Architecture

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.

GLASSES AND SHACKS

IMG_0093Aaron Betsky writes about the latest fashion among architecture students—Triple O, or Object-Oriented Ontology. Betsky is generally enthusiastic about intellectual fads, but even he seems to be uneasy about exactly what Triple O means in the context of architecture. That aside, this raises an important pedagogic issue, that is, Learning to Walk Before You Run. Many years ago I spent a month in Frauenau, Bavaria, with the great glassblower Erwin Eisch. For reasons that now elude me, I wanted to learn his craft, and he generously allowed me to work in his studio (which was next to the family-owned glassworks). The nature of molten glass is such that you must work quickly to shape it. I immediately got carried away by the endless organic possibilities of the material. After a while Erwin suggested, “Why don’t you just make a glass.” It took me the rest of the day—and many failed attempts—to produce a single, rather misshapen bowl-shaped object. I remember that event when I look at student work today, vainglorious attempts to invent a new architecture by neophytes who have never built anything. They should just try making a glass—or maybe a shack

OUTSIDERS

Portrait of the artist as a young émigré, Formentera, 1967

Portrait of the artist as a young émigré, Formentera, 1967

I recently received an unusual request from the architectural writer Fred Bernstein. “Since Trump was elected, as a subtle political statement, I have been posting profiles on Facebook of immigrants who have made a contribution to the built environment.” His request brought me up short. I’ve never thought of myself as an immigrant. Born in Scotland to Polish parents displaced by the Second World War (my father served in the Polish army), I was not technically an immigrant, but I was hardly a Scot. I grew up in England, a proper cricket-playing English schoolboy, but that was just a surface impression. “Although I wore a blazer and a schoolboy’s cap, I wasn’t really English,” I wrote in My Two Polish Grandfathers. “For one thing, I always spoke Polish with my parents, although I can’t recall if I learned it first, or together with English. We also ate different foods, barszcz (beet soup) and gołąbki (stuffed cabbage rolls). At Christmastime we had babka instead of plum pudding, and jellied carp instead of roast beef. I got my presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day, and there was always something under my pillow on St. Nicholas’s Day.” When my parents moved to Canada I became an actual immigrant, not that Canadians wore their nationalism on their sleeves. We lived in Quebec, which was mostly French, but I never considered myself un Anglais. I suppose I was Other. Nor did Canadian-ness play a big role in my architectural education. The architects my classmates and I admired were mostly Europeans: Aalto, Aldo van Eyck, Frei Otto, Ralph Erskine, Georges Candilis, Shadrach Woods. The last three were immigrants, or émigrés, as were so many prominent practitioners of the 1960s: Mies and Corbusier, of course, and Breuer, Saarinen, Pei, and Sert. So were my two most influential teachers, Norbert Schoenauer (Hungary) and Peter Collins (England), and my mentor Alvaro Ortega (though he, a Colombian and UN worker, was really a citizen of the world). My first job was with Moshe Safdie (born in Haifa). Many of my architect friends—Jack Diamond, Allan Greenberg, Michael McKinnell, the late John Belle, the late Bing Thom—are/were immigrants. Perhaps that’s what attracted me to architecture, it deals with a sense of place yet so many of its leading lights were—like me—placeless. I now live in Philadelphia, a city where the two best architects of the last 100 years, Paul Cret and Louis Kahn, were both immigrants. A coincidence. Maybe.

IKE MEMORIAL

new tapestry art -- cliffs 09.08.17

The Eisenhower Memorial is slowly edging towards realization as the  GSA has recently hired a construction company to begin work. Now a major change is revealed. The long mesh screen in front of the Education Building originally carried a photographic image of the Kansas prairie (Ike’s birthplace). This was later changed to another image, the landscape around Omaha Beach, one of the landing sites of the WWII Normandy invasion of which Eisenhower was Supreme Commander. Neither image was particularly striking, or for that matter, particularly recognizable. In any case, I’ve always thought that photography was the wrong inspiration for what Gehry insisted on calling a “tapestry.” A block-long photographic image doesn’t make me think of a Gobelin, it conjures up a billboard. Now the image has changed again. It is a drawing, presumably by Gehry, of Pointe du Hoc, the promontory between Utah and Omaha Beaches that was scaled by U. S. Rangers during the invasion. Critics will say that the impressionistic drawing it too much Gehry. But is the Sherman Memorial in New York City too much Saint-Gaudens? I think not. A drawing seems right to me.

COPYCATS

Thomas Jefferson's drawing for the President's House based on Palladio's Villa Rotonda

Thomas Jefferson’s drawing for the President’s House based on Palladio’s Villa Rotonda

“Our lust for originality is wrecking the city, delivering a rash of formally new, but ultimately anti-urban hideous skyline baubles reducing city-making to a spectacle of super-size billboard branding gestures while inhibiting the multiplication of good ideas,” writes Phineas Harper in a recent post on Dezeen. He correctly questions the modern obsession with originality, and asks rhetorically, “Is bad originality really preferable to a brilliant copy?” Of course, it isn’t—never has been. What Harper does not mention is that copying had a long and honorable tradition in architecture. Scamozzi copied Palladio’s Villa Rotonda, so did Colen Campbell, Lord Burlington, Thomas Jefferson, and most recently Julian Bicknell in Cheshire. Some of the copies are more faithful than others (Jefferson added skylights to the dome), but all recognize that Palladio’s was a rich idea, worth exploring further. Palladio himself used motifs such as Serlianas, which were derived from others. Basing one’s work on an earlier model was partly hommage to a masterwork, and partly a recognition that true invention in architecture is rare, and that good ideas are worth repeating. One of the sins of the modernist revolution was that it undermined this tradition and actually made it dishonorable to copy earlier precedents. Ever since, architecture has been caught in a downward spiral of diminishing originality.