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If you build it they will come! Well not necessarily if you are talking about new arts facilities, claims “Set In Stone,” a just released study from the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago.
It won't be good news for architects to learn that many new cultural buildings built on the assumption that they would benefit their institutions, in fact, “put enormous strain” on them. More disturbing still, the report claims that some institutions stumbled when they became “signature pieces for leading architects.” The study makes important recommendations for civic leaders, arts organizations, donors and government officials contemplating new cultural buildings.
First, it recommends that clients focus on their organization’s mission and the public’s “demand for the project.” Before formulating final plans, leaders and donors need to understand the precise reasons for the project, as well as determine need, attendance and long-term financial support. Successful projects were driven by both the organization’s artistic mission and also by clear and definable needs. The report recommends that leadership be clear and consistent throughout the process and that a single project manager be appointed to monitor the project through to completion. Finally, they suggest the need for flexibility—both in terms of how to generate income but also in light of the fact that cultural projects can take as long as ten to 20 years to complete. It’s a cold, hard reality that the community served by the building may be different than the one that originally envisioned the building.
According to “Set in Stone,” projects usually faltered when they became signature set pieces for the aspirations of donors or local community leaders. Initial cost projections for these projects were frequently both extremely and unreasonably low, making the final tab much more expensive than anticipated. More than 80 percent of the projects studied ran over budget, some by as much as 200 percent.
The study also found that cities in the South had the greatest increase in cultural building in part because it had lagged behind the rest of the country for many years. But more to the point, “increases” in cultural facilities were most common in communities that had also had increases in personal income and in education among their residents. Finally during the study period (1994-2008), New York led the country in cultural building spending $1.6 billion, while the Los Angeles area witnessed an expansion of $950 million and the Chicago area saw spending of $870 million on arts related projects.
In October, I traveled to Shenzhen, China to the opening of the Hong Kong and Shenzhen Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. The curator of this fascinating exhibition, Terence Riley, took the assembled journalists on a tour of Shenzhen which 20 years ago had a population of 35,000, but now has over 10 million. Riley pointed out the new Arata Isozaki-designed concert hall, a contemporary art museum by Coop Himmelb(l)au, and a design museum by Chinese architect Pei-Zhu. None of these new cultural facilitates had any collections or work on their walls. The design museum was being used to film a car commercial.
In China, it did not seem to matter whether or not the facilities had anything in them, only that Shenzhen had a cultural district with museums designed by famous architects. In the U.S., our cultural institutions have to work harder. Of course, with the still slow economy, the number of cultural projects in this country has already decreased. Going forward, it hardly needs a massive study to understand that institutions need to plan and develop only those projects the public really wants, demands, and needs.
This project is one section of AN's five-part feature on architectural lighting, "Sharing the Spotlight." Click here to view additional projects.
Steven Holl Architects
The Vanke Center in Shenzhen, China is a culmination of architect Steven Holl’s long-time pursuit to defy gravity. Although physically elevated above ground on broad concrete pillars, the secret behind this levitation effect is the building’s lighting design. “Steven thinks of light as an integral material, like stone or glass,” said Jason Neches a principal at L’Observatoire International, the New York-based lighting design firm. The firm’s contribution to the design is evident: the solid concrete-core supports, for example, which house the circulation up to the first floors, are wrapped in glass and lit to give the impression that the building floats. “Steven wanted uplighting, which provides a dramatic effect,” said Neches. “But since people are drawn to light, they would have looked down when we wanted them looking up at the building. So it is lit top-down.”
The value of intrinsic lighting design seems obvious, but lighting designers are too often enlisted after a project has already been developed. With complex projects such as Vanke, the solution was to work with the architects from the outset. “Steven brings us in very early on in the design process for most projects, usually just after the concept stage,” said Neches.
Vanke’s complex interior spaces posed a particular challenge for L’Observatoire in spite of the firm’s familiarity with Holl. “Its diverse program meant that different parts of the project were advancing with different schedules,” said Neches. As well, its setting in China meant that traditional practice puts the finishing touches in the hands of local designers “to nurture local industry,” as Neches put it. In the underground auditorium, for example, L’Observatoire only took it through design development before handing it back to Holl’s Beijing office for final specifications of the lighting fixtures.
According to Neches, Holl has a clear vision before the designers even come to the table, and they are asked to provide feedback on the quality of light rather than have vital creative input. “However,” said Neches, “there is always flexibility so we can affect a change if we think it will make the space better.” In the case of the “bowtie” staircase area, which was difficult to read in plan and section, L’Observatoire used a 3-D physical model to test and demonstrate various lighting fixtures and options for the interior. As a result, track lights have been integrated into folds and facets of the bowtie with areas of highlights, while in a cove at the wall, there is an uplight to encourage people to gather.
The Vanke’s relatively monochromatic interior relies heavily on lighting to create different atmospheres. “We have a lot of opportunities with Steven,” said Neches. “These are the benefits of working with an architect who thinks of light as another building material.”
Every summer, the Serpentine Pavilion offers the chosen architects of the plot adjacent to the London gallery a chance to offer a meditation on essential qualities in their work. In this way the pavilion is not only a showcase for designers who haven't yet built in the UK, but also a physical gauge of architecture’s current preoccupations. This year, it is the garden.
Rather than open out the pavilion to the surrounding rolling green of Kensington Gardens, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, working with landscape designer Piet Oudolf (also responsible for the plantings on New York’s High Line), has enclosed his own patch of green. If the pavilion is any kind of bellwether for the current social condition—for it clearly is not a reflection of the UK's current economic condition Zumthor tells us we should take note and be quiet. Inside his cloistered pavilion—“coffin-like,” as one observer commented on Jonathan Glancey's recent article for The Guardian—there is space only to sit and to reflect.
Indeed it is a far cry from previous pavilions: Kjetil Thorsen and Olafur Eliasson's 2007 conical viewing platform, Gehry's bombastic theatre-cum-promenade in 2008, and SANAA’s translucent and shimmering surfaces in 2009 offered follies in the landscape, a pleasant interlude in a visitor's trip to the gallery and a unique space to house a cafe. Zumthor's design, however, eschews the pavilion's requisite commercial opportunity and presents an altogether prescriptive program. The tar-textured enclosure forces the visitor to do nothing but look and think. The central atrium, a sharply cut rectangle open only to the sky, compels the viewer to look inwards or upwards but never outwards. As Glancey notes, the experience at times stirs claustrophobia more than contemplation: “Outside…you suddenly feel free and here is that very thing he's trying to encapsulate...nature.”
The design is intended to create a palpable contrast between the open space of Kensington Gardens and the pavilion's interior. While lights have been fitted along the corridors, these are not always switched on creating a somewhat menacing threshold. Perhaps the intention was to provide a sense of danger sandwiched between idyllic places—a compelling aspect of the design that has not received as much attention as the cloister courtyard. Landscape designer Oudolf has spoken of an integrated design to draw in passersby. In The Telegraph in June, he said, “I want visitors to see that architecture is simple and planting is complex. Looking into plants brings you into another kind of thinking, connected with inner space.”
If the pavilion, a 4,200-square-foot timber-frame structure wrapped in scrim and covered with a black duct sealant, reflects architecture today, it is a fitting collaboration between Zumthor and Oudolf. Their rectangular box enveloping a courtyard garden is in tune with a wider movement towards ground-skimming designs and landscaped architecture such as Stephen Holl’s Horizontal Skyscraper in Shenzhen, China or Morphosis’ Shanghai Giant Interactive Group Campus. Zumthor, in The Independent, cited this year's pavilion as a memory machine: “I think of gardens I have seen, that I believe I have seen, that I long to see.”
The fact that schools of architecture repeatedly pull off great events is nothing new. Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous 1951 lecture at Columbia has been meticulously archived; Harvard’s annual Walter Gropius lecture has been given by one of the most established practitioners in any given year since 1961. Nor is it uncommon for schools to deliberately organize provocative conferences as when Yale fostered a real ideological battle in a public forum between Peter Eisenman and Leon Krier in 2002. As recent history has demonstrated, interesting debates and critical experimentation are no longer the purview of agents like the IAUS—established in the 1960s as an alternative to the institutions mentioned previously—which are again returning to university culture. As Rem Koolhaas insists at his academic lectures, architectural ideas have a broad audience beyond captive student audiences conven-iently dwelling in studios adjacent to the university auditorium.
At the same time, I believe that the production of architectural events in universities is more and more of a curatorial act. In addition to the professors and deans traditionally involved, more engaged administrators are not only coordinating and organizing events but also giving input and direction. The need for additional curation is clear, these events are occurring at a sometimes dizzying rate, with a typical week consisting of a Monday night panel discussion on sustainability issues in China, a Wednesday evening architecture lecture by Richard Rogers, a Friday lunchtime debate on urban zoning policy, and a Saturday conference on African cities. Furthermore, the ability and desire of these ambitious events to draw outsiders—practitioners, retirees, artists, policy makers, students from other schools and faculties—has an indelible impact upon the school’s students, faculty and discourse at large. In producing programming, not just in the form of events but also exhibitions, publications, and relevant web content beyond that with an academic link, a school can instigate discussion and inspire collaborations that reach beyond the existing culture of the place.
What does it mean for schools to have such overactive public programs? It seems obvious: to serve the students and faculty and to give them avenues in which to communicate about their work. However, public programs should not simply replicate the school’s agenda but also help to produce it. By creating venues, forums, and mediums, schools can explore what it they are curious about outside the classroom. In turn, ideas that come out of an academic event should influence the school, shape its pedagogy, and sway its discourse. By inviting other interests in and producing friction with diverse ideas, the school can better define how it thinks about itself.
At Columbia GSAPP, where I have directed the events program for the past six years under the direction of dean Mark Wigley, we have strived to create such conditions by blurring the lines where classroom, practice, industry, and professional development can meet, as in the conferences on materials, including glass, concrete, metals, and plastic, chaired by professor Michael Bell.
Of course, it has been a challenge for design schools that have departments in addition to architecture, such as urban planning, urban design, historic preservation, landscape architecture, and real estate development to produce public programs that address the interests and concerns of all included. Architecture departments tend to take a minimum of three years to complete and therefore have the most students. But a well-curated program can facilitate interaction amongst all departments and instigate curiosity about other disciplines, mirroring the cross-disciplinary approach currently favored by the profession. For example, the architecture student who comes to developer Douglas Durst’s talk may begin to understand that convincing his peers in the real estate development program that good design is a good investment may someday lead to a commission—just as listening to Steven Holl discuss housing projects in China might lead a research trip to Shenzhen to examine the existing urban fabric, or a discussion with Amanda Burden about New York’s planNYC might inspire a debate among urban planning and architecture students that could lead to a proposal for a joint design-development studio.
Crafting a communications plan for announcing and informing diverse publics within and beyond the school is a constant challenge. Whereas museums have long-term planning in their DNA, schools have not been traditionally accustomed to organizing themselves this way. Their fluid and experimental nature can throw this process. Attention to mailing lists and email listserves is not often a priority, undermining the programming or outreach ambitions.
Schools tend to be omnivorous when it comes to their visual identities. They have a wonderful way of promiscuously working with a host of graphic designers. Whereas cultural institutions aim for consistent branding, a school can choose a sober design approach for one exhibition, while the same school’s lecture series poster might be outrageously bright. These posters, programs, and postcards are sometimes the only traces remaining of significant events and become somewhat collectible. A well-detailed program for a conference can essentially become the Cliff Notes for the audience or the table of contents for the symposium publication.
The events program that I directed at Columbia was well received but did not go unchallenged. I noticed that event fatigue can set in. Complaints came from professors that there were too many programs on too many nights with not enough time to think in between. Students created their own rogue series advertising that they would invite the people “they choose” rather than the speakers chosen for them, and they sometimes stopped attending even the most compelling school lectures. The effort to produce creative and graphically stimulating communications materials was also met with contentious remarks from faculty and students who felt that the designs were sometimes too confusing or too colorful, while others considered them not bold enough. Then again, alums sometimes write to tell me that they are using past posters as decoration on their office walls!
No matter how ambitious a series is, it cannot satisfy everyone’s interests. An embarrassment of riches and offerings is not a bad problem to have. One can only hope that by offering up such a diversity of ideas that there is always something with which to engage. Sometimes an event on a particular scholarly subject that draws a modest audience of 25 engaged attendees can be just as worthwhile as a lecture by a famous architect filling the auditorium with 300 people.
Having recently been appointed the Assistant Dean of Communications at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, I step into a role with a communications mandate at its core. The position oversees an already creative and experienced team running the departments of events, exhibitions, publications, Harvard Design Magazine, and web content. Under the direction of the Dean Mohsen Mostafavi, the goal is to give more possibilities for interdepartmental collaboration and broader reach and impact.
In a time when museums have dwindling departments of architecture, curatorial positions in architecture are few and far between, and cultural institutions are cutting back on architecture programming, it is more important than ever for schools to take their role seriously as major producers of architectural discourse. To produce material that is accessible within academic walls and also reaches out to the profession not only serves the school, but the entire community.
If Ground Zero were up for grabs today would Michael Van Valkenburgh be a more likely candidate for master planner than Daniel Libeskind? It’s plausible. The recent surge in prestigious commissions going to and being completed by landscape architects has fuelled a fiery discourse over the ether as well as in academic circles as to what this means for the way cities will be made in the future. Traditionally, the architect was the master builder with landscape designers as mere ancillaries. Today that relationship is fast being reversed.
“Traditional roles have flipped,” said architect Stephen Cassell of ARO, who believes landscape architects should have equal footing on design projects because of their specialized training. “A lot of these landscape architecture firms have started to think about green spaces in a synthetic way. How landscape architects analyze a problem is very specific; it is about looking at experience within the city.”
Indeed, commissions that might have been won by architect-led teams just a few years ago are now going to landscape firms. And large-scale urban design competitions are going to landscape-led teams who demonstrate the capacity to design creatively with existing ecologies, such as the redevelopment of Seattle's waterfront by Field Operations, or urban regeneration initiatives like Gateway Arch in St. Louis, which aims to reinvigorate Eero Saarinen's iconic landmark through improved public areas by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA).
Courtesy groundlab and Arup / Thomas Balsley Associates / Weiss/Manfredi
MVVA is a case in point. In 2007 the landscape architecture practice won a competition (among the other multidisciplinary contenders were Weiss/Manfredi of New York and Stoss of Boston) to develop Toronto's Lower Don Lands, a long-term phased scheme which will reroute the mouth of the Don River to the city's inner harbour, creating flood protection, new neighborhoods, a river-front park system as well as “humanize the existing infrastructure.”
Charles Waldheim, head of landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, cites the Lower Don Lands project as exemplary of a decreasing emphasis on disciplinary boundaries and an increasing appreciation for ecological design, “MVVA assembled a very complex, multidisciplinary team,” he said in an interview. “Landscape urbanists have all the pieces.” As interest in ecological design grows, the need for landscape architects to deal with issues that architects aren't trained for also increases. “Landscape urbanism emerged to fill a void because planning and urban design had not provided an alternative,” said Waldheim, who has been a key proponent in bringing landscape urbanism to the fore and expanding the definitions of landscape architecture. According to Waldheim, the emergence of this faction of ecological designers snapping up high-profile projects is not a coincidence but rather the result of cumulative conditions.
In the late 20th century urban design was committed to recreating the 19th century shape of the city, he argues, in order to reinstate environmental and social values, while urban planners withdrew from physical planning to focus on demographics and social science. The perceived primacy of cars and demands for an expanded transport infrastructure in the 20th century pushed cities further out into sprawl and placed automobiles and traffic control at the center of city design. Later, during the 1990s, architects felt there was no option in which designers could be culturally progressive and simultaneously engaged with environmental or social concerns, leaving a dissatisfied subset of designers keen to reconcile the two.
Enter landscape urbanism, a term attributed by many to Waldheim, and certainly propagated by him. In any case, landscape urbanists are being recognized as key choreographers of urban space and they are beginning to subsume many of the roles once held by architects, planners, and urban designers. One such practice is London-based landscape architects GroundLab whose project Deep Ground recently won a competition to master plan a 4.6-square-mile area of Longgang in Shenzhen, China, drawing on urban design, planning, and environmental remediation to make a comprehensive, connected urban scene.
Courtesy Waterfront Seattle [Click to enlarge.]
That's not to say that architects will be rendered powerless, but it does mean that they may have to cede total control, shedding the idea of sole authorship and autobiographical building and instead re-cognizing those others with more skill sets relevant to a given project.
Robert Balder, a director of planning and urban design at Gensler, observes that developers still tend to turn to big architecture firms for large-scale projects. But he notes that within many of these firms, landscape architects don’t have an equal place at the table. Balder, who also serves on the Urban Land Institute’s Council for Sustainable Development, predicts that as developers become more knowledgeable about sustainability requirements, cost, and functionality, the expertise of landscape architects will inevitably become more important earlier in the life of projects. “LEED can’t come at the end,” he said. “Landscape architects are often brought in when it’s too late.”
The 21st century is the Era of Ecology, according to James Wines of SITE a long-time proponent of ecologically-driven architecture, who says “the era of monument-building is coming to a close,” and with it ends the architect's pole position. “Architects who want to build a sculpture in the middle of space live in an antiquated world of endless resources,” he said. “Urban agriculture is the way forward. You can turn a place around based on a vegetated environment.”
Courtesy MVVA [Click to enlarge.]
As designers across the profession are increasingly faced with challenges that don't have a precedent and don’t correspond to traditional disciplinary boundaries, such as rising water levels, post-industrial cityscapes, waste, and a crippled climate, practices are repackaging and restructuring themselves in response. But the prospect of another professional group— particularly landscape architects—ascending to a decision-making role in the built environment still makes some squirm.
In a Wall Street Journal interview earlier this year, British architect Will Alsop accused landscape architecture of institutionalizing public space. And last fall at a New Urbanism symposium in New Orleans, the constant pot-stirrer Andres Duany announced in a provocation that quickly exploded on the blogosphere, “It’s not cool to be an architect. It’s cool to be a landscape architect. That’s the next cool thing.”
Deborah Marton, executive director at Design Trust for Public Space, believes it's a substantive shift rather than a trend. “It is about professional maturity,” said Marton, who believes the hierarchical structure of traditional design practice is redundant. “Each discipline brings something to a project...it should be about which team is working well together and doing the best job of seeing the whole picture.”
Indeed, the rise of landscape urbanism hasn't escaped public interest with interviews and articles in the national papers as well as on blogs. This kind of attention has propelled it from an academic discussion into a wider discourse, which, says Marton, is important to changing the very structure of design practice and ultimately municipal authority processes as well. Though the change is slow, there are solid examples of it happening. Philadelphia's long-awaited waterfront redesign recently shifted gears as it dropped plans for multi-story blocks and moved away from using a signature project to jump-start the city's master plan. Instead, the massive plan focuses on a string of parks as a stimulus for continued development.
Landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations is fitting his practice to the new mold. And while he had to struggle to get credit from architects on the immensely popular re-imagining of the High Line in New York, he is now leading a $569 million project to reconnect Seattle to Elliott Bay and create nine acres of new public space, a kind of prototypical antidote to the narrow commercialized waterfronts so common to many other U.S. cities. “There is a desperate need for a different kind of professional who is capable of seeing a bigger picture and choreographing a bigger team,” Corner told Metropolis in 2008.
Meanwhile at the GSD, Waldheim's newly appointed staff in the Landscape Architecture department is dedicated to building a trans-disciplinary faculty including ARO architect Cassell, who will be teaching this year alongside Susannah Drake of dlandstudio.
Courtesy ARO/DLANDSTUDIO [Click to enlarge.]
Cassell and Drake have partnered before at the “Rising Currents” exhibition last year at the Museum of Modern Art. That path-breaking exhibition challenged architects to respond to an environmental catastrophe and called for “soft” infrastructures and ecological design solutions, bringing architects and specialists in ecological design together in close and productive collaborative efforts that attracted the close attention of developers and city officials alike.
For his Rising Currents project, Eric Bunge of nArchitects composed his team of designers with various skill sets including Mathur/da Cunha as water specialist. Like the other collaborative teams that were formed for the exhibition, his suggests that in the future it won’t take a constructed disaster scenario to make architects realize the value of landscape designers.
Bunge said that he still sees landscape architecture and architecture as having different trajectories that need one another at points in the design process. But whether or not they are complete equals on the job, Bunge possibly speaks for many architects today when he said, “It is too early to say.”