Today’s city planners are terrified by the prospect of a blank wall. They, along with their micromanaging brethren on civic design-review boards, would much rather see a pastiche of meaningless fakery than an honest piece of wall with nothing on it.
The horror vacui of planners and design-review boards is a well-meaning but ill-informed reaction to modern architecture of the postwar era, which has long been pilloried — often quite rightly — for its mechanistic repetition, superhuman scale, and dearth of ornament.
True, bad modernism could be bland, overbearing and humorless. Yet the contemporary response to these shortcomings is just as troubling: It suggests that any amount of phony two-dimensional detailing is preferable to leaving some parts of a building blessedly plain.
Ergo, with planners and design-review types all clamoring for the atmosphere of a halcyon past that never was, developers and their architects dutifully whip up increasingly hammy facades to oblige them. So it is that the strange bedfellows of city planners and big developers are behind the Disneyfication of suburbs and downtowns everywhere.
The trend reaches a pinnacle of frivolity in commercial architecture, which is especially susceptible to both commercializing silliness and bureaucratic meddling. To disguise the large, monolithic structures developers find so vital to profitability, today’s typical shopping street borrows a technique familiar to any mallgoer and turns it inside out. Individual storefronts are appliquéd to a single megastructure and dolled up with cartoonish “traditional” detailing in styrofoam and stucco. The facades march along one beside the other like rows of wallpaper samples. In the very worst offenders, color is in fact all that sets apart one purported storefront from the next — the surfaces are simply carved up with stucco joints, Mondrian style and painted in the colors of the moment.
One need only experience the commercial work of architects such as Florida’s Addison Mizner or Arizona’s Josias Joesler to see that it needn’t be so. Both men created lyrically comfortable shopping plazas — Mizner in the mid-1920s and Joesler in the late ’30s — without resorting to the brazen facadeism typical of today’s work. They did so by creating a host of variations within a single overarching style, and by juxtaposing occasional exquisite detail against generous areas of plain surface. Neither feared the blank wall, because both understood that such contrasts only amplified the power of their work.
In comparison, the sort of frenetic ragbag facades now favored by planners and design-review boards seem more a means of flouting modernism than any sort of quest for timelessness. As New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp put it a few years ago:
“Horror vacui — fear of emptiness — is the driving force in contemporary American taste. Along with commercial interests that exploit this interest, it is the major factor now shaping attitudes toward public spaces, urban spaces, and even suburban sprawl.”
In recoiling from the long shadow of modernist failures, too many planners and design-review officials are simply rushing blindly in the opposite direction. They’ve lost sight of the fact that something — anything! — isn’t always better than nothing.