Is Philip Nobel, the "resident curmudgeon" of Metropolis magazine, going soft already? Probably too soon to tell, but historians of such things — do such people even exist
yet? — may well look back on this moment and say that this was when Philip Nobel started to lose it. Asked why, they will say that it was one part Nobel, one part never-ending crisis of Modernism, one part New York Times Building and, oh, 10 parts New York.
I'll get back to this momentarily, but we needn't wait
for the verdict on Philip Nobel to know that, despite "getting one in" occasionally, large-scale Modernist architecture has spent most of the last 40 years on the ropes. Among the first to put it there were architect-scholars Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour, with their pithy and generously illustrated 1972 study Learning from Las Vegas. Whether or not you've already read Las Vegas, you should read it now to see how right — and how much more wrong — the authors turned out to be.
What Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour mostly saw when they surveyed the Modernist built landscape of the late 1960s was "heroic and original" architecture that was irrelevant, they said, because it did not speak with explicit symbols that most people could understand.
As Experts with Ideals...[Modern architects] build for Man rather than for people — this means, to suit themselves, that is, to suit their own particular middle-class values, which they assign to everyone...Developers build for markets rather than for Man and probably do less harm than authoritarian architects would do if they had the developers' power.
One does not have to agree with hard-hat politics to support the rights of the middle-
middle class to their own architectural aesthetics, and we have found that Levittown-type aesthetics are shared by most members of the middle-middle class, black as well as white, liberal as well as conservative.
The authors nicknamed "heroic and original" buildings
ducks — after a duck-shaped poultry stand on Long Island that appears in Peter Blake's 1964 book God's Own Junkyard. These were buildings "[w]here the architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form": a "kind of building-becoming-
The "Long Island Duckling" (1931), in Flanders, N.Y.
The B-side of the authors' class critique was that ducks
were not only aesthetically elitist but unnecessarily — and inappropriately — expensive:
We architects who hope for a reallocation
of national resources toward social
purposes must take care to lay emphasis
on the purposes and their promotion rather than on the architecture that shelters them. This reorientation will call for ordinary architecture, not ducks. But when there is little money to spend on architecture, then surely greatest architectural imagination
is required. Sources for modest buildings and images with social purpose will come, not from the industrial past, but from
the everyday city around us, of modest buildings and modest spaces with
So it was that, opposed to "heroic and original" ducks, the authors — inspired by the schlock commercial architecture of the Las Vegas strip — prescribed an "ordinary and ugly" alternative: decorated sheds. Exactly as mundane as they sound, decorated sheds were buildings "[w]here systems of space and structure are directly at the service of program, and ornament is applied independently of them."
Summarizing the distinction between duck and shed, the authors wrote: "The duck is the special building that is a symbol; the decorated shed is the conventional building
that applies symbols."
For them, ducks were symptoms of a sickness within
the basic culture of architectural design:
To replace ornament and explicit symbolism, Modern architects indulge in distortion and overarticulation. Strident distortion at large scale and "sensitive" articulation at small scale result in an expressionism that is, to us, meaningless and irrelevant, an architectural soap opera in which to be progressive is to be outlandish.
Writing later that "[i]f articulation has taken over from ornament in the architecture of abstract expressionism,
space is what displaced symbolism," the authors conclude:
...this is not the time and ours is not the environment for heroic communication via
When Modern architects righteously abandoned ornament on buildings, they unconsciously designed buildings that were ornament. In promoting Space and Articulation over symbolism and ornament, they distorted the whole building into a duck. They substituted for the innocent and inexpensive practice of applied decoration on a conventional shed the rather cynical and expensive distortion of program and structure to promote a duck...It is now time to re-evaluate the once-horrifying statement of Ruskin that architecture is the decoration of construction, but we should append the warning of Pugin: It is all right to decorate construction but never construct decoration.
:: :: ::
THERE are still ducks, and there are still decorated sheds. But the line between the two is no longer so bright and clear as when Learning from Las Vegas was published in 1972. Modernist explorations of program- and site-driven form — from Eli Attia's 1972 design of Pennzoil Place for Philip Johnson to Foster & Partners' 30 St. Mary Axe — along with continued experiments in the deep texturing of building surfaces, have often made it difficult to tell which is a shed and which a duck.
On Foster & Partners' Hearst Tower, for example, the stainless cladding on the external structural members is obviously ornamental. But so are those big notched corners. Both the chamfering and the structural detailing are executed on such an "heroic" scale, to use the authors' word, as to mask the fact that the tower is, for all intents and purposes, a box. This is a high-end decorated shed, to be sure, but a decorated shed nonetheless. "Duck" and "decorated shed" becomes a distinction without a difference.
I digress, but not much. For while it's not that difficult to see why many people read the Hearst Tower as something other than a decorated shed (that's the idea, dear), some are just as seduced by — and confused about — buildings that are more open about their essential decorated shed-ness.
Look at the word that Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour chose to reinforce what they really meant by decoration: applique. That's a word that those of us who came of age in the 1970s would have associated with the felt cut-outs, brocade and sequins on our grandmother's purse. Applique. Tacked on.
There could not be a clearer illustration of that in our own time than the ceramic-tube screens bolted on to every 52-story facade of the soon-to-be-completed New York Times Building, near Times Square.
Ceramic tubes aside,
the building, designed
by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and FXFowle, bears a striking resemblance to the new Bloomberg Tower (right), which no one would describe as anything other than a very nice box.
Indeed, isn't that what the new Times tower is too, a very nice box — a shed — with more elaborate decorations?
:: :: ::
SOMEHOW, Philip Nobel couldn't bring himself to
say so. On the contrary, his October 2006 Metropolis review of the Times building commends the New York Times for having not commissioned a decorated shed — or at least not a Times-befitting version of the "faux bawdy" sheds of 42nd Street.
This "path of least resistance," he writes, might have resulted in the Times building "a conventional skyscraper with a funny skin." This is how Nobel characterizes a shortlisted proposal by Frank Gehry and David Childs that, at one point, was widely regarded as the frontrunner in the Times's invited competition for
the building. Several weeks before the final decision,
the architects withdrew from the competition, citing irreconcilable differences — with each other and with
the process as a whole.
But Nobel mentions the Gehry/Childs proposal to contrast it unfavorably with the Piano/FXFowle offering, as if that too wasn't a conventional skyscraper with a funny skin. What's the difference?
Nobel says it's the symbolism: The Gehry/Childs building
"was itself a sign," while the Piano/FXFowle building achieves its aims "without recourse to symbols of any sort."
Nobel seems to misconstrue the central dichotomy
of Las Vegas, which serves as the backdrop for his
critique. The authors did not say "buildings with no
symbols (Nobel's Piano/FXFowle) vs. buildings as symbols (Nobel's Gehry/Childs)." They said "buildings with explicit, comprehensible symbols (decorated sheds) vs. buildings as implicit, inscrutable symbols (ducks)."
If Nobel means to say that the Gehry/Childs proposal was a duck, he is mistaken. The duck of Las Vegas — "the special building that is a symbol" — is a duck because it "indulge[s] in distortion and overarticulation" of the structural form itself. This is not what the Gehry/Childs concept did, as even Nobel seems to recognize when he calls the concept a conventional skyscraper with a funny skin, and again later: "Gehry tried to say 'New York Times' in the new language of the New Times Square: in signs and symbols, loudly but only on the surface."
In a similarly confused manner, Nobel lays the groundwork for his conclusion that Piano made the Times building speak "without recourse to symbols of any sort" by writing, first, that
the Piano design employs the very stuff of architecture — the same steel that makes the building stand, the glass that shields
it — to create a whole that says, with appropriate rigor, the New York Times resides here
then by asking rhetorically:
How...does one make the necessary skin and bones of a building — already so
busy meeting the needs of climate and gravity, function and budget — combine to create a palpable effect that will reliably communicate something as dimly understood as a feeling? An aspect?
But little of whatever feeling, aspect, or idea the new
Times tower communicates is expressed by steel and
glass, skin and bones — most of which is obscured to any flaneur-of-the-street by those ceramic tubes.
Indeed, what speaks most "loudly, but only on the surface" is the tubes themselves. And the story they tell is fairly explicit. Am I the only one to see in those giant screens columns of newsprint rendered in ceramic?
Another digression: In his May 2006 Metropolis review of Foster & Partners' Hearst Tower, Nobel asks why Norman Foster used the diagonal structural grid that has attracted oohs and aahs from every quarter:
Was it perhaps — gasp — merely about aesthetics and exterior effect? There certainly was pressure to wow from clients well aware that their own signature headquarters would be compared to the flashy (and famously green) Conde Nast Building designed by Fox & Fowle for their chief rival. Hearst did hire Norman Foster, after all, and it is not a reach to imagine that, in return, they expected to get a Norman Foster.
Foster has inserted as much signature
"Foster" as he could — as much as he needed to gull the critics — but against
the massif of...homely, honest New York buildings near and far, his polygonal
bulges and chamfered edges rub angrily. The result is a spectacle for those who love architectural diversity, even incongruity...But with its structural grid revealed to be elaborate whimsy, its office floors offering no salvation for the Dilberts within, and that corner of Midtown seeming to devour in fascia and cheap brick the pricey effects of Foster's effete glass — effects provided primarily to further the branding efforts of architect and client — it's hard to join in the chorus of praise that has greeted the building.... emphasis added
Of course, you've already guessed that the $64,000 word here is branding.
Renzo Piano was paired with Fox & Fowle for the same reason that Frank Gehry was paired with David Childs. Like Gehry, Piano had never designed a skyscraper; and like David Childs, Fox & Fowle [now FXFowle] had designed several.
Times metro reporter David Dunlap reported in October 2000, when the Times selected Piano, that it was Piano who a month before had "invited Fox & Fowle to join him," but there is little doubt that Piano — known for his elegant civic and cultural projects — was told, as a condition of his possible selection, to align himself with a local firm that knew how to design very tall buildings. Both the Times and its developer Forest City Ratner knew that a 52-story tower is not a museum to the tenth power. They needed to make sure that their new tower would actually stand up, and Fox & Fowle's recent experience designing the Conde Nast (1999) and Reuters (2001) buildings in Times Square provided a lot more assurances of that than anything in Piano's background.
Herbert Muschamp wrote in October 2000 that "Piano [would] employ new techniques in structural engineering, vertical circulation and curtain wall construction, in association with Fox & Fowle." But it looks, for all the world, as though the only truly necessary thing Piano himself gave to the Times was what Foster gave to Hearst — that most ineffable of spirits: a brand.
To be sure, Piano created this brand partly with steel and glass, and with a certain sensibility about space and light. But these are not the things that win competitions — not really. Mostly, Piano used screens — a recurring theme in his work for the better part of 25 years — to create a seductive image. In return, it is Piano — not FXFowle — who gets the headlines and Piano whose own brand is enriched.
You get a taste of this division of labor on the FXFowle
Web site, which tactfully — perhaps a little too tactfully — describes the Times project as "combining the best of European design and New York acumen." It might be a little unfair to read this as "We built the house, he hung the drapes," but certainly the turn of phrase invites that translation.
Be all of that as it may, Nobel is right that the Times dug "deeper than the glib for architectural expression." The Times's new building might even be more aesthetically nuanced than it would have been without Piano's ceramic screens.
But in pegging "decorated shed" to Las Vegas and 42nd Street, Nobel offers a literal reading that misses the net entirely — as if, since 1972, architects haven't devised all sorts of new ways to "decorate," and as if more abstract decoration makes a shed thus ornamented any less of a prettified box.*
Learning from Las Vegas is not hard to understand. Nor is the new Times building. But truly, Philip Nobel spins himself into such knots trying to curse the one and bless the other — and misreading both — that it's virtually impossible to give a coherent account of what he is actually saying, other than that he really likes the building and that he really likes Renzo Piano.
:: :: ::
WHAT could possess a man like Philip Nobel to go to
such lengths to say that a building that is so obviously a decorated shed...isn't? It's a little like Magritte's famous painting of a pipe — "The Treachery of Images" (how perfect!) — which Magritte underscored with the caption, Ceci n'est pas une pipe: This is not a pipe.
Ceci n'est pas une caisse, Nobel is saying. This is not a box. Only he isn't being surreal. Or is he?
With New York cozying up to developers as never before — City law now requires that the base of every new tall building conform slavishly to the street grid, i.e., that it be the kind of built-out-to-every-street-wall box that can provide the most hospitable home to banks and big-box retail — architects are already finding out how difficult it is to get anything but a box built in the City.
A cynic might say that Nobel, having decided to switch rather than fight (and tapping his inner Goldberger in the process), checkmarked the Times building to provide cover for any architects that might still want to do tall-building business with the City. Nobel to architects: "You're not going to do your best work here. I'm not going to challenge the system that makes it so (I've got a career, too, ya know). So just do the box they want and give it a nice facade. I'll give you at least a B."
Or maybe Nobel likes boxes. Deep in the heart of many a curmudgeon lies a little reactionary just itching to get out. Maybe for years Nobel has been waiting for the building that would enable him to reveal his true conservative self. Maybe, it's about hitting 40. Maybe, post-Muschamp, it's become fashionable to say that a building can just be an ugly, ordinary building. But in design circles, saying that a standard-issue developer box is OK isn't so good for street cred. So you bait it as "a classic," thank God for ceramic tubes, and ride the wave.
Nobel himself says he's just in love. Gushing like a schoolgirl over the captain of the football team — and, except for the bit about "social critique," sounding quite a bit like Venturi et al. circa 1972 — Nobel in the February 2007 number of Metropolis is in full Piano-swoon:
...now (OMG, this is totally embarrassing!) I have a little critic crush on him. Don't tell. It's just that, you know, he's like a real architect, an architect's architect — possibly the last of the greats not so bored with the pursuit of their craft that they need to turn their buildings into works of social critique, ego reinforcement, snazzy product design, or, God forbid, art."
This easy, breezy answer does exactly what it's supposed to do. Nobel innoculates himself against the charge that, at last, he is the one who has been gulled. And he does it with a dose of naughty, self-referential counter-branding that serves to reinforce the brand itself: "resident curmudgeon."
:: :: ::
OF course, I'm being provocative. The more worrying prospect is that Philip Nobel is depressed.
Depressed that Norman Foster + London =
30 St. Mary Axe...
...but that Foster's New York equation "adds up" to so much less — the Hearst Tower (box with chamfered corners)...
...or, worse, 200 Greenwich Street, aka "Tower 2," at
ground zero (box with chamfered top).
Depressed that Barcelona has Jean Nouvel's Torre Agbar...
...but that the best New Yorkers can hope for from Nouvel are the boxes of 40 Mercer Street (stacked boxes)...
...or 110 Eleventh Avenue (box base and box tower
with textured facades).
Depressed about a New York in which Freedom Tower architect David Childs can describe his design for 7 World Trade Center as a "pure extrusion of the historic street grid" and expect to be congratulated for it. As if New York didn't really need design architects at all. As if the City could just "extrude" boxes of various heights up out of every four-sided parcel, wrap them in glass — or ceramic tubes — and be done with it.
So depressed about all of this, our Philip Nobel, that perhaps he has written New York off for innovative architecture and, to preserve his own sanity, feels compelled to create an alternate New York reality in which a box isn't really...a box.
Seems harmless enough, right? But what if every architecture writer used Nobel's review of the Times tower as a kind of Kantian categorical imperative to describe every new box as if it weren't one? How long would it be before we forgot how to hope or work for anything other than boxes? What kind of brave new surreal world would that be?
The fact is, it would be all too real.
New York is a city of tall buildings, and, with another million people expected to be added to its numbers between now and 2030, the need for many more tall buildings will not be subsiding any time soon.
Only by shaping tall buildings — by giving them curves, cuts, and tapers, rather than leaving them as boxes; and by making them taller and thinner, rather than shorter and wider — is it possible to use these buildings to (1) preserve more land for public use and (2) to minimize the negative physical impacts associated with them: to provide for people on surrounding streets and sidewalks (and in adjacent buildings) more and larger views; more sunlighting and daylighting; less congestion; smaller shadows with shorter duration; and reduced wind effects.
Only by shaping tall buildings is it possible, in other words, to create the most sympathetic urban environment for an increasingly crowded city.
By ignoring these most basic architectural principles,
the New York Times and its architects have snubbed their responsibility to the City and squandered a rare opportunity to chart a course for the City's large-scale building future. Instead, they have designed and built an unshapely box that consumes half a city block and rises a shocking 52 stories sheer from every adjacent sidewalk. An internal public garden — about where Bloomberg's mid-block pedestrian oculus is — will do about as much to mitigate the ill effects of this box as those ceramic tubes will. Which is to say, precious little.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said of the Times building is that it provides the public with a concrete glimpse of what is in store at ground zero — on an exponentially more ponderous scale — if they don't act very soon to demand better.
:: :: ::
PHILIP Nobel was able to recognize the Hearst Tower as little more than "a stack of standard open-plan offices." That, he said — in a sighing, dismissive riff on "Whatever." — is "...fine. Just fine." And it might be.
The new Times building is even more of a "stack" than
But it's not fine. Not fine at all.
*Front and rear views of Frank Gehry's Fisher Center for the
Performing Arts, at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.