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Architecture Building on Broad Shoulders

A broad shoulders about buildings that were just torn down (or are about to be) has me riled up. Why do we keep making this? Do we really need to natural resources fill garbage dumps and construct something new just because we think an older structure is some how doesn’t fit our current needs. When will we learn that adaptation and reuse is so much better.

The extravagant that is the ongoing demolition of the Los Angeles County County Museum (LACMA) buildings to make room for a smaller less functional and environmentally ill-conceived replacement now has some competition as I just discovered. A rationalist-era theater in Tirana Albania, is being so a Bjarke Ingels Group design can take its place. At least that project looks more logical than Zumthor’s LACMA satire on oozing sprawl. Both are clear architectural misdeeds, however, because we’re losing important and wholly salvageable buildings.

Things get more complicated in the case of structures that, at first glance, might not seem worth saving. Take for instance Cesar Pelli’s Bank of California branch building in San Jose, Calif. As if often the case, it will be demolished to make way for bigger, if not necessarily better, buildings on the site. If ever an American building deserved the adjective “Brutalist,” it is this bunker. Sitting among the high-rises of downtown, it holds its own through the sheer of its forms. A block of concrete with no windows at eye level, it presents an image of security worthy of Fort Knox. Light comes into the interior through clerestory windows at the base of a projecting lintel, which only increases that sense of looming security. Two vertical fins intersect the main volume and splay out onto the street (giving the building its nickname, the Sphinx), leaving just enough room for an entrance stair to squeeze itself into the structure between these two totemic symbols of protection.

What to do with such a building? It is difficult to imagine many uses beyond something like a dance theater or gallery venue–at least not without punching holes into the building which its design logic. Could it be the home of voter registration records. What else needs such an expression of security. How does such a structure become part of an open and democratic and welcome us inside.

I am sure a purpose could be found perhaps by playing with irony or surprise in function or by designing additions. But the success of such an effort would depend on bringing more intense development to the site. Which brings us to the real reason why so many object buildings from the recent past are under threat: to be stand-alone forms and to work as such they need open space around them and that space is now valuable. It is the same issue for instance that continues to threaten Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Building in Chicago. I would love to see a good designer figure out how to design buildings with around and maybe above these structures. The designs that both Michael Graves and Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA did for the Whitney Museum for instance might serve as models.

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