Saturday, December 21, 2013

Architecture & the Client: Hosanna! A Client!

The skeptic in me recognizes that Frank Lloyd Wright's establishment of the Taliesin Fellowship had more to do with his lack of work than his desire to nurture emerging architects. His students were intended to double as the production staff for his practice; however, for quite a long while work at Taliesin was simply non-existent. Eventually Malcolm Willie, a professor at the University of Minnnesota, wrote to Wright and offered him a commission for a small house, breaking the dry spell. Upon visiting Taliesin, Willie noticed his letter to Wright posted on the bulletin board with a large note scrolled across it. The note read "Hosanna! A client!" This story underscores the importance of the client to the architect.

Interestingly Wright was the inspiration for the Howard Roark character in the book and movie "The Fountainhead." This slice of popular culture is largely responsible for the public's perception of the architect and the client, however false those perceptions may be. A commonly held image of an architect is that of a rugged individualist, toiling away, single handedly designing his creation – a masterpiece, if the architect is left alone and allowed to create whatever he desires. Once the design is complete, he presents it to the client, who, of course, loves it. Even if the client doesn’t like it, they at least have the decency to know that they should, and it must be because of their own lack of knowledge and vision if they don’t!

In reality the connection between the architect and client is very different than the popular perception. Architecture, as opposed to painting or sculpture, is a collaborative art. Of the architect's collaborators, none is more important than the client. While a good client cannot make a bad project good, a bad client certainly can doom what might otherwise be a good project. To the architect, there is no greater blessing than a good client. I recently had the honor of presenting such a client with the AIA North Alabama Collaborative Achievement Award. The recipient was Mrs. Francis Wallace. The connection, between she and architect Paul Rudolph, is a story worth retelling.

Paul Rudolph in front of the
Yale Arts & Architecture Building
While growing up in Athens, Francis Wallace became friends with Paul Rudolph. She followed his career and, once she and her husband John decided to build a house, they approached Rudolph.  Frances enjoyed painting and took some art classes under Georgia O’Keeef’s sister, Ida. John had earned a degree in Industrial design from the Pratt Institute. The Wallaces wanted to make an artistic statement. They wrote Rudolph a letter in which they laid out some programmatic requirements and stated, in essence, that they wanted a house that would pay homage to the Greek Revival architecture of the South.

Rudolph obliged, designing a stunning modern interpretation of a southern Greek revival house, completed in 1964. Thirty-two columns, white painted brick skin, a swooping stair, and a large porch for entertaining harken back to the architecture of the South. The Wallaces were active participants in the creation of the house. In my email dialogue with the Wallaces son Garth, he explained this relationship better than I can.
Paul Rudolph's Wallace House
He stated, “I think the role that they (the Wallaces) played in the creation of the house was somewhat like the role a movie producer plays in the creation of a movie. The movie producer forms an intention to make a movie about a particular story and decides how he or she wants the final product to look. He or she then sets about finding a writer to write a screenplay, a director to direct the movie, actors to play the characters in the story, and the crew behind the scenes who create the sets, light the sets, film the movie, edit the raw footage, etc. The producer also arranges the financing for the movie – movies don't get made and houses don't get built without financing. Although the producer employs experts to make the movie, he or she remains the decision maker who approves or changes the screenplay, watches the dailies and decides whether the movie is taking shape the way he or she had envisioned it, and usually makes the decisions regarding the final cut of the movie. I think my parents played an analogous role in the creation of their house.”
The Wallaces' Porch
Beyond their collaborative role, the Wallaces possessed the vision to hire a talented architect to design a habitable work of art. They possessed the courage to stretch their financial resources to make it happen.  And after the house was complete they proudly opened it to the press, including publications such as House & Garden and Life magazines. The house was featured in several books as well. Periodically the Wallaces would allow tours from art and architecture students or just plain old architecture buffs, such as me. Mrs. Wallace also hosted frequent gatherings on the porch, where architecture was a natural topic of conversation. Indeed, the Wallaces possessed all the traits of the ideal client – able collaborators, courageous visionaries, and lifelong advocates.
Photograph from the February 1965 issue of Life magazine
The similarities between the Wallace House and Greek Revival architecture may, at first, seem distant. Believe it or not, connections such as these will become apparent in the next blog post….Take These Chains.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Architecture & Art Museums: Art or Architecture?

Leonardo's Last Supper and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel are both well know examples of works of art that have been viewed by millions. But public access to great works of art is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the modern era most significant collections of art were commissioned by religious institutions or wealthy patrons, and were normally housed in religious facilities or private residences.  On rare occasions the collections may have been open to the public for viewing but this was the exception rather than the rule. 

In 1817 the Dulwich Picture Gallery was opened in England. It has the distinction of being the oldest public art gallery in England and it ushered in a new building type - the Art Museum. The building was specifically designed to display artwork, where visitors traversed a series of gallery spaces containing long expanses of walls for hanging art. The location of windows and skylight were carefully considered, due to their impact on the artwork. This prototype was largely followed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the building serving as a backdrop for the art.
Sir John Soane - Dulwich Picture Gallery
This began to change with Frank Lloyd Wright's last major work, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which opened in Manhattan in 1959. Wright designed a museum in which visitors entered a grand multi-level atrium space, proceeded to the top via elevator, and spiraled down by way of a continuous ramp.  The art was placed on the spiraling outside walls and viewed from the sloped floor of the ramp.  The artwork, when hung plumb, appeared askew. This was a major point of contention throughout the design process. Baroness Hilla von Rebay, the Guggenheim's director, felt that this approach placed more importance on the architecture than the artwork it was meant to exhibit. Wright did not argue this point. He simply stated that "architecture was the mother of all arts", implying that the architecture need not be subservient to the artwork.  Ultimately Wright proved to be the more stubborn of the two and his design was realized.

Frank Lloyd Wright - Guggenheim Museum
The more recent 1997 Guggenheim Museum, that in Bilboa Spain, designed by Frank Gehry, continues the debate. Here the architecture is even more radical and the artwork more subservient. So, which should be given the higher priority - art or architecture? This question continues to be debated today, although I would contend that the wrong question is being asked. Perhaps we should ask if art and architecture can co-exist? I believe that they can, and I will offer an example in which I believe the architecture actually enhances the art and vice versa.

Frank Gehry - Guggenheim Bilboa Interior
Frank Gehry - Guggenheim Bilboa 

Louis Kahn - Kimbell Art Museum
In 1972 the Kimball Art Museum, designed by Louis Kahn, opened its doors in Ft. Worth Texas. Kahn skillfully crafted a series of linear vaults which are designed to capture and redistribute the just the right amount of light in which to view the artwork. The minimalist design and spare material palate of concrete, travertine, and wood offer a non- disruptive background.

When expansion became necessary a few years ago, it proved to be difficult task to find an architect who could provide an equally enticing venue in which to display art without compromising Kahn's design.

Renzo Piano - Kimbell Art Museum Addition
Renzo Piano's Building Workshop was ultimately selected for the commission and their addition recently opened to the public. Piano chose to build a separate building and connect to Kahn's museum through an underground tunnel. Piano's layout takes cues from Kahn, with its linear galleries and floating partitions. He also mimics the way Kahn used natural and artificial light, as well as his material choices. These building are not twins, but brothers, separated by years but sharing DNA. The result is multi-faceted. Kahn's and Piano's buildings complement and reinforce each other. Each building is architecturally significant in its own right, with a simple sophistication that also allows the artwork to shine unchallenged. As a result, artists and exhibitors love to show at the Kimball. To me, this is museum architecture at its finest.

Museums are a complex building type, requiring collaboration between the architect, engineers, consultants, end users, and most importantly, the client.  The connection of architecture to the client will be the topic we explore next. Join me next time for Hosanna! A Client!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Architecture & Drawing: Drawing on Imagination

Napkin Sketch by Antoine Predock
Our AIA chapter is currently hosting a napkin sketch competition, similar to that hosted by Architectural Record. It serves as a reminder that, despite advances in technology and documentation, the ancient art of drawing still plays a vital role in the creation of architecture.

The last post noted a paradigm shift in the tools architects use to represent their works. Digital output from sophisticated computer programs have largely replaced "old school" drawing. Although the role of drawing has changed, its connection to architecture remains. Drawing offers a means of communication that simply cannot be replicated.

Architecture begins in the head of the architect. There the big idea is formed and (to some extent) developed; however, unless this idea can be transferred to something tangible, it cannot be communicated. And if it the idea cannot be communicated, it cannot be built. The process in which architects convey this "big idea" is (to paraphrase Christopher Knight) from the brain, through the hand, to the pencil, and onto paper. The resulting drawing is called a parti. This process of design can happen virtually anywhere, at any time. An architect may sketch out the parti on a napkin while discussing the project over lunch. He may awaken in the night and scratch out the parti on the back of a receipt. If all else fails, a scheduled client meeting usually provides the necessary incentive for inspiration! So, the seed of architecture may be planted in the brain, but it sprouts as ink on paper.

Beyond the parti, drawings are used by architects to communicate ideas. Hand drawings give the impression that the project is in a stage of development, which is normally representative of reality. A crisp CAD plan or computer generated model gives the impression that the project is complete, even when it isn't. In meetings with consultants or clients, the ability to draw allows the architect to develop and advance the project on the fly. A picture is worth far more than a thousand words.

Drawing may be a God-given talent but it is also a skill which can be learned. With a little instruction and a lot of practice, anyone can become proficient in drawing. I understand that, with new technologies, many of the drawings that were once generated by hand are now generated by computer. Many of us who once spent our days drawing and lettering on our boards sometimes find ourselves reminiscing about the "good ole days" of hand drawing and lettering. (Sidenote: My drawing board has never crashed.) Apparently there are enough of us out there that a new museum has been constructed to cater to our needs. The Museum for Architectural Drawing recently opened in Berlin. It promotes and displays collections of architectural drawings, primarily from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The building itself contains both subtle and conspicuous references to architectural drawings. The form created by the five levels of the building reminds one of stacks of drawings (subtle), while enlarged portions of historic drawings are transposed to the exterior skin. It may be because I am an architect, but I find the concept of a museum in which the "art" within is really architecture, truly intriguing. 

Museum for Architectural Drawing
SPEECH Tchoban & Kuznetsov
Art and Architecture have long been connected. Museums have traditionally been thought of as works of architecture which house works of art. In such buildings there is a delicate balance between the two. That's where we'll pick up next month with Art or Architecture?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Architecture & Sculpture: Habitable Sculpture

Michelangelo - David

Michelangelo - Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo - St. Peter's Basilica
Michelangelo, like Da Vinci before him, was trained in the arts - painting, sculpture, and architecture. The renaissance masters seemed to move easily between these fields. In Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, author Ross King discusses how Michelangelo's first and truest love was sculpture. His David catapulted the artist to fame. He was very comfortable putting hammer and chisel to stone. Even while working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he really wanted to return to sculpting the Pope's tomb. Later in his career he did return to sculpture, which led to architectural commissions. He designed much of St.Peters Basilica, as we see it today.  

Interestingly, the training these Renaissance masters received included many facets of the arts, but their completed works were distinct in only a single aspect.

Somewhere along the way we decided that the connection between architecture and the "fine arts" should be eliminated; the artist should choose a field, and the training should be focused on either painting, sculpture, or architecture. That was certainly true when I was in school. I never studied painting or sculpture or even stepped into their studios, nor did the "art majors"venture into the architecture studios. The connection was severed by most institutions but was maintained by others.  Examples include the Bauhaus School led by Walter Gropius, the Fellowship led by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Cranbrook Academy of Art led by Eliel Saarinen.

Some architects have bridged the gap back to the arts - sculpture in particular. In many cases they were  able to morph architecture and sculpture, creating habitable sculpture. One thinks of the undulating wall panels in Alvar Aalto's Finnish Pavilion or the sweeping sail forms of Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House.

Jorn Utzon - Sydney Opera House
Alvar Aalto - Finnish Pavilion

Another sculptural architect is Eero Saarinen, a true "architect with grace". I have been lucky enough to see several of his projects - North Christian Church, Gateway Arch, Kresge Auditorium, and MIT Chapel. Each of these design solutions are specific to their client and their context. The only obvious commonality is that they are all sculptural. This quality does nothing to compromise the functional aspects of the buildings. In addition to their sculptural asetheic, they are also very functional and practical buildings.

Eero Saarinen - North Christian Church
Eero Saarinen - MIT Chapel
and Kresge Auditorium

Anish Kapoor - Cloud Gate
Zaha Hadid - Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre
Frank Gehry creates models and digitizes them to generate drawings, a true hands-on sculptural approach.  Gehry may work with architects all day but he hangs out with artists after work. Not only are his buildings habitable sculpture but his projects often incorporate works of sculptors, as in Andish Kapoor's Cloud Gate in Millennium Park.

Zaha Hadid is another contemporary architect who is known for creative design solutions - habitable sculpture. Her buildings are both technically complex and visually simple. Her newly unveiled Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre is an excellent example. The white ribbons rise out of the site and dance about, forming dynamic spaces. The ribbons sometimes connect and enclose spaces and sometimes separate and open spaces to the exterior. 

Today, just as in the days of the Renaissance, Architecture and Sculpture have a common underpinning - drawing. We will look at this next, in the post Drawing on Imagination.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Architecture & Tools: Construction and Deconstruction

Drafting tools of the nineteenth century
All significant works of architecture began as visions of their architects. Before those visions could be realized however, the architects had to rely on a set of tools which allowed them to communicate their visions to builders. These tools have undergone a paradigm shift in just the past few years. I contend that something as simple as this, the use of a different set of tools, has significantly impacted the direction of contemporary architecture, paving the way for a new type of architecture, deconstructivism. This post serves to support this point of view.

Andrea Palladio's Villa Rotunda
Until the latter years of the twentieth century, architects produced construction drawings using the same tools their forbearers had. It began with the scale, which allowed the drawings to accurately communicate lengths and sizes to the builder. The drafting table allowed large scaled drawings to be generated. A T-square or parallel bar was used for drawing horizontal lines, while triangles were used for drawing vertical lines and lines at 30, 45, and 60 degree angles. A compass allowed for the creation of circles.  Other complementary tools allowed for the creation of other geometric forms. These tools ultimately resulted in buildings that were geometric as well. Palladio's Villa Rotunda, considered a masterpiece of classical architecture, when pared down to its essence, is a geometric construct. It is a cube topped by a round dome, with triangular pediments on all four sides. Its fenestrations are either square or rectangular. Architecture is perhaps the most practical of the arts.  It is the inherent geometry that has always allowed for architecture to be drawn and constructed.
For the past couple of decades architects have been using computers to perform the drawing tasks formerly executed on their drawing boards. This is referred to as Computer-aided drafting, or CAD.  Today computer processing speeds, combined with sophisticated software developments, have developed to a point where the vision of the architect can be more fully realized. Consequently, the manifestation of that vision doesn't have to be grounded in geometric forms. The traditional process of design and the corresponding process of construction has been turned on its head. This ability to go back to the literal original vision, undefiled by geometry, is what deconstructivism is all about. Now non-geometric based forms of architecture can be much more easily drawn, and much more easily constructed, with the aid of computers. The old rules no longer apply. 

The architect who is most closely associated with deconstructivism is Frank Gehry; his Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao being the poster child.  My first encounter with a Gehry building was his 2004 Stata Center.  My wife and I were roaming through MIT's expansive campus when we turned onto a wide sidewalk between two non-discript buildings.  There, straight ahead, we saw it hulking proudly in he distance.  I pulled out my iPhone and snapped this shot. Even though I had an academic understanding of Gehry's work it still surprised me. The closer we came, the more surreal the building seemed.  Walls were placed at odd angles, columns appeared in distress, windows protruded from walls, floor plates separated, spaces collided and overlapped. The mix of materials was also unexpected - traditional brick, high tech steel and aluminum sheets, and brightly painted gypsum board all converged. Unexpected curves and angles abound. It's difficult to get one's head around this building. Even now, I'm still not sure how I feel about it. Perhaps the ageless principles of design and construction are so ingrained into me that it is difficult for me to let go and embrace this new architecture, an architecture made possible by new tools, the architecture of deconstructivism.
Frank Gehry's Stata Center at MIT
Although new tools have made deconstuctivist works of architecture easier to design and construct, there were still a few significant works non-geometric based forms architecture that predated the modern computer and deconstructivism. This sculptural quality of architecture is the subject of the next post.....Habitable Sculpture.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Architecture & Genius: We've Been Waiting for You

One of my favorite movies is the 1984 historical drama Amadeus. It is the story of an undisputed musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and his interactions with Antonio Saliari, the King's court composer. Saliari, as an old man reflecting on his life, is the movie's narrator. In this scene he is recalling an encouter with Mozart's wife. Hoping to get her husband a position on the the court, she has handed over some of Mozart's original manuscripts to Saliari. Watch.

Okay. This is all interesting, but isn't this blog supposed to be about architecture? How does this clip relate to architecture? While I believe there is a definite connection between architecture and music, that connection is not the subject of this post (but perhaps a future post). What is of immediate interest to me are the shared underpinnings, and one in particular, of geniuses across virtually all creative disciplines.  From the first time I saw this scene in Amadeus, I was reminded of a famous story involving Frank Lloyd Wright. Rather than recounting it myself, I will let Edgar Tafel, one of Wright's apprentices, do so. The following clip is from the Ken Burns' documentary Frank Lloyd Wright. Enjoy.

There are many parallels but one in particular jumped out at me. Did you notice that both Mozart and Wright created masterworks, fully developed, in their heads? I cannot tell you how astounding I find that fact! Design and Composition are both highly complex endeavors. While I know little about musical composition, I do know a thing or two about architectural design. 

Wright and his Apprentices
I definitely know this. Going directly from one's head to paper is not the way the design process is supposed to work. Before we "mortal" architects advance a design to a state of development that includes well executed plans and elevations, we take several necessary steps.  We begin by getting a schematic design concept, called a parti diagram, down on paper. We then go through dozens, sometimes hundreds, of refinements. We sketch variations on top of variations, discarding those that do not work and keeping and refining those that do. We may build physical or computer generated models to help us envision and understand the three-dimensional characteristics of the project. All of this takes a great deal of time. Eventually we arrive at a design solution we think is good enough to show the client. Even then, however, our design is destined to fall well short of the mastery displayed in the first drawings of a genius such as Wright.

So, although we have long known that geniuses share many common traits: self-assuredness, intelligence, drive, and perhaps social awkwardness, it is their ability to formulate magnificent creations in their heads, that really separates them from the rest of us. Perhaps Wright's statement "Welcome E.J., we've been waiting for you," was not so disingenuous after all. It was not that he had not started, he had just not finished!

Another point I might make. A musical composition or an architectural design that is only in one's head is of no benefit to anyone else.  It must end up in some tangible form. That involves tools. For Saliari that meant ordering notes and measures on paper with pen and ink. For Wright that meant composing shapes and spaces on paper using pencils and drafting instruments. Those of us practicing architecture today have an unprecedented array of tools at our disposal. Not being geniuses, we need all of them! I contend that some of these tools not only help us to illustrate our design solutions graphically, but may actually help shape them. Please join me for my next post, Construction and Deconstruction.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Architecture & Perception: Brady vs. Wright

A common frustration among architects is that the public really doesn't understand who we are, what we do, or recognize our value to society. I hear it frequently, most recently at the American Institute of Architects's national convention. I don't ever recall hearing a reason for this poor public perception but I've come up with one that I think is plausible, in America at least. I contend that we know about most trades and professions from our interactions with the tradesmen and professionals. Most of us have had to call a plumber, hire a carpenter, or retained a lawyer. We've had close interaction with some professionals such as teachers but most have had no interaction with an architect. To fill that void we naturally defer to popular media - books, television, and movies. Even there, architects are scarce.  Two architects, however who everyone knows, Mike Brady and Frank Lloyd Wright, are largely responsible of our perception of who architects are, what they do, and their value to society. This post explores the connection between architecture and perception, as perpetuated by Brady and Wright. Let's begin this exploration.

Mike Brady
Brady House
Brady House interior
Here's the story of a man named Brady.....  Of course Mike Brady is one of the fictional lead characters on the wildly popular Brady Bunch television show which ran from 1969-1974. The show followed Mr. Brady and his new bride Carol through the highs and lows of daily life within the context of their blended family. Here are some things that we learned about architects from Mr. Brady. First of all, we learned that architects work "banker's hours". Like clockwork Mr. Brady walked into the kitchen and gave Carol a peck on the cheek, arriving just in time for dinner. Second, we learned that architects are financially well off. Mr. Brady was able to provide a nice house in the suburbs for he, Carol and their six children. Carol had no need to work and was able to hang around the house and chat with Alice, the live-in maid. Third, we confirm the perception that architects are on the cutting edge of fashion. The digs, the threads...all groovy! Finally we got an image of what true architecture is, by looking at Mike Brady's only known work, his personal house. See the following images. I think they speak for themselves!

Frank Lloyd Wright
Wright's Home & Studio
Wright's Studio Interior
The story of Frank Lloyd Wright was largely produced by Wright himself, beginning with his shameless self-promotion in his early autobiography, which continued in written works and interviews throughout his life. When it comes to Wright, it has always been difficult to separate fact from fiction. Here are a few perceptions about architects that we've gleamed from Wright.  First, we learned that architects are in a perpetual state of design and construction. Wright surrounded himself with apprentices in a commune-like existence he called his Fellowship. There they worked the land, studied the applied arts, and (most significantly) cranked out the vast majority of works that we attribute to Wright. Second, we discovered that architects lived an extravagant lifestyle. Wright was as well known for his lavish spending as he was for his moral lapses. Third, we learn that architects are obsessed with their image. Wright's larger-than-life personality was reinforced by his long silver hair, pork pie hats, and flowing capes. Finally, Wright left us with a complete portfolio to reveal what true architecture is.  From his early Home & Studio in Oak Park to the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, his work was and continues to be, awe inspiring.

Okay. Now we have a few things to consider with regard to the commonly held perceptions of architects. Brady and Wright don't really seem to have much in common and certainly don't fit the image of any architects that I know. The true persona of the architect really lies somewhere between the perceptions promulgated by these two representatives. Architects (at least the good ones) work longer and harder than other professionals. We run deadline driven practices and extended hours are just part of it. In light of this, many architects complain about their meager compensation. Few can live lavishly or have full time maids, but I'm not convinced we have it all that bad. Look around. I have to admit that most of us are fashion conscious, even if we can't wear a pork pie hat and pull it off. Finally, the public does not have to look far to see "architecture". We are responsible for much of our built environment, some of it good and some of it bad, a little of it really good and a little too much of it worse than bad.

Ironically, though Frank Lloyd Wright was a real architect, he is clearly more of "character" than Mike Brady. Wright's success was seeded in his genius (I'm sure he would agree!) We will look at the connection between architecture and genius next time, in the post We've Been Waiting for You.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Architecture & Style (part 3): Architects and Crayons

In light of my last two posts, it was intriguing to run across a couple of articles in the April edition of Architect magazine. One praises the refinement of an Architect with Style, while the other makes the case for the superiority of an Architect with Grace. So, is it better to be an Architect with Style or an Architect with Grace? This post addresses that question.

Meier's O.C.T Shenzhen Clubhouse
The first article I read was a review of Richard Meier's O.C.T. Shenzhen Clubhouse. The author John Gendall remarks, "Meier has developed his own architectural language, hewing to a strictly defined three dimensional grid..." He then points out a seeming break in Meier's late modern style with this sculptural clubhouse. This is followed by more analysis, "If the design seems aberrant, though, it's only so at first glance. Redemption is found in the geometry." So, adherence to style is a nothing short of a calling. Clearly we should strive to become Architects with Style.

Ito's Torre Realia BCN & Hotel Fira
The second article was written in support of the recent awarding of the Pritzker Prize to Toyo Ito. The projects of Ito are certainly of the highest caliber, but they also differ significantly from each other. The author Philip Nobel explains, "Ito is too good of an architect to saddle himself with a signature look or suite of effects, too smart to get tangled up in the style game." He goes on to say, "Adopting a signature style can be a shortcut to success, but it is also a choice architects make out of fear....." Wow. Who wants to be a chicken? Obviously we should endeavor to become Architects with Grace.
Ito's Serpentine Gallery Pavilion

Ito's Sendai Mediatheque

Now the battle lines have been drawn and we have to choose. Or do we? I am an architecture junkie and I appreciate good architecture. It's that simple. Sometimes it is produced by architects with style and sometimes by architects with grace. It does not matter to me. Here is another way to think about it. All architects have a pack of crayons. Some may use only the white crayon but really explore the range of possibilities that this color offers. Compositions created using this color will have common characteristics, despite being different. Emphasis will extend beyond color to form, texture, and spacial qualities. Others may choose to use every color of crayon in the box and explore the endless possibilities of how different combinations of colors play off of each other. The colors themselves may even be the emphasis of their compositions. The finished product will likely vary a good deal more that those using only a white crayon. Ultimately, however, it is not the crayons that determines the composition's success or failure, it is the skill of the artist.

So back to our initial question: Is it better to be an architect with style or an architect with grace? The answer is: There is no answer. And that is okay. We don't have to pick sides. There is nothing wrong with liking both white and color, with liking Meier and Ito or Graves, and with liking style and grace.

Analysis of architecture is a tricky undertaking in a society where most would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of architects.  However there are two architects that everyone knows and they begin to form our perception of architecture at an early age. Our next post, Brady vs. Wright, will explore this connection between architecture and perception. Please join me.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Architecture & Style (part 2): Architects with Grace

Philip Johnson

Some architects have Style. One can scan the cityscape and pick out their work.  Other architects have Grace. While we may not be able to pick their work out of a lineup, they nonetheless are able to consistently deliver nice work. Their portfolio reveals diversity rather than consistency, where grace trumps style. When they are selected for a new project, one cannot predict what their design will look like, only that it will be exceptional! The late Philip Johnson, whose variety resulted from a desire to always be on the leading edge of architectural trends; Renzo Piano, whose work evolves as does technology and the environment; and Michael Graves, who has undergone a couple of architectural conversions, are all architects that fall into this camp - Architects with Grace

Renzo Piano
Michael Graves
This post explores the connection between architecture and graceful design, using Michael Graves as an archetype. As with Meier, I first became aware of Graves' work while I was still an architecture student. And like Meier, he was an architect whose work had been popularized after the publication of Five Architects a few years prior. Between the time the book was published and the time I actually read it, Graves had already undergone the first of his architectural conversions. 
Hanselmann House 1971
Graves' early work was based on form-based modern principles, inspired by LeCorbusier and other early modernists. A choice example of his early work is the Hanselmann House.  It is a geometric composition of lines and planes, solids and voids.  It stands out from its context rather than attempting to relate to it.  The forms are spare and simple, devoid of ornamentation.  It is interesting to note the use of primary colors, suggesting, even early on, that a departure from the white box of modernism was inevitable.
Portland Building 1982
At a time when virtually all large scale commercial buildings were monolithic and geometrically simple glass boxes, the Portland Building was anything but. Embracing theories set forth by Robert Venturi, this building proudly adorned ornamentation inspired by classical buildings of the past. It introduced the use of color on large scale commercial building facades. Rather than attempting to appear light and airy, it was content to be substantial and solid. The Portland Building gave legitimacy to the fledgeling postmodern style which then swept the country throughout the 1980s. Over thirty years later, it remains one of the most polarizing buildings ever constructed. Few are neutral in their opinions, most either love it or hate it.
Team Disney Building 1991
Post modernism flourishd for only a few years before the novelty of the new style began to wear off. The style attempted to strike a balance between the classical buildings of antiquity and the modern buildings of the day. Most of public seemed to prefer one or the other. Graves' work continued to retain many of the traits of postmodernism while morphing into a brand of architecture that was less kitsch and more literally classical.  Even so he was often able to maintain the quality of wit in his buildings as illustrated in the Team Disney Building, which substitutes dwarfs for columns in an otherwise classically inspired building. The use of color is still present but more harmonious than in earlier work.

Interestingly, a visit to Graves' website reveals current work that seems to be swinging away from classicism and toward a derivative form of modernism. This constantly changing fashion is almost expected in Graves' work, as well as the other architects with grace.

Between this post and the last, we've looked at snapshots from the careers of two of the New York Five. Meier, an architect with style, remained steadfast in his formal aspirations. Graves, an architect with grace, changed (and continues to change) direction, seeking something more spiritually gratifying. The other members of the New York Five chose a path somewhere in between. So, is it better to be an architect with style, or an architect with grace? We'll back away and look at this question from a completely different perspective next time. Join me next time for.....Architects with Crayons!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Architecture & Style (part 1): Architects with Style

Most architects (and all "starchitects") are obsessed by style - how they dress, what kind of glasses they wear, what pen they use, and even how they sign their names. Given that, I find it curious that most architects don't think about designing in a "style". Each project is simply the design of a particular building, on a distinct site, for a specific client, at a certain point in history. 
Zaha Hadid

Interestingly, some architects do seem to develop a "style" and their projects are identifiable. There is both distinctiveness and consistency in their work. Zaha Hadid and her curving futuristic forms, Frank Gehry with his ribbons of shiny titanium, and Richard Meier and his late modern rationalism, are all architects that fall into this camp - Architects with Style. This post explores the connection between architecture and signature styles, using Richard Meier as an archetype.

Frank Gehry
Richard Meier

I first became aware of Meier's work as an architecture student. He was one of five modern architects whose work had been popularized after the publication of Five Architects a few years prior. I studied one of Meier's early houses, the Giovannitti Residence in Pittsburg, in one of my drawing classes. The house, like his early Smith House, is a study in the defragmentation of the modern "white box". Meier pushed and pulled at the form, arranging solids and voids, adding or removing elements to achieve visual interest on the exterior and dynamic spaces within the interior. The Meier style of architecture was developed and refined on small scale houses during these early years.
Giovannitti House 1983
Meier's firm rode out the wave of Post Modernism which crested in the late 1980s, sticking to his carefully crafted style of architecture. By the 1990s Meier had managed to secure several large and high profile commissions.  His largest commission to date, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, dwarfs his early projects in terms of size and scale. The styling of it however is still recognizably Meier. The repetition of the grid in both plan and facade, the purity of the (mostly) white building elements, the large expanses of glass, and the tentacles of the building connecting with the landscape, are still present.
Getty Center 1997
More recently Meier has begun to introduce more formal variety into his projects. The Church Dio Padre Misericordioso, or Jubilee Church, in Rome is a wonderful example of the mature style of Meier. The form and order demonstrated in all Meier projects is still there, but Meier's style seems to be refined on so many other levels. The awareness of how light enters and moves through the church is integral to the placement and massing. The resulting effect takes worshipers, quite deliberately, to a more spiritual realm. The gentle curvature of the walls embrace as well as protect. Every space and every architectural element are well thought our and developed. The continued refinement of the Meier style is a demonstration to the malleability of modernism, a style that has often been pronounced dead.
Jubilee Church 2001
Not all architects have achieved Meier's consistent connection to style. Many fine architects have never achieved this type of consistency in style, yet they still manage to produce stunning results. That will be the topic explored in our next post ...... Architects with Grace.