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Inch-thick marble panelling in the stairwell - Input Junkie
December 8th, 2009
11:13 am

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Inch-thick marble panelling in the stairwell
Discussion of high-quality construction and finishing in old buildings

Just a pleasant amassing of detail-- those panels probably were an inch thick because that was the thinnest marble they could cut and transport.

I do look at the nice old buildings in Philadelphia and wonder why people a century ago seemed to be able to afford so much more ornament than we can. I realize cheap labor is part of it, but I think it's also because they thought it was important.

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From:whswhs
Date:December 8th, 2009 04:27 pm (UTC)
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The overall aesthetic trend of the twentieth century strikes me as having been away from ornamentation. We tend to actively like simple, functional lines.
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From:whswhs
Date:December 9th, 2009 12:45 am (UTC)
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I had in mind the historical collective "we."
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From:agrumer
Date:December 8th, 2009 09:29 pm (UTC)
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That'd be the International style in architecture, inspired largely by the Bauhaus. Towards the end of the 20th century it fell out of favor.
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From:batwrangler
Date:December 8th, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC)
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Also, I don't think they were being taxed on the value it added to their property.
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From:redbird
Date:December 8th, 2009 05:59 pm (UTC)
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There's no direct aesthetic component, but taxes in theory are based on the sale value of the property. ("In theory" because assessments are skewed in all sorts of ways.) So, yes, if ornamentation made a house or other building sell for more, it might increase the taxes; but if smooth lines and lots of glass made a building more valuable, that would increase the taxes.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 8th, 2009 06:31 pm (UTC)
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That's how I thought it worked.

People do other things to make houses valuable, like fancy kitchens.

It seems to me that if people wanted ornamentation, they'd get an amount of it scaled to what they wanted to pay.

It seems weird that people get so little ornamentation, considering that (as papersky says) they value it in older buildings.


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From:agrumer
Date:December 9th, 2009 01:18 am (UTC)
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Also, there's a difference between liking how something looks and being willing to clean and maintain it.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 9th, 2009 02:46 am (UTC)
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True, but people don't necessarily have great judgement about how much effort it will take to maintain what they buy.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 8th, 2009 08:32 pm (UTC)
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Maybe it's analogous to the period before the big improvement in American food before the 90s. People presumably would have preferred better food then, but not enough of them thought of pushing for it.
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From:chickenfeet2003
Date:December 8th, 2009 05:58 pm (UTC)
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A few observations:

Yes, I think people cared more generally. That's why public buildings from the 19th century tend to be more obviously aesthetic statements than is typically the case now. Compare, say, Old City Hall, Toronto or the main campus of the UoT with monstrosities like the federal Government buildings at Tunney's Pasture or York University.

Far fewer people owned houses in cities a century ago. Those that did, expected to live there for life and maybe even pass the house on to future generations. There was plenty of cheap and nasty rental housing.

There's selection bias at play too. By and large only the better quality buildings last a century or more.
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From:regalpewter
Date:December 8th, 2009 05:58 pm (UTC)
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There are several reasons why they built in such a way.
The first is that the ornamentation was there to make an impact, These were temples of Capitalism, they were there to show success in an endevior.
Second, there was the statement of perminance, these are building who were literally 'set in stone', pronouncing their perminance and strength.
Today's construction is to be set to give a feeling of openness that is a byproduct of building with the floor unobstructed by supports as it is easier to hang curtain walls as tennants change.
The difference is in how we veiw the use of buildings, in the past they were monuments to themselves now they are simply tools.
this is the real reason that our astectics have changed. Being able to save in design is a by product of changing construction technology, where the labor costs may be higher but it is possible to do the construction faster with cheaper materials.
YIS,
WRI
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From:dcseain
Date:December 8th, 2009 08:53 pm (UTC)
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The difference is in how we veiw the use of buildings, in the past they were monuments to themselves now they are simply tools.

Bingo. Though, the exterior of the tool can still be pretty, as can its lobby/ies, rare as such is in this day and age.
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From:agrumer
Date:December 8th, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
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now they are simply tools

"Une maison est une machine-à-habiter" ("A house is a machine for living in"), as Le Corbusier put it in 1923.
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From:redbird
Date:December 8th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC)
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One other thought: transport costs. A neighborhood half a mile from me is known as Marble Hill. There and where I live, there used to be marble quarries. Architects may be more likely to use marble if the costs include shipping it a few miles rather than a few hundred or a few thousand.
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From:agrumer
Date:December 8th, 2009 09:52 pm (UTC)
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Far be it from me to defend Rand, especially on aesthetic grounds, but is there any evidence that she was an influence on the Brutalist movement? It was inspired by the work of Le Corbusier, and the term was coined by a pair of English architects in 1954. The Fountainhead had been out for a decade at that point, so it's possible that it was an influence, but Brutalism tends to be associated with a sort of utopian communalism that I think runs contrary to Rand's sociopathic individualism.

I've seen attractive Brutalist buildings. I've also seen horrid Brutalist buildings. I suspect the real problem is that the raw-concrete, forms-showing aesthetic of Brutalism made it attractive to penny-pinchers, so there were probably a lot of cheap, not-very-good architects who used it for clients whose primary interest was saving money.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 8th, 2009 10:18 pm (UTC)
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My impression is that if you have a great architect, the simple styles can be very beautiful. If not, then not.

Traditional styles are much more forgiving to average architects.

Faint memory: I think there was a snark in The Fountainhead about buildings that were just boxes with no thought put into them.

Edited at 2009-12-08 10:19 pm (UTC)
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From:agrumer
Date:December 8th, 2009 10:32 pm (UTC)
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Searching around (I haven't read the book), it looks like a description of one of Roark's school assignments:

"[...] But, when you were given an exercise in the historical styles, a Tudor chapel of a French opera house to design -- and you turned in something that looked like a lot of boxes piled together without rhyme or reason -- would you say it was an answer to an assignment or plain insubordination?"

"It was insubordination," said Roark.

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From:nancylebov
Date:December 8th, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC)
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Thanks, but that's not it.

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From:agrumer
Date:December 9th, 2009 12:01 am (UTC)
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Google Books only shows three hits for "boxes" in The Fountainhead. The first is the one I gave above, the last clearly isn't what you're talking about. The middle one is unreadable, but given that it's on page 27 (of some edition or other) and has a big "III" at the top, it's probably the first page of chapter 3, which'll let you check for yourself if you've got a copy handy.

Rand's heirs seem to be doing a pretty good job of hunting down and killing any free online texts of her most famous books.
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From:whswhs
Date:December 9th, 2009 01:28 am (UTC)
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That's actually not Rand's description of Roark's work. It's the description of Roark's work that Rand puts in the mouth of a very conservative dean who's explaining to Roark why he got expelled from architectural school in 1922; it's deliberately in the spirit of writers in the 1950s who described rock and roll as sheer noise (though I suspect that was what Rand herself thought of rock and roll).

The actual passage is thinking of is in Chapter 6 of Part 3. Here's an excerpt:

In the countries of Europe, most prominently in Germany, a new school of building had been growing for a long time. It consisted of putting up four walls and a flat top over them, with a few openings. This was called new architecture. . . . It became a rigid set of new rules—the discipline of conscious incompetence, creative povery made into a system, mediocrity boastfully confessed.

"A building creates itw own beauty, and its ornament is derived from the rules of its theme and its structure," Cameron had said. "A building needs no beauty, no ornament and no theme," said the new architects.


This is in the middle of a largely satirical chapter about the trendy art of the 1930s, which starts out with Ike the Genius reading the script of his play No Skin off Your Ass.
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From:agrumer
Date:December 9th, 2009 02:10 am (UTC)
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So she's probably talking about the International style -- that sounds like a stereotype of an International-style office building.
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From:whswhs
Date:December 9th, 2009 03:43 am (UTC)
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Likely enough. Rand tried to minimize the use of actual names of things; she could easily have disguised the international style as "new architecture."
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 9th, 2009 02:47 am (UTC)
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Thanks very much.
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From:whswhs
Date:December 9th, 2009 12:53 am (UTC)
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I just reread The Fountainhead, and I think that you're doing Rand an injustice. She had her architect hero practicing a modernism that valued integrity of design, that focused the integrity of design on having everything follow from the function of the building and the structural requirements of filling it, and that accepted ornament insofar as it brought the basic design into focus. Her favorite architects seem to have been Wright and Neutra. Midway through the book there is a satirical passage about "modern" architects who think their work consists in putting up four walls and a roof with a few openings. That sounds as if she was explicitly satirizing the kind of design you're objecting to.
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From:agrumer
Date:December 9th, 2009 01:46 am (UTC)
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Rand seems to have based Roark upon Frank Lloyd Wright, who was certainly not opposed to ornament.
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From:nancylebov
Date:December 9th, 2009 02:49 am (UTC)
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The best joke is that I'd looked up some of Wright's writing, and I think they were a source for Ellsworth Toohey.
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