A while back, I stopped at a locally owned burger emporium for one of my periodic hits of cholesterol. The giant cheeseburger was stupendous, but the decor was something else again.
In architecture, there are few things as tawdry as yesterday’s red-hot fashion. Judging by its unsettling paint job, this restaurant had apparently been redone during the 1980s, when a television series called “Miami Vice,” of all things, inspired any number of hack architects and decorators to run around purportedly “updating” buildings with appliques of glass block, neon and stucco, lastly topping them off with the color scheme then approvingly known as dusty rose and teal.
It’s clear enough why fashion trends exist. For marketers, it’s a diabolically clever way to ensure that people never remain satisfied with what they have, and instead will eternally crave a newer car, a different cut of clothing, or what have you. What’s harder to understand is exactly what makes the rest of us — including design professionals — so willing to be swept up in the fashion industry’s calculated tidal pull.
Would any architect or decorator, for example, sincerely believe that a color scheme inspired by a momentary television series would be just the thing to make a lasting contribution to their client’s project? And for that matter, could any reasonably intelligent client really overlook the stunning shortsightedness of such a concept?
Apparently, they could, and they did. There are countless moldering examples of this particular fashion cliche still hanging on across the country, ranging from relatively forgivable examples like my hamburger joint to more egregious revamps of entire shopping centers, all the way to vastly expensive renovations of hospitals and even banks, all of them ridiculously decked out in fading shades of turquoise and pink, and looking more like colossal ice cream parlors than serious institutions.
But of course it’s not fair to pick on weak-willed designers of the 1980s for such dismaying transgressions. Every decade, every era has its equivalent of glass block and neon, and of teal and dusty rose. Today’s faddish architecture — those buildings bristling with nonfunctional sunshades and outriggers, and done up in harlequin paint schemes of olive drab, dried blood, and mustard — is destined to look just as embarrassingly dated in a few years.
The saving grace here, however, is that qualifier “new.” However trendoid they may be, these buildings were at least conceived with details, finishes and color schemes that were integral to the whole. On the other hand, cosmetic updates superficially pasted onto buildings for the sake of chasing one fad or another are by definition dis-integrations. These kinds of “improvements” are invariably short-lived, and just as invariably diminish any building that is subjected to them.
This is why practically every historic structure we cherish today, from New York’s Grand Central Station to San Francisco’s Ferry Building, has had to be rescued from at least one and sometimes multiple “modernizations” perpetrated by architects and decorators who most assuredly touted them as improvements in their day. With friends like these, old buildings don’t need enemies.