Architects are always giving each other prizes for good design. Unfortunately, the prizes often go to buildings that are liked by nobody but other architects.
The classic case for Boston is surely Boston City Hall. In the bicentennial year of 1976, a national vote among architects and historians named this powerful but sometimes grim structure as one of the 10 greatest works of architecture in American history. The public, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t agree.
OK, so there’s a taste gap between what the general public likes and what’s liked by the subculture of architects. Why does it matter?
It matters because it makes people distrust architects. That’s the view, at least, of Jeremiah Eck, a Boston architect and author.
Eck got in touch a couple of weeks ago, when the national architects’ organization, the American Institute of Architects, announced one of its most coveted awards. This was the Twenty-five Year Award, which is given annually to only one American building that’s at least a quarter of a century old. (Last year’s award went to the John Hancock Tower, designed by Henry Cobb of I.M. Pei and Partners.) The idea is to recognize architecture that has proved its merit over time.
I know you’re holding your breath. The 2012 winner? It’s a modest house in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica, designed in 1978 by Frank Gehry for his own family.
No sooner do I get the AIA’s announcement than I hear from Eck. The Gehry house, he e-mails, is “shabby, vapid and entirely without any true meaning of home.’’
I’ll get back to Eck, who has plenty more to say. But first, a description of the house.
Gehry bought a conventional salmon-pink clapboard bungalow in a quiet residential neighborhood. He gutted the interior to expose the wood framing. Then he wrapped much of the original house with an outer layer of new spaces, built with materials you might find in a highway junkyard: raw plywood, chain-link fencing, asphalt, and corrugated metal.
You can get different explanations of what he was up to. Gehry just said he took a close look at Los Angeles and realized much of it was built of junk, so why not do something creative with that reality? In any case, the house made Gehry famous. It came years before such major works of his as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, or the Ray and Maria Stata Center at MIT.
The AIA is suitably rapturous. The house, it says on its website, is “a Rubicon in the history of contemporary architecture, tearing down inherited stylistic standbys to declare a new design language for the modern suburban architectural condition.’’
This is exactly the kind of priestly architectural blather than bugs Jeremiah Eck. Tearing down stylistic standbys is not his idea of winning over the public.
Eck has been designing private houses for more than 30 years. He doesn’t care whether they look modern or traditional, as long as they feel like home for the people who live in them. He has taught design at Harvard and written several books, among which my favorite is called “House in the Landscape.’’
Says Eck of the Gehry house: “If you showed this to most lay people, my guess is that they would call it ugly. It looks like a house in foreclosure. Does that inspire anyone to hire an architect?’’
Eck points out that less than 5 percent of new houses in the United States are custom designed by architects. The percentage would be higher, he thinks, if prizes like this one didn’t give architects a bad name.
Eck doesn’t like the typical products of major home builders any more than he likes the Gehry. “They build a big house on steroids with a great mouth of a garage door, where the owner arrives in a huge oversized SUV.’’
Eck seeks a middle ground. This would be architecture that appeals to most people’s cultural idea of what a home should look like, isn’t pretentious, works for today’s lifestyles, fits its site, and doesn’t upstage the neighbors. Eck is no fonder of fake historicism than he is of fame-seeking avant-gardism. He would like to see the American house be more like an iPad: small, well designed, and easy to use.
As an example of middle-ground architecture, Eck cites the Zimmerman House in Manchester, N.H., designed by the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright and now open to the public. Wright, he feels, made a great house that’s no bigger than it needs to be, is brilliantly sited on the land, and solves every issue without fuss. Wright, he notes, doesn’t make a fetish of his own cleverness.
It’s time to confess, first, that I completely agree with Eck, and second, that I also love the Gehry house. I don’t see any conflict.
I first visited the house around 1980 when it was new. It was a delight. The exposed wood framing was richly sculptural. (One of Gehry’s inspirations came on the day he realized, while visiting a site, that architecture is often more visually interesting while it’s under construction than when it’s finished.) The clapboard walls were still pink, but sometimes now they were indoors. When I noticed that the floor of the new dining room was asphalt, I realized that the table and chairs stood on what had formerly been the driveway. I felt both indoors and out.
Daylight filtered softly through the chain-link screens and oddly angled windows. The house gave you the sense of something alive, something open-ended, a work of construction still in progress - as indeed it was, since Gehry, who still lives there, has performed major renovations to accommodate his evolving family. Throughout the house, I felt that I was on a stage and behind the scenes at the same time.
Would I want this house for myself? No way. But there’s room in the world for many kinds of architecture, including some that’s a little crazy.
The problem isn’t with the house. The problem is the tendency of architects to admire and give their prizes only to work that is unlike anything ever seen before. That’s avant-gardism, the knee-jerk love of novelty for its own sake. Instead, architects need to find a way of recognizing the merit of work that is excellent but does not try to win notoriety by shocking everybody’s preconceptions.
Eck is right. Architects sometimes act like members of a private priesthood, a secret club with its own set of values and its own language. If that’s how they behave, argues Eck, they are probably not going to get hired.
As he says, “We need to get the public to like us again.’’
‘Site Lines’ explained
Site Lines is the new name for this architecture column. The name is a pun, meant to include both the sightlines by which we look at the world and also the lines with which we write about that world. I define architecture pretty broadly: It’s the art of making places. Places may be rooms, buildings, streets, gardens, or cities - everything we build for ourselves to live and work in. Site Lines will explore them all.