Tag Archives: TIMELESSNESS

GOOD OR BAD: THE SUBJECTIVITY OF DESIGN

February 26, 2021

Notre-Dame de Paris, France: Universally considered as good architecture: (Photo by Leif Linding from Pixabay) San Francisco Marriott Marquis, California: “. . . always was and remains at the top of the ugly heap,” from gabriellafracchia.com (photo by Beyond My Ken)

It must be asked: What is good architecture? What is bad architecture?

A 3rd century B.C. Greek adage has become the seminal motto, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But who are these “beholders”? And is architecture subjective—to be determined on a case-by-case basis by whoever is beholden, whoever is the random casual visitor?

House VI (photo from eisenmanarchitects.com)

At a Princeton University panel, I once heard New York architect Peter Eisenman argue that there is, indeed, such a thing as good architecture and bad architecture. He cited one example, and I paraphrase, “If a stair is designed to go up, and the architect makes it to go down, then that is bad architecture.”

Mid-Century Modern home, Portland, Oregon: Timeless design or old fashion? (photo by Kate Reggev)

When a design is labeled timeless, that generally suggests something good—as in the architecture has stood the test of time. But timelessness is elusive. Someone might think of Mid-Century Modernism as timeless. Other would call it a fad. Another might argue for a classical Colonial style. And in turn, some would call it old fashion.

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, France (photo by Edi Nugraha from Pixabay)
Vanna Venturi House, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (photo by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, Steven Goldblatt, Rollin LaFrance)

The American Institute of Architects bestows one project a year with their Twenty-Five Year Award. The AIA states, “The award is conferred on a building that has stood the test of time for 25-35 years and continues to set standards of excellence for its architectural design and significance.” And the winners of this annual award—from I.M. Pei’s pyramid in Paris (awarded in 2017) to Robert Venturi’s Post-Modern house for his mom in Philadelphia (awarded in 1989)—never look the same, meaning there is no explicit link between good and timelessness.

Vitruvius presenting architecture to Augustus (by Sebastian Le Clerc)

Over 2,000 years ago, the Roman architect Vitruvius gave us three rules defining good architecture:

  • Firmatis, meaning durability: should stand up and remain in good condition,
  • Utilitas, meaning utility: should function well, and
  • Venustatis, meaning beauty: should delight people and enliven the human spirit.
Boston City Hall, Massachusetts: Considered both good and bad, depending on who you ask. (photo by Anton Grassl)

But when I teach, how do I apply Virtruvius’ teachings when grading the work of my students? What is a B plus design vs. an A minus? If the students are designing a hypothetical city hall, I can recognize if the design complies with the required functions, i.e., enough offices, nice big lobby, required restrooms, and so on. But what about the intangibles? Does the work exude civic spirit? Does it stand proud acknowledging the history of the town, as well as look to its future?

Like with classical music, the performance is not good because the player has gotten all the notes right. The goodness comes from what is added after the notes, even in between the notes—such as the interpretation, the communication of something beyond the music.

Good architecture goes beyond its sticks and stones, steel and glass, beyond the number of classrooms in a school or seats in a theater. What is beyond is not up to the beholder or the architect, but things known as culture, progress, evolution, invention, wonder, humor, and amazement. Grasping all this or even some of this, if humanly possible for the architect, comprises good architecture.

Universally considered a good design: Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India (photo by Simon from Pixabay)

TIMELESSNESS: THE MANY LIVES OF THE BRADBURY BUILDING

March 23, 2018

Atrium of the Bradbury Building (photo from ruebarue.com)

In 1893, architect Sumner Hunt served up the beloved Bradbury Building, a jewel in the gritty South Broadway area of downtown Los Angeles. To talk about the building’s elegance is akin to commenting on the freshness of the sushi from world-acclaimed chef Jiro One.

Rather than discuss the obvious beauty of the Bradbury, I am more fascinated by the architecture’s numerous chapters of evolution and interpretation. There are many lives to this iconic building, from film to music videos. Why and how?

upper left: (500) Days of Summer (2009); upper right: The Artist (2011); lower left: Shockproof (1949); lower right: Blade Runner (1982)

Following the Bradbury Building’s 1971 Landmark status from the National Register of Historic Places, the building fell into sad disrepair. In 1982, the sci-fi cult cult classic, Blade Runner, exploited the deteriorating building, reinterpreting the once glorious Renaissance Revival style, into a goth dystopian backdrop. Prior to this, film noir of the 40’s and 50’s appropriated the building for haunting backdrops.

The Bradbury Building also found its way into dozens of movies of all types, from Chinatown in 1974 to Lethal Weapon in 1988, from Pay It Forward in 2000, to (500) Days of Summer in 2009.

Television series, Fame (1982)

For television, the Bradbury offered its architecture for the 60’s series, Outer Limits, as well as to Mission Impossible, from the 70’s. In the 80’s, the building represented the performing arts high school in Fame, and more recently, a setting for CSI NY. In both of these, this Los Angeles building was ironically and oddly the best choice to represent the backdrop of New York City.

upper left: Janet Jackson in Rhythm (1989); upper right: The Pointer Sisters in He’s So Shy (1980); lower left: Tony! Toni! Tone in Let’s Get Down (1998); lower right: Huang Zitao in The Road (2016)

Music videos have also seized the Bradbury design for various moods and vibes over the decades, to include stars such as Janet Jackson, Earth Wind and Fire, Genesis, The Pointer Sisters, and even Chinese pop sensation, Huang Zitao.  And don’t forget Justin Timberlake’s current hit, Say Something.

Going further into pop culture, DC and Marvel Comics created comic book characters that occupied the Bradbury Building. The actual offices of Marvel Comics had the real Bradbury Building as its home.

The Order, Marvel Comics (2002)

What is it about this one building that makes it the canvas for so many different brush strokes and stories? I argue that the Bradbury design is timeless and essential, if such concepts exist.

(A side note: Nearly every client of mine requests a design that is “warm, welcoming and timeless.” I chuckle a little, because when a client asks for these qualities, they proclaim their desires as if it was an original idea, as if it wasn’t already so obvious and cliché. I have yet to hear a client state, “I want a design that is uninviting, full of fads and will quickly go out of style!”)

How is timelessness captured? A traditional house with a porch and columns, for example, appears timeless to some, but to others, it might simply be old fashion, like some grandmother’s cottage. On the other hand, a Zaha Hadid design might appear timeless because it looks to the future. But for many critics, her architecture will only be recognized as a product of a certain chapter in time.

left: traditional house (photo from td-universe.com); right: Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, by Zaha Hadid (photo by Alamy)

The many lives of the Bradbury Building speak to a timeless design because it succeeds at the essence of architecture, without ever being stylistic. The architecture excels at something as basic as how natural light transforms the sense of place throughout each hour of the day. In addition to Hunt’s thoughtful use of textures, colors and craft, this designer carefully explored the essentials of architecture. Space, proportion and air places the Bradbury Building in history. And I look forward to its next 100 years.

Early days of the Bradbury Building (photo from glamamor.com)
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