Of Time and Place

A common refrain within the architectural community is that design should be “of our time” or “of today”. This is usually used in justification for a modern aesthetic,[1] particularly if that modern design is placed in juxtaposition with something historic or traditional. It is a phrase that sounds good and positions design in a way that is hard to critique, but is it a valid defense? I would argue that the concept of a design being “of today” is actually meaningless which would make any argument based on that concept moot from the start. I see 3 primary problems with using “of today” as a basis for or defense of a design.

  • Indefensible

  • Aesthetic Bias

  • Misunderstanding of Architectural History

The Problems with “Of Today”


The main problem I have with the “of today” concept is it isn’t based on anything tangible. What does “of today” actually mean? It is such an abstract and subjective idea that it can’t be defined definitively.

The way it is often used suggests a meaning. When someone says a design is “of our time” it usually means that the design is not “historicist” or “traditional”. Oftentimes it is used to preempt possible backlash from a traditional leaning public. Unfortunately, the very lack of expressed definition makes it very difficult to continue a constructive conversation about design once the “of today” argument has been called.

Furthermore, very rarely does anyone actually explain why it even makes sense for a design to be “of today”. It is just accepted that “of our time” is a primary criteria by which a design is judged. It may well be a good idea for a design to express the ideals of its time but that needs to be validated as a basis of design. Zeitgeist, when captured, is a compelling foundation but it is fleeting and very difficult to obtain.

Another problem is that the relentless pursuit of timely design has usurped the pursuit of timeless design. With this cult of the now, design becomes very trend and fad oriented. Fads, by definition, are fleeting and designs that are trendy very quickly look outdated and stale. Architecture is an art rooted in permanence so a philosophy of trendy “today” architecture does not mesh well with the expected lifespan of the resultant building.

Finally, it seems to me that the very fact that a work is created “in our time” regardless of style makes it “of today” unless it is explicitly historicist or preservationist.[2] The work occurs now using current materials and technologies and is influenced by current cultural and professional ideas. What makes one expression more “today” than another? We are told that “everything is a remix” so originality can’t be the aspect that defines how current a design is. All design endeavors, regardless of style, contain some original thoughtfulness in addition to incorporation of various external influences. Perhaps one can argue that a certain degree of consensus might indicate a style of today. That actually brings me to my next point.

Aesthetic Bias

The primary conceit of architecture today is that “of today” means bowing to the whims of a single arbiter of style. Universally, the argument for design “of today” is used to justify design that is modern as opposed to traditional. This aesthetic bias of a term that really is not meaningful is destructive to a design dialogue that could be happening.

When design that is “of today” is so tied up with a specific style, there is a line drawn that artificially creates a right and wrong way of doing things. Traditional becomes automatically wrong because it isn’t of today and modern becomes automatically right. Our design dialogue would be so much richer if we didn’t artificially separate design philosophies but viewed it more as a continuum with discussion about the range on that continuum that constitutes good design.

The bias is rampant in the upper echelons of the profession. Pick up any random magazine, especially ones either aligned with the AIA or closely related, and you will find a mix of published projects that definitively skew towards modern. The bias is even more apparent in the AIA awards system. I once worked on a multi-family project that took on a craftsman aesthetic in deference to the context of single family bungalows. This project ended up quite successful and began collecting awards from various community, transportation, and regional entities. The award it did not get was the AIA award and I think that can be directly tied to a bizarre predilection against anything remotely traditional.

I have been following with some interest the current controversy about Frank Gehry’s design of the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C. There has been a lot written from both sides but one thing that stood out to me in the debate was this quote from Roger K. Lewis who presumptuously spoke for the entire architectural community in his Washington Post editorial defending Gehry’s design:

Today almost all practicing architects in the United States are, in the broadest sense, modernists. Just ask the thousands of architects in town this week attending the 2012 American Institute of Architects national convention. Their talents and aesthetic tastes vary widely, but few design buildings replicating architecture of the past or buildings festooned with historic motifs and ornamentation borrowed from previous centuries.

While there may be some consensus regarding style within the ranks of the profession, I have found the general public is not aligned with that view. Architecture is very much a public art and so it should respond responsibly to the public’s desires. In the absence of wide ranging consensus, another criteria must be used to evaluate the merit of a design.

I don’t believe the notion that architecture “of today” is necessarily modern or not traditional. I believe that a design can be “of today” and take on many different expressions and that rich variety should be celebrated. I think that the narrow aesthetic bias expressed in the current understanding of what “of today” means is based on weak assumptions and faulty logic. One of the biggest faults is a fundamental misunderstanding of architectural tradition and history.

Misunderstanding of Architectural History

Architecture for thousands of years shared a common language - a respect for gravity, a philosophy of repose, principles of balance, poetic expression of structure, and a truthfulness in materiality. This is a language that is both intuitively understood and commonly ingrained in the general public. The modern notion of architecture that denies the public it’s thousands of years of collective understanding of the language of building is elitist at best and downright spiteful at worst. It is particularly bad when a fundamental misunderstanding of architectural history is used to defend such design.

I have seen slide shows created using pictures of historic buildings to try and defend modern designs. The argument goes that the old buildings were “of their time” and were probably “shocking”, “alien”, and “looked like spaceships had landed” to the people of that time. This belies a fundamental rewrite or misunderstanding of architectural history. In the early to mid 20th century there was a concerted effort by the architectural elite to make a clean break with tradition and do something new. Previously, all architectural movements shared commonality in their treatment of gravity, composition, structure, and material. Architectural expression could vary tremendously but the underlying principles were quite similar. The modern movement subverted the old principles with entirely new principles. The problem is that the architectural elite has yet to convince society that their way is better.

If everything is a remix, then the primary difference between the traditionalist and the modernist is that the traditionalist recognizes, celebrates, and builds upon the precedent while the modernist naively believes they are unique and original. That’s not to say that ideas can’t be novel and groundbreaking - sometimes the confluence of original design with the disparate external influences creates something magical and unique. It is important, though, to recognize that there are many influences on design and the legacy of the past is rich in meaning and learning if we only allow ourselves to use it.

A Better Criteria: “Of Place”

What then, can we use as a metric for evaluating design. I propose that we stop focusing on Time and start focusing on Place. To be “of today” is less important than to be grounded in “Place”. Place includes culture, climate, environment, and yes tradition. These are measurable, debatable, and tangible ideas that will enable a rich dialogue of what appropriate design looks like. The arbitrary nature of “today” is replaced with the still subjective but also rooted in reality notion of “place”. We can learn these things. We can quantify local climate and environment. We can qualify local culture. We can document the rich legacy in the built environment. We can learn to know a place. This is a fitting basis of design. How this is combined with current movements to create an expression that is “of our time and place” is the exciting challenge.

  1. This article might seem like a critique of modernism but it isn’t intended to be. The reason modernism is mentioned critically in this post is that it is modern architects who most frequently use the “of our time” rationale for design. My criticisms of modernism in this piece are purely reactionary to my disdain for the term “of today”. I do have a traditional leaning but I find value in many other disciplines as well. I dislike intensely the marginalization of traditional architecture through the current usage of the notion “of today”.  ↩
  2. Unless one is explicitly trying to replicate the past, any current building endeavor regardless of style will be “of today” strictly because building techniques and materials have changed so much. It is very difficult to create a truly historicist architecture simply because the craftsmen and skills have changed.  ↩


The American Dream: Phase II

Allison Arieff, writing for the New York Times, has a great article about the morphing American Dream:

In short, builders are recognizing that buyers (and renters, too!) value the neighborhood as much as — if not more than — the house.

This notion - the idea that the neighborhood is the differentiator - is an important concept I think. Anecdotally, whenever I have been looking for a place to live I have always determined the neighborhood first and then looked for the home second. A key part of making desirable neighborhoods is to make Places that are livable:

The country could be moving toward something much better, something that’s less about consumption (of stuff, of such essential resources) and more about quality of life.

I also really liked this sentence:

Living better and smarter shouldn’t be a partisan issue

Making places for people is a non-partisan ideal. There may be different perspectives on how best to make great places, but we need to work together to achieve real progress.


Design Philosophy and Scale (Why Apple is Terrible at Urbanism)

Design philosophy is fundamental to the success of a design effort. Given that, I have developed a keen interest in the culmination of design philosophy and what that means for designers of all types. An idea that has been germinating for quite some time for me is the notion that design philosophies that work at one scale might not necessarily work at another scale. The premier example is Apple

The Scales of Apple

Apple works at multiple scales. While they are probably most famous for their computing hardware (the object scale) they are more than just hardware. For the
purposes of this argument I am only considering physical design so I am willfully ignoring the aspects of Apple’s design legacy that aren’t overtly physical in nature - specifically software, services, systems, and engineering.[1] That leaves us with two design scales in addition to the object scale: the individual building (stores) and the district (campus).

The Object

Apple’s design philosophy is most clearly seen at the object level. This is where the rationality and the purity have the most perfect expression. Apple is famously minimalist in its design ethos and every subsequent design becomes more and more pure in its minimalist simplicity.

A great example of what the Apple design philosophy is all about is the iPhone. The iPhone 4 form factor is amazingly pure and exudes design sophistication and quality in every detail. The attention to detail and the no compromise attitude towards materiality, form, and function is astounding. This phone seems like the ultimate result of the Apple design philosophy at work and, when compared to previous models, it is readily apparent that this was the inevitable result of relentless refinement of a strong initial concept. It also successfully makes the previous models look crude and cheap in comparison.

I would argue that this minimalist, rational design philosophy works quite well at the object scale. The rationality and the purity of the design is readily apparent to the user. There is a focus and a clarity to the product that allows the user to easily understand the object, how to interact with the object, and allows the product to do its job without interference from the product’s design. The lack of unnecessary ornamentation allows the function of the object to become primary and the object itself fades to the background. The purity of materiality enables the object to have a sense of quality and durability. Any wear that occurs is a natural property of that material. The combination of pure expression of material and clean, minimalist aesthetic works perfectly at the object scale.

The Building

Apple is famous for its retail stores that allow no compromises architecturally and have been compared to religious architecture. This is particularly true of the “flagship” stores in major cities around the world. As an extension of the Apple brand, the flagships stores are imbued throughout with that certain Apple quality. They are generally minimalist and thoroughly modern with copious amounts of glass and steel. The most famous examples are exceedingly pure and rational in their forms. The interiors, regardless of the prestige of the store, are generally the same with light colored wood tables for the products and open layouts.

Despite the seemingly overwhelming desire for minimalist, rational retail stores, Apple has shown itself to be respectful and deferential in some locations. When Apple opens stores in older buildings, typically in historical districts of older cities, the result many times has been of external deference with internal compliance with the brand imaging. Examples of this dichotomy exist in many of the great cities around the world including New York, London, and Paris.

This interesting duality in the overall analysis of Apple stores belies a certain breakdown of the design philosophy at the building scale. Apple has been forced to admit that minimalism isn’t appropriate in all locations. While the perfect glass cube works well as an iconic landmark, it does so almost more as a rational, pure object than as a piece of architecture.[2] Because Apple has proven itself sensitive to context, the minimalist, pure design philosophy still works at the building scale. If Apple were more rigid in its application, the result would be less appealing and the breakdown of the design ethos would be more apparent.

The District

Apple has not had the opportunity to do much at a district/campus/block level but they do have one current shining example of what the Apple design philosophy looks like at such a large scale - the plan for the new campus in Cupertino. When finished it will hold 13,000 employees in the most pure, rational example of large scale design possible - a single circular building larger in circumference than the Pentagon. Unfortunately, it will also be a disaster from an urban design standpoint.

The problem is twofold. First, the design of the building lacks any humanizing scale elements. It is entirely minimalist (pure) without ornamentation so there is nothing to relate the building back to the human scale. It is much too large a building to work as an object so it must work as a building and unfortunately it fails to humanize. It is, as Steve Jobs himself referred to it, alien like a “spaceship landed” in the orchards of Cupertino.

The second issue is one of context. The new building will hold over 10,000 workers and every one of them will arrive by car. The design accommodates these cars in a clever and pleasing way - it puts them underground. However, the ultimate failing of the design is that it continues down the path of limiting or even eliminating options. Instead of embracing and enhancing the neighborhood, the campus is insular like a large cocoon. It adds no vitality, no connections, and no meaningful value to the neighborhood. It is entirely selfish and self-serving to the detriment of all around.

It is unfortunate that the ultimate design of incredible purity, minimalism, and rationality is so far from the mark. However, I think that it is more a problem of the underlying design philosophy than the implementation. At the urban scale, minimalism and rational purity just don’t work well. Urban life is necessarily complex, multifaceted, and sometimes irrational. The messiness of a thriving neighborhood or district cannot be eliminated through pure design because it isn’t a problem to be solved but rather a natural conclusion of a well functioning place. Life is messy. Life is irrational. Life is multifaceted. The best places embrace that and provide the services and connections necessary to thrive. This Apple campus instead turns its back on the world and becomes a cocoon of exceptional design purity.

Scale Matters

The reason why I can love my iPhone including the physical design while being extremely critical of the new Apple Campus is not because I am not consistent in my aesthetic desires. Apple is being extremely consistent with its design philosophy. The new Apple campus is the ultimate example of minimalist, rationally pure design. The reason why I can love one and hate the other is because scale matters. Design has to accommodate different issues at different scales and because of that sometimes a design philosophy won’t scale well. Apple seems to have recognized this at the building level in their deference to local and historical contexts in certain locations around the world but have neglected to make the necessary adjustments in their own backyard.

  1. There is an interesting tension I may expand upon later in the intense purity of the hardware design with the skeumorphic decoration of the software. This makes the super geeks uncomfortable but I think there is an important purpose in humanizing the cold, pure object through the software.  ↩
  2. The only architectural function served by the cube is that of entry as the entire store actually sits underground.  ↩


The Incremental Approach

Chuck Marohn on his blog at Strong Towns has a great post about the differences from a financing perspective of how growth occurs in a traditional model vs now:

To get growth and investments in place, the approach of the city needs to be more incremental, fine grained and experimental. Instead of one multi-million dollar investment (a trolley line, a pyramid-shaped stadium, re-purposing a pyramid-shaped stadium, redeveloping the fairgrounds, etc…) that is supposed to transform an area, the city needs to make many more, small investments. These small experiments need to happen at the neighborhood level. They need to be focused on incrementally improving that space. These are opportunities to learn from successes and failures, with the best approaches spreading from neighborhood to neighborhood, informing the next round of improvements.

He goes on to use an example from Memphis to explain this concept. The great thing about the Memphis example is that it was initiated by a neighborhood group that got tired of waiting for the city and it cost very little to implement but got huge and immediate returns. The small, incremental changes approach is a great way to realize lasting and valuable improvements to a neighborhood without much risk or capital expense.

I really appreciate Chuck’s financial return on investment analysis. This is a great perspective that needs to be celebrated in urbanism circles. I’ve been listening to the podcast for a while now and it is highly recommended for its great content and unique perspective.


Death by Commute

The Huffington Post reports:

Brown University researchers found that spending an hour every day commuting (say, a half-hour commute there and back) means that the average person gets 30.6 percent less time for sleep, 16.1 percent less time for exercise, 5.8 percent less time to eat with the family and 4.1 percent less time to prepare food – all healthy behaviors.

What is interesting is there isn’t a corresponding decrease in time spent watching television. Longer commutes take time away from the important, healthy activities of life not to mention the actual negative effects of the commute itself.


Welcome to my Digital Stoop

Welcome to my digital stoop. This is where I post my musings about the world of design, urbanism, architecture, and the arts. In urban design, the stoop is a place where one can be honest and informal - a place where lively and stimulating conversations occur. As a transition between public and private, the stoop provides the comfort of some privacy while allowing familiarity and friendly discourse. I hope that this site becomes the digital equivalent of a stoop. I hope that you will drop by my place here and enjoy some discussion about design and that you come back often. For my part, I will post things that I think are stimulating and interesting to the dialogue.[1] I encourage and welcome comments so that this digital front porch becomes a place for a discussion that is insightful and enlightening. [2]

The format I am intending to implement is a mixture of links with commentary to stories, blog posts, and editorials that I find stimulating and original posts by me. My goal with the links will be to add insight to the original post rather than just provide a summary and my hope would be that my link improves traffic to the original site rather than steals traffic.

As this is the first official post on my new blog, I wanted to take a moment and explain my motivations and expectations of what this new endeavor means. I feel compelled to write for many reasons but these are my primary goals for this site:

  • Participate in and contribute to the online dialogue about these subjects which I care deeply about

  • Practice the discipline of writing to better process and refine my thoughts on these topics

  • Learn from the wisdom and experience of others through comments on my site and through the rich dialogue that happens throughout the Internet community

So again, welcome to my little stoop in this little neighborhood of the internet. I hope you will enjoy the discussion, maybe join in through the comments or on your own site, and come back often. I always welcome feedback. In addition to comments on this site, I can be reached via @ArchitectJones on twitter and email.

-Gregory Jones

  1. If you are looking for posts about my personal life, continue looking. The stoop is a place for public discourse. As such, I won’t be posting personal stuff and I will commit to keeping the conversation clean.  ↩

  2. As the stoop is a semi-public place, I expect the discussions to remain respectful, on topic, and clean. All comments are moderated by me so anything that doesn’t meet that criteria will not be posted. Differing opinions are great; disrespectful, vulgar, or off topic comments are not.  ↩

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