Cognitive dissonance in bricks and mortar

From Steven Levine, continuing his observations in the Netherlands, on Facebook yesterday:

[SL:] A McDonald’s in Haarlem. I can’t decide if I think this is creative reuse or a violation of sensibility. Either way, what a building.

Ah, a continuation of my architecture theme, specifically in my posting “Durability, utility, beauty” from yesterday, where I looked at architectural design as simply the design of very large everyday objects, subject to the same judgments that we apply to kitchen tools, downspouts, typewriters, and the like.

In this case, there’s a certain cognitive dissonance (Steven’s “violation of sensibility”), between the elegant design of the building and the crass display of a fast-food restaurant.  (On the other hand, for a McDonald’s, this display is positively modest and unobtrusive.)

But then how are the street-level spaces in such buildings to be used? Traditionally, in virtually all European (and many American) cities, the street-level spaces house commercial establishments of many kinds: restaurants, cafés, bars, clubs, gay baths, bookstores, clothing stores, hardware stores, grocery stores, corner stores / convenience stores / bodegas, bakeries, patisseries, butcher’s shops, and on and on. They provide the texture of a rich city life, they anchor neighborhoods; meanwhile, people live on the floors above. Without those street-level establishments, you just have sterile and forbidding apartment buildings (as on the Upper East Side of Manhattan), no matter how beautifully designed those buildings might be.

Now, of course, those street-level establishments can themselves be well or badly designed. And people might find the nature of the establishments themselves welcome or offensive: the bodega and the little restaurant are great conveniences for city living; but the club is too noisy, the café or butcher’s shop too smelly, the gay baths (however decorous their Man Country or Watercourse Way facade might be) an offense to public morality.

The Facebook exchange. In which the problem is the nature of the street-floor establishment, in particular the fact that McDonald’s is a chain store, not genuinely local.

— Caro Stamm-Reusch: … this is normal everywhere in Europe, at least in places where there still ARE historical buildings (in many cities especially in west Germany, a lot of them have been replaced after the war instead of being rebuilt, following a “clean slate, looking into the future” kind of sentiment.) After all, they’re not just scenery or backdrop — real people live there, who want to eat burgers.

It’s kind of sad though that so many European downtowns — historical buildings or not — all have the same international chain stores in more or less every building, and Mickey D’s fits right in. Often, the commercial rents are so high in these city centers, that small businesses can’t afford them.

— SL > CS-R: I’m wholly in agreement here and this helps clarify my thinking. The most dramatic example of this was in Prague, where glorious ancient buildings in the town square had businesses like “massage” parlors at street level. In that case, though, the architectural integrity was violated by the modern all-glass storefronts, which is not the case here, where the repurposing seems a sensible re-rendering. [AZ: see my note about gay baths in urban centers.]


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: