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New States of play

In a United States dominated by foreign architects clustered around NYC and LA, Raymund Ryan finds a new American architecture in unexpected places

Now as we enter another round - another marathon - of presidential elections, media attention swells, travelling from coast to coast, drilling down momentarily on cities, counties and states across the US. This is the moment when pundits take the national pulse, read the US in its multiple manifestations. Might something similar be feasible for the state of American architecture?

At the recent AIA Convention - that annual gathering of the mainstream profession - former president Bill Clinton declared: ‘If I had another life to live, I’d be an architect.’ Previously, at the 2011 Pritzker prize-giving, Barack Obama spoke of having, in his youth, considered becoming an architect. What do these associations with the role of architect mean? Some improvements, at least, on the word’s appropriation by both Presidents Bush during the Gulf and Iraq Wars.

A few Biennales ago, in Venice, I and some sole-weary colleagues counted approximately two dozen American practices presenting work at that playground for a frequently self-selecting vanguard. With the exception of one Chicago firm, the practices were all based on either the East or the West Coast. In fact nearly all were from either Lower Manhattan/Brooklyn or West LA/Santa Monica. Most architects with critical traction in the US are still clustered in remarkably tight habitats.

De_Leon___Primmer_view_platform

De Leon & Primmer Architecture Workshop’s movable elevated viewing platform in Goshen, Kentucky (2011)

The education system is partly to blame for this gravitational imbalance. In a society where postgraduate education is so prized, ambitious students may head automatically to the Ivy League on the East Coast or to Los Angeles on the West. And there they frequently stay.

The architecture of mid-century Boston and Chicago is inseparable from the academic influence of Gropius and Sert and of Mies respectively. And much of the tectonic formalism characteristic of LA emanates from the workshop ethos of SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture). If one can occasionally detect echoes of Koolhaas and of BIG in work by behemoths such as Gensler, firms determining so much of American and indeed global construction, there seems less connection today - compared with the era of SOM and IM Pei - between academia and corporate practice.

‘Ambitious students head automatically to the Ivy League on the East Coast or to Los Angeles on the West. And there they frequently stay’

In terms of fostering a distinct American-ness, it’s remarkable that nearly all the elite schools are led by foreign or foreign-born architects. Yale, under Stern, is an anomaly; an American holdout, at least for now. The architecture and design media are similarly centripetal, despite the flurry of new media, and weighted to the East Coast. Although weakened by cutbacks, the principal Coast newspapers, with Chicago, continue to cover the architecture, planning and environment beat. Pulitzers, after all, are cherished. Other cities and towns across America are less fortunate, typically lacking such outlets for informed advocacy, or public venues for the discussion and dissemination of design ideas.

Of course some regions do foster indigenous architectural culture away from the seats of cultural power. Wright is in many ways the prototype for this more independent mindset, evident in the Pacific Northwest (all that rain) with architects like Tom Kundig and Brad Cloepfil, in Minnesota (that snow) with architects like Vincent James and David Salmela, and in Arizona (that sun) with those like Will Bruder, Wendell Burnette and Rick Joy. Hard to prove but such concentrations, such crucibles, seed architectural culture, raising the expectations of design professionals and helping to inform key players in architectural politics, of whom the most important, ultimately, is the client willing to take a chance on something experimental, something unorthodox, something the bank might not approve of.

KukjeGallerySO_IL

Source: Iwan Baan

Kukye Gallery in Seoul by Brooklyn architects SO-IL

In this regard, the ecology of architecture is not unlike that of the art world. Cosmopolitan architects seem inexorably drawn to the flame of contemporary art. In New York, Annabelle Selldorf designed the Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner commercial galleries in Chelsea. SO-IL (Solid Objectives Idenburg Liu) has made experimental tented structures for Frieze Art Fair on Randall’s Island, New York and the gauze-draped Kukje Gallery in Seoul.

Work on galleries and art installations leads to commissions from art dealers and collectors, frequently weekend homes in the flashy Hamptons, New York (where Selldorf’s German Modernism may be usurping the literate historicism of Robert AM Stern and, before Stern, the neo-Corbusian boxes of the New York Five), or north of Manhattan along the more serene Hudson Valley (where Cloepfil, Toshiko Mori, Thomas Phifer, Alberto Campo Baeza, and HHF with Ai Weiwei have all completed bespoke retreats for art-world personalities).

‘Despite this new talent, the blunt reality regarding plum commissions is the preponderance of foreign architects. Just how much can Renzo Piano design?’

Over in Los Angeles, Johnston Marklee, Escher GuneWardena, Kulapat Yantrasast (wHY) and Michael Maltzan are also at home in the art world. In 2012 Johnston and Lee won an invited competition to house the Menil Drawing Institute in a set of white pavilions adjacent to Renzo Piano’s seminal building for Houston’s Menil Collection. Several LA architects - including Maltzan, Koning Eizenberg and Lorcan O’Herlihy - have become adept at balancing such glamorous commissions with projects for multi-unit housing, hitherto an anomaly on what Banham termed ‘The Plains of Id’.

Maltzan’s practice alone is responsible for three projects on Skid Row offering basic accommodation - literally life support - to some of America’s poorest citizens. In San Francisco, David Baker similarly experiments with affordable urban housing. Despite this new talent, the blunt reality regarding plum commissions is the preponderance of foreign architects. Indeed, just how much can Renzo Piano design? Since 2003, the Piano team has completed major museums in Dallas, Atlanta, Manhattan, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Fort Worth and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Perhaps only Steven Holl’s complex, light-receptive Bloch Building for the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City offers a robust American response.

Kundig242StateStreet

Source: Bruce Damonte

242 State Street adaptive re-use, Los Altos, California, by Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig Architects

Remember: Gehry hasn’t repeated the succès fou of his Guggenheim with any subsequent museum building in the United States. If 10 years ago, that unique combination of artistry, computer wizardry and client ambition was a model for other institutions and other cities to emulate (exhibit no 1: Calatrava’s museum extension for Milwaukee), the project most enviously referenced in recent years is the High Line in Lower Manhattan.

As in Bilbao, this rehabilitation, by Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, of a defunct elevated railway resulted from a perfect storm of site, talent and economics. It wasn’t cheap. Nevertheless, now as a kind of charm bracelet to link condos by international starchitects, the High Line reminds American planners and mayors, developers and community groups of the potential of heritage and the found object and the value of landscape.

‘In terms of fostering a distinct American-ness, it’s remarkable that nearly all the elite schools are led by foreign or foreign-born architects’

Landscape has expanded in scale and purpose since the mid-century gardens of Dan Kiley and Garrett Eckbo. Like the 1960s discourse that saw artists leave Manhattan for post-industrial New Jersey, or the open ranges of Utah and New Mexico, landscape design has experienced
a phenomenal growth, embracing community and history as well as the challenges of climate change. Today’s landscape agenda is willing to fuse with urban planning and absorb digital theory, especially regarding biology.

DSR_Highline

Source: Iwan Baan

The High Line, a long elevated public park in New York by Diller Scofidio + Renfro with James Corner Field Operations

It may even usurp traditional professional categories. As the world becomes more interconnected, it should be increasingly plausible for the ambitious young architect deliberately to leave the Coasts and, like Johnsen Schmaling in Milwaukee or De Leon & Primmer in Louisville, establish meaningful, critical practices away from the metropolitan centres. The most pressing issues are still in inner cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh, in unlovely sprawl and impoverished rural communities like those addressed by Alabama’s Rural Studio. This is where attention to infrastructure and landscape, housing and education, is required for a more holistic American future. This is where one imagines Clinton and Obama in practice.

Some of the potential of the inner city and the post-industrial suburb has again been signalled first by artists, as with Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses in Houston and Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation in South Chicago. Architects can succeed in part by expanding definitions of architecture. If architects don’t do it, somebody else will.

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