Six Essays. #1: Restraint

This is the first of six posts that will comprise Six Memos for the Next Architecture. The six memos are titled Restraint, Simplicity, Solidity, Circumstance, Fluency, and Durability.

“Renouncing things is less difficult than people believe: it’s all a matter of getting started. Once you’ve succeeded in dispensing with something you thought essential, you realize you can also do without something else, then without many other things.” “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” Italo Calvino

“There’s no place to put the furniture. I was born in a little village in Germany. I can dream and imagine this new world, but I can’t live in it.” Mies van der Rohe

“I like restraint, if it doesn’t go too far.” Mae West

First, I cannot speak about restraint and moderation in the next architecture, or even start to imagine what a next architecture might constitute, without touching upon the environmental vortex into which we are now being subsumed. (Resulting, without question, from a complete lack of restraint).

Down we are swirling, faster and faster, into a whirlpool of ecological calamity. The whirlpool is caused by the meeting of two opposing currents: the first current is what Earth needs, to remain a stable, sustainable and benign habitation for all the organisms living here. The second current is what humans want, to make life easier, faster, tastier, more comfortable, more convenient or, importantly, more and more profitable. We humans consume much more than the planet can provide – about two times more. Before we design or build any next thing, we are going to have to figure out how to restrain ourselves.

In the words of author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, “…we are here to tell you, in this postcard from the former paradise, that it won’t happen next year, or somewhere else. It will happen right where you live and it could happen today. No one will be spared.”

Looks like we will have to decide who makes it into the lifeboat and who doesn’t….

“Lifeboat– Hitchcock

I open with this brief polemic because any forecast of a future of architecture must begin here. Whatever comes next in placemaking and city shaping now must start with extreme heat, fires, storms, floods, droughts and more. There is no fully stopping what is unfolding all around us: all we can do is work to create human habitation that somehow provides a usable future.

If we craft our cultures with a thorough and thoughtful sense of individual and communal restraint, we might not face the worst of the environmental dangers that lie ahead. We may not have been able to conceive of all the perils that we have created over the last centuries, but so much could have been – and was – foreseen decades and decades ago.

So to start. Nothing about contemporary life is marked by restraint. Instead life in 2022 is characterized by excess. We have too much of everything. Except common sense. Too many cars, too many roads, too much segregation and injustice, too big a gap between rich and poor. Too many items at the grocery, too much junk food. Several hundred years of industrial and post-industrial development have left us with too many choices and not enough prudence.

And today almost any inconsiderate behavior is tolerated. We do anything that pleases us whenever and wherever, without concern for the consequences: for the lives of others, for the common well-being of our city, for the injustices or foolishness or titanic wastefulness of our past, or for the sake of a better, livable future for our children and their children.

The architectural and city-making version of this is: I can do my development, get rich, perhaps employ a self-aggrandizing architect, and completely disregard any kind of cost to any others. I can ignore my surroundings, my neighbors, my community. I can manufacture need instead of responding to need. I can employ novel shapes and forms constructed of wasteful and unsustainable materials, or embrace banality, and I can do this at scales that destroy the common sensible, walkable and accessible scale of the urban fabric I am steamrolling.

To try and balance this egotistical sense of license and privilege, we have created all sorts of public constraints to attempt to ward off potential damage. At first we created zoning, so the local tanning factory couldn’t be created next door to our garden (or front porch). But zoning grew into a monster itself: it segregated the city by uses (housing here, industrial there, commercial over there) spread us out all over the place, and was used to racially segregate our cities.

And now we have added a “public engagement” process: we can attend hearings, state our case (feels better to get that off our chest, yes?) and hope to constrain all sorts of urban madness as a result. In the end, we are “engaged,” but often disappointed by the petitioner’s lack of restraint.

Thus, the next architecture MUST be founded upon restraint. It has gradually, and now increasingly, occurred to us that in the years ahead (and added to the environmental imperatives we must consider) we must address every kind of inequity: economic, racial, cultural, educational and more. And it has occurred to us that anything new from any of us who craft cities, towns or buildings will be and should be scrutinized through these lenses.

But even now, with evidence of the world’s stresses and strains increasingly surrounding us, we still cannot restrain ourselves. If we look around, or we read the news, we see license masquerading for freedom, indulgence of every kind without forbearance, and a happy willingness to disregard need and hardship. Comfort and convenience – that has been the motto of life for a very long time.

If what I am saying seems too harsh, or too pessimistic, take a look at this:


These are views of Telosa, a proposed utopian city of 5 million being planned by a billionaire named Marc Lore and his architectural co-conspirator Bjarke Ingels (whose firm is, ironically, BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group) for the desert in the west (Utah?) of the US. They are so very proud of what they believe are key facts that illustrate their thoughtful plans for the future:

  • 100% renewable energy
  • 20% (vs. zero) food residency
  • 90% water reduction
  • 0 waste goal
  • 0 autonomous mobility emissions
  • 500 sq. ft. per capita open space
  • Budget: $25 billion Phase One; $400 billion overall (much too low, I think – less than $100k per person for the whole shebang. They can’t even build the housing for 5,000,000 people for $400b, much less the rest of the city).

That this is proposed with a straight face is simply flabbergasting. Mr. Lore and Mr. Ingles really need to restrain themselves. Take the half a trillion dollars of their Telosa budget and confine themselves to fixing what we have. Pick a few cities and outfit them for a survivable future. Create transport without cars, walkable neighborhoods, local food sources, reliable and trustworthy sources of water, renewable sources of energy, and do this not in the middle of the desert, but in real places where people live, cities that exist, places that need a future that may now be seriously threatened.

Miami, where 35% of the city’s housing is at risk due to climate change

Telosa is an easy target, but there are so many easy targets. I found another dozen proposed utopian and futuristic cities without difficulty, all touting their ecological credentials and each a debacle. The difficulty with new utopian cities is that they still have to be constructed (one project tells us that the “buildings will be mainly constructed using a combination of bamboo, timber and concrete produced from recycled material,” as if that would help), supplied with water and other utilities, furnished, inhabited.

Much architecture too in these times illustrates a complete lack of restraint. The older, human scaled parts of our cities often get treated like this example, Gallery Soho in Bejing, by Zaha Hadid.

Gallery Soho, Beijing by Zaha Hadid

Or this example, the Kunsthaus Graz, by Fournier and Cook.

Photo by Dave Oare

Or this addition, to the Royal Ontario Museum by Daniel Libeskind.

Or this new house in a Toronto neighborhood, by Phaedrus Studio.

To reiterate: we have been at this urban and architectural immoderation and negligence for a very long time. It has taken at least 10 generations to get our cities and towns to the unusable, wasteful, mindless and self-indulgent state we somehow have come to tolerate today.

Manchester, 1870
Milwaukee, late 1920s
Cedar Rapids, 1956
LA, 1958
Portland, Oregon
Everywhere, USA

And along the way, as we have been building the sprawling mess that surrounds us wherever we look and wherever we go, we have simultaneously laid waste to the most precious resources that were once here and are now consumed.

Even renewable resources can be extinguished….

To end Essay #1, a few notes. The opposite of restraint is this: indulgence, license, arrogance, disregard, negligence, indifference. In architecture and urbanism in America, we have over the last centuries consumed, exhausted, expended, depleted, damaged.

To build the next cities and buildings, we must do the following:

Restrain yourself. Practice forbearance.

Be humble. Be modest.

Remain calm.

Avoid being meaningful or significant.

Design quietly and gently. Know your neighbors and your neighborhood.

Design with care and respect. Learn to listen first. Know what lies ahead.

Restore what is around you.

Work incrementally, slowly, and at a human and understandable scale.

Work with local and renewable materials.

Avoid innovation. Because we can is an unacceptable reason to do anything.

Know this: architecture is not metaphor. A house for a brass player in the symphony orchestra should not look like a trombone. It should look like a house. It should shed water, protect from snow, keep everyone warm, and create real and lasting shelter. Please: restrain yourself.

“The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.” Marianne Moore, “Complete Poems”

“You can see how he changed on the surface. But at the core of it all, I think Superman has remained the same – a character with incredible powers but almost superhuman humility and restraint.” Jim Lee

The next essay will focus on simplicity.

4 thoughts on “Six Essays. #1: Restraint

  1. Hi Howard, excellent post, as usual. I look forward to this series. It seems to me what you are saying is that the modernist movement in architecture & urban design has been, with a few exceptions, a disaster. One minor quibble- the photo labeled Atlanta is actually in Boston. The parking garage in the photo is directly next door to back Bay Station, an Amtrak & MBTA commuter rail station. Yes, even in Boston you can find such distopian environments!

  2. What was distressed Atlanta is now distressed Boston: thank you for seeing the Westin for what it is – or where it is. And the parking garage, too.

    The business of indifference and disregard in the design of places has been with us for a very long time. Certainly modernism in architecture and urban design has been a massive failure – we all live in the poverty-stricken results. But the roots of this stretch further back in time, I think, back into the 18th century at least.

    For a very long time families practiced a measure of self-control and restraint hoping to provide for those yet to come, the children and their children of the future. They hoped that each succeeding generation would live longer and better, have more to eat and warmer shelter, more wealth and less backbreaking toil. Comfort, convenience, freedom from want. Those simple intentions have been superseded. Now our hopes are simpler: a parking place, no traffic jams and a coffee at the drive-thru. What a world we live in.

    “#2: Simplicity” is underway. Amy says it should be easy, because it will be short….

  3. You are probably right about the roots, although maybe not quite so far back, but at least to the industrial revolution. Still, there is no denying that there was a radical departure in architecture & urban design after WW2. It would have come earlier but for the Great Depression. Some of the early modernists such as Eliel Saarinen & Mackintosh (but were they really modernists?) were developing new forms that were more evolutionary than revolutionary, that built on precedent rather than throwing all of history in the trash heap. I think it was Steve Mouzon who said that if NASA had approached landing on the moon the way the modernists approached architecture, they never would have made it, since each space flight would have to been completely new, learning nothing from previous flights. Roads not taken…..

  4. Yes. There was a moment before WWI when the evolutionaries were offering a more fertile approach to burgeoning industrialization. My favorite evidence of their possibilities can perhaps best be seen in the work of Hermann Muthesius and his writing of The English House. Alas, this potential was lost after the war, and what we now call modernism won out. I have often thought that I would like to spend more time exploring this rich moment and its undoing.

    Ironically we are now in a city that, among several, embodied the notion that “modernism” could have turned out differently, but for unfolding history: Vienna.

    But then some of us still wonder if ornament really is crime….

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