Witold Rybczynski's Blog
March 8, 2014
I saw the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art last night. The show is titled “Density and Dispersal” which, as far as I can make out, adds up to the fact that Wright designed Broadacre City, whose model was on display, and also designed tall buildings. That some of these buildings were to be in New York, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco, while others were in small towns, was not addressed. In fact, their context was ignored altogether, and characteristically, MoMA treated the buildings as art. But ignoring the intellectually slim conceit behind the exhibition, it was nice to see the drawings and models. The Broadacre model (which I had never seen), is a surprise because it is such an artful object, a sort of tapestry. It also remains a powerful tool to communicate Wright’s idea, which really has little to do with sprawl or suburbanization, except to the extent that it recognizes the automobile (but it also includes a monorail link). It was interesting to see so many students in attendance (it was Free Friday Night), being introduced–I suspect for the first time in many cases–to the old magician. I hope they took away a lesson. Wright and his collaborators produced striking drawings: axonometrics, cut-away perspective views, the breathtaking taaaall section of the Mile-High skyscraper (much more poetic than The Shard, by the way). And all using T-squares and colored pencils—not a computer or laser printer in sight.
February 25, 2014
I collected stamps as a boy. Mostly I was imitating my father. He collected only Polish stamps, and his collection begins with the outbreak of the Second World War. The earliest stamp is postmarked “Warszawa 1940.” It is not Polish but German, and bears the stern countenance of Paul von Hindenburg. The stamp is overprinted Osten, meaning East, that is, occupied Poland. My father’s collection includes poignant stamps issued by the provisional Polish government in London, as well as military stamps of the Polish II Corps in Italy, where he served in the SOE. Most of the stamps date from the postwar period and are rather dull in appearance. They portray Polish heroes: Copernicus, Chopin, Madame Curie, and equally predictably, Karl Marx and Stalin, for Poland was then in thrall to Soviet Communism. The album is homemade, the pages, carefully ruled in pencil, have space for every stamp, and include the date of issue, denomination, image, color, and the Stanley Gibbons catalog number. My father was an engineer and he liked everything just so. The entries are in Polish except for the colors which—unaccountably—are in English: “dull purple,” “deep green.” Perhaps it is an early sign of an émigré’s cultural dichotomy. I suppose the collection, which peters out in 1954 shortly after the family emigrated from Britain to Canada, was a way of keeping in touch with the homeland from which he had been rudely separated by the war. Or maybe it was just a way of introducing some small order into a disordered life.
February 16, 2014
In a New York Times op-ed on the failed political career of Michael Ignatieff, the intellectual who had a short-lived stint as leader of Canada’s Liberal party, David Brooks argues that academics are ill-suited to be politicians.“In academia, you are rewarded for candor, intellectual rigor and a willingness to follow an idea to its logical conclusion,” he writes. “In politics, all of these traits are ruinous.” Candor, intellectual rigor? This rosy view of the academic world is obviously that of an outsider, for academia is rife with obfuscation and intellectual fashions—and with politics. Teachers woo the electorate (the students), who annually vote (fill out teaching evaluations) on performance. Assistant professors wangle for promotion and tenure (tenure is like a safe political seat); old professors just rangle. There are endless committees since, like the House and the Senate, university departments are self-administering. The university administration (White House) tries to steer the faculty (Congress); the faculty stymies these efforts whenever possible. When I watch House of Cards, the plotting and back-stabbing remind me of faculty meetings and search committees, although in the ivory tower nobody actually dies. As Henry Kissinger, who was a Harvard professor for almost 20 years, observed: “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”
February 11, 2014
Mecanoo & Martinez + Johnson
The Washington, DC Public Library System, which is planning a makeover of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, has released what it calls “preliminary design concepts” by the three architecture firms competing for the job: Studios Architecture and the Freelon Group; Patkau Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, and Krueck + Sexton Architects; and Mecanoo and Martinez+Johnson. The MLK Library (1966) is a late work of Mies van der Rohe, completed after the master’s death in 1969, although designed while he was still active, simultaneously working on the unbuilt Mansion House Square project in London. Usually I don’t like to comment on unbuilt designs, but since the library is built, I will make an exception. The MLK Library is not a masterpiece, but it deserves better than the shabby treatment is receives from Studios and Mecanoo, who place fashionably skewed boxes above (and overlapping) the existing building in feeble attempts to bring excitement to the work of an architect who intentionally avoided excitement. “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good,” he once said. Only Patkau seems to have grasped that deference rather than contrast is the right design strategy. (Patkau adds a floor whose design is almost Miesian.) The library has announced that it “will work with community input to develop a redesign.” Commendable but also scary. It requires architectural sophistication to square the circle that is the particular design challenge of this project. Subtlety is not the usual product of public meetings, where the noisiest often prevail. Poor old Mies.
Studios Architecture and the Freelon Group
Patkau Architects, Ayers Saint Gross, and Krueck + Sexton Architects
January 30, 2014
The Singh Center for Nanotechnology, designed by Weiss/Manfredi, has received glowing reviews in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Architect, and Architectural Record. But in the rush to praise, the critics have overlooked an important issue. The building is located on the edge of the Penn campus on Walnut Street, which at that point is more of a high-speed motor way than a city street, nevertheless, it is a street, something that the Singh Center barely acknowledges. The building breaks the street face with a wide opening. Not even a city square, it’s mostly grass. It’s true that the University of Pennsylvania occupies a leafy campus, but like most urban universities the green spaces are in secluded, inner environments, not facing the street. It’s hard to know what to make of a front lawn on Walnut Street. It strikes me as a suburban gesture, but then the Singh Center seems ill at ease in its urban surroundings and with its canted, sculptural forms would be more at home on a rural site. The forecourt has another unintended effect: it highlights the façade of the physics building across the street, a distinctly ungainly Brutalist relic of the 1960s. Its facade is visible under the most striking feature of the Singh Center: a 68-foot cantilevered portion of the building. Cantilevered boxes have become a modernist cliché—one thinks of Diller, Scofidio & Renfro’s ICA Building, Williams & Tsien’s Barnes Museum, and Integrated Architecture’s Lamar Corporate Headquarters. Unlike the windmilling terraces of Wright’s Fallingwater, these recent cantilevered boxes are designed merely to impress. “Look what I can do.” As an architect friend of mine commented about the Singh Center, “It seems to me to be an essay in exaggerated inessentials.”
January 26, 2014
3D printer study model (Ike Kligerman Barkley)
Tom Kligerman, of Ike Kligerman Barkley, was showing me his new 3D printer the other day. His firm specializes in high-end houses, mostly though not exclusively traditional in design. Their printer, about the size of a Smart Car, is used to produce iterative study models that are extremely detailed, as if made by a Swiss watchmaker or a particularly obsessive ship-in-the-bottle hobbyist. 3D printers are all the rage in architecture schools. I can see why they’re popular with students. It’s sort of like having an in-house professional modelmaker—he can make even your half-baked efforts look good. But is it a good learning tool? I doubt it. 3D printers are capable of printing anything, buildable or unbuildable, functional or dysfunctional, sensible or nonsensical. It is not that acquiring modelmaking skills makes you a better architect, but the process of building models—like the act of sketching—does teach you about design. It takes several hours to print a complex shape, and I suspect that the demand on 3D printer time in schools will preclude them being used as iterative design tools. They will just make pretty models.
January 22, 2014
Rose Bowl Parade
I am not a football fan, but I inevitably watch the end of games on many a Sunday evening, waiting for CBS to broadcast 60 Minutes. It is a brutal, plodding game, the players marching the ball up and down the field, a yard at a time, with the occasional flurry of a long pass or a field goal. A game of armored might, the players resembling Roman centurions, with little of the finesse and speed of basketball or hockey. Nevertheless, I’m always impressed by the power and energy of the football business—the players and coaches, the referees, the commentators. I am also impressed that everything stops for football—including 60 Minutes. So many resources are devoted to this spectacle: college athletic programs, publicly-built stadiums, nationally-broadcast games, the urban spectacle of the Bowl parades. And, except for the rare players’ strike, it all runs smoothly. I think of this whenever I take Amtrak; slow, often late, rarely on time. American know-how was once globally admired. No more. In fields like transportation we are no longer the leaders, in some field—education, health—we spend more than anyone and get less. The big exceptions are entertainment and professional sports. Go Eagles.
January 15, 2014
Yale School of Management (photo by Chuck Choi)
A new building for Yale’s School of Management designed by Norman Foster was formally opened on January 9. New B-school facilities are sprouting like ragweed, not only in the United States but globally. The reason is not hard to find. Their alumni are among the richest on the planet, and demand for MBAs and business degrees has skyrocketed. The best schools want to improve their facilities; the newcomers want to jump on the bandwagon, and a fancy new building helps to attract students. Virtually all of these buildings are the work of prominent architects such as Norman Foster (Imperial College, London), David Chipperfield (HEC, Paris), and David Adjaye (Skolkovo, Moscow). The go-to firm in the U.S. is Robert A. M. Stern Architects, which has designed no less than a dozen B-schools, including at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and Rice. Most RAMSA business schools are traditional in style, although several (Drexel, Penn State, Ithica College) are best described as transitional—modern but not too modern. Berkeley (Moore Ruble Yudell) and Temple (Michael Graves) built PoMo buildings, although few B-schools have followed their lead. Most have opted for traditional, transitional (KPF at Wharton and Michigan), or mainstream modern (Rafael Viñoly at the University of Chicago and the University of South Carolina). KPF is edgier at Florida International and Arizona State, Enrique Norten is cooly minimalist at Rutgers. And Frank Gehry is Frank Gehry at Case Western Reserve. Not to be outdone, Columbia’s B-school announced that Diller, Scofisio & Renfro, darling of the critics, will design their new home. For a while, RAMSA set the pace with its traditional designs, but Foster at Yale may signal a new design trend among B-schools. The classrooms are contained in drum-like volumes that surround an enclosed courtyard, creating the impression of an elegant high-tech watering hole. A fitting lair for the wolf pups of Wall Street.
January 10, 2014
Portland Building (Michael Graves, arch.) 1982
From the ball and chain desk.
The recent demolition of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital, and the announced demolition of Williams & Tsien’s Folk Art Museum, raises the vision—or specter, depending on your point of view—of future demolitions of not-so-old buildings. What happened to the preservation of the past? I have always believed that the undoubted popularity of the historic preservation movement depends less on some abstract notion of heritage conservation and more on the actual architecture being preserved: in the past, that has meant the well-built, well-designed, and much cherished buildings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Now that mid-century modern buildings are coming under the wrecker’s ball, the question becomes more complex. Many of these buildings are not well-built, are cavalierly planned, and are definitely not cherished by the public—some are actively disliked. They are also designed differently. Traditionally, buildings were meant to be durable, not merely physically but aesthetically. That implied a degree of conservatism when it came to design, eschewing the latest fashion, and leaning on past precedents. When architects cut the cord to the past, and focus only on the here-and-now, architecture becomes more exciting and more fashionable, but it also becomes shorter-lived. Rough concrete, googly shapes, oval windows, and built jokes age as badly as hula hoops and pet rocks. No wonder that preservationists have a hard time garnering public support for Brutalist architecture. And postmodernism is next. The Portland City Council is considering whether to demolish the Portland Building, a postmodern landmark by Michael Graves that requires the infusion of $95 million in repairs and improvements. (No one is suggesting destroying Ray Kaskey’s wonderful statue, though.) And one can imagine what will happen in a few years when deconstructivist buildings, many of which are exceedingly poorly built as well as distinctly oddly designed, are put on the block. Spend money fixing them up, or write them off as a bad architectural moment? Expect opposition, outrage—and more demolitions.
January 2, 2014
Sharecroppers on porch, Missouri, 1938 (Russell Lee)
The Atlantic’s website “Cities” argues that some urbanist buzzwords should be retired, including placemaking, gentrification, and smart growth. A good proposal, even if the Atlantic is itself responsible for the proliferation of many the self-same buzzwords—the website is subtitled “Place Matters.” Buzzwords are everywhere. Trouble in the Iraq war—what we need is a surge. No sooner did Obamacare falter than we learned that there were navigators, who would fix the problem. The right buzzword comes first; reality will follow. Buzzwords seem to emerge from two considerations: marketing and media. If you have an untested idea or hypothesis, such as smart growth or creative class, providing a label, preferably a catchy label, gives the idea an air of legitimacy. After all, if it has a name, it must be real. In our Twitter culture, a colorful name also saves time in lengthy explanations. This appeals to the media, since a new name can stand in for actual news. Would Occupy Wall Street, or the Tea Party, have gotten as much coverage without a colorful name? Which brings me back to the Atlantic list. Placemaking is a term often used by architects and urban designers, and it implies that a sense of place (obviously a good thing) can replace a sense of placelessness (a bad thing), if only the design suggestions of the self-styled placemakers are followed. But is a sense of place really a function of design? It may be for the tourist or the stranger, who experiences places briefly. Nothing is as disappointing to the tourist as visiting a place that looks like other places, and most of the American built environment is superficially similar. But as the late J. B. Jackson long ago pointed out, that environment is full of meaning, for those who use it. A strip mall may not look like much as you drive by, but for someone that attends the Judo school, or goes regularly to the beauty salon, it is a real place. Conversely, most attempts to instill a sense of place through physical design end up looking like themed restaurants with ersatz “mementos” on the walls. (The most blatant of these is the “Cheers” airport pub chain.) I shop in a banal Pathmark, but I recognize some of the staff, I know where things are, it is familiar. The supermarket has a small place in my life, among the stirring places (the concourse of 30th Street station), the lyrical places (the Wissahickon), and the cherished places (our house). The old folk adage puts it well: Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.