residents bringing newer fashions but from older residents, having just paid off their mortgages, not knowing what to do with accumulating dollars. One often hears the conventional wisdom of "adding value" to one's house. Is this notion not perverse? Houses are for living, not profiteering.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila explained the phenomenon:
The bourgeoisie is any group of individuals dissatisfied with what they have and satisfied with what they are. [1]
I hope that the home of my senile self is more a simple, kept, library than a collection of congealed frippery. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Hughes & Krier: The Architecture of Power

This WSJ review of a new book architect and urban planner Leon Krier brings a considerable question into relief: can an idea inhere in a work of architecture. This would be a heady, esoteric, and generally uncontroversial question. . . if Krier weren't discussing the Nazi architecture of Albert Speer.

The author of the review summarizes Krier's thought as follows:
Mr. Krier correctly objects that there is no clear congruence between architectural form and ideological meaning. Washington, D.C., he points out, has modern façades that would have been welcomed in Hitler's Berlin. Classicism, he thinks, has been unjustly tainted by association with fascism. At the other end of the spectrum, sleek modernist design was deployed under Mussolini and a forward-looking capital like Brasília, built to signify democratic openness, perfectly served Brazil's military regime.
Yet what does he mean precisely by "congruence" and "ideological meaning?" Yes, you might not be able to express certain ideas in architecture, but that does not mean one cannot express any. Similarly, although classicism and modernism have been put to varying purposes we can't assume there is no commonality.

And what is the commonality in question? Renowned art critic Robert Hughes put it well in his 1982 exploration, "The Shock of the New," that it is the architecture of power, devoid of particular ideology.

Is there no difference, then, between the Flavians' amphitheater and Mussolini's Palazzo della Civiltà?

Surely one could argue for the refinements of the former, but is the force of impact any different? Did a Roman citizen look up at the amphitheater humbled by imperium? Was he proud of the conquests which funded it? Did he simply feel he was getting his "money's worth" from the government? Was it fundamentally for him, even his, as a citizen, or was is foremost, or only, a symbol of power from above?

Yet if we lump modern democratic facades from DC to Brasilia to Lincoln Center into the "architecture of power," is there, as Hughes asks, one of free will?

What comes to my mind is not quite a perfect answer. Take the Greek amphitheater-style, which, in putting the dramatic action at the center of all attention, elevates the activity and agency of the players and thus the drama and thus individuals of the plot.

Likewise and putting aside the competing theories about the significance of its ratios, the Parthenon is a point of mediation for man as individual, man as citizen, and man as created.

These are not styles of force or power, however refined and channeled, but styles which embrace if not the free man, the whole man. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Architecture of Justice

This week I spent three days on jury service. It is of aesthetic crimes, however, that I wish to speak. The court sits a horrendous glass-and-steel monstrosity (lower right) next to its sibling, the Family Court, a horrendous concrete monstrosity (lower left.)

These buildings replace or expand their Neo-classical predecessors built 1914 (left) and 1934 (right).

Each design is typical of its time. The 1914 building is a mix of traditional elements, hearkening back ultimately to Greece and Rome. The 1934 building is stark and intimidating with an authoritarian overtone, although it ultimately nods to the past with its friezes, columns, and symmetries. The 1977 version is a $30,000,000 concrete slab, and the 2006 is just as ugly but carries the pretension of improvement. The design of this new building, unfinished but opened over-budget and over-time in 2007, however, comes with a philosophy. Architect Rafael Viñoly,

What interested me was transforming the public’s perception that the building represented an institution that was seen as closed and in need of protection from the community. The [new] building speaks to the participatory and the democratic nature of the judicial system and its fundamental and constructive mission in our society. [1]
One might append, "So I made it glass," which apparently fulfills the above criteria. Never mind that you cannot at all see inside from the ground floor, or into any court rooms at all. Never mind either any question of scale or form

I always find it interesting when you can't find a flattering angle of a building, when there's no place from which its shape and purpose feel unified and wholly expressed. My local church is like this. Two sides stand flat brick walls, one a vast pointed protrusion, and the fourth a series of stained glass panels, obscured by trees, oblique to the entrance, tiny doors beneath vast, brown, steel, rectangular columns. There is not a single point, and I have sought it, from which the exterior is intelligible. The Bronx County Hall of Justice shares this fate.

Above the jury room, whose design owes more to the "War Room" of Dr. Strangelove than the town halls of Franklin or Jefferson, sits, well, this (right). On the arc is inscribed,

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
My take was that the chairs represent the jurors and the lone figure is the judge pulling the trigger of the crossbow of society, aiming at justice. Apparently, the lone figure is the accused and thus I have no idea what he's standing on. Also, the little doohickey beneath the lone figure reads "state" and "country," although I have no idea how its shape and placement fit in.

So why are the jurors on the bow? Does that imply some of them are further away from justice? Why is the accused so far away from justice? Aren't the jurors technically in the way, then, or are they leading him to justice? And what about the judge? What does the quote even mean?

To my understanding, the statement implies activity, motion towards justice, but individual acts can only occur at a finite time so mustn't they occur at a finite place on the arc? The only alternative is that the acts move along an arc, but if you're moving along an arc wouldn't you eventually hit justice and then start moving away from it again? Unless you stop at justice? Then why does that have to be an arc? Why is the piece titled Equilibrium? Does that mean there is an average of justice? How can there be an equilibrium if things tend one way? I give up.

Lastly, though, why didn't the artist give the figure of the accused some arms? I understand that he didn't want to portray any specific individual or group or gender, but everyone has arms. I mean, I guess some people don't, but some people don't have legs either. Hey, if you were sitting in that room for 13 hours you'd start thinking a few odd thoughts too.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Anonymous Artist

The common, perhaps predominant, concept of the artist is someone who expresses himself in his art, both as virtuoso and an individual with unique ideas. The art, in turn, is a reflection of him. He is the star of his art, which reflects his ideas about the world, his character, his style, his theories, and so forth. Art is particular instead of universal.

In contrast to this conception, seen in a long-running trend but typified and exalted in Nietzsche, consider the thoughts of some of the twentieth century's great artists on the idea of the anonymous artist.

Glenn Gould, in conversation in
Glenn Gould: The Alchemist (dir. Bruno Monsaingeon, 1974)
A funny thing happened on the way to the 16th century, to put a bad pun on a musical from a few years back. Composers went in search of identity. And identity somehow became, by what we think of as the high renaissance, equated with system: my system versus your system. On the way to the 16th century there were some characters who preserved something of the pre identity-quest sense.
The thing about [Orlando] Gibbons is that he is not a completely individual composer, he sort of straddles the era of delicious anonymity that the pre-Renaissance knew about and explored and the era of really, almost total, exploitative individuality of the Early Baroque, which was about to come.

He's quite different from his contemporaries. Contemporaries like. . . William Byrd, for instance who. . . played Richard Strauss to his Mahler. . . was much more virtuosic, much more obviously composer-like, as opposed to a more spiritual entity. . . Byrd is marvelous, but every canon is there to be admired.

Ingmar Bergman
Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman (1960)
There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

. . .it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; 'eternal values,' 'immortality' and 'masterpiece' were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation.

T. S. Eliot
Tradition and Individual Talent, 1919
Poetry is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. . . significant emotion has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives not merely in the present, but in the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Music Between Nature and Architecture

Leon Botstein talks about the relationship between music and architecture in a natural setting and how different periods show the different connections between the two seemingly distinct fields.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Spanish Master

The Richard H. Driehaus Prize is one of the more exciting recent developments in classical architecture. Financially supported by the prize's namesake and coordinated by the Notre Dame School of Architecture, the prize honors architects working in the classical tradition. Some of my favorite architects, including Leon Krier and Quinlan Terry, have been honored in past years. Krier was in fact the prize's inaugural laureate. With this year's winner just announced (Robert Stern of the Yale School of Architecture), I decided to share this video describing the work and achievement of last year's laureate, Rafael Manzano Martos.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Movie Review: Mon Oncle

Directed by Jacques Tati. 1958.

Mr and Mrs Arpel have really everything they want, they have achieved every success, everything is new in their house: the garden is new, the house is new, the books are new. And I think they need to be warned, somebody should definitely say to Mr Arpel: “Be careful, you should not forget a bit of humour! Your son is only nine and I think you should enjoy yourself and have a good time with him.” People think it is a message but it isn’t: one should be free to say to a man who is building a house “Be careful. It might be too well-built.”
- Jacques Tati

Creating and maintaining that personal tone is perhaps Tati’s greatest achievement in Mon Oncle. Like Playtime, Mon Oncle is not a hyper-intellectualized criticism of modernity. Nor is it an unsparing critique of consumerist habits. Rather it is a wistful look back at the world Tati knew and loved, and a quizzical, apprehensive look at the one he saw replacing it.  He sets up the contrast  no sooner than the opening credits, where the camera pans down the names which are neatly typed out on a neatly designed sign at the loud construction site of a new building. In contrast, the title card is a plain old street corner from Mr. Hulot’s town, with Mon Oncle scrawled on the wall in chalk. Dogs walk by and relieve themselves on the street lamp.

That image, however inglorious, is not a bad representation of Hulot's world. It has puddles, garbage, misshapen patches of grass, cracked stones, and yes, dogs do relieve themselves. It is a lived-in world and one that reflects what the people who live there do. Tati’s town was not built at once according to one master plan, but built and changed over many years as people came and went, as families grew and people passed on. Like his house, it many ad hoc solutions, little cribs, additions, and cheats to meet a new need without destroying what was there.

Sure, it is a rigmarole to get in, but what character it has! Mismatched shutters, mixed styles, hanging laundry, and so on. One wonders many people, how many generations worked on it. It reflects the characters of those who do, and who have, lived there. It is also, of course, Hulot’s home, filled with his friends and neighbors, so why would he want to live elsewhere?

Now the Arpel’s house is certainly a contrast to Mr. Hulot’s, but not so much in terms of outcome as of intent. Sure Hulot’s apartment building is inefficient, but it was not designed with the pretension of efficiency. The Arpel’s house is designed to be the pinnacle of modern style and efficient design. The house was built according to a plan, but a thoughtless, inhuman one. The building is simply not conducive for living. Take the kitchen for example, which looks like a cross between a dentist’s office and a NASA laboratory. It has every convenience, but it is cold and unwelcoming. The appliances buzz and whirr and crank. Even something as simple as a cabinet, which might have a gentle squeak as cabinets often do, instead has been engineered into a mechanical maw which nearly has Hulot’s hand for supper.

The yard is also quite a spectacle. It is large and walled off for privacy. It is the home of a ghastly fountain that only gets turned on for visitors and this touch most epitomizes the whole situation of the Arpels: they have all of this stuff that is not really for them. They have the fountain because it is supposed to impress others or display affluence. They have all of these conveniences and time-saving appliances, and what do they do with the time they save? They spend it on more time saving devices or they spend it away from their house. Have they really thought about what they would like to do, for its own sake? Of course none of what they do is bad, really, but it looks so silly because it is not done for any particular end. Look at the yard:

It is designed into many sections and cordoned off so you are only “supposed” to walk in certain areas. Why? Look at the picture above. In the scene, the party had to move from the other side of the yard to this side to sit down and eat, but there is no room because there is no other space sectioned off “for eating.” They have this big yard and cannot use it for what they want. In the scene depicted above, which may have presaged a similar scene in Playtime that uses cars instead of people, the characters walk around that little square like a circus line, amplifying the ridiculousness of the situation. We are glad to see later, when a dog gets loose at the party, the people running around trying to catch him. We want to say, “Yes, good! Go, run over the lines! It’s your yard, you can set the rules. Have fun in it and make a bit of a mess for once!”

Hulot’s brother in law works is a similarly sterile and highly polished, impersonal world. Trying to make Hulot more like himself, Mr. Arpel asks his boss to hire Hulot. The boss’ office looks like the lair of a James Bond villain, with ceilings so high they are out of sight, strange silver chairs, a map of the world in the back, and the boss sitting at an enormous desk. While in the office, Mr. Arpel phones Hulot to offer him the job, but wherever Hulot is, music is playing and Arpel cannot hear him. In a brilliant touch, Tati lets the music take over the soundtrack, and delightfully, it is as if Mr. Hulot’s world is pouring into that big and cold room, warming it and giving it life for the first time.  Of course the company is not up to any nefarious business like world domination and that is the point, why does it look like that? Why should someone's office, where someone works, be so uninviting? Even Arpel’s briefcase, which looked chichi at home when his wife neurotically dusted it, looks warm in such a hostile atmosphere.

Indeed it is atmosphere, specifically a personable one, that lies at the heart of Hulot’s world. The Arpel’s house, for all of its order, is in fact an order imposed upon them and not by them, and their house reflects their desire to live apart from others. (Recall that cursed, clanking, buzzer-operated fence that closes off their yard.) The human relationships are the heart of Hulot’s town, for better and worse. It is human incongruities that made it mismatched and imperfect, but also the desire of its people to live there, together, that kept it together. The combination of those two elements made it unique. The film’s title suggests what Tati’s quote about the film does: the desire to remind people who choose to live the “new way” to make the human component the heart of their endeavor. Hulot’s nephew is dreadfully unhappy at home. Quite simply, it is too clean and boring and more like living in a hospital ward than a home. When he goes out with his uncle, he rides on his bike amongst the townspeople (as opposed to riding past them in a car,) he eats jam-covered crullers with extra sugar, and plays pranks on people with other boys in the town. The boy’s classic prank, and a running gag throughout the film, is to whistle at someone as he approaches a pole in order to get him to turn around and look at you and thus crash into the pole. Towards the end of the movie, the boy’s father accidentally pulls the prank on someone and the boy grabs and squeezes his father’s hand in excitement as they try to sneak away. It is a beautiful little moment and we hope his father can learn from it.

We hope he learns what Mr. Hulot has taught us, that you have to be willing to make yourself a little vulnerable and go out and live with your neighbors. Sometimes you get splashed, covered in dust, or punched in the face, but that is probably better than having nothing happen at all, the same way the folksy little “town tune” is preferable to the silence of the Arpel household. Yet there is a certain wistful sadness to Mon Oncle, for just as surely as Mr. Hulot was moving away, the old world was passing. This theme is conveyed throughout the movie by cutting to a scene of construction workers tearing down an old building with pickaxes. The town is such a character this feels a surprisingly violent act, but we should not be too alarmed. It is not really the stuff we should be concerned about. Some change is normal, like Hulot’s little neighbor who is all grown up when he leaves. We should just make sure we do not get carried away with change just because it is novel and that we never forget the human element, the humour as Tati said; and in Mon Oncle Tati is not scolding or imploring us. The tone of Mon Oncle is not that of a self-righteous spokesperson crusading for a better world or an intellectual browbeating you into accepting his aesthetic philosophy. It’s more like your neighbor leaning over your fence as you  remodel your home and saying to you, “You’re going to add what? Really? Oh. . . Really?”

Monday, September 28, 2009

Movie Review: Playtime

Directed by Jacques Tati. 1967.

The cinema is loud. Not just your Hollywood blockbusters, I’m not talking about your Star Wars and your Die Hard, but rather your 2001: A Space Odyssey and Wild Strawberries. There are many calls to action, so many tragedies, studies, commentaries, epics, and films otherwise fraught with portent and even more that aspire to such loftiness. Now surely there are at least as many films with trivial messages or none whatsoever (the cotton candy of the cinema.) Yet the "loud" movies think they are important and want to convince us, appealing to us by educating, dumbfounding, terrifying, confusing, or shocking us. Playtime of course has an intellectual purpose as well, but Tati does not beat us over the head with it. To understand Playtime one does not need to wade through a Joycean array of symbols, attend to a lecture on the ills of society, or submit to an anguishing cinematic experience. Such is precisely why Playtime catches us by such surprise, because it appeals to us by most rare means: subtlety and charm.

What is it about? The scholarly and academic answer is that Playtime is about how technology and newfangled gadgetry, modernist architecture, and city planning isolate and alienate us from our neighbors. In this line of thinking, Playtime is a scathing critique. That is a rather misleading answer. Another director might have seen the same effects in the same places on the same people that Jacques Tati saw and made a "loud" movie, but not Jacques Tati. The tone of Playtime is not, “Good God man, look what we’re doing to ourselves! We must stop! The humanity! Alas, alack!” Nor is its theme even quite specific as the academic jargon above, but something more general and more personal, rather like taking a gander at a new building and saying , “Hmm. I remember when things were all open and we just kind of mingled. When did these come up? I get in how? How odd. Well I’ll give it a whirl. Uh oh, well I seem to have left something outside. What do you mean I can’t get back out? What a funny situation I am in, no? Why did you build this again?”

Still we would be remiss not to discuss the physical world of the film which does much of the characterizing of urban life. The world is clean, but to the point of sterility. The cars flow in smooth traffic patterns like clockwork or a circus circle. Lights blink neurotically and obnoxious buzzers jar the ear. There is much glass, but it does not function to let you observe something pleasant on the other side that an opaque wall would have blocked, rather it serves to cut you off, usually from someone you want to talk to. This is a central theme of the movie, communication, specifically how our supposedly efficient designs sometimes make it more difficult and less personal. Take the scene when, against all odds, Mr. Hulot runs into an old friend who invites him into his apartment. The focus of course is on the “stuff”: the apartment, its view, the television, the lamp, the projector and so on. Mr. Hulot does not so much reconnect with his old friend so much get a tour of his junk. The viewer, however, has a grand time with this scene, since we see what the people are missing. Just on the other side of the wall, the couple is watching television, staring intently at the very spot Hulot and his friend are looking at, just on the other side. Not only that, but it’s the man Hulot accidentally hit this afternoon. Then as the cars go by, it is not just any bus that passes but the tour bus carrying the folks from the airport Mr. Hulot passed earlier in the day. All of these near-acquaintances are buzzing about each other, but cut off just ever so slightly.

The film’s last scene is surely the jolliest and occupies the entire last hour of the movie. It concerns the opening of a fancy new restaurant, an opening which proceeds to go as far awry as possible. In this scene, though, everyone is together in one big room. They are sitting at different tables, of course, but what isolates them is only their ignoring each other. People are cut off, but not by their surroundings. They are free to interact if they wish, but they do not yet realize it. Then when things start to go wrong, people are jostled about and brought together. A great big party erupts, and every further mishap and accident at the restaurant turns into another eclectic addition to the impromptu celebration. In the wee hours of the morning the patrons stumble out and go their separate ways, a little buzzed and a little befuddled about the evening. What happened? They interacted with and got to know their neighbors in a way they had not expected, all because everything went wrong and they were free to play. The "loud movie" answer is that our happiness lies in chaos, and in not making plans, and that we do not have and should not want any control over matters. Such is not the point of this scene, rather it is that sometimes we sap the less obvious joys from life without realizing, and a plan going a little awry can be an opportunity to rediscover those joys. Sure we are often isolated, but only just so. Like the patrons in the restaurant we are free to act, and sometimes just a little disorder might remind us of that (and jazz things up a little too.)

The movie nonetheless ends on a wistful note. The morning after the party, as Mr. Hulot buys a scarf for a young woman he has been trying to get to know, the tour bus is prepared to leave outside the shop and she runs to catch it. He has paid for scarf, but the party is over and the rules are in full force again, which means he is stuck behind the register line because he is not “allowed” to exit via any space other than the “out” aisle, which is blocked. He gets her the scarf, but indirectly. The task is performed, and he conveys his kindness to the girl who is very pleased, but the act is robbed of just a little of its humanity. Not enough to make Hulot shout, not enough to make us weep, but just enough to make us all sigh.

It is not all disaster and horror when Mr. Hulot gets lost amidst a maze of corporate corridors or trapped on the wrong side of a pane of glass, although it is a little sad when he cannot himself give the young lady the scarf he bought for her. The result is that we realize as Hulot does that he really does not fit in this micromanaged little world. Perhaps we do not either, perhaps no one does. Perhaps it is a little too coarse to be pleasant, a little too clean to want to touch, and a little too predictable to want to play in. It is not horrible, but it is far from delightful, and considering we made it, why did we make it like this? How odd.

To learn more about Jacques Tati and his films, and to see stills from Playtime and hear some of its music, visit delightful Tativille.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jane Jacobs

'Constraints on materials, styles, heights, and sizes, rather than on functions; recognition of the street as the primary public space, and of pedestrians as the primary users of it; preservation of façades and street frontages, while facilitating change of use behind them: all such remedies, which are slowly emerging (for example in the renewal of Baltimore and other damaged American cities) and which have been powerfully advocated and illustrated by Leon Krier at Poundbury and by the New Urbanists in Italy and America – all owe an incalculable debt to Jane Jacobs.
But they also illustrate the way in which her own preference for "spontaneity" over "planning" cannot, in the end, be sustained. It is not planning that has destroyed the American city, but the wrong kind of planning directed towards the wrong kind of things.'

Roger Scruton
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life


Monday, September 14, 2009

Why I Hate Modernism: The Tragedy of St. Stephen Walbrook

Three years ago, I vacationed in London for two weeks: I traveled solo, and so was able to indulge my own interests and eccentricities. One such interest was a desire to see as many of Christopher Wren's City Churches as possible. On my first visit to London, I had been in awe of the sublime beauty of St. Paul's Cathedral, and so returning years later, I wanted to see whether Wren had sustained that vision in less exalted circumstances, the design of several parish churches. 
I was not disappointed: Wren's English Baroque style is impressive on both small and grand scales. Of the many Wren churches I visited, my favorite was St. Lawrence Jewry, (the previous church had stood near the London Jewish Ghetto). Incidentally, the Church was playing host to a fine group of classical musicians when I visited, an encouraging sign. Many of the London Anglican churches hosted lunchtime or afternoon concerts.

When I visted St. Mary Abchurch, a very kind, elderly gentleman escorted me throughout the church, leading me up to the organ loft and allowing me to mount the exquisitely carved high pulpit. He was extremely knowledgeable, and had a great deal of historical and architectural lore to share. He told me that he 'motored' in from the suburbs every week, so that the church could be opened on weekdays for the visiting tourists. (During my own visit, a half-hour at least, not another tourist was to be seen. St. Mary Abchurch is one of the lesser lights in the Wren repertoire.) He'd gotten friendly with the parson a few years ago, and he had a key, and he thought it very important that such a significant building should be open. When I prepared to leave, I asked him if this was his parish church, did he come in on Sundays for service? 'No,' the old man said, 'I'm an atheist. I don't attend church.' 

The very same day I met my kindly atheist-guide, I visited several other Wren churches, including St. Stephen Walbrook.  I will not attempt to describe the revulsion I felt when confronted with the monstrosity depicted below. That very day, I became the implacable enemy of modernism and of all men who would, by subterfuge and in the teeth of a horrified opposition,  intrude their own inferior talents into a masterpiece.

That detestable object in the center of the Church is rumored to be an altar.

Christopher Alexander and the Timeless Way of Building

I'm currently reading Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way  of Building and acquainting myself with the remarkable ideas of this very interesting thinker.

His magnum opus is his recently completed, four-volume Nature of Order, where he attempts to craft a synthesis of the various strains of knowledge that inform his own thinking: philosophical, scientific, religious, and of course, architectural. As soon as I finish Timeless Way, I'll write up my own thoughts, but for the present, here are some links to whet your appetite:

Christopher Alexander: A Biography

Christopher Alexander's website, A Pattern Language

The text of a debate between modernist Peter Eisenman and Christopher Alexander

James Kalb on Alexander 

Interview with Alexander's friend and collaborator Nikos Salingaros  

(Inner garden of the Julian Street Inn, Shelter for the Homeless,
San Jose, California)