Saturday, September 29, 2007

18. Make it Different

There is one thing that the work of celebrated architects has in common. I am not referring to the fact that their buildings are necessarily more beautiful than those of their less-acclaimed colleagues (in any case, that is not always true), nor that serious architects generally imbue their designs with loftier aspirations than everyday builders. What I am thinking of is something more obvious: that most buildings designed by acclaimed architects, whatever else they are, are different.

What I mean is not merely that they are different one from another, but that they stand apart -- they embody an air of detachment from the world around them. This isolation can be the result of the form of the building. There is nothing else in New York, or indeed in any other city, like the dumpy spiral of the Guggenheim Museum. Sometimes the difference is the result of structural leger demain, like the odd, reverse-stepping facade of the Whitney Museum; or Edward Larrabee Barnes's I.B.M. Building, on Madison Avenue, which looks ordinary enough, until one notices the gravity-defying corner, floating unsupported over the sidewalk. Frequently, famous architects just have the opportunity to do things on a bigger scale than anybody else. Arthur Erickson's Law Courts in Vancouver, B.C., are located under a glass roof, which could be described as a sort of greenhouse, but a greenhouse 350 feet long.

Some buildings startle us with unorthodox materials, such as chain-link fencing, lead-coated copper, or raw plywood, all of which have appeared in Frank Gehry's designs. James Stirling is particularly skillful at the shock effect. No one who has ever seen his Staatsgalerie,

in Stuttgart, Germany, will forget the hot-pink balustrades, as thick as wurst, or the acid-green floor of the entrance hall; the crazy-quilt work of the front of the recently completed Clore Gallery, in London, is equally memorable. Antoine Predock's designs have often used color to effect; the exterior of the United Blood Services building, a blood-donor clinic in Albuquerque, N.M., is startlingly, but appropriately, red, and a pueblolike apartment complex, also in Albuquerque, achieves its major impact from its unusual polychromy.

A striking difference between most works of architecture, and, say, your local K Mart, is that the architecture usually costs a lot more. There is nothing like expensive materials, exacting workmanship, custom-made fittings and elegant appointments to create an atmosphere of exclusiveness. It is the architectural equivalent of the "thunk" you hear when you close the door of a luxury sedan. What sets a luxury car apart from the econobox is also the way it is put together, what automobile devotees call good fit. In buildings, too, there is good fit.

It was Mies van der Rohe who is reputed to have said, "God is in the details." The origin of this statement, like that of his other well-known aphorism -- "Less is more" -- is obscure; no one is sure exactly when he said it. It would be interesting to know the context. Was the famous architect answering a question, and, if so, what was it? For example, had someone asked him about his design for the Illinois Institute of Technology chapel -- the one that resembles a boiler house: "Professor van der Rohe, where is God in this building?" Or had the question to do with his consuming, almost obsessive concern for precision and exactitude in building construction?

Probably the latter, for what characterized all his buildings was the careful and studied way in which they were built. There were no accidents; every corner, every meeting of materials, every point, inside and out, was specially designed to be a part of an esthetic whole. No detail was too small to be pondered. When the British property developer John Palumbo engaged Mies to design an office building on London's Mansion House Square (it was to be his last commission), the first communication he received from the architect, who lived in Chicago, was not a preliminary sketch but a parcel containing brass door handles and travertine ashtrays. "Is this what you had in mind?" queried the accompanying note.

The architectural consequences of such fastidiousness are impressive, but they can also be disconcerting. Whenever I go into a Mies van der Rohe building I am slightly intimidated. I feel like an interloper in another world, one that is flawless, unequivocal and absolute. A perfect world for perfect people.

Mies's influence has waned since his death in 1969, but in one sense, at least, all contemporary architects are Miesians, for all share his overriding preoccupation with perfection. Whether they are modernists, post-modernists, or deconstructivists, their buildings exhibit the same desire to bring every facet of the building under their esthetic control, and the same tendency to reject conventional ways of doing things for specially designed ones that carry their personal stamp.

Mies van der Rohe designed his window frames the same way he designed his structures, using standard steel profiles, welded together, which made the windows appear to be an integral part of the building. Le Corbusier, seeking a different effect, often set the window glass directly into a groove in the concrete wall, thus doing away with the window frame altogether, and producing the unexpectedly rustic impression of an opening cut directly into the wall.

The work of Louis Kahn derived much of its impact from a careful articulation of the joints -- the location of every brick was predetermined -- which sometimes makes his buildings look as if they were the work of a cabinetmaker rather than an architect. An interior by Richard Meier achieves its minimalist impression because the designer has ingeniously done away with most of the moldings and joints that occur in ordinary rooms, which enables all the surfaces -- walls, ceilings, soffits -- to blend seamlessly into a sculptural whole. The simplicity is deceptive; in fact, such subterfuge is both difficult and expensive.

It seems to me that this emphasis on the minutiae of construction is something modern. In the past, architects relied on craftsmen and builders to carry out their work, and did not concern themselves with inventing new construction details. Of course, buildings had details, but at any particular time these did not vary a great deal since they followed strict conventions. Ornament, not construction, was the way architects dealt with the joints and junctions.

When the modernists banished ornament from architecture, they were obliged to replace it with something, and construction details became a new type of decoration. In time, this technical adornment became more imaginative, more personal, but also more precious, and fussier. Beauty had been re interpreted as mechanical perfection.

There is some indication that this situation may now be slowly changing. With a renewed interest on the part of some architects in figurative ornament, there is no longer a need to adorn the building with unusual and peculiar details. The recent work of Michael Graves, or Robert A. M. Stern, for example, achieves its chief architectural impact through decoration and the ornamental treatment of surfaces rather than from finicky joints. The forms and colors may be unusual, but the technical bits and pieces, more often than not, are ordinary. The result is that their buildings, while losing nothing in originality, are also more familiar. They may not be perfect, but then neither are we.

From The New York Times; "It Seems That God Isn't in the Details, After All" By Witold Rybczynski