Nevada City and Architectural Theory

Paleo Retiree writes:

One of the biggest cons in the world of aesthetics is the central notion that the architecture establishment peddles: the idea that architecture-and-urbanism is, and should be, a complicated, intellectual, theory-driven, abstraction-and-cogitation-heavy field. (Also that architects are, and need to be, deep and original thinkers akin to philosophers and physicists.) Any surprise that the buildings and neighborhoods resulting from that kind of approach tend to be soul-crushing, bewildering, and alienating absurdities? After all, isn’t this what a top-down, ideas-über-alles approach usually results in?

Here are a few subversive (in a common-sense sort of way) thoughts. What if architecture-and-urbanism shouldn’t be conceived of as a field for intellectuals, and for theory-driven experimentalism? What if a better way to think of architecture-and-urbanism is to picture it as a practice and a craft, as something akin to cooking or sewing? Also: what if architecture appreciation and architecture criticism should be more akin to comparing notes about restaurants on Yelp than to “doing theory”?

The above musings were prompted by a visit The Question Lady and I recently paid to California’s Gold Country, about an hour northeast of Sacramento, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. (The Question Lady was there to perform her genius one-woman show at the very nifty Grass Valley Center for the Arts.) It’s a gorgeous area with a lot of towering trees and often-dazzling skies; it’s dotted by small villages that originated as mining settlements and that have since become hippie/retirement towns.

I found myself especially delighted by the towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City — they’re about as picturesque and cozy as can be — and snapping off tons of shots, especially of Nevada City. Feeling a hunch that a shuffle through these snapshots might yield a few practical lessons about what tends to make for a beautiful, livable, pleasing and soul-nourishing physical environment, I knocked together some collages. 

I’m going to call the theme of my first collage Embeddedness.


Contemporary establishment architecture — obsessed by geometry, maximizing throughput, and engineering — often begins by dominating the environment. Here in Nevada City, by contrast, streets follow the area’s geology; houses make do with the plots of land they’re on; fences and sidewalks ramble and often crack. The town’s prominent and well-maintained cemetery expresses an attitude of respect for the dead, the living and the yet-to-be-born: it expresses embeddedness in time. The use of rock and stone expresses respect for geology; the overgrown mossiness and the proud trees that intertwine with and envelop the buildings and streets express respect for biology.

The theme of collage #2 I’m going to call Materials.


Our modernist-establishment masters love little more than foisting strange and exotic (if sometimes dazzling) materials on us: glowing, shimmering, iridescent things that speak more of the lab and the computer screen than they do of the earth. But here in Nevada City there are no weirdo materials to be found. Even the industrial ones — corrugated metal, for instance — are familiar and comprehensible. Denting, weathering and chipping don’t ruin the effect, they add patina and character. The tactile quality of these familiar materials is very striking. You know that the brick will be cool and heavy and that the wooden shingles will have softness and grain. I also can’t help noticing in the photos that there’s an ongoing dance between regularity and irregularity. Sure there are well-plumbed horizontals and verticals. But edges are never razor-sharp; irregularities abound on many different scales.

The theme of collage #3: Rooflines.


As a little exercise, picture a typical post-1950s downtown skyline. If you’re like me, what you’ll see in your mind’s eye is a bunch of horizontals and platforms, often with machinery (air conditioning, etc) heaped on top. Though these rooftops can sometimes make for interesting inadvertent sculptural compositions, most of the time what’s up there above our heads looks like a cross between a parking lot and a junkyard.

Here in Nevada City we have no such thing. Instead we have pluralism, liveliness, wit. Curves and peaks abound, as they do with bodies, plants and landscapes. Horizontals (a big favorite of modernism) make their appearance, but merely as part of the symphony of shapes and lines; blankness is nowhere to be found. There’s variety — “diversity” in the real sense — aplenty, but no sense of randomness. No roofline is deliberately breaking or interrupting the rhythms and harmonies established by the other rooflines.

The theme of collage #4: Color.


One of the most striking things about today’s chic architecture is how colorless — I’m tempted to say anti-color — it is. There’s the occasional splashy exception, but I’ve been photographing new buildings in NYC for a number of years … and in doing so I’ve accumulated a fat folder of images of gray, white and black buildings.

Here in Nevada City, there’s plenty of gray, white and black, but there’s plenty of virtually every other color as well. Spending time in town delivers a rich experience of color. Plus, not a small point: You have control over your building’s color scheme. With many new buildings, you’re locked into your architect/designer/developer’s initial color choices. There’s no slapping a can of bright paint on a glass or metal building, after all. In Nevada City, the color of your place is up to you … and then you can change your mind. Just as it makes a huge psychological difference if you know you can open a room’s windows, it makes a big difference to know that you can control the color of your own place. That’s called freedom, baby. And colorfulness — festiveness! — is often what happens when people are given their freedom.

Theme of collage #5: Light.


First, conjure up the way the present-day architecture world delivers shadow and light: Huge stretches of it, with long sharp edges between them. It’s an approach to the question of shadows-and-light — what’s sometimes called “Notan” — that can sometimes make for a striking photograph. But it often also makes for a harsh, alienating and lifeless reality.

Now look at my collage of light-and-shadow in Nevada City. You’ll find very few stretches of unbroken light; very few stretches of unbroken shadow; and very few razor-edged breaks or lines between them. Instead, the light and the shadows both tend to be lacy, irregular and dappled. General conclusion: the edge between light and shade is where people are often happiest, and it’s usually best if those edges are soft, irregular and changing. I’m not going to resist a small, semi-philosophical rumination: The borderland between chaos and structure is where most life will be found.

Theme of collage #6: Ornamentation.


The present-day architecture world is in a kooky, late-baroque phase. No longer are the panjandrums declaring that ornament is a crime, as earlier Modernists did. Instead, the building itself is meant to be the ornament. Still, as ever with modernism, trimmings are discouraged.

You sure can’t accuse the creators of Nevada City of ever having believed that ornament could be thought of as a crime, or as anything that needs excuses of any kind made for it. Everywhere you look your eye finds trimmings. Let me list some of what these trimmings convey: amusement, delight, whimsy, personality, fun, spirit, fantasy, humor, variety. Severity is, to put it mildly, in extremely short supply.

Theme of collage #7: Glass.


What’s more characteristic of chic architeture than huge stretches of glass and giant pools of blazing light? Exploring some new buildings, you can often feel like you’ve been trapped in a spotlight. None of that in the Gold Country. Instead, the usual Nevada City window is broken up into numerous panes. The wooden frames don’t scramble our sense of interior and exterior. There’s a flow between them, but there’s a distinction between them too.

Theme of collage #8: Entryways.


I just noticed that I’ve used the image of the porch with the yellow chair on it twice in this posting. Oh, well: I liked it a lot, so maybe it deserves a second appearance.

The main thing that strikes me here is the total absence of abrupt transitions and abstract gamesmanship. There’s no looking around trying to figure out where the front door is, or how it works. Nothing is coded or conceptual. How to use these neighborhoods, and how to interact with them, is instantly apparent. (Note the complete absence of signs. This is a way of living that doesn’t require an instruction book.) You’re both reached-out-to and held-at-arm’s length: you’re being sent a signal that you’re welcome, but that respect is also expected. If you should decide to approach the building and the life within it, you’ll be moving through a multilayered, multistaged sequence of events. The abruptness of the transitioning-from-inside-to-outside process in most modernist buildings is akin to the abrupt and jarring shifts in modernist music. The embrace, the gentleness, and the helpfulness of the transitioning-from-inside-to-outside experience here in Nevada City is akin to the way key changes are prepared for and then executed in traditional and popular music.

A few musings that — who knows? — might form some kind of modest basis for an informal Theory of Architectural Pleasure:

  • Looking at these collages as a group, what strikes me is how intertwined their characteristics are. Windows divide up light and provide a non-abrupt transition; colors, materials and shadows enhance each other; porches and skylines echo and play changes on each other. There’s an immense amount of interwoven complexity to be explored and enjoyed — the sum-total strikes me as quite magnificent. Yet nothing about the experience is anything but approachable and hospitable.
  • I’m reminded not of weirdo/conceptual globalist food but of good, solid local eateries, places that are friendly local gems, the kinds of places featured on Diners, Drive Ins and Dives. (FWIW: While I can’t stand the hectic frat-boy quality of the show, the food and the people it features often move me deeply.)
  • I can’t help noticing that there was no solitary genius in charge of all these structures, or of how they interact and relate. These are buildings (and this is a town) built by carpenters, amateurs and hobbyists who were using local materials, and who were basing their work on history, traditions, typologies and practicality. Isn’t it interesting the way that — when you share a common language and a common set of assumptions, and when you act in good will and out of respect for your own pleasures and other people’s dignity — amazing harmonies and felicities will arise on their own? One might be tempted to suspect that experiences of beauty have something to do with the inner rhythms — the Tao — of life itself.

Some more hunches about what might result in humane and pleasing built environments: Approach building and development as an outgrowth and refinement of nature. Work with the actual environment, not against it. Make generous use of local materials. Value pluralism and variety, yes, but value harmony and simple, direct human pleasures even more. Perhaps, 99% of the time, fitting in is more important than standing out. Value the roughshod, the approachable, the informal and the ramshackle more than the impersonal, the awe-inspiring and the perfect. 

To my mind, Nevada City is an architecture-and-urbanism masterpiece … yet there were no architects of any name or celebrity involved. There’s no towering genius to attribute all this wonderfulness to. Which prompts a question: Do we really need architects at all? Or are most of today’s architects usefully viewed as ego-driven authoritarians determined to impose and enforce values that most of us find repulsive and/or dismaying? If so, perhaps we’re better-off defending ourselves against them than we are respecting them, let alone deferring to them.


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Architecture, The Good Life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Nevada City and Architectural Theory

  1. Callowman says:

    The sterility of modern architecture may derive in part from its financing. The characteristic architectural unit of today is the development, not the house, and for sure not the addition or the weird little carbuncle that seemingly grows organically between a couple buildings. How different would the contemporary western world look if there had been a stable gold standard throughout the 20th century rather than a fiat currency that inflates apace, encouraging developers to work on a large a scale as possible?


    • Yeah, financing laws and conventions (as well as planning-and-zoning regulatory frameworks) definitely explain a lot. I’m anything but a specialist but I hear from architects that in many areas it’s both impossible and illegal to build what most of us would think of as a satisfying traditional neighborhood. Often what the New Urbanists wind up concerning themselves with most is trying to change zoning laws and financing arrangements.


    • Sir Barken Hyena says:

      That last comment is a really important and totally overlooked question.


    • epiminondas says:

      Excellent points, Callowman.


  2. PatrickH says:

    It’s not that the starchitects are authoritarian. They are toadies, lickspittles, PR flacks entirely in the pay of our true masters…corporate fascists…or should I say fascist corporations (and their now thoroughly cowed and co-opted “regulators” in government).


  3. slumlord says:

    I wouldn’t blame the developers, they’ll do whatever makes them money. If the public wants polished turds they’ll provide. On the other hand, if the public wanted beautiful buildings the developers would make sure they got them. The developers ensure that capital is allocated efficiently to satiate public desire.

    The problem is that the average Joe seems quite happy to live in shitbox and thus the economic case for poor architecture is made. The desire for beautiful architecture seems to belong to people who possess a modicum of aesthetic sensibility.

    Interesting show on the telly the other night about Camberwell Grove in London. Essentially, it was an elegant late Georgian St that fell on hard times. It was earmarked for destruction by local council (dominated by the working class) and was only saved by “yuppies” in the 1960’s. They got lots of pushback from the “workers” who wanted the slums cleared and nice new apartments put up.

    Architects and town planners are equally as guilty. I’m building a house at the moment and you would not believe how hard it was to get planning approval to build a reproduction Victorian style house. The other issue is most architects don’t know how to design traditional types of buildings.


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  5. Bravo, dear Paleo Friend. This is the superbly brilliant piece. The Manolo has long enjoyed the ramshackle charms of the Nevada City, but now he will enjoy them with your words in mind.


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