Is architecture turning into a purely visual sport? Will it be just like video games, except that it won’t have all those crashing noises?
In my home city of Boston, two recent designs are both terrific in their own way. But they’re scary in what they portend for the future of architecture. Of our five, six, or seven senses (depends how you count), they appeal to only one.
The first is the work of Polshek Partnership. It’s a new headquarters building for the local PBS station, WGBH. The building cantilevers like a glass bridge out to a point where it overlooks Intersate 90, the Massachusetts Turnpike. There, the facade stops being architecture and becomes, instead, a 30-foot-tall LED mural, aimed at drivers heading into the city. The image will change every day, like a slide show in the sky, using material drawn mostly from the station’s archives. Who needs architecture when you can view Julia Child at Thanksgiving?
Dematerializing the facade
The GBH mural is the first serious example in Boston of the kind of architecture we’re beginning to see elsewhere—in Times Square, most notably—in which the architectural facade of a building is no longer made of solid materials but is, instead, an ever-changing, programmable image.
Call it digital architecture. Architecture and media become one. It’s a horrifying prospect for the future of human life. Who wants to live in a city that’s been designed as a multiplex of outdoor screening rooms?
Well, Robert Venturi does, for one. For years he’s been arguing for facades that are ever-changing electronic displays. No visible glass or steel, no brick or stone or concrete. Just light impulses. Back in 1996, I was a juror in an invited competition for a new U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Venturi, Scott Brown was one of the six entrants, and even then, the firm proposed a building that was largely an unarticulated box, the walls of which would be screens for changing images of light. That was the same year Venturi published his book Iconography and Electronics Upon a Generic Architecture, a title that accurately describes the architecture of his Berlin proposal.
Much as I like and admire Venturi, I hope we don’t go his way. Boston’s planners, at least, are conscious of the threat. They’ve required the WGBH mural to project only still images, not moving ones, and none that carry a commercial message. They hope to enforce the same rules everywhere.
A banner in the breeze
My second example is even better as architecture, but no less scary. This is the work of Boston architects Elkus/Manfredi. It’s a huge, wordless billboard that wraps a new Neiman Marcus department store in the suburb of Natick. It’s 40 feet tall and as long as two football fields. It looks like an enormous banner whipping in the breeze. It’s made of stainless steel in three colors—“bronze, champagne, and silver”—that are supposed to remind you of the high-fashion women’s clothes inside. The thin steel plates are like the patches in a quilt. Their colors are distributed in such a manner as to make the whole thing look like a translucent, layered fabric that the wind is blowing through. Like Isadora Duncan, maybe, twirling in her sweeping robes.
Purely as architecture, Neiman’s is a knockout. But it’s architecture reduced to two dimensions and one sense, the visual. As with the WGBH mural, this is architecture to look at, preferably from a car. It’s like an extra-wide screen at a drive-in, showing the flag while the national anthem plays.
Computers are part of the enemy here. They tend to make every building design look as if it’s made of translucent, colored, weightless plastic. It’s hard to remember, when you’re sitting at a screen, that there’s more to the world than the visual.
Maybe someday, architecture won’t be up to the architects at all. Driving along in our bean-sprout-fueled cars, we’ll simply flip a switch to create our own environment.
The same building will be Palladio for me, Goff for you.
Before digital was born
For many years I’ve held in my mind, as a counter to the headlong rush to a purely visual architecture, the memory of approaching a small church in an Italian hill town. This was an experience of architecture of all the senses. First came the feeling of a slight ache in the knees, an ache that told me I had climbed to an elevation. Then the entry into the building, the sudden drop in temperature, the increase in humidity.
I’ll end with Juhani Pallasmaa, who is my favorite writer on this topic, maybe my favorite writer on architecture, period. He’s a 71-year-old Finnish architect and former director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture. He’s also taught at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s written a lot. One short piece that sums him up well is his essay, “An Architecture of the Seven Senses,” published in a book called Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture (William Stout Publishers).
A few excerpts from this eloquent essay follow:
How materials tell us not only about place but also time: “Natural material expresses its age and history as well as the tale of its birth and human use. The patina of wear adds the enriching experience of time; matter exists in the continuum of time.”
How silence is imaginary sound: “After the clutter of building has ceased and the shouting of workers has died away, the building becomes a museum of a waiting, patient silence. In Egyptian temples we encounter the silence of the pharaohs, in the silence of a Gothic cathedral we are reminded of the last dying note of a Gregorian chant, and the echo of Roman footsteps has just faded on the walls of the Pantheon.”
How we socialize with buildings, not just look at them: “A building is encountered—it is approached, confronted, encountered, related to one’s body, moved about, utilized as a condition for other things, etc. … We are in constant dialogue and interaction with the environment, to the degree that it is impossible to detach the image of the Self from its spatial and situational existence.”
Break the mold
And so on. This is the opposite of considering a building as a merely visual experience. There are some kinds of buildings we may love but hope never to see replicated. The Eiffel Tower, for example, should be the only tower in Paris.
I feel that way about both the GBH mural and the Neiman wrap. I like them, but I hope they’re not the beginning of a trend.