Watched Jonathan Demme’s film version of Ibsen’s A Master Builder the other evening. What struck me was Wallace Shawn in the title role, a combination of charm and egoism that, in my experience, is typical of most successful architects. Charm is required to convince clients, review panels, and community boards of the merits of one’s case; egoism is required to convince oneself of the merits of an as-yet unbuilt, perhaps untried, idea. I have never been convinced by the cinematic portrayal of architects—Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead, Paul Newman in Towering Inferno, Richard Gere in Intersection. (Gere, at least, did have the Armani suits.) Burly Albert Finney in Two for the Road, was charming and ego-centered by turns, but he was too physical—one could imagine him playing rugby. But architects, at least in my experience of students in college, are rarely athletes and never of team sports. Tennis and squash, maybe, but not baseball or football. Short, self-contained, charismatic, Shawn’s Halvard Solness was perfect.
I read an amazing (for me) fact recently. A participant in a Getty Center colloquium on building preservation casually observed that the life cycle of conventionally built (masonry and wood) buildings is about 120 years (before major repairs), whereas for modernist buildings it is only half that time—sixty years. Consider Yale’s masterpieces of the 1960s: Louis Kahn’s art gallery, Paul Rudolph’s A & A, Eero Saarinen’s colleges. They have all recently undergone major renovation, at a cost far exceeding the original construction cost. In the words of Yale dean, Robert A. M. Stern, “They cost pennies to build and millions to renovate.”
Sixty years! You might say that architects today are delivering half the product that they used to. For a long time, a building’s durability was taken for granted. It might be clad in marble, brick, or stucco, but with adequate maintenance (cleaning, re-pointing, painting and plastering), it could be expected to last. This was because construction consisted of heavy masonry walls, whether you were building a villa, a palazzo, or a basilica. This changed when reinforced concrete came into common use. The new material seemed almost magical, allowing dramatic cantilevers, shell-thin vaults, skinny columns. It took several decades to discover that steel and concrete were precarious partners, and that porous, fragile concrete was a poor substitute for stone and brick as external cladding. By then a generation of Brutalist buildings had come into being. Structural steel is durable, but the lightweight glass curtain wall has its own problems: gaskets, sealants, glass coatings. A sixty-year life? probably.
Modern architecture looks so, well modern. Efficient, engineered, precise, machine-made. Who knew? “Oh, by the way. This isn’t your grandfather’s building. Don’t expect it to be around for centuries. In fact, expect to shell out much more in sixty years to keep it going than you paid to build it. Or just knock it down. After all, it wasn’t meant to last.”
The current copy of my alumni magazine, McGill News, contains an article on the university’s new health center, a 2.5 million square-foot behemoth that consolidates no less than four existing health facilities. It’s hard to characterize this building, other than to say that it is big. The article does not identify the architect. Perhaps because this particular broth had so many cooks. The health center was built by a public-private partnership, that is, the building was designed, built, and financed by a private consortium, a process increasingly popular for public as well as private buildings. Originally, Moshe Safdie was commissioned to prepare the master plan, but he withdrew when it became apparent that the consortium, not the planner, would be calling the shots. In the event, the building appears to have been designed by at least four architectural firms. The predictable result, which a local journalist characterized as “Legoland,” exhibits no discernible architectural conviction. I recently wrote an article about Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium, a building whose design was guided by the patients’ wellbeing. The new Montreal hospital appears to have been the result of a combination of compromise, expediency, and the bottom line. All the sadder since one of the buildings it replaces, the Royal Victoria Hospital, was a building of real architectural merit, designed by Henry Saxon Snell, a Victorian Scot who is said to have modeled his turreted limestone design on the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. It was built in 1893 and served for 122 years. One cook, one fine broth.
The architectural folly has a long history. James Wyatt designed Broadway Tower in the Cotswalds in 1794. While it was more or less habitable—William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones rented it as a studio for a time—it was not primarily intended to be a functional shelter. It was an architectural whimsy—and understood as such. It struck me the other day that we take our follies much too seriously. Philip Johnson’s Glass House, for example, is a stereotypical folly: impractical, unusable in extreme weather (it lacks proper ventilation and insect screens), not really a house at all. Yet it is a beautiful pavilion. However, like the Farnsworth House, it is mistakenly taken to be a work of domestic architecture. More than that, it is often represented as exemplary—the expression of the essence of design. That, surely, is a mistake our forebears would never have made. When Wyatt built a country house, like Castle Coole in Ireland, he followed well-established Palladian conventions. There is a time to play and a time to be serious.