Witold

NOIR TOWER

doodle-810-ivory-towerIn a New York Times op-ed on the failed political career of Michael Ignatieff, the intellectual who had a short-lived stint as leader of  Canada’s Liberal party, David Brooks argues that academics are ill-suited to be politicians.“In academia, you are rewarded for candor, intellectual rigor and a willingness to follow an idea to its logical conclusion,” he writes. “In politics, all of these traits are ruinous.” Candor, intellectual rigor? This rosy view of the academic world is obviously that of an outsider, for academia is rife with obfuscation and intellectual fashions—and with politics. Teachers woo the electorate (the students), who annually vote (fill out teaching evaluations) on performance. Assistant professors wangle for promotion and tenure (tenure is like a safe political seat); old professors just wrangle. There are endless committees since, like the House and the Senate, university departments are self-administering. The university administration (White House) tries to steer the faculty (Congress); the faculty stymies these efforts whenever possible. When I watch House of Cards, the plotting and back-stabbing remind me of faculty meetings and search committees, although in the ivory tower nobody actually dies. As Henry Kissinger, who was a Harvard professor for almost 20 years, observed: “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

 

MIESADVENTURE

Mecanoo & Martinez + Johnson

Mecanoo & Martinez + Johnson

The Washington, DC Public Library System, which is planning a makeover of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, has released what it calls “preliminary design concepts” by the three architecture firms competing for the job: Studios  Architecture and the Freelon Group; Patkau Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, and Krueck + Sexton Architects; and Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson. The MLK Library (1966) is a late work of Mies van der Rohe, completed after the master’s death in 1969, although designed while he was still active, simultaneously working on the unbuilt Mansion House Square project in London. Usually I don’t like to comment on unbuilt designs, but since the library is built, I will make an exception. The MLK Library is not a masterpiece, but it deserves better than the shabby treatment is receives from Studios and Mecanoo, who place fashionably skewed boxes above (and overlapping) the existing building in feeble attempts to bring excitement to the work of an architect who intentionally avoided excitement. “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good,” he once said. Only Patkau seems to have grasped that deference rather than contrast is the right design strategy. (Patkau adds a floor whose design is almost Miesian.) The library has announced that it “will work with community input to develop a redesign.” Commendable but also scary. It requires architectural sophistication to square the circle that is the particular design challenge of this project. Subtlety is not the usual product of public meetings, where the noisiest often prevail. Poor old Mies.
Update: The library passed over the low-key Patkau proposal and chose the “exciting” Mecanoo scheme. It will be interesting to see if such an insensitive defacement of a modernist landmark will pass muster with the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission. Let’s hope not.

Studios Architecture and the Freelon Group

 

Patkau Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, and Krueck + Sexton Architects

Patkau Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, and Krueck + Sexton Architects

 

EXAGGERATED INESSENTIALS

Krishna-P.-Singh-Center-for-Nanotechnology-00002The Singh Center for Nanotechnology, designed by Weiss/Manfredi, has received glowing reviews in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Architect, and Architectural Record. But in the rush to praise, the critics have overlooked an important issue. The building is located on the edge of the Penn campus on Walnut Street, which at that point is more of a high-speed motor way than a city street, nevertheless, it is a street, something that the Singh Center barely acknowledges. The building breaks the street face with a wide opening. Not even a city square, it’s mostly grass. It’s true that the University of Pennsylvania occupies a leafy campus, but like most urban universities the green spaces are in secluded, inner environments, not facing the street. It’s hard to know what to make of a front lawn on Walnut Street. It strikes me as a suburban gesture, but then the Singh Center seems ill at ease in its urban surroundings and with its canted, sculptural forms would be more at home on a rural site. The forecourt has another unintended effect: it highlights the façade of the physics building across the street, a distinctly ungainly Brutalist relic of the 1960s. Its facade is visible under the most striking feature of the Singh Center: a 68-foot cantilevered portion of the building. Cantilevered boxes have become a modernist cliché—one thinks of Diller, Scofidio & Renfro’s ICA Building, Williams & Tsien’s Barnes Museum, and Integrated Architecture’s Lamar Corporate Headquarters. Unlike the windmilling terraces of Wright’s Fallingwater, these recent cantilevered boxes are designed merely to impress. “Look what I can do.” As an architect friend of mine commented about the Singh Center, “It seems  to me to  be an essay in exaggerated  inessentials.”

 

MODELMAKING

3D printer study model (Ike Kligerman Barkley)

3D printer study model (Ike Kligerman Barkley)

Tom Kligerman, of Ike Kligerman Barkley, was showing me his new 3D printer the other day. His firm specializes in high-end houses, mostly though not exclusively traditional in design. Their printer, about the size of a Smart Car, is used to produce iterative study models that are extremely detailed, as if made by a Swiss watchmaker or a particularly obsessive ship-in-the-bottle hobbyist. 3D printers are all the rage in architecture schools. I can see why they’re popular with students. It’s sort of like having an in-house professional modelmaker—he can make even your half-baked efforts look good. But is it a good learning tool? I doubt it. 3D printers are capable of printing anything, buildable or unbuildable, functional or dysfunctional, sensible or nonsensical. It is not that acquiring modelmaking skills makes you a better architect, but the process of building models—like the act of sketching—does teach you about design. It takes several hours to print a complex shape, and I suspect that the demand on 3D printer time in schools will preclude them being used as iterative design tools. They will just make pretty models.

 

GOOD FOOTBALL, SLOW TRAINS

rose-bowl-floats

Rose Bowl Parade

I am not a football fan, but I inevitably watch the end of games on many a Sunday evening, waiting for CBS to broadcast 60 Minutes. It is a brutal, plodding game, the players marching the ball up and down the field, a yard at a time, with the occasional flurry of a long pass or a field goal. A game of armored might, the players resembling Roman centurions, with little of the finesse and speed of basketball or hockey. Nevertheless, I’m always impressed by the power and energy of the football business—the players and coaches, the referees, the commentators. I am also impressed that everything stops for football—including 60 Minutes. So many resources are devoted to this spectacle: college athletic programs, publicly-built stadiums, nationally-broadcast games, the urban spectacle of the Bowl parades. And, except for the rare players’ strike, it all runs smoothly. I think of this whenever I take Amtrak; slow, often late, rarely on time. American know-how was once globally admired. No more. In fields like transportation we are no longer the leaders, in some field—education, health—we spend more than anyone and get less. The big exceptions are entertainment and professional sports. Go Eagles.