Fit Brown’s hall into the Hill

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Proposed new site of Brown concert hall would extend from relocated Lucien Sharpe House (yellow, upper left) to edge of spire (top middle). Granoff Center is gray building (upper right). Old site was to be left of first two grassy swards of The Walk. (Brown)

Brown University pleased many by rethinking its plan to demolish four old buildings on its campus to make way for an ugly concert hall. Now it plans to build an ugly concert hall without demolishing any old buildings.

The surprising announcement was made on Tuesday. And it is progress. Undeniably. Bravo, Brown!

By ugly I mean a concert hall that does not fit into the historical character of College Hill. I would sadly accept four old houses going down to make way for a major concert hall that does fit into the historical character of College Hill. That might not be popular with diehard preservationists, but it would not just preserve the existing historical character but revive lost historical character and create new historical character, so to speak, going forward. Of course, saving the four houses and building a concert hall that fits in would be best. That does not seem to be in the cards. Still, you never know.

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Central campus of Brown University.

Although Brown retains its lovely central campus almost intact, and has spent many millions to restore old buildings, almost everything Brown has built anew in the past half a century has degraded the character of College Hill. When the performing arts center’s original site was announced in December, Brown’s chief architect, Collette Creppell, informed the City Plan Commission that its setting was already so architecturally diverse – a gentle pseudonym for degraded – that almost any design could be said to fit in.

So, while saving those four buildings means that their absence will not further degrade the setting, the setting will be further degraded by any concert hall that is likely to come from the studios of REX, of New York, the arch-modernist firm selected last year for the job.

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Granoff Center. (ArchDaily)

As things stand, the performing arts center has been moved a block north, requiring only the relocation of one old building. Good. But that means the concert hall must face off against the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, directly opposite on The Walk. It will be amusing to see how REX plans to one-up the accordion struck by an earthquake designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which boasts an equally ridiculous portfolio.

Fun, to be sure. But how much better for Brown and its neighbors to build a concert hall that actually fits into its setting – that is, what remains of a once enchanted setting. Instead of further degrading the campus and College Hill by adding yet another wrinkle to its diversity, why not build a concert hall that helps to walk the campus back toward the beauty of College Hill, exemplified by the College Green and Lincoln (now Simmons) Field?

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Nelson Athletic Center. (RAMSA)

As it happens, Brown did exactly that not long ago when it agreed to switch the architects for a fitness center originally designed in the usual glass and concrete style. The lead donor, Jonathan Nelson, asked Brown President Ruth Simmons to make the change. She resisted but Nelson persisted and prevailed. The beautiful fitness center that bears his name, designed by Robert Stern Architects, now presides at Brown’s athletic complex on Hope Street. It may be the first traditional building erected by Brown in half a century.

Nelson has by now won a host of architectural prizes for patronage, and Brown has an excellent model for evolving the campus toward a better future. This process should commence with the performing arts center. Brown’s trouble with its College Hill neighbors arises not because it has expanded but because it has expanded ugly. Turn that around and Brown will see its community relations grow a lot more pacific.

And while nobody can deny Brown’s fundraising chops, they are sure to grow as the campus offers more charming memories for its graduates – better fundraising through architecture. This is not rocket science, President Paxson, but it does require thinking outside the box. Try it, you’ll like it. So will the students, the faculty, the staff and the neighbors.

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Jonathan Nelson Fitness Center (2012), on Hope Street in Providence. (RAMSA)

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Brown shifts, saves 5 houses

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On this map, the old site of the proposed concert hall would have been left of the new site (in blue). College Green is at upper left. Thayer Street is just off bottom edge. (Brown)

Breaking news! Brown has just issued an announcement that it will shift its proposed performing arts center a block north, saving four historic buildings from demolition. The new site, between Angell and Olive streets rather than Waterman and Angell, requires no demolitions, only the relocation of the Sharpe House (1874) to a site next to the Peter Green House, relocated in 2007. Brown initially rejected the new site as too small.

Brown deserves applause for withdrawing a proposal that would have demolished four houses (including the Lucien Sharpe Carriage House, now the UEL) and relocated one, in effect destroying an entire block of history.

Brown would not have changed its mind were it not for powerful opposition from the local community, led by the Providence Preservation Society. The society, community organizations and other interested individuals and groups who rallied against the proposal did their jobs well. These included many from the Brown community itself.

The new site is smaller, but because it is not located over the tunnel, more activities can be housed beneath the center. It will sit directly across The Walk from the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, the accordion struck by an earthquake that went up in 2011. The performing arts center will still be designed, it appears, by REX, of New York.

Now if only Brown can only get Joshua Prince-Ramus, the founder of REX, to embrace the challenge of making the building look as if it belongs on College Hill. His mentor was Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, so anything is possible.

Anything? Well, okay, probably not that. But this state’s motto is “Hope.”

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To be relocated: Sharpe House, at 130-132 Angell St. (photo by George P. Landow)

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“Building with biophilia”

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Cathedral of the Nativity of Saint Mary, in Milan. (dreamstime.com)

Philosopher/mountaineer Damien François interviewed mathematician/ theorist Nikos Salingaros for The Clarion Review. Salingaros’s thinking has inspired much of the writing in this blog. His work has, among many other things, identified some of the neurobiological factors that predispose humans to prefer traditional buildings that convey information that primitive man once required to survive. Today that need for information manifests itself as a preference, in our normally safer urban environments, for buildings that are figuratively decorative rather than abstract.

François titles his interview “Building with biophilia.” Biophilia, a concept that originated with the biologist Edward O. Wilson, describes man’s intuitive connections with nature.

In architecture, biophilia involves building from the ground up rather than from the top down. Architecture that exhibits biophilia evolves over long periods of time as builders and designers seek to advance best practices in placemaking by trial and error, passing their knowledge through successive generations. Precedent, or what the modernists derisively refer to as “copying the past,” is vital. The conventional theory, on the other hand, involves the avoidance of precedent in the creation of architecture that allegedly seeks to differentiate itself from all past and current design strategies – a theory that has failed human needs throughout the world, according to Salingaros.

Here is a passage:

DF: Nietzsche wrote: “To be alive means to be in danger.” I, for one, do prefer the danger of, say, Mount Everest, where I feel very alive, to bad architecture, where I feel just the opposite. If I understand you correctly, the very structure of everything natural “feeds” the human mind, through the visual and tactile senses, with a soothing and nourishing experience. It is not just about the sublime, it is not just aesthetics, it is deeper and less intellectual than that.

NS: I’m not a big fan of Nietzsche, but you have half the story correct. Yes, you are in danger on a mountaintop, but you are also in a fantastically healing environment that invigorates you and creates deep positive memories. Contrast this to the oppressive industrial-modernist environment: you could be in danger from physical aggression, or from a passing truck, but at the same time you are in a psychologically deadening environment. There is no longer any nourishing background in our cities against which to balance life’s daily ups and downs. No moral support from the built structures, only depression and nihilism.

Please read the entire interview.

 

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Crashing into looking glass

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Rendering of glass facade at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. (Apple)

I’m always on the lookout for evidence of the flaws of modern architecture. So I was pleased to learn through an article in Fortune magazine that employees at Apple’s new round glass spaceship-like headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., keep walking into the walls.

Employees at Apple’s New Headquarters Keep Crashing Into the Glass Walls,” published in Fortune and written by an unnamed reporter from Bloomberg News, states:

Apple staff are often glued to the iPhones they helped popularize. That’s resulted in repeated cases of distracted employees walking into the panes, according to people familiar with the incidents. Some staff started to stick Post-It notes on the glass doors to mark their presence. However, the notes were removed because they detracted from the building’s design, the people said.

Typical modernist hypocrisy about matters of function. Maya Kosoff has a similar article in Vanity Fair. Others abound online.

Screen Shot 2018-02-19 at 2.31.07 PM.pngAll this reminded me of the first board meeting I attended after being nominated back in 2007 (I think) to the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. It was held, oddly enough, in a modernist highrise in Boston, across the Greenway from South Station. I walked up to it and strolled along a parapet looking for an entrance. At last I found it, swerved right to enter, and smacked into what turned out to be not a door but a window. My glasses were shoved into the bridge of my nose enough to hurt. If I recall, board members at the meeting saw it happen, since they were just inside. Ouch! Is that why they have been so kind and lenient to me over the years?

Today that’s a fond memory, of sorts, because it nourishes my internal feedback loop of modern architecture’s ridiculousness. But I get a similar nourishment every time I go to the classical Providence Public Library in downtown, built in 1900, and enter the modernist addition on Empire Street, built in 1954. It has one of those sliding glass doors you can’t tell which side to enter until the door glides open. So, approaching the door, I never seem to know whether to vector left or right. I should know by now. But what about those entering for the first time? (Don’t get me going on how the library ought to switch the entrance back to the original Beaux Arts portico on Washington Street.)

Of course, other modernist mishaps greet all of us so much of the time. I was once thrilled by a documentary about Louis Kahn, My Architect, by his son Nathaniel Kahn. In one scene he’s looking at one of his dad’s buildings but cannot find the entrance. Of his only building in his adopted Philadelphia, the Richards Lab at Penn, workers there say bad things. One says it looks like “a bomb shelter.” The next shot is of a crow cawing from the building’s roof parapet. (Click the link above to see the entire film.)

A lot of psychology going on there. The funny thing is that modern architecture is not what it most eagerly purports to be: utilitarian. But beautiful traditional buildings, whose embellishment modernists consider lacking in utility and therefore wasteful, use beauty to generate affection that assures continued expenditure for repair and maintenance by owners and users. Now that’s utility. And you can always tell where the entrance to a traditional building is, because it is decorated and surrounded by an elegant border. This itself is often surrounded by yet another border, even more elegant, designed to emphasize its hierarchical role in the building’s pantheon of openings.

Maybe someday we’ll get back to that sort of thing. In Cupertino? Maybe, but don’t hold your breath. However, in 2011 a woman, Evelyn Paswall, 83, sued Apple after walking into the glass wall of one of its stores, breaking her nose. New York Post writer Kieran Crowly, in “‘Pane’ & Suffering at the Apple Store,” quoted her lawyer:

“Apple wants to be cool and modern and have the type of architecture that would appeal to the tech crowd,” said her attorney, Derek T. Smith. “But on the other hand, they have to appreciate the danger that this high-tech modern architecture poses to some people.”

Well, that’s what they ought to do. His client did not win, but the world might someday be a better place for her pain.

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Empire of the Algonquin

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Just saw one of my favorite movies this evening, Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, in which a British boy, son of a factory owner in occupied prewar Shanghai, is split from his parents as they try to flee after Dec. 7, and ends up in an internment camp next to a Japanese fighter base. Eventually the war comes to a close, the internees wander out of the camp, and Jim (Christian Bale), after witnessing an atom-bomb blast from a distance, passes under a carved arch embellished as shown above, and finds himself in a pasture (below) littered with the confiscated possessions of his family and their fellow wealthy expats, including Jim’s father’s 1934 Packard Eight Club Sedan and his mother’s white baby grand piano. The music, composed by John Williams, is enchanting, even haunting.

Anyhow, that lush collection reminded me of the extraordinary furnishings of Boston’s Algonquin Club. In fact, I can testify that it’s much better as arrayed there than similar stuff in scattered heaps were in the film.

All this by way of reminding readers that I’ll be speaking there about my book, Lost Providence, this coming Tuesday, Feb. 20, at 6:30 p.m. The address is 217 Commonwealth Ave. The event is sponsored by the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. Reservations are $25 for ICAA members and $35 for the public.

What a show! I refer to the movie. The lecture has not yet occurred.

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Downsizing newspapers

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Upper reaches of the Tribune Tower, once home to the Chicago Tribune. (architecture.org)

Unlike some other shrinking daily newspapers, the Providence Journal has not moved out of its historic headquarters building, designed by Albert Kahn and completed in 1934, during the Great Depression. But the Journal has shrunk big within its extraordinary neo-Georgian edifice. It used to occupy all four floors – five counting the mezzinine, which housed the newsroom for many years. In those days you could look through the arched windows from the sidewalk and see the printing presses pumping out the newspaper. Later, you could see the newsroom. Today? Move along. Nothing to see.

The newspaper has shrunk, but so has the building, in a sense. It looks the same from the outside but on the inside it displays the same facelessness of its feel-good corporate co-tenants. Its former granite and bronze lobby, so bold, now epitomizes blandified schlock. To fit the paper onto the second floor, a staff that during the 1980s boasted about 500 reporters and editors (counting only members of the Newspaper Guild) has been chopped down to maybe 20 reporters and 80 editors and other staff in the Guild.

A recent column by the Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic, Blair Kamin, describes in fascinating detail how many major papers have abandoned their historic headquarters buildings. His piece, “More newspapers are departing their landmark homes, and why that matters,” suggests that while good reporting can be exercised from bad buildings, these relocations are more than just a matter of finance or geography:

[T]he exit from structures that long symbolized their watchdog role hurts nonetheless. Lacking a memorable physical presence, embattled news organizations will have to work that much harder to keep the importance of their enterprise fixed in the public mind.

Kamin tells the sad story of the Des Moines Register & Tribune Building, site of his first real newspaper job. Originally a Beaux-Arts highrise, it was later “sheathed in modernist glass and metal.” It was an “architectural mishmash” but “it burst with character.” The Register moved out to another downtown building in 2013, which he does not characterize except as having “many” other tenants. He gives the tale a hint of nostalgic sadness, but does not describe his feelings, as a critic, toward the Register’s new headquarters. The old one is now residential lofts with floor plans blessed by cutesy news-biz nicknames like “Scoop” and “Byline.” Maybe one of them is “Deadline.”

Perhaps the most startling move will take place in late July when Kamin’s own Chicago Tribune will leave the famous, and famously alluring, Tribune Building designed by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells and completed in 1925 after an international competition, an event equally famous among us building fanatics. With its flying buttresses and soaring pinnacles, its High Gothic style suggested that “journalism was a higher calling.” But now it will be condos. Worse, a condo tower expected to be 1,300 feet tall and, no doubt, 50 shades of ugly, will be built behind it. The paper and its architecture critic will move to the Prudential Building, a 1951 tower he considers “stolid.” It may better reflect the more sordid calling the field now embraces.

May he enjoy to the fullest his remaining occupancy of architectural history. I don’t know about Blair Kamin, but I would be massively pissed.

He discusses the fate of the Washington Post, a workplace that I coveted long, long ago. I must admit that upon reading his account I felt a sort of regretful Schadenfreude. And yet the Post has definitely gone to a better place, about equidistant from the White House, though proximity to that building may resonate differently now than when they moved in 2015.

Kamin reports that the Post’s Brutalist headquarters at 15th & L St., N.W., where I met David Broder in 1976 or thereabouts, has been demolished. It was designed in the early 1950s by Albert Kahn Associates (the founder died in 1942).* The Post has moved into One Franklin Square, which is a big step upward. It is an elegant building with two towers. I wrote about it more than two decades ago in a profile of new traditional buildings then arising in D.C.

When I was a boy I used to deliver the Post’s rival, the Star, an afternoon newspaper. I slid my folded papers down long carpeted halls to the comfy units of elderly dowagers in bland midcentury residential highrises along Connecticut Avenue. And I delivered the Daily News (which tanked even before the Star) to the Broadmoor, a Beaux-Arts confection more to my taste before I even had taste. I never wanted to deliver the Post – early to rise makes a kid cranky, not wise.

Kamin’s article is filled with fascinating details about the fate of newspapers. It has a slide show with many of the buildings on display. A dismaying number are midcentury modern, which may mean that many of these moves will not necessarily be so unfortunate, stylistically speaking. However, one paper, the New York Times, built its own shiny new skyscraper a decade ago. Predictably, the Renzo Piano glitzoid was so costly that, along with other factors shrinking the media, it forced the Newspaper of Record to cut staff and squish the paper’s offices onto fewer floors on behalf of the bottom line – from which even the First Amendment does not exempt the press.

This new Timesbuilding is said by Kamin to be the only instance in recent years of a major newspaper erecting what he calls a “major work of architecture.” Let that be a lesson.

[* Initial versions of this post erroneously attributed the Post’s former Brutalist headquarters to the same Albert Kahn who designed the Providence Journal Building. Blair Kamin did not make this mistake. He attributed the Post building to Albert Kahn Associates. Hats off to Michael Rouchell for his sharp eye.]

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Throop Alley & other tidbits

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Throop Alley, to be abandoned for a building on Canal Street. (

An agenda item for an upcoming meeting brought home to me the sadness and even the anger attending some of the more pernicious projects being sold around here as “economic development.”

The agenda for the Tuesday, Feb. 20 meeting of the City Plan Commission notes that the city has been asked to abandon Throop Alley, between Canal Street and North Main Street. In recent years, the alley had been the front door to loud music blasting from local clubs. It was not my kind of place, really, but it was one of those little urban nooks that might be described as “authentic.” (Who was Throop, anyway?)

The other day I mentioned that a major proposed development on the east side of the Providence River would preserve Dollar Street. Development news now puts two other gangways at risk. Gangways are narrow old streets that once linked to wharfage along the river in many old waterfront cities. The hotel proposed for Parcel 1A of the Route 195 corridor along Water would eliminate Doubloon and Patriot streets. Regulations require that Doubloon and Patriot be preserved, but the real sticking point for the hotel developer is the land between the hotel and the water’s edge. Seems under the current hotel configuration there would not be enough of it.

A ruling of the Coastal Resources Development Council against the hotel on those grounds would probably doom it. That’s what Olin Thompson told attendees at the Jewelry District Association meeting last night. Just when that decision will be made is unclear.

Far clearer is a ruling that could doom an even more damnable project, the Fane tower, whose proposed 46 stories is about 36 stories higher than zoning allows. That is too much for an exemption from the rules: a change in the rules is required. It can be made only by the city council, which must act within 90 days of the 195 commission’s decision, on Feb. 1, to give the project a Level II approval. So the clock is ticking, Mr. Fane.

Providence now has a zoning ordinance that to some extent reflects the will of its citizens. If Jason Fane is able to convince council to change the height requirement to permit a building almost four times the currently allowable height, then for all intents and purposes no zoning ordinance exists. Anyone will be able to change any rule. All rules will beg to be ignored. That is why people must monitor the meeting schedule of the council and attend that meeting to oppose that change.

The JDA and other neighborhood groups will play a major role in marshaling a big thumbs down on this sore thumb in the Jewelry District.

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The footprint of the proposed hotel on 195 land east of the Providence River. (195district.com)

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Gangways between South Main and the river, including Doubloon and Patriot. (Brussat archives)

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Providential hand on sea rise

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A ferry tilts in its slip (now Peck Street) downtown after the ’38 hurricane. (Digital Commonwealth)

The Jewelry District Association invited Barnaby Evans to speak about the future of WaterFire. That sent a shiver up my spine. Was the end nigh?

No, Evans did not say WaterFire was doomed. He did suggest that sea-level rise might inundate the world’s greatest art installation, along with the city of Providence, if we let it. To be sure, the sea isn’t rising fast enough to help us dodge the dire need to dredge our rivers. Nevertheless, he did say that compared to almost every other city on the eastern seaboard, Providence is far better able to cope with the danger of sea rise over the next few decades. If true, that is good news indeed.

It seems that history has dealt this state’s capital a lucky hand, at least compared with Boston, New York, Miami, Charleston and the other cities facing the upstart Atlantic Ocean. First, the hills dug out eons ago by a glacier act as a natural barrier to the inundation of our downtown. Second, we have the Hurricane Barrier, erected the decade following Carol. Third, we have a history of bold steps to leverage a safe future through infrastructure. That history stretches way back to include not only the Hurricane Barrier but the river relocation project of the ’90s, the highway relocation project of the ’00s, the combined sewer overflow tunnels dug beneath the city in the last decade, and many others, all the way back to the Blackstone Canal of 1828.

In spite of all this, Rhode Islanders believe we’ve been down so long it looks like up to us! But in fact, according to Evans, we are in the catbird seat.

He had a lot of maps and charts to explain how almost every other city along the Atlantic seems doomed to drown, but not us. Some of this arouses a natural skepticism. The point, however, is that if Evans is correct, Providence can not only manage sea-level rise at a far smaller cost than most other cities, but can use its inside straight to sell itself as an impregnable location. In this age of environmentia nervosa, that could be key to winning the economic sweepstakes with rival cities and states, possibly enabling authorities to jettison some of the development subsidies they now feel obliged to offer.

If only civic leaders could manage to solve the easiest of problems! How can we use civic development to strengthen rather than weaken the brand of the city and the state?

Duh.

Speaking of which, after Barnaby Evans was done, Olin Thompson of the JDA gave a rundown of where things stand with the I-195 Commission’s plan to make the Jewelry District as ugly as it can be. Major hurdles impend for two projects, the 46-story Fane tower and the clunky hotel proposed for Parcel 1A on the east bank of the Providence River. I will try to post the news on that tomorrow.

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Olympic venues, 2018: wow

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Yongpyong Alpine Center, in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Getty Images)

To judge by my online Google search under “2018 olympic architecture,” the athletic venues and other structures built for this year’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, failed to capture the interest of the major architectural media.

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Olympic Stadium at Pyeongchang. (Kyodo News)

Maybe this professional yawn has something to do with one of the venues, the Yongpyong Alpine Center, which is traditional. (See above.) “Hey!” cried the combined editorial staff of the global architectural media, “They seem to have forgotten to get with the modernist program! That will surely impact their overall technical score in a negative manner!”

The Olympic Stadium (above left), where the lovely opening ceremonies took place last week, is a pentagon, of all things, lower-cased but no doubt still too close for comfort to the one in Alexandria, Va. Won’t that undercut the heroic Olympic diplomacy between Seoul and Pyongyang?

Where are the gravity-defying alien spaceships we’ve come to expect at the Olympiads of the past several decades?

I could find only one attempt to display a wide range of venues and none displaying every facility. The former was not in Architect, or Architectural Digest, or some other established architectural media outlet. No, it was in Business Insider: “South Korea spent over $1 billion on these mega-venues for the 2018 Winter Olympics – take a look!” by Leanna Garfield.

Scroll down and you’ll see more than your share of modernist venues, except that most of them are relatively modest affairs that look like standard-issue modernist stadia and sports facilities, eschewing the seriously over-the-top Look At Me-ism that host nations think they are expected to provide.

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Kwandong Hockey Centre. (Getty Images)

The only entry in that category at Business Insider is the buggy, sinister Kwandong Hockey Centre, located in Gangneung. Its strutting, jut-jawed Metallica-wannabe form may seek to recapitulate the stereotypical guy athlete persona. It looks hard, if not muscular. Has it suffered a concussion? Where is its helmet!? Oh. It is a helmet!

Oddly enough, the most celebrated of the modernist structures to go up among South Korea’s archipelago of sites was not included in the Business Insider report. It is the black box financed by Hyundai and covered as a solo phenomenon in several magazines. Architect maggie devoted a piece to the “Hyundai Pavilion,” designed by London architect Asif Khan. The pavilion is coated entirely in a material called Vantablack VBx2, which absorbs 99 percent of all the light that hits it, “diminishing its three dimensionality and creating,” says the architect, “the illusion of a startling black void in broad daylight.” The blackest of blacks – “superblack” – with bright stars embedded in its exterior façades.

Sounds fascinating. Looks boring. Yet it ought to have been in that roundup.

But hey, the Pentagon didn’t make it into Business Insider either.

Oh well. Maybe the next Summer Games, 2020 in Tokyo, will be ridiculous enough to spark sustained interest from the profession’s media big-feet!

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The Hyundai Pavilion, in Pyeongchang. (Architect)

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Poetic justice in Portugal?

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Condo tower pokes at the eye of Viana do Castelo, in northern Portugal. (Turismo en Portugal)

In what may be the first major demolition based on aesthetic considerations, Viana do Castelo, a city in northern Portugal, plans to demolish a modernist residental tower that, in 1973, deflowered the character of its historic center.

Not surprisingly, the eyesore has its supporters, who oppose undoing a historic wrong that, while providing nice views for the few, degraded the quality of life for the many. In “An edifice of waste and injustice in northern Portugal,” by Monty Silley, for The Portugal Resident, the professor at a law school in Hamburg, Germany, takes a dim view of the proposed demolition of the tower and condemns its “fabricated justification.”

Unlike some of the practically abandoned and severely dilapidated neighbouring buildings (some whose roofs have actually collapsed), the Coutinho Building is solidly constructed and still in very good shape. So while other properties in the vicinity are more in need of both aesthetic as well as basic structural rehabilitation, the Coutinho Building is perfectly fine. It would be destroyed due to its height alone.

Well, not really. It’s not the height but the ugliness of the tower’s design that most people object to. In many cities, towers of lovely design that soar above a low-rise townscape generate no agita among locals or tourists. Nobody objects to the Campanile in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, for example, and in Paris the Eiffel Tower, though initially offensive to some, is beloved compared to the Tour Montparnasse, which all Parisians hate.

If the Coutinho Building were tall but lovely, it would be fine. It’s not its height but its lack of sympathy that should seal its fate. But the narrative erected by its supporters is also topsy-turvy. The city took a public market, moved it elsewhere, and sold the land to build the tower. This was said to bring the city into the modern era. Three decades later, the city saw the light. It hoped that without the tower the historic district might qualify as a World Heritage Site. In 2003 it condemned the new market relocated to make way for the tower in 1973 and saw to the erection of a low-rise building on its site. The UNESCO designation still fell through, alas, yet the city bravely pursued its quest to rid itself of the tower. In 2005, it used the sudden absence of a public market as an excuse to condemn the tower so as to make way for a new public market on the the eventually vacant original site.

Dodgy? Perhaps. But in today’s absurdist European town planning it took a bit of municipal legerdemain to seek poetic justice. Since then, proposed demolition on behalf of beauty has survived challenge after benighted challenge in court. It now awaits a final decision. Let’s hope that the court will rule for beauty as a civic good in Viana do Castelo, and that the public’s interest in freedom from visual pollution will prevail by dint of dynamite.

Next stop, Penn Station!

[Hats off to Malcolm Millais, author of Le Corbusier, the Dishonest Architect and Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture, for alerting me to this news.]

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In Paris, the Tour Montparnasse and the Tour Eiffel. (Wall Street Journal)

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