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The transition of the urban scape to the JETSONS

May 1, 2012

OK, cleaning up the old pages on my own domain; I guess all those articles ont he same page is too much for most people,

The transition of the urban scape to the JETSONS

Outline of the development of architecture over a little more then the last century:

•19th/early 20th century: ornate masonry
•c. Depression, a bit less ornate, but nice patterns in bricks and parapets.
•right up to WWII: Art Deco. Less patterns in masonry, straight line and herringbone themes (i.e: >>>>>>>)
•Post war, becomes plain red brick on all sides.
-Lowrise drops off in favor of high rise.
•70’s few low rise buildings built; masonry is generally different colored brick “columns” in line with windows.

Up to this point, all buildings had a vertical symmetry, with the same types of windows in each of the vertical columns of windows.

In the middle of the century, cities began tearing down blocks and blocks of small older buldings to make way for skyscrapers. At first, they basically followed the masonry patterns of the time, with brick construction. (Empire State Building, etc.) But eventually, they became just glass and metal panels, or smaller brick sections. Eventually, most of them become all glass panels. This is basically like the evolution of bus design, where before, they had full metal bodies, but in the 70’s “Advanced Designs”, became just attached rows of windows and fiberglass panels bolted onto thin “bulkhead” strips.
Even on many of the brick buildings, window dimensions changed from the pre-war size, to shorter and narrower, and often three or more single windows in a row. So the basic patterns on most new buildings was generally horizontal “rows” of alternating structure (brick or metal panel) and continuous window.

All of this may have looked nice in its own right, but with nearly everything following these patterns, it became monotonous, and created, basically a new “utilitarian” look. While we normally think of utilitarian as “drab”, and these building weren’t really drab in their own right; compared to the old buildings, they were.

Different cities had different variations of pre-war design. The most noticeable distinctions are the secondary exits: In NYC, the small steel fire escapes on windows, with a drop down ladder from the second floor to the ground, on all sides of the building; in some other cities, larger ones in the rear, with a door and regular staircases to the ground; and in New England and Chicago; these stairway/deck combinations [orignally] made of wood (even called “porches”). These types of things were known as the “character” of a city. Post war buildings however, look the same not only in every US city, but all around the world.

So right in the height of the steel highrise boom in the 50’s and 60’s, where blocks and blocks were decimated for ubiquitous towers (in central business districts, office towers, in the big city ghetto; high rise public housing “projects”, and in small city ghettoes, cookie cutter barrack-like low rise ones), we were given fictional glimpses into the future. This was most embodied in “The Jetsons”, a high rise world where you hardly ever see the ground. It was the basic direction urban architecture was going in. Stately rows of adjoining, low rise pre-war design were making way for fewer, taller structures with much more space around them, The space could be just greenery, or it could be parking space to make it convenient for the increasing rise in automobiles. Many old building get torn down just for parking lots rather than a new building. Smaller city or large city outskirt blocks then begin looking more flat and lifeless.

Follow this to it’s logical conclusion, by the time of the Jetsons, all you have is poles driven into the ground, with the living or office space “blooming” at the top. Actual structures like this were already built in some places, like the sky towers in Seattle or Toronto. The ground, whenever it’s shown, appears to be all parkland. Of course, vehicles fly in this age, which makes it ironic to me, because if they just kept the older buildings until flying cars were perfected, then the roofs could have been modified to become the new parking lots, and you would not have had to level so much ground for them.
Likewise, in one or more of the Star Wars prequels and other modern scifi, you have incredibly tall towers, as well as 3D traffic grids. (vehicles can go straight up or down, and streets have traffic lanes in several midair “levels”)

In the 70’s, in every city, you had total neglect, as the middle class fled to the suburbs, and landlords allowed buildings to become run down. Less were demolished for new building projects. Instead, often, they just sat there deteriorating; many being abandoned. Many of these were lost to fire, and damage from weather. Some were removed simply because they were a dangerous haven for junkies.
In the late 70’s, there was a glimmer of hope, as new renovation programs breathed new life into old buildings. After the demolition of Penn Station in the 60’s (for another one of those glass and metal boxes with an arena connected to it), a new kick in landmarking and restoration began. People began to appreciate and stand up for the old architecture. Sometimes, at least the façades of old buildings would be kept in new projects. New skyscrapers often have “bases” that are roughly the same height and property line of the old buildings, so you wonder why they wouldn’t just build on top of the old more. Restoration in blighted areas proceeded somewhat slowly, however.

Now, we enter a new building boom. But with it, mass demolitions have resumed again. Expansions of business districts (like Long Island City as a new “Midtown East”); new projects like the Atlantic Terminal arena, etc. once again threaten to push “the little people” in their little old flats out. (Makes you wonder where all of this money was 30 years ago! It’s like they allowed the heart of every city to decay, until they were good and ready to move in and sweep everyone out, after decades. I guess, when “the Market” determined the time was right. That’s the virtual deity that the corporate powers that be use to justify all of their actions).
One difference, is it’s not in the ghetto this time. The cities all realized that the high rise housing for the poor was a mistake. In some places, they are even being torn down in favor of new row houses! However, for the rich, the tendency is once again to build big tall boxes. Most are condos, going for millions in some places. And in both these, as well as office buildings, the desire seems to be “the corporate look” of wall to wall, floor to ceiling windows, so on the outside, it’s mostly a glass box.

On a positive note, there is also a return to low rise construction, and many in the last decade have even brought back such pre-war masonry features as quoins, cornices, and jack arches with keystones! Though in most cases, the odd window dimension/configurations have been retained. Where on older buildings, most windows were single, and you would often have a row of double windows placed symmetrically on each side of the front; in new “retro” styled buildings, almost all windows are double. Also, many new windows are horizontal sliding. This may be more convenient to open, but takes away from the classic look, and creates what I consider a “cheap strip motel” look. Those are more fitting on newer styled suburban houses.
Also, in many cases, the vertical symmetry is broken, and different types of windows appear in different places often in the same row. Especially if the apartments are duplex, where there are different rooms in the same apartment on top of each other. Most new buildings have concrete balconies (basically replacing the old fire escapes), and sometimes these are placed asymmetrically. Especially in orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, where balconies are used for the Feast of Booths (Sukkot). They apparently try to keep them away from each other, and not have one balcony providing a “ceiling” over another. It seemed to be these constructions that actually sparked off the pre-war style renaissance. Many new buildings in Boro Park have odd fitting gambrels (“barn roof”), topping otherwise very good reproductions of 1920’s design. There is also more blank space on new buildings where there are no windows at all, for some reason.
There are some new buildings that are bland tall and skinny boxes stuck in standard sized lots between the older buildings. (and usually out of scale, with the lower ceilings and smaller windows) Some older buildings are even being totally defaced, or altogether replaced for these things. Even in suburban blocks, you have “McMansions” stuck in rows of houses that stick out like a sore thumb.
Many new buildings, short and tall, have uneven roofs, for penthouses and decks. This also messes up the look usually.

Since most new buildings are steel frame, instead of the load-bearing brick exterior, then if the walls are brick, they rest on the floor, which thus sticks out in the façade. Brick façades are also simply laid in front of a cement block wall, instead of the solid brick “American Bond” (or other styles such as Flemish) walls of the old buildings, which consisted usually of three layers of bricks interlaced by “header” courses every 5 rows, which were a row of bricks rotated perpendicularly so that they were apart of two layers at a time. In these new walls, it looks like those façades could come off very easily.
In the poorer neighborhoods, most of the new houses are town houses, many greatly resembling the old brownstone type design! Most return to wooden joist construction, borne on the side walls. The fronts are often prefab construction, with a brick façade, while the rears are also prefab, and with aluminum siding over sheetrock nailed to a metal wall frame. (I live in one of these). A few use metal joists, and a few two story single family townhouses even use hollow core concrete planks (steel reinforced slabs with round holes running from end to end), providing a solid, completely fire-proof structure. What’s good is that old buildings do not have to be torn down for these, as there are already plenty of lots to build on as the old buildings were already destroyed years ago. Or sometimes, they will remove a shabby one story commercial, industrial or parking garage row.

So, while a lot of the new buildings may look nice, and evem mimick some aspects of the old buildings, they still are no replacement for the solid, symmetrical grand old architecture. (It seems like the new “retro” designs are like some sort of “compromise” to fit in with “the character of the neighborhood”). Once an old building is gone, that’s it; new designs are vastly different, and even attempts to recreate the old pale in comparison. Even though there is a natural cycle of building age and replacement, the pre-WWII 20th century masonry is like works of art, with a lot more work going into ornate fetures, and the new architecture (much of which highlights new and unusual structure shapes or shiny glass exteriors, and “retro” designs being largely superficial) is just no replacement for it.

I just wonder why they seemed to have picked up on the transformation of the urban landscape to the Jetsons. You would have thought that the “replace all the old with tall, glass and skinny” mindset had changed. Are these sleek, glass and steel towers power symbols or something?

Europe seems to have blocks and blocks of their old stuff intact. I guess if all the big business tycoons want old, they can just hop a plane to over there like nothing. But America’s old architecture is somewhat unique from Europe (which seems to all have those gabled roofs, that come to a ridge at the top). And since the new architecture looks all the same, the world is like a giant neighborhood to the leaders of these corporations who are constantly traveling around on business and pleasure.

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