Friday, 20 December 2013

Tiny Houses That Will Make You Want To Live A Simpler Life

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The Sublime Sci-Fi Buildings That Communism Built

The House of Soviets in Kaliningrad.
Photo by Frédéric Chaubin, from "CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed."
The architecture of the Eastern Bloc—a conundrum of impossible complexity, or at least that's what it looks like judging from the daily view of my collection of coffee table books. Yes, that's right, coffee table books. The recent glut of art volumes devoted to Soviet architecture may be surprising to anyone who previously thought "Soviet architecture" had about as much to do with "art" as "Soviet leaders" had to do with "glamour." Yet here is a whole bookshelf to contradict that view. There's Taschen's CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, Hatje Cantz's Socialist Modernism, Monacelli's The Lost Vanguard: Russian Modernist Architecture 1922-1932, Roma's Spomenik (not, in fact, a sequel to Rango) and, the most euphoniously titled of them all, Jovis's Modernism In-Between: The Mediatory Architectures of Socialist Yugoslavia.
These are not your parents' dour architecture monographs, complete with such entries as "On the problems of developing the center of Kishinev" or "Approaches to using the vernacular in Tashkent and Navoi" (real items from a 70s-era release) but are lavish, glossy, and handsome. One of these volumes was released in 2007, the rest date from within the last two years. What does this all mean? What have we learned from this publishing spree? Well, either quite a lot, or possibly nothing, but bear with me.
The 1975 Soviet film The Irony of Fate, a Russian favorite for Christmas season viewing to this day, boasts a Twelfth Night-like plot that turns on the anodyne similarity of Soviet housing. The narrator opens, mordantly, "In the past when people found themselves in a strange city they felt lost and lonely. Everything around was different: streets and buildings, even life. But now it has changed. A person comes to another city and feels at home there." In a landscape of bland uniformity, "can you name a city that hasn't got First Garden Street, Second Suburban Street, Third Factory Street, First Park Street? Second Industrial Street, Third Builders Street?" This similarity in design, not to mention the standardization of furniture and locks, results in our drunken protagonist deposited in the right apartment on "Third Builders Street", but in the wrong city, and romantic comedy misadventures follow. (In fairness, It's a Wonderful Life must look like a pretty odd holiday ritual to the average resident of Novosibirsk as well.) In any case, there's no denying that most Soviet construction was oppressively dull and derivative; in this case, Soviet censors didn't even seem to bother to try.
Milan Kundera wrote, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, "in the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions." Questions, as we have seen, such as "am I in the wrong city?" and "are you my wife?" but this is immaterial. Totalitarian kitsch, in the realm of architecture, poses innumerable questions once the core of the totalitarian has passed. Architecture in totalitarian societies unquestionably constitutes an exercise of power; the question stands how effective this exercise remains once that rule has passed, and whether the nature of a given totalitarianism is indissolubly bound up in the stone, concrete, and steel to which it gave form. Some particularly egregious symbols are demolished, but far more often, buildings are simply repurposed and assume some new identity. The Reich Chancellery was demolished, with excellent cause; but the Luftwaffe headquarters now houses the German Finance Ministry. Few today, outside of perhaps any especially melodramatic Greek circles, would think that this amounts to any sort of continuity of purpose.
Some wish to expunge the physical memory of totalitarian rule as fully as possible; others believe in retaining some memory of the humane strivings of these former socialist states, that would design and build a puppet theater, or a "children's health resort basin" or countless other facilities for public recreation. These debates continue. There are, of course, far more buildings that many would like to see demolished, and this not because of the buildings' latent symbolic power, but simply because they are godawful monstrosities. But, as you may have heard, money is not something in which the former Eastern bloc is generally much awash, and so they stand.
Up till now, though, we've been talking about the miserable mean of Eastern bloc architecture. The picture looks quite different when you shift your attention to the shining peaks of the style. Author Frédéric Chaubin, who wrote the Taschen volume, calls these buildings "aesthetic outsiders in an ocean of gray." And it becomes far simpler to conclude that, all questions of the historio-political, post-syncretic mediatory, and polythechnic-institutional aside, that this cream of Eastern Bloc construction is simply awesome.
Let's start with the most otherworldly. As Chaubin notes in his introduction to Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed, "Anyone's first trip to New York always comes with a feeling of déjà vu, as if one were walking onto the set of a movie seen a hundred times. In contrast, there are vestiges of the Soviet Union that seem like backdrops to movies that never hit the screen, because they were never made." This, if it seems possible, decidedly understates the visual impact of the architectural legacy of the later decades of the Soviet Union and associated states. Eastern Sci-Fi cinema, as superb as its product and settings often were, clearly neglected the treasures in its own backyard.

The architecture facility at the Polytechnic Institute of Minsk. Photo by Frédéric Chaubin.

The Druzhba sanatorium. Photo by Frédéric Chaubin.
There's the architecture facility at the Polytechnic Institute of Minsk, a mass whose composition is so kinetic that it's easy to suspect that its treads are simply below your line of sight. There's the Druzhba Sanatorium, where hillside columns support a cog-like rounded center, teethed with oversailing balcony pods. The CIA and Turkish Military suspected it to be a rocket launcher; I suspect it to be fun. Or the Ukrainian Institute of Scientific and Technological Research and Development, for which there's really no description other than it looks like a flying saucer landed square on top of a Kiev building and that the scientists rejoiced in the convenient extra lab space.

The Ukrainian Institute of Scientific and Technological Research and Development. Photo by Frédéric Chaubin.
The Yugoslavian monuments known as "Spomenik" are another incomparable Eastern entry.

Two photos from Jan Kempenaers' Spomenik.

Then there's the Chemnitz Stadthalle in the former East Germany, which boasts a honeycomb-esque latticework that seems designed for the easy ingress of DDR winged supermen.

The Chemnitz Stadhalle. Photo courtesy of Andreas Praefcke.
I once described the former Georgian Ministry of Highways as most resembling an abandoned game of Jenga, and I still can't think of any other means to remotely hint at its wonderful frame. Or, turning somewhat back to earth, there's the Soviet Embassy in Havana, a tropical campanile for the Brezhnev era.

The Soviet embassy in Cuba. Photo by Frédéric Chaubin.
Much earlier construction bears a closer relation to recognized international vernaculars, which is to say that it still often stands at the crisp edge of innovation in the 1920s and 1930s. The early Soviet state recruited from the cream of modernist architects; there's Le Corbusier's Centrosoyuz Building in Moscow and Erich Mendelsohn's Red Banner Textile Factory in St. Petersburg, which are each striking.
The Centrosoyuz Building, in Moscow. Photo by Richard Pare, from The Lost Vanguard.

The Red Banner Textile Factory in St. Petersburg. Photo by Richard Pare.
Even more interesting is a similar realm of domestically designed constructivist architecture such as Ivan Fomin's NKPS Building, a columnar block given raw energy through a sleek window-banded corner tower. Or the Gosprom building in Kharkov, a majestic multi-tiered wonder balanced vertically by glazed stairwell window columns and horizontally by a series of walkways staggered across intervening streets (also to be found in the decidedly non-sci-fi cinema of Eisenstein's The General Line).

The Gosprom Building, in Kharkov, Ukraine. Photo by Richard Pare.
Or the Narkomfin building in Moscow, which resembles a more rough-hewn version of Erich Mendelsohn's Rudolf Mosse Publishing Company building in Berlin, in which a modern-styled turret complete with ribbon windows is balanced by an opposite rounded corner—only without any windows, and giving way three stories from the top of the structure to the rectilinearity of the rest of the building.
Given the sheer size of the former Eastern bloc, it might seem not surprising that the area would have generated at least some architecture of consequence and yet you'll find notably small sections on the Warsaw Pact or non-affiliated communist states in most architectural atlases or surveys released at a point when C.C.C.P. was more than a Taschen title pun. There's little question that the planned economy was good at little, and still less, in the aggregate, at architecture, but recent publishing has made clear that it too hit breathtaking heights of experiment and form. No matter which airport you're in, or how much Stolichnaya you've had, you'll never mistake any of these fantastically distinctive structures for Third Builders Street.

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The Ugly-Beauty Of Brutalism

Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago
Updating a cultural canon, in any form, is an endless battlefield due to our persistent tendencies, 1. to create ever more art and 2. to fail, just as rapidly, to agree on its value. Witness debates about revised editions of any literary anthology, or, say, the National Film Registry. At times worthy works receive just recognition; other times, age seems all that’s required to give mediocre works the gloss of historical grandeur. But let’s not get off track discussing Sex, Lies and Videotape vs. Forrest Gump. Rarely is the navigation of this question of aesthetic value more difficult and commercially charged than in architecture. After all, one needn’t tear down The Thin Man in order to add Silence of the Lambs, nor did the Wizard of Oz’s landmarking entail that Taxi Driver couldn’t be built. Architecture sometimes involves exactly these either/or choices, though, and the increasing debates over the aesthetic merits of Brutalism have found multiple flashpoints in recent months, from Chicago to Baltimore to Minneapolis to Oklahoma City to Goshen, New York.
Brutalism. It doesn’t exactly skip off of the tongue, does it? I know plenty of educated people for whom “Brutalism” is simply shorthand for any recent architecture that they happen to dislike. Here "Brutalism" fulfills the same role as "jam bands" as a shorthand category for sweeping disdain. It's be tempting to attribute the misfortunes of Brutalist architecture to semantics; after all, no other 20th-century form of architecture—the International style, Constructivism, Postmodernism—directly conjours images of violence and force, unless you have a particularly paranoiac attitude towards any sort of contemporary theory. And yet this doesn’t quite explain away the recent difficulties of Brutalist architecture. There are, of course, accurate aesthetic objections—bare concrete, however improperly labeled, doesn’t inspire much popular enthusiasm. Look to any list of “ugliest buildings” or “buildings to demolish now” and you’re sure to find multiple Brutalist structures represented. The Trellick Tower in London was said to be the inspiration for J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, in which society breaks into conflict, chaos, and dog-eating amidst in a self-contained concrete tower mass. Ian Fleming titled a villain after that building’s architect, Erno Goldfinger. That doesn’t happen to Frank Gehry.

Trellick Tower in London
Despite a pronounced lack of public enthusiasm for Brutalism, it's financial and planning concerns, not aesthetic ones, that have temporarily saved or at least postponed the destruction of several recently threatened structures. In April, Paul Rudolph’s water-damaged Orange County Government Center, which is located on Main Street in Goshen, New York, was preserved in an 11-10 vote of the Orange County Legislature. And the votes for saving the building seemed significantly inspired by doubts as to whether demolishing the building and constructing a replacement would actually prove cheaper than repairing the facility. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been cagey about preserving the Bertrand Goldberg-designed Prentice Women’s Hospital, but seems unwilling to approve Northwestern University’s plans to demolish the facility until there’s a concrete indication of what might replace it. In Minneapolis, the city is currently conducting fundraising for a thorough redesign of the Peavey Plaza in downtown, which the American Society of Landscape Architects recognized, in 1999, as one of the most significant examples of landscape architecture in the U.S. The John Johansen-designed Morris Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore, for which there is an extant replacement proposal, has drawn criticism from the city’s Urban Design and Architecture Review Panel for its proposal to locate a three-story retail building, and not a tower, along a principal street. In each case, renovation seems to have been dismissed peremptorily as impossible. Not helping, in the case of the Orange County Government Center, was the seeming inflated costs of the renovation: The cost estimates for refurnishing the building, some observers pointed out, were some $24 million higher than the actual costs of renovating the structurally quite similar (the architect was the same) University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth library.

The Morris Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore
Financial questions aside, the question of what would replace these structures is vital. Though it's difficult to deny that Brutalism has its flaws. The term, derived from the French word for raw concrete "Béton brut," came, via some gradual tweakings of meaning, to encompass a range of 50s to 70s architecture granting a central role, obviously, to unfinished concrete, but also to abstract geometries, and the frank exposure of functional architectural elements. After sleek International-style modernism, Brutalism represented a turn towards a very different sort of functionalism, often dripping with overhangs, podiums, and articulations designed to enhance its physical immensity (for more on this, check out this recent article). These plans often achieved a sure monumentalism, but also often left humans in the literal dust, in lifeless plazas from Boston City Hall to Dallas City Hall to L’Enfant Plaza that made no attempt to accommodate the pedestrian. And, as with any genre of building, some Brutalist buildings have been well consigned to the wrecking ball—few would argue that cities haven't benefited from some necessary pruning of the Brutalist past.

The Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York

Its proposed replacement
In these current disputes, however, the briefest look at replacement plans confirms that demolition proposals would scrap truly intriguing buildings in favor of thoroughly anodyne replacements. The projected replacement for the Orange County Government Center resembled nothing so much as a collegiate neo-Georgian physical sciences building. The proposed residential tower replacement for Baltimore's Morris Mechanic Theater looks like any dozen recent American mid-sized glass towers, its mild articulation of façade about as distinctive as the idea of, well… living in a condo in a glass tower downtown. Not to mention countless cases of demolition in which no replacement has yet materialized. The former New Haven Coliseum site sits still vacant. The Leeds International Pool site is now occupied by a parking lot. As Paul Goldberger recently pointed out in Vanity Fair, Northwestern University owns a vacant plot of land across the street from the Prentice Women’s Hospital, and yet, without an extant plan for either site, it insists on demolition.
The principal frustration in all of these recent cases is that the architecture of each of these buildings is unquestionably more inventive and even fanciful than most architecture that directly preceded them, let alone other Brutalist peers. Brutalism enabled plenty of bare walls; but it also birthed some structures that, if you can get beyond the ready wince at the idea of scraping a knee on them, are unquestionably playful. Naturally, there are blank concrete walls; there are also countless intriguing geometries; the Mummers Theater in Oklahoma is a riot of catwalk-linked cubes at varying orientations and elevation; the Orange County Government Center is a lively spilling-forth of windows and canopies, and the Prentice Women’s Hospital is a space-age cloverleaf whose lower portion accordingly looks more like a launch pad than a podium. In all of these cases the argument for preservation is clearly strong, having more to do with the worth of the buildings than any rote hostility to progress or an eggheaded taste for retaining every drop of Brutalist ugliness.

Boston's South End

1973 photo of Boston City Hall Plaza
There’s little doubt that the preservationist community, as valiant and lonely as its efforts to save Brutalism have been, has made its case in ways that often seem rather hard to swallow. Frequent comparisons to Victorian architecture, and the fact that it too was once regarded with broad distaste, seem justly out-of-touch. No one, in fifty years, or ever, is going to stand in Boston City Hall Plaza and gain the feeling of cozy preservationist joy that they find in Boston’s Victorian South End—any more than, to go back to our beginning, audiences are ever going to find a historical moment at which the now 70-year-old Moses und Aron sounds about as fun as Aida does—nor should they. Brutalism should be addressed, and preserved on its own terms, which are unquestionably more difficult than earlier examples of preservation, although arguably just as worthy.
These terms, for forthrightly evaluating the legacy of Brutalism, are almost invariably civic; nearly all of the structures at present risk are public in purpose and function. The residential legacy of Brutalism has weathered time most poorly for obvious reasons. In the realm of public architecture, however, whether one cares for Brutalism or not, it’s difficult to assert that since its demise we’ve devised much better molds for civic architecture. Occasional commissions might result in a distinctive product, but for the most part we’ve arrived at an age, as Nathan Glazer has convincingly argued, when the scale of necessary public construction, and its attendant cost, has foreclosed on any older, more universally admired models for building. Given the clear mediocrity of likely replacements, to discard wholesale the legacy of a distinctive moment in architectural history out of a feeling of spite seems capricious.
I’m personally very fond of much Brutalist architecture, and find in its mass and geometry an unmistakable majesty, but I recognize that this is hardly a popular proposition, save on some awesome Tumblr accounts. There’s no doubt that Brutalism remains associated with the very worst of top-down mass-planning tendencies in American cities, of the sort that bulldozed vibrant neighborhoods into arid plazas. We’ve happily discarded the notion that anyone wants to live in a Brutalist city, but to then efface any trace of Brutalism is no sort of urban progress. Proposals for intriguing adaptive reuse are in no short supply; let’s not throw away a physical era that seems mildly at odds with our own. Remember, the alternative isn’t likely to be something interesting: it’s likely to be something strenuously banal.

Anthony Paletta is a writer living in Brooklyn. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Metropolis, The Daily Beast, Bookforum, and The Millions on urban policy, historic preservation, cinema, literature, board wargaming, and comparably brutal topics. Photo of Prentice Women's Hospital by Jim Kuhn; Trellick Tower by Jim Linwood; the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre by Andrew Bossi; the Orange County Government Center by Daniel Case; the Dallas City Hall Plaza by Kent Wang; Boston South End by Tim Sackton; 1973 photo of Boston City Hall Plaza by Ernst Halberstadt

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