Monday, September 6, 2010


With a strong affinity for jazz and only an appreciation for classical music, my perspective on modern versus classical architecture follows a similar thread. While I appreciate classical architecture (but wouldn't want to practice it), my real interests lie in modern and modernist architecture -- that completed from say 1910 (De Stijl, Russian Constructivist, Bauhaus) through mid-century (Neutra, Jean Tschumi, Abramovitz, the 'Googie' movement), to our own time (Snohetta, Neil Denari, Stephen Ehrlich, etc.). And what I can most appreciate about classical architecture is its general adherence to a set of principles, primarily with respect to scale and proportion that provides it a timeless quality as it relates to how people have experienced its best examples for so many hundreds of years. But as a strict believer in practicing for one's own time, few architectural works are more disappointing to me than the countless examples of poorly (and even well) executed 'classical' buildings built in our time, presumably in the name of preservation or the presumed sensibilities of public users and clients. [Insert Jul2011: The critic Lawrence W. Cheek revisits this long-debated question in his assessment of Carmel, Indiana's Palladium, and delivers a spot-on commentary:  "That's the trouble, so often, when architects and developers try to transplant the "charm" of Europe or somewhere else onto our soil: It gets pumped up on the steroids of American-style size and ambition. Forgotten is the intimacy of scale that made it appealing in the original." []. ] A possible exception is poorly executed examples of modern architecture, of which there are also countless, and which exist because to me [if I can place objectivity as a practitioner aside for a minute] their implementers were perhaps ill-prepared in the fundamentals of scale, proportion, and sometimes form. Some might argue that modern architecture by definition and practice lends itself to less adherence to such principles in its less axial, more asymmetrical and, at least in theory, more improvisational approaches. I would counter that the fundamental guiding principles of scale, proportion and form as provided in classical training lead to better executed modern architecture [not an endorsement of the approaches to architectural education favored by certain well-known schools, with their singular, hell-bent focus on classical instruction]. Note: Improvisation is defined here as freedom of form, but not in the process of getting to ultimate form, as in the case of jazz improvisation for example. In truth, there is no correlation between improvisation in jazz and asymmetry in architecture. The latter must be thought through as a science instead of as a free-flowing set of ideas that through timing and practice materialize in a syncopated fashion in the heads of their practitioners, spilling forth as singular and logical compositions. If the design charette can be compared to an impromptu afternoon session of jazz musicians, the distinction lies perhaps in the organization and documentation of the charette versus the no-holds-barred freedom of the musical session. So it is with modern architecture and the ultimately tightly-managed nature of its planning. The point here is that the best [and ultimately the most timeless] modern architecture borrows--even if subjectively and in ways not readily apparent from a visual standpoint--from basic principles of scale and proportion, resulting in a form more positively experienced by its viewer, and as stated earlier, even if on a subconscious level and by those not trained in the visual arts or architecture.

Admittedly, this is a subject of singular interest to me, and no illusions exist as to any groundbreaking contribution to design dialogue. In other words, this topic has been churned over for eternity, though undoubtedly from a number of different angles. What I do think, though, is that young architects-in-training can take a lesson in the value of basic design principles that are perhaps under-emphasized in some architectural curriculums due in part to a prevailing (and I think incorrect) sense on the part of students that modern architecture is provided an imprimatur for 'improvisation'. Modern and modernist architecture is no more improvisational than cubist painting or a Calder sculpture. Instead, what sometimes appears in the built work as an abstract structure devoid of the restrictive application of rules is in reality and by necessity a highly-structured sequence of thoughtful planning, science and in the best examples, significant consideration of scale and proportion [not to diminish the savant-like genius of many improvisationist jazz musicians].

This blog seeks to compare and identify some of the best and worst examples of classical and modern architecture from western and North African perspectives, but with a focus on modern works. A by-product of this research will compare sustainability efforts between the U.S., Eastern and Western Europe, and Northern Africa and to determine whether each exists in a vacuum one to another or whether opportunities exist for a greater internationalization of such practices -- cultural and climatic differences notwithstanding. An initial excursion through Scandinavia and the Netherlands will review several works of the noted Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta (including the Oslo Opera House), Santiago Calatrava's 'Turning Torso" tower in Malmo, Sweden; Erik Gunnar Asplund's Stockholm Public library (1928), and other works, both obscure and noted. Later excursions will include Portugal/Spain; Italy/Switzerland; Germany/Austria/mid-Central Europe; and the city of Fes in Northern Africa. In between excursions, several works (both noted and obscure) in the Paris metropolitan area and surrounding regions will be reviewed. Additional resources for research and visitations will include the University of Illinois exchange program in Versailles, and the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale. Photography and research along the way will later be catalogued into comprehensive courses in 'History of Architecture' and 'Modern Western Architecture'.  In between, the aim is to have a rollicking great time looking for mischief across Europe and North Africa. Thanks Wikipedia! [Photostreams can be viewed at the list of links at left]

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