Writing about the late Jon Jerde in a recent issue of Architect, Karrie Jacobs brought me up short with a wonderfully pithy phrase. She described a Jerde-designed project as “a mille-feuille of the simulated and the real, layer upon layer upon layer.” Exactly. I remember visiting the newly-built Horton Plaza in San Diego, an urban shopping mall that Jerde designed in 1985. My first reaction was revulsion—this was postmodernism on steroids, cliché piled upon cliché. But then the Mille-Feuille Effect kicked in. The stagey architecture was obviously fake, but the sun and fresh air were real (the public spaces were not roofed). The ersatz arches and polychromy were artificial, yet the views of downtown buildings were real enough—this was one mall that was was not hermetically sealed off from its surroundings. And of course the people who were clearly enjoying themselves in this architectural jungle gym were real, too.
I was interviewed recently by Gil Roth for his literary-cultural podcast, The Virtual Memories Show. At one point he asked me what I thought about the future of architecture. No one had ever posed that question directly to me before, and when I answered I realized—much to my surprise—that I was not sanguine about the prospect. It seems to me that several factors have come together to produce a perfect storm (sorry), upending this ancient art.
Education, always a difficult undertaking in any creative field, has become divorced from practice. The lingering effect of so-called history-theory has not helped, nor has the technology of the Digital Age. The study of history was for long the foundation of learning to be an architect. Because architecture is not a science, there is no “theory of architecture” undergirding practice. Rather, there is the canon of built works, which provides continued inspiration—inspiration, not models. Turning away from the past today’s architects risk stranding themselves in the present—or worse, in the future. As for digital technology: ever since the Renaissance, architects used sketching, drawing, and model-making to explore architectural ideas, evolving a language of scales and graphic conventions to communicate their ideas—to themselves, and their clients. This language is in the process of disappearing. The result: we are making it up as we go along.
The effect of globalization on architectural practice cannot be understated. In the past, architectural fame was regional, in small countries it might be national; now it is worldwide. This raises the stakes considerably. “Getting the next job,” as H. H. Richardson observed, was always the architect’s greatest challenge. With globalization, the next job may come from anywhere in the world. Who could resist that? Of course, that has taken architects far afield, building in places and for people with whom they have no intimate connection. This does not necessarily produce better buildings.
An important side effect of globalization is the supremacy of the architect’s brand. Le Corbusier and Mies were well-known, but Renzo and Zaha are global brands. If you are an Azerbajani, say, and you have commissioned (at extra cost) a brand-name architect from halfway around the world, you expect a brand-name building. A splash. An event. This produces a troubling result. What used to distinguish buildings from other artifacts was that they were built to last hundreds of years. This resulted in a certain conservatism, less concern with the latest fashion (that was left to interior decorators) and more awareness of the long haul. Brand-name buildings are unveiled as if they were the latest models of cars, or dresses, or music videos. They are there to be immediately enjoyed, and by implication, will be disposed of when fashions change. What happens when buildings become as temporary as smart phones? The architect as a large-scale product designer is not a happy thought.
Frei Otto (1925-2015) is an inspired choice for the Pritzker Prize. When I was a young architect, he was the man of the moment. I thought that his German pavilion at Montreal’s Expo ’67 was the best building of the exhibition. The sense of fluid, uncompartmented space created by the tent structure was something entirely new. That was just a warm-up for his breathtaking Olympic Stadium in Munich. I saw that building in 1972 and wrote about it—my second ever published article. Otto was later overshadowed by postmodernism, and by celebrity-driven architecture, but his lightweight architecture prepared the way for architects such as Piano, Foster, and Grimshaw. Otto—an engineer as well as an architect—never used structure as a fashion statement; his solutions were always rooted in iron-clad logic.
Downtown Fort Worth is a lively urban place that includes a central plaza, shops and restaurants, movie houses, theaters, a concert hall, and a public library. At the head of Main Street is the 1895 Tarrant County Courthouse, which resembles the state capitol in Austin, but with a clock tower instead of a dome. The downtown architecture is a mixture of styles: the Renaissance Revival courthouse, Sullivanesque office blocks from the early 1900s, Art Deco buildings from the 1930s, and modern towers from the 1980s (notably two glass hulks by Paul Rudolph). Most of the commercial construction tracked recurring oil booms. “When we get some money we like to build,” Edward Bass tells me. Bass is the motive force behind Sundance Square, the development company that is responsible for the revival of Fort Worth. There are different models for successful downtown renewal: an activist civic leader (Mayor Joe Reilly in Charleston), a take-charge business improvement district (Center City District in Philadelphia), a thriving real-estate market (Washington, D.C.). In Fort Worth, it’s a benevolent developer. Sundance Square owns about 30 city blocks in downtown (currently about half built-up), and has been developing them since the mid 1980s. This sort of long-term stewardship is unusual. Bass had read Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte, and he took their teaching to heart. The result is commercial development that is pedestrian-oriented, lively at sidewalk level, and—most unusual—small in size. “We wanted lots of buildings, not a few big buildings,” says Bass. The tallest new office building is 16 stories, and most are much lower than that. Unlike most American cities, which have “exciting” skylines, Fort Worth is more like a downtown of the 1940s—human scale. The architecture is like that, too. David M. Schwarz Architects is responsible for all Sundance Square’s commercial buildings, as well as the expanded central library, the new concert hall, and some of the county buildings. Normally that would produce mind-numbing uniformity, but Schwarz is a cheerful eclectic with a scenographic bent, so the result is a pragmatic mix of historic buildings, restored landmarks, invented landmarks, repurposed old buildings, and new buildings in a variety of styles: Beaux-Arts classical, Art Deco, Art Moderne, Viennese Secession. Schwarz has described his firm’s goal: “to make places for people, created out of a fabric that was familiar and easy to understand.” In Fort Worth, he succeeded.
The federal government is looking for a developer to build a new suburban home for the FBI. The old FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC is offered in exchange. A 41-year-old public building is going on the block. Admittedly the FBI headquarters (designed in 1975 by Charles F. Murphy & Associates) is an eyesore and won’t be missed (assuming it’s torn down, which seems to be its likely fate). But only 41 years! Washington is full of buildings that are two and three times as old. The first federal office building, the venerable Patent Office, designed by John Mills, opened in 1867 and still serves, albeit as an art gallery. I think that there are several reasons why so many public buildings from the 1970s have short lives. Architectural modernism promotes invention. An earlier generation would have built a generic loft building. Modernism required something more original, although the FBI building was inspired by Le Corbusier’s La Tourette Dominican priory—an odd model for a government office building. “Form follows function” is another reason for short life. Tailoring buildings for one use guarantees problems when they come to be repurposed in the future—as virtually all buildings are at some point. Concrete construction also doesn’t help, since it tends to create structures that are difficult to alter. And, not least, the ugly Brutalist style of the 1970s ensures that there will be no constituency militating for a building’s preservation (except for a few earnest architecture critics). What a waste.