31 October 2010


The French Market

Architectural style has been assigned by the less thoughtful and those with a bias, as the primary character maker of a city.

Style, in the most basic and obvious way, deeply affects the way a city looks.  But it quality really assumes the role of primary character maker.

The bad news for every municipality, citizen's group, and opinionated individual: style by code does not a great city make.  The right and appropriate style happens to be the appropriate design vocabulary revealed in the process of crafting.  Quality and substance are part of the imperative. The desire to make something that will transcend time, that will outlive its maker, that will live on and be cherished by generations to come, becomes the overarching goal.

It is good for a community to understand and to have some say-so in how things look, with the understanding that there are some severe limits to this.  The easiest way to explain this is to point out that if a style has been selected at the expense of quality, the end results end up being seeming superficial, and at their worst, an embarrassment.  

Historic styles have the built-in problem of requiring archaic building systems and methods. Most often these things can be adequately substituted with modern systems, but it takes considerable skill to be able to use them convincingly. Foam belt moldings, sash built from stick extrusions, imitations of imitation building components relieve the need for the archaic technologies, and can be made to work, but... there hasn't been an architect trained in the beaux-arts tradition since the 1940's, and contractors and tradespeople have lost their skills with the intangible details that made these buildings so wonderful.   It's really hard to do it right.  

Communities, and the people that built the buildings in them may not realize that style at the expense of quality is not a good thing. The odd thing is that nearly everyone realizes when it is all done that the results are not very satisfying. A project like that is not something that adds to the sustaining character of a great city. It becomes omething, quite frankly, to tear down in 20 years.

As Im writing, I'm thinking of the French Market renovations and construction in the 1970s in New Orleans. The work was very much in a historic vocabulary, with some accommodation to modern building systems. But as a whole, the project honored the details, proportions, and materiality of historic buildings in the Quarter. Now, some 35 years on, the redevelopment seems the most natural part of a great urban environment. The skill and care that went into it disappears, because the way the work filled in and repaired that part of the Quarter, was so effortless and natural.  What ends up being the most impressive is the quality of what was done. If you're familiar with the area, you know it takes quite a beating; a constant stream of people, all day and into the night. The place looks fresh, but it still looks like its been there a hundred years.  It is beautiful.  To do that again would require tremendous commitment and talent.  Meaning additional time and money to build.

A rule in a code book, or a trip to France by a fanciful client won't cut it.  

Quality is more important then Style every time.

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