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.
“Experimentation can sometimes look weird at first, but it is a necessary part of figuring out how to make our human-built world better,” writes Aaron Betsky in his December 2014 Architect column. The implicit suggestion is that architectural experimentation is a good and necessary thing. But buildings that “look weird” are one thing, buildings that act weird are another. Buildings, unlike most artifacts, must last a long time—hundreds of years—so in terms of construction, weirdness should be avoided. In the sixteenth century, the great Palladio built revolutionary buildings, but he did so using tried and true technology, which is why so many of his works have survived. On the other hand, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., which is barely 40 years old, just announced that its facade will be “revitalized” as part of a $30 million renovation. When Gyo Obata of HOK designed the museum in 1976, he matched the Tennessee marble skin to the National Gallery across the Mall. But he didn’t match the way it was used. John Russell Pope, used marble that is 4-8 inches thick; the marble on the Air and Space Museum is only 1 1/4 inches thick. Over the years, the thin slabs have begun to bow and crack, and now have to be entirely replaced. The marble skin of I.M. Pei’s nearby East Building of the National Gallery (1978) also failed, although for a different reason: the stainless steel anchors of the marble skin had to be replaced and the entire marble wall rebuilt. There is nothing novel about architectural veneer; the ancient Romans covered the brick structure of the Pantheon with marble slabs, and a thousand years later Charles McKim used basically the same technology in the Morgan Library. The Romans, McKim, and Pope, used marble to build thick self-supporting walls that wrapped around the structure, while Pei and Obata hung the marble from the structure. No one would describe the East Building or the Air and Space Museum as weird, but their architects were experimenting in adopting untried construction methods. Of course, if you believe that today’s architects and engineers are simply smarter that those of forty years ago, you can be cavalier about innovation. But the unintended consequences that accompany new materials and novel techniques are difficult to predict precisely because they are unintended. Better to go slow.
A Polish translation of How Architecture Works: A Humanist’s Toolkit will be appearing soon from Wydawnictwo Karakter in Krakow. Translations are also in the works from Owl Publishing House in Taipei, Cheers Media in Beijing, and CIR Co. in Seoul.
Polish speakers can read my interview in Gazeta Wyborcza.