By Dom Nozzi
April 27, 2015
Nothing is more dated than yesterday’s vision of tomorrow. – Unknown
One of the great ironies in the field of architecture is that the most effective way to create buildings that look dated very soon after construction is to design them to be futuristic or modernist in design.
A recently proposed “modernist” building in my city has appropriately been disparaged as a “popcorn ball” apartment building.
To me, such a building is unlovable. It is chaotic. Innovative for the sake of being innovative. No connection to time-tested design or to the city context or history.
It reminds me of the important need for a form-based code for this part of my city (which is soon to see substantial infilling of new buildings). A form-based code puts priority on the design of a building and its location on the property, rather than the conventional use-based code, which concerns itself almost exclusively with the uses that are allowed within the building (residence, shop, office, etc.).
Rules are needed to reign in the “Anything Goes” Cult of Innovation that Modernist architects have followed. A Cult that has obliterated charm and lovability in our communities. It is a Cult that moronically and catastrophically rejects timeless design.
Too many architects see “innovation” as an imperative, and end up creating buildings that don’t behave themselves. Too many “look-at-me” buildings. Too many buildings as art objects. Art belongs inside buildings, not as shocking, jarring “artistic” buildings imposed on the public realm.
Unless a building is a civic or government building, it generally should not stand out as a look-at-me object standing out like a sore thumb. If too many buildings try to stand out, the ambience is disorienting and anxiety-producing. Residential and commercial buildings, in a compact town center, should be background buildings. Their front facade should be abutting (or very close to) sidewalks, and have glazing and interesting first floor uses (preferably day and night uses). Buildings are set close to the sidewalk to form an outdoor room. Each of these elements are basic, fundamental ingredients for activating the public realm and making for a comfortable experience for the pedestrian. Too many architects have forgotten about these basic elements. A form-based code therefore is more important today than in the past.
Quality development is not about creating high-quality INDIVIDUAL buildings.
It is largely about the ENSEMBLE of a collection of buildings. How they relate to nearby buildings to form comfortable spaces. How they are set on their parcel of land. How rewarding they are to the pedestrian. How lovable they are because they use time-tested designs. How they fit into the vision established in their neighborhood.
The modernist paradigm has become a regrettable problem because it so commonly violates these principles. Much of it is based on the idea that timeless rules should be abandoned in favor of innovation. That anything goes. That the imperative is the startling nature of the individual building. The community vision, spaces created between buildings, local materials, and how the building relates to other buildings typically are irrelevant.
Many of us love Prague, Siena, Budapest, or Montepulciano not because of innovative individual buildings, but largely because of how the assemblage of the buildings create a
place that feels wonderful. Many of us, in other words, love historic, pedestrian-scaled areas not because an individual building is “inspiring” or “green.”
We love it largely because of how the collection of buildings are set along the street to create a lively, human-scaled ambiance that feels good.