Beyond Buildings


Appearances: Stern and Snøhetta Try to Convince

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This is a blog about appearances. Two massive new projects were unveiled this week, and I am going to comment on that—not, or at least only tangentially, on the actual designs. The first news was the first full public display of Yale University’s plans for two new residential colleges, a $500 million project that was first announced two years ago. The second is Snøhetta’s design for an addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) that will double that’s institution’s size.


I have a certain familiarity with both situations. Not only did I attend Yale as both an undergraduate and student of architecture, but I wrote a book on the architect of much of that college, James Gamble Rogers. And then between 1995 and 2001, I was curator of architecture and design at SFMOMA.


Stern's design for Yale. Courtesy: Robert A.M. Stern Architects


Stern's design for the dining hall. Courtesy: Robert A.M. Stern Architects

Though I am at heart a modernist, I do love Rogers’s work, and am thus amazed at how skillfully Stern and his firm have been able to channel his mainly Neo-Gothic forms in the published renderings. These have the uncanny ability, common to the current generation of computer-generated drawings, to make you feel as if the building is already there, but they go further. They exhibit a verve and expressiveness that come close to convincing you that this is a good thing.


Snøhetta's design from Third St. Courtesy: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Snøhetta’s renderings, on the other hand, are pretty dreadful. They are vague and blurry. Moreover, either the designers or those in charge of publicity chose to present the model (which I assume is at this point only digital) in the most unflattering manner possible. It seems to be off-white, divorcing it from the bulk of Mario Botta’s 1995 brick building, while making the latter structure’s white-and-black stone turret dissolve into the new addition’s slab. It also cuts the turret off from the soaring Neo-Gothic forms of the Pacific Bell tower behind it. For some reason, there appears to be a knack or bend in that slab, which in these images only makes it look heavier.


The views from the side are not much better. A grand staircase—which we all know lazy Americans will be loath to use—opens up between what suddenly seem like puny neighbors, disappearing into a mysterious maw under the building’s miraculously cantilevered bulk.


Snøhetta design from Howard St. Courtesy: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art


Stern's design for a walkway. Courtesy: Robert A.M. Stern Architects


Stern reassures and makes convincing, Snohetta alienates and troubles. Let me be clear: I am not at all sure that, when both these buildings finally are reality, my judgment will not be reversed. The more you look at Stern’s plans, the more it appears that he has sacrificed quirkiness, stylistic contradiction, and intricacy in favor of systematic production of iconic and familiar forms that will have little of the depth of Rogers’s work. There is a reason we generally don’t build Neo-Gothic structures anymore: even Yale can’t afford to do them right.


Snøhetta’s museum, on the other hand, might be a masterful mediation between the surrounding skyscrapers and the Botta-designed object. The design promises a grandeur that might draw SFMOMA out of its shell and onto the scale of San Francisco, while retaining its sense of itself as a slightly enigmatic treasure box.


What troubles me more is both the ability of architectural renderings today to convince us in a manner that would seem to make the actual building almost irrelevant, and good architects’ refusal to understand that they must use all technologies at hand to create a convincing building even before it is a reality.


In the end, the building will matter. The Yale buildings may well work because they will meet expectations, both those set up of the drawings and those set up by existing buildings. The Snøhetta building may work because it will do what great architecture should do, namely to astonish us and to do so in a manner that creates an appropriate and wonderful new space for us within its confines. It is equally possible, however that the reality of these drawings promise the buildings’ failures, namely as mediocrities or monumental misfires.



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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.