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When Modernism Is Deprived of Contrast

January 18th, 2013

Fig. 1. This new Modernist townhouse achieves much of its shock value through contrast with its traditional neighbors.

The moral of the following tale is: Context is everything! I was dismayed – as were many of my neighbors – to see a discordant new infill townhouse (see Fig. 1) under construction in the middle of a row of Brooklyn’s traditional brownstones. (The construction site is not in an official historic district and thus is not under landmark protection.)  It was evident that the client and the architect wanted their design to be starkly differentiated from the other Victorian brownstones on the block. They wanted to make a bold personal statement – and they certainly succeeded. The structure demonstrates that the designer disdains contextual architecture, which would reinforce the existing character of the entire block, preferring instead the triumphant projection of individual ego.

Ironically, the adjacent historic brownstones at which the new townhouse thumbs its nose unwittingly also serve the architect’s intentions extremely well. The rhythmic facades of the traditional brownstones serve as a frame that sets off the Modernist design in bold relief and emphasizes the discontinuity of style. However, if looked at as a piece of stand-alone architecture – without the contrast of the Victorian brownstones – the new townhouse would appear rather banal, little more than a quotation from Modernist memes that have been around for many decades. But when the infill building is contrasted against the row of old Italianate houses, the new building takes on a radical demeanor. The infill townhouse needs the historic context to achieve its “shock of the new” effect.

Fig. 2. Lacking contrast with traditional buildings, this row of new canal houses conveys “the shock of the disorganized,” rather than “the shock of the new.”

Just how badly Modernist design requires historic context to achieve its full attention-getting potential is shown in Fig. 2, a development of new canal houses in the Java Island district of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The developer wanted a totally “modern” look for his development, so he commissioned several architects to come up with “advanced” designs for a series of canal houses. The developer’s stated goal was “differentiation and unity.” He certainly got differentiation. And I suppose there is “unity” in that they are all obviously based on contemporary Modernism. But the composition lacks Modernism’s essential “shock of the new” effect. Because they are all intended to be avant-garde, none seems particularly radical or noteworthy.

Beyond that, lacking any shared design principles, the row is visual chaos, a contradictory jumble of geometric shapes and windows set in seemingly random patterns. If any one of these Modernist houses was inserted into a row of traditional Dutch canal houses (Fig. 3), it would indeed appear like innovative design. But when all these new canal houses are presented side-by-side, the grouping appears merely anarchic and purposeless, rather than progressive and forward-looking.

Fig. 3. Even though each residence has a different style, the underlying traditional three-bay design imparts a sense of harmony to this row of old Amsterdam canal houses.

Compare the Java Island row with the row of traditional Amsterdam canal houses in Fig. 3. Each residence is different, with its own distinct look and style. But because they all employ a traditional three-bay façade design, the ensemble displays unified character and harmony. The underlying design tradition provides the “differentiation and unity” that are lacking in the Java Island row shown in Fig. 2. Now, if you plopped one of those Modernist canal houses into this traditional grouping, the new house would definitely detract from the unified character of the row. But the owner would at least have the ego-satisfaction of being really different.

 

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  1. Marc
    January 21st, 2013 at 23:27 | #1

    I think architect Andres Duany has argued a similar point: any architecture that strives to be “bold” by contrast is essentially parasitic:
    http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2005/11/modernist-building-out-of-place.html

    That is, it requires a so-called “conformist” context to get any attention. Would anyone care about – or even notice – that glass-slab Brooklyn townhouse (is it also “green?”) if it was next to a Walmart or a DMV office on some dreary suburban strip?

    The attitude behind this “boldness” is basically very juvenile. Isn’t it the goal of any self-conscious, anxious teenager to get attention and stand out simply by defining themselves in opposition to all the “conformists” around them? These discordant buildings may simply be the products of architects who never grew up, but found a way to cloak their immaturity with ideology.

  2. Usher73
    January 29th, 2013 at 18:06 | #2

    It looks like someone cut a slice off a beach front Motel 6 and dropped it in there.

  3. Usher73
    January 29th, 2013 at 18:23 | #3

    I was wrong. It’s Comfort Inn on the Ocean.

    http://reservations.visitob.com/hotel/?refid=2461&rs_hid=1660804

  4. Sal the architect
    January 29th, 2013 at 23:35 | #4

    That’s a damn shame . We used to do that sort of thing in architecture school (and that would have been a C-) but I would never do it in that context. I am financially able to say no to an owner who would do that – but most of my fellow architects are not. People jus do not care about their neighbors – that’s what I get out of it- selfishness.

  5. John Crosby Freeman
    January 30th, 2013 at 17:48 | #5

    What you wrote about context making it look better than if it were on its own, reminds me of the similar visual importance of Philadelphia’s City Hall to the banal “modern” office buildings running out from it on Market Street. It’s too easy to term such facades mindless. As you hint in your remarks, it’s “F . . . You” architecture. It’s also sad to see, even in the more sensitive infill of the Amsterdam canal buildings, that today’s modernist abhorrence of architectural ornament remains imprisoned in adolescence a century old. When will these children grow up? Human eyes and minds need all the help an architect can provide to get from one place on a facade to another. If only today’s modern-ish architects would imagine themselves in an automobile and contemplate motoring around the sharp intersections of their facades. Getting lost or marooned aside, every sharp intersection signals danger. That’s why STOP signs are ubiquitous.

  6. February 2nd, 2013 at 20:36 | #6

    With such a strict adherence of historic preservation in Amsterdam I am surprised this would be permitted by the district or even desired by a developer there.