Architecture

NORTH OF THE BORDER

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,

FAKE NEWS

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.

COMMUNITY-ORGANIZER-IN-CHIEF

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.

THE LAYERS OF THE PAST

90Ian Volner’s review of Robert A. M. Stern’s Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia is more even-handed that Inga Saffron’s mean-spirited screed in the Inquirer. But both critics miss an important aspect of Stern’s design: its relation to the nearby U.S. Custom House. That 17-story tower is the most prominent building in the area and provides a backdrop to the museum, evident in Peter Aaron’s evocative photograph. The museum echoes some of the brick and limestone details, as well as the crowning lantern. The Custom House, a WPA project completed in 1934, was the work of Verus T. Ritter and Howell L. Shay (Shay had worked for Horace Trumbauer, and is credited with the parti for the latter’s Philadelphia Museum of Art). The brick and limestone Custom House combined an Art Deco sensibility with Federal details and forms in a masterly way. Thus Stern’s museum, far from being latter-day Georgian revival, as both Volner and Saffron suggest, is really a twenty-first century interpretation of an early twentieth century take on American Federal, which itself was a version of British Georgian. Personally, I find the recessed arches of the museum’s facade to be a little heavy-handed, but the dialogue with the many pasts of Philadelphia is interesting and bears mention. Incidentally, Saffron suggests that there is something unseemly in using Georgian stylistic references in a building commemorating a war fought “to free ourselves from the Georgian tyranny.” But the Founding Fathers were not revolting against British civilization, only British rule; in architecture they were content to take their lead from their British cousins.

SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE DAY

serveimageThere is a long tradition of architectural research in structures—one thinks of Nervi, Candela, Torroja, and Frei Otto, the pioneers of concrete like Perret, and much earlier the Byzantine and Gothic builders. Architects have sometimes experimented successfully with new building techniques and materials (Rudolph invented striated concrete blocks; Foster was the first to use structural glass fins). But research into how people use buildings is rare. The profession has always recognized the value of so-called post-occupancy evaluation, and the need for knowledge based on how people actually behave in and use buildings. The problem has been that this kind of research is extremely complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. Moreover, it fits into practice with difficulty. There is no advantage to a practitioner in showing the long-term deficiencies of his design decisions. Negative feedback is merely embarrassing. There is a professional reluctance to “tell tales out of school” and to reveal clients’ confidences, or to suggest that what the client got was less than perfect. A scientist can publicly document experiments that failed without risk—indeed, that is the basis of the scientific method—but an architect’s reputation would suffer were he to do so. (I learned about this when I wrote The Biography of a Building, about the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts.)

It would require a sort of unbiased consumer protection agency to do true post-occupancy evaluation. But who would fund it? Not the original designer, whose reputation can only be hurt. Not the client, who may be criticized for misuse of funds. Not the building industry, which may be legally liable for deficiencies. Not the current building owner who will only risk reaping bad pubicity. A government-funded consumer agency seems like a long shot in the current climate. The most likely areas for intensive research into human behavior in buildings would be focused on specific subjects of vital public concern: thermal comfort related to energy conservation, crowd behavior in building disasters, the health effects of healthcare environments.

What is the alternative? In the past, architects were relatively conservative when it came to innovation. Palladio researched archaeological ruins, and innovated in formal aspects of building, but the plans of his villas follow tried and true models. Architects based their work on a Canon—buildings that were considered exemplary and provided field-tested models. I have many friends who are “traditionalists” and  “classicists.” What distinguishes their work from that of the self-styled avant-garde is that they tend to lean on historic precedent and traditional types for design decisions, rather than conjuring up novel forms and building arrangements out of thin air. This is true both in building design and urban design. Slow and steady wins the day.