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.
I came across the following passage recently.
There have always been dazzling personalities that flashed out of the surrounding gloom like the writing on the wall at the great king’s feast; but they are not manifestations of healthy art. They are phenomena. The sanest, most wholesome art is that which is the heritage of all the people, the natural language through which they express their joy of life, their achievement of just living; and this is civilization,—not commercial enterprises, not industrial activity, not the amassing of fabulous wealth, not increase of population or of empire. These may accompany civilization, but they do not prove it.
This was written by Ralph Adams Cram, the introduction to his Church Building, published in 1899. I read this at the same time as numerous fulsome encomia appeared in the media on the occasion of the death of Zaha Hadid, certainly a “dazzling personality.” She was also, in Cram’s sense, a phenomenon. Like so many leading architects today, her work was personal, eccentric, and idiosyncratic, the very opposite of a natural language, a popular heritage. Not an architecture grounded in a particular place, like Gaudí’s equally eccentric buildings, but global in nature, built in faraway lands for faraway people often of fabulous wealth. Accompanying civilization, but not proving it.
The other day we drove to Mount Cuba, a horticultural center in Delaware. The forest garden is part of an estate built in the 1930s by Lammot du Pont Copeland and his wife Pamela, a branch of the mighty Delaware family. We went to look at the trillium garden, but I was also impressed by the house, a very large Colonial Revival mansion that was completed in 1937. The beautiful brick architecture was exquisite, simple to the point of distillation. The design was the work of Victorine and Samuel Homsey. Samuel (1904-1994), a native of Boston, graduated from MIT and met and married Victorine du Pont (1900-98), who had studied at the Cambridge School of Domestic and Landscape Architecture for Women. They set up shop in Delaware, which is where Victorine had family contacts; theirs was probably the first husband-and-wife practice in the United States. In addition to Mount Cuba they were responsible for several building on the nearby Du Pont estate, Winterthur, as well as the Delaware Art Museum. The Museum of Modern Art selected their house design to represent the International Style for the 1938 Paris Exhibition, but they were not modernist converts. “We certainly are not modern if that means following worshipfully the so called functional or international style,” wrote Victorine. “Nor do we follow with blind admiration the great designers of earlier periods. We try to work out each job as a totally separate problem and to divorce from our minds any preconceived idea of style.” Eclecticism is maligned today, but looking at Mount Cuba one can only admire its rigor and sense of conviction.
Marcel Breuer built his second house in New Canaan, Ct., in 1951. Known as Breuer House II, it served as the family’s home until 1975 when Breuer, then 73, sold the property. The new owners hired Breuer’s longtime associate Herbert Beckhard, to enlarge the house. Over the years the house experienced more changes and was described as “essentially gutted.” By 2005 it was threatened with demolition. New owners bought the house, removed the additions, restored the interior and doubled its size with a large addition designed by Toshiko Mori. The house is currently for sale. I haven’t seen House II in its current state, but I did visit it in 1971. We had lunch with the great man, sitting on Cesca chairs around a square granite table. It was a particular treat since I had always admired Breuer’s houses, which seemed to me the epitome of what a modern house should be: simple, a bit rough—almost crude—uncluttered, less self-consciously arty than Le Corbusier, more livable than Mies. A kind of updated farm house: slate floor, plain wood ceiling, unassuming details. What a difference sixty years makes! Judging from photographs, the interior today is sleek, precise, self-conscious, expensive-looking. Not your grandfather’s modernism.
The announcement of the seven finalists for the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago is puzzling. First of all, why such an announcement at all? It has become common practice for museums and concert halls planning new buildings to draw out the architect selection process to the max. First the announcement of a competition; then revealing a short list; then the unveiling of actual designs; then the finalists; and finally—drum roll here—the winner. This process is calculated to generate the maximum amount of media coverage and publicity to assist in fund raising. This appears unnecessary—not to say unseemly—for a presidential library. Moreover, is a design competition really the best way to chose an architect for such a personal building? Obama should be choosing an architect, not a design. (An architect who understands that a presidential library is about the President, not about the architect.) But exactly what is the President looking for? The bewilderingly heterogeneous list (choose between Renzo Piano and SHoP, or between David Adjaye and Williams & Tsien) offers no answer.