On Continuity in Architecture

I recently visited Richard Meier’s evocative new seminary building in Hartford, Connecticut. It was everything the photographs promised it should be – pure, clean, and elegant, an exquisite mastery of space, light, and shape. It is a consummate work of an eminently skilled designer. Proud and robust from the outside, serene and moving on the interior, it is a truly beautiful object.

But visiting the Hartford Seminary was, for me, very much like seeing a good movie. It was a powerful experience, yet one which seemed disjointed both in place and time. Like other Meier works done in a similar vocabulary (e.g. Smith House in Darien, Connecticut, and Atheneum in New Harmony, Indiana), the seminary building is a world apart. It divorces itself from life in and around it. As in a movie theater, the exigencies of everyday existence become intrusions or interruptions.

The building is not, as perhaps it should have been, located in an extraterrestrial world. It is on a corner lot in a lovely old middle-class neighborhood with tree-lined streets and robust, characterful New England houses. Across a side street is the old seminary campus with gentle stone building volumes broken and carefully articulated to harmonize with, and yet intensify, the scale of the neighborhood. To stand beside the Meier building and glance across the street is like opening an emergency exit to broad daylight during the darkened fantasies of Star Wars. Everyday life, and especially the everyday context into which the building is placed, seems an encroachment, and obstruction.

The Hartford Seminary, like so much of the architectural work premiated as “outstanding” design today, rejects the notion of continuity with its context in favor of an abstract, recondite language of form which makes little deference to specific situation. This attitude has been a prevalent one since the beginning of the Modern Movement. Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris, Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion, Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, and the U.S. Urban Renewal Program of the late 1960s all exemplify a repudiation of inherited context in favor of an idealized vision.

A Clean Slate
Modern architecture loved a clean slate. New towns like Chandigarh or Brasilia were deemed near perfect opportunities while messy, constrained, irregular urban sites seemed far less promising. When the canvas wasn’t clean, a bit of bulldozing often was judged in order. When bulldozing was not an option, it became necessary to crop one’s vision (and, of course, all documentary photographs) to exclude the unwanted environment under the assumption that, in time, progress would rectify the situation. Modernism’s faith in its universality and its ideal forms precluded anything but token accommodation to context.

The result of this attitude applied broadly over a period of 30 or 40 years is only now becoming fully apparent. In almost every Texas city and town, one finds glaring examples of streets, neighborhoods, and communities which have been badly eroded or at least pockmarked by interventions seeking abstruse ideals over quotidian ones. Often our most talented designers have been caught up in promoting the tenets of some current dogma rather than addressing the endlessly fascinating challenge of specific situations and real problems.

The fervor provoked by novelty, innovation, and a progressive/revolutionary spirit has often overridden basic good manners in design. Our Main Streets have been tarted up with flashy facades which mock their dowager neighbors. Town squares have sacrificed their “squareness” to brash, attention-grabbing newcomers. Cityscapes have become battlegrounds for one-upmanship and accelerated obsolescence. The whole has become less than the sum of its parts as arguing neighbors have canceled or demeaned each others’ virtues. Up and down our streets some nasty architectural squabbles are taking place.

Observation of the growing discontinuity and fragmentation of our built environments is nothing new or astounding. Gordon Cullen saw the beginning of this deterioration when he wrote Townscape 20 years ago and responded with the assertion that, “There is an art of relationship just as there is an art of architecture… Bring buildings together and they can give visual pleasure which none can give separately.” Robert Venturi dedicated a whole chapter in Complexity and Contradiction to “the obligation toward the difficult whole” wherein he convincingly advocates the interaction of a complex system of parts in a “non-simple” way. Robert Stern and other early Post-Modern advocates proclaimed “response to context” as one of that movement’s cornerstones, provoking a spate of books over the last ten years on the topic of “contextualism.”

And yet, even with all of this attention, a sensitivity to place, time and culture, and to the multiplicity of formal responses implied by diverse environments seem to be difficult precepts for architects to accept and implement. The works of current design “leaders” offer little more hope in this regard than the works of their predecessors of a generation ago. Late-Modern designers such as Meier or

Cesar Pelli continue to emphasize consistency and originality within their own body of work over appropriateness or cultural relevance of their buildings in context.

In spite of their early rhetoric, leading Post-Modern designers seem to be doing no better. As Robert Venturi observed recently, “The Post-Modernists, in supplanting the Modernists, have substituted for the largely irrelevant universal vocabulary of heroic industrialism another largely irrelevant universal vocabulary – that of parvenue Classicism, with, in its American manifestation, a dash of Deco and a whiff of Ledoux.” He decries the “architecture of whimsical pavilions and picturesque follies that make insufficient reference to the diversities and subtleties of taste cultures at hand or to the context of place which should give substance to form.”

In their anti-Modern zeal, Post-Modernists are beginning to produce major works which shun and exclude their neighbors of the prior generation in much the same way that early Modern buildings shunned their predecessors years ago. Philip Johnson’s step-gabled Republic-Bank Center building currently under construction in Houston, for example, promises to isolate itself stylistically from the sleek and glittery modernity of neighboring downtown towers. Consistent with Johnson’s work in his Modern period, the building will be an object, an event, a jaw-dropping statement rather than a complement to a larger environmental whole. Michael Graves’ Portland Public Services building promises, similarly, to be heroic and at war with the immediate past. It draws more on Graves’ esoteric theoretical predilections than on Portland in the 1980s or the building’s civic role or immediate surrounds.

These and other Post-Modern pacesetters herald the founding of yet another stylistic vocabulary, no better or worse than what we had before, which will leave a string of solitary monuments to its emergence in the 1980s. As isolated events, such revolutionary gestures are unlikely to make any real contribution to the improvement of overall environmental quality. There must be other alternatives.

In the past, great works of architecture have often been produced by building environments in a continuous, evolutionary fashion rather than as singular revolutionary events. Michelangelo’s magnificent design for the Campidoglio in Rome, for example, took inherited circumstances and worked with them to produce magic. The extraordinary angle between the flanking buildings and the Palazzo del Senatore was, at least in part, extant on the site when Michelangelo began his work in 1538. What Michelangelo did was to identify an implied axis in the facade of the existing Palazzo del Senatore and repeat the angle already established by the flanking Palazzo de Conservatori symmetrically on the other side of that axis. He accepted the axis and the angle as a point of departure for his own very impressive bit of space making. As

Edmund Bacon has pointed out in Design of Cities, “Michelangelo proved that humility and power can coexist… that it is possible to create a great work without destroying what is already there.”

Michelangelo and other Renaissance masters were able to resist the currently common compunction to kill one’s fathers in order to transcend them. Michelangelo built on the work of Bramante, della Porta, San gallo, and a number of nameless antecedents both figuratively and even literally in the case of the dome of St. Peter’s. A healthy general respect for one’s peers and predecessors and the artifacts they have left is a key to the building of rich, fine, timeless cities like Rome. Great public spaces of that city such as the Piazza Navona have maintained their vitality and integrity over centuries because the designers who have worked within them have valued continuity and a coherent, albeit often difficult, wholeness.

Forty Acres
Some of the best of our built environments in Texas display a similar continuity and respectful evolution over time. The original 40-acre campus of the University of Texas at Austin is one of the most lively and beautiful urban districts in the state, in part because its designers have respected and been inspired by the context in which they were working. Cass Gilbert’s seminal Battle Hall and Sutton Hall at the beginning of the century strongly influenced the work of Green, La Roche, and Dahl in the 1920s. Their work, in turn, was respected by Paul Cret in his extensive planning and design a decade later. Even the post-war buildings, although less elegant than their predecessors, attempt to build on their legacy rather than preempt it. The result is harmonious without being cloying. It is a rich, diverse environment which satisfies a great range of functional needs while at the same time maintaining integrity and coherence.

San Antonio Riverwalk
The Paseo del Rio in San Antonio has been similarly blessed, for the most part, by a respect over time for continuity and context. The early WPA beautification in the 1930s got off to a good start by respecting the native character of the river and its vegetation. When commercial ventures began to lay claim to the river bend a decade later, their sponsors both extended and elaborated upon the ambiance of the WPA gardens with low-keyed building forms and emphasis on people, vegetation, and paths. In the surge of commercial development in the sixties, the prevailing feeling was not lost. The scale increased, and the activity intensified, but the sense of the river as a pleasure garden was maintained. Although a great deal of construction has occurred along the Paseo del Rio over the past 20 years, it largely has been spared the labelable Modern, Late-Modern, Brutalist, High-Tech, Post-Modern icons which have proliferated most everywhere else. The architecture of the Paseo del Rio is of its place, particular to its special circumstances.

At a smaller scale than the UT campus or the Paseo del Rio, there are several recent projects in the state which show encouraging signs of respect for existing contexts, promoting a healthy dialogue between themselves and their surroundings. They illustrate the fact that new interventions can actually be used to heal environmental rifts and to enhance what might otherwise be chaotic or undistinguished places.

Stirling at Rice
The recent addition and renovations for the Rice University School of Architecture by Stirling and Wilford, for example, took a banal but inoffensive building of the late forties and reintegrated it effectively into the richer, more elaborate context of the original Ralph Adams Cram-designed campus. Both the massing and facades of Staub and Rather’s 1947 Anderson Hall were used as points of departure for the subtle, but ingenious, scheme which elevates the character of this existing environment significantly both in terms of function and visual quality.

By reorienting the circulation of the original building, while maintaining the dominance of east-west wings, the architects have helped reconnect the Cram-designed Chemistry Building to the north of Anderson Hall with the central campus quadrangle to the south. In doing so, they have created as well an amiable massing dialogue between the renovated complex and the Physics Building immediately to its east. The respectful use of rose-hued bricks, buff stone and red pan tile roof is taken much farther than one normally expects in “contextually sensitive” material usage. Attention to texture, shape, scale, and detail makes facades of the addition a near-perfect bridge between Cram’s flamboyant fancy and Staub and Rather’s tired, but right-minded, fidelity. Everyone wins in this instance. Neighboring buildings are made more integral to the campus whole. Anderson Hall looks considerably classier than it ever has before. And the new wing is a charming, elegant building in its own right.

Adolphus Hotel
Beran and Shelmire’s recent extensive reworking of the Adolphus Hotel complex in Dallas likewise takes a ragged and mismatched group of buildings and knits them together into a complementary aggregate. In this instance, the treatment is appropriately more hierarchical than on the Rice campus. The proud old 1912 tower is respected as the kingpin of the ensemble with the remaining, more prosaic, volumes of space relegated to subservient roles. By overhauling the awkward massing, hodgepodge material selection, and insensitive stylistic devices employed in numerous hotel additions, the architects have created a compatible, though certainly not uniform, whole. There is an admirable understanding that concordance need not imply consistency and that a whole can consist of diverse but related parts.

San Fernando Cathedral
Perhaps the most poignant and challenging instance of successful contextual continuity of recent years are the additions and renovations to San Antonio’s historic San Fernando Cathedral by Ford, Powell & Carson. When O’Neil Ford and Carolyn Peterson began work on the project in 1973, they found two of San Antonio’s proudest relics – a 1749 neo-Romanesque parish church and its 1868 Gothic successor – wailed in by insensitive additions of priests’ quarters and parish offices and largely obscured by garish decorations. After removing the additions and restoring the venerable structures to their original clarity, the need remained for additional space for parish functions and priests’ housing. The simple, unpretentious volume which the architects nestled beside the old Cathedral to accommodate these functions manages, as elegantly as one could imagine, to bring together 18th, 19th, and 20th century structures into harmonious dialogue.

Without mimicking or parodying its predecessors, the new building is like them. It shares their graciousness and generosity. Its strong walls, spare fenestration and carefully modulated window proportions capture the common essence of the earlier structures. Its muted colors and reserved ornamentation give a feeling of modest reverence appropriate to its function and consistent with the character of the original buildings. The addition is neither overtly new nor panderingly historicist. In isolation it is an unremarkable building. In context it is poetry.

These three projects – the Rice School of Architecture, the Adolphus Hotel, and the San Fernando Parish House – share the circumstance of being additions to existing building complexes of common ownership where, presumably, the client had a significant interest in establishing a respect for the environmental whole. Here, the architects commendably have addressed specific site circumstances and have evoked from themselves meritorious designs custom-fit to their place. It is more difficult to find examples of architects drawing on environmental circumstances when they are not explicitly charged with renovations or additions to existing buildings. And yet virtually every urban commission is, in fact, an addition to and a renovation of the larger environmental fabric.

Truly context-sensitive design weaves facades and building fragments into edges, paths, streets, and squares. It knits individual buildings together to form districts, neighborhoods, and communities.  It makes the boundaries fuzzy and irrelevant between the work of one architect and the work of another or between works done at various points in time. It emphasizes environmental experience over demonstrative design bravado. It is a longstanding and thoroughly tested design attitude which has contributed to the making of some of our finest cities and towns.

Context-sensitive design is not, however, easy to label, copy, learn, teach, promote, publicize, publish, draw, or exhibit. It is often appreciated fully only in the experience of being there, by those people who use environments day-to-day. But isn’t that where the real key to architectural quality lies?