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Towards the end of his foreshortened career, the late, colorful art historian Henry Geldzahler organized a painting show at PS 1 in Queens called The Underknown: Twelve Artists Re-Seen in 1984.
After leaving his successive posts as first-time curator of 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and as New York’s just-hatched commissioner of cultural affairs in 1978, he turned much of his critical attention to the work of older artists once widely recognized and collected (including by leading museums), but then relegated indefinitely to unseen storage. It was like taking a 30-year-old Whitney Biennial catalog and restaging its content as a way of recalling the once recognized and now ignored, far outnumbering as they do those withstanding the fullest measure of time’s passage.
In a world focused evermore on the young, emerging, and diverse, it was a refreshing curatorial impulse and a sobering reminder of how few era-shapers end up gaining a lasting hold on our collective attention.
Ironically, with architecture, despite its status as the most social and publicly accessible of the arts by dint of formal intent and (excepting secluded private houses) exterior visibility, such credit-giving is stingier still for past and present practitioners alike.
In the history of the United States Postal Service, for example, there has been a single stamp commemorating an architect and in case you have not guessed already it was in 1966 for Frank Lloyd Wright, who also got one for Falling Water, the original Guggenheim Museum, and the Robie House among the measly total of seven stamps that have had anything to do whatsoever with those who shape the built environment. Maybe some of the internationally branded stars anointed more recently and redundantly by critics, like the late Herbert Muschamp, will hold up to long-term scrutiny but it is too soon to tell.
Such lack of attribution and the according anonymity of practitioners, whose contributions are thus hidden in plain sight, helps underscore the important joint contribution of the authors Peter Pennoyer, an architect, and Anne Walker, a historian, with their ongoing series about important “Underknowns” from the first half of the last century. And they come at a time when much of their subject examples still stand in moot contrast to the frenzy of up-zoning and air-rights laden exuberances now taking root across the five boroughs and their surrounding region.
There is no justification for the accomplishments and business practices of these masters to be lost to history, especially if and when the constructed results are overlooked, demolished, or at risk. Yet this backward glance is not a nostalgic yearning for better days past, nor a disguised plea for preservation. On the contrary, by always adding analysis of what building their subjects’ work replaced, they acknowledge the changing social dynamics and economic circumstances imposed on the profession by varying clients. At the same time, however, they refuse
to ignore such precedents and look instead for ways it can inform this inevitable continuum, especially given the sometimes blinding juggernaut of Modernism.
New York Transformed: The Architecture of Cross & Cross (aka brothers John Walter (1878–1951) and Eliot Cross (1883–1949)) arrives as the series’ fourth, following Delano & Aldrich, Warren & Wetmore, and Grosvenor Atterbury. All subject architects are united by success in terms of both design and client engagement in the shadow of the “progressive torpedo,” as foreword writer Robert A. M. Stern puts it, of Modernism’s inexorable concurrent rise so accelerated as it was by the advent of worldwide war. The record of these labors is twice confounded: by their polemical peers as well as by the profession’s relative anonymity in general.
The 35-year duration of the fraternal partnership ranged from the Colonial Revival, which was under way as the Crosses launched their firm (e.g. the Flemish-bonded simple Georgian symmetry of the American Foundation for the Blind, 15 East 16th Street), to the sky-scraping proto-modern art deco of their late career (RCA Victor Building at Lexington Avenue and 51st Street) with its tacit acceptance of new technologies as well as the budgetary trimming born of depression and warfare. There was always a client- and architect-shared tie to the past and an acknowledgement of its best lessons cast anew. Like Peter Pennoyer Architects today, Cross & Cross deployed a broad and varied vocabulary, yet one descending from a rigorous classical point of departure and manifesting in continuously innovative ways.
Courtesy Monacelli Press
Enlivening the text are ample blueprints and illustrations, especially in an occasional photographic essay contributed by Jonathan Wallen, of a surviving example of each building typology that defines the volume’s thematic chapters. The Lee, Higginson & Co. tower at 41 Broad Street stands out for its instructive glimpse of structure and ornament in vital symbiosis.
And who knew? Far from their Federally inspired clubs and Cotswold Cottage-inflected homes on Long Island’s North Shore, Cross & Cross landed in 1940 at the stripped down swank of Tiffany & Co. at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street with what was then the largest column-free merchandising hall in the country. Here the window dressers have enjoyed more attribution than those who created the beguiling vitrines of irrepressible yet concentrated attention on the goods for sale: bling for the masses as much as for the potential customer, overall, however, tempered by restraint of the stylistic commission.
Another narrative drive found here, lacking in most contemporary architectural narratives, are lively and unapologetic accounts of the Cross & Cross clients, who, like them, grew up in the small world of interconnected families at the center of wealth and power which, without knowing it, were witnessing the end of this age of birthright privilege. All the Pennoyer/Walker books do so not as gossipy peeks at the rich and discreetly renowned, but as measures of doing business—that can still instruct even as a WASPy upper class hegemony depicted in these pages has long ago yielded to the finance and real estate meritocrats and foreign oligarchs who prove more elusive as illuminating ingredients in the complex business of getting things built.
Ironically, despite their well set place at the exclusive elite table, Cross & Cross, and in particular Eliot, also worked as speculative developers with the associated firm of Webb and Knapp that has evolved into today’s Zeckendorf Development, thriving as never before. While benefitting from the decorous rules of Social Register propriety, Eliot and his profit-minded cohorts simultaneously contributed to its ultimate dismantling by the tools of investment, marketing, and the general free-for-all of accumulated wealth alone as the real drivers of growth.
In this way too, the invisible impact of forgotten trailblazers emerges from the historical shadows as with the authors’ earlier series’ subjects. The profession, like an evermore design savvy public, gains as a result of these insights. Its creative intent is worth sharing for the sake of drawing back a curtain blocking the artistry we inhabit daily whether, frankly, we want to or not.
The recently opened Harvard Art Museums consolidates under one roof the university’s three art museums: the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger, and the Arthur M. Sackler. Combined, these institutions boast larger holdings than the Boston MFA, some 250,000 objects, all of which are available to students by request. Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Payette, the new facility’s purpose is to make this impressive collection more accessible with the hope of encouraging scholarship. At 200,000 square feet, it includes galleries, teaching spaces, and a sizeable conservation studio, as well as an auditorium and lecture hall.
The site chosen for the new facility was that of the existing Fogg, a protected 1927 Georgian revival edifice that had been added to several times over the years. The design team completely overhauled the Fogg, stripping it down to the landmarked portions of the building, which left the facade and about two thirds of the floor space, including an arcaded courtyard. A new Alaskan White Cedar and glass–clad, steel-framed structure was then added that seamlessly integrates with the historic building. A circulation corridor was cut through from Quincy Street to Prescott Street and a sloping, steel-framed glass roof links the old and the new.
“Renzo’s concept was to rip out the existing roof and put in a clear glass roof so that you would be able to see the sky,” said Robert Silman, president emeritus of structural engineering firm Robert Silman Associates (RSA), which worked with the architects on the project. “It’s a trademark of his work. This project, the Morgan, and the Whitney, all of which we worked on, have this characteristic. He likes to articulate the components and to make them visible. Slick isn’t what he’s after. There ought to be visible clarification of the primary, secondary, and tertiary members, and how the glass interacts with that framework. That’s the stuff you have to work on in collaboration from the beginning, or it doesn’t happen.”
The glass roof support structure is made up of double king post trusses that interlock to form its two halves. RSA performed extensive studies and worked closely with German fabricator Josef Gartner to engineer the system’s main structural components to a high-degree of precision so that it joins seamlessly with the existing building and the new steel-framed addition. The design team was able to convince the department of buildings to consider the roof a skylight, allowing them to only fireproof the structure’s hip brackets, a job that was accomplished with an intumescent coating. The rest of the structure is exposed, putting Piano’s carefully thought out connections on view for contemplation.
The conservation studio occupies the majority of the top floor, the fifth, giving the conservators access to abundant daylight. The fourth floor is dedicated to teaching, while second and third floors are reserved for gallery space. The first floor houses offices and through-building public circulation linking the Harvard campus across Quincy Street with Prescott Street. Throughout the lower floors, the engineering team was challenged with integrating modern mechanical systems with a structure whose beam dimensions and floor-to-floor heights matched the 1920s building. This required multiple pre-planned openings in beams through which to thread the services. The team also designed a frame with closely spaced beams whose bays are expressed with arched ceilings that maximize headroom.
The east side of the addition cantilevers at the second floor over a ramped walkway that links Broadway with the Prescott Street entrance. To the south, this walkway ties into Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center ramp. Floor-height trusses concealed within the walls support the cantilever over multiple bays of framing and allow for roomy column-free gallery spaces in this section of the addition. To the north and south, glass-enclosed galleries protrude from the main volume of the addition. Mechanically operated wood sunscreens in these sections give curators the ability to control the amount of daylight admitted into the galleries. Here, RSA had to keep building movement within tight tolerances to prevent the screens from binding when slid open or closed.
The auditorium and lecture hall were allocated to the basement, which required a significant excavation of the tight sight. RSA used a slurry wall foundation system that was cross-braced during excavation. In the final construction, the subterranean levels’ floor framing braces the concrete foundation walls. This was a tricky procedure because the ramp of the Carpenter comes down on top of the auditorium roof. It had to be temporarily shored during construction. “We had to hold up the ramp while we demolished a library that was on that spot and built the addition, simply because it’s Corbu,” said Silman. “It’s a block of concrete!” Work of genius or pile of cement, Skanska, which handled the construction, did its work carefully. The Carpenter ramp suffered no damage. Not that you could tell. In the words of Silman, “It’s pretty beat up as it is.”
Architecture, unlike art, is an endeavor that impacts entire communities and requires the approval and consent of the many. But from looking at LACMA’s anointing of Peter Zumthor and Frank Gehry to design its museum replacement and (potentially) an adjacent tower, it would appear that this reality is still being ignored.
First let me be clear that I respect these decisions. Zumthor and Gehry don’t need to prove their credentials to anyone, and the likelihood of two Pritzker Prize winners designing on the same block is an exciting one.
LACMA director Michael Govan is in charge of an institution that receives about forty percent of its funding from the County of Los Angeles, and thus needs to answer to those funders. Yet he chose Zumthor and floated Gehry without even a semblance of public input or awareness. No competition. No public discussion or review. Yes he made the public aware of the Zumthor scheme with an exhibition, a public session with the architect, and in articles in the press, but only after the architect was chosen and the plans were well along. He also announced Gehry’s potential selection without a hint that others could be up for the job or that there might be another public process if that plan—which the museum would undertake with LA’s transit agency, Metro—goes forward.
Outside of the issue of its public funding, a work of such tremendous impact on the community should be both more transparent and inviting with regard to its selection process. In his most recent iteration Zumthor wants his oozing design to curve its way over Wilshire Boulevard, blocking views down this fabled corridor and questionably removing the building from the pedestrian flow around it. Like it or not it’s a bold move. But it needs to be vetted with the public that will be impacted at the stage when the initial design is still in formation. At the point of unveiling it’s too late.
I’m not arguing that the public needs to make the decision over the architect or the design. In my opinion those decisions should be made by experts in the field and by the museum administrators who will use it. (When the public starts to get too involved in the minutia of a project they can stifle creative plans—see the Whitney’s original expansion proposal or the many scuttled plans in the heart of San Francisco.) But they need to share that responsibility with the public, who should oversee what’s happening. To ignore this is not just irresponsible but arrogant.
Richard Koshalek, who led the competition for Disney Hall, the Tate Modern, and for other major buildings around the world, speaks highly of the lessons learned from including public input in various selection processes.
“We learned a hell of a lot from the public about what they wanted,” said Koshalek, of one of these many undertakings. He added: “When it’s a public funded institution the public should have the right to be aware of the process and aware of what you’re trying to accomplish.”
No other recent building of this cultural import in Los Angeles was developed without public input or at the very least a competition. In addition to Disney’s very public competition, Caltrans hosted a public competition for its downtown building by Morphosis as did MOCA for its structure by Arata Isozaki. Even Eli Broad held a competition for his new museum in Downtown LA, although he never shared the schemes from the runners up, which was way off the mark.
Beyond being the right thing to do, an inclusive strategy can also be the smartest path to getting a project approved. Without it a museum risks alienating the public before it gets a chance to make proper adjustments. This is a strategy that has backfired in other areas. While President Obama’s health care initiative has provided millions with very necessary care, just think how much easier it would have been to pass if he had made his case more clearly to the public early on? Closer to home, SCI-Arc is still facing some bluster for naming Hernan Diaz Alonso as its new director without involving the student body in a more direct way before the decision was made by the school’s selection committee. While I do support Diaz Alonso as a gifted teacher, and acknowledge that most schools don’t follow these rules, I think for a school like SCI-Arc, founded as an “institution without walls,” the selection process should have been more open from the beginning. Finally, LA’s planning department should make its web site much more robust, allowing the public to access in a much more detailed way all the projects and plans that are being put forward.
In a day and age when the public can be included so easily via technology, and when people express their likes and dislikes on social media every second, it is important to incorporate this kind of openness in the built world; particularly in the public realm. We need to embrace that reality.
An active, “living” exterior skin acts as a shading device and learning tool by changing shape based on the outside temperature. This strategy draws on the principle of bimetallic strips. When the exterior temperature rises, the panels of aluminum and oxidized copper close, thus acting as a shading device. Once the temperature cools, the panels open, which increases the quantity of light coming into the building.Recently the Midwest Offices of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) became the first project in Chicago to attain Living Building Challenge Petal Certification. See all 14 entries on Living Building Challenge Collaborative: Chicago's website.
The orthogonal street grid of New York City’s Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 collides with Greenwich Village’s wickerwork layout at 14th Street. While everything above that mark is rectangular blocks, below there is a series of odd triangular leftovers in the urban fabric. The difference between these two conditions served as the primary inspiration behind Morris Adjmi Architects’ design of 837 Washington Street, a 54,000-square-foot spec commercial building developed by Taconic Investment Partners at the corner of 13th Street in the Meat Packing District.
The site was home to an existing brick building that was once used for the purpose that gives the neighborhood its name. Two stories tall on Washington Street, it steps down to one story on 13th and is distinguished by a two-tone brick facade and a now-restored steel canopy—one of the hallmarks of a district that is protected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Required to preserve this piece of history, but eager to wring out every bit of allowed floor area, Taconic asked Adjmi to design an extension for the top of the structure. Adjmi—who has built up quite a repertoire of expansion projects of this sort—responded with a modern addition that looks to the area’s high-design newcomers (High Line, Standard Hotel, Whitney Museum, etc.) as much as it does to its industrial heritage.
If the existing building represents the right angles of the Commissioners’ Plan, the rooftop extension expresses the village street condition. “The notion,” said Adjmi, “was to create a space where two buildings can coexist, rather than one being an addition to the other.” The expansion rises five levels above the brick building’s first story. Roughly square shaped, each floor is slightly smaller in area to the one below it and is rotated slightly in plan. This leaves triangular spaces outside of each floor’s divided light window wall, much like the triangular plazas found throughout the Village, which will be planted, drawing a connection to the neighboring High Line.
The expansion is supported by a structural steel exoskeleton—another High Line reference—featuring sloped columns that, like the building’s floors, twist in plan as they go up the elevation. While this expression does indeed resemble the way the Village streets veer off from the straight-as-an-arrow avenues coming down from uptown, it also created a structure that wanted to rotate and fall over. The structural engineers at Gilsanz Murray Steficek (GMS) were hard pressed to design an efficient and cost-effective scheme that would stand up against its live and dead loads.
Courtesy Morris Adjmi Architects
The solution mixes a conventional system with custom elements. Conventionally, the building is supported by a perimeter moment frame with a braced frame core, which is situated at the interior-most corner of the lot. Custom elements include built-up plate girders for the spandrel beams that were designed to handle the stresses imposed by the torqued shapes while maintaining the look desired by the architect. The columns themselves are spliced at every floor, rather than every other floor, and rotated five degrees to create a twisting profile. Intumescent painted and epoxy coated in black, the sloping columns meet new vertical columns that run through the existing building down to a newly dug basement and onto a freshly poured matt foundation.
Having the majority of the structure on the exterior and in the core allowed the designers to only use three columns on the interior, opening up more useable floor space. This did create thermal bridging issues, however, and so non-conductive shims were used to create thermal breaks between inside and outside. To maximize floor-to-ceiling heights the engineers also staggered the placement of the metal decking, allowing them to keep floor-framing members down to W12s.
Since the structure also serves as the architectural expression, GMS worked with Adjmi to detail the connections between members. “We worked closely with Morris to develop the connection details, doing isometric drawings and going back and forth on bolt issue, where we usually release that to the fabricator,” said Joseph Basel, GMS partner in charge of the project. “It was a great project and really interesting for us.”