starchitecture

The recent passing of Zaha Hadid at so young an age was a sad stroke for architecture. She burst onto the scene as a student with designs that seemed to defy gravity. Her exuberant imagination and play of form could be seen in each new built work. But I’ve only seen her work in photographs, and architecture must be experienced, so in talking about Starchitects I’m going to focus on a couple of nearby buildings, and a few farther afield that I’ve seen in person. A colleague of mine once called them Rock Stars— a cool aspect of architecture, unlike say, medicine or law. They too have their stars, but rarely do they cross over into the mainstream media with any notoriety. These architectural stars are often involved with big ticket public buildings, with a buzz created when project renderings are presented, and again on opening day. We do love the splash of fame in our culture, and it’s great when the results are worth it, but that’s often a subjective call. The trade-off is that we seem to have less concern for the everyday architecture of where we live and work, the built environment being largely beyond our control. So it’s great when building design gets some attention, and one hopes that it might raise the bar for all projects.

Let’s take a look at a couple of recent commissions nearby. The Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, MA selected Tadeo Ando as the design Architect for several buildings and the adjoining landscape. First they built the Stone Hill Center, a stand-alone art conservation and gallery building that has a strong and serene presence in the landscape. More recently the Clark Center was completed, knitting together a new building and the original museum, with an extensive new landscaped courtyard. My experience of this space is both dynamic and contemplative. The wide reflecting pool and deep sunken well focus one’s attention both outward to the hills beyond, and inward to the lower level gallery. I think it strikes the right balance for large crowds taking a break from viewing art, providing a generous outdoor public space. The extent of massive stone walls to control the approach and movement through the site is heavy-handed, but the payoff of controlled views and sense of permanence is worth it.

Another building not far from us is the Fisher Center at Bard College in Red Hook, NY by Frank Gehry. It looks great in photos with sunlight bouncing off the billowing metal canopies, but my experience of the building in person was not so satisfying. The interior concert hall itself is nicely done, but the lobby feels narrow and tight with the interior steel structure at odds with the flowing roof forms outside. I admire the devil-may-care boldness of gesture in Gehry’s work, but find his interiors are disassociated from the exterior in a man-behind-the-curtain sort of way. The Experience Music Project in Seattle also has this quality, a bit like a wandering through a train wreck. For inspiration on that project Gehry sliced up electric guitars and shoved the pieces together to create initial models of the space. So there is a concept related to use, but rendered at pretty crude level of metaphor.

For a final example I’ll offer one from across the pond, the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh, designed by the Spanish Architect Enrico Mirales, another bright star that burned out too quickly. A large chunk of criticism against the building has been with the huge budget overrun, but in fairness the program was almost doubled late in the process. My own view from afar was that the building had no rhyme or reason with all of the colliding forms and materials. Several years ago however, I had the opportunity to visit it in person and was pleasantly surprised. The building sits somewhat uneasily at the end of the Golden Mile, nodding more toward the craggy landscape beyond than the historical street. But wandering through the interior public spaces there is a sense of surprise and discovery at each turn. Daylight filters in from unexpected places, while structural systems modulate along with materials and details. What stays with me from the visit is feeling of ambition and adventure, not a bad fit for the building’s purpose.

How does all of this bear on the work of a regional residential architect? There’s a certain excitement that accompanies cutting edge design, and much to appreciate in the risks taken by those that break the constraints of the status quo. Conceptual projects can be fascinating to design and experience, but to live in? I’m reminded of a quote by Steve Martin’s character in L.A. Story along the lines of ‘Do you like my house? I hope it’s not too done.’  Each of us has a threshold of comfort and budget, and customers with a greater capacity for risk seek out like-minded architects. My preference is for a meaningful relationship to the landscape found in a couple of these projects. It comes back to the degree of difficulty and finding the right balance for a given customer and project. I find myself somewhat conservative in practice, but glad to stretch the boundaries when the opportunity arises.

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