At last year’s AIA Iowa convention, Marlon Blackwell described his criteria for judging design awards. Buildings, he said, had to be “resolute” at three scales–that of the city, that of the building, and that of the hand. That’s a pretty good recipe for design in general…with overtones of being not just determined, but purposeful, ‘resolute’ is a word I catch myself using all the time in studio nowadays.
This came up, maybe inevitably, during our Seattle transect last week. One day, as much of the city as we could walk, anchored by four well-known bits of recent architecture–which to me meant Olympic Sculpture Park, the Public Library, Seattle Art Museum, and St. Ignatius Chapel at Seattle University.
The Library is a tough one for me to include on the list, because it goes against everything I try to emphasize in studio–its diagram is a purely programmatic and site response, and structure and circulation take a really obvious back seat to the overall massing. As a result the building was set up for hundreds of lousy details where structure tries to weave its way through OMA’s organizing concepts; the exterior “curtain wall” is forced to be a bearing wall, resulting in a steel diagrid that’s brilliantly conceived, but that has to twist, turn, and angle around all sorts of arbitrary geometry. And yet…the public spaces inside are in fact pretty amazing, if you squint and don’t need to get anywhere in a hurry. And from the exterior it certainly has a presence, whether you agree with the outcome or not. Purposeful and determined as an urban object? Sure. As a building? Not so much. The diagram is apparent, but it never gets resolved with all the other factors pushing against it.
Allied Works’ Seattle Art Museum, on the other hand, is absolutely resolved at the level of the hand and as a building. We hung out in the lobby for a good half hour tracking details and grid lines, figuring out that there was a whole hierarchy of shadowgaps (the sign of a really thorough ordering effort), and pointing out just how clean a ceiling can be if you figure out absolutely everything that needs to go into it. I offered bonus grade points to anyone who could find something architectural that was out of place–we got one security camera and a single dodgy edge detail to a hung ceiling. OK, but resolved at the level of the city? Not so sure. A lot of Allied’s work is based on an empirical approach, where the building forms and spaces are the results of all the little decisions that get made correctly. It’s the opposite of the Seattle Public Library–here the diagram emerges out of understanding how all of the systems need to work together. I’m more sympathetic to this, no surprise, but I have to admit that the Museum’s presence on the street is probably less monumental than an art museum really wants to be.
So, one that does both? The Olympic Sculpture Park ended up getting “best in show” from several of us, and that’s richly deserved. The diagram is a simple but really clever one–a switchback that negotiates between the level of the city a couple of blocks in from the water, and the shoreline itself, all while bridging a serious arterial road and a set of active rail lines (a trend in the visit this week…). That diagram gets resolved in a palette of materials and components–precast and in situ concrete, gravel and concrete, prairie and groomed grass, and metal and glass balustrades–that make the diagram legible even when you’re in the midst of it. The fact that it contains a great collection of sculpture doesn’t hurt, but even if it was just a generous pedestrian path it reveals a lot about how the city really works, all while offering and framing views of the Sound and (if it’s clear) the Olympic mountains to the west.
And, finally, as a palate cleanser? Steven Holl’s St. Ignatius Chapel at Seattle University, which violates all of these. The space and the form it’s in are resolutely dissolute…nothing about them comes together in any sort of legible way. The sanctuary’s space wanders from light source to light source, with chapels more or less randomly placed around the perimeter…we shouldn’t like this one, right? But…the Chapel’s space is so engaging, it has that perfect balance of incident and plainness that keeps the retinas occupied all the time. Holl’s trick of bringing in light by bouncing it off of (unbelieveably well-crafted) plaster surfaces, a few of them painted so that the ambient light takes on a carefully tuned color, is one of the most meditative spaces I’ve ever seen…Ronchamp on the Sound, for sure, but done in a way that feels more like an ongoing discussion than a tribute. Over drinks afterward we tossed around the idea that there’s a fourth realm of resolution…not so much how a building is resolved in its context, or in its construction, or in its detailing, but instead in our experience. There are moments in the Chapel that feel like the architecture is just messing around with your cerebral cortex…and that’s not an unpleasant experience at all.
Good show, Seattle. Hope to see you again in Spring for ACSA…