Ga-ga for Glass

November 27, 2008

During the late 1920s the German socialist architect Bruno Taut published a fascinating book on “glassarchitecture” that presaged the experiments of his countryman, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe only a few years later. Once Mies designed his signature glass curtain wall skyscrapers in Chicago, the potential magic of this new material was unleashed on the world. Architects have been spellbound by glass architecture ever since.

Engineering and building technology have lagged behind the visions of architects for centuries, but no material has proved as elusive as glass in testing the ingenuity of designers. Though it can provide abundant natural light in buildings, and makes an attractive exterior surface when properly handled, glass has many drawbacks as a building skin. It absorbs heat and ultraviolet rays, sheds water poorly, and is expensive to manufacture in large sheets. Moreover, it is structurally fragile, needing a backing framework in order to withstand wind loads and other natural hazards. In short, glass does not possess the qualities we look for in a tough, weather-resistant building skin.

Recent developments in “lightweight” structures have allowed designers to employ glass in new and often exciting ways. Thicker glass panels are now used as balustrades and “invisible” barriers for stairways and balconies. Architects have designed glass stair treads with little or no metal armature for support. And engineers have devised every more intricate multi-layer glass curtain wall systems that mitigate against heat gain and loss. Indeed, there is a kind of renaissance in glass technology that has brought the material back into vogue after decades of problematic and leaky curtain wall failures.

Despite these new developments, sustainable design standards suggest that buildings employ no more than 40% glass as an exterior surface in order to maximize the performance of the building envelope. This is about the percentage employed in classic tall buildings of the Chicago school during the 1890s and early 1900s. The Guaranty Building in Buffalo and Wainright in St. Louis are still among the most beautiful tall buildings in America.

I find it mystifying and unconscionable that architects continue to preach about energy efficiency while producing more and more all-glass (or virtually all-glass) buildings. The most recent issue of Architectural Record featured what may be the non-plus-ultra of such follies: the Kanagawa Institute of Technology Workshop by Junya Ishigami & Associates. The architect professed to be interested in blurring the boundaries between interior and exterior, even between structure and skin, in this frustratingly elusive building. Indeed, the students working at desks in the building must feel as if they are literally in a fishbowl, as there is no frame of reference that articulates the space they occupy.

The use of glass in the walls, with almost no suggestion of supports or frame, renders the building curiously boring and listless. In the evening, when clear glass buildings are most dramatic, the spaces inside appear vacant (no humans are shown in the photos) except for oddly placed desks and the inevitable clutter associated with workshops. The daylight photos in the article show that the building is unimpressive in an overcast environment and that the spaces do not benefit from fully-transparent outer walls when skylights provide ample interior illumination. In sum, this essay in “crystal” architecture proves that the modernist ideal of transparency is as elusive as ever. Even new technology cannot make up for the challenges of constructing a foolproof and beautiful “window wall.”

Why do architects continue to use glass as a monolithic material in walls, when it is clearly more effective as a covering for apertures? The likely answer lies in an irrational fascination with the crystal metaphor that Taut identified in his treatise almost a century ago. Pursuing a “crystalline” fantasy with technology resulted in some of the silliest and most wasteful architecture of the mid-20th century (now requiring vast capital expenditures for restoration). The current greenhouse fantasy is little different, and will undoubtedly result in a host of similar failures as we face a new challenge–energy efficient, resource miserly buildings for a planet that is roasting in its own conservatory of CO2, a glass-enclosed globe.

Paul Rudolph, Tragic Hero

November 11, 2008

Last weekend the Yale School of Architecture celebrated the restoration of not only a building, but also the reputation of one of its most controversial educators. Paul Rudolph’s enigmatic masterpiece, the Art & Architecture Building (1965) reopened with a gala celebration attended by many of his former students, a who’s who of current architectural lions. Lord Richard Rogers, Lord Norman Foster, Dean Robert Stern, Vincent Scully, Stanley Tigerman, Allan Greenberg, Carl Abbott, and Alexander Tzonis were speakers at the event, but many other luminaries also came to honor a mentor and and sometime antagonist, perhaps the most talented and charismatic architect of the 1960s.

History was made under Rudolph, so it is fitting that the commemoration take on the gravity of its moment, only a few days after the Obama triumph. YSA installed a fine exhibition on Rudolph and the Model City in the refurbished gallery at the center of A&A, and the new Gwathmey Siegel addition made splendid foil for the reopening of the old building. In all the event was a success, though it seemed at times like old boys meeting at a Pall Mall club.

My recollections of the building during my undergraduate days in the early 1970s were tinged with the flavor of the times-that is to say,  bittersweet at best. Nevertheless, the power of the building over my imagination seemed very much in tune with memories of other students. A&A, now called Rudolph Hall, is a masterpiece that speaks so eloquently of its moment that it is hard to imagine another building with any claim to similar significance. It spurred so many young designers to reach for great spatial and formal invention that it seems now like the Parthenon of an era of heroes–John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, Malcolm X.

Paul Rudolph was such a hero, similar in his ambition to the political figures of his time. Like them, he saw almost unlimited potential in the American dream, and like them, he fell quickly from the firmament as the decade ended. Commemorative remarks by many of his students painted his genius in terms that can only be called tragic. Tigerman called him the most “pure” of architects–an uncompromising artist who never came to terms with the limitations of construction and economics. Once he left Yale, at the zenith of his powers, all the promise of a brilliant mature career seemed to vanish with the idealism of Camelot and the Model City. Not only did Rudolph fail to produce another building of similar quality, his career took an alarming dive and never recovered.

One cannot help but wonder how such a talented and charismatic artist, a leader in his profession, could fall so quickly from grace. Perhaps it was partly a matter of the decade in which he flourished coming to an abrupt end with the oil crisis, Watergate, and a repudiation of utopian thinking of any kind. There was also something in his ucompromisingly modernist philosophy that proved unsustainable and even destructive, as Vincent Scully remarked in a film shown at the exhibition. His professional competence was also questioned, as many of his buildings failed in some manner shortly after they were constructed.

Nevertheless, Rudolph reached high and inspired a generation of designers with his vision and energy. Like Eero Saarinen, his closest competitor in the early 1960s, he had a brief and glorious moment in the sun. Both will be remembered as exemplars of American exceptionalism and technological leadership during the midcentury. Rudolph should also remembered as a poet of space, a counterpart to Robert Lowell, who soared like a comet and vanished in a burst of flames.

Stanford White is too often remembered as a man of excess and scandal, and too little valued as one of the geniuses of American architecture. Today’s New York Times home section provides a prudent reminder of why his work should be treasured and preserved.

The Ferncliff Casino, sometimes known as Astor Courts, in Rhinebeck, New York, is one of White’s most idiosyncratic buildings. Among cognoscenti it was long admired but thought lost to the ravages of time and neglect. Designed as an elaborate playhouse for John Jacob Astor IV, it suffered badly following his death on the Titanic in 1912, mainly as a result of the confused life of his son, Vincent, and his late wife, Brooke. A miraculous restoration by Kathleen Hammer and Arthur Seelbinder, who bought the building just six years ago, proves that beauty can inspire and motivate humans to do extraordinary things. It helped that the architect’s great grandson, Sam White, was brought in to design the restoration. Together, they revived one of the country’s most unique classical buildings.

Though there is much to admire in the many spaces that White designed for his athletic client, like the indoor swimming pool in a Mediterranean vein and a spectacular top-lit tennis court, the centerpiece of the pavilion is a “living room” measuring 35 by 60 feet, with 14 1/2 foot tall ceilings and an exquisite stained glass ceiling medallion. Sam White calls this space “one of the most beautiful rooms in America” and it is hard to disagree, even when viewing photographs of it. His great grandfather’s unerring eye for decorative detail, balanced by a feeling for proportion and scale, make this room a masterpiece of interior design.

Sam White has just published a new book specifically devoted to the work of this great genius, and the Ferncliff Casino living room is on the cover. I am going to buy it and study its details assiduously. I suggest that anyone with an interest in classical design and traditional interiors do the same. And when I get a chance to visit, I’ll no doubt have even more to say about this “living room” for the gods.

A colleague has suggested that I keep my posts to shorter and simpler reflections. This one is about as simple as it gets–I am joining the bandwagon of economists, politicians, scientists, builders, environmentalists, and earthworms who think that the new economy is staring us in the face. America’s energy infrastructure and manufacturing base must convert itself quickly to sustainable industries. And I’m not talking about high tech industries either–we can keep things very basic and still lead the world.

Thomas Friedman’s book has gotten a lot of heckles from the intelligentsia, but his basic notion is right–let’s go green, and let’s make it quick to get the U.S. economy rolling again. We have everything in place–the scientific knowhow, the venture capitalists, the manufacturing platforms (albeit retooled), the building technology, the ethical and moral backbone (churches, social service groups, community organizations), the educated population yearning for a better way to live. Who is not on board?–let’s say it again and louder:  the politicians and the business leaders.