October 1, 2009

The Ugly Duckling

Figure 1 Charmingly historic victorian architecture encounters a wildly inappropriate variation on brutalism.
In this scene, we see the latter attempting to blend in with the former: a "painted lady" and a want-to-be painted lady. This sets up what I would consider to be a sort of "transvestite" architecture. This simple sketch arises out of a curiosity for historic districts and their overarching control over architectural style and image. These two Painted Ladies raise some interesting questions. For instance, eclecticism (as exhibited on the right) can be a rather complex and witty endeavor. A purely minimal and honest building decorated with vivid layers of paint would make both modernists AND preservationists sick to their stomach. The result of such a pairing of historicism and modernism is something both curious and radical. I wonder what would happen if this situation were reversed: a victorian home force-fed a steady diet of concrete and modernism? Ultimately, the case of the Ugly Duckling is about buildings attempting to be something they are not. Is honesty and authenticity required in architecture today?

My answer to my question is NO - buildings have been lying to us for quite some time now...and we like it! They falsely tell us we have beautiful wood floors when in fact we have cheap, mass produced laminate laid over God knows what. They scream, "I am a brick building," when in fact they are a wood frame box with brick paneling. If such buildings resembled the children's tale, Pinocchio, the awnings over their entryway would project 50 feet outward...a growing nose for every lie they tell us. Perhaps false front buildings are just that: an exaggerated extrusion of the facade.


We live in uncertain and inauthentic times. Consider botox, viagra, and prescription drugs. Miraculous weight loss pills. A food industry with questionable food production, safety, and cleanliness issues. Also consider our suburban homes - especially McMansions - and their simulation of inflated wealth and success. Now everyone can own a mansion! (...or manor, or estate). Perhaps the ultimate image of inauthenticity in contemporary society is last years housing crash and the bursted bubble of wealth so many Americans were led to believe they had.

The Ugly Duckling - in this case a brutalist building forced to become a historic Victorian home - will undoubtedly be the loner of the neighborhood street. It may be laughed at and bullied by other homes in the neighborhood. It will be considered a poser and perhaps even a "Transvestite" Painted Lady. But ultimately it's eclectic image was simply generated by the context of the site: the desired uniformity of historic districts where Painted Ladies reside. For lack of better terms, the Ugly Duckling is successful because it is complex and contradictory. It's presence among Painted Ladies should be celebrated, not shunned! In the end, maybe historic districts are not so bad after all...

[images courtesy of N_O_R_T_O_N, EW and Laser Kit]

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

In cities where historicism really has a lot of weight, the meaning of "modernism" is not quite about being "minimal and honest" - they are Corbusian, not Miesian, cities. There's nothing honest about the geometrical, and since the 50's, social, collages of European modernism. It's also important that in those cities what gave way to modernism was art nouveau - extreme eclecticism. In fact I'd like to know what does the word "brutalism" mean to you - American projects and campuses look (most importantly, work) nothing like New Towns, Swedish Satellite Towns, the housing states of Milano, the UAB campus near Barcelona, the Unité d'Habitation...

N O R T O N said...

Anon: Thank you for the comments. I'm referring specifically to neighborhoods where a particular style/character overrides all architectural decision-making. Your comment about art nouveau giving way to modernism is quite interesting, as I am considering a form of modernism which is receding - or at least acknowledging - a timeless historicsm.

Turf W. Snifter said...

I think that weve found our next topic of research... american brutal vernacular.

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