This year’s Best American Magazine Writing, published by Columbia University Press, includes three of my essays that were finalists for the 2014 National Magazine Awards. This might be a good place to express my appreciation to Architect, which published them, and to my supportive editor Eric Wills. My subjects were untypical for an architecture magazine: these three essays were not about the next new thing, which is what most architectural writing these days is concerned with. I wrote about two buildings in Seattle built ten years ago, about a planned community in England that is now two decades old, and about a public housing project in Boston that was built twenty-five years ago. This reflects my conviction that the time to judge a project is not when it is brand new but when it has been used for a decade or two—which in the life of a building makes it barely a teenager. I don’t mean only judging how it has performed functionally, but also how it has aged aesthetically. Ideas that seem wonderful when first unveiled, often sour after an interval of time—think Brutalism, megastructures, postmodernism, deconstructivism. Architecture is not about fashion or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Unlike clothes and consumer products, buildings last for centuries and they should be assessed only in the fullness of time.
MessyNessyChic, a blog about libraries and books, recently featured the old Cincinnati Main Library, built in 1874 and demolished in 1955, less than a century later. The period photographs show a building of subtlety and sophistication. The four-story facade on downtown’s Vine Street is pragmatically built up to the sidewalk (like Chicago’s Harold T. Washington Library), and gives nothing away about the extraordinary space within. It is a “room full of books” what better image for a library than that? The architect was James W. McLaughlin (1834-1923). Born in the city, he apprenticed with a prominent local architect, James Keys Wilson (1828-1894). In addition to the library, McLaughlin also designed the city’s art museum and zoo. The most prolific Cincinnati architect of that period was probably the British-born Samuel Hannaford (1835-1911), who designed the city hall and the Music Hall. By the second decade of the twentieth century, there seems to have been a sense that outside architectural expertise was required, especially for the new building type: the skyscraper. Cass Gilbert was brought in to build what was then the tallest office building outside New York City, Delano & Aldrich designed a soaring moderne slab that anticipated Rockefeller Center, and Paul Cret was consulting architect on the beautiful Art Deco railroad terminal. Since then, this trend has continued as many civic buildings have been designed by imported stars: Michael Graves, Cesar Pelli, and Zaha Hadid. This sometimes makes for good buildings, but one can still look back fondly to a time when local architects produced splendid designs like the old Main Library.
There are many problems with 1, World Center, its brutal and uninspiring silhouette, the rather bland curtain wall (that of 7, World Trade Center, by the same architects (SOM), is much better), its weak-kneed mast. But what scuttles it as a skyscraper is the chamfered geometry of its form. It leads the eye up and down at the same time. Towers should soar; in this one, the upward thrust of one facade is cancelled out by the downward thrust of the next. As a result it looks like an object, rather than a spire.
The on-going public debate about starchitects, in part prompted by my piece in the New York Times, was not elevated by James Russell’s judgement that the debate was “stupid.” Another common reaction was to affirm that the term itself is meaningless—if not actually a put-down. There have always been architectural stars, the argument goes, Palladio, or Bernini, or whoever. It is true that there have always been well-known architects, even celebrity architects, but the starchitect phenomenon is different. The term is an accurate description of a certain (small) category of practitioners today. Moreover, today’s stardom is not analogous to architectural fame in the past. In his interesting new book, The Globalisation of Modern Architecture, the British architect Robert Adam quotes David Chipperfield: “It’s easier to know about architects than architecture. A banker won’t know about architecture but will know that ‘Zaha Hadid’ or ‘Rem Koolhaas’ is a brand.” Moreover, the brand has quantifiable monetary value since it can be measured in terms of increased fund-raising, greater museum attendance, higher office rents or condo selling prices, or patron satisfaction in the case of campus buildings. In that sense, the starchitect is equivalent to the Hollywood star, an actor whose name on a film proposal makes it bankable. The analogy with Hollywood is useful: not all the best actors are stars, and the stars are not necessarily the best actors. It is not a measure of quality but of name recognition among the moviegoing pubic. So, too, in architecture; starchitects are not necessarily the “best” architects. “To be a starchitect, whether voluntarily or otherwise,” Adam writes, “is to be a global brand, and star architects are chosen to give their brand value to projects.”
Who was the first brand-name architect? It would surely have been Jørn Utzon, had he not resigned before the Sydney Opera House opened in 1973. My own choice would be Philip Johnson, who graced the cover of TIME magazine (January 8, 1979) with a model of the AT&T building. Most businessmen didn’t know what Johnson stood for (if he stood for anything), but they recognized the name—enough to add value to Gerald Hines’s Johnson-designed real estate development projects. Johnson was a national star. It would not be until 1997 and the opening of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao that a starchitect became a global brand.
Milstein Hall, an addition to the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell designed by Rem Koolhaas, received an AIA Honor Award in 2013. The jury commented that “The dramatic insertion of the new program in relationship to the existing buildings and site creates exciting new conditions while posing a series of creative opportunities for future uses and artistic additions by the college.” I was in the building earlier this week to give a lecture, and I must admit that I was puzzled by the award. The boxy wing makes an awkward appendage to the old building. The Crown Hall-like studio seemed adequate if a little impersonal, although it raises the question—as Mies’s building does—of why a studio requires a column-free space, with the attendant structural complexity and cost. At $1,100 psf, Milstein is an expensive building, though the money does not appear to have been spent on details and materials, which are spartan. It was spent on a dramatic (the jury was right there) 48-foot cantilever that projects the building over the street—but to what end? Inside, there is a crit area in a cavelike space that, like most caves, has spectacular echoes. As for the auditorium, it was not a pleasant room in which to lecture. The seats are steeply raked, which is normally effective, but are separated from the podium by a large flat area that acts as a sort of no-man’s land, since no student will sit there. Apparently the flat floor conceals a conference room (for the university board) that emerges from beneath at the push of a button. It’s hard to imagine that this was really the most convenient solution. Any more than designing an auditorium that is surrounded by glass walls. But then so much about this idiosyncratic building defies logic. “Typically, after Koolhaas finishes his design, a sort of clean-up crew comes in and sorts out the problems,” I was told. Maybe they should have gotten the award.