I read an amazing (for me) fact recently. A participant in a Getty Center colloquium on building preservation casually observed that the life cycle of conventionally built (masonry and wood) buildings is about 120 years (before major repairs), whereas for modernist buildings it is only half that time—sixty years. Consider Yale’s masterpieces of the 1960s: Louis Kahn’s art gallery, Paul Rudolph’s A & A, Eero Saarinen’s colleges. They have all recently undergone major renovation, at a cost far exceeding the original construction cost. In the words of Yale dean, Robert A. M. Stern, “They cost pennies to build and millions to renovate.”
Sixty years! You might say that architects today are delivering half the product that they used to. For a long time, a building’s durability was taken for granted. It might be clad in marble, brick, or stucco, but with adequate maintenance (cleaning, re-pointing, painting and plastering), it could be expected to last. This was because construction consisted of heavy masonry walls, whether you were building a villa, a palazzo, or a basilica. This changed when reinforced concrete came into common use. The new material seemed almost magical, allowing dramatic cantilevers, shell-thin vaults, skinny columns. It took several decades to discover that steel and concrete were precarious partners, and that porous, fragile concrete was a poor substitute for stone and brick as external cladding. By then a generation of Brutalist buildings had come into being. Structural steel is durable, but the lightweight glass curtain wall has its own problems: gaskets, sealants, glass coatings. A sixty-year life? probably.
Modern architecture looks so, well modern. Efficient, engineered, precise, machine-made. Who knew? “Oh, by the way. This isn’t your grandfather’s building. Don’t expect it to be around for centuries. In fact, expect to shell out much more in sixty years to keep it going than you paid to build it. Or just knock it down. After all, it wasn’t meant to last.”
The current copy of my alumni magazine, McGill News, contains an article on the university’s new health center, a 2.5 million square-foot behemoth that consolidates no less than four existing health facilities. It’s hard to characterize this building, other than to say that it is big. The article does not identify the architect. Perhaps because this particular broth had so many cooks. The health center was built by a public-private partnership, that is, the building was designed, built, and financed by a private consortium, a process increasingly popular for public as well as private buildings. Originally, Moshe Safdie was commissioned to prepare the master plan, but he withdrew when it became apparent that the consortium, not the planner, would be calling the shots. In the event, the building appears to have been designed by at least four architectural firms. The predictable result, which a local journalist characterized as “Legoland,” exhibits no discernible architectural conviction. I recently wrote an article about Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium, a building whose design was guided by the patients’ wellbeing. The new Montreal hospital appears to have been the result of a combination of compromise, expediency, and the bottom line. All the sadder since one of the buildings it replaces, the Royal Victoria Hospital, was a building of real architectural merit, designed by Henry Saxon Snell, a Victorian Scot who is said to have modeled his turreted limestone design on the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. It was built in 1893 and served for 122 years. One cook, one fine broth.
The architectural folly has a long history. James Wyatt designed Broadway Tower in the Cotswalds in 1794. While it was more or less habitable—William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones rented it as a studio for a time—it was not primarily intended to be a functional shelter. It was an architectural whimsy—and understood as such. It struck me the other day that we take our follies much too seriously. Philip Johnson’s Glass House, for example, is a stereotypical folly: impractical, unusable in extreme weather (it lacks proper ventilation and insect screens), not really a house at all. Yet it is a beautiful pavilion. However, like the Farnsworth House, it is mistakenly taken to be a work of domestic architecture. More than that, it is often represented as exemplary—the expression of the essence of design. That, surely, is a mistake our forebears would never have made. When Wyatt built a country house, like Castle Coole in Ireland, he followed well-established Palladian conventions. There is a time to play and a time to be serious.
You can divide residential architects into two categories: those who design for their clients, and those who design for their colleagues. When the work of Category I is published, it is in mass market magazines such as Architectural Digest and Elle Decor; the work of Category II appears in professional journals and architectural monographs. These are read by architecture students, which may be why Category IIers tend to be invited to teach. Another reason is that Category II is interested in originality and innovation, which attracts tyros. In truth, the innovation is rather narrow: note the current popularity of black-stained wood, skinny columns, and prefabrication. Category I architects are more concerned with what has worked in the past, which makes their work more traditional, although the range encompasses regionalism, vernacular styles, and eclecticism.
The situation in institutional and commercial building is different. It would be almost impossible for a Category I architect to win an international competition for a library, museum, or concert hall today. In commercial buildings, Category II architects likewise dominate since the media and marketing privilege the new-new thing. A Category I architect must count on the (rare) cases of exceptional patrons (college presidents, corporate CEOs) who are prepared to buck fashion and take the longer view.
Corbusier was the first architect to use cast-in-place concrete as exterior (and interior) cladding, probably in the Unité d’habitation (1946-62) in Marseilles. The Unité was actually hybrid construction, consisting of cast-in place and precast concrete as well as a steel frame. By the time he built the Shodhan house (1956) in Ahmedabad, he was using exposed cast-in-place concrete throughout. Concrete formwork must be designed to resist the pressure of the heavy concrete until it sets. The cheapest way to do this is to use form ties—wire ties that hold the two pieces of formwork together; the wire is snipped off after the form is removed, and the wire ends—which will rust—are patched over. Unsightly but Le Corbusier didn’t care—he liked the rough and ready appearance of béton brut.
The Carpenter Center (1961-64) at Harvard was likewise cast in place, but the ties were treated differently. Instead of a patch, the ties had a throwaway plastic insert that allowed the patch to be less obvious. The ties were regularly spaced in a roughly 2’ x 2’ grid. The Carpenter Center has a more finished appearance than Shodhan, probably due to Josep Lluís Sert, who supervised the construction and was likely also responsible for the form-tie detail. The plastic insert must have been a manufacturer’s invention—sometime in the late 1950s—although I have not been able to identify the maker. Louis Kahn popularized the insert in the Salk Institute (1959-65). He made the holes more prominent by sinking them deeper and plugging them with lead. Otherise the concrete was left in its natural state.
Concrete is actually not a very good material for cladding since it is porous and prone to spalling, cracking, and chipping. By the 1980s, architects were more likely to use stone or brick veneer, and increasingly glass curtain walls. With the reemergence of orthodox modernism, architects such as Tadao Ando revived concrete cladding, both inside and out. Ando, who admired Kahn, also revived the form-tie detail. It is plainly visible in the Fort Worth Art Museum. What is not obvious is that since fewer ties are now required, only some of the holes are real ties—the rest are counterfeit. In fact, it is possible to dispense with form ties altogether and produce perfectly smooth unmarked concrete walls, as Renzo Piano did in the galleries of his addition to the Kimbell. Perhaps the oddest form-tie detail is in the Shanghai Natural History Museum (2015), designed by Perkins & Will. On the interior, next to an actual cast-in-place concrete wall, is a partition of plaster wallboard, with a pattern simulating concrete ties. As often happens in architecture, constructional necessity has mutated into pure decoration.