10 March 2008

What So Hard About Lintels?

What the neo-con progress-mavens out there don't seem to get about anti-overdevelopment kvetchers like me is I'm not against development in New York City per se; I'm against the kind of development that is taking place. What's wrong with it, you ask impatiently through clenched teeth? Aside from it being, on the whole, too big? (Actually, the neo-cons would ask that last part—I just added it on.)

I think I can nail the problem in one word: lintels. What's so hard about lintels? Decorative lintels, I mean. Attractive, contributing lintels. Are they so hard to make? Are they so god-awful expensive that they can't be crowbarred into your construction budget? Do you hate them because they're beautiful? What is it? Why won't developers feature them in their designs?

OK, first a little Architecture 101, just in case folks are scratching their heads, thinking I'm talking about beans or something. Lintels are those horizontal features that cap windows and doors. In classical times, they serves a practical, load-bearing function, but for many centuries since they've been put to mainly ornamental use. Along with cornices and stoops, they're what make well-preserved brownstones look so great and make people want to live in them. Just look out your window. You'll see lintels everywhere, carved and molded in just about any shape.

Modern developers and architects can't be bothered with lintels. They cut out an unadorned rectangle for each window, stick a pane of glass in there, and leave it at that. Sometimes they make the barest of efforts, placing a simple strip of white stone above the window. The lack of lintels, I am convinced, is the primary reason that most new condo complexes and apartment houses are such eyesores. They are composed of flat, featureless sheets of brick or cement. A lack of cornices, pilasters, grand entranceways and attractive window panes certainly hurt the cause, but lintels are mainly what you're missing when you gaze on a new structure and feel empty inside.

See the picture above, of two similarly sized buildings side by side? On the left, you have an old structure with old lintels. On the right, a new work with zero lintels. Where would you want to live? More importantly, which address would you rather look at as you pass down the street?

Everything looks better framed, and windows are no exception. Here's a building in Tribeca. Not bad. At least the builder is trying to mix up the brickface a bit.

But here's an older building across the street. Look at the lively, handsome detail of those arching lintels, and the unusual shape that the lintels insist the windows be. There's no contest.

One can find illustrations of the visual value imparted by lintels throughout the City. Here's one on the Upper West Side. On the left, graceful, garlanded austerity. On the right, slapdash angled crap avec vents.

And when you get lintelless building next to lintelless building, you start to enter Soviet Bloc territory. This wall of air-conditioned, four-square crapitecture in Brooklyn just about makes you want to take your own life.

That is, until you walk a few yards down and are saved by this vision. What an interesting and individual facade. Someone must have actually given a damn.

If I wanted to do today's developers a favor (and I don't, I really, really don't), I'd tell them to start incorporating lintels into their designs. They'd have so much the easier time with community boards.


Greg said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you on this one. However, its not just the developers that are messing it up. It's the architecture intelligentsia. As soon as you put lintels or a cornice on a building they starting whining about "nostalgia" and "ersatz historicism."

Trish said...

Amen! It's as if modern builders are deliberately avoiding anything that requires a bit of artistry. It's all bland these days... and a real shame.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely correct, but could we please avoid the pumped-on-steroids look of the fake lintels,pediments, etc, constructed from Dryvit and stucco on the infamous "Belvedere" apt. buildings in Greenpoint and W'burg? They are far worse than nothing...

Anonymous said...

Well, sure, they're the sort of elements that modernism did its best to obliterate. Of course, none of the examples above come close to being authentically modern, either. You've got half-assed Societ-style modernism on the Brooklyn building, and half-assed postmodernism on the UWS. I think the real problem is cost-cutting and laziness, with the result being a whole bunch of boring, ugly buildings.

Lidian said...

I coudn't agree more.

Ingrid Harb said...

I agree that a lot of new developments (especially in Brooklyn) are unbelievably uncreative and ugly...but I sincerely doubt that lintels are the answer to good architecture. Good design is obviously very subjective, but it should always be seen in a contemporary context and not try to copy a time and/or style gone by.

Mez said...

Altho' I'd agree in general with your point here, most of what you are talking about isn't strictly a 'lintel', which is a necessary structural element, and usually doesn't show. It's too late after midnight, and I'm expecting visitors in the morning, so I'm not looking up what they're called right now.

Also, altho' the bits you're admiring sometimes 'just' were there for decorative effect, they did start out as practical building details, mainly to do with diverting water away from the windows. These days they tend to rely on assorted sealants. Don't know how well they'll be working in 100 or so years; some only have a life of 20 years, which is almost nothing in the life of a well-built structure.

Anonymous said...

Mez - I had the misfortune to stay in a hotel with no lintels during a rainstorm. The seals failed quite miserably.

JJFad said...

With so many developers opting for 'glassy curtain wall' structures, there seems to be little room left for architectural embellishment. . . unless one views the color selection of exterior glass to be a reflection of architectural style and aesthetic beauty.
I wish the inexpensive and ever-present 'brick' would just be used more creatively (ie: the color/geometrical design contrasts of the Carnegie Tower; the grand scale + clean lines of the 'Archive' in the West Village)