Thursday, November 17, 2011

Meadowbrook Modernism, a Closer Look

Syracuse, NY. 1920s (?) Tudor-style apartment building at Meadowbrook Drive and Brookford Rd.

Syracuse, NY. 1960s (?) apartment buildings on Meadowbrook Drive betwen Brookford and Hurlburt Roads.

Meadowbrook Modernism, a Closer Look
by Samuel D. Gruber (photos: Samuel D. Gruber (Nov 2011)

Both my children attended Nottingham High School, so I've been driving up and down Meadowbrook Drive for years. Sometimes I've walked and biked the miles or so between the school and my house, but it wasn't until last week when I was out looking at bird houses that I really stopped to look at the row of modern style apartment buildings that line the north side of of Meadowbrook between Brookford and Hurlburt Roads. As one moves east there is an interesting progression form 1920s apartment design (Tudor-style) to the modular, rectilinear and flat-roofed style of the 1960s.

True, this Meadowbrook modernism is not Miesian in its purity or its transparency. Laid-up flagstone entrances give a semblance of rugged country contextualism, and in the largest building the tri-partite facade treatment harks back to Deco design of the 1930s. Still, for Syracuse, these buildings are decidely non-traditional. And given the sad fate of many modern buildings in the region, these examples have held up extremely well, and still contribute positively to the neighborhood.

If anyone knows the genesis of these buildings, please let me know.

Modern in Syracuse has gotten a bad name - and many extremely ugly, leaky, poorly lit and badly arranged examples certainly deserve the savaging they have received - and often the wrecking ball, too. The list is too long to recite. It is good, whoever, to remember that modern design, when simply done, can be practical and effective. It was criminal to demolish fine buildings on James Street to erect ugly boxes - many of which are now underutilized. On Meadowbrook, however where the development was new, these modern-style buildings sit lightly on the landscape and decidedly support the very nature of Meadowbrook - a transitional space from suburban to urban settlement.
The row of buildings from the 1960s still holds up very well - good proportions, nice details, and they keep a clean street line enhancing the urban pedestrian experience while maintaining the area's airy and open suburban feel. From Meadowbrook these buildings provide the security of a containment wall, but one can still see the tops of trees overhead.

This type of design is so much better than what was produced after the 1970s, when new buildings were set further back from the street, surrounded by lots of parking a big useless lawns, isolated with the "industrial park" look. Pedestrians were not just discouraged - they were disparaged; even forbidden.

Anyone who has traveled in Europe knows that modernism and good urbanism - even something smacking of "new urbanism" - are not antithetical. In fact, the smoothness and regularity of mass and line, when not overdone or overblown, can enhance an urban experience - something true since the ancient insulae and Renaissance palazzi of Italian cities. Maintaining the street line, and especially the corner, is very important. Fortunately, we are coming around to this view again. The new downtown buildings in the Armory Square area demonstrate this (the Center of Excellence - though a striking, even sculptural form remarkable in may ways; does not). We need to extend good urbanism further into neighborhoods.

1 comment:

  1. Nice piece, Sam. I like how you tie modernism into regular standards for good urbanism.