“Architecture is the picture frame and not the picture” is a memorable quote attributed to the mid-century California modernist, William Wurster. Wurster, a notable teacher as well as an architect, was reminding his students that architecture is always a setting, not the main event. I thought of Wurster’s observation recently when I was writing an essay for Architect on the challenges of architectural biography. Why are there so few first-rate biographies of architects, I asked? Or, to put it another way, why don’t first-rate biographers such as David McCullough, Edmund Morris, and Walter Isaacson, take the life of an architect as their subject? Is it that there are simply too few readers who are interested in what architects actually do? People are fascinated by cars, for example, but they are not that interested in how—and by whom—they are designed. You can count recognizable car designers on one hand: Ferdinand Porsche (Volkswagen Beetle), Alec Issigonis (Mini), Raymond Loewy (Studebaker Commander), Harley Earl (1953 Corvette), Pinninfarina (Giulietta Spider). Similarly, people recognize iconic buildings (the White House, the Empire State, San Francisoco City Hall) without necessarily knowing—or caring—who built or designed them. Or, as a friend suggested, perhaps architects are just not that important in the overall scheme of things. After all, what would you rather read about, the person who made the picture frame, or the one who painted the picture?
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.
You can divide residential architects into two categories: those who design for their clients, and those who design for their colleagues. When the work of Category I is published, it is in mass market magazines such as Architectural Digest and Elle Decor; the work of Category II appears in professional journals and architectural monographs. These are read by architecture students, which may be why Category IIers tend to be invited to teach. Another reason is that Category II is interested in originality and innovation, which attracts tyros. In truth, the innovation is rather narrow: note the current popularity of black-stained wood, skinny columns, and prefabrication. Category I architects are more concerned with what has worked in the past, which makes their work more traditional, although the range encompasses regionalism, vernacular styles, and eclecticism.
The situation in institutional and commercial building is different. It would be almost impossible for a Category I architect to win an international competition for a library, museum, or concert hall today. In commercial buildings, Category II architects likewise dominate since the media and marketing privilege the new-new thing. A Category I architect must count on the (rare) cases of exceptional patrons (college presidents, corporate CEOs) who are prepared to buck fashion and take the longer view.
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.
MessyNessyChic, a blog about libraries and books, recently featured the old Cincinnati Main Library, built in 1874 and demolished in 1955, less than a century later. The period photographs show a building of subtlety and sophistication. The four-story facade on downtown’s Vine Street is pragmatically built up to the sidewalk (like Chicago’s Harold T. Washington Library), and gives nothing away about the extraordinary space within. It is a “room full of books” what better image for a library than that? The architect was James W. McLaughlin (1834-1923). Born in the city, he apprenticed with a prominent local architect, James Keys Wilson (1828-1894). In addition to the library, McLaughlin also designed the city’s art museum and zoo. The most prolific Cincinnati architect of that period was probably the British-born Samuel Hannaford (1835-1911), who designed the city hall and the Music Hall. By the second decade of the twentieth century, there seems to have been a sense that outside architectural expertise was required, especially for the new building type: the skyscraper. Cass Gilbert was brought in to build what was then the tallest office building outside New York City, Delano & Aldrich designed a soaring moderne slab that anticipated Rockefeller Center, and Paul Cret was consulting architect on the beautiful Art Deco railroad terminal. Since then, this trend has continued as many civic buildings have been designed by imported stars: Michael Graves, Cesar Pelli, and Zaha Hadid. This sometimes makes for good buildings, but one can still look back fondly to a time when local architects produced splendid designs like the old Main Library.