Architecture

THE LAYERS OF THE PAST

90Ian Volner’s review of Robert A. M. Stern’s Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia is more even-handed that Inga Saffron’s mean-spirited screed in the Inquirer. But both critics miss an important aspect of Stern’s design: its relation to the nearby U.S. Custom House. That 17-story tower is the most prominent building in the area and provides a backdrop to the museum, evident in Peter Aaron’s evocative photograph. The museum echoes some of the brick and limestone details, as well as the crowning lantern. The Custom House, a WPA project completed in 1934, was the work of Verus T. Ritter and Howell L. Shay (Shay had worked for Horace Trumbauer, and is credited with the parti for the latter’s Philadelphia Museum of Art). The brick and limestone Custom House combined an Art Deco sensibility with Federal details and forms in a masterly way. Thus Stern’s museum, far from being latter-day Georgian revival, as both Volner and Saffron suggest, is really a twenty-first century interpretation of an early twentieth century take on American Federal, which itself was a version of British Georgian. Personally, I find the recessed arches of the museum’s facade to be a little heavy-handed, but the dialogue with the many pasts of Philadelphia is interesting and bears mention. Incidentally, Saffron suggests that there is something unseemly in using Georgian stylistic references in a building commemorating a war fought “to free ourselves from the Georgian tyranny.” But the Founding Fathers were not revolting against British civilization, only British rule; in architecture they were content to take their lead from their British cousins.

SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE DAY

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.

ARCHITECTURE BRUT OR DEMI-SEC?

serveimageIs every building made out of concrete automatically Brutalist? The answer is yes, according to a recent article on Habitat in the New York Times. But this is a gross over-simplification. Brutalism refers to buildings that dramatize the rough character of concrete. Paul Rudolph’s striated Art and Architecture Building (1963) at Yale is the preeminent example. The roughened concrete is used throughout the building, inside and out. The A & A exhibits another quality of Brutalism—it’s monumental. But not all architects who exposed concrete were striving for this quality. Pier Luigi Nervi, for example, built exclusively in concrete but gave the material a smooth, sculptural quality that is anything but brutal. I. M. Pei’s Society Hill Towers in Philadelphia use a poured-in-place concrete facade that is similarly plastic, smooth surfaces with rounded  corners. Many architects went to great lengths to make precast elements that were machinelike and precise, not qualities generally associated with Brutalism. (The glassy concrete of Piano and Ando today is likewise non-Brutalist.) The precast concrete of Philip Johnson during his neo-classical period is almost delicate. Which brings us to Habitat. It is all exposed concrete on the exterior, since the boxes were precast in a factory, although great efforts were made to make the material as smooth and blemish-free as possible. (At one point the option of building the project out of steel was considered.) Safdie used concrete not because he was seeking a rough and monumental aesthetic, but because he wanted to show how prefabrication could be used to make mass housing. There is another litmus test of Brutalism. Buildings like Habitat remain  popular with their users. If people don’t hate it, it can’t be Brutalist.

THE FINAL WORD

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.

HIGH TECH 0, LOW TECH 1

serveimageNorman Foster is building an office building in downtown Philadelphia. The Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, a 1,121-foot skyscraper, will be the  tallest building in the city. Passing by the other day, I noticed elevator cabs scuttling up and down the side of the building. They reminded me of the external elevators on the Pompidou Center in Paris. Typical High Tech detail, I thought to myself, before I realized that these were construction elevators. The actual core is deep inside the building in the conventional fashion. And unlike Foster’s Hongkong & Shanghai Bank building, the structure is concealed as well (except for a vestigial expression  of cross bracing on the otherwise pristine glass facade). Like almost all contemporary office buildings, in fact like almost all buildings of any kind today, this is a glass box. How times have changed! The truth is that the exposed structure and plumbing and ductwork that characterized High Tech architecture never made much sense. It weathered badly, for one thing—the Pompidou Center required an expensive facelift after only 20 years. The goal of infinitely adaptable architecture didn’t make sense either. The time-tested way to adapt is not to change a building but to move to another one. In 2014, the London Sunday Times reported that Lloyd’s was considering moving out of its headquarters building. It had already relocated a quarter of its operations to less expensive premises, and was subletting the space. The newspaper quoted Lloyd’s chief executive Richard Ward: “There is a fundamental problem with this building. Everything is exposed to the elements, and that makes it very costly.” Lloyd’s did not move, but it did sell the building to a Chinese insurance company (at a steep mark-down because of the inside-out design), and now leases space. So much for adaptive architecture. High Tech 0, Low Tech 1.