Modernism versus Timeless: Some Benefits of Timelessness

By Dom Nozzi

Timeless, lovable design is inherently more sustainable and long-lasting because it is much less likely to be demolished by a community. By contrast, the awful, unlovable, “innovative” stuff that modernists are tirelessly and single-mindedly focused on tends to be so dated and unloved that citizens cannot wait to get rid of it. Indeed, the author and architect Steve Mouzon has made these points in his writings on this topic.

What about “new design styles?” Shouldn’t we allow architecture to evolve over time?

In my view (and the view of a number of other urban designers), I think anything “new” needs to incorporate “new styles” incrementally and in a subtle way. Otherwise, like most modernist eyesore buildings, the “new style” will be too jarring and unfamiliar. This incrementalism is a way to slowly test new ideas. If they add to the beauty of a building, they will be retained and slowly incorporated in future buildings.

One big key for me – for those of us who seek to ratchet down the knee-jerk furious opposition to needed new housing (and needed infill in general) – is that we must stop giving new development a black eye by allowing builders to build jarring, look-at-me, sore thumb buildings. I’m utterly convinced that if we obligate developers to abandon jarring modernism and instead build timeless, lovable designs (and we know what those are), citizen support for new development/infill/housing will grow. For example, a Council member in Boulder Colorado made that precise point a few weeks ago at a council meeting. Following a presentation by my friend and designer Paul Saparito regarding his proposed compact housing at Alpine-Balsam (a property Boulder has purchased and plans to redevelop as a mixed-use development), this same Council member said that while she generally dislikes density, if the new buildings looked like what Paul showed, she’d be much more likely to support the project.

In sum, if new buildings fit the context of the neighborhood or city – if it is compatible in design or, in other words, if the design is FAMILIAR to Boulder residents, they are much less likely to oppose it, and much more likely to feel comfortable about the new building. Familiarity breeds acceptance. Unfamiliarity breeds hatred. And modernist design, which has as its leading sacrament the imperative that the building design is INNOVATIVE rather than familiar, is a recipe for broad and raging citizen opposition.

“Oh, that proposed new building is FAMILIAR to me. I’m comfortable with that…”

Consistent design is very important. Urban designers like to recommend that houses and retail and offices should be consistent in building design. They should, in other words, be “soldier” buildings. It is only the “civic” buildings such as a church or a city hall that should stand out and be taller, grander, and more of a look-at-me style. The civic building – and ONLY the civic buildings – should be a “hero” building. Otherwise, we end up with unlovable chaos, as this image shows.Hero bldgs vs soldier bldgs

A few good examples right here in Boulder, Colorado: The Holiday neighborhood in North Boulder, and the University of Colorado campus. Both of those places obligate a consistent style or theme that creates a sense of community and comfort. And coherence, I would add.

As I’ve said many times, there are only two advantages I can think of for modernist buildings (and the advantages are too small, compared to the downsides, to allow them to continue to be built). First, modernist style is so universally awful and disliked that future generations will have plenty of demolition jobs (an economic boost!). Also, because so few homebuyers are interested in buying someone else’s bizarre modernist innovation building (“is it a house or a spaceship or an insecticide factory?”), such homes will be more affordable to buy than the timeless, lovable home styles.


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