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« Funny (Automobile) Faces | Main | Aesthetic Ivy »

June 12, 2006


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards -

Have a look at what the American Institute of Architects deems the top buildings of the year.



posted by Michael at June 12, 2006


What's intersting is that, among these awful buildings, there is one that is (from the photo) a gem: the renovated Legislative Building in Olympia. And that's a century old. The other ten appear variants on the glass box.

Posted by: monboddo on June 13, 2006 5:50 AM

They slipped in one piece of Greco-Roman architecture to give us the idea that they are broad minded, I suppose. Note that the first photo to appear when you go to that address is the Bigelow Chapel in Minnesota. Anyone see anything particularly spiritual about that design? It could have been a library, a law office, a museum, a name it. Modern architecture has become the equivalent of Lego pieces. You stick them together and they take on any function you assign to them.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 13, 2006 8:40 AM

Some of them are boring, but for the most part, they look like extraordinary buildings.

Posted by: Frankenstein on June 13, 2006 8:46 AM

A "visiting artists' house" that looks like a tomb or a bomb shelter. A "chapel" that looks like a motel. monboddo's right - only the old building has anything to offer the eye or the spirit. All the others could have been designed in 1962 - and wouldn't have been innovative then.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on June 13, 2006 8:53 AM

Could it possibly be accidental that Bill Clinton's presidential center has an almost overwhelming similiarity to a massive erect penis?

Posted by: K. Tonn on June 13, 2006 10:04 AM

It appears that the text describing the one building you all seem to like is describing the interior awards and not the building itself. You can find the interior awards (and that incorrect text in its right place) here:

Is it a coincidence that the one renovation (old building) given an award is the only one documented with an interior photograph? I'm pretty sure those in favor of the Legislative Building probably wouldn't be swayed by interior shots of the other awards, but still I find it a bit premature to dismiss the other buildings based on one photograph.

But this sort of discussion to me just illustrates the polarity in architectural designs and tastes. Maybe this century needs somebody like Antonio Gaudi, somebody who can bridge the old and new in a manner that respects what came before but also springs from the creative mind. Perhaps there are architects practicing in that vein, though I doubt they'd find support in the pages of Business Week or Architectural Record.

Charlton - You say that the Bigelow Chapel could be anything (without seeing the interior for yourself, I assume), though I would question if the century-old building's function is apparent at first glance. That grandiose interior could be a number of things in my mind: a bank, an opera, a church even.

Posted by: John on June 13, 2006 10:06 AM

It's funny how much of a hold the glass box has on the architectural establishment, isn't it? The idea of it -- geometry, transparency, etc -- seems to hypnotize them, and send them into raptures of delight and moral/aesthetic approval. I share this taste so little that I'm hard-put to explain it. Can anyone volunteer why the glass box (and especially the idea of the glass box) gets the architectural establishment so starry-eyed? To many of the rest of us, "glass box" means "unlivable," "awful office building whose windows you can't open," "too much sunlight and therefore great big curtains," "ugly plazas surrounding them," etc.

Ktone's idea about the Clinton library is hilarious. I had a (I'm sure unappealingly) snobbish reaction to it myself: it looks like a fancied-up trailer-park trailer home to me.

FWIW, one of the general raps against modernist architecture is that modernist architects love playing with exactly what some of you have noticed: the typology of bulidings. Is it a gas station? A courthouse? A church? You often can't tell, because in most cases modernist architects are just using a buncha geometry, but also because they feel "creative" when they're messing with our minds. "Why should a courthouse ... look like a courthouse!???" -- that's the kind of thinking that strikes a lot of them as brilliant. Meanwhile, the rest of us grow more and more bewildered by our environment. What do some people have against comprehensibility?

Don't miss John's site, btw. John's a fan of cutting-edge architecture in a way I'm certainly not. But he does a grrrrreat job of discussing and presenting it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 13, 2006 10:37 AM

First of all, I am unconvinced that these are actually 10 separate buildings. Another conspiracy.

However, to play along, the Washington State Legislative Building in Olympia looks nice---at least it looks like an impressive legislative building.

That Ballard Library and Service Center in Washington---God, emphasis on "service center." Did they just forget to put in the ceiling? It looks like they should be fixing cars! What's the fascination with visible pipes and bare bulbs hanging from the ceiling? Is this doubling for a place where they work over terrorists?

And the Student Life Center at the U. of Cincinnati---what student life would actually take place there? It's so antiseptic and creepy. It's like it was designed to summon up all the bad vibes of being a student, and NONE of the good ones!

The Trumpf Customer Center in Germany---how did it even qualify as "architecture"? Did it just have a famous architect, or something? It looks like the most ordinary of nondescript office buildings! Even Donald Trump's condos have vastly more style. I bet he sues since they used his name!

Posted by: annette on June 13, 2006 11:06 AM

Even worse are the winning housing designs to rebuild New Orleans, proposed by an Architectural Record and Tulane University competition.

The description says, with a straight face: "Almost every scheme took seriously the request to eschew visionary ideas in favor of practical ways to address the city’s real housing crisis."

This honor award winner is a real charmer.

Posted by: Laurence Aurbach on June 13, 2006 11:29 AM


My first reaction to the Clinton library was almost exactly the same as yours: trailer-home + unfinished airport terminal.


Posted by: Jon Hastings on June 13, 2006 12:12 PM

John writes: "You say that the Bigelow Chapel could be anything (without seeing the interior for yourself, I assume), though I would question if the century-old building's function is apparent at first glance. That grandiose interior could be a number of things in my mind: a bank, an opera, a church even."

When I was writing, I realized that I was opening myself up to a mirror image charge by proponents of modernist style, ie. that Greco-Roman style is also interchangeable with various functions. However, if you will consider carefully what I actually wrote, my meaning remains unambiguous.

Because the Greco-Roman style reflects a glorious tradition of harmony, symmetry and proportion based on a human scale, it imparts a humanity and a feeling of reverence that modernism simply ignores. If you compare bad examples of Greco-Roman architecture to bad examples of modern architecture, you still see the same dichotomy, never mind comparing masterpieces of Palladio and Boromini to van der Rohe and Wright. The reason I mentioned that modernist chapel is because the image I was shown did not impart a feeling of the transcendent. However, the eternal truths of mathematical harmony and proportion that are reflected in the Olympia interior are precisely part of the same feeling of transcendance one encounters in any well designed traditionalist church, be it classical, Romanesque, or Gothic. What I feel when I walk into modernist churches is the same utilitarian diminishment of humanity that one feels in modern banks, office towers or educational facilities. To my mind, this is the great failure of modern architecture. I do like some of it for its own sake, but I have noticed that modern glass dominated structures do best when they are surrounded by natural landscapes. Putting them down in dense urban environments seems to intensify the ghastly utilitarian feeling which they sometimes exude. Ganging these modern buildings up where no worthwhile vistas exist, or plopping them down in an area full of traditional architecture just compounds the weaknesses of modernism and exacerbates the already brooding feeling of alienation one already feels in and around such structures.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 13, 2006 1:29 PM

Charlton - You attribute the success of the Greco-Roman style to "harmony, symmetry, and proportion based on a human scale," all of which achieves "a feeling of the transcendent." I would not argue that spaces with these attributes and considerations done in Greco-Roman and other traditional styles don't achieve that effect, but I think that one element missing in this conclusion is darkness, or shadow. You indirectly mention it in your criticism of glassy contemporary architecture, though I would take it a step further and say that contemporary buildings that consider the darkness as much as lightness are more successful than all-glass (or nearly all-glass) buildings.

The best example, and one that probably won't ever be replicated to such effect, is the Thermal Baths in Vals, Switzerland by Peter Zumthor. They fit into your criteria of a successful modern structure by being surrounded by natural landscape, but its design is a heavy stone labyrinth that is more introverted than glassy. It does have a few openings that frame the landscape, as well as patios and roof decks, but primarily it is made up of dark spaces lit from above. It's rather primal, cave-like. While it may not be transcendental like a Greco-Roman hall, it is transcendent in regards to its function and the visitor's experience. (Sadly I haven't been but my fiance has and has recalled her experience to me numerous times.) Here's a slide show of the building, inside and out:

My personal tastes in contemporary architecture lean more towards places and spaces like the Thermal Baths than the choices of AIA and Architectural Record, who seem to push a glossy and glassy architecture that reaps exposure and other benefits for the (usually) corporate clients. They're more concerned with helping the architecture profession persevere than instilling poetry into architecture, something that can only be achieved by paying as much attention to the solid than the void, the dark than the light, etc. I guess my point would be that this sort of poetry and transcendence is not dependent upon style, just as the things you discuss (harmony, proportion, scale) do not dictate a style.

Posted by: John on June 13, 2006 2:59 PM

John, if you had the choice, would you prefer to visit the thermal baths in Switzerland, or Caracalla's (fully restored) baths in Rome? Or, to compare apples to apples, let's assume that your Swiss bath were as large as that in Rome, or concomitantly, the one in Rome were on the same scale as the Swiss bath. Which would you prefer to spend most of your time at?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 13, 2006 3:27 PM


Posted by: Alan Kellogg on June 13, 2006 3:31 PM

"Maybe this century needs somebody like Antonio Gaudi"

We most definitely do need someone like him, but the question is would he get any commissions?

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on June 13, 2006 3:36 PM

"If you had the choice, would you prefer to visit the thermal baths in Switzerland, or Caracalla's (fully restored) baths in Rome?"

I'm not big on either/or questions, partly because they perpetuate and breed dichotomies like Modern vs. Traditional, New vs. Old, etc. I can see the qualities inherent in both structures, though the fact that one needs to be restored a great deal (or one needs to go back in time to experience it) is not a small point, but one I definitely don't want to get into here.

I see the Roman bath as made up of grandiose, majestic spaces suited to the time and place. Equally, the Vals bath is comprised of small, intimate spaces suited to its time and place. Visiting both means also visiting their contexts, and I would just as likely want to visit (ancient) Rome as I would want to visit a small Swiss village. Because I can't separate the building from its context (or choose not to), I can't answer your question in a clear yes or no way. I would like to visit both.

"Or, to compare apples to apples, let's assume that your Swiss bath were as large as that in Rome, or concomitantly, the one in Rome were on the same scale as the Swiss bath."

I can't help but laugh when I think of these scenarios. That would be like asking, would you like the Legislative Building if it were the size of the Bigelow Chapel?

Posted by: John on June 13, 2006 4:42 PM

John, you can laugh but you can't hide. Apples to apples means just that. Surely you're not suggesting that small cities in the Roman Empire were devoid of beautiful, exquisitely designed baths, are you? One sees the ruins of many small Roman baths across Europe, presumably commensurate in size to your Swiss example. So my question stands. Which would you prefer to visit on a frequent basis?

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 13, 2006 6:29 PM

Most of the aesthetic points I might make here have been mentioned by others, so let me raise another point. Isn't using glass as one's primary wall (and roofing) material very energy inefficient? Given the issue of climate change, global warming, etc., wouldn't building in a material, well, insulates a lot better than glass be a lot more ecologically friendly?

One suspects that architecture will be rather different in decades to come if only because of these, and other, environmental constraints.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 13, 2006 7:29 PM

Charlton, I'm not saying that "small cities in the Roman Empire were devoid of beautiful, exquisitely designed baths," but I am saying that shrinking the Baths of Caracalla down to the size of the Zumthor baths IS inappropriate, and vice-versa. And that's how I read your question the first time.

But now that I understand your question, I would have to say I lean more towards the Zumthor baths. I'll bet this assertion probably makes you happy and fits your idea of "pro-modern" people, but this answer comes with a caveat: I haven't been to either. Ultimately any building must be experienced to be fully appreciated, judged, comdemned, etc. Sure, I have web pages that feature buildings I've never been to, but in those I try to focus on ideas, concepts, abstractions in the work that can be discussed and learned from. Ideally, I've visited a building or place that I discuss, but that's not always possible. This post is a case in point, where much discussion is taking place, based on a few small images of buildings.

For a still-frame video of the Vals baths, check this out:
It probably won't change your mind (I'm assuming you'd prefer to spend time in an ancient Roman Bath...though if I'm incorrect, please correct me) but it helps to understand how the space is used as most of the stills have people in them.

Posted by: John on June 14, 2006 11:21 AM

Friedrich - What you question makes sense, regarding more efficient materials eventually prevailing over glass as the primary exterior enclosure, though in a case of the tail wagging the dog (or is it the opposite?), more and more efficient glasses are being produced and more sophisticated, layered enclosures are being developed, partly in response to LEED. Chicago's own energy code itself is relatively strict, but somehow an all-vision-glass design by Helmut Jahn is under construction right now.

Most glass buildings use spandrel glass (single, opaque panes with insulation behind) in combination with vision glass, making for an all-glass aesthetic but coming a bit closer to punched windows in terms of actual glass area. I'm not sure technically how Jahn got away with this design, but it's probably a combination of a special coating and some sort of tinting to reduce heat transmission through the glass. Whatever the details, this aesthetic here creates awkward units, because nothing can be on the outside wall. No bathtubs, sinks, beds, etc. Once it's done, it should be interesting how this wall looks, what with the clutter of furniture and various colors and types of drapes and blinds.

I'm not trying to defend an all-glass aesthetic, but to me it looks like technology is being used to make that aesthetic persevere through the impending ecological crisis, rather than resorting to more tried-and-true techniques.

Posted by: John on June 14, 2006 12:55 PM

Well, John, I visited the address you indicated above. The architecture is the usual minimalist, heartless stuff I've endured all my life. Actually, I found it creepy, what with the barren trees, snow and howling wind. It felt like I was being led into a prison. The interior is very much the same. There is almost a sense of dread and anxiety emanating from the sad expanses of blank walls unrelieved by any whimsical human imprint. Looks like the bland interior of one of those spaceships in 50s sci-fi flicks. You can have it. I'll get in my time machine and head for the Baths of Diocletian...soothing light, multicolored marble, plentiful statues, dazzling frescoes and brilliant mosaics. The barbarians can keep their depressing Swiss baths. :-))))

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on June 14, 2006 4:21 PM

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