|Home:: Books:: Contemporary Architects::|
John Hejduk ::
In approaching John Hejduk's work and his attitude to it, one is reminded of a musical evening at which a composer plays a new piano composition. When he finishes, he is asked to explain the work. The composer replies by playing the piece again. Hejduk's work over the last twenty or more years, with few exceptions, has comprised drawings and models exploring the harmonic possibilities of architecture. He has been content to allow these explorations to be ends in themselves. They are a sufficient reality. He has accepted the role of the poet whose sensual explorations clarify and expand the perceptual possibilities to which others give concrete life. In this cause he has resolutely pursued a narrowly defined set of themes and variations. At first, it was cubes, grids, frames, and the nine square problem, and when his graphics hinted at architecture, it was brutalist. Then came the diamond series, square grids in diagonal containers, an open pleasure in Mondrian, and an occasional curving wall. This determined evolution moves into the present with flat planes entertaining curved masses in various combinations and colors: salted with memories of "Les Heures Claires" and the other Gris.
The objects are all very pretty and free from any socially redeeming virtue. As is much that is pleasurable in architecture. Perhaps love of beauty is essential to all that we praise in architecture; other ingredients, the technical, the rational, the political, merely highlight the pleasure but in no way alter its essential basis. Hejduk allows himself complete freedom, complete detachment, from context, materials, structure, climate. Such freedom makes high demand upon the intellect to provide sufficient constraints to convince. It is in his limitations that the work is flawed. Contained within the exuberant confections sits the untransformed equipment of living - toilet bowls, fireplaces, dull kitchens, commonplace furniture arrangements - that share no part in their exotic surroundings. In responding to the surface pleasure of the drawings and models, there is a willingness to suspend disbelief, yet such pedestrian reality detracts from pleasure. There is no irony here, just inconsistency.
Hejduk's drawings pose a curious problem. They are in two forms, freehand drawings, often in series, which explore and annotate a theme, and the mechanically precise descriptions of discrete projects. The exploratory drawings, frequently done with marker pens, have none of the precision implied in the mechanical drawings. They are heavy-handed and insensitive, and the accompanying verbiage - code, ode - detracts. But they have a robust presence which, as with the rest of his work, is not enhanced by inquiring too deeply. Either the intentions are too obscure or what you see is all you get. Although this may not be the way to increase respect for the objects, it no way diminishes their pleasure. Delightful and satisfying architecture can also be insubstantial and trivial. Hence the composer's reply should be Hejduk's reply to the critic, "My work speaks for itself, and it tells of elemental pleasures and architectural harmonies and composition." But why the toilet bowl?
Hejduk's one major completed building is the extensive renovation of Cooper Union in New York City. Here the merely pleasurable interests are set aside to produce a convincing rearticulation of this vast Victorian Hulk. His solution is clear and simple, and in its strength it possesses the stuff of sheer architecture.
- Alan Balfour
Donlyn Lyndon :: p. 495
Donlyn Lyndon is the "L" in MLTW - Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, and Whitaker - an extraordinary and resilient fraternity, more often apart than together, who first came to prominence as a team with theirdesign of Sea Ranch in 1964. Donlyn Lyndon's father is a distinguished architect in the California modern manner, and growing up in such an environment was a formative influence. However, it is Princeton and the Class of '59 that established the basis for his architecture: the teaching of Jean Labatut, an anachronism then anticipating the collapse of faith in Modernism because he had never had any, and the stimulus of a shared belief in new possibilities for architecture among fellow students and young faculty, including William Turnbull and Charles Moore. The nature of each individual's contribution to MLTW may be impossible to define. Even for those involved, a shared creative process doesn't have simple boundaries. In judging their independent work, it seems that the genius of the group differs markedly in many ways from the sum of its parts: Turnbull has matured and expanded the innovations of Sea Ranch; Moore has flourished brilliantly; Lyndon has spent most of his time teaching.
Yet, with Lyndon, there has been a limited but significant production. With Moore, he wrote The Place of Houses: with great skill and sensitivity they share the lessons and insights from their lives of making houses and experiencing places. The principles underlying the book are wise and robust and have a quiet universality. Essentially the concern is for poetic contextualism. After the book had been published, Lyndon reviewed his major themes in an article. They were: use elements that suggest the presence of people; emphasize forms that relate to the human body and reveal its functions; create pride of place by continuing care; be open to conflicting claims of use; incorporate what others have built and re-invest their care; give a measured and varied structure to space; make spaces that are contestable and encourage improvised use; make places that nurture celebration and encourage people to pay attention to each other.
These principles were put to test in Lyndon's major work since Sea Ranch - the Pembroke Dormitory at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Coping with a limited budget, Lyndon has produced a building that is simply and directly made, yet filled with rich and complex invention. With simple means, he creates continuing variation both in the private and public spaces. The individual is left to complete his own celebration of the space given, while the architecture strives to provide a stage for joyous communion. This stage management is most self-conscious in the decorated arches and gateways and in the use of color, particularly on the public street side. The decoration of the arches demands too much and interjects a discordant personality into the internal setting, but the space is strong enough to survive the intrusion. The use of color to modulate the wall surfaces creates a highly effective transformation of mood, which could have been extended.
Lyndon's work is tougher intellectually and less sensual than that of his contemporaries to whom he might be compared. As does his writing, his work, particularly Pembroke, has a didactic quality from which it is possible to learn without merely emulating style.
- Alan Balfour
James Stewart Polshek :: p. 634
James Stewart Polshek calls them his Cinderella commissions, but it must be one of the most extraordinary strokes of good fortune to befall any young architect. A Japanese visitor was so taken with Polshek's first independent commission, the Oster House, Stony Point, New York, that he invited Polshek to be the architect for a new central research institute for his company, Teijin Ltd., to be located outside Tokyo, a 32 million dollar project. Polshek moved his family to Japan, established an office, and designed and supervised construction of a range of buildings, complex both organizationally and technically. The results show a calm strength and remarkable maturity. Much that is formative in Polshek's subsequent work seems to result from this experience.
As a whole his architecture has some unusual characteristics. There is distinct lack of stylistic continuity. Although the character of the work is strong, the strength comes not by idiosyncratic invention but from a programmatic and technical response to specific problems and specific contexts. He has undertaken a diverse range of projects: education buildings, institutional buildings, industrial buildings, labs, interiors work, exhibitions. Diverse, yet united in that they mostly pose unusual and demanding problems. The work has no dominate theme. It is in every case an intelligent response to the unique aspects of the program.
His architecture is at its best when there are strong constraints and demand for ingenuity. In the accommodations for the New York State Bar Center, for example, the need to relate to a terrace of 19th century town houses enriched a work of sensitive contextualism. The new buildings are not simply respectful of the old, but in their mass and urban presence (apart from the curved stair), they seem almost vital new growth out of the old context. His work is least successful when neither context not problem offers any guidance. This is particularly true of the moderate income housing project for the South Bronx, Twin Parks East. Here the result is the antithesis of the previous example - raw, brutal, confused.
This lack of any kind of stylistic continuity is a puzzle. The work is engaging yet somewhat devoid of personality. Perhaps the early success in Japan provided so much personal fulfillment that there has been no need for self-indulgence in subsequent work. But mainly, I believe, its character results from his preoccupation with the stuff of building, the legacy of the teaching of Eugen Nalles at Yale. In many ways the nature of his architecture fits into that period after Gropius and before Kahn. Formal freedom is excused through contextualism; formal invention is excused through aspects of building technique or performance. He doesn't fit easily with his contemporaries: compared with that of his New York colleagues, his work is conservative and makes few concessions to poetry. Yet, in his role as undemonstrative orchestrator of a building's parts, Polshek produces work of strength and honesty, and his inventiveness with technique and context raises it above the ordinary.
- Alan Balfour
Jaquelin Robertson :: p. 677
Jaquelin Robertson, the architect, is an anomaly. An able designer whose reputation until recently has rested on three small house designs (one unbuilt), Robertson has for most of his career forsaken architecture for planning. He is an activist whose politics have led him away from building in the hope of serving architecture more broadly. His career provides interesting evidence of the degree to which participation in politics and development can allow a gifted architect to influence strongly the quality of the built environment.
Robertson's public career began when he joined with a group of friends to work with New York's mayor, John Lindsay, on problems of planning and development for the city. Robertson became Director of the Office of Midtown Planning and Development. His group had two modes of behavior. As architectural polemicists, they produced a number of elegantly detailed conceptual studies of areas in Midtown Manhattan in the cause of influencing subsequent development. These studies have little tangible effect. As urban strategists, they devised incentive zoning plans in an attempt to advance certain qualities they considered valuable in the city. Developers were given concessions that could result in greater revenue from the development, in return for participating in improving the street level experience. Here there has been some success.
In 1974 Robertson moved from public to private participation in the process he had created. He became Vice-President of Planning and Design for Arlen Realty, who were engaged at that time with the Olympic Tower development. The building, designed by SOM, discreetly incorporates an arcade, the product of Robertson's incentive zoning. When compared with Rockefeller Center across the street, however, the benefits to the pedestrian are hard to find.
His work with Llewelyn-Davies on Shahestan Pahlavi, a new town center for Tehran, as with the products of the Midtown Planning Office, has a markedly architectural character. In the careful drawings and sensitive diagrams, and in the superb model, there is marvelous invention, a curious hybrid of New York formalism and Iranian contextualism.
Until recently, Robertson's independent work as an architect comprised three little houses - one in Belgium, one in New York, and one never built. The two American designs - Seltzer House (built) and Madden House (projected) - are both remarkable and yet quite dissimilar. The Seltzer House is raw and bony: it shows all the inventive concerns of the early 1960's, but with a maturity, poise and restraint that are remarkable for work so early in a career. The Madden House (from limited evidence) is an exceptional invention. Again, there are influences: a curious blend of Kahn and Rudolph, the composition has a dramatic and theatrical originality. It plays with illusional transparency in a way that belies its date. Perhaps, in all of Robertson's urban work, it has been the architect in him that has dominated. For example, one sees echoes of the Madden House in the buildings flanking the Nation Square of Shahestan Pahlavi.
Robertson's opportunism appears to involve a constant search for a setting that will allow the application of all his creative skills. The political game can encompass a vast range of intentions. In Robertson's work, they seem above all to be a desire for architectural place-making, irrespective of the social or political context.
- Alan Balfour
Benjamin Thompson :: pp. 815-816
In part, it must come from the association with Gropius, but mostly the moral tone conveyed by Benjamin Thompson's architecture is a reflection of the character of the man. A cultural conservative, Thompson has strong faith in the power of architecture. In his writings, he bemoans the collapse of standards and the continual worsening of the American environment. He is a die-hard modernist in principle as well as style.
He was one of the TAC partners in charge of the Harvard Graduate Center built in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1949, still the most convincing of all the Gropius work in America. What in the 1940's and 50's was the most advanced post-war Modernism in America later developed in the 60's and 70's with such calm and evolutionary consistency that its remarkable quality became lost in its unremarkable form. Thompson separated from the Collaborative in 1966, but his work remained faithful to its cause. Until the mid 70's only two problems caused him to stretch his architecture principles into creating works of remarkable quality. The first was a literal showcase for a product design and marketing enterprise, "Design Research," founded by Thompson in 1953, reflecting a concern, as Gropius and Behrens had been before him, not only with producing well designed buildings for working in but also with offering well designed products to serve them. (Thompson remained Chairman of the company until 1970.) The second was the brilliant and theatrical redevelopment of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Boston, which revealed a too long hidden sensual and indulgent side to Thompson's nature.
Perhaps, because much of it is hidden in the New England woods, Thompson's twenty years of building mainly for the schools and colleges of the Northeast is not well known. All this work has the same broad characteristics - elegant and ambiguous form, robust structural expression. Though as objects rather anonymous, they are given a sense of place through siting and choice of materials. The heightened emotional range in the Faneuil Hall Marketplace may be there because, unlike much of Thompson's work, the problem demanded it, or perhaps we are seeing a late flowering of his architecture. Whatever the reason, it is most welcome.
The strength and stability of Thompson's work, its utility and essential humanism, seems so much more wholesome and trustworthy than much of the idiosyncratic speculation that has followed the proclamation of post-modernism. One's pleasure in the inventiveness of the present has to do with Modernism's having become so dull: it lost it is freshness, and Thompson's architecture even into the 1970's was no exception. Perhaps the failure of Modernism in America was not a failure of principle but a failure to explore the bounds of principle - to care so much for the environment and to do so little to extend the richness of experience that it can offer. Jefferson, Thompson's choice of Architect for a New America, would not have been so timid, but, perhaps, the flaw is inherited. If only Aalto had come instead of Gropius.
- Alan Balfour
» back to top