THE VIEW FROM DOWN HERE

VIA 4 (1980) included an interview with Michael Graves and essays by Tom Wolfe, James Ackermen, Robert A. M. Stern, and James Wines.

VIA 4 (1980) included an interview with Michael Graves and essays by Tom Wolfe, James Ackermen, Robert A. M. Stern, and James Wines.

“The best metaphor for getting older,” Twittered Paul Goldberger recently, “all the hills are steeper, but the views are better.” That sounds about right, although from where I stand—and increasingly sit—the views are not always what they were. I was brought up on Sixties jazz, for example, and I can’t help but agree with with the late Frank Zappa’s pithy assessment, “Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny.” I remember when there was just one telephone company, you didn’t actually own your home phone, and it never, ever broke down. And I remember when cities were real places rather than tourist attractions. Oh, well. I thought about the good old days last week when I received a fat little journal called Thresholds, published by the MIT Department of Architecture. Student-edited architecture magazines are an old tradition—I co-founded one–Asterisk, or * as we insisted on calling it– when I was a student. We ran on a shoestring, typing stencils on a Selectric and running the pages off on a Gestetner machine; we silk-screened the covers ourselves. Thresholds is much plushier, 192 heavy stock pages, although the illustrations are in purple, for some reason, so they have the blurry quality of an early duplicating machine. The text is pretty blurry, too. “The individual human subject is the encultured bodily subject.” I’m not sure who wrote that since the magazine contains nothing as mundane as Author Bios. Like most architecture school magazines today, it is determined to write about anything except buildings, and to do so in as opaque prose as possible. I sighed, and set Thresholds aside. I have been reading an article in another student-edited journal, but from an earlier time. In researching a book, I came across the 1977 issue of VIA, which was published by architecture students of the University of Pennsylvania. The contributors included British historian John Summerson, the great observer of the vernacular landscape J. B. Jackson, Denise Scott Brown (the revised edition of Learning From Las Vegas had just appeared), and Henry Hope Reed, the granddaddy of the classical revival that was just around the corner. Also present were such relatively unseasoned architects as Tom Beeby, and Allan Greenberg, whose essay on eighteenth-century furniture I was consulting. The theme of the issue was Ornament, and the editor was Stephen Kieran, who would go on to found KieranTimberlake. The issues addressed were timely, the writing lucid, the presentation clear. I wonder if, in four decades, Thresholds will stand the test of time as successfully?

CITIES AND MEMORY

Núria Ferragutcasas, who is the US correspondent for the Catalan newspaper ARA, interviewed me about the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site at Ground Zero. Her last question—“What is your opinion about the new site as whole? Do you like the Memorial? Is it appropriate?”—prompted me to reflect further on the subject, so here is an expanded version of my answer.

Monument to the Great Fire of London

Monument to the Great Fire of London

Cities have regularly suffered catastrophic events—plagues, floods, sieges, and fires—and have commemorated them in different ways. The Monument to the Great Fire of London, for example, was erected only a decade after the fire. Designed by Christopher Wren, it’s a tall Doric column, topped by a gilded urn of fire. The column is 202 feet high (it is located 202 feet from where the fire started), but it does not occupy a large space and it takes its place in the city, allowing urban life to go on around it unimpeded. A good memorial doesn’t hector, it reminds—gently.

Trafalgar Square occupies a much larger space than the Great Fire monument. It commemorates a naval victory and the man responsible, yet it does so without hindering other uses, for the square also functions as an urban meeting place. It is the site of public celebrations, sports and musical events, political demonstrations, and public meetings. A giant tree is put up for Christmas; people play street hockey on Canada Day. None of this bothers Lord Nelson high up on his column, I am sure.

Trafalgar Square is about 6 acres; the memorial and open space at Ground Zero cover about 8 acres. But the memorial components at Ground Zero are so large and so assertive—all that cascading water!—that they overwhelm and suffocate their surroundings, which are permeated with an air of sombre piety. “The place doesn’t do much to celebrate the city’s values of energy, diversity, tolerance openness and debate,” wrote Michael Kimmelman recently in the New York Times. What was advertised as a park coexists uncomfortably with the memorial. Already we see posted “rules of behavior,” enforced by a police presence. That is not the way a city should work.

PUT IT BACK

EPA/Robert Perry

EPA/Robert Perry

The tragic fire at the Glasgow School of Art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, raises anew the question: How to rebuild? In a thoughtful blog, George Cairns of Melbourne’s RMIT, who has studied the building in detail, points out that many undocumented changes were made during the building’s construction, so it will be impossible to recreate what was there. In addition, the inevitable demands of modern fire security will likely alter the original design. Rather than try to rebuild Mackintosh’s design, Cairns argues for “great architects to be invited to design a worthy intervention that will breathe new life into the school.”

I’m not so sure. When the fifteenth-century canal facade of the Doge’s Palace was destroyed by fire in 1577, Palladio proposed rebuilding it in a Classical style, but he was over-ridden, and the original Venetian Gothic was restored. When John Soane’s Dulwych Picture Gallery was hit by a V-1 rocket during WWII, it was rebuilt exactly as it had been. In fact, the building had been altered several times since Soane’s death. When the British House of Commons was gutted by fire during the Blitz, Giles Gilbert Scott rebuilt it in the spirit of Pugin’s original. A more recent example: Venice’s Teatro La Fenice. In 1996, the famous nineteenth-century opera house burned to the ground (arson), and was recreated virtually intact by Aldo Rossi, who used stills from a Visconti film as a guide.

Buildings are not works of art, time changes them, alterations regularly take place, life has its way. What’s wrong with repairing damage? Even if it is not exactly as it was, it could be almost as it was, and a hundred years from now, the difference will not matter. Surely that is better than a “worthy intervention”?

WORKPLACES

truck officeWhen I was a freshly-minted architect I had no commissions, so naturally I fantasized about having an office. My imaginary studio was housed in a truck, with dome skylights and windows, and a loft at one end. “The truck-office like having an office on a boat but instead it is on the highway rivers of America,” I wrote in my sketchbook. “From city to city from one project to another.” My sketch shows two figures standing outside the entrance–I suppose they were meant to be clients. I had read about Ralph Erskine’s office in Sweden, a converted barge that was moored near Stockholm during the winter, and sailed to an offshore island for the summer. This is surely the most romantic office one can imagine, but architects have often made their workplaces special. Foster has a huge single room overlooking the Thames; Gehry has a similar “big room,” although it doesn’t overlook anything as scenic. Safdie’s office in Somerville is in the shell of what was a factory, today covered with an ivy scrim. Bing Thom’s studio is likewise in a renovated factory—at the foot of the Burrard Bridge in downtown Vancouver. But these are exceptions, most architects work in anonymous office buildings. It brings to mind the French saying: “Les cordonniers sont toujours les plus mal chaussés.” Shoemakers always have the worst shoes.

JUST SAY NO

LG HQ, Hudson River Palisades (HOK, architect)

LG HQ, Hudson River Palisades (HOK, architect)

Reed Sparling is with Scenic Hudson, an environmental organization opposing plans by LG Electronics to construct a corporate headquarters atop the Hudson River Palisades. LG’s architect, HOK, proposes an 8-story slab that critics, such as Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, maintains will despoil the scenic beauty of this National Natural Landmark. “LG is receiving the blame for constructing this building, and rightfully so,” writes Sparling in an email. “But does/should an architect have moral or civic responsibility to say no if a potential design threatens highly valued (and irreplaceable) natural resources?” It’s a good question. Architects are a service profession, and as such they tend to shed primary responsibility for the projects they design. “If we don’t do it someone else will,” is a common rationale. Or, as Philip Johnson famously put it, “Architects are pretty much high-class whores. We can turn down projects the way they can turn down some clients, but we’ve both got to say yes to someone if we want to stay in business.”  Of course, architects say no regularly for a number of reasons: too small budget, too small project, too much other work. I remember as a student attending a lecture by Shadrach Woods. He made the claim that there were projects that architects should refuse to do on ethical grounds, and described an example of his firm (Candilis, Josic & Woods) turning down a commission for a parking garage. I think that Woods was right. Architects can’t have it both ways. They are quick enough to claim the moral high ground when they design affordable housing or green roofs, so they can hardly claim immunity when they carry out projects with harmful environmental or social side effects.