Appearances: Stern and Snøhetta Try to Convince
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
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
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.