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fw: seeing... mathematics

updated fri 7 jan 11


Frances Howard on thu 6 jan 11

Hi James Freeman,
I am forwarding on a letter from a son who is an architect in Edmonton
Alberta and to whom I had forwarded your clayart letter on why are building=
so ugly, which is a question I have asked him myself previously. So thi=
is a heartfelt response from one who is quite aware of ugliness (and
particularly annoyed by the janitors always having the last word in board
meetings concerning design, not something most people are aware of.) It's =
bit long but there are some interesting points.
-----Original Message-----
From: Henry Howard
Sent: Thursday, January 06, 2011 12:27 PM
To: Frances Howard
Subject: Re: Seeing... Mathematics

Interesting reflection. Architecture - it comprises art, but is art and
science and negotiation. The answer to "why are buildings ugly nowadays?" i=
plainly in front of us.

1- Resistance in the building trades. Buildings of the past have essentiall=
followed similar and almost unchanging forms for hundreds of years.
Builder's viewpoints have not changed either. Ask a roofer to install
shingles, drip caps, etc on your roof differently than what he or she is
used to and you will get immense resistance. Ask an 18th century mason to
construct a different type of column and you would get the same amount of

2 - Cost of labour. in the past 100 years the cost of labour has exploded.
But owners still want to pay bottom dollar for their buildings. Some method=
to save money: prefab, minimize labour, eliminate mouldings, trim, fancy
columns, change proportions to simpler form. The Result: unadorned and
repetitive forms.

3 - WWII and assembly line manufacturing. We don't have to saw timbers to
size on site much anymore, we don't have to fabricate metal connectors on
site, and cut stones. It's shipped to site already done. This means we have
to design to suit the products, or risk the wrath of the owner, who sees no
reason to pay a penny more for his product. Thus everything built in the
last 50 years considers a two foot module, the 4x8 sheet of plywood, the
2x4 x7.5' stud. The module of fabrication takes precedence over the golden
mean or just how pleasant a room would be if it were 47mm larger.

4 - Most owners view their buildings as merely a vehicle to sell -
merchandise, dwelling units, whatever. Every dollar going into a building
needs to be squeezed out of it in rental, sales, cubicles, or linear feet o=
merchandise shelving.

5 - Modernism. At the same time as labour cost rose, mass produced products
became available, and we needed billions of square metres of habitable spac=
modernism - striped down buildings - unadorned, built on premanufactured
grids came along. building owners embraced modernism. It is cheap!

6 - Architects are certainly not blameless, but those taking pot-shots need
to bear in mind that the team for any building includes one Architect, 4-5
engineers (few of whom care much about aesthetics), the owner, who only
cares about $ per sq. metre. We provide choices for owners throughout the
design stage, and whatever is cheaper is chosen. There are user groups who
only care about their own interests and not how the building functions,
building maintenance who only cares if the windows are small and easily
cleaned, the flooring is bare concrete or sheet vinyl because it's easy to
clean, and the heating/cooling is easy to maintain, municipal authorities
who only care if the setbacks and height restrictions are followed, the bus
stop is where it's supposed to be, and there are 3.2 parking stalls per 300
sq metres in front of the building. Add to that restrictions from building
codes that eliminate 80 percent of stairs and corridors from those glorious
old buildings plus a myriad of other restrictions. Oh, and sustainable
building methods - did I mention that? It's also a frequent requirement to
design by points - the more points you get the greener your building is.
Somehow that equates to a better building.

The architect advises and designs, but ultimately modifies and reduces and
changes and cuts back and substitutes cheaper products, and adjusts to
various regulations and codes until the building is thoroughly modern.

In the contemporary building world it is my secret mission to keep as much
architectural in my designs as possible. However, every design I propose
goes through a wringer and comes out somewhat flattened by costs, janitors,
owners, users, authorities, regulations, and products.

Despite all this there are some remarkable buildings created every day.

Why don't we build 'nice' buildings like we did in 1750? Because we're
living in 2011.

-----Original Message-----
From: Frances Howard
Sent: Thursday, January 06, 2011 7:42 AM
Subject: Fw: Seeing... Mathematics

Reflection on architecture

-----Original Message-----
From: James Freeman
Sent: Thursday, January 06, 2011 7:32 AM
Subject: Re: Seeing... Mathematics

On Thu, Jan 6, 2011 at 3:55 AM, Kathy Forer wrote:

Can "art" be the product of the left hemisphere of an ordered mind?

Ask Brunelleschi. Any architect or builder will tell you, even the most
organic design is thought through thoroughly or it will not do. Apparently
random structures have order.

It's difficult for a left hemisphere to act independent of the right, sans
corpus callosum.


I shall ask him, next time I see him! I am meeting he and Jim Morrison at
Elvis' doughnut shop in Kalamazoo next week.

In seriousness, though, I have never considered architecture to be "art".
Artistic, to be sure, at least at rare moments (Greene & Greene, anyone?),
but not art (and not speaking about folks like Gaudi, who were artists whos=
medium was buildings, rather than architects per se). I think the only
reason that art historians grudgingly include architecture and pottery in
their texts is because they are the closest things to art which have
survived the ravages of time! I say this having studied architecture (alon=
with commercial art) in high school, as one of my two competing career path=
(neither one of which materialized).

As an aside, anyone interested in why architecture seems not even to be
"artistic" anymore may enjoy architect and critic Jonathan Hale's "The Old
Way of Seeing". Subtitled "How architecture lost it's magic (and how to ge=
it back)", it is almost a social history of buildings, and explores why the=
are now so lifeless and inhuman. I read this book years ago when I was
designing my current home. I had forgotten about this book until now, and
just pulled it off my shelf and added it to my current reading pile (with
six books ahead!). From the dust jacket notes:

"This fresh and provocative book answers a question that countless people
have asked about our man-made world: How did things get so ugly? We have
all admired the natural grace of old buildings and wondered why today it
seems so hard to create their equal. We live in a time when only a gifted
and dedicated team of designers can build something approaching the beauty
that eighteenth-century carpenters could do all by themselves. What went

Fun digression. All the best.


James Freeman

"...outsider artists, caught in the bog of their own consciousness, too
preciously idiosyncratic to be taken seriously."

"All I say is by way of discourse, and nothing by way of advice. I should
not speak so boldly if it were my due to be believed."
-Michel de Montaigne

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