Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace (John Simson, arch.)

Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace (John Simson, arch.)

Reading a recent monograph on the work of John Simpson, I am struck again by the difference between British and American classicism. For one thing, the former is rooted in a much shorter tradition. Moreover, it is a tradition that is, in a sense, academic. Or, at least bookish. In the first instance it derived from (British) pattern books, which were the main source of information for the early colonial builders. Nineteenth-century American classicism, on the other hand, was chiefly the product of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where many American architects of that period were trained. Although there were many talented self-taught architects such as Stanford White, Ralph Adams Cram, Bertram Goodhue, and Horace Trumbauer, the leading figures—Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, John Russell Pope, and Thomas Hastings—were EBA alumni, and brought a correct and sometimes rather dry approach to classicism. This is in contrast to nineteenth-century British classicism, which was not based in the academy but in practice. The influence of  architects such as John Nash, John Soane, and C. R. Cockerell is evident in Simpson’s designs which are more self-assuredly original than those of many of his American contemporaries which can be often more concerned with correctness than with invention. It is also, interestingly, often more urban, as in this photo (below) of a new residential development along Old Church Street in London’s Chelsea.



serveimageThis week the short list was announced for London’s new Center for Music, which will be the future home of the London Symphony Orchestra and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The usual suspects include Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, and Snøhetta. Traditionalists need not apply; that’s a shame. Léon Krier has recently written about a new site for the hall, and it would have been nice to see at least one name like John Simpson or Robert Adam on the list. Or Bill Rawn of Boston, who has designed some admirable low-key concert halls. But the Symphony Orchestra wanted fireworks. Gehry’s Disney Hall is hard to beat, but London may not be the place for his brand of acrobatics. Piano’s hall will have red seats, and be predictably workmanlike. Foster will be Foster. My money is on Amanda Levete. She is teaming up with Jack Diamond and Donald Schmitt of Toronto, who have designed opera houses in Toronto and St. Petersburg, and a concert hall in Montreal. If London wants a building that sounds good and can be built without breaking the bank—or cutting corners—they should consider this team.


serveimageThere is a long tradition of architectural research in structures—one thinks of Nervi, Candela, Torroja, and Frei Otto, the pioneers of concrete like Perret, and much earlier the Byzantine and Gothic builders. Architects have sometimes experimented successfully with new building techniques and materials (Rudolph invented striated concrete blocks; Foster was the first to use structural glass fins). But research into how people use buildings is rare. The profession has always recognized the value of so-called post-occupancy evaluation, and the need for knowledge based on how people actually behave in and use buildings. The problem has been that this kind of research is extremely complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. Moreover, it fits into practice with difficulty. There is no advantage to a practitioner in showing the long-term deficiencies of his design decisions. Negative feedback is merely embarrassing. There is a professional reluctance to “tell tales out of school” and to reveal clients’ confidences, or to suggest that what the client got was less than perfect. A scientist can publicly document experiments that failed without risk—indeed, that is the basis of the scientific method—but an architect’s reputation would suffer were he to do so. (I learned about this when I wrote The Biography of a Building, about the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts.)

It would require a sort of unbiased consumer protection agency to do true post-occupancy evaluation. But who would fund it? Not the original designer, whose reputation can only be hurt. Not the client, who may be criticized for misuse of funds. Not the building industry, which may be legally liable for deficiencies. Not the current building owner who will only risk reaping bad pubicity. A government-funded consumer agency seems like a long shot in the current climate. The most likely areas for intensive research into human behavior in buildings would be focused on specific subjects of vital public concern: thermal comfort related to energy conservation, crowd behavior in building disasters, the health effects of healthcare environments.

What is the alternative? In the past, architects were relatively conservative when it came to innovation. Palladio researched archaeological ruins, and innovated in formal aspects of building, but the plans of his villas follow tried and true models. Architects based their work on a Canon—buildings that were considered exemplary and provided field-tested models. I have many friends who are “traditionalists” and  “classicists.” What distinguishes their work from that of the self-styled avant-garde is that they tend to lean on historic precedent and traditional types for design decisions, rather than conjuring up novel forms and building arrangements out of thin air. This is true both in building design and urban design. Slow and steady wins the day.


Eeero Saarinen and Kevin Roche with model of TWA, 1957

Eero Saarinen and Kevin Roche with model of TWA, 1957

“Dwelling narrowly on the legacy of designers gives the impression that architectural history concerns great men, not great places,” writes Lance Hosey in the Huffington Post. Hosey was commenting on an essay that I wrote recently in Architect, in which I speculated about what might have happened if certain celebrated unbuilt projects had actually been realized. It is fashionable to think that architecture is not the creation of great men—or great women—but is it true? Does anyone really believe that the spirit of Louis Kahn did not manifest itself in his designs? When he died, that spirit died with him. When Eero Saarinen died, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo continued the practice, but Saarinen’s mercurial creativity was absent. The art of building is a peculiar art that relies on team work—in that sense it resembles film-making rather than novel-writing. But as in film-making, the auteur is often present. I remember working for Moshe Safdie in the 1970s. There were a dozen or so people in the office, but when Safdie was away, a certain inertia set in as people waited for him to return and make decisions. The decisions might concern alternatives developed by someone else, but there was never any doubt about who would have the final word.


Skirkanich Hall

Skirkanich Hall

There has been much excitement in the Twittersphere concerning the appointment of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects to design the Obama presidential library. A no-drama president has picked no-drama architects is the gist of it. No drama? Putting an 8-story blank wall on 53rd Street, as they did in the American Folk Art Museum is nothing if not dramatic. So is designing a skylight in the form of a glass box, then theatrically cantilevering it out at each end, as they did in the new Barnes Foundation. A less well known building, Skirkanich Hall at the University of Pennsylvania presents a half-blank brick wall to the street, and in case you miss it, the shiny glazed brick is green, unlike every other brick building on that campus. Skirkanich stands out in other ways; to further call attention to itself it breaks the building line of the street, like a pushy person in a queue. The neighboring Moore School Building (on the right in the photo), which was altered by Paul Cret in 1926, is much more urbanistically circumspect—and much lower key architecturally, after all, its just a workaday engineering teaching building, not a monument. But TWBTA tends to make a fuss when they build, whether it’s a facade or a simple bench. “Look at me, I’ve been designed” seems to be the message. Implicitly this privileges the person doing the designing. But this is exactly not what a presidential library needs; its subject should take center stage.