Norman Foster is building an office building in downtown Philadelphia. The Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, a 1,121-foot skyscraper, will be the tallest building in the city. Passing by the other day, I noticed elevator cabs scuttling up and down the side of the building. They reminded me of the external elevators on the Pompidou Center in Paris. Typical High Tech detail, I thought to myself, before I realized that these were construction elevators. The actual core is deep inside the building in the conventional fashion. And unlike Foster’s Hongkong & Shanghai Bank building, the structure is concealed as well (except for a vestigial expression of cross bracing on the otherwise pristine glass facade). Like almost all contemporary office buildings, in fact like almost all buildings of any kind today, this is a glass box. How times have changed! The truth is that the exposed structure and plumbing and ductwork that characterized High Tech architecture never made much sense. It weathered badly, for one thing—the Pompidou Center required an expensive facelift after only 20 years. The goal of infinitely adaptable architecture didn’t make sense either. The time-tested way to adapt is not to change a building but to move to another one. In 2014, the London Sunday Times reported that Lloyd’s was considering moving out of its headquarters building. It had already relocated a quarter of its operations to less expensive premises, and was subletting the space. The newspaper quoted Lloyd’s chief executive Richard Ward: “There is a fundamental problem with this building. Everything is exposed to the elements, and that makes it very costly.” Lloyd’s did not move, but it did sell the building to a Chinese insurance company (at a steep mark-down because of the inside-out design), and now leases space. So much for adaptive architecture. High Tech 0, Low Tech 1.
Isabella Lobkowicz kindly sent me a copy of her recent book, Almost 100 Chairs for 100 People. “It’s curious how many designers design chairs,” she writes in the Foreword, “but nobody seems to think about the characters who are going to use them.” Princess Isabella (she is married to a Bohemian prince) rectifies this situation with a delightful sketchbook—published by Moleskine—of imaginary chairs. The first, “a chair for the explorer,” is an extremely tall chair with a built-in ladder that allows the occupant to scan the vicinity with his ever-present binoculars. This chair reminds me of the tall chairs made by the pioneering balloonist and aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932). Santos-Dumont held what he called “aerial dinner parties,” and the chairs were intended to give his guests the experience of flying, that is, seeing the world from above. He made the chairs himself, being a skilled craftsman (he built his own flying machines). Santos-Dumont was an unusually innovative character. Finding checking his pocket watch awkward while flying, he asked his friend Louis Cartier to make him a more convenient timepiece—the result was the first wristwatch.
I’ve been watching Civilisation, the 1969 BBC television series, on YouTube. It’s a refreshing experience, and a reminder of how much the documentary film form has been influenced—I almost wrote infected—by Ken Burns. Instead of a revolving door of talking “expert” heads Civilisation makes do with a single presenter. There are no voice-overs pushing a narrative along, no actors dramatizing, no staged sequences, instead we have the wise (and rather dapper) Kenneth Clark to guide us. The 13-part series is subtitled “A Personal View,” and that is one of its strengths. Clark, an art historian, wrote as well as narrated, and the text is frankly opinionated, without an attempt at even-handedness or objectivity—like the best art criticism. (Civilisation set the stage for a series of similar single point-of-view documentaries by Alastair Cooke, Jacob Bronowski, Robert Hughes, and John Berger.) The direction, by Michael Gill, is wonderfully slow. There are long sequences without dialogue—although always with contemporaneous music. Instead of jumping from one subject to another the camera lingers, long and lovingly on works of art, so that we have time to contemplate, to absorb, and to think. Refreshing, too, is the absence of the political correctness that has come to characterize so much public television.
Writing a history of seating raises the problem of nomenclature. Take the couch, for example. The Greeks and the Romans dined on couches, which were really more like beds, which may be why the word derives from the French coucher, to lie down, although to complicate matters the French don’t call a couch a couche, but rather a canapé. (You can use that word in English, if you want to be fancy.) Midwesterners used to call couches davenports, after the Massachusetts company that manufactured them. When I was growing up in Canada, we called a couch a chesterfield, a Britishism which has since gone out of fashion. The term is said to have derived from the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, who commissioned a heavily tufted leather couch in the eighteenth century. Couch or sofa? Sofa is a Turkish word, so is ottoman, although the latter is now commonly used to refer to a footstool. Couch seems to have prevailed; we say “casting couch” and “couch potato,” and psychiatrists have couches, not sofas. Sofas seem to be more domestic, which may be why a couch that converts into a bed is called a sleeper sofa or a sofa bed. Go figure.
These days, urban buildings are playing just one penny-whistle tune: glass, glass, glass. It’s as if there were a material shortage and we had run out of everything else. I don’t miss exposed concrete, but what about limestone and brick, terra cotta and granite? But no, architecture has been reduced to one material—even spandrels and soffits are glass. What explains this phenomenon? Well, of course it’s cheap. The engineer figures out the structure, and the architect wraps it in a glass skin. And the helpful glass manufacturers work out the details for you. It’s also easier to design. No more worrying about junctions between materials, no more textures or finishes, no more colors, no more studying shadowing effects. Just wrap it up and it’s ready to go. Nor do you have to worry about energy—all-glass buildings are as green as you want. Houston, Boston, London, Dubai—it doesn’t matter. It used to be that cities had distinctive architectural characters, derived from different materials, different climates, different tastes. No more. It’s just all glass, all the time.