Message - Re: WTC: General Observations

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Posted by  Paul Malo on September 17, 2002 at 11:20:05:

In Reply to:  Re: WTC: General Observations posted by lavardera on September 17, 2002 at 07:50:35:

The underlying question seems to be whether "modernist urban design" is of a piece with "modernist architecture," or whether one can become more "humane" while retaining the other unchanged.

I suppose we might consider two scenarios: "more humane" buildings in a "modernist urban design," or "more humane urban design" retaining "modernist architecture." The proposition here seems to be the later, suggesting that architects are not the problem, but the urban designers --or, more specifically, planning decisions made by economic criteria rather than "more humane" urban design considerations.

We can't fault recommendation of more humane urban design, but may question acceptance that the sort of proposals we have often seen for WTC redevelopment represent sufficiently "humane" architecture--or indeed, whether one can change without the other.

In my view, both modernist urban planning and modernist architecture suffered from the same complaint: an analytical mindset that sought to isolate issues and design factors, and proceeded to articulate building form and components. Design became assembly, an additive process.

This "objective" or quasi "scientific" rationalism took things apart but--like Humpty Dumpty--the pieces often never could be put back together again. Excess analysis generally has preempted synthesis of complex parts into a coherent whole, to the extent that "complexity" is not merely accepted but celebrated by some architects and critics. Is this "humane"?

Clearly, we come to fundamental aesthetic principles. When we speak of "Modern," do we mean an architectural style? I think that there is more to it. There developed a modernist way of thinking and seeing, as suggested, which is more basic than stylistic preference. The crux of the matter is spatial perception.

Modernists, in seeking a "New Architecture" discarded traditional notions of shaping spatial figures, prefering a "universal space," or what Giedion pretentiously called "space-time." There is, of course, space in Modern architecture. What there is not is spatial figure. Universal space is all-purpose space, lacking identity with place. In the Modern world, one place becomes just like another. It's all "universal space."

In contrast, what "more humane" urban design would reinstate is discrete space as identifiable place. But if one subscribes to "more humane'" place-making in terms of defining coherent spaces, then why should architecture not become likewise "more humane"?

The issue is not whether one reverts to "traditional" styles, applying classical orders to buildings, for instance, or prefers high-tech as being more culturally relevant. More fundamental than cultural relevance is the "more humane" issue, which is less a matter of cultural conditioning or personal preference than of basic human physiology and perception. Nikos Salingaros, who began this thread with his article on the WTC, has written clearly on this objective aspect of human response to form.

Modernist architecture, like modernist urban design, has tended to see the trees rather than the forest--and has in fact been obsessive about articulating the trees, succumbing to what I call "object fetishism" and the ailment of "articulitis." This way of seeing misses not merely the shape of the forest, but the clearings in the forest. But for an environment to be "humane," people need find the clearings in the forest. They need to recognize figural spaces that are identifiable as human places--not only at the scale of urban design, but at the scale of architectural spaces.

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