duck or decorated shed?

warehouse composition in 5 colors - a "Dumb and Ordinary" building

I’ve had the chance to do a little traveling to some cities on the west coast over the last month. I was planning on checking out the “Bloom” installation at “Materials and Applications”  while in Los Angeles but never made it up to Silver Lake. Luckily, it’s going to be around for a few more months. The photographs of the structure look pretty amazing and I really am interested in seeing it in operation, so it probably was best that I didn’t make the trip on a fairly rainy day.

I did however, quite by accident, come across a collection of works by Eric Owen Moss, in a typical grubby low-rise industrial park in Culver City. After a wrong turn heading north from LAX in an attempt to stay off of the 405, I decided to continue through Baldwin Hills, where the open rolling terrain and working oil wells amidst west LA is always an interesting experience. The Moss works stand out dramatically in the context of a  generic industrial park and range from entirely new buildings, to towers, to pavilions/follies, to renovation/interventions, mostly along Hayden Avenue.  Although I am generally not a huge proponent of parametric architecture (or making overly complex forms because you can), the rawness and exhuberant character of these structures seems to be a great way to distinguish the firms doing high tech, creative work in what I image was once a collection of bland beige boxes.  Here are a few pics of the Samitaur Tower and Cactus Tower and a link to Moss’ project page. Well worth seeking out in person and learning a bit more from his website.

Samitaur Tower - Eric Owen Moss Architects

Cactus tower - Eric Owen Moss Architects

Coincidently Design Boom posted an interview with Moss a few days after I returned. Some of the questions are a little “cream puff” but the short video of Moss speaking provides some interesting insights.

I also had a chance to spend a day in Portland, exploring the Pearl District. Plenty of character left in the western portion, with its high loading dock entries, happily flaunting guardrail requirements, the lack of sidewalks and maintaining some of the original flavor in what could have been bland gentrification. We ate some good food and generally enjoyed a walking and exploring a bit.  Reminded me a bit of South Lake Union in Seattle but maintaining much more character and much less traffic encumbered.  The placement of new parks and transit facilities seems quite smart and effective.

But what really got me on the “Learning from Las Vegas”, post modern riff and title of the post was a quick drive by the “Portland Building” designed by Michael Graves. It’s fashionable and easy to bash 80’s post modern architecture but a visit to that building several years ago convinced me that it is probably one of the worst buildings, and most definately the worst piece of “serious” architecture, I have had the chance to experience. The setback of the first floor lobbies is way too deep to engage the street and bunkered in with blind staircases, the interior layout, at least on the ground floor, is completely perplexing, the service side of the building is clad in poorly aging tiles, a clown suit of brutalist architecture. Most telling was the unprompted question from my wife who asked “what is that butt ugly building?”.  An important piece of architecture historically and conceptually yes, but also a detriment to the urbanism of Portland. Interesting to see that the National Trust for Historic Preservation has included the building on its register of historic places in 2011.  Article from portland tribune here, don’t miss the comments, harsh. Surprising that a building less than 30 years old can even qualify.

Its inherent problems are much more eloquently framed by Ada Louise Huxtable in an essay called “building in the Real World” in an anthology entitlted “Goodbye History, Hello Hamburger”.

“most of us think of architecture as a series of isolated great structures, related only by style, country or sequence in time…They have little to do with building of the real world, of which masterpieces are such a small part and “nonarchitecture” is such a large part…Architecture is…building the entire man-made environment, in terms of the way it works as much as the way it looks….The point is that we are in the midst of an extremely important shift in the perception and consideration of the critical relationships between a building and its surroundings and the people who use it or are affected by it, with emphasis on effect.

What counts overwhelmingly today are the multiple ways any building serves a very complex and sophisticated set of environmental needs. What is it part of? How does it work? How does it relate to what is around it? How does it satisfy the needs of man and society as well as the the needs of the client? How does it fit into the larger organism the community? What does it add to or subtract from, the quality of life?

In these terms a very beautiful building can be very bad architecture. And what Robert Venturi has dubbed the “dumb and ordinary” building may serve cheerfully and well. It is a matter of measuring by priorities and values that a critically changing world not only requires but demands.”

Her words from forty years ago do not sound the least bit tired but quite contemporary and fresh. They set a high bar for practicing urbanists and landscape urbanists currently crafting buildings, “nonarchitecture” and the systems that serve our communities.

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About jim gerlach

A seasoned landscape architect living and working on beautiful Vashon Island.
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