March 16, 2007


The Usual Suspects: A new list of America's most popular buildings. (Witold Rybczynski, March 14, 2007, , Slate)

There are a number of bona fide signature buildings on the list--Santiago Calatrava's addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Renzo Piano's (almost complete) New York Times Building, Moshe Safdie's Salt Lake City Public Library, and Foster & Partners' Hearst Building--but there are not many of them. Although buildings built after 1997 (when the Bilbao Guggenheim was built), represent 21 of the 150 favorites, which is a relatively large number for a single decade, only one (the Polshek Partnership's Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York) is in the top 50, and most are toward the bottom of the list. Moreover, the most admired recent building is hardly avant-garde: Bellagio, a Las Vegas hotel and casino, is designed in an exuberant Italianate style and resembles a cluster of lakefront villas. I'm not sure what this means. Maybe it's just that more people go to casinos than planetariums, or maybe we should be talking about the Bellagio effect--architecture as popular entertainment.

At No. 22, Bellagio is not at the top of the list. The buildings that Americans care for the most tend to be older. Some, like the White House (No. 2) and the Washington Monument (No. 12) are very old; others, like Grand Central Station (No. 13) and the Chrysler Building (No. 9), date from the early decades of the 20th century. It's tempting to conclude that people just dislike Modernist architecture, but Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial (No. 10) and Eero Saarinen's Gateway Arch in St. Louis (No. 14) are resolutely Minimalist, and the Empire State Building, which is No. 1, is Art Deco Modernist.

I don't think that most people who admire the Empire State Building know the name of its architect, William Lamb of Lamb, Shreve & Harmon. Nor would they recognize James Hoban, the architect of the White House, or George F. Bodley, the first architect of Washington National Cathedral, Nos. 2 and 3 on the list. Perhaps the architects are not well-known because, despite the size and prominence of their works, they are not signature buildings in the modern sense. They were not personal statements, and they were not meant to be shocking. These architects were striving for something different: long-term quality rather than short-term notoriety. And it is the steadfastness and enduring quality of these buildings that people like. Conversely, the impact of buildings that seem exciting and unusual today often doesn't last. That is something that cities lusting after signature buildings should remember. In architecture, the race is usually to the slow and steady.

Architecture? That could be the epitaph for the entire Enlightenment.

Here's a nice bit from Patrick O'Brian's H. M. S. Surprise in which Tom Pullings sums up the Anglo-French conflict:

"Then on her quarter, with the patched inner jib, that's the Hope: or maybe she's the Ocean -- they're much of a muchness, out of the same yard and off of the same draught. But any gait, all of 'em you see in this weather line, is what we call twelve-hundred-tonners; though to be sure some gauges thirteen and even fifteen hundred ton, Thames measurement. Wexford, there, with her brass fo'c'sle eight-pounder winking in the sun, she does: but we call her a twelve hundred ton ship."

"Sir, might it not be simpler to call her a fifteen hundred ton ship?"

"Simpler, maybe: but it would never do. You don't want to be upsetting the old ways. Oh dear me, no. God's my life, if the Captain was to hear you carrying on in that reckless Jacobin, democratical line, why, I dare say he would turn you adrift on a three-inch plank, with both your ears nailed down to it, to learn you bashfulness. the way he served three young gentlemen in the Med. No, no: you don't want to go arsing around with the old ways: the French did so, and look at the scrape it got them into.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 16, 2007 9:36 AM

The Flatiron building on 23rd St was always a favorite if mine (23 skidoo!) The Metropolitan Museum and The Cloisters are impressive. I see nothing from Newark, however.

Posted by: at March 17, 2007 11:27 PM