The Gateway Arch
It was wonderful to climb to the top shortly after it was completed
and to hear the Park Rangers in the viewing lounge describe it as their local
“mountaintop” where they relaxed after the crowds had gone for the day.
I agree with Sauer’s notion of its inevitable tactility and its essential and unfettered modernism.
Now, viewing it on the web in recent photographs I am struck by its
kinship to that other great modern American monument The Vietnam
Veterans Memorial. One is arched vertically, the other horizontally.
One exults in a new beginning with soaring optimism, the other
rejoices in and yet grieves for life-ending heroism.
But each expresses in the purity of its relationship to earth and air
the poetic aura that emanates from buildings of unfettered, minimalist clarity.
The Arch is worthy of inclusion.
The Disney Concert Hall
It is clearly Gehry at his creative best.
Having seen most of his works in Europe and the USA, I find that the
Disney hall has the tautness of a Stradivarius both in its elegant,
curvilinear exterior case and in the fabulous
limpidity of the instrument itself.......before it lets loose its
controlled, yet exuberant sounds, reverberating with clarity and ease.
A bassoonist from the orchestra of St. Martin in the fields having
been asked “how did you enjoy playing the wonderful Troy Music Hall?”
responded “Well, it's a beautifully tuned space, but have you ever
played in Los Angeles' new concert hall? We just did and it was beautiful.”
Clearly Gehry has designed the space as an instrument to be played
by sensitive musicians. The joyful exterior is something to elevate
the spirits of those who fail to get in to a sold-out performance and
whose disappointment is eased by the chuckling subtleties of the
great morphological game.
Empire State Building
The Empire State Building, sporting new energy-efficient windows and
with high-performance LED fixtures illuminating its spire, looks grand at
77 years of age. Familiar to every visitor to New York City, and to every
filmgoer, it handily topped the Harris Poll of America's Favorite Architecture,
conducted for the 2007 sesquicentennial of the American Institute of Architects.
But the King Kong of all skyscrapers was appreciated from the get-go.
The WPA Guide to New York City, written just eight years after the Empire State
Building was completed, states: “its architectural importance far transcends
the matter of height alone. The design, for which Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon won
the gold medal of the Architectural League in 1931, is essentially modern.”
Seen from near or far, the stepped-back form of the Empire State Building
is immediately identifiable. For New Yorkers, its dirigible-mooring mast
gestures emphatically, with an iconic timelessness that reinforces our sense
of who we are and, post-9/11, what we fear to lose. In his 1948 book, Here
is New York, E. B. White wrote, “The Empire State Building shot twelve
hundred and fifty feet into the air when it was madness to put out as much
as six inches of new growth.” He saw this as “the white plume saying that this
way is up.” The building has become our lighthouse, the landmark against
which we measure distance and time. As one of the buildings that give shape
to New York, it is essential and still modern, after all these years.
The Tribune Tower is a wonderful distillation of the aspirations of
America in the 1920s — a nation that had embraced and advanced the
technology of modernism but continued to struggle — as we do to this day
— with its aesthetic expression. The product of a renowned international
competition that featured entries by some of the leading architects — both
modern and traditional — of the era, Raymond Hood and John Howells’ winning
entry is a soaring, elegant structure rendered in Late Gothic dress, modeled
after the tower of the Cathedral of Rouen, in France. As such it carries
forward — in an arguably far more suave and architecturally resolved fashion,
the aesthetic of the Gothic skyscraper that was definitively established in
the prior decade by Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building in New York. Both of
these of course derive their architectural logic from the Gothic spire, the
most refined and powerful vertical expression found in traditional architecture.
The architectural brief put forward by the Colonel McCormick of the
Tribune called for the “Most Beautiful Skyscraper in the world,” but it
is interesting to speculate as to what meaning he and the Tribune Corporation
were seeking to communicate to their public. Gothic architecture primarily connotes
the spiritual and the scholastic — not normally what would be considered defining
traits of a large commercial enterprise like a newspaper. The competition actually
did much to expose this dilemma of style — and it is especially Eliel Saarinen’s
second place entry, which exploits the tapering verticality of Gothic architecture
while rendering it in a contemporary abstract fashion that removes much of its traditional
symbolic (religious) meaning, that begins to point the way toward an appropriately modern
skyscraper expression. Hood himself was quick to pick this up as can be seen
in subsequent buildings such as the Daily News Building, and the great urban
ensemble of Rockefeller Center (both in New York).
Having said all this, the Tribune Tower is an icon of Chicago and American
architecture; it remains a strong and striking presence both at the pedestrian
level along Michigan Avenue, where the wealth of detail is brought down to a fine
human scale that creates one of the great entry experiences to be found anywhere in a
building of this type, and on the Chicago skyline. As a work that defines the quality of
design and construction technology that was possible in the America of the roaring
twenties — while simultaneously revealing its deep stylistic ambivalence,
the Tribune Tower has few if any equals anywhere in the country.
The Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum
The Air and Space Museum (1976) contains the largest collection of air
and spacecraft in the world. The intensive functional requirements of housing
such a collection, when combined with the client's requirement that the building
not stand out against its monumental backdrop of the Washington Mall, dictated its
simple design solution. While graceful, and constructed of fine materials with
elegant details, there is little for a visitor to note about the architecture of the
museum (especially when there are lunar rovers and flying boats to distract you!)
Architect Gyo Obata of HOK adeptly met the complex programmatic requirements, but the
resulting structure is so vanilla that it hardly compares to the presence of the
rest of his oeuvre. Obata's training under Eero Saarinen is much more apparent
in works like Independence Temple and McDonnell Planetarium (both in Missouri).
In fact, the Smithsonian was a much more lenient parent to the Air and
Space Museum's two neighbors on the Mall, the Hirshhorn (1974, Gordon Bunshaft)
and the Museum of the American Indian (2004, Douglas Cardinal). It's as
if Obata was made to design by stricter rules to pay for some imagined sins
of Bunshaft's sculptural Hirshhorn, and then by the time the baby Museum of
the Indian came along to fill the last site on the Mall, the Smithsonian had
given up on trying to raise only prim and unobtrusive buildings on the Mall.
The most unfortunate effect of the Air and Space Museum is that it, like
nearly every other building along Independence or Constitution Avenues, contributes
to the dead zone of activity and urban design at the boundaries of the National
Mall. Across Independence Avenue from the Museum are the massive and institutional
buildings of the Department of Education and Federal Aviation. The only difference
between the two sides of the street is that the entering the bureaucracy requires
extensive security checks, allows no photography of the building's contents, and
leaves the visitor standing in just as oppressive of an environment as she found
outside on Independence. Once you enter Obata's chicly austere travertine volume,
however, you immediately recognize that the building comfortably houses both a
horde of happy children and hundreds of priceless, fascinating artifacts. The
Smithsonian, for its urban design foibles, still inspires its visitors to celebrate
the shared cultural property of the nation. We can only imagine a federal
bureaucracy that might be so engaging.
Fenway Park’s allure is one part intimacy, one part eccentricity, one part
urban setting and one part nostalgia, adding up to a special place to watch a
baseball game. This is not an eye-catching arena standing in a sea of parking,
containing a vast interior space for sports. Aside from its light towers seen from
the turnpike, Fenway is an unremarkable piece of urban fabric, nearly anonymous. Set
amidst narrow streets featuring a mélange of shops, restaurants, bars and businesses,
this unassuming structure happens to house a small, nearly century-old ballpark.
You are on top of it before you know it.
The urban location dictates Fenway’s famous irregular shape, hemmed in
by the pre-existing street pattern. The resulting limitations, epitomized
by the Green Monster, affect both the team’s character (offense is favored over
defense) and its revenue. In fact, before the recent discovery that Fenway
teams could win a modern World Series (twice!) and before the continuing
inventive work of the architect Janet Marie Smith, many in the sports world
assumed that Fenway’s small, idiosyncratic field was the true curse of the
Red Sox. This was apparently not the case.