Beyond Buildings


Digging for the Spirit in Architecture

Submit A Comment | View Comments

Have you ever wondered how architects manage to get splashy buildings over on clients and the public? They say things such as: “Changes in architectural fashion do not divert ... [us] from our chief objective to fulfill the needs of the people who will use our buildings. A prime concern in the design of our buildings is to create environments which encourage the human spirit, while incorporating state-of-the-art technology.” That bit of pablum is the philosophy of Davis Brody Bond Aedas (DBB), according to the World Architects website. This is one of the local architecture firms that was eaten up by the Aedas group, a globe-spanning behemoth producing mainly flashy froth. (Full disclosure: I have written a text for a book about one of Aedas' other divisions).


What is truly amazing to me is that the critic Judith Dobrzynski quotes this as an example of how Steven Davis is different from other architects. “I wonder if Davis could speak with the likes of Richard Meier and Daniel Libeskind,” she also wrote, about Davis' comments regarding the National September 11 Memorial & Museum: "The exhibits are the icon. It's the inverse of a traditional museum in those respects."


Credit: Courtesy 9/11 Memorial

I have news for you, Ms. Dobrzynski: Those two would say much the same. Richard Meier, on his website:  “Architecture has the power to inspire, to elevate the spirit, to feed both the mind and the body.”  All architects believe they are encouraging “the human spirit” and of course most of them want to use state-of-the-art technology.


In this case, Dobrzynski is quoting Davis in regards to her thoughts on the design for the 9/11 museum. Now, what is interesting to me is that DBB is the designer only of the actual exhibit part of the whole 9/11 memorial extravaganza. The architect of the pavilion at ground level is Snøhetta, the Norwegian firm that is producing a pretty eye-catching event. The overall design is by Michael Arad, a previously unknown architect who won the competition and has since teamed up with the oh-so-experienced landscape architect Peter Walker. The part DBB is designing is all about the slurry wall: the expanse of foundation whose sheer scale and brute form is all that will physically remind people of the monstrous forms of the Twin Towers and the equally monstrous violence that brought them down. It is as extravagant and showy a gesture as anything either Meier or Libeskind has ever produced. It also will cost somewhere north of $500 million.

Slurry Wall
Credit: Courtesy of Real Clear Arts

“But it’s not news to say that museums have been trying to outdo themselves with trophy buildings that don’t always work well for the art inside. It has to stop,” Dobrzynski also writes. Geez, Ms. Dobrzynski, what a tragedy. Museums that are big and splashy and don’t enslave their design to the art. Let’s not forget: Museums are not about art, but about bringing people and art together. That takes a lot of scenography and sometime some icon-making. The 9/11 memorial will have plenty of both and will be, at least in dollar terms, bigger than all but one or two new museum buildings. As to outdoing each other: I would rather that we vie to create the best possible museums than that we race to make our buildings as cheap and mediocre as fast food. I just wish we were spending that kind of money on an art museum for living art and living people, not on a memorial. So let’s lift the spirit with great environments, using state-of-the-art technology and hire the right architects to do so.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Judith Dobrzynski | Time: 7:14 PM Saturday, August 21, 2010

    Let's get this right: I did NOT quote Davis Brody's "pablum" as a reason that Steven Davis should talk with Meier and Libeskind. I DID use his statement about the exhibits reigning over the building as a reason for the conversation. I also stated, right at the top, that I was not familiar with Davis and I used the conditional that he "seems" to be different. I disagree with your statement that museums are not about art: maybe not all museums are, but art museums are -- and when in conflict art should take precedence over the building's architecture. That does not imply they have to be in conflict.

    Report this as offensive

Comment on this Post

Post your comment below. If you wish, enter a username and password though they are not required. Please read our Content Guidelines before posting.


Enter the code shown in the image

Username is optional


Enter a password if you want a username


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.