The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

What's Wrong With This Building?

This is from the irritating (to me) Times series "What You Get For...", in which they pick a price and look at real estate from around the country. It's irritating because the vast majority of the prices are not merely beyond my personal means, but beyond practically anything in Pittsburgh, making the whole thing something I can't identify with. I don't really care what $2 million dollars buys in Miami, Austin, and Montana.

Anyway, this isn't about price, it's about design. I suspect the neighbors hate this, because neighbors like boring colonials and such, but they real reason to hate this is that it's an awful, awful facade (I don't know anything else about the design, so maybe it has other virtues; frankly, based on the facade, I kind of doubt it). Let's talk design concepts:

Symmetry: Either you've got it, or you don't. Classical buildings - think the Parthenon or the US Capitol - are rigidly symmetrical, while Romantic buildings - think Queen Annes or rambling castles - are not, usually using vertical and horizontal elements to create an asymmetrical balance. There's a certain leeway in symmetry that can allow, say, an off-center front door in an otherwise symmetrical building, as long as it's balanced by something else off-center, and as long as the overall composition remains pure. But this building is neither here nor there: assuming that the panels are evenly-sized, the center window on top is just off-center, the ribbon windows are not equidistant from the corners, and the first floor openings are arrayed without any reference to a central axis. Yet the overall effect is plainly intended to be symmetrical - this kind of High Modern architecture is Classical, not Romantic.

Regulating lines: These design guides can be implicit - used by the architect to promote consistency and balance but not actually apparent on the building - or explicit - used by the architect to illustrate the presence of these things (Frank Lloyd Wright used to cut grids into his concrete floors). The eight vertical panels are (or appear to be) equal in width, making for explicit regulating lines. They should be used to provide centerlines and edges for objects in the facade; they certainly can't responsibly be ignored. Yet that is precisely what the architect has done. None of the upper floor windows is evenly spaced with respect to the panels (oddly, the ribbons both appear to have the same slightly-off relationship with their panels; this could be interesting if there were follow-through elsewhere). Downstairs, it appears that the architect started with the front door recess, which is symmetrical about its panels, and then simply spaced the two (different size) garage doors evenly down the facade, with the result that the middle door has one edge aligned with a panel joint, and the other garage door is just asymmetrical with respect to its panels. Just awful.

Heights/Floors: Where are the floors and ceilings in this building? Why are the panel heights the way they are? We have no idea. The design idea appears to have been that the occupied floors would have panels of a certain height - 9 feet by the looks of it - and then intermediate panels would designate the structural sandwich of the ceiling/beams/floor-or-roof. But it is incredibly unlikely that the sandwich between first and second floors is really that thick and, more importantly, it makes the building unbalanced, a bit top-heavy. The way we expect buildings to be - whether from some sort of natural intuition or from lifelong experience - is like a Classical column - base, shaft, and capital. Andrea Palladio, iconic architect of the Renaissance, created palazzos with a heavy, rusticated base that contained the ground floor, semi-public, quotidian functions (think garage and foyer), a light, relatively simple upper floor with elegant public spaces, and an ornate attic floor that contained bedrooms while capping the building. Louis Sullivan adapted this concept for his great skyscrapers, in which the middle floors repeated for a hundred or more feet. We still see this form in tract houses with concrete block bases, vinyl siding walls, and dormers within the roof. Now, a Modern building need not heed these old-fashioned ideas. But why are the intermediate panels the heights they are? Why is the "sandwich" panel taller than it need be? Why is the top panel (which covers the parapet above the flat roof) taller still? If there's no base, why is there an attic (the top panel, the height of which hints at an attic or cornice)? The whole thing feels top-heavy and unresolved (imagine if, instead, the "sandwich" panel were narrower, perhaps 12 or 15 inches - which is surely about what the actual structural sandwich is - and there were another one above the second floor, and then an "attic" panel not quite so high; now you'd have rhythm going up, a lighter attic, and more weight anchoring it).

But design is subjective, right? Maybe this architect doesn't give a whit for my rigid, old-fashioned ideas of how to design (although Le Corbusier, the Modern master whose style this building approximates, would be on my side). But if that were the case, then s/he'd have to do a lot more to subvert widely-understood concepts of how to design. Take pure, white panels and apply them to a Victorian form. Pull a Gehry and bend the shapes. Get really asymmetrical, not just barely. I could even imagine a slightly-off Modern building that works, thanks to good taste. But there's nothing - nothing - in this design that suggests to me that the architect knew the rules yet chose to break them. Instead I see a designer who didn't understand the language s/he was trying to speak, and produced Modern-inflected gibberish. The architect as Ugly American.

[Update: I hadn't looked at the slideshow, which shows the interior and the rear balcony/patio. There's nothing as egregious there, but also nothing that makes me want to take any of the above back. There is one unforgivable downspout, but that's venal.]



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