Renaissance artists firmly adhered to the Pythagorean concept “All is Number” and, guided by Plato and the neo-Platonists and supported by a long chain of theologians from Augustine onwards, they were convinced of the mathematical and harmonic structure of the universe and all creation. If the laws of harmonic numbers pervade everything from the celestial spheres to the most humble life on earth, then our very souls must conform to this harmony. It is, according to Alberti, an inborn sense that makes us aware of harmony; he maintains, in other words, that the perception of harmony through the senses is possible by virtue of the affinity of our souls. This implies that if a church has been built in accordance with essential mathematical harmonies, we react instinctively; an inner sense tells us, even without rational analysis, when the building we are in partakes of the vital force which lies behind all matter and binds the universe together.
Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism
It was a belief embraced by Palladio, made manifest in his design of villas
and in what was believed the highest form of architecture, the church.
That this order does not fit other conceptions of Christianity, that it doesn’t fit the facts of history, its order, that the order of God might be unknowable, that there are other gods, other religions, or that there may be no god, that the notion of order itself may serve other instincts, that the notion is illusory and self-serving, that it makes no sense—these questions were not asked. When they were, we were left only with numbers, their relationships, and vanishing perspectives.
There is no point in being sentimental here. Still, the well-proportioned buildings remain with their symmetry, their pulsing rhythms, those and the desire that reaches beyond desire, a breathing, an aspiration for what might hold us together and vouchsafe our lives on earth, for that and still for something else.
Dizziness is a psychophysiological state tied to confusion and the mental processes of understanding, with a possible ontological component, if it makes sense to talk about ontology. There are many variations. You have just come to grasp a basic principle, a unity that breaks down barriers between the disparate things before you, and can see it, in the totality of its relevance, racing endlessly to comprehend them. Or you see the unity, but it careens off the walls of all the things it does not comprehend and scatters everywhere beyond them, while the things it does pervade dissolve into endless nothing. Or you only see the principle but sense no walls at all, only the outlines of what you think is there, the boundless extension of their empty possibilities. Or see the mesh of possibilities in things, but not the principle that might align them, only the chance of a principle, ever endless in its evasion. Or see neither the principle nor possible connections, only endless endlessness.
In each there is the same feeling, similar to that of physical dizziness, like an irritation in the ears, a tickling of equilibrium, and it is difficult to tell whether the sensation is one of rising or falling. In each also come feelings of doubt and confidence, of anxiety and elation, but it is not clear that the dread doesn’t belong to the confidence, the transport to the doubt. With these feelings, another emotion impossible to name, diffuse yet more intense, and with its movement, a stillness, a white mist spreading in a blinding sun—
from my essay “Autumn Rhythm”
But we are more prone now to give psychological explanations for our desires, our distress, or we trace motives and social forces, putting our faith in social scientists, their language, in experts. Or we resort to drugs.
Architecture is the will of the age conceived in spatial terms
Living. Changing. Now.
Mies van der Rohe/“Working Theses”/1923
The modernist architects were moved by advances in industry and technology, the spirit they believed these brought that they invested in their work and used to pare architecture down to the essential. There have since been more reductions and projections. The collapse of communism simplified political discussion, with most talk going now to free enterprise, most power to business. With the shift, the mysteries of speculation—the spirit will not die.
Practically speaking, there have been two trends the last decades,
income, which for most of us has stalled while the greater part has soared to the top,
and the cost of housing, which has steadily risen, faster than our income.
Then there are the abstract and airy projections of speculation:
Large global private equity investors including Blackstone, Goldman Sachs, GlobalLand and others have spent more than $6.3 billion acquiring nearly 29,000 units in the Portland area in just the past four years.
Developers are demolishing sound, habitable, affordable housing and replacing it with housing priced at the very top of the market. The result is to push low- and moderate-income families and communities of color out to the edges of the metro area, away from jobs, schools, public events, parks, mass transit and walkable neighborhoods.
We have to wonder where this trend might lead.
In many cities, investment firms now own enough property to wield the monopoly power to jack up rents, and–with deep pockets and tax breaks–can weather high vacancy rates in order to keep rents high. Wall Street is using those rent payments to create highly profitable new financial assets called rent-backed securities, much like the shaky mortgage-backed securities behind the financial crisis of 2008.
From Mary King, “Wall Street speculators and the loss of affordable housing.” See also “The Great Wall Street Housing Grab”:
Wall Street’s latest real estate grab has ballooned to roughly $60 billion, representing hundreds of thousands of properties. In some communities, it has fundamentally altered housing ecosystems in ways we’re only now beginning to understand, fueling a housing recovery without a homeowner recovery.
“What is really dangerous to tenants and communities is the full integration of housing within financial markets,” says Maya Abood, who wrote her graduate thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the single-family-rental industry. “Because of the way our financial markets are structured, stockholders expect ever-increasing returns. All of this creates so much pressure on the companies that even if they wanted to do the right thing, which there’s no evidence that they do, all of the entanglements lead to an incentive of not investing in maintenance, transferring all the costs onto tenants, constantly raising rents. Even little, tiny nickel-and-diming, if it’s done across your entire portfolio, like little fees here and there—you can model those, you can predict those. And then that can be a huge revenue source.”
More and more, these tends determine where we live, how we live, and how well. Our faith in the new order has been put to the test, our spirit sags.
In 2017, 187,000 new housing units were completed in buildings of 50 units or more in the U.S., the most since the Census Bureau started keeping track in 1972. By my informal massaging of the data, well over half of those were in blocky mid-rises. These structures’ proliferation is one of the most dramatic changes to the country’s built environment in decades.
The trend is most apparent in rapidly growing urban and suburban areas, such as Portland. Population, however, is only part of the motivation.
These buildings wouldn’t be going up if no one wanted to move in, of course. Growing demand, brought on by demographic shifts, job-growth patterns, and a renewed taste among affluent Americans for city (or city-like) living, has shaped the mid-rise boom. So have the whims of capital. Most multifamily developers build to sell—to a real estate investment trust, an insurance company, a pension fund, or some other institutional investor. These owners aren’t interested in small projects, and their bottom-line focus determines not only materials but also appearance and layout.
Justin Fox, “Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same”
In addition to the forces of speculation, the channeling effect of building codes.
The IBC sanctioning of stick-frame-over-podium has brought costs down to the point where buildings can be financed and constructed during an exceptionally brutal recession. The result is that these buildings are everywhere.
Another result is the standardization of life—these buildings are the same everywhere—and a withering esthetic.
The cost benefits of “5 over 2” building have an obvious aesthetic byproduct: boxiness in extremis. There is only the meter of building methodology and the barest of melody in applied materials to the straight-jacket of this system.
Duo Dickinson, “When Buildings Are Shaped More by Code Than by Architects”
“5 over 2” refers to a building technique where a one or two floor base of concrete or steel is topped by additional floors of wood framing. A variation is the mixed-use building, where the first floor is given to commercial space with residences above.
Mid-rise solutions bring the anonymity of compacted closeness and exposure to crowded public streets that create barriers and lead to seclusion. High rent and the economics of scale make individual enterprise difficult, leaving us to chain stores, which come and go. Meanwhile the higher-ups create their own exclusive enclaves, increasingly removed from any center. Literally, physically, we are divided and distanced by income and economic forces, and, since by income, by race. The political implications of the separation are serious, as we have seen.
We are being stretched out and diluted on the grid.
There are other factors. Our attitudes towards our government and the notion of government itself have weakened.
Democracy means rule by the entire people—the town meeting in which all debate and vote. There were none such. The right name, when it was deserved, should have been representative government. By a further slippage, democratic had come to be used in praise of miscellaneous things—a restaurant with “democratic prices” or a person whose manners were “very democratic.” For clear thought about the ethos of that period in decline we shall say demotic, which means “of the people.”
And we have lost sense of a neutral, common core, of the means, of a place to manage our common needs and values.
In the genuinely elected governments of the West, the system had shifted away from the original plan and mode of operation. To begin with, the voter turnout had shrunk; national elections were not infrequently won by the votes of fewer than half the electorate; the people were no longer proud to have the franchise. This indifference was due to distrust of politicians and contempt for politics, although these are the very organs of representative government. Politics was a pejorative word; an endeavor or institution that was branded as politicized lost its virtue.
The notion of civic mindedness itself has become politicized, and political discourse has degenerated into self-serving narratives, unreal and perverse. Part of the cause is our own division, our self-absorption, our abandon in distractions.
The one reference to the individual as a private person was the mention that he felt a lack of room to breathe, oppressed by the rule book and by the mass of adversaries in the allocation of conflicting rights. He must now be observed in the sphere of action that was presumably his own—in his tastes and habits, which together may be called his style. His overriding taste was for the Unconditioned Life.
Our disillusionment is not entirely self-induced.
It is plain that the representative system had slid from one assumption to another. Originally, the national interest was to be determined by each member individually, and his view determined his party allegiance and his vote. But now a committee chairman weighed the arguments of the lobbyists and bargained with other chairmen to secure in advance the vote of the chamber. True, group interests had always been influential; but when lobbies became part of the machinery, the aim was to seek a balance of many competing groups instead of ascertaining the needs of the nation’s large constituencies—land, commerce, finance, empire, and the poor. In demotic times, parliamentary debates, such as they were, no longer interested the public; the press ignored them.
The press itself has been distracted elsewhere.
Journalism, which not everybody called a profession, did not escape the common revulsion. The press had abandoned the ideal of impartiality; every newsman editorialized and colored the truth, while also responding to the supposed demotic need that news be “human.”
Elsewhere in our lives we contend with size and impersonality.
Owing to sheer size, corporations, hospitals, and universities suffered the same difficulties as the government bureaucracies. They were in fact all alike. Those appointed to man them improvised their procedures, and as legislation augmented, laid down rules that filled hundreds of pages, an impenetrable jungle for citizens and officials both.
The common man all the while remained a working member of all the institutions that his needs and rights compelled him to approach. His very existence generated forms that he had to fill out; he was an unpaid clerk who wrote his name and address three times on one page. When he had to thread his way among the gears of an institution, he began a collaboration with an indefinite number of its representatives, amiable or grudging, but all armed with computers, who helped or delayed his rescue from entanglement.
We lack common cultural reference and have lost substantial ways of thinking, of projecting, of self-examination, instead have given ourselves to the topical, to ephemera, or to illusion.
. . . the period required the contrived; one made one’s way by image-building-and-tending. This duty was not limited to persons: businesses, political parties, schools, museums, churches—any institution that had a public—must present the type of image favored at the moment.
We believe we are all creative yet have lost the critical edge of creation.
Criticism [of the arts] had given up its main duty of reasoned review and was busy praising and promoting rather than putting order in the welter. Even when the language of the commentators was not obscure on purpose, it only added to confusion by vagueness or paradox.
Our attentions spans have narrowed. Or we have fractured ourselves into specialization of interests and disciplines, using a specialized language that is obscure and excludes.
The resulting obstacles to good prose were: a vocabulary full of technical terms and their jargon imitations, an excess of voguish metaphors, and the preference for long abstract words denoting general ideas, in place of short concrete ones pointing to acts and objects.
Yet we put our faith in our devices.
At the same time, the contents of the Internet were the same old items in multiplied confusion. That a user had the “the whole world of knowledge at his disposal” was one of those absurdities like the belief that ultimately computers would think—it will be time to say so when a computer makes an ironic answer. “The whole world of knowledge” could be at one’s disposal only if one already knew a great deal and wanted further information to turn into knowledge after gauging its value. The Internet dispensed error and misinformation with the same impartiality as other data, the best transferred from books in libraries. The last 20C report on the workings of the “world-wide web” was that its popularity was causing traffic jams on the roads to access and that the unregulated freedom to contribute to its words, numbers, ideas, pictures, and foolishness was creating chaos—in other words, duplicating the world in electronic form.
Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence (2000)
How much exaggeration? It is a world in which it is more difficult to know oneself or make oneself heard.
The last presidential election should have come as no surprise.
The first step is to get people together, where they live, face to face. The next is to give them something meaningful to do. I discuss site and program in my first post, Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts. Again, the location at Lombard and Philadelphia lies at the center of the downtown area, before a plaza, and is easily accessed on foot.
The center has exhibition space for history, civic announcement, and art, and a small theater for live performance and formal gatherings. Above these, classrooms for what I propose as a satellite college for the state university. It will be a place of memory, expression, interchange, and question.
My first interest is that the center not be an institution that is removed and glorified. Rather it should be in the thick of things and used, the reason I suggest the satellite college. If successful—I’m skeptical—it would bring hundreds daily to the center and surrounding area. I make a few general observations on education in Centering a Town: 4th. Effort/Building to Endure.
Key, at stake, is what education represents, or should, a critical exchange among people, between past and present, among different worlds, between experience and knowledge, among ways of thought. Schools should not be distant from the life they attempt to understand, possibly reform, but in its midst. What often gets lost in equations is how much education itself benefits from exposure to the lives of students, especially those found in the public schools. They are closer to the world we want to change, and because of that are richer in experience and emotional maturity than too many of their instructors. They have the raw material for citizenship; our leaders should come from their ranks.
As in my sixth effort, there is a large common area under daylight that should present many possibilities for use and design.
The essential design element is an abstraction of a basic type, a mixed-use module, represented by four bays for commercial space with three floors of smaller housing units above. The module is extruded from the rear wall, removed but attached with beams to the front, and extends to six bays and stands by itself on the side, at an angle, opening up the space and moving away from the building. Peter Eisenman used similar mapping in his projects, such as his IBA Social Housing in Berlin, likely an influence.
The side module also engages the plaza and repeats the diagonal side street, Philadelphia. The different sizes of the corner squares suggest a hierarchy, with the largest at the front corner announcing main entry to the building as well as marking the corner of Lombard and Philadelphia, again the neighborhood’s center. The next largest is the pivot for the diagonal module as well as introduction to the building as one exits the St. Johns Bridge.
The module is also repeated with variations of pattern and depth in the walls of the building proper. Circling the building presents changing combinations of patterns where the modules and walls do not coincide—without clear resolution of differences. Imagined lines from the bays provide a locus of coming together and crossing, so the design represents not only the actual intersection of streets, but also the notion of intersection in the abstract, its possibilities. Alignment, however, is imperfect, incomplete. It is a building that challenges its sense of itself.
Mixed-use is a common type that goes back to Roman times and before, which in this proposal has been refined and simplified. It is the type proposed for development in St. Johns, including the proposed Central Lofts, destined for the site but not yet built. One complex has already gone up. Thus the center represents present construction and future construction, but not construction past.
In another sense, the module represents a process of growth, of simplification and extension. In another, it represents mere reduction, beyond history, where we seem to be headed. On a somber note, the module also recalls Aldo Rossi’s ossuary at his San Cataldo Cemetery, reference that takes us in other directions. Or it represents nothing at all. Literally, it only presents division, one unit at the base divided into two units three rows above, a figure without specific reference or meaning, which is then repeated, potentially indefinitely.
Perhaps this reference is ironic and critical, a questioning of the plan. But the module also represents the building itself, as it follows the type, larger public space topped with smaller, more private units, leaving two options—either the building distinguishes itself from the type or gives in. And it asks questions: Is this plan what we want? How can we live with it? How can we change it?
Unlike Palladio’s constructions, this building lacks stasis, symmetry, and balanced proportions, though they are recalled and might exist as a memory, as a wish.
Reference, of course, is also made to the grid, with implications of Cartesian thought, of a basis for thought, for action, the perspective of transcendent order. But as much it questions and dismantles both. There are more recent philosophical ways to describe this disjunction. They too, however, are only part of the process of refining thought, subject themselves to further displacement and question. We’ll always be left with what our schemes enclose, what escapes them.
Visually the building is a construction of active change, proposal and continual questioning. I would like to imagine similar activity goes on inside.
Not up and away, but out of and back into oneself, and out again, and back to the past, and through it, and back into the present and back out—
The Writing on the Wall
Update: the site, February 2020.
Background and Previous Designs
Other designs for this project, along with background material and more photographs of site, can be found here and at these posts.
Special thanks to Orhan Ayyüce, whose Archinect post “Bloomberg Wonders Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same” provided the links to the Bloomberg Businessweek and CommonEdge articles above and inspired me to think further.
Mixed-use building photograph above by Laura Buckman, photographer, via Bloomberg.
“Autumn Rhythm” appeared in Conjunctions Online. A version of the excerpts above with pictures appeared at Numéro Cinq.