A New York Times story described a recent report of the House Natural Resources Committee criticizing the commission that is in charge of building the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, D.C. But the Times didn’t mention, as the Washington Post did, that the Congressional committee has not actually voted on the report, which was released by the Republican majority. Moreover, according to Martin Pederson, editor of Metropolis, the report is the work of a single staffer. The Times headline was Memorial Plan Called a ‘Five-Star Folly’. “If you read the Times account, you would have been led to the incorrect conclusion that the House Committee had called the Gehry design a ‘five-star folly,”” writes Pederson. “No, a subcommittee staffer with a clear ideological agenda crafted that epithet.” The Times article has two interesting bits of information. According to the article “The report also criticizes the design selection process, asserting that the panel chose Mr. Gehry’s approach over the objections of the design jury, which had characterized his proposal as ‘mediocre.’” If true, this would be extremely unusual, and throws a poor light on the commission; it sounds like a canard to me. The Times also quoted a statement released by Frank Gehry that includes the revelation that “I personally have done all my design work pro bono.” Given all the opprobrium that has been heaped on Mr. Gehry, it is a touching admission.
“The best metaphor for getting older,” Twittered Paul Goldberger recently, “all the hills are steeper, but the views are better.” That sounds about right, although from where I stand—and increasingly sit—the views are not always what they were. I was brought up on Sixties jazz, for example, and I can’t help but agree with with the late Frank Zappa’s pithy assessment, “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.” I remember when there was just one telephone company, you didn’t actually own your home phone, and it never, ever broke down. And I remember when cities were real places rather than tourist attractions. Oh, well. I thought about the good old days last week when I received a fat little journal called Thresholds, published by the MIT Department of Architecture. Student-edited architecture magazines are an old tradition—I co-founded one–Asterisk, or * as we insisted on calling it– when I was a student. We ran on a shoestring, typing stencils on a Selectric and running the pages off on a Gestetner machine; we silk-screened the covers ourselves. Thresholds is much plushier, 192 heavy stock pages, although the illustrations are in purple, for some reason, so they have the blurry quality of an early duplicating machine. The text is pretty blurry, too. “The individual human subject is the encultured bodily subject.” I’m not sure who wrote that since the magazine contains nothing as mundane as Author Bios. Like most architecture school magazines today, it is determined to write about anything except buildings, and to do so in as opaque prose as possible. I sighed, and set Thresholds aside. I have been reading an article in another student-edited journal, but from an earlier time. In researching a book, I came across the 1977 issue of VIA, which was published by architecture students of the University of Pennsylvania. The contributors included British historian John Summerson, the great observer of the vernacular landscape J. B. Jackson, Denise Scott Brown (the revised edition of Learning From Las Vegas had just appeared), and Henry Hope Reed, the granddaddy of the classical revival that was just around the corner. Also present were such relatively unseasoned architects as Tom Beeby, and Allan Greenberg, whose essay on eighteenth-century furniture I was consulting. The theme of the issue was Ornament, and the editor was Stephen Kieran, who would go on to found KieranTimberlake. The issues addressed were timely, the writing lucid, the presentation clear. I wonder if, in four decades, Thresholds will stand the test of time as successfully?
The tragic fire at the Glasgow School of Art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, raises anew the question: How to rebuild? In a thoughtful blog, George Cairns of Melbourne’s RMIT, who has studied the building in detail, points out that many undocumented changes were made during the building’s construction, so it will be impossible to recreate what was there. In addition, the inevitable demands of modern fire security will likely alter the original design. Rather than try to rebuild Mackintosh’s design, Cairns argues for “great architects to be invited to design a worthy intervention that will breathe new life into the school.”
I’m not so sure. When the fifteenth-century canal facade of the Doge’s Palace was destroyed by fire in 1577, Palladio proposed rebuilding it in a Classical style, but he was over-ridden, and the original Venetian Gothic was restored. When John Soane’s Dulwych Picture Gallery was hit by a V-1 rocket during WWII, it was rebuilt exactly as it had been. In fact, the building had been altered several times since Soane’s death. When the British House of Commons was gutted by fire during the Blitz, Giles Gilbert Scott rebuilt it in the spirit of Pugin’s original. A more recent example: Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. In 1996, the famous nineteenth-century opera house burned to the ground (arson), and was recreated virtually intact by Aldo Rossi, who used stills from a Visconti film as a guide.
Buildings are not works of art, time changes them, alterations regularly take place, life has its way. What’s wrong with repairing damage? Even if it is not exactly as it was, it could be almost as it was, and a hundred years from now, the difference will not matter. Surely that is better than a “worthy intervention”?
Reed Sparling is with Scenic Hudson, an environmental organization opposing plans by LG Electronics to construct a corporate headquarters atop the Hudson River Palisades. LG’s architect, HOK, proposes an 8-story slab that critics, such as Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, maintains will despoil the scenic beauty of this National Natural Landmark. “LG is receiving the blame for constructing this building, and rightfully so,” writes Sparling in an email. “But does/should an architect have moral or civic responsibility to say no if a potential design threatens highly valued (and irreplaceable) natural resources?” It’s a good question. Architects are a service profession, and as such they tend to shed primary responsibility for the projects they design. “If we don’t do it someone else will,” is a common rationale. Or, as Philip Johnson famously put it, “Architects are pretty much high-class whores. We can turn down projects the way they can turn down some clients, but we’ve both got to say yes to someone if we want to stay in business.” Of course, architects say no regularly for a number of reasons: too small budget, too small project, too much other work. I remember as a student attending a lecture by Shadrach Woods. He made the claim that there were projects that architects should refuse to do on ethical grounds, and described an example of his firm (Candilis, Josic & Woods) turning down a commission for a parking garage. I think that Woods was right. Architects can’t have it both ways. They are quick enough to claim the moral high ground when they design affordable housing or green roofs, so they can hardly claim immunity when they carry out projects with harmful environmental or social side effects.
Marco Velardi invited me to contribute to a small exhibition called Source Material, that he was organizing with Jasper Morrison and Jonathan Olivares during this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan. “We request from you an object of personal value; a reference, keepsake, object, that has informed, provoked, and stimulated your work,” is what he wrote. I sent a pencil and a scale. Here is what I wrote:
I have used many tools as an architect—T-squares, triangles, compasses, protractors, and ruling pens—but the essential tools for me remain a pencil for drawing and sketching, and a scale for measuring. They are a reminder that while the product of architectural design is a building, architects don’t actually build, they draw. I have had many mechanical and wooden pencils over the years, but my favorite is this fat 5B lead holder. Pencils, especially sketching pencils, are particularly personal since they are the intermediate between the hand and the eye, between seeing and recording. This one is made by Bohemia Works and I bought it on a trip to Prague about 40 years ago. The scale has accompanied me since I was an architecture student. The concept of scale is central to design since it allows the architect to record information, for himself and for others. There is something magic about shrinking reality so precisely. Of course, in a digital age pencils and scales have become almost antiques. But after 40 years my sketching pencil still does its job as well as ever. And you don’t need batteries.
Source Material included contributions by David Chipperfield, Naoto Fukasawa, Edwin Heathcote, and Richard Sapper.