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How Architecture Works



Awards: Amazon.com Best Books of the Year; Marfield Prize Finalist

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About The Author

Witold Rybczynski

Witold Rybczynski has written about architecture for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate. Among his award-winning books are Home, The Most Beautiful House in the World, and A Clearing in the Distance, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. He lives... More

Awards

Amazon.com Best Books of the Year
Marfield Prize Finalist

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EXCERPT

1
IDEAS
 
 
The École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which dominated architectural education in the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, developed a strict method of teaching building design. After being assigned a problem, the student was isolated in a cubicle without the benefit of books or external advice, and given twelve hours to produce an esquisse, or preliminary design sketch. The chief purpose of this exercise was to decide on a parti, the governing idea that the student would turn into a detailed design over the next two months. A student handbook advised, “Selecting a parti for a problem is to take an attitude toward a solution in the hope that a building developed on the lines indicated by it will give the best solution of the problem.” Although the esquisse is a thing of the past, the term parti has survived, for it embodies an enduring truth: great buildings are often the result of a single—and sometimes very simple—idea.
When you enter the Pantheon in Rome, you take it all in at a single glance: a vast drum supporting a coffered dome, illuminated from above by an oculus, or circular aperture. Nothing could be simpler, yet no one would describe the Pantheon as a one-liner. Finished by Hadrian in the first century A.D., it is one of the most influential buildings of Western architecture, having inspired Bramante at St. Peter’s, Christopher Wren at St. Paul’s, and Thomas Ustick Walter at the U.S. Capitol. King’s College Chapel of Cambridge University, begun by Henry VI in 1446, is another building whose design expresses a singular idea: a tall space whose dematerialized walls are almost entirely stained glass. Modeled on a cathedral choir, the narrow chapel is eighty feet high and almost three hundred feet long. There is no apse, no crossing, no rose window, just a numinous, soaring space. In buildings, the idea also informs the details. While the coffers of the Pantheon emphasize the solidity and weight of the dome and lead the eye up to the oculus, the lacy fan vaults of the Perpendicular Gothic chapel harmonize with the delicate tracery of the windows.
A more recent example of a building whose design is driven by an idea is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Wright started with the insight that, given the high cost of Manhattan real estate, the museum had to be vertical. He explored four schemes, one of them octagonal, and settled on a spiral ramp coiling around a tall skylit space. The museumgoer would take the elevator to the top of the ramp, viewing the art as he descended. Uncomplicated in conception, yet no matter how often I go there I am always surprised—and delighted—anew. Wright kept the details in the background: the spiraling balustrade, for example, is a plain concrete parapet with a rounded top; the ramp floor is simply painted concrete. “The eye encounters no abrupt change,” he explained, “but is gently led and treated as if at the edge of a shore watching an unbreaking wave.”
Another modern museum that is based on a simple idea is the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, a building designed by Norman Foster in the mid-1970s. Although the building was to house a variety of uses—exhibition spaces, a school of art history, a student cafeteria, and a faculty club—Foster accommodated them in what was basically an extremely long shed that recalls an elegant aircraft hangar. The long space, glazed at each end, does not feel tunnel-like, thanks to the daylight that filters down from skylights. The Sainsbury Centre has no architectural antecedents, it is as if Foster had asked himself: What if many different university functions were contained in one large space?
CONCEPT HOUSES
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s house for Dr. Edith Farnsworth in Plano, Illinois, and Philip Johnson’s own residence in New Canaan, Connecticut, are single spaces that ask an unusual question: What if all the walls of a house were glass? Both houses were designed as weekend retreats in the late 1940s; both are one-story boxes, the Farnsworth twenty-eight by seventy-seven feet, the Johnson thirty-two by fifty-six feet; and both are constructed of steel I-beams. A transparent house should be as open as possible, and in both cases the interior is a column-free space divided only by freestanding elements containing closets, kitchen counters, bathrooms, and other necessities. There are no conventional rooms.
Although Johnson finished his house first, he always credited Mies with the original idea.1 Johnson considered the German architect his model: “I have been called Mies van der Johnson,” he once told Yale students; “it doesn’t bother me in the slightest.” But of his own house he said, “I won’t say it’s imitation Mies, because it’s quite different.” Johnson was not just being defensive—Mies’s house sits in a floodplain and is elevated five feet in the air, which makes it appear to hover, while Johnson’s house is planted firmly on the ground. And there are other differences. While Mies uses luxurious materials—travertine floors and tropical hardwood paneling—Johnson uses plain red brick. The bathroom is a cylinder, “which would of course be anathema to Mies,” said Johnson. Mies purposely designed the exterior of his glass house to be unsymmetrical—the roof and floor extend at one end to form a covered terrace—while Johnson made his four façades essentially identical, each with a door in the center. A final telling difference: Mies’s steel is painted glossy white, the traditional color of garden pavilions, while Johnson’s I-beams are matte black, making his house a machinelike presence in the natural landscape.
The architect and writer Peter Blake observed that Johnson’s house is European in conception, like a small classical palazzo, while the Farnsworth House is free, light, and airy in a way that makes it more American—despite that Mies had arrived in Chicago from Berlin only a decade earlier. Mies visited Johnson’s glass house several times when they were working together on the Seagram Building. Johnson recounted that during his last visit, although Mies was supposed to stay overnight in the guesthouse, late in the evening he announced, “I’m not staying here tonight. Find me another place to stay.” Johnson said that he didn’t know what had set Mies off, whether it was a small disagreement that they had had earlier, or whether he simply didn’t like the architecture.
Philip Johnson was an art collector and his house contained two freestanding works of art: Nicolas Poussin’s landscape painting Burial of Phocion and a sculpture by Elie Nadelman. Mies, on the other hand, specified that no art was to be hung on the Primavera-paneled walls. My friend Martin Pawley spent a night in the Farnsworth House and recounted that the owner, Peter Palumbo, a London developer, respected the architect’s wishes and hung paintings (I think they were by Paul Klee) only inside the bathroom. A sign asked guests to make sure to leave the bathroom door open after showering to avoid creating condensation that would damage the art. Martin described a memorable episode that occurred during his visit. The Fox River had overflowed its banks, as it did annually, and in the morning he was greeted by the sight of the butler bringing breakfast from the nearby main house (where Palumbo stayed) in a canoe. On that occasion, the terrace did double duty as a boat dock.
Of the Farnsworth House, Mies’s biographer Franz Schulze observed that it “is more nearly a temple than a dwelling, and it rewards aesthetic contemplation before it fulfills domestic necessity.” That’s a scholarly way of saying that a glass house is not very practical. Privacy was not the problem, since the Farnsworth House, like Johnson’s home, is in the country, without close neighbors. Nor was the absence of separate rooms an issue, as both houses had only one occupant. The chief practical drawback of these glass houses was environmental: with unshaded plate glass and no air-conditioning, the interiors overheated in the summer, and were difficult to keep warm in the winter.2 Mies and Johnson made minimal provisions for ventilation: the Farnsworth House has two hopper windows at the bedroom end; the Johnson house has no openable windows at all, and is ventilated by opening one or more of the four doors. Since neither of the houses had insect screens, mosquitoes and flies were a problem, especially at night, when they were attracted by the light.
In the 1920s, Mies had designed a residence in Czechoslovakia—the Tugendhat House—in which large sections of a glass wall were lowered into the floor to open the living room to the outdoors, without the benefit of insect screens. Are mosquitoes, moths, and flies a lesser nuisance in Europe than in America? Perhaps, for woven-wire insect screens are an American invention that came into widespread use in the second half of the nineteenth century when the screened porch became a domestic fixture. The most elegant solution I have seen to accommodate insect screens in a modern house is in a Vero Beach, Florida, residence designed by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, in which windows and insect screens both slide out of sight into wall pockets, allowing the tall openings to be glazed, screened, or fully open.
There is no place for wall pockets in a glass house. Of course, Mies and Johnson could easily have installed screens but they faced an aesthetic problem: metal screens appear opaque compared with glass, which works against the sense of reflectivity that, as Mies frequently said, is a glass building’s special quality. It is a measure of both architects’ single-mindedness—or of their stubbornness?—that they refused to compromise. But that’s the nature of a strong idea: it tends to impose its own rules. The architect must either observe those rules or start over.
Eventually, Mies grudgingly acceded to Edith Farnsworth’s demand to screen the covered terrace of her house. Johnson, who occupied his house for almost sixty years until his death, never installed screen doors and simply put up with the inconvenience of bugs. “I’d rather sleep in Chartres Cathedral with the nearest john three blocks down the street,” he once told a Yale class, “than I would in a Harvard house with back-to-back bathrooms.” Does great architecture trump practicality? Johnson’s statement is cavalier, but his point is a serious one. The experience of great architecture is rare and precious, while convenience is commonplace—and fungible. I live in an old stone house, designed by the Philadelphia architect H. Louis Duhring Jr. in 1907. In the last few years I have had moisture problems in one of the walls, the result of a stepped parapet that absorbs water in driving rain. The house gives me pleasure daily; the leaks require occasional patching and repainting. Life’s imperfect.
Frank Lloyd Wright—a more practical architect than his reputation suggests—provided insect screens and screen doors in Fallingwater, the famous house that he designed for Edgar J. Kaufmann in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. This house was also a weekend retreat, although it is functionally more demanding than Mies’s and Johnson’s glass houses, since it was occupied by a family of three with frequent guests.3 Wright’s novel idea was to situate the house on a large rock outcropping and cantilever the structure over a waterfall. He is said to have designed the house in one morning but he must have been thinking about it for a long time, as the overlapping terraces and interlocking spaces are anything but simple. The range of materials is limited—creamy-colored reinforced concrete with rounded edges, rough stone walls and floors, and steel window frames painted his favorite color, Cherokee Red. With this simple palette, the “old magus,” as his biographer Brendan Gill called him, cast his spell.
The most famous concept house in history is an Italian Renaissance villa on the outskirts of Vicenza called the Villa Rotonda, after the circular domed room at its center—a miniature Pantheon. Most Renaissance architects used axially symmetrical plans—that is, if an imaginary line is drawn through the center of the house, all the rooms on the right mirror those on the left. Andrea Palladio went one step further and created two intersecting main axes, producing a square house with four identical fronts. Each front has a columned portico, and since the house is on a hilltop, each portico has a different view. Such a rigidly symmetrical plan is not as impractical as it sounds. Each of the eight rooms has direct access to the outside without interfering with whatever is going on in the domed chamber, which is the main reception room and can be reached from any of the four porticos.
Ever since the Villa Rotonda was built, it has been an inspiration for other architects. Vincenzo Scamozzi, Palladio’s student who completed the villa after his master’s death, was the first to have a go, designing the four-sided villa La Rocca on a dramatic hilltop site. The English architect Inigo Jones, who admired Palladio, designed several biaxial houses, though none was built. In the eighteenth century there were four famous Rotonda-like British houses, including one by the Scottish architect Colen Campbell, and another, Chiswick House, designed by Lord Burlington, a devout Palladian. To this day, architects have continued to be fascinated by Palladio’s idea, and there are recent examples in the United States and England, and an exceptionally faithful facsimile that stands among olive terraces in the Palestinian West Bank.
Architects playing variations on old themes are similar to composers and painters inspired by their predecessors: Brahms revisiting Haydn, Liszt and Rimsky-Korsakov returning to Bach, Picasso painting versions of Goya, and both Picasso and Francis Bacon revisiting Velázquez. Such re-creations are a nod to genius, and also a recognition that some creative ideas—a house with four fronts, for example—are rich enough to merit further exploration.
WINNING IDEAS
To be considered for high-profile commissions, architects—even celebrated architects—are often required to enter competitions, in effect, beauty contests. The first American architectural competition was held in 1792, to choose a design for the President’s House in Washington, D.C. Competition juries generally consist of architects, although they may also include a representative of the client or sponsor. In this case, the judges were the three commissioners of the new federal city and the house’s future occupant, President George Washington. Thomas Jefferson, a recognized authority in architectural matters, took second place with a design based on the Villa Rotonda, but the winner was James Hoban, an Irish-born architect who just happened to be a protégé of the president.
There were only nine entries in the President’s House competition, but most modern competitions have hundreds of contestants. The judging of such competitions follows a well-established pattern. The members of the jury first quickly review all the submissions, with an eye on eliminating projects that have ignored competition requirements, are incomplete, are obviously flawed, or simply look uninteresting. Once the long list is winnowed down to a manageable number, the judges spend the remainder of their time studying these designs in detail to see how well they have resolved the competition requirements. The bulk of the time may be spent discussing the final two or three submissions. Some competitions are organized in stages, a group of entrants from the first stage being chosen to elaborate their projects in a second stage. The entries to open competitions are always anonymous, as opposed to closed or invited competitions, whose participants are known to the jury. Participants in invited competitions are generally paid a fee; participants in open competitions receive no remuneration, except for the winner and the runners-up.
The challenge in entering a competition is not how to devise a project that will stand up to close scrutiny—that goes without saying—but rather how to make the first cut; that is, how to stand out from the crowd. The best way to do this is to present the jury with an easy-to-understand, compelling solution, which is why competitions often result in buildings organized around a simple—and striking—idea. One of the most famous modern examples is the Sydney Opera House. The open competition, announced in 1956, attracted more than two hundred international entries. All the finalists addressed the complex functional requirements of two large performance halls (despite its name, this is really a multipurpose performing arts complex), but only the winner, Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect, provided a lyrical solution to the dramatic site, a spit of land jutting into Sydney Harbour. Utzon, thirty-eight, had built no major projects, but he had apprenticed with Alvar Aalto and Frank Lloyd Wright, and had absorbed their organic approach to design. While most of the finalists in the Sydney competition housed the two music halls in International Style boxes, Utzon enclosed them in a sculptural composition of billowing concrete shells.
The Sydney competition jury consisted of the head of the New South Wales public works department, a local architecture professor, and two prominent practitioners: Sir Leslie Martin, a respected British architect who had recently designed the Royal Festival Hall in London, and Eero Saarinen, then the leading member of the younger generation of American architects. Saarinen arrived late, after the first round of project selection had already been made. Leafing through the pile of rejects he pulled out Utzon’s project and announced, “Gentlemen, here is the winner.”
Saarinen was interested in concrete shell construction and had just started work on the TWA Terminal in New York, which may have inclined him to Utzon’s unconventional design. Although the construction of the opera house would have a troubled history, leading to cost overruns, compromises to the design, and the architect’s resignation, Utzon’s idea of a collection of sail-like forms on a podium has been vindicated, and the building has become one of the great architectural icons of the twentieth century.4
The story of Saarinen imposing his will on a jury is not apocryphal. The following year he was invited to judge an international competition for a new city hall in Toronto. The other jury members were the well-known Italian modernist architect Ernesto Rogers; Ned Pratt of the respected Vancouver firm Thompson, Berwick & Pratt; Sir William Holford, a planning expert from London; and Gordon Stephenson, a British-born planner living in Toronto. Once again Saarinen arrived late—a day and a half after the others had started to winnow down the 520 entrants to the 8 who would continue on to a second stage. Their choices were boxy, mostly low-rise buildings. Once again Saarinen asked to look at the discarded projects, and as before, an unusual design caught his eye: two curved high-rise slabs enfolding a circular council chamber. He convinced the jury to advance the project to the second stage. The two British planners remained skeptical, but Saarinen’s forceful advocacy convinced Rogers and Pratt and the project was declared the winner. Viljo Revell’s design has functional drawbacks—splitting a municipal bureaucracy in two makes little organizational sense—but the building and its popular plaza have become a Toronto icon.
Architects are ambivalent about competitions. On a practical level, competitions are extremely expensive: entering a large competition can cost millions of dollars. More important, competitions oblige the architect to work in a vacuum. In later life, I. M. Pei refused to enter competitions, since he considered that the best architecture could emerge only from a considered dialogue between architect and client. Competition juries often favor the dramatic over the thoughtful, the simplistic over the well-resolved, the eye-catching over the subtle. Buildings such as memorials, where a simple idea can carry the whole project, lend themselves to competitions; on the other hand, when the program or the site requires a nuanced solution, a single-idea building often falls flat. Buildings based on a single idea, like the Pantheon, can be wonderful, but an idea that is intended mainly to catch the attention of a jury often proves one-dimensional when the project is actually built. Nevertheless, the public favors competitions, since they provide an opportunity for young talent to be recognized in a field that tends to privilege age and experience. Clients like competitions, since they provide an opportunity to choose between several designs—and several architects—while fund-raisers use competitions as a way to raise public interest in a building project. Everyone loves a horse race—except, perhaps, the horses.
WHAT IS AN AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM?
In July 2008, the Smithsonian Institution announced that it was looking for an architect to design a $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture, to be built on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The selection process involved two steps. First, interested architects, or teams of architects, submitted their professional qualifications and demonstrated experience in museum design, and then the Smithsonian selected six firms to participate in a design competition. This type of closed competition is increasingly common, as clients seek design options but want to avoid the practical and financial problems that can occur when open competitions are won by neophytes, or by small firms that do not have the resources to execute large, demanding commissions. Nevertheless, small or young practices may enter closed competitions by teaming up with larger, more established firms.
The Smithsonian’s sixteen-page Request for Qualifications, or RFQ, included a description of what was expected of the winning project. Most of the text was the sort of boilerplate that can be found in any competition brief: “The commission will demonstrate the value of a true integrated design that balances aesthetics, cost, constructability, and reliability; while simultaneously creating an environmentally responsible and superior place for staff and visitors.” There was one requirement that caught my eye, however. “Detail in writing how you will infuse your participation and vision for this project with an appreciation of African American History and Culture.” This suggested that the Smithsonian was looking for a special museum whose design in some way reflected its particular function.
Traditionally, museums on the Mall have striven merely to be good architecture. When the industrialist Charles Lang Freer commissioned Charles Adams Platt to design a museum for his magnificent Orientalist collection, all he wanted was a handsome building—which in 1918 meant an Italian Renaissance palazzo. When the Smithsonian engaged Gyo Obata to design the National Air and Space Museum, it instructed him to respect the other buildings on the Mall, and he designed four simple cubes connected by glass atria, and even matched the Tennessee marble of the cubes to the National Gallery across the Mall. The first building to radically depart from this respectful approach was the Hirshhorn Museum, which opened in the mid-1970s. Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designed a striking windowless concrete drum that Ada Louise Huxtable compared to a bunker or an oil tank, “lacking only gun emplacements or an Exxon sign.” When Douglas Cardinal was commissioned to design the National Museum of the American Indian, he, too, opted for novelty: “I wanted to make sure that the building was not just a continuation of the Greco-Roman style in Washington.” There was little danger of that, since Cardinal’s idiosyncratic style is wildly expressionistic. “I looked at the natural forms in the Americas and that was the basis for the building,” he explained. The result is a curvy design that seeks—somewhat ham-handedly—to embody the spirit of the Great Plains and the continent’s aboriginal peoples. No one would mistake it for a Greco-Roman building.
After Cardinal’s self-consciously different museum, it was obvious that an African American museum had to express something unique, but what? The ancestors of many black Americans came from central and western Africa, but, after all, most Americans come from somewhere else. African Americans first settled in the South, but is Atlanta really more representative of black culture than Chicago or New York? Patterned kente cloth has become a popular symbol of African cultural heritage, but what does this product of Ghana and the Ivory Coast really have to do with black America? Moreover, although the particularities of black culture are highly visible in music, the arts, religion, and the civil rights movement, there is no identifiable black architecture. Finding a compelling image for an African American museum would be a challenge.
Twenty-two architectural firms responded to the Smithsonian’s RFQ, and the six teams selected to compete intentionally spanned the architectural gamut, from stars to up-and-comers. The international stars were Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie. Antoine Predock was less well-known, but had a proven reputation as an original designer. Pei Cobb Freed, founded by I. M. Pei, was the architectural equivalent of a white-shoe firm, solid and dependable. The two up-and-comers were the New York–based Diller Scofidio + Renfro, better known for theoretical writings and art installations than for buildings, and a largely African American team whose chief designer was a young British-Ghanaian architect, David Adjaye. The six finalists were each given a stipend of fifty thousand dollars, a detailed list of the museum’s requirements, and two months to develop a design.
In April 2009, before the winner was announced, the six sets of drawings and models were exhibited in the Smithsonian’s headquarters, the Castle. I was curious to see how the different competitors dealt with the challenging site, which is next to the country’s greatest national memorial, the Washington Monument. And how they handled the problem of creating an African American icon—whatever that meant.
Foster + Partners’ submission struck me as the most original, a coiled oval resembling a giant mollusk, with a spiraling ramp (shades of Wright’s Guggenheim) that rose through the galleries and ended in a dramatic framed view of the Washington Monument. The glass-roofed space in the center of the oval contained a replica of a slave ship, a key part of the museum’s exhibition program. Working with the celebrated French landscape architect Michel Desvigne, Foster covered the roof with terraces and gardens, and created a sunken entrance court that reduced the apparent bulk of the building. This was a classic competition entry: dramatic, easy to understand, and resolving several problems with a flourish. The mollusk-like drum was striking, and made an interesting bookend to Pei’s triangular East Building of the National Gallery at the other end of the Mall. If there was a drawback to Foster’s parti it was that the windowless form had a somewhat forbidding appearance, and bore a resemblance to the unfortunate Hirshhorn Museum.
Moshe Safdie’s design was a large boxy building bisected by a gently curving, wood-lined atrium, likewise oriented to the Washington Monument. Safdie had successfully used a similar framing device in the remarkable Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, but in Washington he faltered. The view from the atrium was framed by two giant organic forms. But the abstract shapes were insufficient to enliven what was a rather pedestrian building. Moreover, the forms appeared whimsical and arbitrary, assertive but hard to decipher—the prow of a ship, a cracked urn, or giant bone fragments?
The Albuquerque-based Antoine Predock is an architectural maverick sometimes compared with Wright, and is known for designing striking buildings in a highly personal style.5 For this competition he pulled out all the stops, creating an animated composition of jagged forms, sheets of water, dramatic interiors, and exotic materials (mica-schist quartzite, Mpingo wood). The building looked as if it had been forced out of the ground by a violent earthquake. I sensed that Predock was struggling to discover an architectural language suited to an African American museum, but while I could imagine his tectonic forms in a natural setting—a sandy desert or a rocky mesa—they seemed wrong for the National Mall.
Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed designed the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, a building that I admire. On the face of it, he would seem to have an inside track in the competition; after all, his partners had designed two outstanding buildings nearby: I. M. Pei, the East Building of the National Gallery, and James Ingo Freed, the National Holocaust Memorial Museum.6 But Cobb’s design for the African American museum—a limestone-covered square box from which emerged a curvy free-form shape of glass—was disappointing. It was a banal statement about neoclassical Washington (the box) meeting the present day (the glass curves). Twenty years earlier, the Canadian architect Arthur Erickson had tried to combine classical and modernist motifs in the Canadian embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue; it hadn’t worked for him, and it didn’t work any better for Cobb.
Competitions can sometimes uncover new talent, as was the case with Utzon in Sydney and Revell in Toronto. Elizabeth Diller and her husband, Ricardo Scofidio (now joined by Charles Renfro), had a reputation for avant-garde projects, but at the time of the competition they had built only one major building, the recently completed Institute for Contemporary Art on the Boston waterfront, a forceful cantilevered form hovering over the water.7 Their design for the African American museum was equally audacious. The architects are known for their intellectual approach to design, and their entry included a W.E.B. Du Bois quote on the “two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” of blacks in America. The two warring souls were represented by a double-curved, cable-supported glass skin draped over a limestone-covered box that appeared to be melting. Such bulging organic forms are sometimes referred to as “blob architecture.” Blobs look exciting in computer-generated drawings, but the rather crude model on display at the Smithsonian gave little assurance that such an eccentric building should—or indeed could—be built.
The least-well-known team in the competition was also the largest. It consisted of J. Max Bond Jr., who was often referred to as the dean of African American architects; the Durham, North Carolina–based Freelon Group, the largest minority-owned architectural firm in the country; and SmithGroup, a large architecture engineering firm with offices nationwide; as well as the London-based Adjaye Associates.8 Although Freelon and Bond had developed the original museum program for the Smithsonian, giving them an inside track, and SmithGroup had been associated with the construction of the National Museum of the American Indian, neither they nor Freelon had as impressive a design track record as Foster, Safdie, and Predock. That was where David Adjaye came in. The forty-two-year-old architect had established his own firm in London only eight years earlier, but his minimalist modern designs and his glamorous clientele (he had designed homes for several movie stars) had already propelled him into the international limelight. He also brought proven competition-winning abilities to the team, having won several international competitions, including the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo and, most recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, where he had bested several leading architects, including Predock.
Adjaye’s design was the most conventional of the six: a box sitting on top of a rectangular podium. The limestone podium contained the lobby, while the main galleries were in the box. The box was really a building within a building, since the glass galleries were sheathed in a perforated bronze skin that would reflect different colors during the day, and act as a beacon at night. No curves, no contortions, no architectural gymnastics.
The reaction to the six designs was mixed. The critic of The Washington Post found Adjaye’s design “too understated,” and wrote that only the Diller Scofidio + Renfro submission “rises above the rest.” Bloggers had a field day, some picking one entry, some another, many grumpily dismissing all six. Meanwhile, the competition jury began its deliberations. There were ten members. Three were Smithsonian board members and four were associated with the museum in some capacity; one was the director of design at the National Endowment of the Arts; and only two were architects—Adèle Santos, dean of the school of architecture at MIT, and the Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell.9 The jury was notable for the absence of a big-name practitioner. “I’ve found that a strong personality greatly compromises the voice of the other jurors,” says Don Stastny, an architect and the competition’s professional adviser. He believes that a diverse, balanced jury is beneficial to the process and lends greater weight to the final decision. Evidently, there would be no Saarinen moment in this competition.
“I wanted all the judges to feel free to question and debate the options,” Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the new museum, told me. Bunch chaired the jury, but he intentionally absented himself from the committee that had picked the six finalists. “I told the selection committee I wanted an array of architects, not simply variations on a theme, since I wanted to learn about the architectural alternatives,” he said. It was Bunch who had inserted the statement about “an appreciation of African American History and Culture” into the RFQ. “I didn’t know what the museum should look like,” he said. “But I wanted to hear how the different architects would respond to that statement.”
According to Bunch, four issues dominated the jury’s discussion: the architects’ vision for an African American museum; how the makeup of the team reflected this vision; how the building related to the Mall, especially the Washington Monument; and the chemistry between the architects and the museum. Bunch called three of the entries “stellar,” though he declined to name them. The judges were drawn to the Freelon Adjaye Bond submission. “We liked the way this design related to the Washington Monument,” said Bunch. “Although Adjaye had not done anything this big before, we were reassured by the presence of SmithGroup.” It took three days to reach a decision, although Bunch waited a week before making the announcement. “I wanted to give the jury a chance to sleep on it. I didn’t want anyone to be unsure, or on the fence.” The vote for the Freelon Adjaye Bond project was unanimous.
At the beginning of the competition, the jury heard verbal presentations from each of the six teams, and when the designs were complete, each team had a further chance to explain its project in detail. “Adjaye was very good at articulating how his design captured our vision,” said Bunch. “He talked about the angles on the building and showed a slide of Southern women in church, with their arms raised at a similar angle. I found that compelling.” In other words, Adjaye directly addressed a key question of the competition: “What would make this particular building African American?”
Traditionally, buildings have conveyed meaning though figural decoration, as several federal buildings in Washington, D.C., demonstrate: the Pensions Building (today the National Building Museum), built after the Civil War to house the bureau that disbursed pensions to Union veterans, is circled by a frieze depicting soldiers and sailors; the pediments of the U.S. Post Office Department Building include allegorical sculpture referring to the mail system; and the Department of Agriculture occupies a building with bas-relief panels depicting animals native to the United States as well as a woman holding a peach and a bunch of grapes.
As a committed modernist, Adjaye eschewed figural decoration, but he found other ways to convey aspects of African American history and culture. On the Mall side, he placed a large portico, modern in design but recalling the porches of Southern houses; the perforated patterns in the bronze skin were inspired by New Orleans cast-iron fretwork; most strikingly, the box that enclosed the galleries was in the shape of a corona, or crown, a form that resembled superimposed beveled baskets and was based on Yoruba tribal art. At the same time, the abstract shapes remind me of Brancusi’s Endless Column. In other words, the design manages to be both primal and modern, pictorial and abstract, and crafted as well as technological. These ideas resonated with Bunch. “I was looking for an architectural equivalent of spirituality and uplift, of understanding the heritage,” he told me.
Over the next two years, the Freelon Adjaye Bond proposal underwent several modifications. Following numerous reviews by local and federal agencies, including the Commission of Fine Arts, the National Park Service, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the building took a simpler form—more than half of the functions moved underground, and the podium disappeared. But the porch remained, as well as the corona, which was enlarged and assumed added visual importance. This is common in a competition-winning design, when subsequent dialogue with the client—heretofore absent—can refine a design. Practical considerations also intrude: the exciting sketch has to be turned into reality—it has to be built. The important question is whether in the process the design is improved or merely diluted. In the case of the African American museum, the initial idea proved to have staying power.
HEDGEHOGS AND FOXES
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay based on a saying attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin was referring to writers and thinkers—he characterized Plato, Nietzsche, and Proust as hedgehogs, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Pushkin as foxes—but the metaphor applies to architects, too.
Dominique Perrault is definitely a hedgehog. In 1989, he won an international competition to design the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the last of President François Mitterand’s Grands Projets. Among the almost 250 entrants were the Pritzker Prize winners James Stirling and Richard Meier, and the future Pritzker laureates Fumihiko Maki, Álvaro Siza, and Rem Koolhaas, as well as the relatively unknown Perrault. His striking design consisted of four twenty-five-story all-glass towers sitting on top of a large podium. Perrault was an admirer of Mies van der Rohe, and the idea had a Miesian simplicity: book stacks in the towers, public reading rooms and research facilities in the podium. The towers, L-shaped in plan, resembled four half-open books. Knowledge exposed for all to see, it was a compelling image.
The problem is that Perrault’s Big Idea is not so much simple as simplistic. The idea of vertical stacks has precedents in modern architecture: in the 1930s, the great Belgian architect Henry van de Velde designed a twenty-story library tower for the University of Ghent, and in America Paul Cret designed a thirty-one-story tower of books for the University of Texas at Austin. But both Cret’s and Van de Velde’s towers were largely solid, with occasional slotted windows. Perrault’s all-glass book stacks raised the ire of librarians, who complained about exposing books to full sunlight. The solution was to add internal wooden shutters, which solved the light problem but severely compromised the transparency that constituted the core of Perrault’s parti. Eventually, some of the books were located in the podium, and administrative offices took their place. The completed building received decidedly mixed reviews. Although the underground research reading rooms look into a landscaped court, many of the gloomy public spaces are basement-like. Just as the Toronto City Hall bureaucracy had to split itself into two, the French library’s collection is divided into four. “The decision to reclassify all knowledge because of an architect’s design caused a commotion in French educational and intellectual circles,” observed one information specialist. The library—one of the largest in the world—was popularly known as TGB, très grande bibliothèque, a play on the acronym TGV (train à grande vitesse), but wags said the initials really stood for très grande bêtise, or Very Big Mistake.
If Perrault is a hedgehog, the architect of the new British Library, the late Colin St. John Wilson, was a fox. In 1962, he and Sir Leslie Martin had been commissioned to expand the British Museum Library. The project dragged on, and during subsequent changes of government the program was enlarged to become a full-fledged national library, and the site was moved from Bloomsbury to King’s Cross. By the time that construction started in 1982, Martin had retired and Wilson was on his third design. His low-key architectural approach, influenced by the romantic modernism of Alvar Aalto, struck many as old-fashioned compared with the contemporary work of high-tech architects such as Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. The design was roundly criticized; modernists disliked the library, which was largely brick (to harmonize with a Victorian Gothic neighbor), because they found it too staid, and traditionalists like Prince Charles, who unfairly compared it to the “assembly hall of an academy for secret police,” found it too modern. Wilson became so unpopular that his firm was obliged to go into liquidation for lack of work. These negative perceptions changed after the building opened.10 The interior spaces, bright and airy, proved both functionally efficient and extremely popular with users. “The British Library works rather well,” wrote Hugh Pearman, one of the few British critics who had defended Wilson’s design. “It’s a congenial place to sit and study.”
Wilson’s hero Aalto was another fox. The Villa Mairea, for example, a large country house that he designed in the 1930s, is considered one of his greatest works, the Finnish equivalent in its own way of Fallingwater, although one would be hard put to find a view of the villa that is as iconic as the image of Wright’s terraces hovering above a waterfall. From the exterior, the reticent Villa Mairea exhibits a blend of white-box modernism, handcrafted details, and a rambling casualness. The kidney-shaped entrance canopy is supported by a cluster of straight and angled wooden poles, some of them lashed together with cord. The white walls are lime-washed brick, rather than hard-edged plaster, which most European modernists used at that time.
The main living space demonstrates Aalto’s quirky brand of modernism, which combines novelty with tradition. The living room, the dining room, and an art gallery—the clients collected modern paintings—are combined in a single multipurpose space, the library being defined by movable bookcases. All this is in the name of modernist flexibility. At the same time, the corner is occupied by a traditional Finnish raised-hearth fireplace, the ceiling is red pine, some of the tubular steel columns are wrapped with caning, and others are covered with beech slats. Although this is a rather large house, it has a bourgeois sense of unpretentious comfort, which sets it apart from Le Corbusier’s dramatic villas, or Mies’s luxurious minimalism. Aalto’s aim is to create an environment that offers its occupants many small pleasures, rather than to impress the first-time visitor.
Louis I. Kahn was Aalto’s almost exact contemporary, likewise born in a northern Baltic country—Estonia. Both men had been schooled in the techniques of the École des Beaux-Arts, and both rejected historical styles as their careers developed. Yet here the similarities end. Aalto’s romantic modernism was rooted in the region where he lived, while Kahn’s modernism aspired to be universal. Aalto was attracted to vivid colors, rich textures, and handcrafted details, while Kahn worked with a restricted and rather severe palette. Aalto designed everything; he was responsible for lamps, glassware, fabrics, and furniture—his easy chairs and stools are modern classics. Kahn designed no memorable furniture, and he tended to use generic pot lights and glass globes as lighting fixtures, for he was more interested in space and daylight than in the paraphernalia of everyday life.
The two architects’ careers developed differently. Aalto was a prodigy, opening an office immediately after graduating from architecture school, and finding his own voice by the time he was thirty, while Kahn, a slow starter, bloomed as an architect only when he was in his fifties. Aalto was prolific, effortlessly churning out one design after another; Kahn worked slowly, almost painfully.11 And while many of Aalto’s designs are variations on similar themes, each of Kahn’s buildings has its own unique character. Kahn did share one important quality with Aalto. He, too, was a fox, rarely designing buildings that depended on a single idea. His last project, the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, is an unglamorous four-story box with two skylit interior courts. Kahn spent a year and a half designing the project and exploring several options, so the apparent simplicity was actually the result of a long development.
The Center for British Art is on Chapel Street. The eye is drawn first to a dramatic building designed by Paul Rudolph in the 1960s; big, rough, concrete, and monumental, it houses the school of architecture. It’s possible to walk past the center without noticing it, for while Rudolph’s operatic building is singing at the top of its voice, Kahn’s architecture barely rises above a murmur. The exposed concrete frame is filled with a quilt of glass and matte stainless steel panels. Most architects use stainless steel in a way that suggests either mechanical perfection or luxury; in Kahn’s hands the material appears almost homely, its surface variegated by acid-washing and the weather. “On a gray day, it will look like a moth; on a sunny day, a butterfly,” Kahn told his skeptical client.
The lower floor of the center is taken up by shops, and the museum entrance is tucked unobtrusively into a corner. The entrance leads to the smaller of the two courts. Here, the same exposed concrete frame is filled with panels of creamy white oak; it’s like being inside a beautifully built cabinet. The tall space is washed by natural light from a large skylight, and openings surrounding the court allow glimpses of the galleries. The building reveals itself gradually. The galleries, with linen-covered walls and strips of travertine on the floor, recall a residence rather than a conventional museum. The domestic scale is in keeping with the works in the collection, which were originally created for English country houses, and the paintings in the second court hang floor-to-ceiling, as in a traditional hall. This space is dominated by a monumental concrete silo that contains the main staircase. According to Kahn’s biographer Carter Wiseman, the architect had been impressed by the large sculptural fireplaces in English manor houses, and the chimneylike form curiously adds to the domestic atmosphere of the court, which has comfortable sofas arranged on a large Oriental rug. The art critic Robert Hughes described the center as an ideal setting for experiencing art, “a building without gimmicks or stylistic narcissism, low-key but explicit, whose pale concrete, blond wood and natural linen wall coverings provide a strictly subordinate background to the paintings.”
Every year since 1971, the American Institute of Architects honors “an American architectural landmark that has stood the test of time.” Only one building is named each year, and it must be at least twenty-five years old. Unlike design awards, which are sometimes bestowed on buildings before they are even built, this prize recognizes that the best way to judge a building is in the fullness of time. Many a new building has made a splash, only to sink into well-deserved obscurity over the years, either because of functional drawbacks or because an idea that seemed compelling at the time turned out to be a dud. The 2005 AIA Twenty-Five Year Award went to the Yale Center for British Art, which the judges called “one of the quietest expressions of a great building ever seen.” It was the fifth Kahn building so honored. The only other architect with five awards is Eero Saarinen.12 The power of ideas lies at the heart of both men’s work. For Saarinen, it was usually a single idea, which emerged from a detailed analysis of the building program, an examination of all the alternatives, and a distillation of the solutions into a single concept. “You have to put all your eggs in one basket,” he once said. “Everything in the building has to really support that idea.” Kahn’s buildings, on the other hand, generally incorporated many ideas, arrived at after an introspective process that resembled a philosophical search rather than an architectural analysis. Characteristically, he explained himself in an oblique fashion. “You don’t know what the building is, really, unless you have a belief behind the building, a belief in its identity in the way of life of man.” Once he discovered that identity, the architecture would follow. If this sounds a little like a parti, well, Kahn attended a Beaux-Arts school in the 1920s, and in later life he often returned to its rigorous principles.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Witold Rybczynski

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