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In Praise of Small Architecture

www.citylab.com • July 22, 2019

Architecture is not simply the stage set in which we live our lives. It is also a reflection of how we live our lives and who we are. An integral aspect to this is the unfolding of time. What happens when our needs, desires, and beliefs change, and the structures we have built no longer facilitate them?

Architectural preservation is often an issue of grandeur, both in a sense of size and richness, and decay. When we think of buildings that already been lost, they are almost always imposing structures—cathedrals, skyscrapers, temples. Yet the places where we enact our daily lives, and which reflect them even more than grand architectural statements, are smaller, more seemingly trivial and thus more vulnerable.

To appreciate the charms of small structures, it is useful to remind ourselves that we primarily interact with architecture from a ground level rather than the god’s-eye view employed in films and renderings. The architecture of day-to-day urban life is driven by utility and merges so integrally into our tasks that we barely notice it as architecture. There have been visionary architects who have recognized and celebrated the underrated nobility of everyday life, and there are some superlative little wonders scattered around our cities.

Arising to offer a service or goods, what we could see as democratic architecture is also commercially motivated. Most small buildings are trying to sell something. This is evident in Herbert Bayer’s eye-catching Bauhaus kiosks, which are their own advertising. Similarly, roadside Googie architecture, as captured in the book California Crazy by Jim Heimann, was designed to grab the attention of passing motorists and their children with structures that immediately demonstrated their functions in their forms: giant hot dogs or coffee pots (a modern form of architecture parlante, or “talking architecture”).

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