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Worlds apart: Architects and the public talk past each other
By Robert Campbell, FAIA
"What can we do?" asks a member of the university's Board of Visitors. "The students and alumni hate all the buildings the architecture professors like, and the architecture professors hate all the buildings the students and alumni like."
You can't put the case more clearly than that.
The school in question is the University of Virginia. Recent buildings there, both those completed and those proposed, are often designed in imitation of the manner of Thomas Jefferson, who of course did the original campus.
That situation prompted a protest in September. Thirty-four faculty members, most from the School of Architecture plus a few others, signed a letter to the Board of Visitors and the rest of the university community.
It's worth reading. Some excerpts:
"The University is heir to Jefferson's progressive vision of education, created to accommodate the challenge of a new democracy and to address the unique American landscape.
"Why has this legacy of innovation in service of ideas been allowed to degenerate into a rigid set of stylistic prescriptions?"
The letter goes on with a series of questions:
"Is there not a difference between buildings that merely look Jeffersonian as opposed to the infi-
Contributing editor Robert Campbell is the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic of The Boston Globe.
nitely more difficult task of being Jeffersonian?
"Is UVA to become a theme park of nostalgia at the service of the university's branding?"
Branding, of course, is a buzzword of the moment. When they say "branding," the writers are alleging that UVA is selling itself like cereal by promoting image rather than substance.
I have good friends among the faculty at Virginia, and I once served as a member of the school's advisory council. But I think the faculty letter is for the most part silly. Too much of it is a pastiche of verbal clichés. They're at least as unoriginal and annoying as the pastiche of architectural clichés they're complaining about.
There's one big problem with the faculty's thesis. Thomas Jefferson— along with his too-often-unsung collaborator, Benjamin Latrobe— was branding all over the place.
Jefferson grabbed brands from Greek and Roman porticoes, from Palladio, from Georgian England, from the Pantheon. Why did he do this? Because he wanted to speak an architectural language that the public could understand. And a language, almost by definition, is a collection of agreed-upon conventions. It is understandable only when it stays in touch with tradition. If a language changes too fast, if it's too revolutionary and inventive, it becomes incomprehensible, at least without special study. That's why nobody speaks Esperanto.
What was Jefferson saying with his brands? The message is pretty obvious. He was using his imagery to announce that his university was a civic and public presence, neither domestic nor utilitarian, and that it would (among other things) respect and promulgate the wisdom of the past. Could he have said that as well in some newly invented manner? No.
Jefferson knew, too, that you can make your points by violating convention, if there's a convention to violate. This child of the Enlightenment provided his university with no chapel, installing a library as the focus instead. He left his campus, at one end, open to the horizon, suggesting that it—like America—was only a beginning. He linked his formal campus to the farmland and wilderness beyond with a system of gardens. He built with simple vernacular materials, wood and brick, the materials of a pioneer, rather than the stone used for public buildings in Europe. In all these ways, he was a remarkable architect. But that doesn't mean he wasn't branding. Of course he was. Like mad.
Karen Van Lengen, the dean of the school, tells me over the phone that the purpose of the letter was not to dictate any style, but rather to begin a conversation between the architecture school and the rest of the university. She's right, of course, in believing that such a conversation doesn't happen on most campuses. And the letter certainly oc <
did get people thinking. If you've got a few spare hours, check out the debate at www.uva-architec-ture-forum.org/openletter.html.
I come back, though, to that anonymous member of the Board of Visitors. What, exactly, can he or she do?
Tear it down! Tear it down!
As I write, TV station Channel 4 in London is about to air its long-awaited series entitled Demolition. Early in the year, the station asked its viewers to nominate the worst building in Britain. More than 10,000 people nominated more than 1,000 buildings. When the four shows run, in late December, a panel of experts will look at the buildings that made the short list, and will argue with one another about which should be chosen for demolition.
Demolition was originally supposed to air on a date that would coincide with the announcement of the James Stirling Prize, which is given to the best British building of the year. No doubt, the joyous hope of the show's promoters was that the same building would win both the Stirling and the demolition vote, thus proving that architects and the public, like the alumni and professors at UVA, live on separate planets. As it turned out, however, the Stirling was awarded in October to the new Scottish Parliament complex by Barcelona architects Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue. The winner on Demolition has yet to be named. Rumor says that the Parliament is among the contenders, but it's only rumor.
Demolition is the idea of George Ferguson, current president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Ferguson argues
YYePG Proudly PreseaptsrolpnriQf^rrSppapBBrln ent in particularly deserving cases."
Ferguson, of course, was assuming that only buildings disliked by the architectural community would be demolished. But as we've noted, opinions can differ. Take the Tricorn Center in Portsmouth, a parking garage-cum-shopping center. In an unrelated vote in 2001, it was chosen Britain's ugliest building by the general public and was promptly approved for demolition. (I don't know if this has occurred yet.) But according to a press report at the time, the Tricorn, completed in
THE JOYOUS HOPE OF THE SHOW'S PROMOTERS WAS THAT THE SAME BUILDING WOULD WIN BOTH THE STIRLING PRIZE AND THE DEMOLITION VOTE.
that along with preservation laws to protect good buildings, there should be an "X list" of buildings that ought to be torn down. Listen to the RIBA's Web site:
"The proposed X-list will identify the worst buildings in Britain. They will be buildings and structures that are judged by popular and expert opinion to be beyond redemption. X-listing will give planners powers to refuse change of use and to grant beneficial permissions for replacement. It is also proposed that there is a grant fund, vested in English Heritage, to help tip the balance in favor of demolition and
1964, "enjoys cult status among architecture students as a classic of the 'new brutalism' style." A replay of Virginia?
The British talk about architecture less politely than Americans do, just as they watch their soccer games less politely. Prince Charles described the Tricorn as "a mildewed lump of elephant droppings." You don't have to admire the Prince to admit that he was undoubtedly stating a majority view, although not the view of architecture students. One wonders if he's read the nominations for Demolition, one of which proposes to blow up Buckingham Palace because it's too old and dowdy "for Queen Camilla."
The architect of the Tricorn is Owen Luder. Luder is a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the position George Ferguson holds today. (Are these ironies getting out of hand?) If you've got an ear for architectural cliché, Luder is music. He says his creation "pushed back the frontiers" of style. (I guess he means "extended the frontiers.") It was "an architectural statement about the early 1960s." It was "a 'gee whiz' building, not a 'so what' building."
Some argue that it's unfair to let the public make judgments like those of the Demolition shows, because public taste is fickle. Fickle it may be, but the taste of the architectural community is more fickle. How long did it take our leaders to get through PoMo, Deconstruction, Blob, Excavation, Fractals, Modern Revival, and several more? Now the talk is of Green and Iconic.
Two places, Virginia and Britain. Both are reasonably civilized. In both, there's a frightening gap between the taste of an architectural elite and that of the larger public. The good news is that everyone is arguing about architecture. The bad news is that we'd make a pretty good subject for a Monte Python sketch. ■
Scheherazade Travertine, New Mexico
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