Architecture

NOT GOOD ENOUGH

Harold_Washington_Library,_Chicago,_Illinois_(9181548762)Ever since 1969, the American Institute of architects has bestowed a Twenty-Five Year Award that recognizes a “design of enduring significance.” The only exception was in 1970, when no building was found to merit such recognition. And now in 2018 the same. According to the AIA, “Unfortunately, this year the jury did not find a submission that it felt achieved twenty-five years of exceptional aesthetic and cultural relevance while also representing the timelessness and positive impact the profession aspires to achieve.” Really? No building in the 1983-93 window is good enough? Well, perhaps not Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s AT&T Building (1984), or the Beverly Hills Civic Center (1990) by Charles Moore, but Michael Graves’s Humana Building (1985) in Louisville merits an award, surely more so than Pietro Belluschi’s Equitable Savings & Loan Building in Portland (which won in 1982), or I. M. Pei and Partner’s Hancock Tower in Boston (which won in 2011). And what about Hammond, Beeby & Babka’s Harold Washington Library Center (1991) in Chicago, or Venturi Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing (1991) in London, considered by many, including the author, to be that firm’s finest work? In 1971, the award was given to Baldwin Hills Village in LA, a planned community whose design team included Clarence Stein of Radburn fame. In the same vein, surely Seaside, which was realized largely during the 1983-93 time frame and kick-started the New Urbanism movement, deserves recognition? But Seaside’s architecture is traditional in design, so is the Chicago Library,  while the Sainsbury Wing is —despite Venturi’s protests—postmodern. Whatever the AIA jury thought of these two approaches to design it was petty and narrow-minded to eliminate them out of hand as seems to have been the case. That’s just not good enough.

BRITISH CLASSICISM

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.

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VINCENT SCULLY, 1920-2017

serveimageI never attended any of Vincent Scully’s legendary Yale architecture classes but I did hear him speak several times in Montreal, part of the Alcan lecture series that Peter Rose organized in the 1970s. So I could understand when people spoke of his influence. Scully introduced a Celtic passion to the sometimes dry subject of architectural history and his lectures were bravura performances that brought old buildings—and their builders—to life. He was an activist historian in the mold of Siegfried Giedion, and he influenced the contemporary scene, being an early advocate of the work of Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi. I wonder if his obituaries will recall that he made a major volte-face late in life, becoming a critic of mid-century modernism’s negative impact on the city (especially his city, New Haven) and a proponent of New Urbanism. Humanism was at the core of his architectural beliefs.

THE DARK SIDE

the-backcountry-hut-company-leckie-studio-architecture_dezeen_sqWhat’s with all the black houses that have appeared in recent years? The all-black exteriors—blackened timber, black stain, or simple black paint—have become ubiquitous. Rural or urban, even old buildings are getting black-faced. Traditionally, architects avoided black facades, which not only look lugubrious but virtually eliminate shadows, which are—or were—one of the architect’s most effective tools. Modern houses tend not to have moldings and relief work, of course, so there are no shadows. And black does seem to be the modernist architect’s favorite fashion shade (Richard Rogers excepted). But fundamentally I think this phenomenon is a symptom of laziness—it’s a cheap way of standing out. Slap on a coat of Benjamin Moore’s Black Beauty and even the most pedestrian design looks striking.

MID-CENTURY EXPERIMENTS

Hill College House, University of Pennylvania (Eero Saarinen, 1958)

Hill College House, University of Pennylvania (Eero Saarinen, 1958)

In a recent article in Common\Edge, Duo Dickinson compares Eero Saarinen’s Morse and Stiles Colleges and Robert A. M. Stern’s Franklin and Murray Colleges and calls them “two well-built, rigorously planned dormitories.” Rigorously planned? I have read that Morse and Stiles have the least amount of fenestration per wall area of any of the Yale colleges (i.e. the rooms are dark), which may account for their unpopularity with students. And can a building that requires a $100 million dollar renovation after only 50 years really be “well-built”? I couldn’t find the original construction cost of Morse and Stiles, but another Saarinen college dorm, Hill College House at Penn, cost $4 million to build in 1958 ($33 million in current dollars). The building was just renovated for no less than $80.5 million. This covered not only improvements such as air-conditioning, but repairs to crumbling brickwork—after only 58 years! In a recent filmed interview, Kevin Roche, who was Saarinen’s chief design assistant at the time of Hill College House and Morse and Stiles, said “You’re lunging out into the future and so you do things that, in retrospect, may or may not work. That’s the nature of any experimental architecture.” It is, of course, the nature of experiments that they occasionally fail. Let us hope that the Stern Yale colleges fare better.