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.

The Strange Idea of the Suburbs

Published on 01/17/2011

brookline-ad-1905.jpg

The suburbs have a strange hold over us. Many of the people who live there insist that they hate Suburbia and all things suburban. But—they live there. Apparently it isn’t that they want to live a suburban life; it’s just that they can’t think of any other life to live.

More than two millennia ago, Aristotle made his famous pronouncement: “Man is a political animal.” He didn’t mean that man was an animal that indulged in politics; he meant that man was an animal that lived in a polis—a city. For Aristotle, the thing that made us human was that we lived in cities.

That’s always been true. Until this century, there has never been a time when it was thought natural for humans to live in isolated groups of two or three. Even in the most primitive cultures, humans are town-dwellers. Our suburban age is the first age where the small family—parents and children, no aunts or grandparents or cousins—is expected to be sufficient unto itself.

You see reproduced on this page an advertisement for a suburban community of the turn of the past century. Do you notice the important differences between Brookline and the suburban developments of today? The main differences are in those three prominent statements right in the middle of the ad:

CHURCHES
are there now
SCHOOLS
are there now
STORES
are there now

In the modern suburban community, all those things are banished—even the churches. Instead, the churches, schools, and stores all line up along dreadful strip-center highways, where they’re accessible only by car. The very institutions that ought to be the centers of community life are ejected from the community. The result, of course, is that there is no community life. (Brookline, incidentally, still has its churches, schools, and stores, and it’s still a very pleasant place to live.)

The suburbs are our ideal, but they make healthy community life impossible. Living in the city (or at least in a small town or village) is the only way of life that’s natural for human beings. But we’ve rejected the city; in fact, we actively seek to destroy it with our zoning laws.

Luckily, we’re beginning to wake up from our suburban stupor. But the strange idea of the suburbs still weighs heavily on the American conscience. When we hear politicians rant about family values, we need to remember that “family values,” meaning the isolated “nuclear” family, are an artificial creation of the suburban mind. The values of community—the only values that can ensure the survival of a free state—need the city to grow and flourish.

Superstore Syndrome

Published on 12/20/2010

Have you noticed how sparse the selection seems to be in the giant suburban bookstore chains lately? How the office-supply superstores seem to carry ever-larger quantities of the same three kinds of legal pad? Do you remember a time when those enormous stores seemed to carry everything, no matter how obscure? What happened?

You’re seeing the effects of Superstore Syndrome, the inevitable course of a suburban superstore’s existence, and one of the characteristic diseases of consumerism.

The cycle begins when the superstore first moves into an area. Let’s say you’re opening a giant book chain. There are already bookstores in the area with loyal customers. How are you going to lure away that loyal customer base? Price is one thing you can try, but your best bet is probably selection. People will come to your gigantic store because you have all the books in the world. They may still buy mostly bestsellers, but they’ll love just knowing that they can come here for Frontinus in the original Latin the next time they happen to need him.

And it works. One by one, the little neighborhood bookstores close as their customers desert them for your enticingly comprehensive selection. You dominate the book market. You’re making money hand over fist as the bestsellers fly out the door, with an occasional obscurity joining them to break up the monotony.

Onward! Ten years have passed. The chain of book superstores has flourished and been bought up by a giant international conglomerate. But a brief economic downturn eats into profits. One quarter even shows a loss. In a panic, the parent company begins to look at the numbers very closely. Why, one uncommonly bright young executive demands, are we stocking these Loeb Classics when each store sells only about a dozen each year? Every square foot of shelf space must be accounted for, and these things are wasting valuable space that could be given over to something really profitable, like self-help books. Everybody buys self-help books.

So the superstore begins to cut back on selection. And at first all goes well. Now the superstore doesn’t really have any more of a selection than the neighborhood bookstores used to have, but since there are no more neighborhood bookstores that’s not so much of a problem. But gradually shoppers begin to realize that the superstore just isn’t fun anymore. There are still acres of books, but it seems as though the’re all the same books. And if bestsellers are the only books you stock—well, we can get those at Kmart. Why should we bother coming to your bookstore?

Where does that leave the book-shopper who’s looking for Frontinus? It sends him back to the city, the natural home of everything unusual, nonstandard, interesting. In the city he can find stores that thrive on the customers left behind and rejected by the superstores, because in the city there are enough of those people to support a store with unusual stock. The superstore begins to struggle, and blames changing economic conditions. The neighborhood specialty shop begins to thrive, and can thank the management of the superstore.

An update, July 1, 2013: Since this was written two and a half years ago, all but one of the big book superstore chains have disappeared, and in the city of Pittsburgh there has been a much-discussed trend toward small independent bookstores.

Original comments:

12/26/2010: Paul Rodriguez says:
Your account of the decay of the superstore is persuasive but the notion that people resort to the city for obscure books surprises me. What numbers I have seen, and my personal observation, suggest that when the superstore cannot satisfy, Amazon does.

12/27/2010: CB says:
You’re quite right, of course, when someone is looking for something specific. It’s the pleasure of browsing among obscure books that I was thinking of, and I muddled the two ideas a bit.

09/12/2012: Sean says:
Sir, while I find the idea presented here compelling, do you have any data to back up this claim of diminishing selection in big-box stores? I’d like to believe it, but it seems like a difficult claim to make simply from anecdotal observation.

Things We Get Backwards

Published on 10/8/2010

We make it terribly hard for bars and restaurants to offer live music, but anyone can blare a radio station over a loudspeaker. This is exactly backwards. There ought to be steep licensing fees for recorded music, and none at all for live music. If we made it a financial advantage to have live musicians, there would be live musicians. Young people—and their parents—would see that music was a viable career instead of a waste of time.

It’s no good arguing that licensing fees for live music are justified by the large crowds that live music draws, which require more law enforcement and other city services. Live music draws crowds precisely because it’s unusual. Let every bar on the South Side employ a live band, and the crowds will be dispersed and manageable.

The wonderful thing about music in the city is that you can’t really stamp it out, in spite of punitive laws against musicians who practice their art. But take away those laws, and what a flowering of musical culture there might be! Let the same discouraging regulations be applied to recorded music, and nothing could prevent a musical renaissance in the city.

Still, it might be argued by nervous neighbors that unrestricted live music will produce too much noise. So we might propose a compromise plan. Let there be an amplification fee that applies equally to live and recorded music. You can have a band, or a string quartet, or a symphony orchestra, with no amplification, and you pay no fee. You can play records on a mechanical Victrola without paying the fee. But turn on an amplifier, and you pay the fee. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Beauty and Ugliness

Published on 09/25/2010

The city turned its dreariest aspect toward the railway on blackened walls, irregular and ill-paved streets, gloomy warehouses, and over all a gray, smoke-laden atmosphere which gave it mystery and often beauty.

What Mary Roberts Rinehart captured here is something very hard to put into words: that the beauty and the ugliness of a city are often, and perhaps usually, the same thing. This is a point that escapes urban planners, and many hideous atrocities have been committed by planners who thought they could have beauty alone, perfected and purified, and expunge ugliness from the city.

A concatenation of little uglinesses makes beauty. Everyone loved to look at Lillian Russell, but no one wanted to examine her pores under a glass.

The most beautiful and fascinating city scene is like a fugue, with contrasting melodies moving in different directions to make a harmonious but complex whole. It cannot be all harmony as those parts move against one another: there must be dissonance as well, disharmony, even ugliness, so that there can be real depth of beauty. Yet we often leave our city planning in the hands of people who can barely carry a tune.

What is the secret to successful urban planning? It lies somewhere in a successful distinction between uglinesses. A composer writes dissonance into his fugue because he knows where a chunk of ugliness will be a building-block rather than a stumbling-block for beauty. In a city, quite plainly there are ugly things that spoil a whole view; but there are ugly things that enhance it, and we need to have the taste to distinguish the two. In an established city, we need the wisdom to distinguish between the ugliness that must go and the ugliness that must stay. That, in a few words, is the mission of modern urban planning.