A radical proposal for Portland designers and developers: Build beauty

The central park pavilions at Orenco Station, an infill neighborhood of grocery stores, shops, restaurants, and a range of dwelling units, all served by great transit and walkable streets — at a density far higher than the surrounding conventional suburbia. Yet it has been accepted, even praised by neighbors. Is there a lesson?

In recent blog posts we have taken our colleagues in the architecture, design and development communities to task for “drinking the kool-aid” of a fashionable but damaging form of Neo-Modernism.   It might well be asked, what’s the alternative, then? Our answer is to bring up the “b” word – that is, “beauty”, in the ordinary and humanistic sense.  Beauty in the sense that human environments have been loaded with up to “modern” times – and a word that has been all but banished from the profession in the last half-century or so.

Why is that? In part because architecture has stopped being about providing artfully designed human habitat, and started being about making avant-gardist art-statements, as a language for marketing and propagandiizing industrial systems, but that has become complicit, reactionary and even corrupt.  (As we will discuss more below.)

This approach says, let’s just take the industrial systems of large expanses of glass, shiny steel, blank metal panels and so on, and compose them in pop-arty ways. This is what we have to do to be “of our time,” right?  Maybe we can even be really avant-garde, and make some really exotic swoopy forms that no one has seen before. WOW! Look what we made!  (I’ve seen this kindergartenish impulse first-hand in many of my students in design studios in the US and Europe.)

But there is a deep philosophical problem with such an approach to human habitat – and a great many thoughtful critics have pointed it out. In a word, it contributes to the growing ugliness of the world. And in some deep and important way, that has a relation to the growing unsustainability of our world too.

And by the way, it also has a close relation to the natural reaction of residents to these proposed buildings: “Not in my back yard!”   But on the other hand — and as we will discuss more in a future post —  what if the proposal was “beauty in my back yard?”  What if it was much easier to convert residents to “yes in my back yard” or YIMBYs?  How many of Portland’s current stalemates and difficulties could be alleviated?  How much better would the overall legacy be (as opposed to an art work here or there) for future generations?

This question arises at an interesting time in the sciences — one that gives us a very different picture of natural structure from that of the early Modernists, as we have written about elsewhere.  Beauty, viewed from a more recent scientific lens, is starting to look less like some bourgeois artifact from “ye olden days” and more like a basic property of biological systems – and a necessary property of healthy ones.

Specifically, beauty seems to be the name that we give to an experience of coherence, health, integration, natural orderedness. This is no less important in human environments too – although of course, there is scope for other qualities in human environments, like surprise, novelty, expressiveness, and so on. But the problem arises when we focus too much on those aspects, to the detriment of ordinary experiences of beauty. Then we compromise the needs of our own clients and public, for the sake of our own artistic and financial agendas. Professionally speaking, this is a deep rupture in the question of our ethical accountability to human well-being.

Recall the warning of profession leader Rem Koolhaas:

“The work we do is no longer mutually reinforcing, but I would say that any accumulation is counterproductive, to the point that each new addition reduces the sum’s value… So there are many problems, first of all our work, which is not able to find its way out of this recurring dilemma, then there are the many reasons to question our sincerity and motives.”

– Rem Koolhaas, speaking at a symposium on “Market versus Meaning”

What Koolhaas was referring to is the subtle corruption that takes place, encouraging us to justify our acts of industrial marketing as somehow lofty goals of art or sustainability. Are they? Have we really examined the evidence?  Or do all our works just add up to urban noise and decay, slowly devastating cities around the world?  We think there is reason to be troubled, even deeply troubled, by what has happened at the hands of the design professions (and the development professions that are served by them, often poorly).

At the same time, defenders of this Neo-Mod approach can be vicious when attacking even tenuous new works of non-modern architecture – the kind of viciousness that is seen in a cornered animal. “It’s impossible to do this kind of hackneyed historicist kitsch without coming off as shoddy, fake, inappropiate for our time,” they hiss.

Historicist!  Kitsch!  Pastiche!  These are stylistic curse words, with no more sophisticated thinking than that behind them (as has begun to be recognized in some surprising places).

But how sensible, really, is the thinking behind them?  That yes, the beautiful old places everywhere around us are wonderful, beloved, cool, and sustainable, precisely because they have sustained — but we must never, ever build anything like them again?    This seems downright lunatic.

Is the architecture “of our time” doomed to be ugly?  Why is that?  Is it because we are wicked and must be punished, with in-your-face artiness of questionable quality and appropriateness?  This is a kind of architectural masochism – or worse, sadism.

On the contrary, is there not a necessary place for the “good background” and the “good contextual,” that provides ordinary delights, and supports an active, intricate public realm? Is that not an important quality for a city’s ultimate sustainability? I think so.

Is the shoe now on the other foot — that the Neo-Modernists are now the reactionary ones, defending a failed experiment in human habitat, in the words of the great urbanist Jane Jacobs,  “almost neurotic in their determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success”?

Has the “every building a Mod art object” approach failed us? I think so.

Is it time to take the really radical step — re-accept the revival of the ornaments and other geometries of an evolutionary humanist history?  I think so.

We can only build architecture “of our time” which can only be an authentic and relentless Modernism — blank panel after blank panel, “transforming quantity into quality with abstraction and repetition.”  Any attempt to do good revival architecture is doomed to be no more than artless fakery and schlock.  No, it cannot be done!   ….Er, actually it can, as can be seen from these and many other examples of quite good new contextual “revival” architecture in Portland:
The Cadillac Cafe on E Broadway, in a classic Portland retail style with pilasters, transoms, tiles and other ornamental detailing
Jake’s Run, new rowhouse project on Westmoreland reflecting the great but almost forgotten Arts and Crafts legacy of Portland
A new “courtyard apartment” in the tradition of the dozens of others in the NW neighborhood, this one on NW 19th. Note how it harmonizes with its neighbor.
Another new “Courtyard apartment” on NW 19th – note how it fits right in as a “polite neighbor” to the streetscape.  Like too few others?
An addition to the Portland Northwest Hostel on NW 18th at Glisan, another “polite neighbor”

2 Replies to “A radical proposal for Portland designers and developers: Build beauty”

Comments are closed.