Architecture and youthful enthusiasms

[Caution: Mini-memoir ahead, very little relevance to libraries–well, except for maybe SFPL]

The local paper has an urban design critic, which I suspect is fairly rare; it used to have an architecture critic (an irascible and delightful one at that), but the new critic’s charge is much broader. One theme in a few recent items hits home with me: The resistance of too many communities to any new design ideas in buildings. The most recent hook: a strikingly modern building in downtown Palo Alto, a break from all the faux Mission and similar buildings.

It’s an interesting point. It’s sad to see creeping homogeneity–every town having the same kinds of malls with the same set of chain food outlets–and it’s always a delight to find the differences that are around the edges of that sameness. (San Antonio’s a paradox in some ways: the Riverwalk in general is a celebration of locality–but the Rivermall at one nexus could, possibly sans river, be dropped unchanged in any medium-size city with almost no changes. Still, the downtown has regional character, and more local restaurants and bars than chains.)

But while it’s great for a city to have a style, it’s sad if that style becomes frozen in time, with all new buildings being more-or-less successful imitations of old buildings (usually with less panache, frequently with cheaper materials and techniques). There’s a slightly related issue–taking preservation so far that even the crappiest old buildings are hard to replace–but I won’t get into that here.

“and youthful enthusiasm”? Yep. Back oh, say, 35-40 years ago, I used to care a lot about architecture. When Architectural Forum was a Time Inc. magazine, I subscribed for several years (and read every issue: I’m one of those people who really does read every magazine I get cover to cover). I dropped the subscription when it became difficult or very expensive for non-architects to subscribe. I lived in Berkeley then, not a bad place for a lover of architecture.

Some youthful enthusiasms grow into adult hobbies or passions. Some fade. This one faded. I still pay some attention to design, but with no real knowledge to back it up; I don’t read about famous architects or subscribe to any architecture or design magazines. (I never considered studying architecture formally, as I never had or have any suspicion that I would have any talent for design. Quite apart from my inability to sketch or draw…)

One somewhat heretical point kept making itself over the years, possibly reinforced by the fact that my father’s an engineer: Some (many? most?) big-name architects design buildings that are great architectural Statements but lousy Buildings.

If you don’t know what I mean by that, it’s a little difficult to explain; if you do, you can probably think of some examples. Great constructions with wonderful window-to-window joints, which behave like most window-to-window joints: They leak. Always. Magnificent shapes with so many interior load-bearing walls that the building can’t be modified to meet the changing needs of its inhabitants. Buildings that require constant care to keep working at all. Need I mention Fallingwater? There’s also Wright’s design for a mass-produced house; I visited the one example, and was horrified by the extent to which it insisted that the inhabitants live The Way Frank Wanted. Buildings that you can’t walk near because the sun blasts off their swoopy metal exteriors. Auditoriums with awful acoustics.

Not all of them, by any means–either all famous architects or all of their buildings. But too many for comfort. One problem (particularly with leaky roofs and joints, sagging foundations, lousy acoustics, etc., etc.) is that some architects lack respect for engineers and don’t consult them.

I have to admit, I wonder how people will feel about most Frank Gehry buildings, say, 20 years after they’re built–and how well they’ll be used. In some ways, I’m sad to see the great old TWA terminal at JFK being gutted–but I had occasion to use that terminal, and it was a horrendous place to actually use in the last two decades of the millennium (and apparently a bear to keep running).

So maybe it’s just as well that the youthful enthusiasm faded. I’m sure I loved Statement Architecture as much as anyone else; I’d be sad to see so many of those Statements turning into sad legacies. Buildings are for use; that’s not always an easy thing for an artist to hear.

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