Friday, May 9, 2008

Buildings for Paparazzi, Part 1

It wasn't long ago (but before she shaved her head, I think) that Britney Spears had those "scandalous" photos taken of her night on the town with Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. I had a chance to see a video of the scene: three young women walking down the sidewalk, inside a moving oval of about 50 photographers firing their 4-frames-per-second cameras with the electronic flash units blazing away, all shouting "Lindsay!! Look up!! Paris, look over here!!!"

What a way to live. Nobody cares about you as a person; you just exist as an object to be photographed and discussed over donuts in every office in North America. And you'd pretty much have to drive the Mercedes SLR McLaren and have five thousand pairs of shoes; you can't afford to be photographed getting into a 2005 Accord wearing your beat-up Chuck Taylors. Geez, I'd drink, too...

I sat down this evening with the acknowledged masterwork of architectural history, Spiro Kostof's A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals (Oxford University Press, 1985). Kostof was almost certainly the most humanistic of the great architectural historians, spending more analytical time on cultural narratives than most of his peers, hence the subtitle of the book). I wanted to see what buildings he discussed in the Modern and PoMo eras (admittedly, a book from 1985 won't deal much with Gehry or Holl or Hadid or Calatrava). It turns out that there are 68 photographs of buildings created since 1900 that are not intended to be direct historical throwbacks (Edwin Lutyens and Frank Lloyd Wright were contemporaries, but you'd never guess it by their intentions).

So here's my little geek moment about those 68 buildings. In each case, imagine the buildings that would be added to those categories if we did a 2008 update covering the past 25 years.

The largest number of buildings photographed were a three-way tie between skyline towers, museums & theaters, and civic buildings. None of these are programmatically driven buildings; they're exercises in branding, the "look at me" function we get so tired of in our celebrities. The additions would be no end of newer skyline towers, some from Dubai and Kuala Lumpur; and lots of museums and civic centers.

Industrial and mass-housing buildings are next on the list, mainly shown because they're unique to the 20th century and also because they have intellectual connections with modern processes of efficiency and economies of scale; they tell a story about cultural change. We quit seeing them pretty much around 1935 or so, once their novelty goes away.

Religious and commemorative buildings come next. Again, these aren't so much programmatic buildings as they are places to change your mindset toward contemplation. Their whole purpose is to be entirely different than what's outside, because they're asking you to shed the outside world and get in touch with god.

The two full-time residences are far outshadowed by the seven vacation homes. You can get away with a lot in a vacation home.

The three academic buildings are all schools of architecture. You can get away with an AWFUL lot in a school of architecture.

There are four "installations" that have no function intended whatsoever (for instance, the Barcelona Pavillion). You can get away with ANYTHING in an installation; look at the Diller Scofidio + Renfro Blur building, made of sprayed water vapor except for the parts that actually have to accomplish something — the nozzle system and what you're standing on. Try making the floor out of water vapor.

By the way, when did "+" start to emerge in architecture firm names? I'm tired of that; it's very '90s and used up, like calling some function an "e-function" just because you used a computer.

You can easily add your own more recent list of museums, campus buildings, vacation homes, skyline towers, installations, and any number of other buildings (or "buildings") that have no responsibilities. I think of them as indolent buildings, lounging around wearing their price tags on every surface, existing only to be photographed. I wonder if they're bored. Maybe they take Xanax or long rehab weekends.

(I'm imagining the Stata Center and Bilbao holding each other around the shoulders as they stagger down the sidewalk, singing "They tried to make me go to rehab. I said no, no, no.")

I don't know why we teach from them. Like Paris and Lindsay, they're not exactly role models; more nearly cautionary tales.


Eric Randall said...

Wow. Spiro Kostoff and Amy Winehouse in one post? You're giving Dennis Miller a run for his money with the pop culture references. Well played.
I apologize for my E-radio silence (couldn't resist) on your blog as of has been getting in the way.

I'm trying to do a couple weeks of catch up on your posts, so forgive me if this has been addressed elsewhere, but I am desperately wanting to see a post outlining a few buildings that, in your opinion, have "got it right." I don't necessarily disagree with any of your choices of works to criticize, but I would really like a frame of reference to compare the misses to. A Childress Pattern Language, if you will.

Herb Childress said...

Hey, Eric.

I'll be honest and say that I haven't yet turned my attention to the success half of the equation yet... I'm still getting myself up to the necessary level of frustration that allows me to write.

The major building I've been most impressed by recently has been the Percy Julian Mathematics and Science Center at DePauw University (Greencastle, Indiana) from about 2005. It has a terrific public space at the ground floor surrounded by computer labs, and then three floors of classrooms, conference rooms and laboratories above. It's gracious and celebratory, the wayfinding is good, the labs (designed with LOTS of participation by the faculty, and with the understanding that new faculty might have an entirely different research agenda) are easily adaptable. I enjoyed my time there, and I haven't heard anybody say a bad word about it yet.

About 17 years ago, I wrote an article for the journal Places about the Rockridge MarketPlace on College Avenue in Oakland. I thought then, and still think, that it's one of the most elegant corner stores you'll ever find.

But frankly, the buildings I've experienced that I'd consider most successful are ones you'll never find a photograph of or even know who the architect was without going back into the original permit files. Sacco's Bowl Haven in Somerville MA, the pool room at Cue U's training school in Rockford IL, hundreds and hundreds of Craftsman bungalows in Oakland and Berkeley CA, the garden apartment I lived in at the corner of Vernon and Perkins in Oakland's Adams Point neighborhood, the Edith S. Hefter Conference Center at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee (just a house, really). None of them (except maybe the Hefter Center) were fiercely expensive in the economies of the eras they were built, but I found them all emotionally engaging and sensible in their use.

nora said...

I'd like to add two to the list of successes:
1) The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests building which was a first LEED gold building in New Hampshire, and has a zero carbon footprint and very humane working spaces and interesting systems and is well integrated into its landscape (architect: C. Stuart White, Banwell Architects, NH) and,

2) the Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. I haven't had to use it, but the tour was truly impressive. Researchers are given windowed labs around the perimeter so they can see out and have daylight while they work at their lab benches; mechanicals and equipment are in the central core where they are accessible to all (and don't need daylight); effective gathering spaces and circulation systems are provided for research experts to bump into each other and socialize and share ideas rather than working in isolation (with the assumption that they might just discover something by interacting) and much much more. Admittedly this doesn't sound like much, but I was blown away by the fact that they thought this all out very carefully AND worked to give all employees spaces with natural light and where it was impossible, they designed spaces with openings at the tops of the walls so those who needed enclosure for security reasons did not seem like they were in second-class cells. The space reflected their medical approach, that a cancer patient should not have to go from one specialist to another. Instead, the space supported a kind of medical commons, where the experts were all available to the patient with one call. Researchers and clinicians working together on patient care were accessible to each other and the space supported their interaction-- something that is critical in an era that sees the need for customized treatments based on DNA profiles. The building was graceful as I remember, but more, it seemed to work for everyone from FM to patients.

It IS an interesting challenge - though - to find the spaces that are effective- thanks Eric!