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StructureHub Blog

Rebuilding Haiti… A Six Month Update

                                                  Haitian Streetscape courtesy of Sam Porter

Exactly six months have passed since the 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti by taking the lives at least 250,000 Haitians and the   work to rebuild the country is creeping along slowly. The government seems to be at a loss for how to redevelop themselves after two million people were left without a home. How does the poorest country in the western hemisphere establish priorities for rebuilding when the struggle to survive was present even before the quake?


            With relief efforts and financial support still trickling in from across the globe, Haiti has an opportunity to use a devastating situation as an opportunity to reinvent themselves and establish a safer and more self-sustaining sense of living as they focus on rebuilding everything ranging from small homes to communities that incorporate farming, education and health. It seems as though Haiti is more concerned with keeping their heads above water as they try and fill in the cracks, so is it the responsibility of the rest of the world to help guide them in the redevelopment of Port-au-Prince? More than financial assistance, does Haiti need urban planning advice and education in the areas of basic construction methods and structural engineering?


Experts are recommending that donor nations offer assistance only with the requirement that the Haitian government enforce and follow a new strict set of building codes. Before the quake, Haiti had no set of building codes to keep builders and citizens accountable. Many buildings in Haiti are concrete structures with steel bars that are too rigid to withstand strong winds and seismic forces.


Significantly less damage was produced and the death toll was drastically reduced when an earthquake struck Chile soon after Haiti was devastated by their own. How can this be when the earthquake in Chile was 500 times more powerful than the quake in Haiti? A number of factors play into answering this question, yet much of it lies in the fact that Chile is a nation that has put energy and focus on modernizing and educating the public in areas of building safety and construction. In the 1960’s Chile experienced a devastating earthquake that enabled them to set up a seismic building code to prevent future devastation on an astronomical scale. For Haiti to move forward, a proper building code must be enacted.


Now that Haiti has a chance to reinvent themselves, greater attention needs to be paid to the safety and construction methods of the new buildings. One country that seems to be lending a hand beyond financial support in this area is Jamaica.With a similar geological and climatic conditions to Haiti, Jamaica recently went through their own redevelopment of building codes. They have generously offered their support and building code to the Haitian government as rebuilding begins to move forward.


As Haiti tries to keep its head above water, maybe its neighboring countries will come along with support that goes beyond the present and stretches far into rebuilding the Haiti of the future.




Image courtesy of Sam Porter

Digital fabrications, meet the real world


Assessing an architect’s earliest commission or first completed project is always fun (though perhaps not so for the architect), since such acheivements often document the architect’s early insecurities, capture what it is later recognized as a trademark flourish in an awkward state of development, or memorialize early mistakes that are hopefully not repeated.

Such observation is even more fun when the architect is already a noted figure (e.g., Zaha Hadid or Peter Eisenman, whose architectural theories made him famous much before he ever got to apply them for a real client).  It appears we can now add Professor Lisa Iwamoto to that list, now that IwamotoScott (her firm, c0-helmed with her husband Craig Scott) has completed a modest house and nearly finished a small lobby renovation in San Francisco.

Until recently, Iwamoto’s impact on the field of architecture has largely related to her academic work and particularly, her “digital fabrication” research.  And while her work in that emerging specialty has included many designs, competition entries, and even made her an author (I reviewed her book on digital fabrications a few months ago), her portfolio has thus far lacked an achievement (employing digital fabrication) with much more physical permanence than an art installation.

Not that it should make much difference.  But for better or worse, practitioners do love deriding “academics” for developing expertise without ever venturing into the “real-world.”  As the story goes, those who cannot do, teach.  In architecture, those who teach spend their time formulating theories that are discussed in impenetrably abstract terms, crafting designs that are spectacularly illustrated but still hopelessly incapable of counteracting gravitational forces, or debating the nature and pace of the field’s decline or return to glory.

Of course, while this simplistic stereotype (like all others) has a kernel of truth justifying its existence, architecture has always seemed to flourish - in a very literal sense - on what practitioners often perceive as hot air.  Elements from even the most fantastical design competitions have occasionally found themselves attached to an actual project, whether as a unique material application, spatial layout, or structural trick, and history is laced with strains of thought that quickly matured into real things as soon as a bored or eccentric patron threw up a bit of cash.

The stereotype about academics also overlooks the reality that architecture is more hard than soft science, when it comes to development of theories and use of research findings.  Even the term “academic” tends not to apply in architecture, since the divide between schools and practitioners is not so much a canyon as it is a river with many bridges.  This is especially true in digital fabrication, which has greatly benefited from links between schools like MIT and private firms as influential as Gehry Technologies and Office dA.

Given her influence in digital fabrications, I suspect that Lisa Iwamoto’s immersion into the “real-world” will accelerate the development of her specialty even more so than her academic work.  One tiny indication of this already happening: an extruded honeycomb structure she and Scott designed to hang from the lobby’s ceiling needed modifications due to “complications involving details and complexity and pricing.”  Ah, yes.  Pricing.

Related Post:  SH Book Review: Digital Fabrications - Architectural & Material Techniques by Lisa Iwamoto.

Image courtesy of watz.

Why landmarking Springs Mills Building is good news for historic preservation.


Do these events seem familiar to you?

- A run-down and/or unloved building, between 30 and 60 years old, piques the imagination of a greedy developer, cash-strapped city, or poor property owner;

- A plan is hatched - often for money, but perhaps for the community’s sake - to “improve” the neighborhood by fixing up the property;

- For the plan to succeed however, someone concludes that demolition or drastic alteration is necessary;

- Only after the plan’s momentum accelerates, do a few individuals realize that the building may in fact not deserve such an end because it was designed by so-and-so and is a rare example of random-ism;

- A reactionary campaign ensues to save the building;

- The campaign against the plan possibly (but often not) succeeds, but in either case, produces a whole new class of individuals opposed to preserving modern architecture.  Said class consists of (1) property owners, (2) public officials, and (3) the general public, most of whom think the building in question is soulless or just plain ugly, and all of whom have had it up to “here” with preservationists who only seem to leap to action when its buildings are already too-far-gone or when everyone else is ready to just move on.

Contrast that hypo (closely modeled on many recent preservation battles) with the just-announced landmarking of the Springs Mills Building.

Like the building in the hypo, this Midtown Manhattan skyscraper (21-stories, completed in 1963) is a product of an architectural epoch that many love to hate and an edifice that most (including you) never knew existed until the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) declared it worthy of your protection (PDF).  Even more incredible (particularly given its relative anonymity), the building’s journey to landmark status did not begin with a swinging wrecking ball (here and here) or impending face-lift, or end with an ipso-facto fight to save it from the owner.

Besides a few modernist icons, there are exceedingly few 30 to 60 years-old buildings lucky enough to get this treatment (i.e., “preventative” historic preservation).  Of course, the Springs Mills Building is hardly an ugly-duckling; the green-tinted “Solex” glass draped on its boxy form nicely echoes the SOM’s Lever House, and the bent long-side deftly enlivens its facade viewable from Bryant Park (see above), even though its up-close appearance is less than spectacular.

Similarly, Harrison & Abramovitz were hardly amateur designers or peddlers of vapid modernism; they were among the most significant (and arguably under-appreciated) firms of mid-century modernism, whose commissions included Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the McGraw-Hill and Exxon buildings, and ironically, both the CIA and U.N. headquarters.

This may be a bit premature, but the successful (and seemingly under-the-radar) campaign to landmark the Springs Mills Building may suggest that the budding movement to preserve modern architecture is slowly broadening its focus from reactionary, emergency fights for crumbling, lonely buildings to include precautionary efforts on behalf of buildings not currently threatened or in poor repair.  (Then again New York City’s historic preservation issues are not necessarily good barometers for what’s happening nationally.)

If this is indeed the case, it is a welcome development; it is much easier to enlist allies, finance preservation campaigns, and pay for renovation/repair/maintenance projects when property owners and public officials cannot use their two most persuasive arguments against preservation (lack of money and lack of political will).  I suspect Michael Gotkin of the Modern Architecture Working Group might agree.

Related Posts: (1) Manhattan misadventures in historic preservation; (2) Long Island misadventures in historic preservation; (3) Century Plaza Hotel to be saved, presumably for historical reasons; (4) At Lincoln Center, the Beaumont Theater will be just fine - even better - with Hugh Hardy’s “black box” perched on top.

Image courtesy of supermoving.

Avoiding the “starchitecture” trap at the Whitney


Roberta Smith’s recent column about the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhausting quest for bigger, better, magnetic gallery space (and restaurant, gift shop, etc.) is generally spot on.

She is right to be nervous that the museum’s relevance as a New York institution may decline if nothing is done about its worn-out Marcel Breuer-designed gallery space (above).  After all, New York City’s arts scene has had the same pattern of ambitious capital campaigns (Morgan Library, New Museum, Museum of Arts & Design, Brooklyn Museum, etc.) and architectural feasts of excess as the rest of the country over the last fifteen years, but in concentrated form (particularly when you consider that the city’s museums must also compete with hundreds private galleries for eyeballs and patronage).

Similarly, Smith is justifiably anxious that, to the art collection’s detriment, the Whitney’s trustees will fall prey to the temptation of having a major architect design the long-planned new building, even if the resulting design is, like many other recent “starchitect” museums, distinctly sub-optimal.

To Smith, an obvious way to (begin to) ensure that the Whitney gets quality gallery space is to hire an (outside) artist or curator to work with Piano to improve his current proposal.  Since the Whitney has already hired Piano, perhaps this is the most that can be done to minimize the risk of Piano’s building being judged in 40 years as Breuer’s building is now.  Even so, Smith’s idea can only do so much.

If the Whitney (or any museum for that matter) really wants to fulfill its mission - if it really wants “to make art look good, make people feel good in it, inspire curators to do their best and give the place some kind of identity…[and] give people a breathtaking, vision-expanding experience of art” - then it needs to acknowledge what its existing facility makes quite clear: in the long-term,”quality” architecture and more importantly, “quality” gallery space are what attract visitors and preserve institutional relevance.  Not starchitect-designed buildings.  Quality buildings.

Of course, major architects generally do not become “major” by being ham-handed; but no architect is immune to error and major architects are known for their propensity for self-aggrandizement, a sense of entitlement, and pride-born stubborness.  It would be quite refreshing if art institutions adopted a policy mandating an open design competition for any major construction.  In addition to the free press coverage and enjoyable task of reviewing dozens of submissions, museums would discover that there are many firms capable of designing architecturally-significant and functionally-capable museums if given the chance.  There are indeed more than 15 or so architects practicing in the world today.

Moreover, museums might discover they prefer being the one with all the leverage for a change; rather than making compromises (subconscious or not) in order to convince a major architect to submit (or tweak an existing) design, the museum could simply rely on the competitive process to filter out firms that focus too much on themselves or architectural flourishes, at the galleries’ expense.

Oddly enough, my point was not provoked by Piano’s current proposal for the Whitney’s new home (although the design does have its critics), since he embodies the anti-starchitect - a major architect who has avoided bombast, vanity, and pastiche, in favor of technical accomplishment and understated elegance.  But as Marcel Breuer’s building has shown, it is ultimately what you do, not who you are, that will determine success or failure…

Related Posts:  (1) Art museums for art’s sake; (2) Frank Gehry’s Weisman Art Museum finally getting expansion, nickname; (3) Is Herzog & de Meuron’s Miami Art Museum just a knock-off of Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago?; (4) Settle down you guys, settle down….

Image courtesy of erikamatthias.

Steven Holl quits architecture to run for Congress


Steven Holl is renouncing architecture to run for Congress.  According to sources (but denied by him), Holl felt snubbed when he was not selected for this year’s Pritzker Architecture Prize.

Soon after SANAA’s Kazuo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa were selected by the Pritzker jury, Holl reportedly began consulting Wikipedia about the ins-and-outs about running for public office; witnesses report Holl asking colleagues, “Architecture?  Why design buildings when I could be designing a whole country?  Why limit yourself?  You guys don’t realize how pathetic your work is.”

Having just finished his “horizontal skyscraper” in China, Holl declared there was nothing more for him, and by extension, the world to discover, architecturally.  ”Frankly, I was surprised no one else thought about that concept before,” Holl exclaimed.  ”You know, as far as marketing a big low building as a ‘horizontal skyscraper’ - genius!  Anyway, when you think about it, architecture isn’t that big of a deal.”

Later in the interview, Holl casually noted that ultimately, “architecture is just four walls and a roof.  Well, unless you’re the latest Pritzker Prize winner, then its just a roof and good intentions!  That’s a joke.  But seriously, I figure architecture has had a good run, but lately, its just been a bore.  Projects are just a blur for me - glass walls, irregular floor plans, concrete floors, egh.  How long can I keep this going?”

In Congress however, Holl thinks he will finally get the structure he’s long sought.  ”I just love rules - and predictability.  The regimented way a bill works through committee, and if lucky, arrives on the House floor…wow.  Mies would get it.”

Asked whether his decision to run for New York’s  15th Congressional District was related to his not winning the Pritzker Prize this year, Holl simply said that he was “excited to fight for the great state of New York,” and that going forward, “my sole focus is the welfare of my constituents.”

Would he be able to tolerate being just 1 of 435 loud voices on Capitol Hill and a junior committee member?  “Oh sure.  I design buildings by committee all the time.  And I hear there is an Architect of the Capitol, so I’m sure I’ll feel right at home on his committee.  They have an architecture committee, right?”

Related Posts: (1) Daniel Libeskind probably won’t be getting a Pritzker Prize from this jury… and (2) SANAA’s Sejima and Nishizawa predictably (and justifiably) win 2010 Pritzker Prize.

Image courtesy of emilygeoff.

Daniel Libeskind won’t be getting a Pritzker Prize from this jury…


Although the jury citation for this year’s Pritzker Prize was written to praise SANAA’s Kazuo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, a couple phrases bubble over with unmistakable disdain for unnamed (but very identifiable) architects who stand little chance of winning a Pritzker from the current jury.     

This year’s 8-member jury (the roster changes over time and varies between 5 and 9 members) includes Lord Peter Palumbo and Renzo Piano - two individuals who undoubtedly made their presence felt during deliberations, either by force of personality or towering achievement, and whose viewpoints might explain this portion of the jury citation: 

Sejima and Nishizawa’s architecture stands in direct contrast with the bombastic and rhetorical. Instead, they seek the essential qualities of architecture that result in a much appreciated straightforwardness, economy of means and restraint in their work. 

Daniel Libeskind, anyone?  Peter Eisenman, perhaps?  There is enough to say about Sejima and Nishizawa without having to resort to praise via subtle, but pointed, comments about their peers.  Minimal impact would’ve been sacrificed if the jury citation left out “bombastic and rhetorical” - so why include that nugget?  Well for one, the jury citation is accurate in its portrayal of the winners’ approach to architecture, an approach that is most clearly understood when contrasted with other prevailing attitudes.  

Moreover, there are few avenues available to the profession that are better-suited for reaching the right eyeballs.  If you (say, Renzo Piano) want to make a public statement or send a message to a certain someone (say Daniel Libeskind) who differs from you in every way (from temperment to style), why not do so in the citation for an award that that “someone” probably expects to win at some point?  After all, it is difficult for a non-bombastic person to get the attention of loud people.

Fortunately, Libeskind, Eisenman, et al, need not fret for too long.  In a couple years, the jury’s make-up will be different, and perhaps more inclined to acknowledge two indisputably excellent (albeit polarizing) portfolios, despite their creators’ occasional bombast and tendency to undervalue “straightforwardness.”   

Related Posts:  (1) SANAA’s Sejima and Nishizawa predictably (but justifiably) win 2010 Pritzker Prize; (2) Daniel Libeskind vainly tries to overcome irony of his prefab diversion; (3) Oh, the irony, Mr. Libeskind…

Image courtesy of luau.

SANAA’s Sejima and Nishizawa predictably (but justifiably) win 2010 Pritzker Prize


The 2010 Pritzker Prize has just been awarded to Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the Japanese architects who helm the increasingly ubiquitous firm SANAA (see a slide show of their work here).  Because the prize was just announced, I have yet to really form a reaction to their selection.  But I can say that while I did not expect them to win quite yet, given their relative youth and somewhat recent “admission” to the small number of firms at the top of the profession, their body of work thus far is certainly worthy of the Pritzker Prize. 

The Pritzker Prize’s purpose is to “honor a living architect whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision, and commitment, which has produced consistent and consistent contributions to humanity and the built environment” via architecture.  

With a purpose like that, the annual prize could go to any number of architects, but as a practical matter, the guessing game is inevitably centered upon three types of architects: (1) youngish, prodigious “rockstars” whose identities are just becoming familiar to the general public; (2) aging, near-death (to be blunt) architects who have somehow been overlooked by the committee (due to a recent surplus of worthy candidates, politics, or some other reason); and (3) accomplished, under-the-radar professionals who are every bit as brilliant as their headline-grabbing brethren. 

SANAA’s Sejima and Nishazawa certainly fall under (1); incredibly, their firm is only 15 years old, and it wasn’t until they completed the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City that they really intruded upon and permanently set up shop in the Western World’s consciousness.  And since that commission, they have had a flurry of high-profile projects completed or begun that exhibit as much originality and whimsy as their skittish stack of boxes in Manhattan, including The Rolex Learning Center at a school in Switzerland and the De Kunstlinie Theater and Learning Center in Holland.  (In 2003 the pictured Christian Dior store was built in Tokyo.)

Cesar Pelli is the first architect that comes to mind for (2), closely followed by Michael Graves.  He is in his eighties and has been “in line” for the prize for over a decade if not longer (note, as far I know, Pelli is perfectly healthy).  Despite his extensive body of work (heavily biased toward corporate architecture and skyscrapers in particular), he was surprisingly not even included in FastCompany’s recent selection of architects most-likely-to-win this year’s Pritzker.   And frankly, I am increasingly convinced - with each year that passes without Pelli being selected - that his peers simply don’t think he deserves to win, perhaps because the committee may view his work as somewhat bland or lightweight, intellectually.   

Last year’s winner, Peter Zumthor, perfectly embodies the third type of winner.  For decades, Zumthor has labored on modest-sized commissions (e.g., the Thermal Bath Vals or Saint Benedict Chapel in Graubunden, Switzerland) - projects often overlooked by the non-architecture media - and produced sculptural works within a relatively small geographic area (most of his buildings are in Switzerland, where he’s from). 

Who will win next year?  If not Pelli or Graves, I suspect it will be Steven Holl, since his output is prodigious, respected, and still flowing;  I’m pulling for Toyo Ito or Shigeru Ban, but none of the options would leave me unsatisfied.   

Related Posts:  (1) SANAA’s Serpentine Pavilion is anything but; (2) Zumthor accepts Pritzker Prize in Buenos Aires; (3) StructureHub Review:  Refreshingly disheveled lumps of…

Image courtesy of naoyafujii.

In Minneapolis, an excellent design competition for a worthy neighborhood


Even though Minneapolis constantly shows up on “best _____ city” lists, a swath of neighborhoods in North Minneapolis tend to (unwillingly) manifest traits that would undercut any city’s claim to be the best of anything.  High crime; rampant poverty; empty houses; abandoned blocks; few businesses with well-paying jobs.  Even positive signs of progress have ended up haunting North Minneapolis, as when one developer’s project to build much-needed affordable housing was high on fraud and (absurdly) low on quality.

Because its problems are hardly ephemeral, I doubt that any single design competition - for a single house in a single neighborhood - can deliver as much help as North Minneapolis really needs.  But architect Jay Isenberg’s idea to host a modest competition to design an affordable home on three abandoned lots in Willard Homewood is a start.

And in a way, the competition, which will result in a $175,000 home built with funds donated by the Builders Outreach Foundation (BOF), is appealing because of its small size.  This isn’t a mega-development that wants to put up hundreds of bland housing units or attract big-box retailers.

This competition is cognizant of and respectful to the historic fabric of the existing neighborhood, and consequently, should appeal both to residents and individual families (or small organizations) who may be open to building in North Minneapolis but are nevertheless wary about its reputation and many lifeless streets.

Similarly, the competition is appealing because it favors “organic growth” over draconian transformation; each new completed home (Isenberg wants to replicate the design competition for other vacant lots - although the BOF may not want to keep forking over $174K…) will chip away at the reasons to build elsewhere, without simultaneously destroying what makes North Minneapolis unique.

The challenge, apart from funding each home’s construction, will be to create continuity from competition to competition in a way that doesn’t waste whatever momentum is created by them; it’s difficult to claim wholesale changes are afoot when individual projects occur so far apart that they appear like nothing more than the random efforts of a random developer.

Maybe Isenberg can convince the city and his professional corroborators to host a competition every six-months?  North Minneapolis residents probably wouldn’t object…

Related Post:  Frank Gehry’s Weisman Art Museum finally getting expansion, nickname.

Image courtesy of BingMaps.

Santa Monica gets a park; Los Angeles gets Eli Broad, again. Maybe.

los angeles 068

So it turns out that after all, Santa Monica got played by Eli Broad.  And ironically enough, the heated competition to host his foundation’s significant collection of contemporary art was not won by any of the competitor cities (Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, or reputedly, Culver City), but by Los Angeles.  When the dust settles, Broad’s modern art collection may anchor a museum next door to other beneficiaries of his largess, including Walt Disney Concert Hall, Coburn School, and Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. 

I say may, because Broad’s foundation says it has yet to make a final decision re: location (and planning questions still abound).  But Los Angeles‘ claims of victory do appear to rest on more solid ground - at least until one of the other cities decide to offer an unforeseen deal Broad can’t refuse.   

Instead of having to deal with Santa Monica, which is scenic but also vulnerable to political machinations due to its particularly proactive resident population (at least when real estate development is debated), Broad would get to build on two parking lots in a neighborhood already home to large civic entities and perhaps more importantly, already in the midst of a much larger development scheme called The Grand.  Given the political, logistical, and financial hurdles that project has had to jump through, I suspect that Broad’s comparatively small project would be subject to less public scrutiny or be prone to as many delays as it might be if it were the big fish in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills.  Just a guess.

At least Santa Monica has a swell consolation prize.  The city recently announced its selection of landscape architect James Corner’s Field Operations - of Highline fame/notoriety - to design a new park adjacent to Santa Monica’s civic center venues (near the favored location of Broad’s museum).  Even if Broad ultimately chooses Los Angeles over Santa Monica, the new 7-acre park should do wonders to revive - maybe reinvigorate is the better word - the area, especially in 2015, when light-rail service will begin unloading passengers on its grassy knolls.   

Related Posts:  (1) Eli Broad is definitely not Bruce Ratner, when it comes to local dealing; (2) Now Eli Broad is just playing hard to get; (3) Are Los Angeles’ bicyclists undermining bicyclists with “freeway” bike plan?  Probably; (4) Wishing there were more “A+D” museums like the one in Los Angeles.

Image courtesy of devendernarang.

Secularism and the architecture of Ross Douthat


The Architecture of Secularism

Ross Douthat’s admission that he has a “reactionary taste in architecture” mostly explains his recent blog post on religious architecture - the flimsy rhetorical framework of which is doubtless a result of Douthat’s typical focus on political commentary.  Although I normally enjoy reading commentary on architecture, regardless of the author’s profession, Douthat’s blog post left me wanting less, not more.

Douthat claims that modern churches ” succeed as monuments but fail as spaces for prayer and worship” and that he has “never seen” a post-1930s church “executed successfully” in a modern style.  In support, Douthat points with disdain to The Cathedral of Christ the Light (pictured), the near-universally praised wood and glass church designed by Craig Hartman of SOM and finished in 2007.  To Douthat however, the building is nothing but a “Jedi fortress” (Douthat moonlights as a film critic), a phrase he sees fit to also use regarding Jose Rafael Moneo’s much different (and less admired) Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.

Although intended as an insult and an attack on the cathedrals’ legitimacy as religious sanctuaries, Douthat off-handed Jedi comment is laughably ironic and if nothing else, casts doubt on his film critic bona fides.  As Douthat should know (since he brought them up), Jedi warriors were a noble, religious minority in the Star Wars films; they were derided by friend and foe alike for refusing to give up their old-fashioned weaponry and faith in a greater power.


Somehow, Douthat manages to out-do even this unwitting irony when he states his main argument and conclusion thusly:

In the end, I suspect that something in the spirit of modern architecture is inherently secular: The forms and tendencies can be appropriate for office buildings, government houses and museums, but churches adopt them at their peril.

This statement might have more credibility if it were supplied with some evidence in support; as it is however, it is no more than an empty (albeit sympathetic) opinion made by a man who knows he is a traditionalist when it comes to religious architecture - which would be just fine if Douthat left it at that.  Perhaps because he has an intellectual reputation to maintain however, Douthat is loathe to express an opinion that he can’t also anchor to a philosophic or intellectual foundation.  Even better, one that he can also link to politics, thereby justifying a blog post.


In this case, Douthat embosses his opinion with reference to a few specific church buildings (including a couple that offend and a couple that appeal to his senses) and to Brutalism - certainly the easiest modern style to demonize (and incidentally, one I also despise).  But it’s difficult to morph mere opinion into objective fact when two of the churches you mention in support of your argument are not even Brutalist (but actually near-opposites of that style), and two other churches are pointed to as confirmation of modern architecture’s wholesale “badness,” despite the fact that they hardly represent the apogee of their eras.  (In a General Motors v. Ford debate, would it be fair to declare General Motors superior after comparing a Cadillac CTS with a Ford Escort?)

It is one thing to express dislike for contemporary religious architecture as a matter of personal taste; after all, Douthat and I both share in the plight of many who struggle to feel uplifted in the vapid interiors of many churches built after the 1930s.  But indefensible is the only word for Douthat’s assumption that his personal distaste for such religious architecture is in some way due to Modern - and presumably modern - architecture being a product of base secularism.  It may interest Douthat to know that Michelangelo, the architect of some of the world’s most revered religious architecture in Italy (and undoubtedly a man whose buildings are much admired by Douthat), was not known for his religiosity.

Modern architecture is by no means monolithic.  Its manifestations are as varied as the theories that produced them.  Admittedly, some of those theories were rooted in distrust for established institutions, including faith in the Supernatural. But this is not the case for ALL of modernism.  And in any event, the philosophical origins of styles do not always prevent their effectiveness in unexpected settings.

If Douthat is unwilling to pause long enough to ponder this fact, let alone his modes of argument, he should do us all a favor and not write about architecture at all.

Images courtesy of (1) CTG/SF; (2) Bill Herndon; (3) Joe Vare.

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