Modern life


90According to a report in Politico, unlike all previous presidential libraries since FDR’s, the Obama “library” will not contain any presidential papers; the actual archives will be located elsewhere. This means that the  building in Lincoln Park will not be owned and operated by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Why did Obama opt for this unusual solution? According to Politico, the rationale may have been financial. “If the Obama Center chose to include a “presidential archival facility,” the private Obama Foundation would be required to provide NARA with an endowment equal to 60 percent of the total cost to build and equip that facility for ongoing operation and maintenance expenses,” it reported. “For a library that has been estimated to cost more than a billion dollars, such a move could save hundreds of millions.” Or perhaps Obama simply preferred that control of the facility not pass to the federal government. The Obama Presidential Center, as it is to be called, is intended to function more like a community center than a traditional presidential archive-cum-shrine, which may be appropriate for the president who was the Community-Organizer-in-Chief.

Which brings us to the recently unveiled preliminary design. Like many Williams & Tsien projects, the centerpiece is a striking if somewhat mysterious form. It recalls a funerary urn. Is this meant to suggest that the building is a memorial to its subject? The press release that accompanied the design described the complex as “a recreational destination and center for gathering on the South Side for families, community members and visitors alike.” So what is it to be, a national icon or a neighborhood center? Squaring that particular circle will not be easy.


serveimageThere is a long tradition of architectural research in structures—one thinks of Nervi, Candela, Torroja, and Frei Otto, the pioneers of concrete like Perret, and much earlier the Byzantine and Gothic builders. Architects have sometimes experimented successfully with new building techniques and materials (Rudolph invented striated concrete blocks; Foster was the first to use structural glass fins). But research into how people use buildings is rare. The profession has always recognized the value of so-called post-occupancy evaluation, and the need for knowledge based on how people actually behave in and use buildings. The problem has been that this kind of research is extremely complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. Moreover, it fits into practice with difficulty. There is no advantage to a practitioner in showing the long-term deficiencies of his design decisions. Negative feedback is merely embarrassing. There is a professional reluctance to “tell tales out of school” and to reveal clients’ confidences, or to suggest that what the client got was less than perfect. A scientist can publicly document experiments that failed without risk—indeed, that is the basis of the scientific method—but an architect’s reputation would suffer were he to do so. (I learned about this when I wrote The Biography of a Building, about the Sainsbury Center for Visual Arts.)

It would require a sort of unbiased consumer protection agency to do true post-occupancy evaluation. But who would fund it? Not the original designer, whose reputation can only be hurt. Not the client, who may be criticized for misuse of funds. Not the building industry, which may be legally liable for deficiencies. Not the current building owner who will only risk reaping bad pubicity. A government-funded consumer agency seems like a long shot in the current climate. The most likely areas for intensive research into human behavior in buildings would be focused on specific subjects of vital public concern: thermal comfort related to energy conservation, crowd behavior in building disasters, the health effects of healthcare environments.

What is the alternative? In the past, architects were relatively conservative when it came to innovation. Palladio researched archaeological ruins, and innovated in formal aspects of building, but the plans of his villas follow tried and true models. Architects based their work on a Canon—buildings that were considered exemplary and provided field-tested models. I have many friends who are “traditionalists” and  “classicists.” What distinguishes their work from that of the self-styled avant-garde is that they tend to lean on historic precedent and traditional types for design decisions, rather than conjuring up novel forms and building arrangements out of thin air. This is true both in building design and urban design. Slow and steady wins the day.


serveimageI’ve been watching Civilisation, the 1969 BBC television series, on YouTube. It’s a refreshing experience, and a reminder of how much the documentary film form has been influenced—I almost wrote infected—by Ken Burns. Instead of a revolving door of talking “expert” heads Civilisation makes do with a single presenter. There are no voice-overs pushing a narrative along, no actors dramatizing, no staged sequences, instead we have the wise (and rather dapper) Kenneth Clark to guide us. The 13-part series is subtitled “A Personal View,” and that is one of its strengths. Clark, an art historian, wrote as well as narrated, and the text is frankly opinionated, without an attempt at even-handedness or objectivity—like the best art criticism. (Civilisation set the stage for a series of similar single point-of-view documentaries by Alastair Cooke, Jacob Bronowski, Robert Hughes, and John Berger.) The direction, by Michael Gill, is wonderfully slow. There are long sequences without dialogue—although always with contemporaneous music. Instead of jumping from one subject to another the camera lingers, long and lovingly on works of art, so that we have time to contemplate, to absorb, and to think. Refreshing, too, is the absence of the political correctness that has come to characterize so much public television.


serveimageWriting a history of seating raises the problem of nomenclature. Take the couch, for example. The Greeks and the Romans dined on couches, which were really more like beds, which may be why the word derives from the French coucher, to lie down, although to complicate matters the French don’t call a couch a couche, but rather a canapé. (You can use that word in English, if you want to be fancy.) Midwesterners used to call couches davenports, after the Massachusetts company that manufactured them. When I was growing up in Canada, we called a couch a chesterfield, a Britishism which has since gone out of fashion. The term is said to have derived from the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, who commissioned a heavily tufted leather couch in the eighteenth century. Couch or sofa? Sofa is a Turkish word, so is ottoman, although the latter is now commonly used to refer to a footstool. Couch seems to have prevailed; we say “casting couch” and “couch potato,” and psychiatrists have couches, not sofas. Sofas seem to be more domestic, which may be why a couch that converts into a bed is called a sleeper sofa or a sofa bed. Go figure.


serveimageThese days, urban buildings are playing just one penny-whistle tune: glass, glass, glass. It’s as if there were a material shortage and we had run out of everything else. I don’t miss exposed concrete, but what about limestone and brick, terra cotta and granite? But no, architecture has been reduced to one material—even spandrels and soffits are glass. What explains this phenomenon? Well, of course it’s cheap. The engineer figures out the structure, and the architect wraps it in a glass skin. And the helpful glass manufacturers work out the details for you. It’s also easier to design. No more worrying about junctions between materials, no more textures or finishes, no more colors, no more studying shadowing effects. Just wrap it up and it’s ready to go. Nor do you have to worry about energy—all-glass buildings are as green as you want. Houston, Boston, London, Dubai—it doesn’t matter. It used to be that cities had distinctive architectural characters, derived from different materials, different climates, different tastes. No more. It’s just all glass, all the time.