The other day we drove to Mount Cuba, a horticultural center in Delaware. The forest garden is part of an estate built in the 1930s by Lamott Du Pont Copeland and his wife Louisa, a branch of the mighty Delaware family. We went to look at the trillium garden, but I was also impressed by the house, a very large Colonial Revival mansion that was completed in 1937. The beautiful brick architecture was exquisite, simple to the point of distillation. The design was the work of Victorine and Samuel Homsey. Samuel (1904-1994), a native of Boston, graduated from MIT and met and married Victorine Du Pont (1900-98), who had studied at the Cambridge School of Domestic and Landscape Architecture for Women. They set up shop in Delaware, which is where Victorine had family contacts; theirs was probably the first husband-and-wife practice in the United States. In addition to Mount Cuba they were responsible for several building on the nearby Du Pont estate, Winterthur, as well as the Delaware Art Museum. The Museum of Modern Art selected their house design to represent the International Style for the 1938 Paris Exhibition, but they were not modernist converts. “We certainly are not modern if that means following worshipfully the so called functional or international style,” wrote Victorine. “Nor do we follow with blind admiration the great designers of earlier periods. We try to work out each job as a totally separate problem and to divorce from our minds any preconceived idea of style.” Eclecticism is maligned today, but looking at Mount Cuba one can only admire its rigor and sense of conviction.
The newly completed Oculus in Manhattan is not just misnamed (an oculus is a round opening, not a slit) it is misconceived. It is not a question of design, or execution, or cost, but rather of the entire concept. Does a daily commute really require this level of architectural rhetoric? Even if this were a substitute for Penn Station, it would be a dubious proposition. It made sense for our forbears to celebrate long distance train travel, when railroad terminals really were the “gateways to the city.” Today, that is no longer the case. Even air travel has become a mundane, everyday affair. just look at how plane travelers dress—for comfort, not for distinction. This does not mean that an airline terminal—or a train station, for that matter—needs to be banal, the equivalent of architectural Muzak. But maybe Scarlatti rather than Wagner is in order? I recall my first experience of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, some thirty years ago. It was a comfortable relaxing (and quiet) place, just right for the jet lagged intercontinental traveler. Does the weary commuter really need Calatrava’s over-heated hoopla? I think not.
In September 1900, the office of Walter Cope and John Stewardson (who had died a few years earlier) produced a report in conjunction with their plan for the new campus for Washington University in St.Louis. The report is titled “Explanation of Drawings,” and a large part is devoted to a discussion of architectural style, specifically of Classical and Gothic. The authors argue for the latter (the firm more or less invented Collegiate Gothic), on the basis of cost, adaptability, scale, and appropriateness to an educational institution. They also point out the sentimental connection that exists between Gothic and institutions of higher learning, which evolved side by side in the Middle Ages. “If we ignore true sentiment in architecture we shall have little left,” they add. I realized when I read this that this is precisely what disturbs me about the current fashion in architectural design. Buildings have eliminated all sentiment. They may be ingenious and complex, but they are so in a way that is hermetic and self-contained. Instead of “looking like” buildings, that is, establishing a sentimental tie with the long arc of history, they merely look forward into an unknown future. Perhaps that’s why they remind me of giant appliances.
The announcement of the seven finalists for the Obama Presidential Library in Chicago is puzzling. First of all, why such an announcement at all? It has become common practice for museums and concert halls planning new buildings to draw out the architect selection process to the max. First the announcement of a competition; then revealing a short list; then the unveiling of actual designs; then the finalists; and finally—drum roll here—the winner. This process is calculated to generate the maximum amount of media coverage and publicity to assist in fund raising. This appears unnecessary—not to say unseemly—for a presidential library. Moreover, is a design competition really the best way to chose an architect for such a personal building? Obama should be choosing an architect, not a design. (An architect who understands that a presidential library is about the President, not about the architect.) But exactly what is the President looking for? The bewilderingly heterogeneous list (choose between Renzo Piano and SHoP, or between David Adjaye and Williams & Tsien) offers no answer.
“Architecture is the picture frame and not the picture” is a memorable quote attributed to the mid-century California modernist, William Wurster. Wurster, a notable teacher as well as an architect, was reminding his students that architecture is always a setting, not the main event. I thought of Wurster’s observation recently when I was writing an essay for Architect on the challenges of architectural biography. Why are there so few first-rate biographies of architects, I asked? Or, to put it another way, why don’t first-rate biographers such as David McCullough, Edmund Morris, and Walter Isaacson, take the life of an architect as their subject? Is it that there are simply too few readers who are interested in what architects actually do? People are fascinated by cars, for example, but they are not that interested in how—and by whom—they are designed. You can count recognizable car designers on one hand: Ferdinand Porsche (Volkswagen Beetle), Alec Issigonis (Mini), Raymond Loewy (Studebaker Commander), Harley Earl (1953 Corvette), Pinninfarina (Giulietta Spider). Similarly, people recognize iconic buildings (the White House, the Empire State, San Francisoco City Hall) without necessarily knowing—or caring—who built or designed them. Or, as a friend suggested, perhaps architects are just not that important in the overall scheme of things. After all, what would you rather read about, the person who made the picture frame, or the one who painted the picture?