At Florida International University: the Wolfsonian-FIU Collection of Dutch decorative arts includes items from the 1880s to 1940, including hundreds of ornamental bound books, mainly in the style of “Nieuwe Kunst” (Art Nouveau). If, like Adolf Loos ( ), you think that “ornament is crime”, you won’t like it. Loos’s Ornament und Verbrechen was published almost a hundred years ago. In that time, I think we have seen that there are worse crimes in architecture than an overabundance of ornament.
The urban environment of Loos’s Vienna might well have seemed too luxuriant, too oversaturated with symbolic meaning, and ripe for a return to austerity. The modern made sense as a contrast. But once the revolution has occurred, less is not more, because, after all, it is no longer less. As Venturi said, less is a bore—by itself. In the city, where no building stands alone, no style is isolated. The urban unit is the block, at least in a healthy city, not the building. If I were to use the moralistic language of Loos, I would say that ignoring the street is a crime.
The Contemporary Art Museum in Saint Louis is an instance. It was designed by Brad Cloepfil (Allied Works of Portland). The Museum is on Washington Boulevard in the Grand Center District, an area west of downtown which has become an arts district. The surroundings are still rather barren: though the district is gradually being gentrified, the streets tend to be empty, and abandoned buildings still remain. As you can see, the Museum adds yet another blank wall. The message to the street is “Screw you”. The building isn’t really meant to contribute to its environment; it’s only a destination—you drive to it, get out of your car, and walk in, leaving the city behind.
I have a feeling that that is how the members of the committee that selected the design interact with the streets of St. Louis.
Here is a sample of what the Museum ignores, one of three surviving houses across the street. The style is one you see in many brick houses built in Saint Louis in the 1890s and the early 1900s. Next to it on the left (west) are two others, in diverse styles. Midtown was once a thriving center of urban life. Now there are only remnants. The design of the Contemporary Museum, like that of the equally forbidding Pulitzer museum—a Tadao Ando design—next door, effectively abandons the street to its sad fate.
Of the Pulitzer Foundation building site, Ando says, incredibly enough:
Within this city and its layers of history, I was given a place to build that was a flat site with no particular character. It was a blank which meant I was being given a chance to create a new order, an example for the entire city, which might influence a lot of things to come.
It seems to me that only in the grip of modernist dogma could anyone think of Washington Avenue as a blank. Ando gestures in the direction of history and then ignores it.
Built Saint Louis (Rob Powers), is a rich resource for anyone interested in urban architecture. It documents the high and the low points: historic buildings preserved, others demolished—often for no reason except that no-one wanted to preserve them. See his remarks on the Pulitzer Building, with pictures of the Beaumont Building that occupied the site until 1997.
The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit, (Lowell Boileau), is another labor of love, with 2000 pages of photographs and descriptions.
Banlieue de Paris (Denis Moreau) records a series of walks in the outskirts of Paris: “Je parcours en solitaire ou plus rarement en compagnie l’étendue, toute l’étendue, de cette très grande ville où je vie. Mes itinéraires ne sauraient être fixés à l’avance. Ces promenades inquiètes que j’effectue selon une non-méthode en constante re-élaboration obéissent parfois aux opportunités de l’instant, à des pulsions scopiques ou bien à des questionnements récurrents”.
The Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, which is part of the American Memory project at the Library of Congress, includes thousands of drawings and pictures of structures from all over the US.