My thesis in college studied how modern and historic architecture could and should fit in the same neighborhood context. But we so seldom see contemporary or modern architecture butted up beside a historic monument outside of cities like NYC or Chicago or Prague.
Why is that? Is there a general fear within planning departments to blend the new with the old? Is it a lack of vision or imagination that perpetuates the repetition of styles that have no real historical significance in our modern times? Some might wonder why I’m asking these questions (even though they are questions I’ve asked before) and it’s because I’m seeing a good bit of talk lately on the issue of Urban Planning in cities around the country. Most of these discussions center around land use planning and infrastructure, but along with that will go the types of buildings that are constructed and what they look like. In other words, the style of our cities is as much important as how our cities are arranged. Compare two cities like Atlanta and Savannah, both in Georgia. Atlanta, being a modern metropolis with an expanding urban core and dedicated public transit has a very fast paced and modern quality of life that is reflected in the architecture. On the other hand, Savannah, being steeped in it’s history and it’s historic identity has a much slower, easy quality of life and even new construction is forced into a “historical mold” that tells us nothing about the modern times we live in today. Two cities directly impacted by not just planning and land use, but also impacted by the architectural styles present.
What would happen if we married the modern and the historic? Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge fan of Historic Preservation (in it’s true form of preservation not forced architectural copy), but I am also a modern architectural designer. It’s important that our generations’ architectural record reflect modern technologies, modern styles and modern materials. Otherwise we leave no clear architectural expression of our own for future generations. Currently I see us in a “Architectural Dark Ages”, where the majority of the construction I see going up (in my own little corner of the world) is, for lack of a better phrase, CRAP. It’s a copy of one or two or even 10 different architectural styles that hold some kind of significance in history, and these buildings try to use these styles to relate in some way to their surroundings when all they’re really doing is insulting every architect who came before them trying to leave a mark of their time and place in history.
Ok, that was a really long sentence, please forgive my rant. But haven’t you ever driven/strolled/walked/run though a neighborhood or city and wondered “what in the hell were they thinking?” It happens to me quite often (occupational hazard). Like right now, I’m sitting in a starbucks (i know I know, I’m not shopping local….but hey, I like the coffee damn it), in a strip infill building in Riverside that has NO meaningful architectural expression….none, nada, zip, zero, zilch….and what’s worse is across the street is a residential development….oh please don’t make me describe it. Let’s just say it ain’t winning any awards, and, like a good serial killer, is not terribly memorable in appearance.
But these are the types of developments that are railroaded through planning and development. Why? Because they don’t challenge any conventions, they are specifically non-descript, could fit in any neighborhood in any city in America and give absolutely no consideration to pedestrians or the greater betterment of their surroundings. I’m thinking we can do better, don’t you? As architects, developers, land owners and potential homeowners, we can do much better for our cities. Demand a higher level of design, a higher quality of life and a higher quality of architecture and design will follow.