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2023-09-20 00:00:00 Avenue Magazine 5 Books Exploring the Transformative Allure of Architecture

5 Books Exploring the Transformative Allure of Architecture

American ruins
Photo by Florian Schmid, via Unsplash

In the summer of 1809, the sixth Lord Byron returned from Cambridge to his ancestral home of Newstead Abbey, one of some 625 monasteries seized by King Henry VIII in the late 1530s and abandoned. After inheriting it from his great-uncle at age 10, Byron had intended to sell it, but had instead fallen in love with it, redecorating a suite of rooms, erecting a monument to his dog, Boatswain, and installing a plunge pool in the cloisters for use by his new Cambridge friends. Never breakfasting before noon, they spent the afternoons reading, fencing, playing shuttlecock, and practicing their pistols in the halls of the ruined abbey; dining at seven beneath leaky roofs, they dressed in monks’ habits and took turns drinking from the skull of a monk “from which, unlike a living head / Whatever flows is never dull.”

Newstead! What a saddening change of scene is thine!
Thy yawning arch betokens slow decay! the last and youngest of a noble line
Now holds thy mouldering turrets in his sway.

Wherever you find ruins, you will find the young scampering like mice, repurposing the grandeur to their own ends. For the American equivalent, look no further than Daniel Campo’s Postindustrial DIY: Recovering American Rust Belt Icons (Fordham University Press), a survey of grassroots efforts to repurpose abandoned industrial buildings across middle America. “We generally don’t memorialize post-abandonment history — what happened after the station closed, the steel mill shuttered, or the automobiles stopped rolling off the assembly line,” writes Campo, who has spent 12 years trawling the rust belt in search of off-the-grid artistic activity taking place in the shadow of American ruins — be they productions of Ibsen, performances of Bach, or filming the latest Transformers movie.

In Buffalo, he drinks a Polish beer and eats perogies with the volunteers who have taken over Central Terminal, Buffalo’s great train station, closed in 1979, its Art Deco 271-foot office tower and magnificent passenger concourse, now the home for peregrine falcons nested in the leaky roof and the audiences of projected horror movies and punk rock concerts. A little down river, Campo enjoys “a near religious moment,” as the sun sets behind Buffalo’s Silo City, a campus of monumental grain silo elevators whose cathedral-like scale now act as an incubator for Buffalo’s avant-garde scene — everything from poetry readings to blues festivals to a production of Ibsen’s The Master Builder. “The acoustics are fantastic, like nothing you have ever heard,” explains Dan Shanahan, one of the artistic directors of Torn Space Theater, which is housed on the property.

Such repurposing is nothing new. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the ruins of abbeys and castles all over Europe were given second lives by artists and “men of feeling,” all eager to experience a shiver of imperial mortality by contemplation of empires past. “Where are they now, the ramparts of Nineveh, the walls of Babylon, the fleets of Tyre?” asked the Comte de Volney in Les ruines, ou Méditation sur les révolutions des empires in 1791. Nothing much has changed now that it’s America’s turn to hunt for the “post-industrial sublime,” except that in place of Lord Byron or the Comte de Volney, it’s Eminem using the debris-strewn waiting room of the Packard Automotive Plant as the video backdrop for his 2009 hit “Beautiful:” “But don’t let ’em say you ain’t beautiful…”

What local residents have to say on having their architectural icons turned into ruin meccas or held up as examples of the “postindustrial dialectic of rust and nature” Campo omits to mention, although he does quote one disgruntled tour guide who does not like the uncommissioned deer sculpture, constructed of half-inch diameter steel tubing in the shadow of the Carrie Blast Furnaces, just outside Pittsburgh. “I don’t like it, but they make me talk about it,” he grumbled. A curious blend of the hip and the dogged, Campo seems a little undecided on whether he favors actual economic regeneration — as opposed to the off-the-grid guerilla kind. “With growth, post-industrial sites become less other and lose some of their wildness, mystery, contradiction, raw beauty, and exhilarating ability to surprise or provoke,” he writes of Bill Ford’s $90 million purchase and renovation of Michigan Central Station as a billion-dollar hub for tech companies. You imagine Michiganites are simply grateful for the jobs.

A note of similar elegy is sounded by A Falling-Off Place: The Transformation of Lower Manhattan (Empire Station Editions), a collection of black-and-white photographs by Barbara G. Mensch who, for 40 years, has trawled lower Manhattan with her boxy Rolleiflex camera — and, more recently, her iPhone — asking the question, “What fell off as the old was swept away by the new?” Starting with Fulton Fish Market beneath Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, Mensch records a now-vanished world of waterfront cranes, beeping forklifts, fish laid out in iced crates, and grizzled looking men with weary fatalistic expressions in smoky bars, their grappling hooks alongside shots of anisette.

You can practically smell the tobacco and the brackish aroma of stale seawater. No city changes quite as fast or as frequently as New York. Mensch provides the city with a memory. Previous collections of photographer Christopher Payne’s work have chased similar ghosts of American obsolescence. His new book, Made in America: The Industrial Photography of Christopher Payne (Abrams), is fueled by a desire to capture manufacturing industries before they disappear, but is devoid of nostalgia: it hums with excitement over the manufacture of everything from jelly beans to aircraft turbines and fiber-optic cables. Payne trained as an architect before he became a photographer, and it shows in his love of color, pattern, and form. He makes a stack of pencils look monumental and airplane fuselages look tiny. Beautifully designed and laid out, his book turns the manufacturing process itself into its own enticement.

The Covid pandemic may have spearheaded an exodus towards the green, calm, restorative spaces of the countryside, but sociologist Des Fitzgerald has news for you. “What if it’s the city… that represents peace and calm? And what if it’s the forest… that is truly the space of tumult, excess, and anxiety?” he writes in The Living City: Why Cities Don’t Need to Be Green to Be Great, a tetchy polemic against the idea that cities are somehow bad for us — a source of noise, alienation, and stress — and nature a balm to the soul. Fitzgerald doesn’t dispute the “vegetation index” of Danish scientists linking stress to lack of greenery but deems the argument of Edward Wilson’s Biophilia — that human beings have a need to be around natural living things—“deeply silly” and the idea that urban man pines for the lost African savannah, “a child’s fairy-story for weak-minded evolutionary biologists.”

This preference for ad hominem insult over argument rather stops Fitzgerald from developing his case much beyond a reflex tetchiness towards the environmental lobby buttressed by ferocious bouts of hairsplitting. The beautiful rolling landscapes of the English countryside are actually the side effect of massive human-driven deforestation, he points out. Concrete is no less unnatural than the dams of beavers. Fair point: what we think of as “natural” is a cultural construct. But the bee in Fitzgerald’s bonnet buzzes on. He thinks trees are “antihuman,” New York “dull,” and Paris “overrated.” There are not many sentences from which a book cannot recover from, but “I hate Paris” may be one of them.

One of the researchers quoted in architect Thomas Heatherwick’s Humanize: A Maker’s Guide to Designing Our Cities (Scribner) makes Fitzgerald’s point far more elegantly. The old adage “natural is beautiful” is incomplete: while natural features such as coastlines, mountains, and canals can improve the beauty of a scene, flat and uninteresting green spaces do not. Brain scans by academics at the Harvard Medical School have shown that square and angled objects cause increased activity in the amygdala, which helps us deal with stress and fear. People are much more likely to enter rooms that are curved rather than angular. Old winding streets are actually good for us.

So why are the majority of our award-winning buildings such hymns to the flat, plain, straight, and featureless? “We’re under attack from a plague of boringness,” writes Heatherwick, who was the architect responsible for the Vessel, the stunning spiral staircase at Hudson Yards, also known as the “shawarma building.” Fitzgerald’s book is a familiar enough broadside against the style of modernist architecture — grid-like, repetitive, inhuman — that gets praised by architecture critics for its “subtlety,” “simplicity,” “understatement,” and “rigor,” and makes anyone else feel like throwing themselves out the nearest window. Heatherwick’s book is the opposite: warm, curious, and never boring, full of welcome historical context and quirky personal observation. His book is as inviting as his buildings.

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