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Nostalgia and its opposite

Today I saw an apartment very near my current place that’s charming in its “vintage”-ness. It even has a slot for the old-fashioned ice-box, where a huge block of ice would be delivered periodically. The layout of the foyer (entryway? you know, the place in between all the apartments) and the actual apartments is somewhat skewed, as the building stands at a diagonal intersection — making it feel somehow more “Chicago” to me. Although my plans still feel unsettled, I’m putting in an application on principle.

Later in the day, I looked at a place in a bizarre, 70s-style boxy thing. It stuck out like a sore thumb on a street otherwise filled with the standard Chciago-style buildings (see the Google Street View). The apartment was big enough, but there was an atmosphere of squalor surrounding the whole thing. I may still put in an application because it’s at such a great location — but then, I spend a lot of time at home, so maybe I should think more in those terms.

It seems impossible to me that anyone could be nostalgic for a 70s-style building. No one — not any of our children, not anyone in any conceivable future — will ever look at a 70s-style building and think whistfully, “You know, they don’t make them like that anymore.”

The shameful thing, though, is that back then they built things better than we do now! One might at least find the boxy little building linked above amusing, but no one could experience any emotion of any kind looking at the dismal paint-by-numbers condos that continue to spread throughout the fashionable (or aspiring) areas of Chicago, even at this late date. It’s not just the sameness: nearly every street in Chicago is filled with the same style of long, narrow 2- or 3-flats, broken up by the occasional courtyard building. It’s not even a quality issue, because they at least use bricks instead of siding and of course all have the requisite insanely over-equipped kitchen. It’s just the crushing corporateness of it — something not unrelated to suburbanness.

One of my friends from Olivet was something of a towny. Like my parents, hers had moved into a new development after she went to college. Her parents, however, were of less modest means, and everything in the house was a dramatic gesture of some kind, a class assertion — down to the familiar over-air-conditioned chill. Yet for reasons of family drama that I never got a direct hint of when I was over there, it was never finished. Certain parts of the floor were still plain wood, unencumbered by the imposing tile they were expected to have. Whole rooms seemed as though they had been freshly carpeted but never vacuumed for the first time — filled with boxes and, though I may be hallucinating this, random plastic tarps. This slight tweak away from the standard finished suburban “home” revealed a place where you wouldn’t be surprised to hear a murder had taken place, where you could go years later and find blood still on the walls because no one had ever gotten around to cleaning it up or perhaps even noticed it.

Increasing numbers of our condos are going to be unfinished or at least uninhabited. I currently live by one of these imposing edifices, and even though some of the apartments are now occupied, the street-level retail stands empty, the drywall unpainted except for those occasional splotches of white, the floor eternally populated by ill-defined buckets, and of course the boxes and plastic tarps. They have yet to put in a lawn and have made only furtive gestures toward snow removal — as though they somehow aren’t really there, aren’t really part of what’s going on on the street.

There is a strange foreboding that comes with walking past it, a sense of something dying and not yet having realized it — a self-propagating process of carving up the city into a million little suburban “homes,” gesturing toward curving streets with randomly curved walls, everyone with their little decks unconnected by stairs and unable to help them in the event of a fire. Walking past this building, the material detrius of gentrification, is the only time I worry about being mugged, as though I deserve it simply due to my proximity.

It’s not that soulless corporate condo architecture is the only site evocative of violence — the apartment I mentioned first is evocative of Barton Fink, implying a distinctly pre-air conditioner violence brought on by sweat, and the squalor of the 70s-style apartment carries with it associations of other scenes of cinematic violence (for some reason, domestic violence comes most readily to mind). Yet the condo is reminiscent of the sheer nihilism of American Psycho, a violence generated by a combination of boredom and class anxiety. You could imagine the type of person drawn to that generic condo setting up a sniper rifle on the deck — in fact, you’re almost shocked it hasn’t happened yet.

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April 4, 2009 - Posted by | squalor

5 Comments

  1. Not only are there people already nostalgic for 1970s buildings, there have been preservation efforts on behalf of some of them. There’s no reason to expect that the nostalgia process will work any differently with the 1970s as it’s already well along the way of doing to the 1950s and 1960s.

    Anyway, while I would agree that the 1970s were the worst era for architecture, there were still plenty of excellent buildings built then. What about:

    Bruce Goff’s Struckus House, 1979, Woodland Hills, Ca
    Ant Farm’s House of the Century, 1972, Brazoria County, Texas
    Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum, 1972, Fort Worth, Texas
    Mies Van Der Rohe’s Museum of Fine Arts, 1974, Houston, Texas
    Richard Meier’s Atheneum, 1979, New Harmony, Indiana
    Louis Kahn’s Library at the Phillips Exeter Academy, 1972, Exeter, New Hampshire

    Comment by burritoboy | April 5, 2009

  2. The phrase ‘red rag to a bull’ springs to mind…

    It seems impossible to me that anyone could be nostalgic for a 70s-style building. No one — not any of our children, not anyone in any conceivable future — will ever look at a 70s-style building and think wistfully, “You know, they don’t make them like that anymore.”

    How very, very, very wrong you are. Plenty of nostalgia for 1970s architecture here, incidentally. Also, the 1980s are a far worse decade for architecture, and even there I can think of a fair few masterpieces.

    Comment by Owen | April 5, 2009

  3. It even has a slot for the old-fashioned ice-box, where a huge block of ice would be delivered periodically.

    It’s a pleasant idea, but one that I think you’ll find is impractical in reality. For one thing, most people don’t keep around enough sawdust to make this work.

    Comment by jms | April 5, 2009

  4. I’m not sure this post actually makes any sense. Obviously great pieces of architecture came out of the 70s, for example.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | April 5, 2009

  5. “Also, the 1980s are a far worse decade for architecture, and even there I can think of a fair few masterpieces.”

    “Obviously great pieces of architecture came out of the 70s, for example.”

    I do think you have to distinguish between the average-level level of architecture and the top tier. The 1970s was a bad era for average architecture, but not particularly bad for the top tier. The 1980s were extremely bad for average architecture, but reasonably good for the top tier (since the 1980s were the breakout decade for Gehry, Meier, Piano, Morphosis, Nouvel, Ando, Coop Himmelbau, Isozaki, Hollein and many others).

    Conversely, there were eras (or artistic movements) where both the average-level architecture was generally good and the top-tier was extraordinary: Arts and Crafts / Prarie / Art Nouveau, for example. And there were eras where the average-level architecture was comparatively mediocre, but the top-tier was reasonably good: Victorian revivalism, for instance.

    Comment by burritoboy | April 6, 2009


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