“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?
Architects such as Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, and Zaha Hadid have been commissioned to design luxury yachts, but it is cruise ships that beg for an architect’s touch. In fact, these maritime behemoths already resemble buildings—very big buildings. Granted their designs are generally banal, but it is easy to imagine them styled by high-fashion architects. This would solve another pressing problem. Every city seems to want an iconic building designed by a starchitect. Now they could lease a floating icon instead of saddling themselves with a potential permanent eyesore. One can imagine the waterfront of Dubai, or London, or Chicago, as a maritime parking lot with the latest architectural glams. After several years, when the shine begins to fade—literally as well as figuratively—the icon ships could sail off to a lesser urb, Glasgow, or Riga, or Lagos; even an impoverished city could afford a Nouvel or a Piano for a month or two. Since the current architectural icons are largely placeless, they are perfectly suited to such a nomadic existence. At home everywhere—and nowhere.
I was complaining to my friend Anthony Alofsin the other day about the current tendency to review buildings as if they were movies, that is, as if they could be digested at one sitting rather than over an extended period of time. “Reviewing the latest as the greatest fits into the mode of consumer entertainment,” he responded in an email. “Like, which Netflix special do I see next? Unfortunately, it is the current moment that sells and is in demand, not the long view.” He is exactly right. The infatuation with the “current moment” explains why as-yet unbuilt projects receive so much attention. The next new thing is the all-consuming topic. Actual construction appears to be almost an extraneous step—an afterthought. My local AIA chapter awards a silver medal to an “unbuilt project of the most exemplary design quality.” Apparently design quality can be recognized absent performance. As long as it looks like fun.
I heard a word the other day that brought me up short: contemporize. It was uttered by an architect who was describing a university building of the late 1960s that was being renovated. He was not referring to the updating of mechanical and environmental systems—that happens all the time in older buildings—he was describing changes to the architecture itself. The undistinguished Sixties building is mainly brick and concrete. In this case, contemporizing—an ugly invented word—seemed to consist of adding as much glass as possible. Glass is the materiel du jour; it is transparent, open, inviting, progressive, not like fusty old brick or dull grey concrete. Perhaps in fifty years glass, too, will be replaced—by recycled plastic or reconstituted wood, whatever is the fashion of the future. But for the moment glass sends the message “We are up to date.” The B-side of the message is “We are just like everybody else.”
Like most people I am dismayed at the demolition of Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center. But I am more dismayed by the thought that we have not learned the lesson that this Sixties building has to teach. Rudolph often stepped over the line between expression and functionality, and any designer who does so should not be surprised that his/her artifact does not gain the affection of its users. I still have my old wooden swivel office chair, but my Wassily Chair is long gone. There is another lesson that the Orange County building should teach us. Exposed concrete, in this case mostly patterned concrete blocks, is not a good finish material. It weathers badly on the exterior, and it is unpleasant on the interior. In the 1960s, exposed concrete was all the rage—so was cigarette smoking, gas-guzzling cars, asbestos cement, and lead-based paint. We now see that the last four were mistakes. So was concrete. It is a fine structural material, and OK in parking garages and stadiums (especially in the hands of a master like Nervi), but not a fit replacement for brick, stone, or wood as cladding or interior finish. There are already signs that, in a nostalgic rush to preserve exposed concrete buildings of the Sixties, we are trying to convince ourselves that concrete really is an acceptable finish material. That it’s just a matter of taste. It isn’t—it was a mistake that shouldn’t be repeated. Which raises a perplexing question: How does one preserve a mistake?