The Corner

Culture

Architectural Styles and Lifestyles

A view of the “New York by Gehry,” Frank Gehry’s 76-story, luxury residential tower in Lower Manhattan. August 24, 2011 (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Michael, I read your architecture essay this morning after driving through the West Campus neighborhood in Austin, where I lived as a student. When I lived there, there were two tall(ish) buildings; now, almost everything is tall, though I am surprised how much of the area around the university campus remains largely unchanged from the 1990s.

I’m relatively sympathetic to modernism in buildings in the right context. Frank Gehry’s 8 Spruce Street in Lower Manhattan, for example, seems to me just the sort of thing that New York could use more of. (And, at 76 stories, more such buildings would add to the density that you advocate.) I liked the old World Trade Center for the same reason I like the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. There’s a certain verve and confidence in them.

The wonderful Mid-century Modernist residential architecture of Southern California is in many ways a response to some of the same forces that built the Levittowns but ended up producing a much more beautiful and optimistic style of building, one that seems to me appropriate to its context and one that has held up pretty well for many years now. That was mostly organic development. Credit the climate, I suppose, at least in part. But also consider how exciting and alluring it must have been to so many people in the 1950s, especially in the Northeast, to know that you could move to this beautiful place, California, and have four walls and a little plot of land of your own, maybe even a swimming pool, and a car parked out front in which you could take the kids to the In-N-Out on Saturday. Viewed from a New York City tenement or a Philadelphia rowhouse, that must have looked pretty good. It still does.

I suspect the issue is less taste in buildings than taste in mode of life, the suburbanization that was encouraged by a generation of urban planners and mightily subsidized by, among other things, the creation of the interstate highway system. I myself like dense cities and remote rural places, and care less for the in-between places, but I don’t think those tastes are universal, or even very popular. Policy probably is driven by cultural changes more than it drives them. My view of government is that it is there to help us live our lives (within certain limits) as we want, not that it is there to tell us how we should live and what it is we should want.

Which brings me back to West Campus. Even with its largely itinerant population of students, its residents (short-term or long-term) do not need to be encouraged to “conceive of themselves and their buildings as part of a community” because they are part of a community, one that is anchored by the University of Texas, which provides a kind of institutional permanence to the community of transients. The accumulation of entertainment businesses in Hollywood, finance businesses on Wall Street, technology business in Silicon Valley, etc., represent largely organic phenomena, the development of communities around living institutions. On the other hand, Poundbury (which I have not visited) seems to me to represent a top-down imposition of taste and habit even more intrusive and overbearing than, say, Corbusier’s Chandigarh (where I have spent a few months). Outside of Philadelphia, there is a little “English village” of Tudor houses—not the faux-Tudor stuff you see in Westchester County but something closer to the real thing, inspired by Stratford-on-Avon and built by an eccentric architect in the 1920s. I love that American eccentricity, but it isn’t an English village — it’s a bunch of expensive houses not far from the Schuylkill Expressway.

Which is a long way of saying that we have to be careful with that beauty you advocate. Efforts to make Washington a beautiful and impressive place, so that Americans would not be shamed by the splendidness of European capitals, have not been entirely successful. What was intended to communicate dignity and national greatness has more often communicated pomposity and arrogance. And when we make “beauty” a part of our public policy, we must keep in mind the sort of people whose taste ends up dominating our public places: Consider the hideous FBI building, the daft Eisenhower memorial designed by Gehry, the Federal Reserve building that would have looked at home in the Berlin dreamed of by Adolf Hitler, etc.

As we all know from unhappy experience, the line between aesthetic reactionary and utter crackpot is easily crossed.

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