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.


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.


serveimage-2The Canadian design mag, Azure, ran a post recently titled “Canada 150: Canada’s Future Role in Architecture and Design.” The magazine posed the question to a number of prominent and not-so-prominent architects. Predictably, perhaps, the answers were uniformly upbeat: a world leader in sustainable design, a catalyst for change, and my favorite, in the forefront of developing pluralistic cultural identity. Perhaps it’s worth looking back to get an idea of the future. International leadership doesn’t loom large. The list of Canadian architects whose names would appear in an encyclopedia of world architecture covering 1867-2017 would not be long. There was no H. H. Richardson to shake up the architectural scene, no Charles McKim to establish a classical standard for civic buildings, no Frank Lloyd Wright to preach a northern organic gospel. Modernism, when it arrived, tended to be a pale imitation of what was going on south of the border. It is not until Arthur Erickson that we find a native-born Canadian architect who develops an original style that has an impact on the international scene. He is followed by Moshe Safdie and John Andrews, immigrants both, who make their mark with Habitat and Scarborough College. I would add two stylistic outliers, whose idiosyncratic approach ruled them out of fashion but who deserve at least a footnote: Montreal’s Ernest Cormier and Ron Thom. The latter’s Massey College is an original masterwork that demonstrates how Wrightian ideas might be adapted north of the 49th parallel. Erickson might have become Canada’s Aalto, had his architecture been a little less theatrical, a little more, well, Canadian. The frosty Canadian climate and long winters don’t demand—or tolerate—flamboyance or whimsy. They do demand robust construction; zoomy shapes covered in Dryvit just don’t cut it. In any case, Canadians were never much interested in iconic buildings. There is no neoclassical Macdonald Memorial or Parliamentary Dome. Perhaps the closest you get to a national icon, apart from the Peace Tower, is the series of romantic chateau-like CPR hotels built at the end of the nineteenth century—and they were designed by Bruce Price, an American,


serveimageThe other day I read in The Architects Newspaper that the dean of IIT had stepped down. While this is undoubtedly of keen interest to IIT faculty and students why is it considered news? Perhaps because five years ago, when Wiel Arets was appointed dean, that decision was widely reported. But why was that event newsworthy? Architecture schools operate under a handicap where publicity is concerned. Law schools periodically gain attention when their graduates attain high positions, the Supreme Court or even the White House; business schools are lauded for the wealth of their graduates; and medical schools can announce the occasional cure for this or that. But architecture schools rarely conduct groundbreaking research, and when all is said and done the education of architectural professionals is a dull affair. Every year, year in and year out, a new group of graduates is sent out to stock the nation’s drafting rooms, and year in and year out a new cohort arrives at the door. Not much news there. Architecture schools attempt to promote exhibitions of their students’ work, but it is after all, student work, that is, the exercises of trainees, of little interest to the world at large. Which brings us to the appointment of deans and chairs—not big news in itself, but a change in the routine. Or perhaps news, if the name is recognizable, not an obscure academic, of course, but a globetrotting practitioner. In a culture driven by celebrity, that is sufficient to pass for news.


90According to a report in Politico, unlike all previous presidential libraries since FDR’s, the Obama “library” will not contain any presidential papers; the actual archives will be located elsewhere. This means that the  building in Lincoln Park will not be owned and operated by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Why did Obama opt for this unusual solution? According to Politico, the rationale may have been financial. “If the Obama Center chose to include a “presidential archival facility,” the private Obama Foundation would be required to provide NARA with an endowment equal to 60 percent of the total cost to build and equip that facility for ongoing operation and maintenance expenses,” it reported. “For a library that has been estimated to cost more than a billion dollars, such a move could save hundreds of millions.” Or perhaps Obama simply preferred that control of the facility not pass to the federal government. The Obama Presidential Center, as it is to be called, is intended to function more like a community center than a traditional presidential archive-cum-shrine, which may be appropriate for the president who was the Community-Organizer-in-Chief.

Which brings us to the recently unveiled preliminary design. Like many Williams & Tsien projects, the centerpiece is a striking if somewhat mysterious form. It recalls a funerary urn. Is this meant to suggest that the building is a memorial to its subject? The press release that accompanied the design described the complex as “a recreational destination and center for gathering on the South Side for families, community members and visitors alike.” So what is it to be, a national icon or a neighborhood center? Squaring that particular circle will not be easy.