Thom Mayne in Alaska, 2005

Thom Mayne (Morpheus) design for Alaskan capitol. (sitnews.us

Thom Mayne (Morphosis) design for Alaskan capitol. (sitnews.us

I referred yesterday in “Heidi’s chilly new neighbor,” to my column almost precisely a decade ago on Thom Mayne’s submission in a design competition for a new state capitol in Juneau, Alaska. Here is that column:

A ‘bad-boy’ capitol for Alaska?
March 24, 2005

ON THE LAST DAY of February, architect Thom Mayne and his Santa Monica firm, Morphosis, won a competition to design a capitol for Alaska, the only state without one. All of the finalists’ preliminary designs lacked a dome, except for the one by Mayne. All of them were modernist, including Mayne’s, and all were panned by the public.

Counterproposal by Marianne Cusato. (tndtownpaper.com)

Counterproposal by Marianne Cusato. (tndtownpaper.com)

Cusato proposal, side view. (archidodse.blogspot.com)

Cusato proposal, side view. (archidodse.blogspot.com)

“People reacted very badly to all four,” jury member Joe Henri told the Anchorage Daily News. “But at least some of them liked the idea of a dome.” They don’t necessarily like the idea of a translucent glass dome that glows at night. Even Mayne admits that “some people said it looks like an egg. When I finish the design,” he promises, “it won’t look like an egg. If you say ‘egg,’ I fail.”

How about “igloo”? Not likely. That might actually risk connecting with Alaska’s heritage. More so, at any rate, than the swooping glass wings — hockey sticks? — that seem, in the illustration, to flank the dome. Okay, so hockey is heritage, too. Go, team!

“I think the [jury members] have lost their freaking minds,” wrote Rick Tyner in a letter to the editor of The Empire, in Juneau, the state’s capital city. “I would rather move the capital to Anchorage than look at one of these eyesores the rest of my life.”

Politics in the 49th state often revolve around whether to move the state capital from Juneau to Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, with a population of 260,283. The population of Juneau, Alaska’s second largest city, is only 30,711.

The Alaska legislature meets in a modest brick office building erected in 1931 as the territory’s administrative headquarters. Forty-six years after its admission to the Union, and still no capitol.

The Anchorage Daily News reports that Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho wants to have the capitol “by the 50th anniversary of statehood, in 2009.” But Gov. Frank Murkowski has been “noncommittal,” and “[Alaska] House Majority Leader John Coghill (R.-North Pole)” — ! — “said he doubts that would happen.” State Sen. Charlie Huggins says “the answer is to move the capital and get new designs.”

But wait! To the rescue, in the nick of time, comes the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award. Announced on Monday, the winner this year is none other than Thom Mayne himself.

Every Pritzker winner has been a modernist, but 14 years have passed since the last American, Robert Venturi, won the prize. Why Mayne? Why now?

I may be the only architecture critic in the nation – the only person in the nation — who thinks giving the Pritzker to Mayne was not a coincidence.

After all, Alaska is the only state without a capitol, and modernists who control the profession want it to be a modernist capitol, even if the public considers it an ugly boondoggle. Already, it teeters on the edge of oblivion. Now the Alaska legislature would have to reject a Pritzker Prize winner — and that might be hard to do. Sort of like telling a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to butt out of your country’s election.

Hilariously, press coverage has painted Mayne, 61, as a sort of “bad boy” iconoclast in the mold of rugged Alaska. “American Maverick Wins Pritzker Prize,” said The New York Times — as if Mayne’s wacky and tedious modernism weren’t right in step with architectural orthodoxy. “I have been such an outsider all my life,” Mayne told the Times’s Robin Pogrebin, apparently with a straight face.

Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff says Mayne’s early work expressed a “brooding aggression.” On the basis of photos of his Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, in Los Angeles, and his Diamond Ranch High School, in Pomona, Calif., his later work does too.

I’ll admit that the Pritzker jury retreated from last year’s award to Zaha “Ha-Ha” Hadid. To get even nuttier, they’d have had to give it to a kindergartner working in pickup sticks.

Mayne isn’t that bad.

But are there no prizes for architects who don’t think buildings should be ugly and stupid?

In fact, Notre Dame, the only major architecture school in the country based on a classical curriculum, awarded the third Richard H. Driehaus Prize last week to the classicist Quinlan Terry, of Britain. And Henry Hope Reed’s Classical America, now joined with the Institute of Classical Architecture [renamed in 2011 the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art], has been handing out the Arthur Ross awards since 1982. But how much press do these prizes get? Precious little.

The world should know more, for example, about Marianne Cusato. In a rebuke to the Alaska finalists, Cusato, a third-generation Alaskan, submitted a lovely design for the capitol. The onionesque domes of its cupolas reflect the Russian strain in Alaska’s history — a reflection of heritage expressed in beauty, not the abstract metaphor Mayne prefers. (He says the forms that I took for hockey sticks are supposed to be glaciers. Who’d have guessed?)

As long as modernists can use their institutional chokehold to block traditionalists from major commissions like the World Trade Center and the Alaska capitol, we will continue to get buildings of ego rather than beauty. Cusato believes that the Alaska capitol imbroglio might finally end the public’s acceptance of architecture’s arrogant refusal to design buildings the public can love. Let’s hope so.

 

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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