Comparing and Contrasting Two New Museums In Michigan

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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Thinking about Building Technology, Buildings in Landscape, Campus Architecture, Contemporary Practices, Life as an Architect
Posted September 28, 2014

Good design endures in Detroit’s Lafayette Park

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

 

 

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Thinking about Buildings in Landscape, Contemporary Practices, Urbanism
Posted August 13, 2014

Thoughts on Sol LeWitt: The Visionary and the Makers of His Art

It really irks me when I hear someone talk about some piece of architecture that “rises to the level of art.”  Although I have a lot of respect for art, from my modest perspective, architecture operates at a much richer and more complex level.  It involves many more people and must address a myriad of technical and functional issues as well as visual and sensory ones. It requires getting outside oneself and creating something bigger than just personal expression.

Is it possible that sometimes art might “rise to the level of architecture”?  There is something in the work of Sol LeWitt that makes me think so.

I made several visits to a great exhibition at the Blanton Museum at UT Austin this spring that made me see Sol LeWitt’s work in a slightly different way.  The show emphasized the relationship between him and Eva Hesse and seemed to take the art out of the realm of just self-absorption and make it something that addressed issues the two of them were working on together.  This is like the kind of collaboration that often occurs in architecture, and which has always seemed to me much more a team sport than art.

I’ve long admired Sol LeWitt’s discovery that what he did as an artist was not to make the art, but rather to produce the idea for it and to create instructions for others to actually fabricate it.  At a certain stage of his career, when you bought one of Sol LeWitt’s works, you received a few pages of instructions detailing how to make it.  There are hundreds of wall drawings in existence now that involved active participation by their owners who purchased the instructions and sought out fabricators who then followed the directions.

The instructions go something like this:  “Have a person draw a non-straight line at the top of the wall in black crayon.  Then red, then yellow…” etc.  The result is that dozens of people might actually be involved in making the art and would receive credit. (LeWitt insisted those makers get acknowledgement for their contribution.)

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Some friends of mine had a house in which they, in consultation with LeWitt’s studio, hired a bunch of art students to produce one of his pieces for a specified wall.  When they sold the house, the buyers had the option of buying the house with or without the art, even though it was on a permanent wall.  The buyers chose not to fork out the extra bucks for the art, so the wall was painted over.  My friends still have the instructions and can re-create the art somewhere else if they like.

What is it that an artist contributes?  It’s not the actual making; it’s the idea.  LeWitt established this notion as a breakthrough idea in the 1960s.  Since then, many artists now have their stuff made by fabricators, particularly in sculpture.  The hand of the other maker is evident, along with the ideas of the artist.  In LeWitt’s mind, this approach expanded the art, as the maker’s hand is evident as well as the artist’s.

Isn’t this art “rising to the level of architecture”?  We as architects seldom actually make our buildings ourselves.  We are responsible for producing the ideas and creating a set of instructions so others can actually fabricate the artifact.  In the end, the artifact shows the imprint of the architect, but also of the many people who were part of the making process.

It occurred to me in that Blanton show that Sol LeWitt was aspiring to make something that I find very beautiful in architecture.  He was making instructions and giving them to someone else who would actually produce the final result.  In the process he was growing beyond the traditional controlling role of the artist and acknowledging a collaborative role with both the user and the fabricator. That’s what architects do!

The University of Texas at Austin purchased the instructions for a Sol LeWitt piece in 2011 from Madison Square in New York and rebuilt it at the Austin campus. “Circle with Towers” was originally created in 2005, and then again at UT in 2012.  Here is art aspiring to be architecture.  (There is even a space inside that can be occupied, and it is meant to have people interacting actively with it.) This is art rising to the level of architecture.  It is truly getting those two hands to come together: the visionary and the maker.

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(For more on the “Circle with Towers”, click here: http://landmarks.utexas.edu/artistdetail/lewitt_sol)

 

 

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Thinking about Campus Architecture, Cultural Identity
Posted July 9, 2014

The Rewards of Teaching

I often get as much pleasure and satisfaction from seeing the extraordinary successes of former students as I do from my own endeavors.  I was reminded of this a couple weekends ago while attending the National Advisory Council meeting at Cranbrook.  Reed Kroloff has been the director there for the last seven years, was previously dean of architecture at Tulane University and prior to that, editor-in-chief of Architecture magazine.  I’ve watched his career with great interest and satisfaction.

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Reed was a very promising student when I first met him as he was entering graduate school at University of Texas at Austin.  He was a freshly minted Yale undergrad who had always been super-successful at whatever he did, but he was struggling a bit.  At one point, he considered dropping out of architecture school entirely, but I advised him to stay and encouraged him to consider the many different roles one can play within the architectural profession.

Reed was incredibly perceptive, wrote and spoke beautifully, and he could think and understand architecture better than any student I had ever come across.  Because he wasn’t thrilled with studio work, he was frustrated and thought maybe he didn’t fit.  I wanted Reed to see himself as a thought leader because he was and still is.

At the time I was editing an issue of the journal, Center, a publication of the Center for Architecture and Design, and Reed wrote a piece for it on high-rise regionalism.  It was brilliant.  Happy to say, Reed stayed and was my teaching assistant for many semesters.

After leaving UT, Reed started teaching at Arizona State and found a niche for himself.  He taught a big lecture course similar to my own Architecture and Society course and opened it to non-major students as well.  He started writing about architecture for the Arizona Republic.  From Arizona State, Reed moved to Washington DC and became an associate editor at Architecture magazine, then moved to New York and became editor, then on to Tulane and Cranbrook.

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Reed hit the ground running when he arrived at Cranbrook (much as he had at Tulane before that).  His incredible energy and ambition is a positive, forceful quality that radiates to others working around him. When Reed got there, Cranbrook looked a bit run down and dowdy.  Initially, he hired two new artists-in-residence as faculty which significantly energized things.  Soon, they completely renovated the famous Eliel Saarinen museum building and added a new wing with storage and curatorial spaces.  They embarked on an ambitious exhibitions agenda and stepped up their education and community outreach programs.

Reed also started the National Advisory Council (NAC), giving Cranbrook more reach nationally and a core of people to invest with them.  Today, the school is worlds ahead of where it was before.  Their communications program has been ramped up, both with alumni and the broader world, and now two new websites are about to be launched.  The place has made a quantum jump.  Reed would credit this to everyone around him, but we all know it wouldn’t have happened without him.  At the weekend gathering, members of the NAC passed the hat to establish an endowment in Reed’s name.  He was completely surprised and blushed at its announcement.

I’ve taken this opportunity to reflect on the great success of one former student.  But I have to say that in my years of teaching, I can think easily of another 15 or 20 who have also made a very big mark with their careers.  It’s incredibly satisfying to witness that.  There are also hundreds of others about whom I’m tremendously proud for what they have done.

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Thinking about Life as an Architect
Posted June 12, 2014

What does global architecture mean?

I recently traveled to Bolivia to participate in the XIII Seminario Internacional de Arquitectura, a biennial architectural conference held at the University of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.  I had spoken at the same conference fourteen years ago and, as was the case before, I really got my eyes opened about the current state of architecture in Bolivia and elsewhere in South America.  Three things particularly impressed me:

1).  We in America have a terrible misconception about many other parts of the world.  The picture portrayed in both general and architectural media seems really twisted. South America is mostly off the radar screen, although we do get a tiny glimpse occasionally. When it is portrayed, we see massive favelas or a few precious object buildings.

Both of the times I have spoken in this recurring conference in Bolivia, as well as the exposure I have had through the annual Latitudes conferences at University of Texas at Austin, have opened a window to a very sophisticated group of architects practicing in South America and to economies that are thriving and building at an impressive rate.  Talking with many of the architects in Bolivia it is clear they plowed though the 2008 economic downturn hardly missing a beat.  They are executing impressive school building programs, large neighborhoods of well-designed medium density housing and suburban planning that puts our ad hoc mish-mash in the US to shame.

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2.  I was also impressed by the huge change that has happened in Santa Cruz since 2000.  The city has boomed, and has actually developed in a fairly orderly and intentional way.  There is a beautiful central historical core that is being nicely preserved and enhanced through careful controls and guidelines.

Still following a City Beautiful plan from the early 20th century, concentric rings of neighborhoods have been developed around the core. Traffic is served by a series of radial  and ring roads that have been consistently implemented over decades.  Santa Cruz is a garden city, and it reminds me of similarly well-planned cities in Australia.

The amount of construction is amazing, with design supplied by architects from Bolivia as well as other parts of South America. Both in the older part of the city, with its central square and the main cathedral, as well as on the periphery, there is evidence of really good urban design work that is actually being implemented.

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3. The conference leaders assigned a number of architecture students from the Universidad Privada de Santa Cruz de la Sierra to take care of me, and the rest of the speakers who represented other countries in South America.  These students were incredible—bright, enthusiastic, curious and engaging.  They have tremendous pride in their region and their city and are extremely knowledgeable about both its history and its current development.

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Their university has many travel and exchange programs all over the world, so these students had been around and knew global architecture as well as they knew the local scene.  The students and  faculty leaders loaded me up with recently published books about both local and larger regional architecture in Bolivia and elsewhere in South America.   Through both the educational system and  scholarship/publications, this culture is investing in a vigorous and promising future.

In the US we talk about globalization in architecture, but the content is pretty shallow and the perspective is sadly warped.  We hear a lot about Dubai and China—especially when big name architects from Europe and America plop their latest confection there.  But we know almost nothing about rapidly developing parts of the world like South America where there are many promising things happening in our field.

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Thinking about Cultural Identity, Life as an Architect, Sustainability, Urbanism
Posted April 30, 2014

Constructing the UT Pan American Performing Arts Center

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Thinking about Building Technology, Buildings in Landscape, Campus Architecture, Contemporary Practices, Cultural Identity, Sustainability, Texas Architecture
Posted March 24, 2014

B. L. Harbert International

Having started my career with several construction jobs working for building contractors, I have always had a keen interest in how the construction industry works. The movement to construction management a couple of decades ago has certainly changed the way buildings get built. Contractors are often primarily coordinators who self-perform little of the work, leaving the primary job of building to sub-contractors.  The result can sometimes be a very balkanized job site where it is hard to ascertain an overall approach to creating the building.  It is also hard for workers to feel the kind of pride in construction that existed when a single entity—their company–took the primary role of actually making the building.

By contrast, I am extremely impressed with work I recently observed by B.L. Harbert International, a construction company based in Birmingham, Alabama.  I was on a trip to a very challenging building site in a developing country and had the opportunity to see first-hand how they work in the field.

In this project, Harbert is making extensive use of American materials, which are assembled in Alabama, then containerized and shipped, in just-in-time fashion to the job site.  Clearly, they have to plan how the building is going to be built, to sequence it precisely, and to think through the entire construction process.  I haven’t seen this methodology in ages, and it encourages me greatly to witness Harbert in action.

The amount of foresight is phenomenal.  As a container arrives on the site it is dismantled and distributed to all of the various trades who need its contents.  Then those same containers are often converted to workshop shelters for assembly of intricate mechanical and electrical systems.

There were 1,400 workers on this one building site. Harbert had its own employees, including some 200 ex-pats, and they self-perform a great deal of the job with a minimum of sub-contractors.  They had hired hundreds of local workers, many of them unskilled when they came on the job.

Harbert has invested a lot in training these local workers.  In that process, the workers have gained greatly increased skills, which they can use for the rest of their lives.  Often, Harbert had to buy the workers shoes and work clothes and had to teach them fundamental notions of efficiency.  There is a great deal of concern for these workers and a sincere desire to help them work better and more safely.

I was really impressed with how much the Harbert management is committed to the local workers.  It’s clear they embrace these people as well as care about making a good product.  The workers are well paid by local standards and Harbert gets solid results from their investment.  Seeing Harbert organizing their workers, teaching them, and then getting good work out of them was really gratifying.

I’ve visited Harbert’s headquarters in Birmingham. Their offices are in an extremely well designed modern building.  They clearly appreciate good architecture and are willing to put their money where there mouth is.  They have great policies for employees: an on-site gym, running trails, fresh foods in the office, etc.  It seems to be a very well run operation that really respects employees. Overseas, I observed the same sensitivity, directed over there to respect for local customs, attitudes and cultures.

It was a real joy to see such a sophisticated and efficient construction firm that cares about their people and takes great pride in building very fine buildings in very difficult circumstances.

B. L. Harbert International headquarters in Birmingham, AL

B. L. Harbert International headquarters in Birmingham, AL

 

 

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Thinking about Building Technology, Contemporary Practices, Cultural Identity
Posted January 22, 2014

Our new name: Page

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As an architecture and engineering firm, how do you step up your game periodically?  In the life of a practice, it’s important to take a snapshot and reflect upon various considerations, and that’s what we’ve done in creating the new Page whose name and logo were revealed December 16. It’s been a process of renewal, of rethinking our ambitions, our identity, direction, and values to communicate who we are and how we want to take this 116-year old firm into the future.  For this blog posting, I wanted to write a recap the experience:

In early 2013, we started our re-branding process which itself was the result of a graphics refresh undertaken earlier with Herman Dyal in 2012.  In that effort, Herman, who is also a good friend, came up with some great ideas and we recognized a need to do something more ambitious and fundamental.  We studied a number of different firms both within and outside architecture, but there wasn’t any single firm or even small group of firms that stood out for us.  We drew bits of inspiration from many different sources.

We are redefining the culture of our company by making it a much flatter organization with broader ownership and more empowerment and responsibility for a larger number of people.  The ultimate goal is to encourage entrepreneurial spirit among our people and increase collaboration among our various offices.

To maximize the message, we are  working through conventional media/communication outlets, as well as  concentrating a lot of attention on social media.  The new website, pagethink.com, is very strongly focused on our people—who they are, what they do, what they think, what expertise they have, etc.  We are making a strong effort to get leaders and experts in the firm to blog and tweet and post regularly so that there is a constant refreshing of that grassroots description.

Since its founding as C.H. Page in 1898, we have rebranded ourselves many times through the years and have even used a whole family of names including: Page Brothers, Page, Southerland and Page, PSP and most recently, PageSoutherlandPage.  Now, we consider Page the next and natural stage of our growth and evolution.  The newest statement of our brand makes it clear that we focus on “design that makes lives better”.  It is a sincere expression of values we have held for some time, but have not declared as explicitly as we are doing now.

Ultimately, the self-evaluation process keeps us focused on values and priorities and enables us to communicate to clients, potential clients and others what we, at Page, stand for in architecture and what we have to offer.

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Thinking about Contemporary Practices, Life as an Architect
Posted December 30, 2013

We need to do this: give credit to all

Why is it, as architects, we seem to focus exclusively on just one person’s role in the making of buildings?  To read most of our professional publications, you would think a single mind conceives these things, and then they magically happen. Just as the credits roll for several minutes at the end of a movie, the architectural profession should find a way to acknowledge the teams of people involved in designing and constructing a project.  A remarkable scope of blue collar, white collar and no collar workers in building (as in film-making) contribute their business savvy, creativity, discipline, visual sophistication, brains, brawn, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, organizational talent, wisdom, hard work and much more to the collective enterprise.

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Could we, as architects, do a better job of realistically portraying how – and by whom — buildings come about and what our role is in the process? Absolutely! But we often seem so self-absorbed and so obsessed with getting our due credit that we fail to even see how much our success depends on working together.

Did Ayn Rand do this to us?  Has Howard Roark left such a deep psychological scar on our profession that we just have to see ourselves as tortured loners?  Or was it Bannister Fletcher, Siegfried Gideon and all the others who professionalized architectural history as a field and realized that the storytelling about buildings might be stronger if populated by larger than life figures who got sole credit?  (It is, of course, also much easier to remember just one name per building for those slide identification questions on an architectural history exam.)

I certainly do not mean to diminish the critical importance of leadership and outstanding achievement.  Gehry, Hadid and Foster each deserve a lot of credit for their seminal roles.  It is just strange to personalize the architectural effort in such a deceptive way that diminishes the role of so many others.  Can’t we write articles on and acknowledge with some detail the role of multiple players per building?

Lately there has been rightful furor over the fact that Le Corbusier is given credit for work done with (or by) his female collaborator, Charlotte Perriand; that Alvar Aalto is given credit for work done with (or by) his collaborators and wives, Aino Aalto and Elissa Aalto; and that Louis Kahn is given credit for work done with (or by) his female collaborator, Anne Tyng.  Most recently and vociferously, there has been outrage at the fact that Robert Venturi has been given credit for work done with (or by) his collaborator and wife, Denise Scott Brown.  All of this is patently unfair!  But isn’t it also unfair that dozens of men who also collaborated with Le Corbusier, Aalto, Kahn and Venturi also get diminished in our bizarre propensity to see the role of the architect as a highly individualized thing?

Maybe things are changing just a little.  Earlier this year, the National AIA Board of Directors voted that the AIA Gold Medal could go to very close collaborators and not just individuals, as has always been the case in the past.  High time! The Nobel Prize has been given to groups of people for ages.  If physics, chemistry and medicine can be acknowledged as fields that rely on collective efforts, then why not architecture?

We have recently been through a period where the visible expression of our discipline to the public has been starchitects and a worship of the myth of the individual.  In that same period we have seen the power of our profession wane.  Maybe it’s time drop the dramatic cape and beret and to portray our field in a more honest way that emphasizes collective strengths—our ability to work together as strong professionals locked arm in arm with our fellow professional in other disciplines to create extraordinary cultural artifacts.

Then we should let the credits roll!

For an expanded version on this topic, please see my recent article in the The Architects Newspaper at: http://issuu.com/archpaper/docs/sw_01_13a   Page 30.

 

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Thinking about Contemporary Practices
Posted December 13, 2013

A perfect building? Quite possibly, yes.

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).

Convention Centre on Vancouver's waterfront

Convention Centre on Vancouver’s waterfront

The building interfaces beautifully with the street

The building interfaces beautifully with the street

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.

Ample daylight throughout the interior

Ample daylight throughout the interior

Substantial use of local materials

Substantial use of local materials

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.

The architecture enhances any event held here

The architecture enhances any event held here

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.

Twilight and crowds gather in front of the building

Twilight and crowds gather in front of the building

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.

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Thinking about Building Technology, Buildings in Landscape, Cultural Identity, Sustainability, Urbanism
Posted November 7, 2013