Architecture

HOBSON’S CHOICE

District of Columbia War Memorial

District of Columbia War Memorial

In the public debate over Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial, there have been frequent calls to scrap the current design and hold a national design competition, open to all. Again at the recent National Capital Planning Commission meeting that “disapproved” Gehry’s proposal, the claim was made that national competitions are the way that Washington, D.C. memorial designs have always been chosen. Let’s look at the historical record.

Washington Monument: in 1836, public competition won by Robert Mills.
Grant Memorial: design competition won by Henry Merwin Shrady, sculptor, and Edward Pearce Casey, architect.
Lincoln Memorial: an invited two-man competition between John Russell Pope and Henry Bacon, who won.
Jefferson Memorial: no competition, Pope was appointed the architect.
FDR Memorial: in 1960, open architects competition won by  William F. Pederson & Bradford S. Tilney but disapproved by Commission of Fine Arts and Roosevelt family; in 1966, an invited architectural competition of 55 leading architects won by Marcel Breuer but disapproved by CFA; in 1974, open architects competition, 90 entries, won by Lawrence Halprin.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial: open pubic competition (1,421 entries) won by Maya Lin.
Korean War Veterans Memorial: open public competition (540 entries) won by a group of students from Penn State.
World War II Memorial: open public competition (407 entries), won by Friedrich St. Florian.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial: open public competition (900+ entries) won by ROMA Design Group.
Eisenhower Memorial: 44 architects selected to compete using GSA’s Design Excellence Program, and Gehry chosen from among 4 finalists.

It’s a mixed bag. The Lincoln Memorial was the result of a design competition between two hand-picked architects; the Jefferson Memorial had no competition at all. The Washington Memorial did have a national competition, but the final design is really the work of Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey, who was responsible for its construction. And these are the best three memorials. Conversely, the  designers of some of the least compelling memorials—FDR, Korean, WWII, MLK—were chosen through open national competitions. The open competition process was obviously influenced by the Vietnam Memorial, and the hope of uncovering an unknown young designer. Which turns out to be difficult, maybe impossible, to duplicate. One of my favorite memorials on the Mall is the District of Columbia War Memorial which honors DC residents who fell in WWI. The architect, Frederick H. Brooke, was simply given the job.

AN ARCHITECT’S MEMORIAL

P1010440The other day, I walked by the memorial to Richard Morris Hunt that stands on Fifth Avenue, next to Central Park. Not many architects get to have a memorial. The only other one I have seen commemorates Andrea Palladio, a lifesize statue in a small square in Vicenza. Hunt’s is more elaborate:  a bronze bust of the architect is set in an exedra that includes two female statues, one representing Architecture the other Art. The sculptor was Daniel Chester French; the architect, Bruce Price. The inscription reads: “To Richard Morris Hunt, October 31, 1828 – July 31, 1895, in recognition  of his services to the cause of art  in America, this memorial was erected 1898 by the art societies of New York.” The societies are listed: the Century Association, to which Hunt belonged; the Municipal Arts Society, which he founded; the Metropolitan Museum, which he had designed; the Artists Artisans of New York; the Architectural League, which he helped found; the National Sculpture Society; the  National Academy of Design; the Society of  American Artists; the American Institute of Architects, of which he was a founder and the third president; the American Watercolor Society; and the Society of Beaux Arts Architects—Hunt was the first American to attend the Ecole, and founded effectively the first school of architecture in the US. Hunt designed some of the grandest of the grand houses of the Gilded Age, in New York, Newport, and Asheville, NC. But his greatest achievement, for which his friends honored him with this memorial, was to raise the social standing of the architect from that of a glorified carpenter to a fine arts professional. Later practitioners such as Charles McKim and Ralph Adams Cram  were better architects, but they all stood on Hunt’s shoulders.

 

THE GASTRONOMIC ANALOGY

juliachildbThe WTTW documentary movie on Driehaus prizewinner Pier Carlo Bontempi, “A Taste for The Past,” begins with food, a lunch in the architects office in Parma. The analogy between architecture and cooking has always struck me as compelling: they both combine practicality with taste, they both transform physical materials, and in both the eater/user is at the center of the experience. Food needs to be cookable (buildable) and edible (comfortable). There is innovation in cooking—nouvelle cuisine, foams, fusion—yet all cuisines have a base that, for most people, remains the foundation of everyday eating. The parallels extend to education: the novice cook starts by learning how to slice onions (remember that scene in Julia and Julia?), not by actually cooking, and needs to master the omelette before moving on to haute cuisine. There are cooking fads, but ultimately all cooking is founded in tradition, whose rich variety is the very essence of food. Marcella Hazan does not invent, she guides us through the Italian tradition. The architectural parallels are self-evident. There are traditions to be learned, techniques to be mastered. Taste needs to be cultivated. Variety is key; there are many foods; there is no morality in food, pace vegans. Repetition and replication, not invention, are the essence of cooking. And also of architecture—or should be.

 

THE REAL THING

The Bauhaus in context

The Bauhaus in context

The Bauhaus idealized

The Bauhaus idealized

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I  don’t always agree with Aaron Betsky, but his current Architect column about why he only writes about buildings that he has actually seen is spot on. In architecture, experience is all; photographs are a poor substitute, especially as photographers regularly crop out the surrounding context. Moreover, you should experience a building over an extended period of time, as users do, at different times of day, in different weather. And not only on press day—before the building is put to use—but several years later, when the rough edges have been worn smooth. Of course, if architectural journalists followed Betsky’s dictum, magazines would be a lot thinner than they already are.

And it gets worse. Critics regularly make pronouncements about buildings that can’t be visited because they don’t actually exist—they are unbuilt—perhaps unbuildable. The PA Awards, for example, are given to buildings before they are built, which makes about as much sense as awarding book prizes on the basis of a proposal or outline. I would guess that this habit begins in architecture schools, where students are assessed on the basis of drawings and models, and the illusion is established that these exercises represent real architecture. They don’t. As Robert Hughes once observed, “reproduction is to aesthetic awareness what telephone sex is to sex.” He was talking about paintings and sculptures, but his insight applies equally—perhaps more so—to buildings.

 

MIESADVENTURE

Mecanoo & Martinez + Johnson

Mecanoo & Martinez + Johnson

The Washington, DC Public Library System, which is planning a makeover of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, has released what it calls “preliminary design concepts” by the three architecture firms competing for the job: Studios  Architecture and the Freelon Group; Patkau Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, and Krueck + Sexton Architects; and Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson. The MLK Library (1966) is a late work of Mies van der Rohe, completed after the master’s death in 1969, although designed while he was still active, simultaneously working on the unbuilt Mansion House Square project in London. Usually I don’t like to comment on unbuilt designs, but since the library is built, I will make an exception. The MLK Library is not a masterpiece, but it deserves better than the shabby treatment is receives from Studios and Mecanoo, who place fashionably skewed boxes above (and overlapping) the existing building in feeble attempts to bring excitement to the work of an architect who intentionally avoided excitement. “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good,” he once said. Only Patkau seems to have grasped that deference rather than contrast is the right design strategy. (Patkau adds a floor whose design is almost Miesian.) The library has announced that it “will work with community input to develop a redesign.” Commendable but also scary. It requires architectural sophistication to square the circle that is the particular design challenge of this project. Subtlety is not the usual product of public meetings, where the noisiest often prevail. Poor old Mies.
Update: The library passed over the low-key Patkau proposal and chose the “exciting” Mecanoo scheme. It will be interesting to see if such an insensitive defacement of a modernist landmark will pass muster with the Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission. Let’s hope not.

Studios Architecture and the Freelon Group

 

Patkau Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, and Krueck + Sexton Architects

Patkau Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, and Krueck + Sexton Architects