about Buildings in Landscape
A month or so ago I gave the kick-off talk at the Building Enclosure Council National Symposium, taking a very quick and dirty look at two kinds of history of building enclosures. I have had a keen interest in building enclosures since I co-chaired the Technology Conference for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture with Andrew Vernooy in 2001, which we titled “Building Skins: Where Design and Technology Meet”.
One of the first projects I did in my career was an addition to a 19th century stone house in Austin that had 20-inch thick limestone walls. I really admired that old house with its single-material walls and high thermal mass that actually performed beautifully without insulation or a vapor barrier.
As I have traveled I have admired a very long lineage of single-material walls. Ancient stone or brick walls acted as the structure, thermal barrier, and enclosure as well as interior and exterior finish. I love the ruins of the ancient Hittite city of Hattusa in central Turkey where massive stone walls constituted virtually all construction—from dwellings and markets to gigantic ramparts. Another great example is Machu Picchu in Peru, which is made almost entirely of carefully crafted stonework.
Centuries later, at the beginning of the 20th century, Cass Gilbert designed Battle Hall at UT Austin with very similar construction. Its walls are just one thickness of stone all the way through, but they have performed very well both aesthetically and thermally for more than a century. Even when air conditioning was added, Battle Hall’s high thermal mass has helped keep it temperate even during our hot Texas summers.
There is a second history of walls that conceives of them as layers of various materials, each of which accomplishes a particular function. Early versions of this can be seen in Roman buildings, like the Pantheon, that have a structural core faced with very different materials for the inside finish and the outside skin.
Over the last 20-30 years we have become very adept at making walls out of layers with many materials where each material is performing a separate role: one for structure, one for insulation, one for water-proofing, one for vapor barrier, another for interior finish, and another for exterior finish. We are interested in getting the best performance out of each material with its own specific characteristics. The coordination of so many materials may not be so great, with different people doing each installation, often months apart in the building process. A lot of glitches can happen at the intersection of those various materials, and the result is often not perfect.
Might we get equal or better performance out of fewer materials? We have experimented with this idea in several projects we have done at Page, learning lessons from older single-material walls. At the Torcasso residence, located in New Mexico, we used only rammed earth for some of the walls. They are thick and solid and that single material provides everything needed: structure, vapor barrier, insulation, interior finish and exterior finish.
In Austin, we designed a small office building for Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates. It features thick, unreinforced concrete walls, which serve as both the structure and the environmental barrier, and we used the walls’ thickness to significant thermal advantage.
I am not a building science nerd, and I certainly continue to be interested in walls made up of layers of materials capped by a rainscreen. However, it also seems appropriate to explore another longstanding genre of wall construction that optimizes simplicity of construction and high thermal mass.
I am a big fan of parks. My local park in Austin is Zilker Park with its famous Barton Springs Pool. There is a beautiful 1940s bathhouse at the pool, designed by Dan Driscoll, an early Texas modernist architect. I often stage my visits to the pool at times that will require a change of clothes just so I can enjoy the huge open air changing room and the very cool outdoor showers. This blog topic is inspired by my experiences in parks and in designing buildings specifically for parks.
Decades ago, when I had my own firm, we did the Umlauf Sculpture Garden, also in Zilker Park and located just a short distance from Barton Springs Pool. I recently participated in a series of tours for elementary school kids who came to visit the garden. It was amazing to watch the eye-opening reaction of the kids exploring the four-acre park and its exhibits–taking a break from their regular school routine. We had our little talk on the huge porch that comprises half the space of the building at the Umlauf. It has been a real treat to do many tours and lectures there through the years. It’s an incredibly lively setting, and continues to thrive.
More recently, at Page, we participated in the design of Discovery Green in Houston, and, for the last few years, we have been working on Buffalo Bayou Park, also in Houston. This newest project, which opened in October, includes many buildings spread throughout the park.
For a park building to do its job, it’s essential to feel connected to the landscape. The intersection between structure and nature is critically important. At Umlauf, there is that huge aforementioned porch and lots of glass in the primary pavilion. At Buffalo Bayou Park, we did much the same with all of the buildings, including the restaurant, the bike rental and the kayak rental, each featuring a porch all the way around providing both full shade and dappled light. The restaurant’s dining room has a large glass wall with a focus on a big, particular tree, as well as an adjacent lake, the bayou and the surrounding tree canopies.
A second big issue is scale. One plausible approach might be to try to make a building disappear, but I think that’s problematic. Park buildings need to be in scale with their big, open setting, and they often need to be visible at a distance to serve their purpose. At Buffalo Bayou Park, the buildings’ scale is large and in keeping with the grandeur of the setting.
A third challenge is designing buildings to accommodate a lot of use and abuse. Because of the flood plain at Buffalo Bayou we needed to plan many of the structures to be under water at times and vulnerable to floating debris. We built them from stout board-formed concrete so that when there is a water event, the building withstands it. After a significant water-level change, the concrete can be hosed off, and the structure is good to go again. Last spring, we had huge rains in May after the buildings were pretty much complete, and there was no harm done.
Places like Barton Springs Pool, Umlauf Sculpture Garden, Discovery Green and Buffalo Bayou Park are wonderful, egalitarian urban draws. More than most places in our cities, they attract people of very diverse income levels and cultural backgrounds. At the opening of Buffalo Bayou Park in October it was wonderful to watch a real cross section of the Houston population mingling together and enjoying a beautiful day in a beautiful spot. Being able to be a part of making these kinds of places is as good as it gets as an architect.
I’m always struck by the list of credits in movies. I love the way that everyone who contributes to the success of the film gets acknowledged. Making a building requires the same kind of complex collaborative enterprise as making a movie, yet for some reason, we have this crazy convention of crediting only a single architect by name.
I’m writing an article for A+U about the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth with the title: “Architecture is a Team Sport.” The University of Texas at Austin owns all the working drawings for the Kimbell, and we had an exhibition of some of them in Battle Hall last fall.
Duane Manning, the guy actually responsible for 90% of the drawings when he was a young architect, came to the opening. I was making the remarks there and commented about what a pity it is that he had not been recognized earlier for his contributions to the building.
This made me think about other people I’ve met over the years who also played critical roles in the creation of this amazing architectural landmark. So I went back through all my files on the Kimbell and tried to piece together some of the people and roles as source material for the article in A+U.
Richard Fargo Brown had an enormous impact on the design of the building. He was the first director of the Kimbell well before there was any architecture associated with it. He wrote a program for what he wanted in the museum that is an uncanny prediction of the building to come. Brown was the one who specified much of how the building would be articulated in its final form – that it should be low, flat and symmetrical, that it should be day-lit (in part by courtyards), and that its construction should be expressed explicitly as an important part of its architecture. “In the end that’s what we got,” he said.
Brown added, “Lou Kahn listened.” One must give credit to Brown for his vision and also to Kahn for his embrace of that inspired vision. The Kimbell does not have tall, monumental spaces like Dhaka, Exeter or the Yale British Art Center that Kahn typically loved at that stage of his career; instead, it was low and flat and modest, which is exactly what Brown conceived.
In the A+U article, I focus on one particular element of the Kimbell–the inventive skylights at the tops of the vaults and their reflectors. During the design phase, Marshall Meyer, a real leader in Kahn’s office, showed an early conceptual sketch to Kahn who liked it and presented it to the client. Richard Kelly, a lighting designer, changed both the general shape of the reflectors and the material they were made out of (from glass to perforated aluminum). The precise shape and performance were computer-modeled and revised again by Kelly and Isaac Goodbar. The perforations didn’t work well in the first two mock-ups and Frank Sherwood in Preston Geren’s office, associated architects on the Kimbell, resolved the problem by suggesting the perforations appear in some places but not others. The result is the magical light that really defines the experience and is a signature element of the Kimbell. It is hard to call this just a “Kahn” detail.
The point of the article is that architecture really is a team sport, and we should acknowledge that fact more than we do. The truth is that all buildings have many, many people seminally involved in their creation. Why are we so hell-bent on singular attribution? Why don’t we credit everyone in greater detail? At Page, we alphabetically list everyone on our website who was involved in a particular project. It is an explicit way of saying we’re all in this together.
While in Michigan recently, I paid a visit to two new and strikingly different museums, both designed by well known architects: the Broad Museum by Zaha Hadid at Michigan State University, and the University of Michigan Art Museum by Allied Works. After visiting both, it reminded me why it’s important for architects to find opportunities for work that are sympathetic to what they do.
Located on a primary thoroughfare that runs by the campus, the Broad Museum is relatively small and it sits on its site as a pristine object, almost as a piece of sculpture would — like a really big Calder. The buildings around it are traditional campus buildings and the Broad creates a stark contrast to all of its neighbors. It’s a very constrained site, so it could probably never grow. It will likely always be the object it is.
As one would expect of a Hadid project, it’s a very aggressive design– angular and full of drama. It is totally “in your face”, and this seems about right for this type of museum which is all about “in your face” contemporary art.
Inside, one of the galleries is long and thin, with a mix of light and dark spaces that would certainly not readily accommodate a pre-conceived show very well because the space is so particular. The piece that is in there is gorgeous–a really long, thin assemblage of denture-making materials that is just perfect in its spot. It was clearly made for its location and allowed the artist to play off of the eccentricity of the space. The architecture seems to be leading and the art within is reacting. Hadid’s work is good for that: her buildings are strong and demanding and the artist is responding well.
There are few neutral zones in the building so art needs to be commissioned and made specifically for the spaces to really work. I think it would be difficult to show anything but contemporary art there. A conventional exhibit might be lost or overwhelmed. This is a museum that’s meant to provoke a response, and it is one kind of legitimate museum architecture.
At the University of Michigan, it’s an entirely different experience in the substantial recent addition to a large pre-existing museum building. This distinguished institution has an extraordinary established collection full of history and tradition. Here the architecture, designed by Allied Works, needs to give way to the collection. The architecture is orderly and quiet, and the art, which is beautifully displayed in light-controlled spaces, is resonant. The architecture is respectful of the art and is often deferential to it. The extraordinary art collection that represents centuries of values and ideas is not about to change itself and accommodate the building.
I have great respect for this building. It is an elegant, impeccably detailed enhancement to a splendid university campus. It fits into the context of the existing building and the larger campus gracefully, but without being cloying or invisible. It has a real presence; it is certainly not egocentric or just about itself. It acknowledges beautifully both the world around it and within it.
I am delighted that the people at Michigan State understood that what they were doing was creating a provocative event that artists could play off of and respond to. They got the right architect for that task.
I am also glad the people at University of Michigan comprehended the value of their campus context and their distinguished art collection and got an architect who would respect that and make a strong building that had the confidence to support a larger and longstanding enterprise. They got the right architect for that as well.
I have been on a number of architect selection committees where the institutions did not understand the importance of finding an architect whose work would be sympathetic to their organization’s mission and values. It is not just important to get good architecture, but it is also important to get the right architect.
I love to revisit significant architectural projects over and over in their mature years to see how they are working and how people are using them. Alvar Aalto was fond of saying he wanted his buildings to be judged by how they looked after 50 years. I think that is a good yardstick.
I had that opportunity to do the 50+ year test recently when I spent a morning walking around Lafayette Park in Detroit, designed in 1956 by Mies van der Rohe. I first saw this multi-block neighborhood with a large section of townhomes and three residential towers 25 years ago and was really impressed at the time because it was in impeccable shape—nicely inhabited with great ethnic diversity. At the time, Detroit was still a relatively thriving city with several great neighborhoods in the ring around downtown where Lafayette Park is located.
Seeing the city again now is an entirely different experience. Many of the neighborhoods around Lafayette Park have not fared well at all; in fact, a good number have been demolished. Others have been abandoned and boarded up. There are some house owners still putting up a valiant effort with tended lawns and a struggle to look respectable, but the houses behind are unoccupied. There are deep signs of struggling all around downtown, but when you go into Lafayette Park and it looks amazingly intact and healthy.
Mies’ design followed Le Corbusier’s concept of towers in a park within a city, and clearly this notion has succeeded here. Everything is handled remarkably well. The parking is submerged three feet so as to minimize the awareness of cars. They are visible for surveillance sake; just not as prominent. There is a nice playground for kids. All the vegetation has grown in and matured in three tiers — tall trees for deep shade, lower flowering trees for color, and ground-hugging shrubs and grasses that give a soft, lush quality to the place. The buildings are quiet, black steel with contrasting clear anodized aluminum windows, all built to a consistent, repetitive standard throughout the development.
Lafayette Park is a co-op neighborhood with multiple legal entities that help to maintain standards and upkeep. While it’s not true mixed-use, there is a Mies-designed shopping center close by. What’s particularly rewarding is to see how well everything is tended; there’s obviously a strong sense of pride among the people who live here. One of the co-ops installed new thermal pane windows several years ago to replace the original ones, but did it very carefully so as to keep the design integrity. Views from the units are out to well-defined green spaces and maintain “eyes on the street” for most of the public realm. The one- and two-story townhouses have relatively small rooms, but mostly are large enough to accommodate families. Some of them have attached parking spaces, and some have shared parking. Many have outdoor courts although most outdoor space is common, not private.
I met a guy while walking around who had lived in Lafayette Park for 16 years. He’d been a school principal, now retired, and he talked about how great it is to live there. It’s a stable, popular neighborhood where property values have actually increased, and it’s a place where people know their neighbors. His unit has modest spaces, but the views outside to the gardens and to comings and goings of his neighbors are generous and beautiful. The unit is zoned perfectly for living privately while being part of a larger community. A small but significant example of careful functional planning: one goes downstairs to an inner hallway that connects all units where the trash is tidily stored in bins until it is removed on collection day.
I came away from Lafayette Park with an incredibly positive impression. Have we been too quick to condemn modern planning and urban design principles that emphasized the virtues of light, air and connection to nature? Have we bought into the urbanism touted by Jane Jacobs to the exclusion of other equally appealing patterns? (It is precisely those street-oriented mixed-use neighborhoods of three- to five-story brick buildings that are dying in other parts of Detroit.) Is Lafayette Park just the sort of middle ground between hardscape urbanism and leafy, sprawling suburban neighborhoods that might achieve a genteel density that we need to be achieving today?
A couple of weeks ago, I visited the construction site for our new UT Pan American Performing Arts Center. We’re using load-bearing masonry walls, and at this stage, with the project half-complete, the building has the look of a modern-day Roman ruin. I love this stage of construction when the structure is coming out of the ground and turning into interesting forms and spaces. The whole building process is incredibly exciting and inspiring.
This will be a big building and a real landmark. It will serve as the campus gateway and will feature a 1,000-seat performance hall as its centerpiece. It is part of a complex for the arts on a campus originally designed by Kenneth Benston in the 1980s. His work was inspired by Louis Kahn’s buildings in Dacca, Bangladesh and Ahmedabad, India. Those Kahn buildings were masterpieces of masonry construction, and Bentson did a good job of learning from them.
South Texas is a very hot, semi-tropical climate where the terrain is absolutely flat—not so different from Dacca and Ahmedabad. Masonry has long been a prominent building material in the region. As a kid, my grandparents lived in this area, and I have keen memories of the powerful brick buildings in a landscape full of citrus and palm trees.
From the start, we wondered if we could make a real masonry building here—not brick veneer on a steel or concrete frame, but thick, strong load bearing walls. In fact, real masonry walls turned out to be a very practical and economical structural system for this building in this region.
In the end, the walls will be a hybrid system—much like Kahn used and much like the Roman’s used in the precedents Kahn so admired. We will use both brick and concrete block, and the block will often be employed to create formwork for concrete lintels, piers and arches. This general construction technique is quite common in Mexico, just across the border, but is not so common elsewhere in the United States. It is fascinating to watch it go up.
There are large, circular and arched forms in the walls. These impart a great sense of strength and power that isn’t so palpable in the kind of frame construction we normally do. There is a definite toughness about it, and it reminds me of the experience of seeing Kahn’s work in South Asia years ago. There will be extensive glazed walls once the building is complete later this year that will provide a nice counterpart to the masonry in the finished building.
In addition to the main performance hall (which is clearly visible in its roofless form in the construction photos), there will be four rehearsal halls for choir, band, orchestra and mariachi. They form a village of rectangular rooms behind the concert space. When completed, the building will serve, not only as an important educational facility for the university, but also a cultural and performance center for the larger Rio Grande Valley.
This summer I visited Vancouver, certainly one of the most spectacular urban settings in the world. While there, I met with Mark Reddington, partner of LMN Architects of Seattle, and Ken Cretney, chief operating officer for the Vancouver Convention Centre. Ken came on board with the center six months before the building was finished; as such, he wasn’t the original client for the project and is now responsible for the building’s ongoing function and performance. LMN are the architects for the Convention Centre West, the only building to win a National AIA Award for Interiors, for Architecture, and for Urban Design. The building has also been recognized by The Committee on the Environment (COTE); by World Architecture News (both as the Most Sustainable Building in the World as well as recipient of its Effectiveness Award, and by the Urban Land Institute (ULI).
This is a truly amazing building. It interfaces beautifully with the street, the city, the water, and with a park that outlines Vancouver Island. At street level, there is retail that gives a pedestrian friendly face to a building type that can be daunting. All of the typically unsightly elements associated with large convention centers (e.g., buses, trucks, parking, loading docks) are underground; thus, there reduced congestion around the building. As I learned from Mark and Ken during our tour, there were all sorts of issues from a sustainability perspective, including marine ecology. The solution to that problem was to create a new enriched environment for the marine life in Vancouver Harbor. In terms of form and character, it’s substantially built with local materials, employs extensive local artwork and it absolutely celebrates daylight. I find it extraordinary that it does all these things extremely well and never feels like one design consideration trumps or overwhelms the others. In fact, they all reinforce one another.
The net result is a building that makes a real difference, both to the city and to its citizens. It is also a highly effective marketing tool. As Ken noted, “the architecture really enhances any event held here. Conventions are more exciting and dynamic… because of the building.” He pointed out the main ballroom, which has a moving wall to reveal beautiful views of the harbor and the mountains beyond. The interior is a warm, ingratiating space full of light that encourages people to stay. In short, the building contributes to its primary purpose: having great events. Ken added that if convention committee people see the building, almost invariably they book it.
This project is a huge economic engine and generates a lot of money for the city’s hotels, restaurants, and tax revenues. The success of the design brings in millions of dollars to Vancouver, which now competes with the global cities for significant events. Equally important, the building makes a visible contribution to the city’s residents who go by and engage with it every day. It’s a source of pride and excitement; people go there just to hang out.
I genuinely love buildings like this one. They make the life of a city and the lives of its residents better! This is the true potential of architecture – to transform the energy, vitality and economy of a place. The power of the building goes way beyond what you can see in a photograph and attests to just how meager an experience of image alone is to the real understanding of great architecture.
I recently attended the wedding of two former students that took place at the Anthony Chapel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, designed by Maurice Jennings, a former partner of Fay Jones. The influence of Jones’ celebrated Thorncrown Chapel is evident, but Jennings definitely takes the idea one step further. Situated in the Garvan Woodland Gardens, the chapel is carefully sited with a view towards Hamilton Lake. The architecture is clearly commuting with nature, and there is a beautiful, dappled light within the structure.
Lee and Amy had made several trips to Hot Springs before choosing to hold the wedding there, even though no one lived nearby. Hot Springs is a resort town that enjoyed its hey-day in the 1930s, with a beautiful main street, spa springs and scenic surroundings. The combination of the lovely old town and the chapel itself tipped the couple’s decision to have their wedding there. It was an amazing event and many of their friends had come in from points around the country. Eight of the twelve in the bridal party had been my students (four had been TAs), and it was great fun for me to see Lee and Amy so happy and surrounded by friends and family that care so much about them.
After the ceremony, it was hard not to reflect on the power of architecture, and its ability to create an occasion. What drew us all to Hot Springs was the architecture. People come from all over the world to use this chapel and, as such, it’s actually quite an economic generator for the community. It helps the town survive. But also, it creates the setting for hundreds of wonderful, memorable events every year. Again, this is what architecture does! It is not only important what a building is, but what it does and how it enriches people’s lives.
The chapel has a fascinating, complex framing utilizing a 3-D steel joint that becomes a 3-D wood truss, and this form is repeated from end to end of the 57-foot high structure. The result is a delicate, intricate ceiling, one that seems to lift itself up like branches of a tree.
The gardens were the vision and gift of Verna Garvan; she commissioned Fay Jones to do the site plan for the gardens (including the chapel) as well as to design and build a nearby polygonal pavilion (below). Jennings, who took over Jones’ office, was then commissioned in 2004 to complete Anthony Chapel. The passion of both architects for nature, light and structure is what makes this such an elegant and uplifting place.
The day all came together beautifully: the setting, the stunning spring weather, the building, the friends and family, and the ceremony. What a spectacular and memorable occasion!
We always seem to be infatuated with newness in Architecture, and I will confess I am susceptible to the quick rush of novelty more than I would like to admit. But I am also a great admirer of timelessness—that far more potent elixir that lends Architecture an enduring depth that most other media cannot touch. I recently visited an exquisite house in Dallas by Edward Larrabee Barnes that embodies that rare trait of timelessness in a powerful way. I think it’s the best thing Barnes ever did. I have been to the house three times—each time when a different owner inhabited it. It was originally commissioned by my friend Melba Whatley (then Greenley) and was completed around 1984. Melba was very active in the Dallas Museum of Art and Barnes was doing the museum’s big new building at the same time.
The house was stunning when Melba lived in it—beautifully sited on a rolling piece of land in Preston Hollow, immaculately detailed with minimalist precision and spot on in its scale and proportions. It is richly complex in plan, but also dead simple in the composition of each element. Each sequential owner of the house has lived in it in a different way. Melba had tons of books, and her library was a major feature. The current owners, Will and Catherine Rose, have filled that same room with an extraordinary collection of contemporary art. The proportions, light and simplicity of the room are exquisite, and it works equally well as a library or a gallery. This is what architecture should be: adaptive, and flexible enough that the times and inhabitation can change, while the strengths of the Architecture remain constant.
I also love the fact that it feels like a Texas house (and very different than the houses Barnes did on the East Coast). There is some reflection of Luis Barragan in its hot climate responses—its deep porches and its rambling organization around a courtyard and pool. But instead of the lush Mexican vibrancy and color Barragan would have employed, this house has an elegant, buttoned-down quality that is perfect for Dallas. The way it nestles in to those beautiful North Texas live oaks make it feel like it is an integral part of the landscape. This house is proof that modernism has the ability to transcend generations. If the house were built today it would seem as fresh and contemporary as it did 30 years ago. There is a staying power and, yes, timelessness here that is really remarkable.
A few lines in Nicholai Ouroussoff’s recent article in The New York Times about the new Parrish Art Museum particularly caught my attention: “The design is a major step down in architectural ambition. It suggests the possibility of a worrying new development in our time of financial insecurity. It is a creeping conservatism – and aversion to risk – that leaves little room for creative invention.”
What is creative invention, and does it take a gob of money to do it? Does a time of financial insecurity with its concomitant tightening of budgets really leave little room for creative solutions? I would argue that the Parrish Museum is a perfect case in point where financial constraints actually led to great creativity and provoked possibilities the architects might not have otherwise explored .
Is Ouroussoff not talking so much about creative invention, but rather a profligate desire to build the strange and exotic? I think the previous era, in which there was a lot of money being thrown around, was not a period rich in real invention. Instead, the years preceding 2008 produced a lot of showy display that often lacked real substance, both in architecture and in the cultures that built the buildings.
The heyday of Greek overspending is nowhere more visible than in the buildings erected for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Today, these abandoned structures are emblematic of what happens when real problems are not solved, and when realistic long-term growth is not at the center of a project. Is that what we want to go back to? The Greeks ended up with little more than some fancy baubles, now rotting in place along with an enormous debt that is crushing the country.
Spain’s economic woes also find vivid architectural expression in what The Guardian has called, “a series of architectural white elephants, including museums and empty airports, built during the decade-long economic boom.” One of these is the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, designed by Calatrava. This is a collection of elaborately shaped, mostly-empty buildings that don’t do much (other than look striking). From the get-go they were hollow, shape-making architecture. Is that the creative invention Ouroussoff yearns to return to?
There is something truly empty in this kind of scenographic architectural exhibitionism. It’s really not very different from what a Chinese developer is just finishing in Huizhou in southern China: a duplicate of an Austrian village, complete with cobblestone streets. These are all just extravagant image- making—indulging the fancy of someone with more money than good sense.
We’ve already seen what results from a deep urge to make architecture into an object fetish rather than productive and grounded place making. I’m happy we’re not in that era of excess anymore. I think these leaner times will actually produce better, more valuable architecture and the Parrish Art Museum is a splendid example of such. It is, in fact, creative invention at its best.