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Thread: The death of architectural detail … on anything

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    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    The death of architectural detail … on anything

    In this thread, we talked about the WOW factor for developments, communities, buildings, and neighborhoods. There was a discussion about how bridges built before 1940 had a lot of architectural detail.

    The more that I thought about it, the more that I realized, it is not just bridges… but everything! Just take a look at a multistory commercial building built before WWII and take a look at one now. Construction possibilities aside, buildings after that point lacked much in the way of architectural details. They styles still remained but the little things that caught peoples attention where gone. Simile lines, curves, and sheets of glass started to take over.

    What happened? Did architects get lazy? They now design these crazy shaped buildings, but they don’t put stone gargoyles on the corners, detailed trim lines, or elaborate wood scrolling above the windows and doors.

    Why do you think that this happened? Do you think that it could ever come back? Do you think as a society we gave up caring for details?
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

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    Cyburbian KSharpe's avatar
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    One thing I know is that architects barely ever get to design anything fresh. They usually go get an old design and modify it to fit the new site. It's a cost thing. My friend's an arhictect and fairly bitter about it.
    Do you want to pet my monkey?

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    Cyburbian
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    I live not far from a high school that has done this. The original building was tudor revival and I think it was built in 1920's. There is a newer building built within the past few years that bears resemblence to the original design. However, there is very little detailing, no gargoyles, and no trim.

    The influence in artisian guilds (whether it be in stone, stained glass, glazing, woodwork, and even murals) has gone down. There was a rebirth of such work during the New Deal but then the war came, and there was more money to be made in other career fields afterwords.

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    Cyburbian Duke Of Dystopia's avatar
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    Those kind of frills cost a lot of money. In commercial buildings then, you get more utility and return on investment if you put that money into additional floorspace. Sure the developer has impoverished the visual realm of sight, but he has increased the grease of the economic wheels of the system that cares nothing if you are happy with the sights you see.

    As I sit and look out of my office window, I see an old detailed building with an amazing facade wide freeze on it. Seeing it is cool, but it does not make me want to buy insurance from them.

    As for public buildings, we have only ourselves to blame. The anti-tax and limit the government wing-nuts, of which we have a few on this board, nearly spasm with an epileptic fit at the thought we might put A gargoyle up at taxpayer expense let alone more. These types would have the citizenry build a government building with no windows, as windows are a inconceivable luxury. The majority of the citizenry has no appreciateion or lacks understanding or maybe just desire to stand up and defend thier environment.

    Any way, as a group we have gotten what we asked for, efficiency over all else.
    I can't deliver UTOPIA, but I can create a HELL for you to LIVE in :)DoD:(

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    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Duke Of Dystopia View post
    Any way, as a group we have gotten what we asked for, efficiency over all else.
    That's pretty much it in a nutshell.

    Architectural detail fell away initially as part of changing style preferences. Once Art Deco morphed into Art Moderne (progressively more streamlined and simpler detail), we moved into the hegemony of Modernism (Corbu, Mies, et al). Structure was king and detail was derided as old fashioned. So, as construction required less and less artisan skills for wood or stone detail carving/designing, those skills were passed on/learned less and less. To where we now have the situation that carved stone detailing is prohibitively expensive due to significant lack of skilled laborers.

    The closest we can come presently is using pre-cast artificial stone detailing produced in a factory somewhere. And it is going to be practically one dimensional, certainly no more three dimensional statuary.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Let's not be didactic in this profession, because that is a path to disillusion and irrelevancy.

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    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    Sad... that is the only word for it.

    I wonder if there is a way to encourage more people to become artisans and once again work towards the creation of grand architectural details.
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

  7. #7
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by michaelskis View post
    Sad... that is the only word for it.

    I wonder if there is a way to encourage more people to become artisans and once again work towards the creation of grand architectural details.
    Unfortunately it will probably be very hard. It's a negative feedback loop now. People won't become artisan carvers, because no one will pay them or want them.

    There are certainly people getting into this through the design and sale of pre-cast detailing (really no different than the once ubiquitous terracotta detailing in the 1920s). Our new Village Hall will have rather sizeable floral detailed panels under the windows on the second floor. It's quite nice.

    Now, we just need to get the developers to cough up the cost for the detailing - Good luck.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Let's not be didactic in this profession, because that is a path to disillusion and irrelevancy.

    Six seasons and a movie!

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    More planned obsolescence. The lack of architectural detail means the structure can be more easily demolished to put something else in its place in the future.

    In 50 years, what structures being built now will be worthy of nomination to the National Register of Historic Places?

  9. #9
    Quote Originally posted by mendelman View post
    ~snip~

    Structure was king and detail was derided as old fashioned. So, as construction required less and less artisan skills for wood or stone detail carving/designing, those skills were passed on/learned less and less. To where we now have the situation that carved stone detailing is prohibitively expensive due to significant lack of skilled laborers.

    The closest we can come presently is using pre-cast artificial stone detailing produced in a factory somewhere. And it is going to be practically one dimensional, certainly no more three dimensional statuary.
    I'd lose my Hoosier "Green Card" if I let this one pass: the artisan skills to carve Bedford stone are alive and well, thank you very much, in places like Bedford, Oolitic, and other parts of the limestone belt. Limestone detailing can be cost-competitive as well -- we just finished a local project where folks wouldn't even consider limestone until our Preservation Commission compelled them to at least get a price. Lo and behold, they were able to use native stone for less than pre-cast would have cost.

    Now that I've preserved my GC, I will say that, almost entirely on the whole, I agree with you.
    On pitching to Stan Musial:
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  10. #10
    Cyburbian boilerplater's avatar
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    "No money, no details"
    -Rem Koolhaas, in his usual dry, laconic manner.

    If you want to read an interesting take on the rise of modernism and the loss of ornamentation in buildings, read Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House. I don't agree with all his assertions, but its an interesting and quick read.
    The very nature of the construction industry has changed so that things are produced on an industrial scale. This society couldn't produce housing, workplaces and shopping places at a quick enough rate if we were still building with old methods. Architects have had to adapt to the new ways of building. With labor costs in the US, construction costs would be astronomical if artisanal methods and elaborate hand-crafted details were used.
    Adrift in a sea of beige

  11. #11
    Cyburbian CJC's avatar
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    It's just simple cost. A hundred years ago, there were less than half as many people in this country (meaning less construction) and countries like China, India, etc weren't bidding up the cost of stone, concrete, steel, etc for their own buildings. Even the cost of simple things like brick have risen at hundreds of times the level of inflation over the last 100 years.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian southern_yank's avatar
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    Another good read about this topic is Brent Brolin's Failure of Modern Architecture. In past cultures, even mundane things like spoons were created with ornamentation. Brolin made the point that the plain flat facades and hard angles of modernist buildings look worse with age than pre-war buildings. Architectural details have a way of aging gracefully, as opposed to a van der Rohe which just looks plain worn after 30 years.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian
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    Dunno about that. The public buildings thrown up in the cash-happy days of substantial federal funding of the 1960s/1970s are rather bad themselves.

    These days we (both the public and private sector) need buildings that are extremely flexible. We need space that can be realtered over and over again as companies or divisions come and go, and we need space that can accomodate rapid change in techological requirements of the latest computers. In light of the new requirements of today's business and bureaucratic world, It's hard to justify spending large sums of money on basic office space. In the old European cities such as Paris or Edinburgh, much of the office space has shifted from the old city cores to new office parks or new downtowns (including La Defense outside Paris), because the older buildings can't accommodate the new technological requirements of our computers.

    Last but not least, cost of material has skyrocketed since 1900. There's a reason why stone single family houses aren't built except for the very wealthy.


    Quote Originally posted by Duke Of Dystopia View post
    As for public buildings, we have only ourselves to blame. The anti-tax and limit the government wing-nuts, of which we have a few on this board, nearly spasm with an epileptic fit at the thought we might put A gargoyle up at taxpayer expense let alone more. These types would have the citizenry build a government building with no windows, as windows are a inconceivable luxury. The majority of the citizenry has no appreciateion or lacks understanding or maybe just desire to stand up and defend thier environment.

    Any way, as a group we have gotten what we asked for, efficiency over all else.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian Duke Of Dystopia's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by PennPlanner View post
    Dunno about that. The public buildings thrown up in the cash-happy days of substantial federal funding of the 1960s/1970s are rather bad themselves.

    These days we (both the public and private sector) need buildings that are extremely flexible. We need space that can be realtered over and over again as companies or divisions come and go, and we need space that can accomodate rapid change in techological requirements of the latest computers. In light of the new requirements of today's business and bureaucratic world, It's hard to justify spending large sums of money on basic office space. In the old European cities such as Paris or Edinburgh, much of the office space has shifted from the old city cores to new office parks or new downtowns (including La Defense outside Paris), because the older buildings can't accommodate the new technological requirements of our computers.

    Last but not least, cost of material has skyrocketed since 1900. There's a reason why stone single family houses aren't built except for the very wealthy.
    I agree, the part of my post I was getting at there was on the public building side. I work in a place where a good number of the people believe that any kind of frills (such as more than a folding metal chair, rehabed computers from 2000, and a plywood board to put it on) are a lavish expense occuring with great evil and malice. Where once public buildings were especially built to impress and admire have gone the way of the dodo.

    I guess my favorite example of the loss in architectural detail is our nations churches. Across the board, the furthest fall has been our churches. They used to have some glory and inspiration to the devine. Now they inspire the idea of a grand dental office complex.

    If the devine can only inspire EFIS, why should anything else have soul, grandure, or grace? I'm a heathen and I love old churches. They have a "feeling" of that thing that sparks the imagination. Havn't seen a new church under construction that sends a feeling of something greater down your spine.
    I can't deliver UTOPIA, but I can create a HELL for you to LIVE in :)DoD:(

  15. #15
    Cyburbian CJC's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Duke Of Dystopia View post
    As for public buildings, we have only ourselves to blame. The anti-tax and limit the government wing-nuts, of which we have a few on this board, nearly spasm with an epileptic fit at the thought we might put A gargoyle up at taxpayer expense let alone more. These types would have the citizenry build a government building with no windows, as windows are a inconceivable luxury. The majority of the citizenry has no appreciateion or lacks understanding or maybe just desire to stand up and defend thier environment.

    Any way, as a group we have gotten what we asked for, efficiency over all else.

    There is definitely some truth to this - I can remember about a decade ago, the town my parents live in was putting the finishing touches on a new courthouse. There was a huge public outcry about how much money the city was going to spend on the doors - the doors they were planning on were nice, fancy oak doors - but they backed down and used these ugly metal and glass doors instead. The savings was less than $2000 on a project that was over $2 million. I mean, c'mon! That place will be there 50 years or more - with ugly doors that make the building look terrible.

    On the flip side, here in architecturally conservative San Francisco, the new Federal Building stands out as different, at least:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/articl...G2FQN3UU91.DTL

    Not sure if I like it - but it is certainly well, bold.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Yup....

    I think this thread is about 40 years too late...... Didn't the bottom fall out of "style" in the 1970's? Largely due to economics and the rise of "Starchitects?"

    The levels of Architecture Today:

    1. The Niche architect....and not the classical definition....
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niche_%28architecture%29
    I mean the architect that mainly works on small high dollar projects or designs for residential users with deep pockets.

    2. The corporate architect who works on a variety of projects including planning related issues and subdivision development, landscaping, urban design stuff, commercial marketing but may not have seen a pen or paper, let alone CAD program in years

    3. The rubber stamper.....an architect who simply takes re-tread plans and stamps them for use by a builder or homeowner.


    Has anyone out there ever seen an architects stamp on the latest FEMA flood elevation certificate? I'm just curious since only an Engineer, Surveyor and Architect are able to complete those forms.....
    Skilled Adoxographer

  17. #17
    Cyburbian Plan 9's avatar
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    It would seem that there is somewhat of a revival of these kinds of architectural features and dodads (even if they are cast concrete and styrofoam), at least in many smaller communities with pre-1950's downtowns.

    Unfortunately, these communities tend to spend a lot of money on building faces, street trees, and brick sidewalks in the name of economic development without addressing the real issues of why the downtown is in declince. Sadly, the money gets spent and only a few of these downtowns become special places again.

    I agree with the many earlier posts that list the reason for the decline as being primarily financial considerations. Could also be there was a change in the business environment, less mom & pop businesses and more corporations...those pesky stockholders!
    "Future events such as these will affect you in the future."

  18. #18
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Plan 9 View post
    Could also be there was a change in the business environment, less mom & pop businesses and more corporations...those pesky stockholders!
    Probably not. I doubt if any "mom & pop" stores ever had the financial capabilityto build, let alone build with extensive detailing.

    I think it really boils down to efficiency of construction budget over what has become considered as "frills".

    And Gedunker thanks for the heads-up about limestone working in your area, I'll have to keep that in mind.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Let's not be didactic in this profession, because that is a path to disillusion and irrelevancy.

    Six seasons and a movie!

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    Cyburbian natski's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Mud Princess View post
    More planned obsolescence. The lack of architectural detail means the structure can be more easily demolished to put something else in its place in the future.

    In 50 years, what structures being built now will be worthy of nomination to the National Register of Historic Places?
    I was thinking exactly the same thing the other day.. but i have come to the conclusion that it is all a part of the evolving art of architecture and that our contemporary/post modern period of time has been influenced by a range of things, including the almighty dollar- and someday we will look back at these buildings (if they are still standing) and understand their place in the great scheme of things.
    "Have you ever wondered if there was more to life, other than being really, really, ridiculously good looking?" Zoolander

  20. #20
    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Hmmm.....

    Quote Originally posted by natski View post
    I was thinking exactly the same thing the other day.. but i have come to the conclusion that it is all a part of the evolving art of architecture and that our contemporary/post modern period of time has been influenced by a range of things, including the almighty dollar- and someday we will look back at these buildings (if they are still standing) and understand their place in the great scheme of things.
    I see someone is trying to get quoted in a major newspaper or primary blog site..... Nice comments
    Skilled Adoxographer

  21. #21
    People today are too cheap and getting money and saving money is more important than anything else... Really sad actually.

  22. #22
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    While I'm not in the architectural field, I have been an professional artist (art director, to be precise) for several decades. The design arts have suffered in the same way that architecture has...and the commodity of design has, to our contemporary eye, an unpolished appearance.

    Again, I'm no expert...but it seems important to consider the context of the era in which "good" design occurred. At the time of the ornamented building there's a fair chance that those ornaments were not considered extravagant decorations but rather essential identifying elements. The design norms of the day may have required them.

    The second observation is that the wisdom of commerce may have put a greater importance upon appearance (as opposed to function). In some ways today's "stripped bare" design/architecture may be a more honest expression of the product's purpose.

    For those in the creative fields...and this is something I DO know something about...the only way to include "frills" is when they can be quantified as adding a specific value exceeding their cost. Creative flourish was born to suffer its difficult position of being hard to quantify. Like any financial proposition ("want to buy this shirt?") the consumer/client brings subjective observations - which is based largely on contemporary norms - and objective data to the design being proposed. If that client can be compelled to see the value add of polished granite instead of brushed concrete, there it is. If they cannot, it shall be concrete.
    Last edited by Peter Whitley; 12 Jul 2007 at 2:35 AM. Reason: For fun.

  23. #23
    Cyburbian natski's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Peter Whitley View post

    Again, I'm no expert...but it seems important to consider the context of the era in which "good" design occurred. At the time of the ornamented building there's a fair chance that those ornaments were not considered extravagant decorations but rather essential identifying elements. The design norms of the day may have required them.
    Peter, you have some great points- i do believe this conversation lends itself to a more artistically thinking approach.

    I find it interesting that you discussed "good" design. Made me wonder, what is "good" design? How can one determine that an ornamented building is "better" than a "stripped bare" (as you say) design, which has been essentially designed with different ideals/influences and artistic ways of thinking?

    Do we only look at a building visually to determine if it is "good" design? (not counting its functionality- i am not going there!) or do we look at a piece of architecture as whether it is a "good" or "bad" representation of that artistic period/era?

    Personally, like Mskis i like oramented buildings, but i also have an understanding and appreciation of other non oramented styles of buildings and where they fit into the art world.
    "Have you ever wondered if there was more to life, other than being really, really, ridiculously good looking?" Zoolander

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    A good warehouse doesn't necessarily make a good single-family dwelling. In that vein I am a believer that good is defined solely by function (sorry for going there)...which is somewhat ironic in that I'm in the arts. Creative expression has a function in art and achitecture of course, and many strictly utilitarian environments have a grace and earnestness to them that convey a thoughtful, reflective space that has (in its own fashion) artistic merit. I think a good example is the boutique supermarket; in these upscale groceries one pays slightly more for a gratifying shopping experience. The environments are (usually) deftly designed, wayfinding clear (or intentionally not), material specs calculated for economic management and yet slightly sophisticated for today's shopper. I would think that in this situation an elaborate cornice and frieze would be a gratuitous and unecessary addition...though on the new downtown headquarters of a venerable financial institution they might be appropriate for an entirely different reason.

    So, "good?" In my view, "good" equates to intentional form meant to meet the users' needs.

    I'm a lifelong skateboarder and have spent years skating on "public" structures...the planters of banks downtown, the ledges of the business district's square, and other places that most people would consider inappropriate for this activity. This is where "good" breaks down for me; to one who is accustomed to appropriation and creative interpretation, good carries a flexibility and opportunity for reflective adaptation...I enjoy spaces and forms that reveal their complexity over time...while another (the person designing that warehouse or supermarket) might want space and form that holds no secrets.

  25. #25
    Cyburbian craines's avatar
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    Labor+Time to detail tasks=$$$$$$

    Manly its the cost of labor. Here in Los Angeles I just paid 220,000 for a simple 570sf addition to my house. The attention to detail as I expect if f**&^% not there. If it were not for the prefabricted stuff there would be no detail.

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