Great Clients

Following a recent lecture at the School of Visual Arts in New York, a D/Crit student asked me an interesting question. I had been speaking about the important role that a client can play in the architectural process, specifically how Robert Sainsbury had influenced a young Norman Foster—not least by commissioning him—in the design of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich. But what about public clients, the student asked, could the public also be a great client? It is a good question. The history of architecture contains many examples of influential individual clients—Fr. Marie-Alain Couturier at both Ronchamp and La Tourette, Phyllis Lambert at the Seagram Building, Esa-Pekka Solonen at Disney Hall. But what about institutions? Can a bureaucratic committee interact creatively with an architect in something as intimate and personal as the design of a building? The answer, I guess is “not easily.” The willingness to take a leap of faith, resist compromise, say no at the right time as well as yes, rethink a problem at the eleventh hour, and take a risk, requires an individual will. The case of Louis Kahn is instructive. His Richards Medical Building at the University of Pennsylvania is a needlessly complicated design that is further compromised by being a functional failure. Yet only a few years later Kahn designed an outstanding laboratory that has stood the test of time, both architecturally and functionally. Of course in La Jolla, Kahn worked not with a faceless university committee but with a great client—Jonas Salk.

Louis Kahn and Jonas Salk

Real and Unreal

My colleague Enrique Norten sent me a copy of TEN Arquitectos: The Limits of Form, which is hefty catalog of a retrospective exhibition of his firm’s work on display (March 3 – June 4) at the Museo Amparo inPuebla, Mexico. Actually, judging from the illustrations in the book, there are no limits to the forms that have been explored by TEN Arquitectos; the catalog is a dizzying array of commercial and institutional projects, rectangular, angled, round, square, torqued, canted, and slightly askew. As architects tend to do, Norten has included unbuilt as well as built work. This follows a well-established tradition, in which unbuilt projects and built work are accorded equal importance. Indeed, the architectural profession regularly awards prizes for buildings before they are actually built (which is sort of like giving an Oscar to an unfilmed shooting script). Paging through the Norten book can be unnerving, since digital representation has achieved such a high level of refinement that it is often impossible to tell the achieved from the imagined. The Guggenheim Museum in Guadalajara, for example, looks convincingly real, dappled shadows, puffy clouds, reflections on the glass, although the building is unbuilt. Equally convincing is an aerial view of Mercedes House, a condominium complex in New York, until I realize that this is merely a photomontage, a digital model inserted into a real photograph of the Upper West Side. Another victim of the recession I think, but I turn the page . . . and there is a construction photo of the real thing. At least I think it’s real. It’s hard to tell anymore.

Mercedes House, NYC

Stern 1; Nouvel et al. 0

Great article by Vivian Toy in last week’s Times on the economic value of celebrity architects in New York. It turns out that many of the striking—and strikingly expensive to build—condominiums completed in the last 5 years have failed to deliver on the economic front. Units in buildings such as Jean Nouvel’s 100 11th Avenue, Enrique Norten’s One York, and Richard Meier’s173 Perry Street inBrooklyn, have either been slow to sell, or have sold at greatly discounted prices.  During the housing boom, developers convinced themselves that having a name architect attached to their projects was worth the extra cost and added real value. Now, Toy argues, that assumption seems in question. Homes are not like designer jeans. An industry executive is quoted as saying that well-heeled buyers “aren’t looking to be sold a lifestyle, they’re looking to have their lifestyle understood and respected.” Perhaps that is why a notable exception cited in the article is 15 Central Park West, designed by Robert A. M. Stern, which has continued to set sales records. Not so much a question of tradition vs. modernity, but of understanding a market and delivering value. It reminds me of something an old schoolmate told me after he had been in practice some years: “I’ve learnt that not every building I design has to please me.”

100 11th Avenue

Northern Magus

Last week Michelangelo Sabatino gave an interesting talk at Penn on Arthur Erickson. Not a name to conjure with today, Erickson (1924-2009) was the first Canadian architect to establish a global practice—and reputation—with projects in the United States, England, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Algeria,  Malaysia, Japan, and China. I worked on Habitat at Montreal’s Expo 67, and the big names in the exposition were Moshe Safdie, Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller. Erickson designed a pavilion at that fair, but it garnered less attention. The chief attribute of his architecture was, well, beauty. Beauty was not something that architects talked a lot about in 1965—still don’t. In addition, Erickson’s work didn’t fit into any of the current stylistic categories; he often used concrete but wasn’t a Brutalist like Rudolph, he explored innovative structures but wasn’t a technologist like Otto, and he built megastructures like Simon Fraser University that weren’t—quite. Like Eero Saarinen he tailored his designs to the context, the client, and the program. His best work was over by the early 1980s. Over-extended, the quality of his international practice suffered, there were fewer winning competitions, costs rose, and in 1992 he was obliged to close his office and declare bankruptcy. He continued to build, though never achieving his earlier eminence. And yet. On a recent visit to Vancouver, I was taken around the Olympic Village in Southeast False Creek, a lackluster group of generic condominiums. A pair of buildings caught my eye, something about the simple yet compelling undulating glass facades, like shining fish scales. It was Erickson’s last project.

181 1st Avenue West, Vancouver




The Last Classicist

The dome of the U.S. Capitol and the portico of the White House may be more iconic, but almost every evening the Federal Reserve Building is featured on the evening news, making it one of the most familiar architectural images on television. It was designed by Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945), an unsung giant among American architects. Born in Lyon, an ancien élève of the École des Beaux-Arts, he made his career in the U.S., but he stands apart from his contemporaries. Unlike John Russell Pope, for example, he was not a far-ranging eclectic, nor did he romanticize the past. Cret was interested in developing what he called a “new classicism,” and he did so in a series of great public buildings—he designed few private houses—such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, several World War I memorials, memorable bridges, and the University of Texas at Austin. He stripped away ornament almost to the same extent as the European modernists, but was unwilling to abandon the classical lessons of the past as far as planning and composition went. The result, as the Fed amply demonstrates, is not quite timeless architecture, but almost. His new classicism stands up particularly well when compared to the cheerless 1950s International Style Washington office buildings that succeeded it.

Photo: Dan Smith