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?
I came across an online lecture at a design conference by the British product designer Jasper Morrison recently, and I was struck by one of his statements. “As designers, we are responsible for our environment, and filling it with amazing shapes and forms and surprising expressions of our genius, doesn’t make a very good atmosphere. In fact, to me it’s becoming a kind of visual pollution.” Morrison was talking about housewares, appliances and chairs, but he could have been describing buildings. The pressure on architects to produce new and exciting forms that will attract the attention of the media has had a distorting and negative effect on the field—visual pollution, indeed.
I read an amazing (for me) fact recently. A participant in a Getty Center colloquium on building preservation casually observed that the life cycle of conventionally built (masonry and wood) buildings is about 120 years (before major repairs), whereas for modernist buildings it is only half that time—sixty years. Consider Yale’s masterpieces of the 1960s: Louis Kahn’s art gallery, Paul Rudolph’s A & A, Eero Saarinen’s colleges. They have all recently undergone major renovation, at a cost far exceeding the original construction cost. In the words of Yale dean, Robert A. M. Stern, “They cost pennies to build and millions to renovate.”
Sixty years! You might say that architects today are delivering half the product that they used to. For a long time, a building’s durability was taken for granted. It might be clad in marble, brick, or stucco, but with adequate maintenance (cleaning, re-pointing, painting and plastering), it could be expected to last. This was because construction consisted of heavy masonry walls, whether you were building a villa, a palazzo, or a basilica. This changed when reinforced concrete came into common use. The new material seemed almost magical, allowing dramatic cantilevers, shell-thin vaults, skinny columns. It took several decades to discover that steel and concrete were precarious partners, and that porous, fragile concrete was a poor substitute for stone and brick as external cladding. By then a generation of Brutalist buildings had come into being. Structural steel is durable, but the lightweight glass curtain wall has its own problems: gaskets, sealants, glass coatings. A sixty-year life? probably.
Modern architecture looks so, well modern. Efficient, engineered, precise, machine-made. Who knew? “Oh, by the way. This isn’t your grandfather’s building. Don’t expect it to be around for centuries. In fact, expect to shell out much more in sixty years to keep it going than you paid to build it. Or just knock it down. After all, it wasn’t meant to last.”