These days, urban buildings are playing just one penny-whistle tune: glass, glass, glass. It’s as if there were a material shortage and we had run out of everything else. I don’t miss exposed concrete, but what about limestone and brick, terra cotta and granite? But no, architecture has been reduced to one material—even spandrels and soffits are glass. What explains this phenomenon? Well, of course it’s cheap. The engineer figures out the structure, and the architect wraps it in a glass skin. And the helpful glass manufacturers work out the details for you. It’s also easier to design. No more worrying about junctions between materials, no more textures or finishes, no more colors, no more studying shadowing effects. Just wrap it up and it’s ready to go. Nor do you have to worry about energy—all-glass buildings are as green as you want. Houston, Boston, London, Dubai—it doesn’t matter. It used to be that cities had distinctive architectural characters, derived from different materials, different climates, different tastes. No more. It’s just all glass, all the time.
I went to see the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. The building isn’t open to the public yet so I could only see the exterior. Yet because of its location on the National Mall this is one building whose exterior appearance is key. It’s the last structure on the north side of the Mall, down the hill from the Washington Monument. From a distance, the museum has a nice scale and an evocative form. The corona shape has always seemed symbolically right to me, recalling both traditional Yoruba tribal art and a Brancusi sculpture. The boxy glass penthouse introduces a mundane element that doesn’t really enhance the corona, but it disappears as you get closer. Close-up, the corona shape turns out to be insubstantial—a metal shroud—which is a bit of a letdown. Moreover, the patterned screen that is meant to recall Charleston and New Orleans ironwork, instead looks like the world’s largest ventilating grille. Its flimsiness is emphasized by the contrast with the handsome stone-clad canopy over the entrance, and the irregular cut-outs that form viewing windows. The skin was originally to be bronze, but when this proved expensive—and extremely heavy—painted aluminum was substituted. Unfortunately, it sparkles in the sun, and its brass-like finish lacks the gravitas of dark, moody bronze. Indeed, the effect is cheerfully commercial, not what we expect in a national museum. Does bronze-coated aluminum become dull with time like the real thing? I certainly hope so.
One reviewer of How Architecture Works suggested that readers should have a iPad handy when they read my book so that they could refer to images of the buildings that are mentioned in the text. The book has photos, but they are black and white, and not large, the usual format for a trade book. Now the publisher Mimesis has solved that problem. The Korean edition of the book is illustrated with beautiful color photographs, many taking a full page, and in some cases (Salk Institute, Centre Pompidou, Bilbao Guggenheim) a two-page spread. Mimesis is the art-book arm of Open Books, a leading Seoul publisher. The book is printed in Korea on matte paper and resembles a high-end museum catalog. It sells for ￦28,000, about $25. I want to rush out and buy a Kia Soul.
I recently watched an interesting lecture on YouTube delivered by Dietmar Eberle at the 2013 World Architecture Festival in Singapore. Eberle is the principal of the Austrian architectural firm Baumschlager Eberle. During his talk he referred metaphorically to Weekday Architecture and Sunday Architecture. The former are the places where we spend most of our lives, the places where we live, work, and shop. The latter, by contrast, are the special buildings that we use on weekends: museums, concert halls, casinos, and of course places of worship. In the past, “Architecture” was synonymous with Sunday Architecture, churches, civic monuments, royal palaces. Weekday Architecture was left to vernacular builders. By the early twentieth century, architects had made inroads into Weekday Architecture, and they were designing housing, factories, and department stores. The early modernists went so far as to try and abolish Sunday Architecture, with the result that it was often hard to distinguish a city hall from a warehouse. Today, it feels like we have moved in the opposite direction: we have abolished Weekdays—as if every day could be Sunday. Sunday Architecture is what the public expects, what the media covers, and what the schools teach.
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.