Writing about the late Jon Jerde in a recent issue of Architect, Karrie Jacobs brought me up short with a wonderfully pithy phrase. She described a Jerde-designed project as “a mille-feuille of the simulated and the real, layer upon layer upon layer.” Exactly. I remember visiting the newly-built Horton Plaza in San Diego, an urban shopping mall that Jerde designed in 1985. My first reaction was revulsion—this was postmodernism on steroids, cliché piled upon cliché. But then the Mille-Feuille Effect kicked in. The stagey architecture was obviously fake, but the sun and fresh air were real (the public spaces were not roofed). The ersatz arches and polychromy were artificial, yet the views of downtown buildings were real enough—this was one mall that was was not hermetically sealed off from its surroundings. And of course the people who were clearly enjoying themselves in this architectural jungle gym were real, too.
I was interviewed recently by Gil Roth for his literary-cultural podcast, The Virtual Memories Show. At one point he asked me what I thought about the future of architecture. No one had ever posed that question directly to me before, and when I answered I realized—much to my surprise—that I was not sanguine about the prospect. It seems to me that several factors have come together to produce a perfect storm (sorry), upending this ancient art.
Education, always a difficult undertaking in any creative field, has become divorced from practice. The lingering effect of so-called history-theory has not helped, nor has the technology of the Digital Age. The study of history was for long the foundation of learning to be an architect. Because architecture is not a science, there is no “theory of architecture” undergirding practice. Rather, there is the canon of built works, which provides continued inspiration—inspiration, not models. Turning away from the past today’s architects risk stranding themselves in the present—or worse, in the future. As for digital technology: ever since the Renaissance, architects used sketching, drawing, and model-making to explore architectural ideas, evolving a language of scales and graphic conventions to communicate their ideas—to themselves, and their clients. This language is in the process of disappearing. The result: we are making it up as we go along.
The effect of globalization on architectural practice cannot be understated. In the past, architectural fame was regional, in small countries it might be national; now it is worldwide. This raises the stakes considerably. “Getting the next job,” as H. H. Richardson observed, was always the architect’s greatest challenge. With globalization, the next job may come from anywhere in the world. Who could resist that? Of course, that has taken architects far afield, building in places and for people with whom they have no intimate connection. This does not necessarily produce better buildings.
An important side effect of globalization is the supremacy of the architect’s brand. Le Corbusier and Mies were well-known, but Renzo and Zaha are global brands. If you are an Azerbajani, say, and you have commissioned (at extra cost) a brand-name architect from halfway around the world, you expect a brand-name building. A splash. An event. This produces a troubling result. What used to distinguish buildings from other artifacts was that they were built to last hundreds of years. This resulted in a certain conservatism, less concern with the latest fashion (that was left to interior decorators) and more awareness of the long haul. Brand-name buildings are unveiled as if they were the latest models of cars, or dresses, or music videos. They are there to be immediately enjoyed, and by implication, will be disposed of when fashions change. What happens when buildings become as temporary as smart phones? The architect as a large-scale product designer is not a happy thought.
The federal government is looking for a developer to build a new suburban home for the FBI. The old FBI headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC is offered in exchange. A 41-year-old public building is going on the block. Admittedly the FBI headquarters (designed in 1975 by Charles F. Murphy & Associates) is an eyesore and won’t be missed (assuming it’s torn down, which seems to be its likely fate). But only 41 years! Washington is full of buildings that are two and three times as old. The first federal office building, the venerable Patent Office, designed by John Mills, opened in 1867 and still serves, albeit as an art gallery. I think that there are several reasons why so many public buildings from the 1970s have short lives. Architectural modernism promotes invention. An earlier generation would have built a generic loft building. Modernism required something more original, although the FBI building was inspired by Le Corbusier’s La Tourette Dominican priory—an odd model for a government office building. “Form follows function” is another reason for short life. Tailoring buildings for one use guarantees problems when they come to be repurposed in the future—as virtually all buildings are at some point. Concrete construction also doesn’t help, since it tends to create structures that are difficult to alter. And, not least, the ugly Brutalist style of the 1970s ensures that there will be no constituency militating for a building’s preservation (except for a few earnest architecture critics). What a waste.
The Pérez Art Museum in Miami suits the city and it suits modern art. Can’t ask for more than that. My first glimpse of the museum, which opened in 2013, was from the MacArthur Causeway, which swoops across the water next to the museum. The hovering shade roof over a boxy building gave the impression of a Renzo Piano museum. But something was different, and the difference became clear when later that day we visited the building. As in a Piano building, the architecture is derived from the construction, but unlike Piano, Herzog and de Meuron don’t sweat the details. Instead of preciousness there is an appealing rough-and-ready quality. The concrete is smooth, but not silky smooth like the Kimbell; the roof shade, a slapped-up assembly of wood and concrete, is not delicate like that of the Chicago Institute of Art. All this suits Miami, a booming city of construction cranes (recession, what recession?) that is rebuilding itself decade by decade in an improvised and not particularly coherent way. The site of the museum is on the water (good), but it is also next to the MacArthur Causeway (bad). How do you build a cultural facility next to a reasonable approximation of the Indianapolis Speedway? The New York Times has described the Pérez Museum as “spectacular,” but that is not the right word. It is assertive and self-confident, but not theatrical. The planted columns that hang from the roof outside are photogenic but they strike me as weird rather than interesting. Their logic becomes apparent when you are inside looking out—they make an interesting green screen. And the discrete white galleries do not overwhelm the art, as far as I could tell (I am not a fan of contemporary art). A final word—about the parking garage. The museum is raised on a platform beneath which sits the garage. With a few deft strokes, the architects have transformed this arrival space (this is Miami so everyone drives). Natural light penetrates from the sides; tropical planting is mixed in among the parked cars; and the floor is not concrete but gravel. That feels rough-and-ready, too..
I’m staying in a Miami hotel, looking down on Brickell Avenue. Since I’m on the 29th floor, I can see the roofs of several lower buildings. Looking down on a building gives a different perspective of its architecture. From this vantage point, buildings that appear solid from the ground become insubstantial, theatrical, flimsy—the facade revealed as merely a wrapper. The wrapper stops at roof level, and the roof itself, invisible from below, is a utilitarian collection of cooling towers and other mechanical equipment. The building across the avenue is a recently completed office tower with ten-story annex whose roof is covered with a garden. Seen from above, a garden is still a garden, the swaying palms are still palms, the pavement pattern is still a pattern. This reminds me that much of architecture is a manufactured illusion—the magically hovering cantilever, the effortlessly sweeping roof, the glass handrail that almost isn’t there. Whereas landscape is always landscape.