It is tiresome and painfully predictable — as was expressed in a Facebook thread I was recently involved in — that when a city adopts a brilliant, highly successful urban design tactic and a suggestion is made that we adopt the same tactic in our community, the knee-jerk response is “Yes, but they are different than us, so it won’t work here!”
I call such people members of the “Squelcher Squad,” as they use that argument over and over again to squelch an idea before it is adopted.
When bicycling in downtown Denver a few days ago, I noticed that Denver has right-sized (road dieted) streets in downtown to create protected bike lanes (among many other benefits). It strikes me that we heard a great many anti-city/pro-car folks scream that Folsom Street cannot be road dieted because there are “too many cars on that street.”
Why, then, can Denver road diet downtown streets despite those streets carrying far more cars than Folsom? Surely, Denver has members of the Squelcher Squad who were saying that a road diet won’t work in Denver because while it might work all over the US, “it won’t work in Denver because Denver is different. Downtown streets have far too many cars!” Note, BTW, that the Boulder Squelcher Squad was conveniently silent about successful Denver road diets, despite their having far more cars than Boulder.
If the “Yes, but they are different” argument fails to squelch the idea, the Squelcher Squad frequently plays another card: The “Catch-22” card.
In the Denver example above, this squelcher tactic would say that “Denver can do road diets but Boulder cannot because Denver has far better transit than Boulder!” When it is pointed out that the reason Denver has better transit than Boulder is because Denver is far more compact (has far higher density) than Boulder, the Squelcher Squad then plays its Catch-22 card. “Boulder cannot do road diets because we don’t have good enough transit! But Boulder also cannot have transit because I will not allow Boulder to be more compact!”
What drives this Catch-22 attitude on the part of the Squelcher Squad? It is the fact that squelchers are trapped in a car-dependent, suburban lifestyle. Those trapped in this lifestyle are forced to use a car for nearly every trip they make. Using transit, a bicycle, or walking is impractical. Because a car consumes 17 to 100 times more space than a person not in a car, and because the car-based lifestyle requires easy, convenient, affordable travel by car, those in the car-based lifestyle MUST oppose compact development as a way to protect the viability of their lifestyle. They must, in other words, preserve their low-density, space-consuming neighborhood design in amber.
As it turns out, then, the car-dependent lifestyle is unsustainable, largely because it is not in any sense resilient to change. It is, instead, a fragile way to live.
Because change in a healthy, sustainable city is inevitable, members of the Squelcher Squad have a lifestyle with no future. All species and lifestyles that were not adaptable to change in world history are now extinct. This is the inevitable fate of the suburban, car-based, low-density lifestyle in a world of inevitable change.
Members of the Squelcher Squad often inform us that our city cannot afford to provide the quality transit service found in many larger cities. While it is correct that smaller cities such as Boulder could not quickly install a high-quality transit system found in a city such as, say, Copenhagen, I don’t see why Boulder would need to do that as a way to follow the admirable lead of a city like Copenhagen.
The important lessons many of us get from cities like Copenhagen: land uses that are much more compact/dense than Boulder deliver many enormous benefits: affordability, transportation choice, quality of life, lifestyle choice, societal health/fitness, overall happiness, lower levels of traffic deaths, lower levels of air pollution and fuel consumption, etc.
How was a city like Copenhagen able to find the money and political will to build their transit system? It was almost entirely due to not making the mistakes of Boulder and many other US cities. Mistakes such as dispersed, low-density land use patterns, and putting too much into accommodating easy and affordable car travel.
In sum, if Boulder starts incrementally allowing more compact development, and reverses its many decades of promoting easy car travel and parking, it will inevitably see the incremental ability to find the dollars and political will to establish a better transit system. A viable future for Boulder requires that these land use and transit reforms be established, so we should start sooner rather than later as a way to ease the difficulty.
The reason the classical building is far more likely to stand for centuries than the modernist glass box is that, as the name “classical” implies, classical design has stood the test of time with regard to how loved the design has been over the course of several generations or centuries.
Modernist architects have opted to throw away “test of time” designs and have arrogantly decided that “innovative” is the only design criterion. That a person can just dream up an innovative design that will stand the test of time. It is utterly unsurprising that nearly all “innovative” modernist buildings are considered hideous by the great majority of people surveyed.
When a building is loved, it has a far greater chance of lasting for centuries than buildings that few if any people love.
Almost no one (except modernist architects and those looking for amusement or the bizarre) will visit a neighborhood as a tourist to enjoy the beauty or charm or romance or lovability of a neighborhood or collection of buildings consisting of modernist buildings. Admittedly, some will, as a tourist, visit INDIVIDUAL modernist buildings, but almost always this is to observe a building because it is so peculiar or outlandish. Hundreds of millions of tourists, by striking contrast, flock to admire a city skyline — a collection of buildings within a town or neighborhood — largely consisting of classical or traditional building design.
Each time one of these widely loved cities has a modernist building built within it, that city incrementally becomes less loved. The modernist building in such cities becomes a scar that people look away from, and try to keep out of the photos they shoot of the otherwise charming city.
An important reason why NIMBYism is so rampant is that unlike in the past (before modernism), citizens have come to expect that any new building built in town will be unlovable modernism. Nearly every new building built makes the town less loved.
Modernists are infamous for not using any sort of ornamentation whatsoever. For obvious reasons, this tends to make buildings appear boxy or cubical or so lacking in features that it fails to provide any interest to the observer. Architects did not use ornamentation for several centuries simply because they enjoyed wasting time and money to install it. They used ornamentation because it is a time-tested way to give the building appeal or interest. When I (and many others I’ve observed) am traveling to a new city, I have zero interest in photographing a metal or glass cube building because it is so minimalist and therefore uninteresting and unlovable. However, I (and many others I’ve observed) am strongly compelled to photograph buildings that are richly ornamental.
It is a myth that everyone has his or her own opinion about what is a lovable building design. Survey after survey shows that classical, traditional building design is far preferred. After all, why else would classical, traditional design be so replicated for so very many centuries? By contrast, I know of no modernist building designs that have been (or will be) replicated. That is telling. It is no coincidence that people from all over the world have flocked to the same classical and traditional buildings for centuries to admire them. I and many others believe that this is in part due to the fact that humans are hard-wired to admire certain building designs. Again, the fact that certain designs have been replicated for so many centuries is a testament to that.
Nearly all modernist architects, as part of their ruinous obsession with being “innovative,” take great joy in designing a building that completely ignores the contextual design (the design vocabulary) of other buildings on its street or neighborhood or community. It is an arrogant, selfish quest is to design a jarring “LOOK AT ME!!” building that sticks out like a sore thumb with regard to other buildings.
I believe humans tend to enjoy the pleasing character of assemblages of buildings, not individual buildings. People flock to Assisi or Florence or Venice not so much because of the desire to enjoy individual buildings, but to enjoy the collection (assemblage) of (time-tested) buildings built with traditional designs.
There is a place, of course, for “look at me” (“heroic”) buildings that are designed to not fit into the context of nearby buildings. But that design must be reserved for civic buildings such as churches or important government buildings. When most or all buildings ignore context (as modernist buildings, by definition, strive to do), they create a chaotic public realm that is confusing, disorienting, and stressful to most people.
Consider, for example, the photos above. The image of a modernist city on the left exemplifies chaos and confusion and lack of coherence. It will never be tourist attraction (except for those who want to experience something bizarre or crazy).
Modernist buildings tend to be extremely notorious for being staggeringly expensive to maintain. They also tend to be terrible in achieving energy efficiency. After all, by tossing out traditional design tactics for the all-important need to be “innovative,” modernists blindly toss out such efficient (and affordable) tactics as how the building is oriented toward the sun, abandoning the need for large roof overhangs (to shade the building), installing windows that cannot be opened from the inside, using non-local materials that cannot be locally sourced or repaired, using flat roofs that are extremely likely to leak or collapse under the weight of snow or water, and using glass or other wall materials that are far more costly to maintain or clean than brick or wood.
I do not believe it is true that a person who pays for a building to be built should be able to build anything he or she desires. The exterior building design, unlike paintings or furniture inside a building, is something that everyone in the community must be exposed to for the remainder of their lives. That is why I agree with the many cities that have found it very important to adopt development regulations that prohibit certain designs or exterior colors or flat roofs or large setbacks or weeds/litter/car wrecks in a front yard. The public has a right to not be subjected to what amounts to an eccentric who gets enjoyment out of flipping off his fellow citizen by what amounts to “mooning” the public realm with a jarring, shocking building design.
It is telling that modernists tend to prefer to live in houses with traditional, classic, timeless design rather than the modernist experiments they inflict on us when they design for clients. It is also telling that modernists tend to strongly oppose conducting citizen surveys to determine which building designs are the most appealing. Why? Because building using modernist designs nearly always rank as the most undesirable.
I would be remiss not to mention one of the very few “advantages” of modernist design. Because so few find the modernist style appealing, the market for those who wish to buy modernist homes is tiny. Which means that modernist homes promote affordability because so few want to buy it.
Modernism also fails in several ways at the neighborhood level. Emily Talen, in her book Neighborhood (2019), notes that the highly influential Congress International Architecture Modern (CIAM) successfully influenced — for decades and to this day — the design of neighborhoods throughout the world so that they included the highly dysfunctional features of separating homes from offices, retail, civic, and manufacturing; prioritizing the car over the pedestrian; rejecting the street as public space; creating superblocks that promote insularity; treating buildings as isolated objects in space rather than as part of a larger interconnected urban fabric; rejecting traditional elements such as squares and plazas; demolishing large areas of the city to make unfettered places for new built forms; and creating enclosed malls and sunken plazas that deaden public space. I would also note that these modernist designers also brought dysfunctional, disconnected, disorienting, curvilinear roads to neighborhoods.
Buildings must be built well. That is one of the main reasons why I reject modernist design. Modernism is too often using designs and materials that fail or are extremely costly to maintain. Another “advantage” of modernist buildings, then, is that because they tend to be fall apart or become too costly to maintain, and are so commonly unloved in appearance, they will provide a great many jobs in building demolition, as modernist buildings are destined to be quickly considered blighting eyesores that need to be removed from a city.
I agree with those who state that one of the most essential ways to promote energy conservation and material conservation is to use a building design that is loved. When the building is loved, it is much more likely to last for generations, because citizens will be more likely to defend it from demolition. Time-tested buildings, by definition, are the most loved. I am completely convinced that “innovative” modernist buildings will, in nearly all cases, not stand the test of time, and be demolished relatively soon. To build buildings that are so unloved that they are soon demolished is dreadfully wasteful.
“Nothing is more dated [and, in my opinion, unloved] than yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.”
Modernism is a failed paradigm for the reasons I give above. We need to toss this paradigm into the waste basket.
Other Blogs I Have Written Regarding Modernist Architecture
The Failure and Unpopularity of Modernist Architecture