The Purpose of Architecture

Published on 05/25/2011

Architects have their competing theories of architecture, and they have poured out rivers of ink trying to justify this or that as the purpose of their endeavors. But the ordinary citizen, without thinking about it, knows what the purpose of architecture is, and probably knows it better than an architect who has spent his life filling his head with arcane theories.

The purpose of architecture is to create useful spaces that people want to be in.

It’s not enough to make the space useful if people hate being in it. And it’s not enough to make people want to be in it if they can’t use it for its intended purpose.

But being attractive without being useful is probably better than being useful without being attractive. If people like a space, they’ll find a way to make it work. If people don’t like a space, they’ll stay away, even if it  seems to meet all their practical needs.

Architecture creates more than one kind of space. Interior spaces are the ones we usually think about. But architecture creates exterior spaces as well. A new building on a street makes it a different kind of street. Is it a street where people want to be, or is it a street they hurry through? The architect is as much responsible for the street his building sits on as he is for the space inside the building. If a new construction creates a long, blank wall that people instinctively avoid, the architect has effectively destroyed the street. Businesses on the other side of it will wither, and the street will exist only as a passage from one more desirable place to another.

Style is less important than scale in creating spaces people like. Architecture on a human scale is inherently more friendly than architecture on a titanic scale. Monumental architecture needs smaller subdivisions to make itself relatable: the arches in a Roman basilica, or the stilts in a Mies van der Rohe office building. Great slabs of concrete or stone put us off instead of welcoming us; remembering the human scale is the thing that makes architecture work.

These are all obvious ideas, but the enthusiasm of an all-encompassing theory of architecture can make an architect forget them. An architect needs to look at his plans and ask, “Will people want to be here?” Perhaps he should point to different spots on the blueprint at random: Will people want to be here, or here, or here? If he can always answer yes to that question, he’s done his job well.

A Living Museum of Bad Siding

Published on 09/19/2010

I call them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Aluminum, Vinyl, Insulbrick, and Permastone. They’re the four most common disasters that befall the exteriors of otherwise respectable houses. Pittsburgh seems to have been more susceptible to them than most cities, perhaps because Pittsburgh’s unshakable belief in Progress rendered anything “modern” attractive.

If bad taste were a crime, then Insulbrick would be a felony. From a distance, it looks almost something like bricks, if you squint a bit. Actually, it’s thin sheets stamped with a brick pattern. You attach them to the side of a frame house, and instantly your frame house is transformed into a frame house with a shell of cartoon bricks. Then, of course, you leave it there, because the dealer told you it would last forever. And it will. It will flake and curl, the seams will become more and more obvious, and the surface will collect every particle of soot from the atmosphere, but the stuff will last forever. It won’t completely die on its own, and no one has the good sense and compassion to euthanize it.

But as bad as Insulbrick is, Permastone is worse. Insulbrick at least aspires to look bricklike; Permastone has no such base and common aspiration. It aims at nothing less than complete and utter picturesqueness. It fails completely, of course. At its best, it looks as though someone accidentally ran a Belgian-block pavement up the side of a house. At its worst, it looks as though someone drew a Belgian-block pavement on the side of the house with crayons.

Aluminum is hideous, too: offensively artificial when it’s young, and dreadfully decrepit-looking when—in spite of the dealer’s promise that it would be immortal—it starts to decay. And as for Vinyl, the best that can be said for it is that, unlike any of the other three horsemen, it comes in the same shape as the boards it replaces—in the same way that a department-store mannequin comes in the same shape as a real woman.

Some day, when the world wakes from its siding nightmare, all these things will disappear from the landscape. Come the revolution, real wood, real bricks, and real stone will once again be the only materials considered suitable for covering a house. When that happens, I hope Spring Garden is preserved as a sort of Architectural Holocaust Museum, a constant reminder that we must never allow such things to happen again.

Spring Garden is a wonderful neighborhood. Squashed into a narrow valley, its tall, narrow houses grow in an eclectic assortment of shapes along a few narrow streets that can never quite meet at right angles. And what a wonderful collection of really hideous siding!

You enter the Spring Garden Valley from Dutchtown on Spring Garden Avenue, which leaves the flats of the North Side to meander in the hollow. And the first house you notice—you can’t help noticing it—is covered not with one of the Four Horsemen, but with one of their predecessors: hexagonal asbestos tiles. Unlike the Four Horsemen, asbestos tiles like these have the one merit that they’re not imitating anything. They’re simply being themselves, proudly displaying their complete dissimilarity to any traditional building material. They came in all sorts of garish colors, now muted by decades of soot. Occasionally a particularly ambitious homeowner would mix the colors, creating a sort of abstract-expressionist mosaic.

Drive further down Spring Garden Avenue, and you’ll see every variety of artificial siding ever conceived by the ingenuity of the building industry. The Four Horsemen are all there in lush abundance. If you keep looking, you may even see that peculiar 1970s horror, vertical-board siding (stained in “natural” colors, of course, never painted). Mixed in with the houses are bars and small shops, each vying with the houses for the worst-siding honors, and sometimes surpassing them.

One block to the west is High Street, which hugs the side of the bluff that lowers above the neighborhood. Here the scene is more domestic: the street is narrower, and there are no shops, only houses facing each other at close range. Here you might begin to get a sense that Spring Garden is more than a collection of bad siding. It’s a neighborhood full of good families, raising a generation of children who will one day buy other houses in the neighborhood and replace their ugly old siding with crisp new ugly siding.

In fact, the more you see of the bad siding in Spring Garden, the more you’ll realize that it’s a sign not so much of bad taste as of life and vitality. The old houses could be beautiful if they were restored–much more beautiful, probably, than they ever were in the late Victorian era when they were built. But they’re not restored. The neighborhood never decayed far enough to be “restored”; it’s still full of good, honest people who take pride in their houses. Only a house that is loved gets a coat of ugly siding.

At any rate, I hope restoration never hits Spring Garden. I’d love to see Lawrenceville rid of its ugly coats of aluminum and vinyl, and maybe even Bloomfield; but Spring Garden is perfect as it is. Meanwhile, if anyone ever decides to write the definitive book on ugly siding materials, I volunteer to take the pictures. In Spring Garden, it would be no more than an afternoon’s work to find every bad siding ever invented.

Original comments:

2/29/12: VinylHater says:
There is one leftover Insulbrick clad house across the street from me. It’s surprisingly well preserved; I’d say it looks more silly than ugly and I’m dreading the day it gets slathered in the loose-fitting, shimmering plastic crap known as vinyl siding. I’ve heard the term Permastone used to describe Insulbrick-like panels (silly and very ugly) or some kind of early, cement based lick&stick tile (bearable, especially compared to vinyl). I’m sure one of the uses is in-correct, but it’s almost a moot point now. Lets face it, most of what goes on house exteriors these days is fake, even single wyth brick-veneer is just standing there pretending to be part of the house while the wood underneath does all the heavy lifting. You can still get real wood, but new, farmed cedar costs a fortune and won’t last the way the old growth stuff did. Anything reasonably solid and architecturally plausible that won’t rot away (stucco, brick that doesn’t look like wall paper or Hardi-plank) would be a vast improvement over what’s common in much of the U.S. now.

05/31/2012: VinylHater says:
I’ve gotten a better idea of what Permastone is recently, it did come in various patterns, some more convincing that others. Apparently, there were similar products, including Formstone, which was molded in place, though some others were adhered. It seems that the stuff is not universally hated, John Waters even made a documentary (“Little Castles”) about it. It could either be put up with no architectural embellishments, like 3 dimensional wallpaper, or it could be put up with lintels, arches, sills, etc. the way an actual stone building might look. Of course, the latter approach in the wrong hands sometimes created odd, implausible details, as similar attempts do today. Love it or hate it, the stuff has aged much more gracefully than its nailed-up competitors and sometimes kept deteriorating brick structures together that would have collapsed without it. Considering the hideous and flimsy vinyl and aluminum products that have replaced it, I can see why there is as much interest in preserving this stuff as getting rid of it.