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What Makes a Building Memorable?

What Makes a Building Memorable?

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington DC

Courtesy Totya. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution- ShareAlike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic, and 1.0 Generic licenses

For jargon-free, learned, yet entertaining writing about architecture, a Witold Rybczynski book is always something we look forward to. The newest title, How Architecture Works: A Humanist Toolkit, explores everything from ideas to site to skin, in fact the 10 fundamental things that make architecture an object of everyday use.  But more than taking us on a tour of the practical building arts, a Rybczynski book is masterful at exploring the mood, beauty, memory, and all those things we love, or wonder about, when we observe the built environment that surrounds us. Here, I chose to excerpt the introduction to the book, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, which starts with a personal memory of place and time.--SSS

 

A Jacobean Revival chapel that I attended in high school was my first intimate experience of architecture: timber arches, dark paneling, stained-glass windows depicting suffering Jesuit martyrs— and hard wooden pews. The carved pulpit was like a fo’c’sle overlooking a sea of restless schoolboys. Exactly what makes a building memorable is hard to pin down.

Witold Rybczynski

Courtesy David Graham

It’s certainly not merely fulfilling a practical function—all buildings do that. Beauty? Architecture is an art, yet we rarely concentrate our attention on buildings as we do on plays, books, and paintings. Most architecture, a backdrop for our everyday lives, is experienced in bits and pieces—the glimpsed view of a distant spire, the intricacy of a wrought-iron railing, the soaring space of a railroad station waiting room. Sometimes it’s just a detail, a well-shaped door handle, a window framing a perfect little view, a rosette carved into a chapel pew. And we say to ourselves, “How nice. Someone actually thought of that.”

Despite this familiarity, most of us lack a conceptual framework for thinking about the experience of architecture.  Where are we to find this framework—in the intentions and theories of architects, in the pronouncements of critics, in some kind of pure aesthetic judgment, or in our own experience of buildings? The rationalizations of architects are usually unreliable, intended to persuade rather than to explain. The judgments of critics are frequently little more than partisan opinions. Nor are architectural terms always clear, whether it is the dentils, squinches, and ogee curves of historical styles, or the impenetrable poststructuralist jargon of the contemporary avant-garde. Of course, all professions have their technical terminology, but  while television and the movies have made the languages of law and medicine familiar, the infrequent appearance of architects on the big screen is rarely enlightening, whether it’s the fictional Howard Roark in The Fountainhead or the real Stanford White in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.

Why does this matter? Because architecture is for the most part a public art. Despite the media’s trumpeting of “signature” buildings, architecture isn’t—or at least shouldn’t be—a personality cult. Gothic cathedrals were not built for architecture buffs or the cognoscenti but for the medieval man in the street, who could gape at the grotesque gargoyles, be inspired by the carvings of devout saints, marvel at the glowing rose windows, or be transported by the hymns reverberating in the cavernous nave. Architecture, if it is any good, speaks to all of us.

 

Gehry House

Courtesy Witold Rybczynski

Experiencing architecture

What counts as architecture? In the Middle Ages the answer was simple; cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and a few public buildings were architecture, the rest was simply building. Today, the scope of architecture has broadened. Architecture is the setting for many ordinary activities, and it may be small or large, modest or grand, special or mundane. Ultimately, we recognize the spirit of architecture in any building that exhibits a coherent visual language. As Mies van der Rohe observed, “Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together.”

The language of built architecture is not a foreign tongue— you shouldn’t need a phrase book or a user’s manual—but it can be complicated, since buildings must accomplish many tasks, practical as well as artistic. The architect is thinking of function as well as inspiration, of construction as well as visual expression, and of details as well as spatial effects. He must take into account the building’s long-term use as well as its immediate impact, and consider its surroundings as well as its interior environment. “The architect is a sort of theatrical producer, the man who plans the setting for our lives,” wrote Steen Eiler Rasmussen. “When his intentions succeed, he is like the perfect host who provides every comfort for his guests so that living with him is a happy experience.”

Rasmussen, a Danish architect and planner, wrote that in 1959 in his classic Experiencing Architecture. It is a deceptively simple book. “My object is in all modesty to endeavor to explain the instrument the architect plays on, to show what a great range it has and thereby awaken the senses to its music.” The accomplished author of numerous books on cities and urban history— and a friend of Karen Blixen—Rasmussen was not a polemicist. “It is not my intention to attempt to teach people what is right or wrong, what is beautiful or ugly.” He visited most of the buildings he described, and the bulk of the photographs in the book are his own. Experiencing Architecture takes the reader behind the scenes, so to speak, and reveals how architecture works its magic.

I was introduced to Experiencing Architecture by Norbert Schoenauer, my favorite teacher when I was an architecture student at McGill University. A Hungarian postwar refugee, he had studied under Rasmussen at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.  The experience turned Schoenauer   into a Scandinavian humanist, and while he taught me the craft of architecture—how to draw and plan and design—he never let me forget that buildings were foremost settings for everyday life.  

 

You shouldn’t need a phrase book or a user’s manual—but it can be complicated, since buildings must accomplish many tasks, practical as well as artistic. The architect is thinking of function as well as inspiration, of construction as well as visual expression, and of details as well as spatial effects. He must take into account the building’s long-term use as well as its immediate impact, and consider its surroundings as well as its interior environment. “The architect is a sort of theatrical producer, the man who plans the setting for our lives,” wrote Steen Eiler Rasmussen. “When his intentions succeed, he is like the perfect host who provides every comfort for his guests so that living with him is a happy experience.”

Rasmussen, a Danish architect and planner, wrote that in 1959 in his classic Experiencing Architecture. It is a deceptively simple book. “My object is in all modesty to endeavor to explain the instrument the architect plays on, to show what a great range it has and thereby awaken the senses to its music.” The accom- plished author of numerous books on cities and urban history— and a friend of Karen Blixen—Rasmussen was not a polemicist. “It is not my intention to attempt to teach people what is right or wrong, what is beautiful or ugly.” He visited most of the buildings he described, and the bulk of the photographs in the book are his own. Experiencing Architecture takes the reader behind the scenes, so to speak, and reveals how architecture works its magic.

I was introduced  to Experiencing Architecture by Norbert Schoenauer, my favorite teacher when I was an architecture stu- dent at McGill University. A Hungarian postwar refugee, he had studied under Rasmussen at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.  The experience  turned  Schoenauer  into a Scandinavian humanist, and while he taught me the craft of architecture—how to draw and plan and design—he never let me forget that buildings were foremost settings for everyday life.

In  developing a conceptual  toolkit for thinking about  the experience   of  architecture, I follow  in Rasmussen’s—and Schoenauer’s—footsteps. Such a toolkit should reflect our daily experience of buildings, which is practical as well as aesthetic. This book moves between the two poles, sometimes emphasizing one, sometimes the other. This requires occasionally changing the focus—zooming in to a small detail, zooming out to consider a building in its overall surroundings. Along the way, I aim to provide practical answers to theoretical questions or, to paraphrase James Wood, to ask a critic’s questions and offer an architect’s answers. What is the meaning of a particular form? How does a detail contribute to the whole? Why does this building touch us?

Some readers will look in vain for their favorite building. Like Rasmussen, I have generally confined myself to buildings I have visited—and buildings that have spoken to me—so the range is hardly comprehensive; in any case, this is not meant to be a catalog of buildings and architects, but of ideas. My book is likewise a personal exploration, and while the Dane was a committed modernist who brought a functionalist’s sensibility to his task, I’ve lived through both the decline and resurgence—in altered form—of modern architecture, and along the  way have lost many of my youthful certainties. I consider history a gift, rather than an imposition, for example, and find historians to be more reliable guides than many architectural thinkers. As someone who has practiced architecture, I find it difficult to excuse technical incompetence in the name of experimentation, or to overlook functional deficiencies for the sake of artistic purity. Architecture is an applied art, and it is in the application that the architect  often finds inspiration. I confess to a partiality for those who face this challenge squarely, rather than withdraw to hermetic theories or personal quests.

Vertical Aesthetic

Experiencing Architecture has one striking omission. Except for a brief and unexplained allusion to the “great monotony” of Rockerfeller Center, Rasmussen had nothing to say about the twentieth century’s most distinctive addition to the architectural lexicon: the skyscraper. It’s a curious oversight. Admittedly, there were few high-rise buildings in Europe in 1959, but he might have mentioned the KBC Tower, a twenty-six-story Art Deco building in Antwerp and Europe’s first skyscraper, or the interesting Torre Velasca, a medieval-looking postwar high-rise in Milan. Nor did he refer to a skyscraper being built in his native Copenhagen, the SAS Royal Hotel designed by Arne Jacobsen, Denmark ’s leading modernist. Rasmussen, who was a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and traveled widely in the United States, included several American buildings in his book, but not Lever House, the office building that had inspired Jacobsen, nor the most talked-about skyscraper of the 1950s, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. Despite his rather conventional modernist leanings, Rasmussen was a traditional urbanist, and I have the impression that he disapproved of the idea of cities dominated by commercial towers.

Our cities are full of tall buildings. Skyscrapers have become so ubiquitous that we take them for granted and easily forget what unusual structures they really are, feats of engineering designed to resist major wind forces (and earthquakes), integrating environmental and communications systems, and transporting people quickly and efficiently hundreds of feet into the air. Functionally, nothing could be simpler than an office or apartment tower: repetitive floors stacked up one on top of the other surrounding an elevator core. But skyscrapers represent a thorny architectural problem. For one thing, they are very big. You can stand back and take in the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster in London, just as you would any other building, but a skyscraper is different. Architects are often pictured with maquettes of tall buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright posed in his studio in front of a seven-foot-high model of the proposed San Francisco Call Building; Life magazine depicted Mies van der Rohe as an architectural Gulliver peering out between the twin towers of the Lake Shore Drive apartments; and a Time magazine cover showed Philip Johnson cradling a model of the AT&T Building like a proud father. But actual skyscrapers are much too big to be experienced all of a piece. They are perceived in two quite different ways: from a great distance, as part of the urban skyline, and close up, as part of the street.

 

The other problem with office towers is their lack of architectural variety. Traditionally, architects have made large buildings interesting compositions by introducing different-size windows, projecting bays, balconies, gables, turrets, dormers, and chimneys. But a high-rise office building consists of floor after floor of un-differentiated space. It took architects some time to find a satisfying solution. In 1896, twenty-six years after the first elevatored office building—the seven-story Equitable Life Assurance Building in New York City, which resembled a pumped-up Parisian mansion—the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan wrote a ground- breaking essay titled “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” Sullivan described skyscrapers as the crude combination of technology (elevators and steel construction) and economics (putting more rentable space on a building lot). “How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of these higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions?” he asked in his somewhat flowery prose. His answer, simply put, was to divide the tall building into different parts. The lowest two floors would be richly ornamented and relate visually to the street; the upper floors would express Sullivan’s dictum that “form ever follows function.” He explained: “Above this, throughout the indefinite number of typical office tiers, we take our cue from the individual cell, which requires a window with its separating pier, its sill and lintel, and we, without more ado, make them look all alike because they are all alike.” He also suggested that the top of the building should be finished off with an attic floor, a frieze, or a large cornice, to indicate that the tiers of offices had definitely come to an end. At the time he wrote the essay, Sullivan had already demonstrated his concept in the Wainwright Building in St. Louis. The ten-story block of red brick and ornamented terracotta is hardly a skyscraper by our standards, but it nevertheless is generally considered to be the prototype for the modern high-rise office building. The piers between the rows of identical windows run straight up uninterrupted to the frieze, and produce what Sullivan called a “vertical aesthetic.”

Sullivan’s tripartite formula, based on a classical sense of architectural order, influenced many later skyscrapers, including the famous Flatiron Building, designed by his Chicago colleague, Daniel Burnham. While Sullivan designed organic decorations akin to European Art Nouveau, Burnham favored historical models; for example, his and John Root’s Masonic Temple Building in Chicago, once the tallest in the world, was topped by a vaguely Tudor pitched roof, while their Rookery Building includes Byzantine, Venetian, and Romanesque motifs.

The Gothic style was common in early skyscrapers such as the Woolworth Building in New York, the Cathedral Building in Oakland, and the Chicago Tribune Tower. The proportions and attenuated ornament of Perpendicular Gothic are tailor-made for very tall buildings, since they emphasize verticality and upward thrust. The top of the Chicago Tribune Tower, for example, with its flying buttresses and pinnacles, was based on the Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral. The architect, Raymond Hood, later designed commercial towers that were progressively less ornamented, but he maintained the pronounced sense of vertical massing. His magnificent RCA Building at Rockefeller Center, which creates the impression of a soaring stalagmite, remains one of the best skyscrapers in Manhattan—despite Rasmussen’s reservations.

Modern tall buildings can still be loosely categorized as either classical or Gothic, depending on how they deal with structure. Consider the  recently completed  Comcast  Center  in Philadelphia, designed by Robert A. M. Stern. From a distance, the all- glass tower looks like a tapering obelisk. The base of the building, which faces a pedestrian plaza, is fronted by a tall winter garden leading to the lobby. Stern is known as the architect of Shingle Style houses and Georgian campus buildings, and while Comcast is modernist in execution, it is classical in composition, adhering to Sullivan’s formula of base-shaft-crown.

There is nothing in the Comcast Center’s sleek glass walls that reveals what holds up the tower. In fact, its steel frame surrounds a high-strength reinforced concrete elevator and stair core (a post-9/11 safety feature), and the top of the building houses the world’s largest tuned damper, a water-filled pendulum that acts to minimize swaying of the building in high winds. But these devices are hidden. In the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters in Hong Kong, on the other hand, Norman Foster reveals the elements of the core, since he places them on the exterior of the building. The main structural components—clusters of columns, massive trusses, and crisscrossing girders—are similarly exposed. Unlike most Hong Kong skyscrapers, which have discreet, solid forms, the bank is composed of several stepped-back sections of different heights, giving the impression that the building is still under construction. “There is a lot more that is Gothic than classical in all this structural and spatial magic,” wrote the British architecture critic Chris Abel. “If the ‘medieval’ service towers, ‘flying braces’ and ‘incomplete’ appearance  of the building had not already prompted the idea, then the soaring proportions of the atrium (read nave) and the great translucent eastern window easily justify the  building’s  popular description as a ‘cathedral  of commerce.’ ” “Cathedral of Commerce” was the nickname of the Woolworth Building, whose architect, Cass Gilbert, created little gargoyles in the lobby in the likeness of persons involved in the building, including himself (with a slide rule), and Frank Woolworth, the “5¢ and 10¢ store” magnate, counting his nickels and dimes. Gilbert had a lighter touch than Foster, whose austere style is never humorous, but Abel is correct to draw the parallel. Like a medieval cathedral, the Hongkong Bank celebrates its construction.

In the New York Times Building on Eighth Avenue, Renzo Piano achieves something unusual: he combines classical and Gothic. From a distance, the tall building appears to be a simple cruciform shaft. The all-glass form is almost entirely shrouded by a sunscreen that gives the tower an oddly insubstantial appearance from a distance. But the impression of delicacy changes when the building is approached at street level. From the prominent steel rods that suspend the glass canopy over the sidewalk, to the  exposed  columns and beams and crisscrossing tension members at the corners, the Times Building flexes its structural muscles in plain view. Engineering hasn’t been celebrated  this boldly in Manhattan since the George Washington Bridge.

 

These three buildings are corporate symbols as well as workplaces. The sleek glass Comcast Center, as smooth—and as mute—as a computer chip, houses a high-tech communications company; the façade of the Hongkong Bank is uniformly matte gray, like a banker’s pinstriped suit; and the  New York Times Building, home of the nation’s newspaper of record, emphasizes openness  and transparency. Symbolism in corporate towers is a reminder that large commercial buildings are not expressions of an architect’s personal vision. Of course, Stern’s interest in history, Foster’s fascination with technology, and Piano’s respect for craftsmanship influence their respective designs. But these buildings also have a lot to say about the corporations that built them, and even more about the societies that built them. Discussing the New York Times Building, Renzo Piano observed: “I like the idea that this century is opening up with a discovery that the earth is fragile and the environment is vulnerable. Fragility, breathing with the earth and the environment, is part of a new culture. I thought the Times Building should have the qualities of lightness, vibrancy, transparency, and immateriality.” This is what makes architecture interesting in a different way than sculpture or painting; buildings can sometimes be an expression of what Mies van der Rohe once called the “will of the epoch.”

The three skyscrapers are also a reminder that while buildings respond to economic and cultural forces, they are primarily local. They are built in specific cities—Philadelphia, Hong Kong, New York—and they respond to their urban surroundings. They also occupy distinctly different sites. The Comcast Center is next to a Presbyterian church and faces a large plaza. It is no coincidence that the plaza is on the south side of the building—it is always best to enter a building on its sunny side if possible, for that is where the façade will appear to best advantage, with sharply de- fined shadow lines and contrasts, and in Comcast’s case a sun- filled winter garden. The Hongkong Bank also faces a plaza—Statue Square—which connects to the Kowloon ferry terminal. Thus, Foster’s tower occupies a unique site in the city, visible from a great distance, first from the deck of the ferry, then while walking through the park, and finally from the square itself. Piano’s building, by contrast, is almost lost in midtown Manhattan’s forest of tall buildings. From the narrow canyon of Eighth Avenue, and the even narrower confines of Fortieth and Forty-First Streets, its architecture is experienced in snatched glimpses.

The three skyscrapers demonstrate how differently different architects use similar materials. The all-glass skin of the Com-cast Center is stretched tautly across the façade; two different kinds of glass—one more and one less transparent—define the obelisk. The glass wall of the Hongkong Bank, by contrast, is seen through a steel filigree, whose large and small structural components create a rich and deeply articulated façade. The all-glass New York Times Building is cloaked in sunscreens. The way that these architects handle details is different, too. Stern’s details are elegant but don’t call attention to themselves. Foster makes details that are smooth and precise, like a luxury automobile. Piano’s details tend to be articulated, beautifully crafted nuts and bolts.

We often describe exciting new buildings as unique and fresh. Indeed, to say that a building is groundbreaking has become the highest form of praise, as if architecture, like fashion, should avoid any reference to the past. Yet, as Philip Johnson wisely observed, “you cannot not know history.” I can’t look at the Comcast Center without thinking of the ancient Egyptian monument whose form it mimics. When I first saw the Hongkong Bank it reminded me of Victorian engineering and steel railroad bridges. The New York Times Building makes me think of the nearby Seagram Building, and how, by simply adding a sunscreen, Piano altered Mies’s classic steel-and-glass idiom. None of these three buildings can be described as historicist, yet none can escape history.

The toolkit

It helps to have a sense of what architects are trying to do, both practically and aesthetically, to understand how architecture works. In this book I describe ten essential topics of architectural concern, and the different ways in which contemporary architects do—and sometimes intentionally don’t—address them.

The first third of the book deals with the fundamentals. I begin by discussing how buildings can be the expression of a single, often very simple, idea. But buildings are more than intellectual creations; that’s what Frank Lloyd Wright meant when he re- marked to Philip Johnson: “Why, Philip, little Phil, all grown up, building buildings and leaving them out in the rain.” All buildings are left out in the rain; that is, a building is always part of a climate, a geography, a particular place. The immediate setting—what architects call the context—plays an important role in shaping a building’s design, although some buildings fit in while others stick out. Sometimes, the setting is an existing building that must be added on to. Equally important is the site, which is not exactly the same thing. The site affects the way that a building is seen from afar, the way it is approached, the views it offers, the position of the sun.

The middle third of the book explores various aspects of the architect’s craft. In most buildings, the resolution of the site and its surroundings is manifested in the building’s plan, which is the designer’s chief organizing tool. A work of architecture, however profound its generating idea, has to be built, and in a digital age buildings remain resolutely physical—bricks and mortar. I describe three essential aspects of the material presence of a building: structure, skin, and details. To the non-architect, these might seem to be purely technical subjects, determined by objective science, or at least engineering, but in truth they are as subjective and individual as an architect’s sketch.

The final third of the book broadens the discussion. For most people, architectural style is one of the most interesting—and pleasurable—rewards of looking at buildings, yet for many architects, especially modernist architects, style is a delicate subject, sometimes skirted, often flatly denied. “Style is like a feather in a woman’s hat, nothing more,” stated Le Corbusier, and yet, as his own work shows, a sense of style is an important ingredient in all successful buildings. The past is an ever-present concern for architects, because buildings last a long time, which means that new buildings almost always have old neighbors. Moreover, new designs must recognize that cultural ideas about how buildings are used last a long time, too, hence the durable notions of front door and back door, upstairs and downstairs, inside and outside. Here, too, there is a divergence of opinion, some treating the past as an inspiration, others as a burden. Taste is equally in dispute: Picasso called good taste “a dreadful thing . . . the enemy of creativeness,” whereas Goethe wrote, “Nothing is more fearful than imagination without taste.”

 

The ways that buildings reflect the past, use materials, and deploy details vary considerably, of course, and as the three sky- scrapers previously discussed demonstrate, there is happily no one right way to build—although there are many wrong ways. I write “happily” because I welcome architectural diversity. While the practitioner needs a solid conceptual foundation in order to create—and it is important to understand that foundation in order to better appreciate a building—I do not consider that there is only one correct architectural approach. As Rasmussen observed, “That which may be right for one artist may well be wrong for another.”

Such an ecumenical position is out of step with the intense debate—the so-called discourse—that besets the architectural world today. Around the turn of the century, in music, painting, and literature, classic forms of representation broke down and with this came the need for theoretical manifestos to accompany works of art. Architecture has attempted to follow suit, producing architects better known for their writing than their built work, and practitioners whose work is accompanied by long—and often labored—explanations. However, unlike music, painting, and literature, which can exist purely in the imagination, architecture cannot be separated from the physical world: floors must be level, doors must swing open, a stair is always a stair. Architecture, grounded firmly as it is in the world, is not an academic discipline, and attempts to impose intellectual theories on buildings always run up against these irritating practicalities.

I have no grand theory to advance, no polemical agenda, no school to champion. Architecture, good architecture, is rare enough; there is no need to create artificial schisms. In any case, I believe that architecture emerges from the act of building; theories, if they have any place at all, are an indulgence of the scholar, not a need of the practitioner. All architects, no matter their professed ideology, share a concern with program, site, materials, and construction. Lest this sound too mundane, all architects are also in pursuit of that ineffable something, the quality, as Paul Cret wisely pointed out, that is the essence of architecture.  Under- standing that essence is what this book is about.

 

 

Witold Rybczynski has written about architecture for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Slate.  Among his award-winning books are Home, The Most Beautiful House in the World, and A Clearing in the Distance, which won the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. Learn more about the author at his website, www.witoldrybczynski.com

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