Beyond Buildings


A Return to Order

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Are we seeing a beginning of a call back to order? Will experimentation be a thing of the past? Will normal be the new normal? These are the questions that haunt those of us in architecture (and many other fields) who believe that our culture is a place where we reimagine our world, rather than merely mirroring and confirming it. After the brief moment of experimentation that gave us works by avant garde architects all over Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, the next slate of buildings on the drawing boards look to be more along the lines of Robert A.M. Stern’s recently unveiled plans for the George W. Bush Presidential Center (note, not library).


Granted, the era of derring-do in steel and concrete might have been illusionary. The most successful new skyscraper in Manhattan was, after all, not Frank Gehry’s Beekman Place, but Stern’s neo-classical 15 Central West condominium tower. The taste for the new has always been a selective one. What is more, Stern’s most recent work is not that bad, when taken on its own terms. The condo tower is probably the most successful reinterpretation of that great moment in high-rise living that gave us the broad-based spires marching down Central Park West in the prewar era. Stern skillfully turned the site’s angles into a massing that holds the block and releases its vertical portion, while the selective ornament helps to emphasize the building’s salient points without appearing merely too much.

15 Central Park West

15 Central Park West

The Bush Center, a three-story brick container with limestone details to be constructed on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, eschews the expressive forms of Clinton’s Polshek-designed Little Rock monument in favor of a carefully orchestrated rhythm of semidetached blocks held in place not with a tower or a “dome of democracy,” but with a modest, square block (“Freedom Hall”). It recalls the modernist libraries and high schools that sprouted across the Midwest in the 1950s, but now festooned with the trimmings of classicism that are meant to evoke power and tradition.

Bush Center

Bush Center rendering

Bush Center model

Bush Center Model

The logic of the spaces, the clarity of the massing, and the refinement of the detailing show the Stern’s firm competence at creating the kind of American Classicism the Yale dean set out to develop when he started his office four decades ago. Though he still indulges in modest forays into modernism, the firm, now one of the largest in New York, mainly knows how to give standardized building blocks a certain decorum.

In uncertain times, that will continue to be a popular and effective strategy for getting things built. Here’s what worries me: after a brief moment in which we believed that the combination of new technologies and an economy in which “content is king” would let us create wild and crazy forms at will, we seem to be retrenching to a situation in which any architecture is leached out of the project by the value engineers and cost cutters. It remains only to meet visual and social expectations. Just as Internet sites can’t figure out how to get viewers to pay for their content, so architects can’t find a market for their expressive forms and liberating spaces. Even cultural institutions and the academy, the traditional marketplaces for experimentation, are retreating: see the cancellation of the Toyo Ito plans for the Berkeley Art Museum.

Toyo Ito's design for the Berkeley Art Museum

Toyo Ito's design for the Berkeley Art Museum

Hope rises in the East, where there still seem to be resources for Hadid-designed opera houses, national libraries by BIG, and even market halls by MVRDV. But here, the new norm is the square, the known, and the modest. It is this limited vision to which the Bush Center is the true monument.

MVRDV Market Hall

MVRDV Market Hall



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: ar9 | Time: 12:29 AM Wednesday, December 09, 2009

    Okay, this is just drivel! And this is why architects are put on the couch by serious thinkers. How can we expect those outside our profession to swallow this kind of self-indulgent lamentation, "...architects can’t find a market for their expressive forms and liberating spaces." Despite the author's apparent utopian progressivism, most of humanity has no need or desire to be forcefed experimental architectural whimsy. Desipte the best efforts of 1970's architectural theory trying to carve our some imagined sphere of disciplinary autonomy, a sculpture and a building remain categorically different things. And it is the height of elitism to pine away for the days in which the unwashed masses would simply "...let us create wild and crazy forms at will." Furthermore, in response to the author's assertion that the understated classicism of the Bush Center mirrors and confirms contemporary culture, I would propose that our culturally diverse and individualistic society is FAR more accurately mirrored in projects like Daniel's Denver Art Museum, or Frank's Experience Music Project, or Thom's Cooper Union project, etc. etc. And where is the author's respect for diversity?? Can't we build some beautiful buildings while the silly ones go up as well? "Oh, that would be such a 'retrenchment'. Beauty - been there, done that - onward to the ugly!" And lastly, just imagine if the Bush center DID have a dome or a tower!! The author would have had a field day with that piece of criticism! Oh the pomposity! Not just the "trimmings" but the tower too! p.s. And the MVRDV project represented above is "architecture as a sick joke" - it seems to say that since we can't do anything good, let's do something that we can all point at and laugh... jokes on us... This is what we get when our culture no longer recognizes value in doing things well. One only has to glance for a second at the qualitative disparity between the renderings for the Bush Center and the MVRDV project - quality and care vs. a silly one-liner. No contest.

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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.