Sunday, May 29, 2011

Renzo Piano's Nemo Center

Amsterdam is filled with very attractive traditional architecture and urbanism. It also has some bleak modernist architecture; the most prominent example is Nemo (National Center for Science and Technology), which includes a popular science museum. This 1997 building designed by Renzo Piano could be a textbook example of what is wrong with contemporary avant-gardist architecture.

In order to make it an icon, the building is designed to look like a ship rising out of the water of the Oosterdok. To get this striking effect, the building has to be at the end of the point of land it is on.

In the picture below, you can see the older urban fabric of Amsterdam to the right of this point of land, and you can see the Nemo building at its extreme tip. In terms of urban design, it would have made much more sense to locate the building next to the urban fabric, in order to create a lively urban place where they meet, but Piano is more interested in creating an icon that stands out on the skyline than in creating an attractive, usable urban place.

The picture below shows the view of Nemo from the part of the city that is right next to it. The freeway goes under Nemo and then continues in a tunnel under the Oosterdok.

Of course, a better urban design would have put Nemo over the freeway at the point where it meets the city, in order to heal this gash in the urban fabric; the freeway is low enough that it would be possible to build over it. Then it would have been easy to walk to Nemo from the city, and there would have been a vital urban place where they met.

Instead, Piano forces people to approach Nemo on a long, ugly, sidewalk overlooking this freeway - which the winds blowing over the Oosterdok make even more uncomfortable.

After you get beyond the freeway, you reach the empty plaza shown below, continuing your upleasant walk through a bleak, wind-swept space. During the 1960s, modernists were often criticized for designing empty plazas like this, and apparently they still have not learned.

When you finally reach the building itself, you pass by the Renzo Piano Cafe, shown below. The seating on the plaza is almost deserted, an amazing contrast to all the cafes in the city center that you passed while you walked here, which have all their seats filled and are surrounded by crowds of pedestrians.

The Renzo Piano Cafe, designed to look oh-so-stylish but little used and much ignored by the people of Amsterdam, is a fitting tribute to the architect who designed this building as an icon meant to attract attention to itself, rather than as a good place for people to be.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Modernist Nostalgia

New York Times architecture critic Nicholai Ouroussoff, who is a typical modernist, often attacks New Urbanist planners for their “nostalgia” because they design traditional neighborhoods and often use traditional architecture.

But he admits that his own modernism is also a form of nostalgia in a recent review where he praises a new glass and steel tower for being “sleek and muscular,” his usual vocabulary, and then goes on to say:

“The machine aesthetic is everywhere. … The allusions to mobile culture suggest a version of the American dream straight out of the Eisenhower era. And even the building’s voyeuristic aspects can be read as a form of nostalgia: a Manhattan version of teenage lovers steaming up car windows… It suggests a longing for a world - free, open, upwardly mobile - that began to break down more than thirty years ago.”

He even titles the article “Nostalgia in Glass and Steel.”

Apparently, he believes that it is wrong for the New Urbanists to be nostalgic about the streetcar suburbs of the 1910s because they were human-scale and walkable, but it is fine for modernists to be nostalgic about the car culture of the 1950s because it was machine-based and mobile.

This admission that he is nostalgic for the 1950s shows us where Ouroussoff and the modernist architects he admires fit into recent history.

In the 1950s, Americans were in the grip of technological optimism. Nuclear power would let us produce energy so cheap that it would not have to be metered. Urban freeways would reduce congestion and make cities more livable. We would tear down the old slums and the old neighborhoods and replace them with modern housing projects in the city and with modern suburbs on the freeways.

During the 1960s, criticism of this view of the future became widespread. By the 1970s and 1980s, this criticism of modernism was a dominant theme of architecture, as post-modern architects rejected the glass box because it was sterile and dehumanized. For example, Philip Johnson’s famous “glass house” of 1949 was the ultimate example of the modernist esthetic; but by the 1980s, Johnson had rejected modernism, and he designed the AT&T building in Manhattan with serious traditional detailing at ground level and ironic traditional detailing at the roof level.

This change in architecture was one part of a larger rejection of the technological optimism of the 1950s that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. Everyone saw that modernist housing projects were failures. Political resistance made it almost impossible to build new freeways within cities. The environmental movement questioned the value of economic growth and focused on quality of life; and it was so influential that a 1979 survey found that 30 percent of Americans were pro-growth, 31 percent were anti-growth, and 39 percent were uncertain.

Then the country shifted to the right under the administration of Ronald Reagan, who was inspired by nostalgia for the 1950s and who focused on restoring economic growth and technological optimism. Before long, most architects went along with the Reaganite spirit: they abandoned post-modernism and went back to building modernist designs in glass, steel, and concrete.

These architects were different from Reagan, because they did not understand that they were conservative and instead modeled themselves on the progressive avant-garde of the 1920s through the 1950s. Today’s modernists still think they are progressive because they are building in the avant-garde style of more than a half-century ago.

Today’s architects generally ignore the social-reformist agenda of the 1950s, and consider modernism a narrow esthetic doctrine with no real social content. It is rare for them to see what their social agenda is and to admit that they are inspired by nostalgia for the 1950s, as Ouroussoff does in this article.

“Nostalgia” is an odd term. Originally, it referred to a medical condition, pathological homesickness. In the nineteenth century, romantics used the word to refer to a general longing for earlier times and for distant places, which were important parts of the romantic esthetic. And in the twentieth century, modernists began to use the word to condemn anyone who is inspired by the past. The modernists thought that it was fine to be inspired by utopian visions of a mechanized, glass-and-steel future, no matter how unrealistic these utopias were; but it was “nostalgic,” and therefore wrong, to be inspired by the past.

In reality, of course, it is perfectly appropriate to be inspired by elements of the past or by visions of the future, if they provide lessons that are useful today. The real question is whether we can learn useful lessons for our own time from the New Urbanists “nostalgia” for the 1910s’ streetcar suburbs or from Ouroussoff’s “nostalgia” for the 1950s’ car culture and technological optimism.

Your answer to that question depends on where you are located on the political spectrum.

On the left, environmentalists admire the New Urbanists’ walkable neighborhoods because they reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and energy use. Even more important, these old-fashioned neighborhoods are obviously more livable than conventional sprawl suburbs, though they use less land and less energy. They are a key element of an optimistic vision of the future that is appropriate to our era of ecological constraints, because they show that we can consume less and live better.

On the right, conservative Republicans are still filled with nostalgia for the technological optimism of the 1950s. They believe that global warming is a hoax, that we can do away with energy constraints by chanting “drill, baby, drill,” and that we can solve all our problems by promoting rapid economic growth.

It is grotesque that contemporary modernists believe that they are politically progressive because they are nostalgic for the1950s technological optimism that only survives among conservatives today. When they say that their machine esthetic is politically progressive, they might as well say that it is politically progressive to support urban freeway construction and nuclear power, two other symptoms of 1950s "optimism."

In reality, they are promoting a 1950s vision of the future that is bankrupt. They stand in the way of developing a new vision of the future that is appropriate to our time, because they are obsessed with yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.

For the 1979 survey about growth, see Robert Collins, More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (Oxford University Press, 2000) p. 164.

Ouroussoff’s article is available at