New Buildings Don’t Have To Look So Basic

Photo: Alphotographic/Getty Images/iStockphoto

If you threw a handful of big new New York buildings in a box, shook it, then picked them out one by one, what are the chances that you’d guess their assigned function or place them at the correct address? Take, for instance, Monarch Heights, a residential building aimed at students at 415 West 120th Street in Morningside Heights; 425 Grand Concourse, an affordable-housing complex that boasts passive-house sustainability standards; the glass-skinned stack of luxury condos at Skyline Tower, the tallest building in Queens; and 141 Willoughby Street, a wedge-shaped office building in downtown Brooklyn. All are large, expensive projects designed by established New York firms (GKV, Dattner, Hill West, and Fogarty Finger, respectively), and they resemble just about every other large expensive project in New York.

In this stratum of high-but-not-highest-end architecture, various degrees of structural complexity and an assortment of different programs are all packed into plain boxes distinguished by a few half-hearted accents. The Morningside Heights building has some vertical lines etched into its exposed concrete columns —a touch, the architects’ website assures us, that “references local stone and masonry details of the Upper West Side.” Pick just about any empty lot in New York City, and you can be confident that it will be filled with another panelized condo or glass-skinned office tower. Some developers dress the façades up in prefabricated modules made of brick or painted aluminum. Maybe they spring for some shiny spandrels or an oversize artwork in the lobby to offset all that restraint. These buildings aren’t necessarily awful, they’ve just pared their personalities to a minimum.

New Yorkers have come to accept — and investors to expect — a cityscape of gun lockers and wine-bottle gift boxes, buildings that look not so much utilitarian as disposable. Some structures need to be plain, and most should be ordinary. The demands of industrial production and the process of value engineering, which cuts the extras out of a design before it’s built, yield what they’re supposed to: standardization. But block by block, this basic architecture is ironing away the city’s rich and rough texture — a smoothing caused partly by scale, cost, and regulations but mostly by an unquestioned aversion to anything that smacks of the ornate.

This is an idiosyncratic prejudice. Suburban home builders woo buyers by slathering them with gables and bays and balustrades and porticos and portholes, a profusion that the critic Kate Wagner has chronicled magnificently in her blog McMansion Hell. Classical architects continue classicizing with undimmed passion. Dictators, both genuine and wannabe, soothe themselves with marble and gilt. For a long while, a sunlit, brightly hued postmodernism treated historical motifs the way cartoonists draw eyes and the artist John Currin paints breasts: by making them really big. Since then, though, a consensus seems to have solidified among urban developers and the architects they hire: The safest antidote to tastelessness or retro preciousness is to keep surfaces clean and clear.

That conventional wisdom should be retired. A little surface texture is not a gateway drug to drug-lord kitsch. A stylized vine doesn’t presage the return of Corinthian columns. To the contrary, embracing ornamentation and all it implies — color, shadow, texture, symbol, relief, sculpture, the patina that comes with age — can push architecture in vibrant new directions.

Natural History Museum of Utah, by Ennead.
Photo: Stuart Ruckman/NHMU

Here and there, it already has. The past couple of decades have produced an efflorescence of techniques for decorating sheds and mimicking nature. Ennead’s Natural History Museum of Utah echoes the jagged forms, geological strata, and veins of copper ore in the nearby mountains. Jean Nouvel capped his Louvre Abu Dhabi with a porous dome of layered geometric patterns, giving the skin both richness and depth. Jeanne Gang mapped Lake Michigan’s waves onto the undulating balconies of her Aqua Tower in Chicago. David Adjaye enfolded his National Museum of African-American History and Culture in a fine latticework of bronze-colored metal, evoking the craft of enslaved ironsmiths and casting the kind of mottled light that falls on a forest floor.

We can honor the past’s handiwork without requiring its return, especially now that computer-driven laser cutters and milling machines can handle more fine-grained convolutions than an army of Sicilian stonecutters. A quarter-century ago, the Swiss firm Herzog & De Meuron screenprinted news photos onto the concrete surface of the Eberswalde Technical School Library in Germany. Later, they digitized the pattern of light percolating through a canopy of trees, then applied it to the copper exterior of the De Young Museum in San Francisco as a seemingly random scattering of holes. Of course, such projects are big-budget one-offs, designed to rebel against featureless cityscapes. Museums, institutions, plutocrat towers — these are the cathedrals and palazzi of today, where architects can concentrate all the decorative firepower at their disposal. But that doesn’t make them irrelevant: Consider them prototypes, the tricked-out custom jobs that lead to wider use. Their innovations spread to construction that follows the ordinary laws of the marketplace, in which every extra has to justify its existence.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, by Jean Nouvel.
Photo: Tom Dulat/Getty Images

After all, almost everyone craves adornment. People don’t settle for blankness in their lives: They festoon cubicles with mementos, tattoo their skin, tile refrigerators with family snapshots, and select clothes for effect. At a recent Yale symposium on “Ornament and Neuroscience,” the physicist Richard Taylor pointed out that the human brain is primed to recognize patterns in nature’s complexity. We perceive gods in the shape of clouds, are soothed by trees, orient ourselves by mountains and stars, and make art that emulates the swirls and symmetries all around us. The right dosage of visual density measurably lowers stress. That’s why nature has always supplied the fundamental patterns of architectural expression, and why the Victorian critic John Ruskin saw hand-carved gothic decoration as a bulwark against soul-deadening industrialization. “All perfectly beautiful forms must be composed of curves; since there is hardly any common natural form in which it is possible to discover a straight line,” he wrote. Euclidean geometry was, in his view, a practical compromise with beauty, and one purpose of ornamentation was to make that surrender more palatable.

Monumental Gate for Exposition Universelle, by René Binet
Photo: LL/Roger Viollet via Getty Images

There’s nothing superficial about ornamentation; it has been a part of architecture since the first reed bivouacs. That’s how we make mute frameworks speak to our needs and desires. Humans bedeck their most permanent structures to inscribe them with their articles of faith, their relationship with nature, the nuances of social structure. Each embellishment is a missive addressed to the future: This is what we felt and believed. Even at the end of the 19th century, when developers were rushing to keep up with New York’s escalating population, they paused long enough to encrust middle-class apartment buildings, public facilities, and even power plants with medallions and wreaths. Those gestures expressed the aspirations of a mobile and resourceful society. A generation of immigrant tenement builders wooed the poorest of the new arrivals with gargoyles, caryatids, eagles, classical moldings, scrolls, cornices, and dozens of other symbols affixed to the façade — and those precarious New Yorkers, with so few frills or choices in their lives, responded to these crumbs of grandeur. Just as European tropes helped ease immigrants into their new American lives, they also helped shape a new and distinctively American technology of structure. At the turn of the 20th century, when architects were working out the first skyscrapers, they draped the new metal cages in venerable-masonry costume, lavishing modern towers with a profusion of pediments, quoins, cornices, and loggias, all to reconcile the proportions of familiar monuments with the immensity of modern commercial behemoths.

A few decades later, the modernist movement disapproved of such subterfuge. An almost puritanical hostility to decoration took hold, insisting that it was more rewarding to achieve perfect simplicity than to slather walls with pointless curlicues or hide sloppy joints behind an icing of rosettes. And it’s true that ornate façades can be a liability. All those dirt-collecting pigeon magnets crumble and fall. Over the years, balustrades get taken down, wrought iron removed, scrollwork covered by ubiquitous scaffolding. Glass curtain walls became popular partly because they offer a cheat, using the reflections of the sky, trees, and stone around them to give them a secondary animation. After dark, the interior becomes surface, as residents and workers become visible, along with their furniture and potted plants and whatever they’re watching on TV.

But the midcentury fetish for purity has long overstayed its welcome. The luxuriant simplicity of masterpieces by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (the Seagram Building, for example) has spawned a swarm of mini-Mies that has yet to dissipate. Less is everywhere. Today, the most deluxe residential design prides itself on expensive plainness. (The salient exception is the work of Robert A.M. Stern, who doles out moldings and limestone in a judiciously traditional style that comforts the upper end of the real-estate market.) Colorful opulence is in such disrepute that when owners renovate distinguished office towers, the first thing they do is scrape the lobbies clean and replace them with clinical white chambers. That ritual purification has already struck Philip Johnson’s 550 Madison Avenue and Raymond Hood’s McGraw Hill Building and will likely claim Roche Dinkeloo’s 60 Wall Street, too.

Lobby of 60 Wall Street
Photo: Sean Pavone/Alamy Stock Photo

All this fear of flamboyance has left too many architects out of shape and lazy about how they link up small details with big decisions, the scale of the hand with that of the city. Nature is thorough about beauty, whether you’re looking at it through an electron microscope or from a galactic observatory; the leaf is as lovely as the forest. Architecture at its most nourishing likewise engages the body and mind at either end of the size spectrum. You grasp a banister, brush a wall, nod to a statue, climb a stair, look up at a distant spire, and each point, at every scale, offers a jolt of gratification.

Until the 20th century, it was easy to grasp how nature’s continuity applied to architecture. Few buildings rose higher than a tall tree, and even residents of the largest cities lived within an hour’s walk of the countryside. Today’s biggish buildings are mountainous; even run-of-the-mill towers compete with the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon. It’s hard to protect delicacy when you’re forming a colossus. Maybe that’s why the flourishes that do show up in contemporary buildings so often seem tentative or out of place. At the Goliath-like midtown skyscraper One Vanderbilt, Kohn Pedersen Fox has tried breaking down the slablike surface of the lobby wall with an array of suspended bronze ingots. That installation bears little relation to any other element of the building; it’s just there, glittering vainly, representing nothing but the cost of its fabrication.

Ernst Haeckel, Die Formen der Natur.
Photo: Library of Congress

The path out of plainness doesn’t wind back through an antique symbolic language whose meanings have grown vague. But perhaps it starts with a door that briefly cracked open about 125 years ago, revealing the part of the natural world that the naked eye can’t see — which is to say, almost all of it. The zoologist Ernst Haeckel produced fantastically detailed drawings of deep-sea organisms — plankton, algae, jellyfish, microscopic protists. Those forms excited René Binet, who translated them into his design for the monumental gate to the Universal Exposition of 1900 in Paris. A century and a quarter later, invisible nature can still furnish a repertoire of fresh and wondrous ornaments, especially because the technology for making it apparent continues to make giant leaps. Advances in computing power help us visualize turbulence, black holes, brain activity, and the flight of birds — a motherlode of symbolic source material waiting to be mined. At the same time, architects can draw on new methods for scoring those elaborate patterns in concrete, cutting them out of timber, punching them through metal sheets, baking them into glass, and sculpting them into molds. The curves that Ruskin thought only fingers could fashion are now better executed by machine.

We have something both ancient and urgent to express with those techniques and timely messages to pluck from nature’s ceaseless barrage of communication. As the skies warm and the seas rise and the environment gets its revenge on cities that have ignored and abused it, we must all renegotiate our relationship with the natural world. Architects are central to that mission. They are learning — fitfully — to be less profligate with energy, raise structures above flood lines, manage stormwater, minimize pollution, and go easier on migrating birds. That care need not be hidden away in boiler rooms and insulation or tucked into a checklist for LEED certification. Buildings — even office towers or apartment complexes — can borrow once again from nature’s intricate eloquence.

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