Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Ouroussoff Discredits Contextualism

Respect for architectural context became a rallying cry fifty years ago, when it was used to defend historical neighborhoods from modernist architecture that did not respect their character.

But we should be able to see that respect for context is not the real issue, now that New Urbanists are changing the character of modernist developments for the better. For example, if a New Urbanist planner develops an urban code that gradually changes a strip mall into a pedestrian-friendly Main Street, the new buildings do not respect the existing context.

Now that New Urbanists are improving modernist cities in this way, certain reactionary critics who are still defending mid-century modernism have begun to use contextualism as an argument against more humanistic architecture and urbanism.

For example, in today's New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff criticizes Eli Broad's Los Angeles museums on the grounds that they do not respect the historic Los Angeles context of freeways and urban sprawl.

Ouroussoff begins by saying that Eli Broad does not "grasp the peculiar beauty of Los Angeles, its oddly hypnotic blend of flimsy houses and muscular freeways .... His urban ideal, to the degree that he has one, seems to be based on the Upper East Side of Manhattan or on central Paris - models that, however attractive, have little to do with Los Angeles’s sprawl." If a city is made up of freeways and sprawl, we should respect that context by building more freeways and sprawl!

A bit later, he looks at the more immediate context, and says that the design for Broad's new museum is "in keeping with the mood of the avenue, which over the years has developed its own kind of eerie stillness, especially at night, when it is mostly barren." If a place is eerie and barren, we should respect that context by designing new buildings that keep it eerie and barren!

He concludes by saying that the original proposal "included a parking entry at ground level along Second Street, which would have ... added a crucial dimension to the narrative: the interweaving of pedestrian and automotive life that is central to the experience of Los Angeles generally, and of Grand Avenue in particular, with its views onto nearby freeways. But the entrance was removed during the design process, and what was once a more complex reading of urban mobility has been reduced to something more banal." If the city is so sliced up by roads that there are no pedestrian-friendly places, we should respect that context by designing new places around roads rather than making them pedestrian friendly!

Needless to say, Ouroussoff is only a contextualist when it comes to defending mid-century modernist urbanism of freeways and sprawl, not when it comes to defending traditional urbanism. He complains that Eli Broad does not respect the context of Los Angeles because his urban ideal is Upper East Side of Manhattan or central Paris. But Ouroussoff himself supported Norman Foster's proposed tower for the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which the neighborhood stopped because it obviously did not respect its architectural context. And I am sure that he will write articles fawning on the avant-gardist highrises that will soon begin to tear up the traditional urbanism of Paris.

Though Ouroussoff is inconsistent and only advocates respect for context when it furthers his own cliquish modernist esthetic, his ideas should serve as a warning that contextualism is not enough.

When we were on the defensive because traditional urbanism was constantly being threatened by modernist projects, it made some sense to talk about design that respects its context. But now that we are beginning to transform inhuman modernist developments into good places for people to be, it is time to start talking about design that respects human nature. It is time to move from architectural contextualism to architectural humanism.

If you do not believe that Ouroussoff could focus so narrowly on his cliquish esthetic that he actually supports freeways, sprawl, and designing eerie, barren places, you can verify the quotations in this post by reading Ourossoff's article at


Blogger David Sucher said...

Contextualism is only of value when the context is valuable.

10:33 PM  
Blogger BarWrite said...

Very nice work, Charles. Ouroussoff must know that contextualism does not include respecting brutal and banal highway exchanges. Either he is entirely irresponsible or else he is willing to say or do anything to seem original, hoping that what he says will turn out to make sense to someone else. Or possibly both.

12:27 PM  

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