The New-New Thing

The front page of today’s New York Times Arts section features two articles that sum up the state of architecture today. The newspaper’s music critic Anthony Tommasini reviews an inaugural performance in new concert hall in Sonoma State University, and Robin Pogrebin reports on Frank Gehry’s appointment to design an arts campus in Miami. The architect of the hall at Sonoma State is William Rawn, whose Seiji Ozawa Hall in Tanglewood has been acoustically rated as the fourth-best concert hall in the nation. Tommasini calls Weill Hall “a beautiful space” and the sound of the hall “rich, clear and true” (although the Times architecture critic chose not to weigh in on the design of the hall).  In other words, the critique of Weill Hall is based on the building’s actual performance as a music venue. By contrast, the Miami story is about a building that has not yet been built, not even designed. Gehry is a remarkable architect, but does his mere selection by a client really qualify as news? The answer is yes, for in architecture today, the new-new thing rules. It’s true that architects have always been more interested in design than in reality, that’s why prizes are regularly awarded to buildings before they are built, which is rather like rating a restaurant on the basis of its menu, without tasting the dishes. Similarly, unbuilt projects are critiqued in the media on the basis of a model or a sketch, while completed buildings are assessed after a “press day,” before they are actually put into use. But the time to evaluate a building is after years of use, when the rough edges have been worn smooth, and it is possible to judge the durability—aesthetically as well as physically—of the design. But, of course, that would not be news.

Weill Hall

Foxes and Hedgehogs

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay based on a saying attributed to the ancient Greek poet, Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin was referring to writers and thinkers—he characterized Plato, Nietzsche, and Proust as hedgehogs, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Pushkin as foxes. I was visiting Seattle this week, and two buildings almost side by side, the Seattle Public Library (2004) and the City Hall (2005), reminded me that the metaphor holds true for architects as well. Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, the architects of the library, are definitely hedgehogs; they have one big idea that they flog for all it’s worth. Glass, glass, glass. No details, no facades, no relation to the surroundings—the crystalline shape is awkwardly parachuted into steeply sloping site. Peter Bohlin, on the other hand, is a (sly) fox. Instead of a Big Idea, the city hall addresses its function, its site, its views, its materials, and its construction in many small—and not so small—ways. We have become so used to signature buildings that it is almost a surprise to encounter a public building that is not trying to be an icon. Unlike the library, the city hall is neither puzzling nor confusing. Here are the offices, here’s the council chamber, here’s the entrance, here’s a place to sit and have lunch, and here’s how the whole thing is put together. The library is a prickly presence in the city; the city hall flits lightly through its urban surroundings.

The Master Builders

I attended a meeting of the Design Futures Council ambitiously billed as a “Leadership Summit on Sustainability.” Present were engineers and representatives of the building materials industry (whose parent organizations were the chief sponsors of the event), but most of the participants were architects. The last group voiced a recurring theme. “It is important to think not only about buildings but about neighborhoods, and not only neighborhoods but cities, or preferably regions. Better still, the entire planet.” During the meeting, one architect voiced the opinion that architects could design anything. Oh, really? Architects are trained to design buildings. A few architects, like Eames and Saarinen, have designed great furniture, although that is the exception rather than the rule. And most architects are ill-equipped to function as city and regional planners, just look at the urban renewal fiascos of the 1960s. Designing buildings is a perfectly honorable profession, and if the buildings are functional and beautiful, the profession will be respected and listened to, as it was in the early 1900s. Sadly, that is not the case today. Although a few architects are almost household names, they are in the celebrity category, and their fame is as brittle and fleeting as that of Hollywood stars. As for the largest firms, which employ upward of a thousand people and have offices around the world, they are bigger but not better. None exerts the artistic and political clout of a Daniel Burnham or a Charles McKim. “Leadership” remains an elusive chimera.

Daniel H. Burnham painted by Anders Zorn

State Caps

American state capitol buildings are traditionally a smaller version of the U.S. Capitol, complete with central dome; you can find them in Montpelier, Harrisburg, Little Rock, and Salt Lake City. The state capitol in Lincoln, Nebraska is different. There is a small gold dome, but it’s on top of a fifteen-storey office tower. The architect was Bertrand Grosvenor Goodhue. He won a 1920 national competition against formidable competition; second and third places were was taken by John Russell Pope and McKim, Mead & White, who both designed classical schemes with the familiar domes. The fourth-place finisher was Paul Cret who dispensed with the dome and proposed a low, building in a simplified classical style, the centerpiece crowned by sculpted buffaloes. Goodhue’s design was even more radical: a free interpretation of classicism that dispensed with columns and entablatures and blended classicism with a Gothic sensibility (Goodhue had designed many Gothic Revival buildings with his then-partner Ralph Adams Cram). The Nebraska building is not a stylistic pastiche, however, more like a modern riff on old themes. The modernity is underscored by the artistic elements in the building, many on prairie themes (including “The Sower” that stands atop the dome), the work of sculptor Lee Lawrie. This was a moment in American architecture when art and architecture happily complemented each other (see Rockefeller Center, where Lawrie also worked, for another example). It was also a moment when architects such as Goodhue and Cret were pushing the boundaries of traditional styles to discover a modern, American version. This remains another one of those “roads not taken,” as European modernism swept the scene, and such stylistic exploration—and artist-architect collaborations—became a thing of the past.

Kahn Without Kahn

The FDR Memorial on Roosevelt Island is nearing completion. I am of two minds about this undertaking, which is based on the design that Louis Kahn was working on when he died in March 1974. It was, literally, his last project. There are so precious few Kahn works, that who could object to one more? But as David De Long, who co-curated the major 1991 exhibition on Kahn observes, “Posthumous realizations are always very, very risky.” They are particularly risky in the case of Kahn, who was famous for making last-minute changes, often after construction had started—to the consternation of his office staff, not to mention clients. So although the current project is based on construction drawings that had been prepared by Kahn’s office, these should not necessarily be considered as definitive. Even great artists have second thoughts. When Henry Bacon and Daniel Chester French were working on the Lincoln Memorial, and the building was largely completed, they had a plaster replica of the projected statue erected inside the building to study its scale, and decided it was too small and needed to be enlarged. The bronze head of the President recently installed in the FDR Memorial looks to me as if it were trapped in a vice. Who is to say that Kahn would not have refined the memorial design, in small ways and large, had he been alive to do so? We will never know.