Tag Archives: criticism

Architecture

I AM A FORTRESS

If you haven’t read Phillip Kennicott’s brutal critique of the new USIP building by Moshe Safdie, you probably should. There’s a lot to think about in it.

I don’t buy his assessment of Safdie’s career (namely that his only good building was Habitat ’67) or that Safdie is somehow different than Terragni, OMA, Yeang or any other architect that has produced institutional work for a statist client. If anything, his work for these groups is a less seductive option simply by virtue of his staidness. Regardless, Kennicott hones in on the idea that the building is a duck: a work of architecture where all formal characteristics are subsumed into an “overall symbolic form.” Yes, the dove-shaped roof is easily the worst formal decision in the building. Except that in a more important sense, the building is not a duck.

USIP Headquarters by joelogan on Flickr

The idea of the duck was developed by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour while teaching at Yale and eventually published. The main target of the critique was not the literal use of symbolism in vernacular structures, but rather the abstracted formal symbolism of “heroic, original” buildings that totalized structure and program into an exploration of space, form, or ideas. This, they said, was more insidious than the overtly ridiculous Long Island Duck.

What the building is not is a security duck. Contrast this with Safdie’s other work in DC, the ATF Headquarters Building. That fortress in Northeast is a security system for itself, where its defensive features become an architectural statement. The grand gesture is an enormous, inaccessible pergola developed from the moat, fence, setback, and blast walls required. Other features, like the gateway-within-a-gateway front entrance and the row of shops on 2nd St. reflect the primary design concept: security. Security subsumes form gloriously. But the ATF building has taken enough of a critical beating, so let’s examine two other examples:

US Mission to the UN

Gwathmey Siegel’s US Mission to the UN indexes the required distance for blast resistance through the size of its windows. The walls of the building simply could not be further from the edge of the small urban site to meet US embassy requirements, so the architects manipulated the windows on a tower already set back into absurd slenderness. The only way you know it’s not the bitter provocation of a grad student is its desperate banality.

More recently, KieranTimberlake’s US Embassy in London, scheduled to be completed in 2017, improves on the ugliness of buffering, but is unable to escape duckhood. The building is set upon a plinth that creates private assembly spaces above, and a security perimeter below. By emphasizing the severe cubic form set within a circle and again in the middle of a field, the architects have called all the attention to the space between the building and its context, at least compared to the looser glancing forms some of the other competitors’ entries. Richard Meier’s design is particularly distinguished because the renderings show bollards: discrete, non-architectural supplements that do not change the fabric or utility of the building.

US Embassy, London

Venturi & Scott Brown’s alternative to the duck was the decorated shed: a relatively banal structure, with a highly articulated facade conceptually detached from the overall functional design. His examples were renaissance palazzos and the Vegas Strip: big, bold facades loosely related to the interior. Now, Meier’s design may be a formal duck, but the security is attached loosely, a protected shed. The same is true of the USIP building, where Kennicott’s review demonstrates that security was not a conceptual concern for the project. The building has large, clear atria one can get close to. It has relatively good permeability, and its security pavilion is prosthetic to the main building. Perhaps it does not need the security of the Pentagon. But even many of the most effective safety measures at DOD headquarters have not been grand design choices, but rather building system details like laminated glass in windows and column casings.

This applied, rather than integral, security is already common. Like the Las Vegas Studio, we have to look at the disreputable defenses of Washington: the bollards, the planters, and the barriers that are almost all right. Those dumb little planters are an embarrassing icon of Washington, but they have their virtues. Ugly and ordinary, they offer both protection and the symbolism of security. They’re not part and parcel with the architecture, letting designers focus on expressing more important things. Maybe most importantly, they’re temporary. Eventually (theoretically) we can get rid of them and the buildings will not be compromised.

Dumb, ugly, replaceable.

These not-so-great forms of security do not have to be so ugly and haphazard. The classicist bollards and walls around the Capitol and congressional office buildings are an attractive and historically sensitive application to the buildings they defend. They’re not ideal, but for something more innovative, take a look at the IMF’s Headquarters 2 in Foggy Bottom. For all the banality of the aesthetics, Pei Cobb Freed combined the barrier structures with small-scale elements like planters, benches, bike racks, street lights, and even a water feature. It creates a livelier streetscape than setbacks and walls.

The formalization of security is a tempting venue for architectural expression. The culture of the past twenty years has been one where institutions have had to fortify and militarize against threats both real and perceived. Making architecture of that defensibility is a tacit acceptance –  if not embrace – of a perpetual security culture. That public buildings need protection against specific threats is undeniable. But that those protections need to exist forever and be manifested significantly in buildings, I believe, is an irresponsible and sad architectural position.

ATF Headquarters by dbking on Flickr

Is there a building you think is a security duck? Suggest it in the comments.

Architecture Writing

Mixing New and Old at the Eisenhower Memorial

Yesterday, a panel selected a design concept by Frank Gehry for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial The design is promising.

The large blocks form a circle, enclosing a single tree and a small pool of water. On the faces of the ring of stones, images cast in low relief and quotations in large type speak history to those inside. East and west of the central courtyard, groves of trees canopy informal plazas. At first blush, these spaces feel intimate and beautiful. Rising from just beyond the trees, large stainless steel screens supported by limestone columns enclose the space on the north and south sides. The screens will contain some of the sculptural program through a woven scrim that hides the forgettable Department of Education Building to the south. The street condition is undefined, bounded by the scrims except at three prominent areas.

The axis of Maryland Avenue cuts through the memorial, with the stone ring in the center. Building the memorial without disrupting the viewshed of the Capitol or traffic flow were seen as the two big problems. The Memorial Commission selected a design by Gehry that sidesteps the issue of sightlines, by removing one of eight columns and two sections of the screens. This way, the design frames the primary view of the Capitol with the same structures that fit it into the grid. In terms of the vehicular route, the panel rejected a vehicular road through the monument and instead created a pedestrian plaza. The site was located to move the monumental program off of the Mall. Drawing visitors, most of whom tour on foot, was equally important.

Gehry has tamed his own style is tamed for this project, although the ring of stones exemplifies the blockish forms he had been experimenting with since the opening of Walt Disney Hall. Mercifully, Gehry has also eschewed the dismal expressionism of a younger generation of memorial designers. The design team did not try to assign tremendous meaning to every little detail. Instead, it is a building that can be judged for its power and for its beauty, although people will disagree.

read more »

Architecture Local Writing

A Look at the Janney Expansion

Janney Rendering 1 SE_09 SMALL

I finally got some images of the proposed Janney School extension. I like it – but it could have been better. With a few objections, I like its conception. Devrouax + Purnell, best known for the Washington Convention Center, the Pepco Building, and Nationals Park, here produced an interesting and attractive school building. However, the location where they have chosen to place the wing results in a lost opportunity for Janney and the community in general. Like too many developers and architects, they approached Tenleytown planning to not upset the status quo. However, any public facility should be designed with an eye to the future – and the current state of Tenleytown cannot last.

The building steps down.

Beginning with the generous setback along 42nd street, the architects attempted to hide the building as much as possible, so as not to intrude on the neighborhood. Although the Albemarle façade extends to the cornice line of the 1923 building, the masses of the building gently diminish into a low white structure that encloses the gym. Moving south along the western face, the building curves gently, from a tower to the first private residence down the block. The architects employed the shape subtly, repeating the curve in each mass to limit its effects. It does successfully integrate into the site.

However, this hesitant approach is not appropriate here. The architects should not have set the building back from the street so much. In doing so, they have reduced the feeling of enclosure afforded by a consistent streetwall, produced an marginally useful green space, and missed an opportunity to relocate the playing field at the center of the Tenley Library Public-Private Partnership debacle.

JES_Design_Schematic_20091110-1 SMALL

For the 2007 plan to build a library with several floors of condominiums on top focused on the loss of recreation space (the rightmost field in the image above) for Janney Students. Some of that space would be consumed in the footprint of the condominium structure. However, had the architects located the new wing closer to the property line, they might have opened up space to relocate the eastern soccer field. In a political environment as vicious as Tenleytown’s, a mutually agreeable solution would have been a rare happy ending.

That lost opportunity is my main complaint – but there’s much more review below.

read more »

Architecture Local

McMillan Two gets some feedback

Last week, I published the McMillan Two concept, after hearing about it on the Kojo Nnamdi show and interviewing the designer, Nir Buras. I’ve been pretty excited by the dialogue – the post of GGW received 88 comments and several thousand views. Others have jumped in.

First was the excellent constructive criticism by Alex Block. But he outdid himself with another article arguing for an ecologically balanced solution, which built on a post by…

…Mammoth, who delivered a strident critique of the more Eurocentric and anti-wetland flaws in the proposal. I commented on the article, and the exchanges between me, J.D. Hammond, and Rob Holmes are all good dialogue. The example of the Port Lands project in Toronto is worth examining in depth.

Straßgefühl, the only other blog whose name rivals mine, offers a counter-proposal based on the Sumidagawa river in Tokyo. The post opens up a new direction of thought, but it’s marred by insisting that Buras would be building a pseudo-historical development,  since the proposal has no pretensions of history.

Obviously there was the news coverage too. BDC offered his thoughts, Ryan Avent jumped in with a skeptical but enthusiastic reception, JDLand noted that the plan exists, and DCist had its usual commentary.

If you’re still thirsty for information, you can look at the earlier reactions: City Block’s initial thoughts and then a look at precedents.  Straßgefühl kinda-sorta liked it before; and Spencer Lepler was generally ok as well.

But it is great to see this kind of dialogue happening. The issues of nature, tradition, environment, autonomy, and culture have a lot of intersections not yet explored. The only thing everyone agreed on: tear down the highways. Interesting, no?

Bonus: Here’s an in depth article about Buras from Las Vegas Weekly. Read it!

Architecture Theory Writing

Forest Glen Seminary: An Unintentional Project

So, it’s been a while, right? Well sometimes you get stuck and you just have to back away from the block. If you’ve fortgotten the previous installments, they’re here, and here. One more will follow in about a week. Alright.

back-from-condo

But from the enormous source material of the existing buildings, the Alexander Company took what opportunities it had and exploited them into a quiet celebration of the specific context. The original buildings, despite their conversion to a warren of private apartments and condominiums, have kept of their idiosyncrasies. In spite of sparkling new halogen lights and granite countertops, the apartments retain the unique elements that make the buildings meaningful to residents. read more »

Architecture

Now, Ourousoff is just clueless

Nicolai Ourousoff, the architecture critic (or something) for the New York Times, has lately been letting out evidence of what a lightweight polywanker he really is. The most recent evidence that he has no idea what is going on in the architecture profession came in a reflection on the death of Charles Gwathmey, in which he lamented the lack of heroes in the New York architecture scene. First off, it’s ludicrous to whine about New York losing its hegemony over the design field, like rich white men whining about discrimination. Secondly, it shows ignorance of the many cutting-edge practices in New York he claims do not exist or otherwise do not count. Finally, it’s backwards to wax nostalgic over the handful of heroes whose primary accomplishment was to separate formal Modernism from its revolutionary social program.

Gwathmeys final building, one of his best. Click for more pictures
Gwathmey's final building, one of his best. Click for more.

Luckily, цarьchitect favorite Andrew Bernheimer, defended fair Manhattan’s honor. Bernheimer mentions a number of practices that perfectly suit Ourousoff’s criteria, except that the architects have remained committed to teaching and social issues, in addition to formal investigation and self-promotion. This is just basic research he could do – he doesn’t even mention Diller Scofidio + Renfro, even as they drive the East Coast architecture scene. Besides, it sounds like Ourousoff is simply looking for new autonomous heroes to worship, rather than supporting teams of architects that manage to maintain their individuality while also accepting responsibility for the environment, the public, and the context. After all, the New York Five made their careers through wealthy patrons with large, auto-centric houses. The future cannot sustain those kinds of heroes. That period is over.

Just fire the kid already, he won’t learn unless he fails.

Architecture

Great Interview with Ada Louise Huxtable

Click Here (Sorry, no embedding)

Charlie Rose is one of the few people on TV who actually gives any attention to architecture. At the same time, he’s still a dilettante, so it’s interesting to see him gush over buildings while she cooly discharges years of wisdom. There’s some good chatter about Gehry and Mies, and why they’re much better than even their fans think.

Architecture Theory Writing

Forest Glen Seminary: One Thing Leads to Another

Part two of a four-part essay exploring context, typology, and interpretation. Comments encouraged.

fglinden

Against rich complexity of the old Seminary, the houses designed by EYA are then a real letdown. They carry the superficial veneer of “context” that is endemic to New Urbanist planning and its most visible error. To be clear, they are not abominations, but they are dull and only stylistically similar to the outré conglomeration across the street. The application of traditional elements here fulfills a requirement that new buildings  respect the architecture of the historic landmark. Okay, sure, sounds good, but the legislation is fairly scant in the details of execution. The easy option, a cynical abdication of artistic responsibility, is to copy the notions of form in hazy facsimile and slap it on off-the-shelf buildings. Even where the designs are competent, the lack of sensitivity results in tepid mediocrity. read more »

Architecture Theory Writing

Forest Glen Seminary: Into the Woods

Part one of a four-part essay exploring context, typology, and interpretation. Comments encouraged.

Classicism at its horniest

Hidden among a leafy scattering of houses and trees, Forest Glen Seminary is a jumble of vernacular buildings unlike any of the temples of boxes that define Washington. Its buildings, both magnificent and ludicrous amount to a dignified campiness that defies expectations to be one of the most profoundly interesting places encircled by the Beltway. Once constituting a women’s college when that meant a two-year Mrs. degree, the buildings are once again becoming domestic space, the more private areas cut into condos and the core of the complex, rental units. Scattered around the area, turn-of-the-century houses are being renovated and new housing by the urbanist developer EYA has just been finished. Through the site’s history, radical changes have shaped its form, but none so radical as the current shift in context. read more »

Architecture

At the end of the Mall, hope.

 

foster1

The six finalists for the design of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture have been revealed, with some very promising and also very disappointing results. There’s not nearly enough information available to see which is really the best building, so I picked the one that I think can be improved upon in a productive way. Remember as you are reading my thoughts that these are in the conceptual design phase, so the architects will be revising the buildings considerably even before the NCPC and CFA get around to prodding the architect for greater contextuality. 

I’ve ranked these in ascending order of quality and appropriateness and then got my buddy Sam Rothstein to handicap each one’s chance at selection. The images are linked to high-res versions on the Smithsonian siteread more »