Archive | August, 2010

Bernard Tschumi’s Proposal for L’Institut Le Rosey

29 Aug

Art Center at Le Fresnoy

Growing up, I didn’t have many architectural heroes.  My first books on architecture were big photo coffee table books on Palladio, Louisiana plantation houses, and McKim, Mead, & White.  Steaming hot architecture brain soup for a little kid for sure.  But it was hard getting excited as a young to-be builder when without exception every building I found in those books was built at least a century and a half before I was born.

But in my first year of architecture school, I discovered the work of Bernard Tschumi in the first volume of his exhaustive folio Event-Cities. I was transfixed.  The efficient sensibility of his graphics – hand-sketches paired with simple early-CAD drafted drawings – lended a simplicity to his sometimes over-the-top architectural solutions.  Two of my favorites, the School of Architecture at Marne-la-Vallée (completed 1999) and the Le Fresnoy Art Center at Tourcoing (completed 1997), challenged my young Palladian mind’s metastasizing notion that experience of the exterior takes precedence over all, and that all information about space must be understood plainly in plan.  It felt like I’d finally arrived in the twenty-first century from my home in the nineteenth-century.  It was a great feeling.

School of Architecture, Marne-la-Vallee

It was Tschumi who helped me crack my preconceptions about architecture wide open.  In his 1990s works, we see massive forms of program suspended inside generous enclosed atria, stairs and walkways that lace across, above, and through them, and bold moves of  “trans-programming” linking building uses in playful and unprecedented ways.  There was an exciting kind of visual poetry there drawn in the pages of Event-Cities, a kind of space-making before which I’d never encountered.

And the actual built structures didn’t disappoint either.  Tschumi’s translation of his drawings to actual construction really clarified and intensified the ideas found in his diagrams, making the potential found in his sketches and drafted drawings even more powerful.  To say the least I was a huge Tschumi fan.  I look at my Tulane work today and I see a baby Tschumi in those models and drawings.

Tschumi's Institut Le Rosey proposal from the air

This week I saw what Tschumi is working on these days – a center for the performing arts at the exclusive Swiss boarding school L’Institut Le Rosey – and it shocked me.  A steel bubble will wrap the center’s programmatic guts, intended to curb energy inefficiencies by reflecting light and heat back up into the sky, an interesting (but plausible?) scheme that will also cut down on the building’s vulnerable and expensive surface area.   But one thing jumped out of me above all: it is absolutely huge, exponentially bigger than the groupings of small eighteenth- and nineteenth-century school buildings it will stand adjacent to.   The scale of this Tschumi design overwhelms.  Indeed, I expect that that is the whole point, to essentially swallow up its smaller, old-fashioned neighbors and in effect permanently do away with Le Rosey’s reputation as the stuffy breeding ground for Europe’s elite.

I am often excited and impressed by the ingenuity of architects to built additions and adjacencies that can both complement and challenge a more-traditional neighbor (Steven Holl’s addition to Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is one that immediately comes to mind).  But this is one flying saucer I wish would fly away.  The feeling that Tschumi’s new center might overwhelm the older campus is not one that should always be welcome.  While the interior of the building will probably be a thoughtful, impressive space, the danger and disruption the building as a whole could wreak on the rest of the complex might be fatal to this little school.

The bird’s-eye scale disconnect aside, the most concerning image is a ground-level view looking from the old campus to the performing arts center.  Tschumi’s siting of his building transforms what appears to have been an open-ended stop on the way to a parking lot into a reactivated wedge-shaped enclosed quadrangle – a really commendable move on his and the school’s part.  But looking out from the old campus, Tschumi’s facade looms, and frankly bores.  Must his proposal be such an utter rejection of the architectural spirit of Le Rosey?   Such a radical intervention into an historic campus might be better placed further away – through a forest of trees, we come across Tschumi’s mysterious silver ziggurat?  While the facilities inside the center and the fertile new exterior enclosure the architect creates for the school may enhance the experience of Le Rosey, this new center also might do real harm to how visitors and students come to understand the school and its history.

This new design has all the big themes I love about Tschumi’s work; it has a boldness, a big-ness, and shows a rejection of precedent in favor of a design driven by the building’s use are all still thrilling to see.  But in a such a traditional setting as L’Institut Le Rosey, I think Tschumi’s execution of such a newness shows too much of a heavy hand.


A New Kind of Chicago Skyscraper Tour

23 Aug

This past spring, I worked on pretty fun project for the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), based in Chicago’s Charnley-Persky House (built 1892 by Louis Sullivan with help from Frank Lloyd Wright).

Anticipating a large crowd of architecture-saavy visitors to the Society’s 2010 Annual Meeting in Chicago, SAH Executive Director Pauline Saliga came up with a great project for me to work on – in addition to the guided tours the attendees would be given while at the conference, wouldn’t it be a great idea to create a self-guided tour of the Chicago Loop’s earliest skyscrapers?

Using free Microsoft Tag technology, I created twelve skyscraper information pages, complete with photographs by Pauline’s husband, photographer John Gronkowski, and with edited entries from Pauline’s 1990 book The Sky’s The Limit: A Century of Chicago Skyscrapers.   The tour includes all the biggies – Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building (1889) and Daniel Burnham’s Rookery (1888) and Monadnock Building (1893) are just a few.

The real innovation in this project though was the tags that were posted at each participating building.  These “tags” (really just glorified barcodes) can be photographed by any web-enabled camera phone, opening up any of our twelve information pages.  Pauline’s text on each of the buildings is pretty in-depth, creating for Chicago architecture buffs a real content-driven independent walking tour.

Feel free to take the tour yourself by printing out this image (you can find it below as well) – it has a map of all the sites and barcodes for each of the participating buildings.  Please note that both images and the tour itself are copyrighted by the Society of Architectural Historians.

You can learn more about the tours here.  And be sure to visit Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin’s blog posting on the tour.

Thinking about Colonial Williamsburg

7 Aug

The Washington Post published this story yesterday on the hoards of “tea party”-ers descending this summer on Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.  It fit perfectly with a book I read last year – Richard Handler and Eric Gable’s The New History in an Old Museum, a journey through the interpretation, maintenance, and marketing of Colonial Williamsburg® as seen through the statistical minds of social scientists.  Handler and Gable present an ethnographical survey of today’s Colonial Williamsburg®, a mammoth-size institution with more than a couple of big challenges on its plate, among which are the faithful preservation and interpretation of its historic and recreated sites, the continuation of a vast living history complex in an age of education funding cuts and increasing lack of interest in history, and the delicate dance of for-profit and non-profit entities that keep the complex solvent.   It’s an informative and entertaining read – pick up a copy here.

Much of Handler and Gable’s book is dedicated to the discussion of living history interpreters, actors-turned-experts who don period garb and depict everyday citizens of mid-eighteenth century Williamsburg, discussing life in the capital city or the politics of impending war.  And as the Washington Post article explains, sometimes the actors portray real people, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry, all three of whom were once members of the House of Burgesses that met in the Capitol on the east side of the Duke of Gloucester Street.  It’s the intersection of these street corner actors and twenty-first century politics that gets interesting:

Sometimes, the activists appear surprised when the Founding Fathers don’t always provide the “give ’em hell” response they seem to be looking for.

When a tourist asked George Washington a question about what should be done to those colonists who remain loyal to the tyrannical British king, Washington interjected: “I hope that we’re all loyal, sir” — a reminder that Washington, far from being an early agitator against the throne, was among those who sought to avoid revolution until the very end.

When another audience member asked the general to reflect on the role of prayer and religion in politics, he said: “Prayers, sir, are a man’s private concern. They are not a matter of public interest. And nor should they be. There is nothing so personal as a man’s relationship with his creator.”

Tea party activists are heading to Williamsburg for guidance and inspiration, and that’s alright enough – the old capital city of Virginia was in fact a hotbed of Revolutionary thought and saw walking along its mud streets a cavalcade of members of the Early American Pantheon.   Today’s political activists are drawn to the sites where our history was/is written; in most cases, we see them on the National Mall or, as is seen in Chicago, the nearest City Hall or public square.  And interestingly enough, we see the politically-minded heading now to Colonial Williamsburg.

Emblazoned below the Colonial Williamsburg® logo found on the foundation’s website, (it’s setting a high bar for itself –!), is its motto/advertising slogan “that the future may learn from the past.”  But it’s pretty difficult there today to get either straight.  Colonial Williamsburg isn’t just a town anymore.  It is now Colonial Williamsburg®, a reimagination of architectural and social history rather than a straight-up preservation job.  There have been in the past criticisms of the reconstruction of the town’s lost building fabric, including two of the largest buildings in Williamsburg, the Capitol and the Governor’s Palace, both rebuilt from relative conjecture in the 1930s.  And conjecture and inaccuracies inevitably creep in when it comes to the interpretations given by Colonial Williamsburg®’s living history actors.  But I’m glad to see that the actors are well-researched and a bit gutsier than most when it comes to standing by the truth of what really happened there.  Maybe a little bit of the courage displayed long ago by the 250-year-old men and women they portray is rubbing off on them.

It may speak to Colonial Williamsburg®’s success as a center for popular historical interpretation that it has been absorbed, if ever so slightly, into our current political discussion.  It’s heartening to know that at least an attempt is being made there to assert facts about the Founders’ and their times, instead of going the easier route reciting time-honored (but factually incorrect) myths.  But frankly, it’s a challenge to sustain a place for the future to learn from the past when their presentation of the past is so informed by the present.