“Just Get the Ground Floor Right…” Modernisms Last Stand

Urban Design, Urban Planning

It was Luxembourg’s Leon Krier whose transformative polemic in the 1970’s and 80’s shaped America’s New Urbanism of the 90’s and 00’s and our reformation of traditional mixed-use, walkable, urbanism today. I’ve watched my city take baby steps from outlawed urbanism (’60s single-use zoning), to downtown sub-urbanism (’80s drive-thru Jiffy Lubes), to ‘safer’ Vancouver urbanism (’00s single point towers surrounded by suburban townhouses). And, over these 40 years this one truth has been drummed into our downtown urban design consciousness, “just get the ground floor right” and everything else will be fine.

Leon Krier's Studies of Traditional Urban Patterns has Decidedly Influenced our Cities of Today (Image Courtesy of LKrier)

Leon Krier’s Studies of Traditional Urban Patterns has Decidedly Influenced our Cities of Today (Image Courtesy of LKrier)

So, we’ve stopped clipping the traditional, walkable, grid with new freeway off/on ramps. We are returning fast, one-way streets leading to those freeways into more humane, shopping promenades. We’ve added streetcars, jitneys, car and bike share stations, and protected bike lanes to help us get around. Small parks, plazas, and parklets spout up in vacant lots and street corners to slow us down and smell the coffee and craft beer. We are seriously endeavoring to repair our urban street pattern with infill redevelopment projects filling in and firming up our street walls as this interface supports the vitality and exhilaration of being downtown.

With this 2-dimensional base being well laid, downtown agencies are successfully getting new developers to build their 3-dimensional building’s ground floors in a more humane manner. The market supports this trend and every project’s ground floor has clear window shopfronts, and detailed transoms and awnings have returned with restrained signage, public restrooms, and shops spilling out onto the sidewalk. And nobody dares to dispute getting this first ground floor layer right. The 2D traditional urban street pattern has crept up to shape the 3D base of new architectural design… again, in a more traditional, humane manner.

New Ground Floors that Work (Americana - Rick Caruso)

New Ground Floors that Work (Americana by Rick Caruso)

Rebuked Modernist Ground Floor Ideal ('39 Expo Futurama)

Rebuked Modernist Ground Floor Ideal (’39 Expo Futurama – Wikipedia Image)

And, here is where we find the last bastion of of the modernist architecture… fighting for survival in the materials, shapes, forms, and style of the building’s upper floors. Garish, look-at-me architecture still reigns in this narrow 25 to 140 feet range above the ground floor.

Seen This Proposed for Your Downtown Yet?

Seen One of These Proposed for Your Downtown Yet? (Image: LA Streetsblog)

I find it interesting that modernism has evolved from being a very big idea, to its ubiquitous mid-century development standard, to its now marginalized position between the ground floor and roofline. I completely agree with Witold Rybczynski that modernist architecture fits best in a natural setting, as well with Leon when it sits in juxtaposition to traditional architecture and urbanism.

Bilbao's Big Idea Wasn't,

Bilbao’s Big Idea Wasn’t, “Hire a Starchitect!” It was Learning How to Architecturally Tune a Place to Create Visual and Cultural Complexity! (Image Unattributed)

John Nolen, San Diego’s original urban planner, once wrote in 1907 that city planning finds, “A place for everything, with everything in its place.”  Having been tested and vetted over three generations, maybe modernist architecture has finally found its appropriate place in our everyday life… within a very narrow range pushed as far away from people as possible.

Good Riddance! (Image by HBlackson)

Good Riddance! (Image by HBlackson)

4 thoughts on ““Just Get the Ground Floor Right…” Modernisms Last Stand

  1. As you are aware, Mr. Blackson, Modernists rarely self identify themselves as Modernists. Having said that, we need a better way to classify the spectrum of emerging architecture, something like this: the avant garde (strange unearthly never-before seen feats of construction), the abstractionists (still looks like a building but is strangely never-before seen look-at-me architecture), the conglomerationists (a hodgepodge of otherwise rational forms and sometimes abstract elements- like your image from LA streets blog above) traditional modernists (clean, rationale, rectilinear forms respectful of their place in materials and composition and who’s good urban behavior and composition composition can’t help but foster a living tradition of modernism that harkens to the Bauhaus, Vienna Succession, Art Deco, etc.), the Progressive Traditionalists (not afraid of embracing the full range of architectural traditions while still pushing boundaries), and the Strict Traditionalists/Classicists (Who strictly adhere to figures like Palladio). As per your post, I would draw the line at traditional modernists. How’s that for stirring up some trouble?

  2. Howard – I agree with alot of what you said, but I am feeling the desire to get on a soapbox for a few minutes to air something off my chest.

    One of the biggest issues that we are dealing with is the obsession to abuse the words ‘modern’ & ‘contemporary’. To most American’s (at least Southern Californian’s), these words mean weird, contrasting, cold, minimal, sterile, etc ‘architecture’. I think this attitude towards these words came shortly after post-modernism (another rant for another day) whereby many architects (some out of work by choice or economy) must have been experimenting with the wonderful hallucinogenic drugs of the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s which lead to architects blurring the lines between their pragmatic placemaking minds with their artist ‘lets be hippies’ minds…somewhere in there a really weird architecture was born with bizarre shapes and materials, creating odd spaces quite often with little to no relationship to anything but the drugs that formed them. As this was all going on (and there are still lots of examples in San Diego), somehow every decided to jump on the bandwagon of bastardizing the words modern * contemporary because they didn’t know what else to call it. Instead, they should have just called it for the crap it was, but architecture is the longest form of the arts, it hangs around, unlike a painting you can’t just take it off the wall, its there for a while, so it took some time before everyone sobered up & said, we better stop this.

    Then, more recently as you pointed out, cities became very much aware of the Bilboa affect & called for Starhitects everyone to come and be experimental again, which just happened to align with the emergence of new technologies and new construction techniques. I for one enjoy the experimentation, i think its far better than the stuff that came from the 80’s & earlier, but again, like you am concerned that a lot of it (which is generally for civic uses, museums & such) may age beyond their time and we are still yet to see how they will evolve. But I digress, lets get back to your point – the public realm of cities and how we better address the streets cape…

    Around the world many dynamic cities are truly developing modern architecture in its true sense – one that responds to place, brief & most importantly to people. Take a walk though most great worldly cities (New York, Paris, London, Sydney, Melbourne…i could name hundreds) and what you will see is a wonderful commitment to the pedestrian experience, it is after all people who make cities vibrant, buildings alone can not unless they are inhabited. What you will also notice is that its more than the streets cape that creates this vibrancy. All of these lively streets capes have inhabitants (either residential or offices) above which bring more people into the streets, the bars, the retails outlets, this co-existence feeds itself…they need each other to create good urbanism. If we just create great streetscapes, but people have to always drive to them, what good is a good streets cape? Look at India Street in Little Italy, people live there, its a community, its diverse & vibrant…where streets are filled with people and your bound to run into someone you know.

    In addition, other cities developed architecture that goes beyond the streets cape to be considerate of its place & climate – Australia for example has a rich history of modern architecture which is warm, appropriate, approachable, textural & yes, very modern…but it fits, it belongs, because Australia is not trying to reinvent a fake ‘Spanish’ or ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘Tuscan’ feel. Somewhere the US, maybe specifically Southern California gave up on the amazing start of climate & place specific design philosophies of Albert Frey, R. M. Schindler, Richard Neutra & many others to fall back on trying to mimic other places, rather than being authentic to its own place.

    You want to do a blog Howard, explore the notion that in many cities (large & small) across SoCal, architects & designers are asked to ‘pick a style’ & to work to nonsense token architectural elements for the sake of some pretty poor ‘lets copy any other place’ making. We need someone of your expertise & passion to make the argument that until we define our own architecture which is driven by our place, our climate, our briefs & our people, then we will always be a second rate place, oh yeah, with good weather.

  3. I agree with DBRDS that as long as you get the ground floor right, it doesn’t really matter what “style” the building is. Some “modernist” buildings do get the ground floor right – rare but possible. However, I agree with calling today’s architecture “modernist” because it still ignores (denies, reviles) architectural history, and is still based on ideology. Until architects can fully embrace architectural history and move design out of the ideology/concept conceit that it is currently, architecture will fall short of its potential. Finally, “storefront” systems should not be considered as a solution to transparent ground floors. They are almost as bad as a blank wall in their uniformity and flatness. Let’s work on getting away from storefront on the ground floor and bring a variety of human scaled materials, textures, and movement. Remember, Don’t bore the humans.

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