Why Hard Times Can Make Great Buildings
JULIE V. IOVINE, The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2011, link
A slow economy is hard on architecture, except when it isn’t. As the best buildings of 2011 amply show, closer scrutiny to the bottom line and even the need to lop off extras can lead to a sharper and more forceful design.
The 76-story Beekman Tower by Frank Gehry, renamed New York by Frank Gehry and now known as 8 Spruce St., opened early in the year. During more than five years of intense scrutiny, the tallest residential building in the city re-emerged after financing difficulties—and a halt in construction that spurred rumors it would be half its final height—as a rental with its market-rate rents stabilized for 20 years. For now far taller than anything in its City Hall company and dwarfing even the 57-story Woolworth Building, Mr. Gehry’s steely undulating spire—the architect’s first skyscraper in the U.S.—will make good company when joined on the skyline by all the super towers a few blocks west at the World Trade Center.
Resilience also helped two museums realize their potential even as they faced delays and stiff value engineering—a construction-world euphemism for cutting corners. As a city-funded project for a perennially cash-strapped organization, the addition to the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens occasioned modest expectations. But when the addition, designed by Thomas Leeser, an architect’s architect with few completed works, opened in January following at least one complete redesign, the diamond-cut opaque facade with its canted, liquid white walls and Yves-Klein-blue quilted auditorium, among other zoomy touches, propelled the museum in a stroke to the forefront of high-tech media display spaces. In Denver, the architecture for a museum dedicated to works by the obsessively private Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still stands out for its confident refusal to draw excess attention to itself. Designed by Allied Works Architecture, the firm that gave a makeover to 2 Columbus Circle in New York, the Clyfford Still Museum that opened in November is structurally a simple box made rich by textures and a subtly manipulative use of natural light. Notably, the building’s corduroy-concrete envelope echoes in the perforated cast-concrete ceilings stretched into a delicate web filtering overhead light. Architecture that elegantly showcases the art it contains without broadcasting itself has not been in fashion for a long time and is cause for gratitude.
Less accessible to the wider public and therefore all the more impressive are the academic institutions that have pursued bold architecture for the everyday use of students and faculty. Milstein Hall at Cornell University is a $52-million addition to the school’s architecture, planning and art departments. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Shohei Shigematsu of the Dutch firm OMA, it needed to weave between two existing buildings and also bridge a roadway before even thinking about making a statement. The resulting structure is startlingly multifaceted: From some angles it is a politely elevated rectangular box inserted gingerly between the collegiate beaux arts Sibley Hall from 1894 and the industrial-brick Rand Hall. Structurally, it is far more ambitious, an extended cantilever supported by an array of progressively off-kilter columns telegraphing a message about load stresses. Just outside the entrance, the floor plate buckles up into a dome dotted on its swollen flank with bubble seats on one side and a stair to the upper floor on the other. A bridge crosses under the dome to allow viewing of student life and class activity going on below. It’s the hospitable version of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.”
Milstein Hall shows off one extreme of a current concept popular with academic and research institutions and geared to encourage what the OMA architects call “improvisational interaction.” It could also be called design for casual socializing. The Ray and Dagmar Dolby Regeneration Medicine Building at the University of California, San Francisco is pursuing the same agenda in a warmer climate. Taking advantage of a disadvantaged sliver of a site stuck behind a midcentury university building and pinned against a forest hillside, Rafael Viñoly Architects transformed what might have been a regulation laboratory building into something more reminiscent of a Mediterranean villa. With the structure’s ascending series of terraces edged in wildflower-strewn green-roof lawns and cascading stairs and ramps, even the corrugated steel siding appears sun-kissed. The architect’s approach is organic in an almost geological sense, shaping the building in a riverbed curve and lifting it above a steep site on concrete piers to minimize its impact on the landscape. There is nothing exceptionally experimental here, but it does speak eloquently of architecture’s welcome drive to draw people into a deeper and more rewarding engagement with their environments.