ARCHITECTURAL JUDGMENT

BAMWThis year’s Best American Magazine Writing, published by Columbia University Press, includes three of my essays that were finalists for the 2014 National Magazine Awards. This might be a good place to express my appreciation to Architect, which published them, and to my supportive editor Eric Wills. My subjects were untypical for an architecture magazine: these three essays were not about the next new thing, which is what most architectural writing these days is concerned with. I wrote about two buildings in Seattle built ten years ago, about a planned community in England that is now two decades old, and about a public housing project in Boston that was built twenty-five years ago. This reflects my conviction that the time to judge a project is not when it is brand new but when it has been used for a decade or two—which in the life of a building makes it barely a teenager. I don’t mean only judging how it has performed functionally, but also how it has aged aesthetically. Ideas that seem wonderful when first unveiled, often sour after an interval of time—think Brutalism, megastructures, postmodernism, deconstructivism. Architecture is not about fashion or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Unlike clothes and consumer products, buildings last for centuries and they should be assessed only in the fullness of time.

THE CHAIR

Executive Chair--Charles Pollock

Executive Chair–Charles Pollock

I recently visited the Knoll Museum, which is in Knoll’s headquarters in East Greenville, Pa. “Museum” makes it sound grander than it is; it’s more like a showroom with 70-odd chairs on the floor. What makes it better than any design museum I’ve ever visited is that you can sit in the chairs. Simply looking at a chair is kind of pointless; about as useful as being shown photographs of food. So I sat. Mies’s Barcelona Chair was pretty comfortable, although hard to get up out of. Breuer’s B35 lounge chair, which I’ve always admired but never sat in, was disappointing—the top bar cut into my back. Saarinen’s Grasshopper Chair was OK, but I’ve never been a fan of contoured chaises longues—not enough freedom. There were several of Venturi’s PoMo chairs from the 1980s—embarrassingly unsittable. Ditto for a Meier-design barrel chair. While all the chairs in the Knoll museum were Knoll chairs, there was one exception: the Eames-Saarinen shell chair, designed in 1940 and recently manufactured (for the first time) by Vitra. Beautiful to look at and beautiful to sit in; a masterpiece. Before I left, I tried out an unprepossessing executive chair; the tufted leather looked so inviting. The moment I sat down I knew this was a chair I wanted. It was designed by Charles Pollock in 1963, and the ingenious design consists of an extruded aluminum rim that acts as the main structure. The arms are phenolic plastic. Unlike today’s ergonomic chair it has few adjustable features. It doesn’t need them.

SPLENDID LOCATECTURE

B3G4f6lIcAAUkvnMessyNessyChic, a blog about libraries and books, recently featured the old Cincinnati Main Library, built in 1874 and demolished in 1955, less than a century later. The period photographs show a building of subtlety and sophistication. The four-story facade on downtown’s Vine Street is pragmatically built up to the sidewalk (like Chicago’s Harold T. Washington Library), and gives nothing away about the extraordinary space within. It is a “room full of books” what better image for a library than that? The architect was James W. McLaughlin (1834-1923). Born in the city, he apprenticed with a prominent local architect, James Keys Wilson (1828-1894). In addition to the library, McLaughlin also designed the city’s art museum and zoo. The most prolific Cincinnati architect of that period was probably the British-born Samuel Hannaford (1835-1911), who designed the city hall and the Music Hall. By the second decade of the twentieth century, there seems to have been a sense that outside architectural expertise was required, especially for the new building type: the skyscraper. Cass Gilbert was brought in to build what was then the tallest office building outside New York City, Delano & Aldrich designed a soaring moderne slab that anticipated Rockefeller Center, and Paul Cret was consulting architect on the beautiful Art Deco railroad terminal. Since then, this trend has continued as many civic buildings have been designed by imported stars: Michael Graves, Cesar Pelli, and Zaha Hadid. This sometimes makes for good buildings, but one can still look back fondly to a time when local architects produced splendid designs like the old Main Library.

FROM GRITS TO GRANADA

Seaside

Seaside

I spent a weekend in Seaside, the emblematic small beach town that launched a thousand traditional neighborhood developments. Seaside is now more than thirty years old and looks it—in a good way. It is not merely a question of mature landscaping and weathered materials, but also of the indefinable small adjustments that take place when a place grows into itself. Unexpected things have happened, of course, not least a real estate bonanza. At Seaside, modest wood-frame houses on small lots regularly go for well over a million dollars. A beachside house designed by the late Aldo Rossi—nothing spectacular—is on the market for $11 million. And the town center is a runaway commercial success; it was crowded with people on a Sunday in November, which is not the high season in this part of Florida.

Alys Beach

Alys Beach

The architectural influence of Seaside is visible up and down Route 30A, the coastal highway, in houses, roadside eateries, even strip malls. There are also second generation Seaside-type resort developments such as WaterColor, Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach. They make an interesting comparison. WaterColor is a commercialized, scaled-up, mainstream version of Seaside. Both WaterColor and Seaside are riffs on a homegrown Southern vernacular: shady porches, shuttered windows, tin roofs. Think Thornton Wilder, Norman Rockwell, and Frank Capra. Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach, on the other hand, are spicier mixtures. Rosemary Beach is part Caribbean and—weirdly—part Bavarian, with rustic woodwork and steep roofs. Alys Beach is a combination Mediterranean village, Moorish coastal town, with a dash of Casablanca. Stucco walls, patterned tiles, wooden screens, hidden courtyards with trickling fountains. What started in Seaside as an earnest search for roots has turned into a fusion of exotic images that have little to do with a “sense of place,” or, at least with a sense of this actual place. That is unexpected, too.

CITY OF TOWERS

black,,,white,fourties,new,york,skyline-16bd1ca2f6129d450b03b959aa0e59a4_hThere was a Q and A after my Landmark West! lecture on New York’s Upper West Side. One person wanted to know what I thought about the exceptionally tall residential towers that are radically changing Midtown’s skyline. One57, Christian de Portzamparc’s skinny 75-story condominium, under construction on West 57th Street is an example. I’ve written about this new trend. The current phenomenon is a function of globalization and real estate, and has little to do with  architecture. But, then, that was always the case with Manhattan. As late as the 1940s, the high-rise real estate development projects of numerous entrepreneurs produced a memorable skyline: animated, varied, and quite beautiful. But that skyline was a happy accident; there was no master plan, no rules, no grand design. This time around, I’m less sure of the outcome.