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Modernist Architecture is a Failed Paradigm Ruining Our World

By Dom Nozzi

April 19, 2017

Nothing is more dated than yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.  – Unknown

 Modern architects recognize 300 masterpieces but ignore the other 30 million [modernist] buildings that have ruined the world. – Andres Duany

 Recently, a Boulder CO online newsletter published an essay I had written describing my vision for the redevelopment of the Boulder Community Hospital site (also known as Alpine-Balsam) that the City of Boulder had purchased and was planning to redevelop. Two Boulder friends of mine, who admirably tend to express support for compact, walkable urban design, noted as well to me their support for modernist architectural design in the redevelopment.

It was very disheartening for me to hear of their support for modernism. I believe that modernism would greatly contribute to undermining the potential success of this redevelopment – success that could serve as a model for future development in Boulder.

I prefer traditional design over modernist design.

Banks

Some Merits of Traditional Design

Traditional architectural design tends to be much more readily loved by most people. This makes a great deal of sense, since by definition, traditional design has stood the test of time. Not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of research suggesting that traditional architecture, such as Georgian and Victorian terraces and mansion blocks, contributes to our wellbeing. Beauty makes people happy.[1] By contrast, modernist architecture tends to be shocking or repellent to most. Visual preference surveys by Tony Nelessen conducted throughout the nation consistently shows this to be the case.

Traditional design tends to be more kind and interesting to pedestrians due to the use of ground floor windows, front-facing entryways, and building ornamentation. By contrast, modernist design has a bad habit of offering sterility and lack of place-making at the ground level.

Throwing Away Timelessness

The Modernist paradigm makes “innovation” the design imperative, which arrogantly assumes that there is no reason a new, untested design cannot reliably achieve admiration and greatness.

Modernists throw away design rules that have stood the test of time in creating buildings that are pleasing and comprehensible to most. Throwing away rules is a recipe for creating incomprehensible, unappealing, unsustainable garbage in the vast majority of cases. It is akin to handing a typewriter to a monkey and expecting the monkey to type out the works of Shakespeare.

Consider this example of a written paragraph, where rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, consistency in font, and other writing conventions are ignored:

red moss teeaere         eeaapoiere   STRAIGHT method.   Tether: highlight. totalitarian doctrines. Fight, Might.  BreaD    Moss tree  Goofballs. Magnet; Tennis   Jodding. Running_____ Break. Slow! Aspirin. Hockey hockey hockey hockey. Shoes and purple.   WHISPER###  ****&&&&&&@@@@@

An “innovative” paragraph, perhaps, but incomprehensible, utterly ugly, and chaotic.

Note that I do not intend to suggest that architects are as uneducated as monkeys. To the contrary, architects tend to be highly intelligent. But by throwing out time-tested design rules, architects voluntarily blind themselves to design intelligence.

To me, it is exceptionally tragic that modernists are doing to our communities what the above paragraph does to writing. To abandon writing rules, and to abandon the timeless rules of neighborhood design, we abandon what should be (and has been throughout history) the beauty and elegance of the written word, and the beauty and elegance displayed by so many of our historic neighborhoods.

Look the Other Way with Greenwashing

It is quite common for a modernist architect to “green” the design of his or her building by covering much of it with vegetation. Modernists do this to soften the otherwise brutal, sterile nature of their “innovative” designs. By doing so, they leverage the human tendency to love nature and vegetation. “Maybe if I hide my unlovable design behind ivy and shrubs, people will like the appearance of my otherwise distasteful structure!”

High-tech conservation and solar energy methods, similarly, are often used by modernists to gain favor and have people look the other way with regard to the unfortunate, unpleasant building design. “Are you not impressed by my triple platinum LEED-certified building that conserves so much energy?” Pay no attention to the fact that the building looks like Soviet-era brutality.

The Conservation Benefits of Traditional Design

Despite the conventional wisdom that contemporary buildings perform far better than older, traditional buildings when it comes to energy conservation and overall environmental sustainability, it turns out that traditional, older buildings tend to be inherently much more “green” environmentally than modernist building design.

Why?

One reason is that traditional design tends to more often deploy passive conservation methods such as overhanging pitched roofs. Such roofs are much more effective than modernist flat roofs in shedding  snow and rain. The traditional pitched roof much more effectively avoids costly moisture leaks from pooled water, or collapse from excessive snow weight. The roof overhang provides shade from a hot sun. Traditional buildings tend to be more appropriately oriented to take advantage of the cooling and heating cycles of the sun throughout the day and in various seasons. Modernist buildings tend to “innovatively” disregard such passive strategies.

Traditional building design also tends to use more durable building materials (such as brick, masonry, and wood), and use locally-sourced materials. This reduces the energy costs of initial cost, maintenance, repair, and replacement. By contrast, modernist buildings tend to use more exotic, difficult to maintain materials such as vast amounts of glass or polished steel.

Because traditional building design is more likely to be loved than modernist design, the building is more sustainable and environmentally friendly simply by the fact that by being lovable, citizens are more likely to want to protect and repair the building, rather than tear it down. The prolific tearing down of modernist buildings we have already seen in great numbers (due in part to their unlovable nature) is extremely costly in terms of energy conservation and environmental conservation. This frequent demolition of modernist buildings is certain to continue in the future.

Modernist Non Sequiturs

To win political and societal support for modernist design, modernist architects frequently use non sequiturs. Modernist buildings are praised for being “progressive” or “optimistic about the future.” Such buildings are called “democratic” or “egalitarian.” By Officescontrast, traditional buildings are disparaged as being “authoritarian” or “regressive” or “pessimistic.” Traditional buildings are often ridiculed as being “nostalgic” (implying an effort to create a fake historical appearance), or “not forward looking.”

Nonsense.

It is entirely inappropriate to associate political or ethical values with building style or design.

Giving Compact Development a Black Eye

Boulder residents have a long, unfortunate history of counterproductively opposing higher-density development with the justification that such development harms Boulder’s small town character, is environmentally destructive, or creates traffic and parking congestion.

Ironically, it is low-density development that is more responsible for such problems.

The essential need to shift Boulder’s politics toward support for more compact development shows why it is extremely important that compact, walkable, higher-density buildings be lovable in design. Using more lovable traditional design is a powerful way to gain more acceptance of compact design in Boulder. A great many people in Boulder dislike compact development because it is associated with “boxy” or “monolithic” or “sterile” buildings. The last thing Boulder needs is for ugly buildings to give compact development a black eye. Modernist buildings are also infamous for not fitting in with the context of their location (an inherent problem when “innovation” is the key design objective). Each of these traits are typical of a modernist building, whereas a traditional building is more likely to feel friendly or compatible in or near existing neighborhoods.

Traditionally designed neighborhoods tend to be unified in style and follow a design pattern. By being more compatible and lovable, traditional buildings are much better able to gain neighborhood and community acceptance when the project is more dense or compact. By contrast, modernist design theory, again, tends to celebrate “eclectic” and “innovative” design. Such design ignores context and tends to feel disconcertingly chaotic, incompatible, and bizarre. This is a surefire recipe for amplifying neighborhood opposition. “There are…reasons that more British cities are not beautiful. Firstly, there are the architects themselves, who tend to prefer innovative buildings over traditional ones.”[2]

The Absence of Mimicking Modernism

It is quite telling that in Boulder, as elsewhere, there are zero neighborhoods which people look upon with affection that are mostly or entirely modernist (similarly, I know of no predominantly modernist towns or neighborhoods that are tourist destinations). As John Torti, principal of Torti Gallas & Partners, has stated, “…could you imagine an entire city made out of Frank Gehry buildings? There’s a notion of the monument versus the fabric. Michael Dennis called it hero buildings versus soldier buildings. In most New Urbanist practices we create the soldier buildings, the fabric buildings that make cities.”[3]

Modernism vs Traditional in Boulder, April 2017

But there are many examples of admired neighborhoods in Boulder that are primarily traditional: Mapleton Hill, Iris Hollow, Dakota Ridge, Washington Square, and Holiday.

The Rejection of Context

The modernist paradigm is focused on creating individualistic “statement” buildings that have no relation to their neighbors. Context, pattern, time-tested design, rules, and fabric are tossed into the waste can. Instead, the focus is on innovation, which tends to result in odious, unlovable buildings that almost never draw affection – particularly when modernist buildings are grouped together in a neighborhood (is it even possible to group together “statement” buildings into a coherent whole?)  Instead, modernist buildings are parasitically, invasively, and incrementally added into an existing traditional neighborhood, allowing the modernist building to piggyback on the affection for the traditional neighborhood.

Torti notes that:

“The notion of understanding and respecting the traditional city—rather than showing off a particular site or building—is the essential difference. Christopher Alexander, the great planning and architectural theorist, says it in a very poignant way. When you come to a place, a city, or a site, you must look and try to understand the whole place. It sums up what I think new urbanists are all about, which is being humble enough when we work on buildings to let the city take preference.”[4]

Similarly, Stefanos Polyzoides, principal of Moule & Polyzoides, Architects and Urbanists, says that

“…the prime ingredient of urbanism is really public space and the public realm. So the urban plan comes first and the building second. It becomes an issue of whether the building is a monument or a piece of fabric. Then does this building dominate what’s in place or does this building add to it or transform it? New urbanists essentially believe in compatibility between building and place, in the sense that buildings having specific intentions when placed in a particular location in the urban fabric.”[5]

Incrementally Destroying Affection

Tragically, over time, this incremental invasion by modernist buildings erodes the affection felt for the traditional neighborhood as it slowly loses its charm to the invader buildings. Each modernist building added to a traditional neighborhood is a new blight on the neighborhood, and the neighborhood takes another step toward being unloved.

Modernist buildings, by design, stick out like a sore thumb. They take pride in the amount of shock value they induce. They thumb their nose at conventions and timeless design and fitting into a context. A modernist building tends to call attention to itself, Homeswhich is most unfortunate for the neighborhood, as the modernist design is so commonly wretched.

There is a reason that modernists fear and oppose visual preference surveys. Their modernist designs always fail to gain support. The modernist excuse for this? “Citizens are too stupid or lacking in architectural knowledge to realize that the modernism was brilliant and beautiful!”

Rubbish.

Repetition and Making Lovable, Compatible Design Illegal

It is said, rightly, that imitation is the highest form of flattery. When a building design stands the test of time and is loved for many generations, it is natural and desirable that it be mimicked by new buildings. Traditional buildings, by definition, have long been 3718677272_880f14ecdc_bloved and should therefore become a pattern that should be followed by new buildings. Tellingly, the chaotic, no-rules modernist building tends to NEVER be replicated. I know of no examples.

One of the things we tend to love is a city that shows order, repetition, balance, and symmetry. Without an emphasis on repetition, it seems chaotic, like no one is in charge, which is disconcerting. Diversity and variety should be introduced gently so as not to take away from an overall design pattern (such as building height or shape). Variety might be introduced through differences in fencing style, color, or cornice, for example.

Much of Pearl Street Mall is a good example of lovable repetition with a dash of variety.

Given all of this, it is an atrocity that in America, communities have been saddled for several decades by federal historic preservation guidelines that REVERSE this time-honored method I have just summarized. In historic neighborhoods full of lovable, charming historic buildings, the federal historic preservation guidelines PROHIBIT additions to existing traditional buildings that mimic or are even compatible with the existing traditional building style. Instead – insanely – the federal guidelines REQUIRE that the addition to an existing historic and traditional building be “of its time.” Today, since “of its time” buildings happen to be unlovable modernist buildings, federal historic preservation rules make it mandatory that lovable historic buildings be degraded in all their charm and glory by being appended by a hideous modernist abomination.

Additions

Most modernist architects proudly – triumphantly – design “of its time” modernist buildings when new buildings are to be built in a traditional historic neighborhood.

Who needs enemies when we have ourselves?

What does it say about a society when it requires new construction to only use a failed, unlovable building design? Modernist architecture is, after all, a failed paradigm. We are now obligated to keep adding more and more failure to our neighborhoods so that the construction is “of its (failed) time.”

Today, it tends to be that only arrogant, elitist, pompous modernist architects who have “drank the Kool Aid” admire modernist buildings. The rest of us are too stupid to realize the brilliance of modernist buildings.

Unfortunately for me, it would seem that nearly all architects who design buildings in Boulder prefer modernist design, which makes it extremely likely that modernist design will once again be the dominant (exclusive?) design at the hospital site being redeveloped.

I believe that more modernist building design is likely to meet with strong citizen opposition to the redevelopment of the hospital site, thereby undermining this golden opportunity to have the City show how compact development is properly and popularly done.

Affordability and Jobs?

Having said all of this, there are one or two advantages to modernist buildings. First, they are so strongly disliked by so many people that they will therefore not see a significant increase in price over time. They will not retain their value. Or, if there is an appreciation in housing value in the community, the appreciation for modernist homes will be lower than the appreciation that traditional buildings will see. Very few people will be interested in buying a home that seems so dated and so bizarre, which will put downward pressure on the price of the home. Because modernist homes will be so difficult for an owner to sell, such homes will be relatively affordable to lower income people who don’t have much choice about how attractive their homes might be.

A study from the Netherlands showed that ‘even controlling for a wide range of features, fully neo-traditional houses sell for 15 per cent more than fully non-traditional houses…London terraced houses built before the First World war went up in value by 465 per cent between 1983 and 2013, compared to 255 per cent for post-war property of the same type. Beauty sells, but because it’s rare, it’s exclusive.[6]

So providing more affordable housing in an expensive housing market is one benefit.

Another benefit is that because modernist buildings tend to be so unlovable to the vast majority of people, modernist buildings will provide more jobs in future years because they will be more frequently demolished and in need of reconstruction to other buildings.

Time to Sunset Modernism

It is far past time that America end its failed architectural experiment of modernism. The modernist paradigm has destroyed lovability throughout the nation, and has bred widespread cynicism about our ability to create buildings worthy of our affection.

Hotels

Our quality of life and any hope of civic pride depends on our returning to the tradition of using time-tested building design.

[1] West, Ed. “Classical architecture makes us happy. So why not build more of it?”, The Spectator. March 15, 2017.

[2] West, Ed. “Classical architecture makes us happy. So why not build more of it?”, The Spectator. March 15, 2017.

[3] https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2017/03/09/great-idea-architecture-puts-city-first

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] West, Ed. “Classical architecture makes us happy. So why not build more of it?”, The Spectator. March 15, 2017.

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Redeveloping the Boulder Community Hospital Site in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

January 27, 2017

The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. – David Mohney

As owners of the Boulder Community Hospital (BCH) site bounded by Broadway, Alpine, 9th Street, and Balsam, the City of Boulder has a golden opportunity to demonstrate the preferred vision for creating compact, walkable development in appropriate locations within Boulder.

For too long, citizens have rightly attacked many new projects in Boulder. We now have a chance to show how to do it right.

The following is one man’s opinion about how we can do it right at the BCH site.

First Determine the Context

Our very first task in establishing a “How to Do It Right” vision is to determine the “context” of the site. Where is it located in the community? Is it a walkable town center? A drivable suburb? A farmable rural area? Only when we answer that question are we able to know which design tactics are appropriate and which are inappropriate. For example, if we are in a suburban context, it is inappropriate to insert shops and offices within the neighborhood, or use small building setbacks. However, if we are in a town center context, those design tactics are entirely appropriate and desirable.

transect

In the case of the BCH site, it is generally agreed by the City that the context is walkable town center (what is called “Urban Center Zone” in the above figure). It is now important, given that, to ensure that the design of the site is compatible with that vision.

How do we do that?

A Form-Based Code

Perhaps the most effective way to do that is to establish what is called a “form-based code (FBC)” or a “subcommunity overlay plan,” which was successfully used to guide the development of the Holiday neighborhood in North Boulder.

The FBC or plan emphasizes the importance of “form” by specifying the appropriate and desirable building placements, street dimensions, and building materials. This differs from the conventional “use-based” zoning codes, which over-emphasize the importance of uses within a building, and only specify designs and dimensions that are prohibited, rather than specifying what is desired by the community.

As Andres Duany notes[1]

…A FBC protects us from the tendency of modern designers to disregard timeless design principles in favor of “anything goes.” An “anything goes” ideology too often leads to “kitschy” buildings, unwalkable streets, and other aspects of low-quality urban design.

…A FBC protects us from the whims of boards and committees.

…A FBC is necessary so that the “various professions that affect urbanism will act with unity of purpose.” Without integrated codes, architects, civil engineers and landscape architects can undermine each others’ intentions by suboptimizing.

…A FBC is necessary because without it, buildings and streets are “shaped not by urban designers but by fire marshals, civil engineers, poverty advocates, market experts, accessibility standards, materials suppliers and liability attorneys” – none of whom tend to know or care about urban design.

…A FBC is necessary because “unguided neighborhood design tends, not to vitality, but to socioeconomic monocultures.” The wealthy, the middle-class, and the poor segregate from each other, as do shops and restaurants, offices, and manufacturing. A FBC can ensure a level of diversity without which walkability wilts.

…A FBC is necessary to reign in the tendency of contemporary architects to design “look at me” buildings that disrupt the urban fabric.

…A FBC is necessary to ensure that locally appropriate, traditional design is employed, rather than “Anywhere USA” design.

…A FBC is needed to protect against the tendency to suburbanize places that are intended to provide compact, walkable urbanism.

…A FBC is necessary to protect against the tendency to over-use greenery in inappropriate places such as walkable town centers. In particular, grass areas tend to be inappropriate in walkable centers. Over-using greenery is a common mistake that tends to undermine walkability.

…A FBC is needed because codes “can compensate for deficient professional training. Because schools continue to educate architects towards self-expression rather than towards context, to individual building rather than to the whole.”

We can craft a FBC in hands-on workshops driven by citizens and urban designers. When crafting a FBC, such workshops are called “charrettes,” where professional urban designers provide attendees with a one- or multi-day training course in the time-tested design principles of creating a successful town center, suburb, or rural area. Armed with such knowledge, citizens and designers craft a FBC that is appropriate for the context and community values.

Designing the BCH Site

The following are my own individual suggestions for a FBC that would employ time-tested principles for creating a successful walkable, lovable, charming town center.

The overall layout is compact and walkable. For example, building setbacks are human-scaled and quite modest. Private front and backyards are similarly small in size. Public parks are smaller pocket parks rather than larger, suburban, fields of grass (note that abundant grass and athletic fields are provided adjacent to the west of the BCH site). Some of these parks are relatively small public squares formed by buildings that face the square on all four sides. If surface parking is unavoidable at the site (and I would very strongly urge against such parking), the parking should be designed as a public square that occasionally accommodates parked cars. Block sizes are relatively small, based on a street grid, and include many intersections. Internal streets and alleys are plentiful and narrow enough to obligate slower speed, more attentive driving. Give-way streets, slow streets, woonerfs, and walking streets are all appropriate and desirable.

Internal streets should have a spacing of at least one-to-one (or two-to-one or one-to-two) ratio of flanking building height to street width. (Pearl Street Mall has a ratio that fall within the ranges below).

ratio

To promote vibrancy and safety, the City should encourage 24/7 activity by discouraging weekday businesses, such as offices, that close after 5. Businesses that close after 5 create night-time dead zones.

Service vehicles that may use streets, such as buses, delivery vehicles, or fire trucks should be small enough that they do not obligate the establishment of overly large streets or intersections. When such vehicles cannot be relatively small, it is appropriate for such vehicles to be obligated to move more slowly and carefully. Dimensions, in other words, should be human-scaled, not tractor-trailer-scaled.

If feasible, Goose Creek under the BCH site should be daylighted. It would be appropriate to create a bustling, miniature version of the San Antonio Riverwalk, with homes and shops lining the creek. At a minimum, a daylighted creek needs to be relatively permeable with several pedestrian crossings along the way to promote walkability. Since the BCH site is in a compact, walkable zone, wide suburban greenspaces flanking the creek would not be appropriate.

Alignments are more formal and rectilinear. Internal streets, sidewalks and alleys have a straight rather than curvilinear (suburban) trajectory. Street trees along a block face are of the same species (or at least have similar size and shape), have a large enough canopy to shade streets, and should be formally aligned in picturesque straight lines rather than suburban clumps. Building placement is square to streets and squares rather than rotated (to avoid “train wreck” alignment more appropriate for suburbs). Buildings that are rotated rather than parallel to streets and squares are unable to form comfortable spaces.

Streets deploy square curbs and gutters. Stormwater requirements should be relaxed at the site to prevent unwalkable oversizing of facilities. Streets are flanked by sidewalks. Signs used by businesses are kept relatively small in size. For human scale, visual appeal, and protection from weather, shops along the street are encouraged to use canopies, colonnades, arcades, and balconies. When feasible, civic buildings or other structures with strong verticality are used to terminate street vistas.

Turn lanes and slip lanes in streets are not allowed on the site.

Street lights are relatively short in height to create a romantic pedestrian ambiance and signal to motorists that they are in a slow-speed environment. They are full cut-off to avoid light pollution.

Buildings are clad in context-appropriate brick, stone, and wood. Matching the timeless traditional styles of the nearby Mapleton Hill neighborhood is desirable. Building height limit regulations exempt pitched roofs above the top floor of buildings to encourage pitched roof form and discourage the blocky nature of flat roofs. Obelisks and clock towers are also exempt from height limits.

Buildings taller than five stories should be discouraged for a number of reasons. First, they tend to be overwhelming to pedestrian/human scale. Second, they tend to induce excessive amounts of car parking. Finally, if we assume that the demand for floor space is finite at the BCH site, it is much preferable from the standpoint of walkability for there to be, say, 10 buildings that are 5 stories in height rather than 5 buildings that are 10 stories in height.

Floor-area-ratio (FAR) is a measure of how much square footage can be built on a given piece of land. A relatively high FAR is supportive of walking, transit, and bicycling. In commercial areas, FAR should be at least 1.0.[2]  Richard Untermann, a well-known urban designer, calls for FARs of 2.0-3.0 in town centers.[3]

FAR

Buildings along the street are often graced with front porches to promote sociability, citizen surveillance, and visual desirability.

Relatively small offices and retail shops are sensitively interspersed within the neighborhood. For additional walkable access to shops and services, Broadway to the west of the BCH site should incorporate designs which make the crossing more safe and permeable. Narrowing crossing distances and various slow-speed treatments can effectively achieve increased permeability.

First floors of buildings along sidewalks provide ample windows. First floors of buildings are not appropriate places for the parking of cars.

Given the affordable housing crisis in Boulder, ample affordable housing must be provided. Residences above shops are desirable, as are accessory dwelling units and co-ops. An important element in providing affordable housing will be the fact that the inclusion of shops, services and offices within the neighborhood, residences will be able to allocate larger proportions of household money to their homes and less to car ownership and maintenance (since the household would be able to shed cars by owning, say, one car instead of two, or two instead of three).

An important way to make housing more affordable is to unbundle the price of parking for residences from the price of housing. Available parking is modest in quantity and hidden away from the street. Parking is space efficient because shared parking is emphasized and tends to be either on-street or within stacked parking garages. No parking is allowed to abut streets, unless the parking is on-street, or in a stacked garage wrapped with retail and services along the street.

The BCH site is exempted from required parking, and is also exempt from landscaping requirements.

Unbundling the price of parking and reducing the land devoted to parking are both important ways to create more affordable housing.

The Washington Village neighborhood project a few blocks to the north on Broadway and Cedar is a good model for appropriately compact and walkable spacing at the BCH site.

Let’s not squander this important opportunity. Let’s insist that we build a neighborhood that fits the pattern of walkable Siena, Italy, not drivable Phoenix Arizona.

phoenix

 

References

[1] “Why We Code,” Sky Studio. http://www.studiosky.co/blog/why-we-code.html?utm_content=bufferdde8c&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[2] SNO-TRAN. Creating Transportation Choices Through Zoning: A Guide for Snohomish County Communities. Washington State (October 1994)

[3] Untermann, Richard. (1984). Accomodating the Pedestrian, pg190.

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