CONTEMPORIZE

34th-&-Walnut_Phase-2_Transparent-TreesI 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.”

NOAH’S ARK

serveimageI came across a new term the other day: NOAH. It stands for “naturally occurring affordable housing” and it was coined by Howard Husock and Alex Armlovich of the Manhattan Institute. Their paper is focused on New York City, specifically Mayor Di Blasio’s plan to build 80,000 new “permanently affordable” rental units over ten years. The researchers found that there are almost 50,000 NOAHs already in existence, that is, “apartments that overlap in price with the mayor’s affordability targets but that are currently available and require no additional government investment.” These apartments are in less expensive parts of the city, as one would expect. Husock and Armlovich’s general thesis is interesting. Advocates of affordable housing usually take it for granted that any solution requires building new housing. New publicly-financed housing is more expensive than existing market housing, in part because it involves public agencies, architects, social workers, etc., in part because affordable housing standards usually exceed what the market provides, and in part simply because new housing costs more than existing housing (by the same logic, lower-income people tend to drive used cars not this year’s model). Just how much more expensive was demonstrated by the Sugar Hill Development (illustrated) which was praised by New York magazine as “the kind of high-design, low-cost housing that the city needs.” Built by a non-profit in Harlem, and designed (in hip, forbidding black by David Adjaye), the project reached a cost of $550,000 per unit, well above the city average. High-design, maybe, but definitely not low-cost.

WHAT’S TO LOVE?

serveimageLike 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?

VISUAL POLLUTION

Hal Armrest Chair (Jasper Morrison for Vitra), 2014.

Hal Armrest Chair (Jasper Morrison for Vitra), 2014.

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.

THE MASTER BUILDER

MailmasterWatched Jonathan Demme’s film version of Ibsen’s A Master Builder the other evening. What struck me was Wallace Shawn in the title role, a combination of charm and egoism that, in my experience, is typical of most successful architects. Charm is required to convince clients, review panels, and community boards of the merits of one’s case; egoism is required to convince oneself of the merits of an as-yet unbuilt, perhaps untried, idea. I have never been convinced by the cinematic portrayal of architects—Gary Cooper in The Fountainhead, Paul Newman in Towering Inferno, Richard Gere in Intersection. (Gere, at least, did have the Armani suits.) Burly Albert Finney in Two for the Road, was charming and ego-centered by turns, but he was too physical—one could imagine him playing rugby. But architects, at least in my experience of students in college, are rarely athletes and never of team sports. Tennis and squash, maybe, but not baseball or football. Short, self-contained, charismatic, Shawn’s Halvard Solness was perfect.