William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Richard Rogers, Architect Versus Charles, Prince

The New York Review of Books, via an article submitted by a man appropriately named Martin Filler has “deconstructed” Prince Charles dislike of modern architecture.

Deconstruction, in case you did not know, is the postmodern literary process of discovering or inventing words or actions from your victim in order to uphold your preconceived beliefs.

Filler’s belief is that modern architecture, and those that create and design that architecture are good. By “good” he evidently does not mean “beautiful”, “useful”, or “lasting.” Instead, the word translates into “ability to win awards.” Awards which are created and doled out by men such as he.

Prince Charles, Filler was aghast to discover, disliked the works of architect Richard Rogers, a designer who, bucking tradition, is not a narrow-rimmed glasses wearing, clad-in-black German. Rogers looks like your grandfather, a jolly and elegant old man. You would never guess by looking that this man could have brought so many grotesqueries into the world.

Filler classifies the great Prince’s dislike of Rogers’s designs as “mental illness”, which itself is caused by “inbreeding.” Conspicuously, Filler fails to mention his own family tree, so one can only wonder what horrors hang from its branches.

Here is a typical Richard Rogers building. It evokes the feeling of an Edward Hopper painting. There is nothing out of place; everything is perfect; clean lines and a sound structure. And utterly depressing. You can actually feel your happiness leaking away the longer you stare at it. It is ugly.

Richard Rogers design

This entry is typical of modernist design. Almost entirely glass, with weird jutting angles and structures tacked on which appear to defy gravity. The building looks like a puzzle, one that the viewer will tire of after they have figured it out. It might also be the creation of a precocious nine-year-old, cobbled together from a set of building blocks your aunt picked up in the Amsterdam airport. It is also ugly and looks ridiculous and ephemeral, especially when set next to brick and stone structures.

Richard Rogers design

This next attempt continues the erector-set theme, here evoking thoughts of a Japanese miniature found in a 1960s Godzilla movie. You look at that egg-shaped structure on the right and expect that, any moment, Mothra will emerge and start spraying silk over terrified citizens. At least Gojira would incinerate the shell of the cocoon with his atomic breath. The building is not so much ugly as it is silly.

Richard Rogers design

To contrast these purposely juvenile structures, we have those designed by Quinlan Terry, Price Charles’s “favorite living architect”. Filler calls Terrys’ work “soporific” and is miffed that Terry believes that beauty can be objectively defined. This, of course, is no less than the truth.

Here is an example of how to best incorporate the new with the old: by remembering the classical structures are common for a reason. Terry’s facade neatly hides the dull apartment building. It cleverly rides in front of and is not flush with the old structure, so that an effort has to be made to look up. The lines of the stone are neither too close nor too far apart. The detail is welcoming, particularly the homey “shutters” astride the second floor windows, the shape of which is echoed in the top layer of “attic” portals. The third floor’s mini balconies reinforce that idea that we are at home. This is a warm and comfortable place to live.

Quinlan  Terry design

This is a commercial building in Tottenham Court Road, London. Terry is not responsible for the asinine statue (of Elvis?) next door. There is nothing immediately remarkable about this building. It will not win an award. Indeed, you would hardly notice it as you walked by. It appears so solid and permanent it looks like it has always been there and, even stronger, always will be. At night, the windows will glow and tell viewers that “Lasting work takes place here.” It is a manly building, a gentlemanly building. It is not flashy, it does not draw attention to itself. It fits.

Quinlan  Terry design

This is an interior for the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, a building which particularly irritates Filler. This, of course, is the chapel, a room at least remarkable for its inclusion. The windows are exactly placed, the stiles are reminiscent of stained glass. The cross at the end of the room is not overwhelming, but neither can it be missed. The wood walls, wide chairs, and ceiling moulding lend a warmth which is needed to combat the austereness of the walls.

Quinlan  Terry design

Filler classifies Terry’s work as “neo-conservatism”—a self-contradictory term, incidentally. This proves that Filler has fallen prey to the belief that the only art that is “good” is that which is new, subversive, or controversial. Whatever other faults the handsome young Prince Charles has—and there are many—he at least knows that this attitude is bereft of logic.

25 Comments

  1. “You can actually feel your happiness leaking away the longer you stare at it.”

    Worth the price of admission. Of course, the same might be said about Prince Charles, whereas the sight of Edward Hopper paintings makes some of us feel bad in a good way.

  2. The Eye of the Beholder …

    “Suspended in time and space for a moment, your introduction to Miss Janet Tyler, who lives in a very private world of darkness, a universe whose dimensions are the size, thickness, length of a swath of bandages that cover her face. In a moment we’ll go back into this room, and also in a moment we’ll look under those bandages, keeping in mind, of course, that we’re not to be surprised by what we see, because this isn’t just a hospital, and this patient 307 is not just a woman. This happens to be the Twilight Zone, and Miss Janet Tyler, with you, is about to enter it.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eye_of_the_Beholder

  3. Recommended (re)reading: The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand) and From Bauhaus to Ourhouse (Tom Wolf).

  4. You want to see horrible? here is a link to a photo of the Royal Ontario Museum and its modern addition:
    http://www.gothereguide.com/royal+ontario+museum+toronto-place/

  5. Briggs and company,
    This is where I spent 35 years; architecture. Initially, I thought struggling to do these ambitious designs advanced the art.

    After much reflection, I’ve concluded that these express reactions of the brilliant to a pursuit whose day to day activities are not intellectually challenging, too mundane don’t you know, screw it up a little.

    If you, for some insane reason, want to know what architects really spend their time on, see if you can find Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence about the clock that worked when it left the shop in Boston, didn’t work on arrival at the University of Virginia, was sent back to Boston where it again worked, and was then sent to Virginia along with an artisan to show the locals how to set it up – all this by ship and over a period of many months. There must be dozens of letters about the damned clock.

    Or Imhotep’s problems with the stone masons who kept missing deliveries – in 2670BC.

    My suspicion is that most of the better architecture is done by the less swift. The really brilliant guys, and I worked for two of them, either tie themselves up in knots or do outrageous things – and yes, once in a long while they do something that someone other than another architect might like.

    Looking back on my own efforts, and having traveled more extensively, I’m amazed to see how many of my contemporaries were doing the same sort of thing that I was and me thinking I was so original.

    The above may be why I tend to be glad someone tries all these things so we can get them out of our collective systems and move on.

  6. I don’t think that most post-modern architecture is bad, but some if it is atrocious. Unlike bad art or bad music, bad architecture has consequences. People have to live and work in these buildings. AT the San Francisco Federal building, the architect had grand visions to build the greenest building of its kind, and forgot design a building people cans work in. Only managers get heat or air-conditioning. Windows open and papers fly about. Workers use umbrellas to block the glare in some cubicles. The elevator stops every third floor. There is one “handicapped” elevator, with a long line. The disabled have threatened to sue because there is insufficient access. And the punch line, the architect did not qualify for the LEED certification he sought.

  7. Yes, half busted clock, half blind squirrel, the Prince got lucky and that right. For this commoner, the test of architectural design is how good a building looks over thirty and dirty. The eye tends to cut newborns slack, such that even ugly babies are traditionally redeemed by a kind of aesthetic wishful thinking. This knee-jerk kindness is exploited and amplified by the cult of the new and old-made-new. Somewhere along the way, the “if it ain’t broke fix it artfully” imperative established itself, almost genetically, such that even us perpetually disappointed critics — okay, at least me, — can’t escape wishing for buildings that successfully slip the past’s surly bonds.

  8. After you spent 3 years at Trinity and Cambridge, as did Prince Charles, modern architecture just doesn’t get the juices flowing.

  9. Enjoyed j ferguson’s realistic comments re: the lifeswork activities of most architects. Clocks, windows, fittings and accoutrement all seem to have their own deleterious effect on transportation delivery schedules. I recall my father wearing out three jeeps running back and forth for several years to see if a certain door latch had been properly fitted on a luxury home so as to function as he designed. Finally paid for a new custom door and frame and did the installation job himself. Customer never knew but the contractor could not live it down, and finally moved away.

    Btw, Briggs, concerning your last sentence: I’ve looked and looked but cannot find a graphic depicting the enclosed two-wheel horse drawn cart you mentioned – the one Prince Charles owned when he was younger. And there’s a typo in that line, too.

    Cheers

  10. Bernie, that’s largely true, but if you want to make your eyes bleed, go to the arts and humanities “campus” which is mercifully hidden from the casual visitor. It’s a tribute to 20C architectural train wrecks. That said, I spent years in the old computer science building, an edifice so horrific that rumour had it that it was protected by a preservation order – in case we ever tried to “improve” it.

  11. You are right. There is also some pretty ghastly Victorian stuff. But overall real Gothic and Wren is hard to beat.

  12. Architecture has two primary aspects – functionality and aesthetic – and one secondary aspect – the opinions of critics.

    Functionality. Does it keep the weather out? Are the bathrooms conveniently located and big enough? Do the toilets clear themselves in a single flush? Is there adequate storage? Enough doors? Easy to maintain? Enough windows? Will it outlast the owner? Does the furniture fit?

    Aesthetic. Is the owner happy with the way it looks? If the owner cares, are the neighbors happy with the way it looks? The opinion of the guy who pays the bills is the only one that counts.

    Critics. Everyone (it seems) is a critic or at least has an opinion whether expressed or not. To be useful the opinion must be supported with reasoning and facts. “I just don’t like it” is not useful. “The proportions are not what I’m used to and therefore make me uncomfortable with the shape and size of the building” is. “A bright orange high gloss building with no architectural detail in the middle of a campus full of beautifully detailed gothic structures is startling and draws undeserved attention to a bus stop shelter” is a good critical comment.

    A building that is practical, esthetically pleasing to most people and different enough to be interesting is rare indeed.

  13. Watch Project Runway, a “reality” television series in which design challenges are given to a group of aspiring fashion designers. They are required to design and fabricate clothing to meet a specific requirement, or of unusual materials, in a short period – say 5 to 16 hours. The result is then displayed on models who prance the runway in front of three critics who share their thoughts, rank them, and decide which of the designs is best and which will cause the dismissal of its author.

    Fashion is like architecture in the sense of getting “things” out of the weather with varying degrees of flair.

    i recommend it to those interested in how architects converse among themselves as designs develop.

    When we first happened on this program, we were astonished at how similar the concerns were to the arbitrary choices we faced in moving an architectural design along from nothing to something – and there are a lot, and they are arbitrary.

    The beauty of this program is that the subject matter is sufficiently familiar to most of us that the perhaps unfamiliar concerns of the designers can be understood in context.

  14. Their [schools'] core role in society and in people’s lives is too fundamental to allow self-absorbed architectural predilections to overpower fundamental good design.
    http://www.architypereview.com/ar_v04_n03_larry-speck.php

  15. I did a large project for a big company with many buidings. The purpose was to guage reactions to changes in the interior layout and design of the buildings. We surveyed over 70 buildings. What struck me from this project was (a) once designers have settled on a design, it is almost impossible to get them to reassess; (b) individuals have demands which are mutually exclusive; (c) designers do not tell their clients that these demands are mutually exclusive; (d) certain design issues are true dilemmas with no feasible solutions.

  16. Bernie,
    Having been guilty of (a) and (c) many times over and not thinking myself irresponsible, let me relate a discovery and then go on to attempt to justify repetitions of (a) and (c).

    The first time a client said that he had no idea that the project would come out as it did, I realized that despite his signature on the drawings, he never really understood what he was agreeing to. I was amazed. I’d done exactly what I thought he wanted, we’d reviewed the designs as they developed, he signed off on them when they went to bid, it was built, and he told me that it wasn’t at all what he’d expected.

    My conclusion was that no matter what they say, most clients who are not involved with construction on a continuing basis cannot read drawings in the sense of envisioning the results. It would have been nice to have been warned about this in school, but I wasn’t.

    The recent advent of photo-realistic rendering may have diminished this problem, but it likely continues.

    Given the likelihood that the clients do no understand what is being done during design development and the presence of irreconcilable conflicts in the written requirements, architects make the best of it and usually find that whatever they do is accepted once it’s cast in concrete so to speak.

    Willingness to “reassess” as you put it may have something to do with compensation. Total design fees are almost always limited such that the designers have an adverse interest in iterations.

    If you retain designers to develop “alternatives” and pay them hourly, you are far more likely to get the open-mindedness you seek. If this is what you want, it’s more effective to do this than to expect flexibility in a designer who has been retained to design construction and is very interested in “getting on with it.”

    But maybe you already knew all this and I’m just carrying oh needlessly. Sorry.

  17. Regarding architectural aesthetics, I have referred often to an interesting book titled “Bridges”, by Fritz Leonhardt (an engineer/ bridge designer). It is written in both English and German, unusual in itself. Equally unusual, is an introductory chapter called “The Basics of Aesthetics”. Running 19 pages in a coffee table sized book, Mr. Leohardt covers a lot of ground that leads him to a set of aesthetic guidelines for designing.

    The first of these guidelines is ‘Fulfillment of purpose-function. In it he says; “The structure should reveal itself in a pure, clear form and impart a feeling of stability.” I can actually visually ‘feel’ this stability most often in properly designed and proportioned bridges, like the Golden Gate bridge near my home. It is easy to see how the lines of force travel down the bridge and to the foundations. I feel comfortable crossing this bridge. Opposed to this feeling, is when I drive under an overpass that supports many lanes of traffic above, but rest only on slender piers that look hardly strong enough (although structurally they may well be) to withstand a stiff breeze.

    Under the guideline of ‘Proportion’ he says; “An important characteristic necessary to achieve beauty is good, harmonious proportions, in three dimensional space. …These proportions should convey a impression of balance.” Too long a span between piers, a building wider at top than bottom – these to me are inharmonious and create a certain tenseness when viewed.

    Another guideline is ‘Order’. “Too many directions of edges, struts, and the like create disquiet, confuse the observer,and arouse disagreeable emotions. …Interrupting a series of arches with a beam will give rise to aesthetic design problems.” I have seen this in buildings that are simply a montage of classical designs, all working against each other to defeat our sensibilities of good form and order.

    He has several more guidelines and I recommend reading them if you happen upon this wonderful book. If you are a bridge fancier, then find this book if you can. You will not be disappointed.

  18. That strange ovoid building in the third picture is universally known as “the Gherkin.”

    A friend of mine, upon looking at it for the first time, was heard to enquire where they kept the batteries for it.

  19. Vitruvious got it down to “firmness, commodity, and delight.” Criteria that have application outside architecture.

    I’d love to know how the author of the Gherkin sold the design to the client. Was it publicly funded?

  20. Oops. Vitruvius.

  21. The ‘Gherkin’ aka Swiss Re Building is by Sir Norman Foster. Lord Rogers was responsible for the industrial style building central in the picture – the Lloyds Building which was built in the late ’70s – early ’80s and still looks stunning viewed from ground level.

    The “statue” on the canopy of the theatre in Tottenham Court Road is of Freddie Mercury and advertises the show ‘We Will Rock You’.

    Quinlan Terry is almost universally despised by the British architectural fraternity as a strutting popinjay and toady to the heir to the throne. His ‘facadism’ school of architecture is neither conservationist nor complimentary in the majority of cases.

  22. Actually there was recently a very successful show at the RIBA by three classical architects including Quinlan Terry’s son and an ex-employee at the RIBA:

    http://www.architecture.com/WhatsOn/Exhibitions/At66PortlandPlace/2010/Spring/3Classicists.aspx

    Whatever the “fraternity” may think traditional architecture remains popular with the public. The firm I work for has one a number of awards for our work in historic contexts:

    http://www.francisjohnson-architects.co.uk

  23. My son is an architect.
    He builds MLPs.
    I think that they are beautiful.
    I wish that we were still busy building something to launch from them!
    http://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2010/07/unemployed-ares-i-mobile-launcher-crawler-trip-august/

  24. Beauty is objectively definable?

    Oh oh! Oh boy you crack me up mr Briggs! Surely you are joking.

    And of course “neo-conservatism” is a contradictory term. That’s the kind of labels that you put on things you hate: labels that show how ridiculous the “movement” really is.

    I agree with your distates with the examples of the most “modern” buildings you picked. But to call the other buildings “beautiful” is to defy good taste. They are, in a word, kitch. They don’t make any sense. The ornaments are only remnants of past memories of an older generation, as if they evoke a time where society was “better”. Not degraded. Ahah. What an illusion! And the worst is that such décors are exactly what is degraded nowadays, for when they were invented, there were technical reasons for their existence, and their form. In other words, those forms were half function, half aesthetic. Now, they are only “aesthetic”. Pathetic, I should have said, for I do not believe in any architecture that follows aesthetic.

    A good form, for people with good taste of course, should always follow function and beauty at the same time. Each shape should be technically justified. And simple. And beautiful. Just like a living organism.

    Well, there are always exceptions. But exceptions only exist when there are “rules”.

    About Charles’ taste. Well, what would one expect? He’s a traditionalist. His problem is that he believes that all of us should follow his own taste. That would be horrible.

  25. Briggs

    19 August 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Luis, it is. And you believe it too. To remind yourself of this, take out a piece of paper, grab a pencil, close your eyes and scribble like made for thirty seconds, with the aim of reproducing, or rivaling, the Mona Lisa. Now tell me that your scribble is just as good or better. I defy you to find anybody who says so honestly. The reason they do not is because—for whatever reason; biological, genetic, metaphysical—we know what is and what is not beautiful. Not that there will not be disagreement on fine points, but on gross ones, there can be none.

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