Architecture

MAKE A STATEMENT

Craig Ellwood, South Bay Bank, Manhattan Beach, CA (1956)

Craig Ellwood, South Bay Bank, Manhattan Beach, CA (1956)

I came across a term new to me in an architectural magazine today. The writer was speculating about whether Jeff Bezos would have an influence on the design of the new headquarters of the Washington Post. “One question is whether the newspaper’s new owner wants a statement building,” he wrote. A statement building! It struck me as a sad commentary on the present state of architecture that what at one time would have been called simply good design had now been elevated to the status of a “statement.” And a statement of what? The architectural equivalent of a designer label: I am a Gehry, I am a Hadid, I am a Foster? A ratification of the status of the client: I am rich, I am special, I am not run-of-the-mill? Or a corporate message: we value design, we are green, we are on the cutting edge? It is times like this that I miss the certainties of mid-century modernism, when it was sufficient for a building–whether it was a corporate office, a house, or a bank–to merely exhibit structural and functional logic, clean but not labored details, and a modest range of materials. If there was a statement here it was simply “I am modern.”

CORPORATE HOMES

Microsoft campus, Seattle

Microsoft campus, Seattle

In the midst of the astonishing sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos, a related announcement has received less attention: the newspaper will be getting a new home. Developers have been invited to make proposals, and while the final choice has not yet been made (and given the sale of the paper, who knows?), some of the alternatives have been made public. The architects include the usual megafirm suspects, and the designs are equally predictable–buildings for anybody, anyplace. What a difference when the Chicago Tribune held a well-publicized architectural competition in the 1920s for its home, and Eliel Saarinen, Walter Gropius, and Bruno Taut were among the entrants. That was a time when corporations sought to present themselves to the public through adventurous architecture–think Woolworth, Singer, Chrysler, RCA. Sometimes this strategy backfired (PanAm, CBS, AT&T), but when it succeeded it produced masterworks such as Wright’s Johnson Wax, Mies’s Seagram, SOM’s Lever House, and Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center and the John Deere headquarters. Pepsi Cola, Bell Labs, IBM, and Union Carbide built exceptional buildings, too. In fact, a list of leading mid-century corporate patrons reads like the Fortune 500. One would be hard put to compile a comparable list today. None of our largest new corporations–Google, Microsoft, Intel, Dell, Amazon–would be on it. Exceptions: Facebook has hired Frank Gehry to design an addition to its campus, and Apple is building a high-tech donut designed by Norman Foster. But most of today’s technology companies appear content to occupy the safe architectural middle ground. Is it that buildings really don’t matter to them? Or are they sending the message: we’re not elitists, we’re one of the crowd, we’re just like you. Mr. Bezos, the new boss, could change that.

TWINKLE, TWINKLE LITTLE STAR

starsGuy Horton wrote an article recently in ArchDaily on starchitects. He included a number of comments by various architecture critics and observers (including your truly). I was struck that many of my colleagues called for “retiring” the term–whatever that means–as if it were primarily about semantics. It’s not, it’s primarily about money. Just as certain Hollywood actors can make a film script into a bankable movie, certain architects can add monetary value to a project (with donors, buyers, the general public). That is why the acting star and the designing star get paid more. And that is also why both invest heavily in press agents, publicists, and public relations. What certifies a starchitect is as hard to pin down as what makes an actor a star. Probably a combination of native ability, public acclaim, and desire (one rarely becomes a star by accident). Perhaps key is  connecting with the zeitgeist. In a consumer culture that depends so heavily on name recognition and celebrity, it was probably inevitable that the architectural profession would eventually be affected–or is it infected? In any case, the impact has been significant. In The Favored Circle, the Australian architect/sociologist Garry Stevens posits the emergence of two distinct categories of architects. “Those at the summit of the field who design structures of power and taste for people of power and taste,” he writes, “have little in common with those who toil at CAD workstations detailing supermarkets.”

LACMA FOLLIES

pzSomebody asked Renzo Piano what is was like to design an addition–the Broad Contemporary Art Museum–to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “As I already told you, it’s very frustrating to play a good piece by a string quartet in the middle of three badly played rock concerts,” he responded. As I wrote in Slate: “Piano was referring to the existing museum buildings, whose architecture is pretty bad, as if a shopping mall had been converted into a cultural facility. But after sitting in the outdoor cafe, watching groups of excited children running across the roofed plaza and teenagers wandering in off the street, it struck me that this vulgar (in the literal sense of the word) Southern Californian solution to an art museum succeeded in one important way. In part because of its lack of pretension, this is an art museum in which people appear decidedly at home.” I wasn’t much impressed by Piano’s string quartet, but the rock concert struck me as a pretty  interesting place. Now LACMA has announced a $650 million plan to demolish the three old buildings (a pavilion by Bruce Goff will be preserved) and replace them with a brand new museum designed by Peter Zumthor. Most critics admire Zumthor’s work, and the project has generally been greeted with accolades. I’ve never warmed to his pious brand of minimalism, but this project strikes me as misconceived not because of what will be built, but because of what will be lost. The old LACMA is a refreshingly quirky setting for art; neither palatial, like the nineteenth-century museums, nor primly aesthetic, like most new museums. It would be nice if LA stopped continuously trying to re-invent itself.

GEHRY’S TEMPLE

Gehry-Eisenhower-Mermorial-6James Stirling once said, “Architects have always looked back in order to move forward.” That is precisely what Frank Gehry did in his original design proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial: in a city of classical temples he created a roofless temple, albeit magnified to suit the scale of the 4-acre site. It was obvious that he was looking back to the Lincoln Memorial (an alternative version, a circle of columns, channeled the Jefferson Memorial). Gehry hung a giant mesh tapestry from the columns, but their prime purpose was not to support the tapestry but to define a space. As my fellow commissioner on the Commission of Fine Arts, Michael McKinnell observed, a hundred years from now, whatever happened to the tapestry, the sense of a vast temple would remain. As the design evolved the number of columns was reduced from 13 to 10, and the row along Independence Avenue disappeared completely. Nevertheless, the sense of enclosure persisted. At a meeting of the Commission of Fine Arts three days ago, the memorial design was approved, but it was suggested that the two pairs of columns on the east and west sides be removed entirely. That would be a mistake, for instead of a roofless temple, what would be left would be a giant movie screen, supported on unaccountably large columns.