Five weeks after the presidential inauguration, Washingtonians are still coming to terms with what it means to live under the Trump Administration. It's "Your Turn" to tell us how the changes are affecting you.
Last week, pioneering architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable passed away at age 91. Across her long career, Huxtable used her pen to deliver scathing take-downs — she once described the Kennedy Center as “a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried” — and challenge designers to rethink their work. We talk with Roger Lewis about a critic’s role in keeping the public informed, designers honest and where criticism fits into the feedback loop as public projects go through from imagination to fruition.
- Roger Lewis Architect; Columnist, "Shaping the City," Washington Post; and Professor Emeritus of Architecture, University of Maryland College Park
Roger Lewis: Cartoons About Design Criticism
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. As the first full-time in-house architecture critic for an American newspaper, a career that began in the early '60s and ended only with her passing earlier this month, Ada Louise Huxtable helped several generations gain a better understanding and appreciation of the buildings where lives are lived, where important business of state and corporate varieties is done and where we seek entertainment and delight, inspiring one senator to say of her, "You must love a country very much to be as little satisfied with it as she."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIShe also earned one of the very first Pulitzer Prizes for criticism, a MacArthur Genius Grant, and she inspired a boom in architecture criticism at American papers while she was at it. But in recent years, the number of critics in major newspapers or any paper have declined, a trend that has some, including Roger Lewis, a bit concerned. Roger Lewis joins us in studio. He's an architect. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post and is professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, good to see you. Happy New Year.
MR. ROGER LEWISSame to you. Thank you for inviting me once again.
NNAMDIFor those who are not familiar with her work for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, who was Ada Louise Huxtable?
LEWISWell, Ada Louise Huxtable was a journalist. She was an architecture critic. I didn't -- I never met her. I didn't know her at all. I only knew her by reputation, reading some of her writings.
NNAMDIWas she an architect by training at all?
LEWISNo, no. I don't actually know in any detail her biography. I think she was like a number of architecture critics. Over the years, she experienced on-the-job training and -- but most importantly, I think, developed a keen sense of perception and understanding of the forces and impact that architecture is responsible for.
NNAMDIYou certainly know her work. Lots of people go to movies and read books, so they see an obvious connection between reviews and critics of those art forms and their lives. But making that connection with architecture can be tougher. You think it's partly because architecture is what you call a black-box profession. Explain what you mean by that.
LEWISWell, I think the -- I think a lot of citizens of this country and most countries are conversive with or understand what a lot of professionals do, what lawyers and doctors and journalists and radio show hosts. I think through television and literature and other forms of expression, we have a better understanding as a -- as citizens of what is involved, what those people do.
LEWISIt's so often depicted particularly in the media and the entertainment media, but architects, what they do, how they do it, why they do it, I think, is a little more mysterious. I think 99 percent of the population never hire an architect or interact with an architect. I'd say probably 90 percent of the population don't know an architect.
LEWISI think that the image of an architects often is shaped by films and television programs that certainly don't go -- don't really show what architects are doing and why they do it because it isn't very accessible. So I think that's part of the problem. The other thing is that I think we're surrounded by architecture, inhabit architecture, we take it for granted, and I think the notion of worrying about its -- critiquing it is not what most people care about. I think what most people care about is architecture's utility.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you'd like to join this conversation. Do you think of architecture as a subject that's relevant to your daily life? Why, or why not? Call us, 800-433-8850, or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Roger, the basic components of good architecture were established a long, long time ago. What did the ancient Romans have to say about the matter?
LEWISWell, the most famous architectural critic of antiquity was the Roman engineer Vitruvius, architect-engineer Vitruvius, and he wrote in the second century A.D. a treatise on architecture and design, and basically set forth for the first time that we know in a systematic way what he felt were the principles of good design, of good architecture.
LEWISAnd his legacy, the thing that he is most remembered for is his pronouncement of the implication of his pronouncements that to be good architecture, you must have three qualities: commodity, firmness and delight, commodity meaning usefulness, utility, firmness meaning stability and strength and capability of resisting the forces of nature and keeping out the water and so forth. And then delight, that third one, that's...
NNAMDIThat's the one that intrigues me.
LEWISThat's the one that's all about the aesthetic dimensions of architecture. And in that sense, unlike other arts, architecture is in fact not just a form of art. It is a form of social -- satisfying social and human needs and doing things, providing functional solutions and functional capabilities that people who sculpt or paint or write poetry don't have to worry about.
NNAMDIHas that basic general thesis, commodity, firmness and delight, change significantly over time?
LEWISWell, it's subsumes a lot of things. I mean I think -- no, it's still a valid trio of principles. I think we've greatly expanded what those three ideas cover. We now talk about sustainability, and we talk about affordability. I mean there are a lot of other things that come, if you will, under those. You could expand the list perhaps, but it's -- I like to keep the trio because it's easy to remember, and most people understand when you talk about commodity, firmness and delight, what it is that you're talking about.
LEWISNow, whether -- the one that is the most measurable or the part of that that are the most measurable are the commodity and the firmness. Most people in the environment -- they inhabit the physical environment -- understand pretty readily whether it's comfortable, stable and useful. As to the extent of its delight, what it does for the soul that's where we get into debates.
NNAMDIAnd well, that's one of the things we discussed quite frequently when we're talking with you on this broadcast. Is there, however, an ideal background do you think for a critic of architecture? Should they be trained architect themselves, or are journalists with an arts background well suited for the beat?
LEWISWell, I think that there are a lot -- there have been a lot of critics who, particularly in the media -- print media, who have not been architects who have been architecture critics and who have done fairly well. I mean, I would argue that there are -- there have been some critics -- I won't name anybody.
LEWISI think there have been architecture critics whose lack of understanding of the complexities of architectural practice and of construction and so forth might constrain their perceptions or might be lacking in their -- in what they write about or talk about when they talk about architecture. I think that there's a tendency -- there has long been a tendency to primarily focus architecture criticism on the delight element of this trio I mentioned.
NNAMDISeeing it merely as an art form.
LEWISSeeing it primarily as a visual and experiential form of art and of three-dimensional or multidimensional expression as opposed to worrying about whether it's comfortable or whether it's affordable or whether it went over the budget or abate all the zoning and building codes, regulations. I mean I think architects have to worry about that stuff and in fact spend a lot of time worrying about those things. But those are usually not the things that critics focus on.
NNAMDIWell, you have to perform as both an architect and an architectural critic which you do for The Washington Post and so you have experienced writing about this visual medium and it can be a challenge. You say the challenge when it comes to architecture is twofold. What are the main hurdles you need to get pass? I think you just mentioned one, and that is that most of us only look at it in terms of the delight.
LEWISWell, that's -- the -- probably the thing that -- the principle, the aesthetic principle which I think is the only immutable principle that has stood up over the test of time is the principle that it seemed like a good idea at the time. The challenge in architecture aesthetic criticism is that there's a large element of taste and personal preference and aesthetic concepts, if you will, that enter into the judgments made by critics.
LEWISAnd if you put -- we've -- I've always told my students if you put three architects in a room, you will have five opinions or maybe 10 opinions, and that's really not an exaggeration. It's not -- that's not limited to architects, but I think the main point is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We are talking about what is beautiful, what is stimulating visually in otherwise versus what is not.
LEWISAnd ultimately, ultimately, it is a judgment that gets made as much on personal preference and likes and dislikes as on any other kind of quantifiable mode of measure. You can't -- I can't prove to you, for example, that the White House is a great work of neoclassical architecture. I have no -- there is no proof of that. We have to rely ultimately on just judgments and opinions informed perhaps by study and knowledge, but it's still an opinion.
NNAMDIIf on the other hand you're engaging in a deal -- detailed discussion about the BTUs needed to warm a space, apparently you can write about that much more easily than you can write about the aesthetic aspect of things. Your wife says that when you're writing about something that's very aesthetic, it takes you twice as long.
LEWISYes. Partly because when dealing with something that is primarily visual and finding the words to create a text that some reader would understand, it takes longer. I mean I've always found that to be the case even after writing this column for 28 years. If I'm writing a piece that's essentially talking about what something looks like and whether it's good, better or different, that takes me far longer than if I'm simply talking about whether I can get from point A to point B or whether the rain is coming through or not.
LEWISSo it is -- I think it's more challenging to write purely aesthetic criticism. And criticism, by the way, doesn't just mean negative discourse. It also means, you know, any discourse that analyzes the characteristics of something.
NNAMDIHere's Blaze in Alexandria, Va. Blaze, your turn.
BLAZEYeah. It's just I'm very interested in terms of, you know, talking about delight, truly aesthetic understanding. My main real deep feelings about aesthetic components of architecture tend to be those that negatively, emotionally impact me. And when I was a student at Georgetown, just an example, there's these really pretty hideous buildings in between the old kind of beautiful architecture.
BLAZEAnd they have a powerfully negative effect on your emotional well-being as a student. And I think that when you look at, like, you know, when you look at city planning or the cohesion of architecture in different -- in terms of one building and how it kind of blends with another I think that's incredibly important not only for the general aesthetics but also for the overall emotional well-being of the people who interact with those buildings.
NNAMDIWhich is why it takes Roger so long to write about the aesthetic aspect of it because it's very emotional for some people.
LEWISAbsolutely. Well, Blaze makes a couple of good points. I know the campus very well. We don't live very far from Georgetown. Yes, architects have built a lot of buildings that don't necessarily cut the mustard. And I think also over time, I will have to remind listeners that some of those buildings that we initially find off-putting, we eventually come to embrace and even admire.
LEWISI think that there's usually a lot of agreement on the buildings of which -- which maybe constitute 90 percent of the physical environment of our cities and suburbs. Probably 90 percent of our buildings are really not worth writing about. I mean, they're just not very interesting, and some of them are worse than not interesting. The critics, therefore the media and the people who write for or talk about buildings, tend to focus on than five or 10 percent that they want to talk about so that -- we should make that point.
LEWISThe other thing that I would add to -- comment on what Blaze said is that the goal of architects in designing buildings is not always necessary to "blend in." There are times when contrast, doing something that, in fact, does not look like everything else that's already been done, is the appropriate response. But again, that's another critical dimension that we write about and talk about architecture look at. You know, what is the appropriate response? And even there, there are differences of opinion.
LEWISSo people look at the East Building of the National Gallery, can still consider it one of the best modern buildings in the city of Washington, and it doesn't look anything like the original Mellon Building, the National Gallery of Art, the neoclassical building. It's clearly a contrasting form yet much admired by people. And -- but not everybody loves it. So there you are. It's a good example of contrast
NNAMDIBlaze, thank you very much. From form to function. Here is Marsha in Washington, D.C. Marsha, your turn.
MARSHAHi, Kojo. Hi, Roger. I'm...
NNAMDIMarsha, you're breaking up terribly. We can't hear you at all. I'm going to put you on hold, Marsha, and we're going to take a break. And when we come back, we'll see if we can get a better signal because, obviously, the discussion of function is very important to us. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can join the conversation with a call, or send us an email to email@example.com. What do you think a critic should bring to the table when it comes to discussions of architecture? Does it work on the radio for you? Send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Roger Lewis about architectural critics. Roger Lewis is an architect who writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Marsha's call dropped off, but I think this email we got from Aaron in Barcelona might get to the issue.
NNAMDIAaron writes, "Though I don't live in D.C., I very much enjoy your show and especially the conversations on architecture." Apparently, it does work on the radio. "Architecture is one of those mysterious art sciences that shape our lives every day. To me, architecture needs to create a space that invites the user to use it optimally. It has to hide its most basic structural functions and its actual utility, but has to caress that utility and beauty and accessibility.
NNAMDIBuildings that are primarily utilitarian tend to be totalitarian. They tell you how to use and experience them. Buildings that combine the art and science successfully allow the user to experience and use them as the person needs to. This pertains not only to secular, but even maybe more so to religious and sacred architecture. For example, I find most churches to be oppressive whereas most mosques -- and I am not Muslim -- are uplifting and liberating spaces to be in." Roger, at will.
LEWISYou know, we could spend several hours on this topic. Aaron, thank you for your email. I think the -- she mentioned the fact that in many buildings, the systems, the supporting armature and systems that you don't necessarily see or hidden, actually, that's not always the case. I mean, there is a thread of architectural aesthetic thinking that says, no, let's -- let people see how buildings are built.
LEWISSo if you go in Washington, I don't know, and maybe in Barcelona, there are quite a few structures where you can see you actually go in spaces and experience not only the space but you can see the structure. You can see the metabolic systems, the ductwork and the piping and et cetera. So there's, you know, almost anything you can think of, there's an opposite. There's something going -- somebody's doing the opposite as a way of expressing, creating a language of design.
LEWISI think the -- there's no question, some buildings are flexible. Some building are very supportive of change -- behaviors and change, functions, et cetera. Some buildings are harder to make those changes. She mentions a mosque. I remember I actually had the opportunity to design a couple of mosques when I was in the Peace Corps in Tunisia. And, yes, what she's alluding to is the fact that mosques essentially are large.
LEWISA prayer room in a mosque is a very large space with columns very systematically laid out, but that's it. There's no -- and there's a mihrab facing Mecca. But otherwise, it's a very kind of universal of space. And you can -- people can gather here, there or wherever, as opposed to a lot of churches where they're extremely organized, and they're axial, and they have a cross axis and there's a front and a back and et cetera.
LEWISI think that the one thing I've learned after all these years doing all this is that there's no one-size-fits-all. And I think that -- going Aaron's point, I think the best buildings are buildings that enable human beings to use them and to do what they need to in them, but also to enjoy them and -- psychically, to enjoy them visually, to enjoy them as experientially beyond just performing functions.
NNAMDIHere is Jeffrey in Silver Spring, Md. Jeffrey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEFFREYHow are doing? Love the topic, Kojo. I just wanted to say that, to me, prior to being an adult, honestly thought of architects as artists and not much more. It wasn't until under graduate school of University of Arkansas and actually several years into that looking into the Fay Jones School of Architecture that I just wanted to see what it took people to be a various type of architect. And I was amazed in how rigorous that some of these programs are related to architecture.
JEFFREYThey were actually taught in the architecture school so that students could sleep in there to complete various projects that they would have to do. It was a five-year program. It was just -- I was -- as a political science major, I was amazed at how rigorous their curriculum was. And mine was rigorous too, but I mean it just gave me a brand new respect for the position, the title and those that are involved.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up because in the break, Roger and I were talking about architects and criticism. And, Roger, you point out that a column or a review of a project is often the last in a series of critiques that an architect hears when working on any given project. Just how inherent is criticism in the work?
LEWISWell, it’s fundamental to both educating architects and the practicing architecture because what we do as architects is we propose something, a design. We start with a blank piece of paper or in this or today, a blank computer screen. We propose something, we present it. We show somebody, a client or a board or a citizens group, what we have in mind. And, of course...
NNAMDICriticism starts right there.
LEWISIt starts right there. You know, as soon -- the first sketch. The process of educating architects in schools of architecture, of course, I did this for 38 years, so I've been there, done that. And incidentally, architecture is generally considered the most labor-intensive major you can possibly select at a university. It is absolutely the most intense as Jeffrey, I think, has observed. But I think what students learn in learning design -- this is where they study design, they study other things.
LEWISThey study structures, and they study history, et cetera. But in design, the process is one of a design studio critic, a studio instructor looking at the work of the student and saying, well, here's what's good, here's what's bad, here's what you need to work on. Criticism is the mode -- is the primary mode of discourse between student and teacher in architectural design studios in universities.
LEWISAnd sometimes, not only is the criticism coming from the studio critic but we have these periodic reviews, sometimes called juries, with several faculty members sit there and talk to the student about what's good, bad or indifferent about the proposal. It's part of the fundamental profession of architecture, both in education and practice.
NNAMDIJeffrey, thank you very much for your call. But just because they're used to criticism doesn't mean architects necessarily like having the flaws, real or perceived, of a project laid out in black in white. Have reputations and careers been made or ruined by critics?
LEWISI -- oh. I think that definitely, more have been made than ruined. I think architects -- we're thick-skinned, but we also don't like to hear negative criticism. There's no question that architects' bristle sometimes get upset when somebody bad mouths or criticizes or says something negative about something they've designed.
NNAMDIWell, we, on the other hand, those of us who are not architects, tend to appreciate or review or critique who's willing to go negative, and the aforementioned late lamented Ada Louise Huxtable obliged. She was no fan, in fact, of the Kennedy Center and invoked the Nazi's chief architect in her look at the building which she called "a national tragedy," saying further that, "It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried." Are such takedowns career breakers? Are they helpful to those of us who are reading them?
LEWISWell, that's -- those are really great questions. There's -- Edward Durell Stone, who is a very successful, famous architect who designed the Kennedy Center, the criticism didn't necessarily hurt his career. I'm sure he didn't like that criticism. The other criticism that I've heard voiced about the Kennedy Center, and the readers might appreciate this, is that the Kennedy Center is the box in which the Watergate is delivered.
NNAMDII think critics and architects also tend to use metaphors sometimes to negatively criticize something. It doesn't necessarily mean that the criticism is that informative. I mean, Ada Louise Huxtable and a lot of other critics, and myself included, we occasionally do say something to disparage a project with -- which doesn't necessarily say to the listener or the reader exactly what it is that we think doesn't work or is badly conceived or is out of proportion or whatever it is.
LEWISI like to think, as a critic, that I'm at my best when I actually avoid that kind of witty line. I'm more comfortable, most of the time, when I am able to actually explain what it is precisely that I think is missing or is problematic or is done poorly in a project, and Huxtable did that as well.
NNAMDIWell, sometimes the witty line is so good, you can't resist using it.
LEWISAnd they're memorable.
NNAMDIThis box in which the Watergates was delivered. I'd certainly use that. 800-433-8850. Have you been part of a community dialogue about the design and building of a new structure in your neighborhood? Did you feel prepared to contribute going into that process? Give us a call, 800-433-8850, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. In your own column, Roger, do you try to strike a balance between the good and the bad?
LEWISWell, I should let everybody know that "Shaping the City" is primarily not just a column on architectural criticism. My -- The Post -- The Washington Post no longer has a full-time architecture critic. They did for many years. There -- Philip Kennicott, who is a style reporter, he does periodically write about architecture and many other things.
LEWISI periodically will focus on the building although my column is thematic, I tend to talk about issues and general topics illustrated often by talking about a specific building. I'm actually writing a column now about a specific project, in this case, a park in Washington. But I think the -- I think what has happened, at the top of the show you mentioned this, is that for reasons that we can go into if you want, over the last 10 or 15 years, the number of full-time newspaper architecture critics has diminished when Ben Forgey, who was the critic of The Post, retired, he was not replaced.
LEWISWe know that Paul Goldberger is moving on to Vanity Fair, and he's still going to be writing, I think, for The New Yorker. This gets -- part of this gets to the question earlier about whether the -- how much the public is interested in reading about architecture and reading that kind of criticism.
NNAMDIIn one of her last columns, Ada Louise Huxtable took a look at proposed renovations for the landmark New York Public Library on 42nd Street. One of her numerous concerns about the plans was that based on what she had seen, they would make the building structurally unsound -- we're not talking aesthetics here. When public funds are being spent on a project, and we have many ongoing examples underway in this region, does and should a critic serve as a guardian of the public's interest?
NNAMDIThere are money involved -- taxpayer dollars involved.
LEWISWell, I think the critic -- in an ideal world, yes, I think architectural critics should be concerned with those kinds of issues particularly in public work. I mean, I don't write critiques. When I do write a critique, I don't find someone's house in a subdivision and write about it. I tend to write or focus on projects that people see and interact with and that are pretty much in the public domain.
LEWISAnd, yes, I think when we see, as critics, that there are some deficiencies, whatever they are, I think they should be pointed out. There's -- there is a tendency, again, to pick out projects to talk about that the critic admires. I mean, my -- I think, generally speaking, that unlike movie critics, book critics, theater critics, art critics who have no problem telling you that that's -- only gets a half star, that...
NNAMDII hate it. I hate it.
LEWISYeah. I mean, for some reason, in architectural criticism, we've -- with -- and Ada Louise Huxtable is an exception, and I think, Wolf Von Eckardt was in the exception when he was writing for The Post, there is not a whole lot of criticism -- you won't find a lot of articles in newspapers or magazines where the critic has found a building and really hammered it. Occasionally, it happens, but it's not often.
LEWISBut I tend to be the kind of critic who -- and I guess it's because I'm an architect also, and I've been there on the receiving end, a lot of works of architecture have both good and bad points. You usually can find something positive as well as something negative to say. So I also tend to toward the balance end of the spectrum.
NNAMDIHere now is Jessica in Arlington, Va., speaking about taxpayer dollars and public projects. But, Jessica, your turn.
JESSICAHi. Good afternoon. I was in Buenos Aires several years ago, beautiful city. And I was just mesmerized by all the different types of architecture there from all the different cultures and, I guess, political persuasions of the different, you know, those people who had been running Argentina at different times.
JESSICAAnd I was wondering if you could talk to, especially since we're here in D.C., how politics and culture play a role in the development of different buildings and how that perhaps schizophrenia impacts, you know, the emotional well-being or the emotional whatever of the citizens, sort of like the prior gentleman said.
NNAMDIBecause with public projects, Roger, you have community advisory board developers, historic preservation review, city zoning and code approvals. There is an element, if you will, of politics there.
LEWISAbsolutely. Oh, yeah. I mean, the -- we -- I think in my first column in 1984, the first "Shaping the City" column, I drew a cartoon that showed a whole lot of people standing on a curb, the edge of a sidewalk, looking at a building. They're all looking at the same object, the same artifact. But each balloon over each head...
NNAMDII've seen that.
LEWIS...different thoughts. So the architect is looking at it and thinking, oh, this -- I'm going to win an award for this. And the owner is thinking about how much he's going to make on his investment. And the banker is looking at it and sees it as collateral for the loan. And the neighbor looks at it, says, I wish they never built this building, you know, so forth and so on. There's no question, Jessica, that politics and culture and the cultural ethos, if you will, of a community or of a city or of a nation influence architecture.
LEWISAnd I haven't been to Buenos Aires, but my guess is that, like Washington, it's probably a mixture of classical and neoclassical in style buildings. It's probably got tall buildings and buildings that are short buildings and buildings that are long and all different shapes, et cetera. I think that, as Kojo said, we have a whole lot -- a lot of forces are at work. Even before the architect puts pencil to paper, there are a lot of forces that are shaping buildings in a city like Washington, particularly in the center of the city.
LEWISAnd we also are a city, Washington -- let me talk a little bit about that. Washington is basically a conservative city. This is not a town where you're going to see a lot of experimental, cutting-edge, avant-garde architecture, the sort of architecture you see more commonly in Los Angeles or even in New York. We're a little more constrained in our attitude. I say we -- the citizens and people who run the show here -- are a little bit reluctant to try some of the things that other cities and other citizens...
NNAMDIAda Louise Huxtable says Washington, D.C., specializes in ballooning monuments and endless corridors. It uses marble like cotton wool.
LEWISWell, it's changed a little bit. I mean, I think in the last 20 years, we have seen some architecture arise in the city that does -- isn't trying to be Greek or Roman in its inspiration. But it's still a city where, I think, most of the work that's done, new work, is -- tries to fit in or the architects are asked to make buildings that do fit in, that don't break with tradition as dramatically as some architects would like.
LEWISNow, architects themselves -- a lot of modernists, certainly, architects who don't do traditional or historic buildings -- would love to do -- would love to break the mold, I think, in the city, but they're -- the constraints are pretty powerful.
NNAMDIJessica, if you go to our website today, you will see a number of cartoons that Roger Lewis has done over the years, and I think they'll give you a great deal of insight into the role that politics and culture play in design. Plus you'll get a few laughs. Thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. Of course you can also shoot us an email to email@example.com. If you've worked with an architect one on one or as part of a multi-stakeholder project, did you find there was a steep learning curve? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Roger Lewis about architectural critics. He is an architect who writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post, and he is also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park. When a critic takes on a painting, album or movie, they have some basic underpinnings of craft they can rely on to bolster their analysis.
NNAMDIBut there's also a lot that's subjective in architecture. The aesthetics are often front and center in a critique. But, well, let me stop there for a second and go to Gabriel. I'll continue the rest of that question later. Gabriel in Catonsville, Md., go right ahead, Gabriel.
GABRIELHi, Kojo, Roger. It's great to hear this subject on the air. I'm a student applying to the school of architecture at University of Maryland, so I'm particularly interested in the comment on Georgetown, having some experience in the area, as well as the comment on the oppressive nature of certain types of space.
GABRIELAnd so I'm really concerned with developing a personal aesthetic preference on design, but I'm very conscious of this disparity in taste, especially in cases like the library at Georgetown. And I dislike the idea that my sense of style would oppress someone else. So how do you feel that we can get around the obstacle of architecture as sort of graffiti?
NNAMDIAnd not oppressing people with your personal style or aesthetic.
LEWISWell, that's -- first of all, Gabriel, congratulations on going to the University of Maryland School of Architecture. It's a -- it's where I taught for 38 years. It's a very good school, and you'll not only learn a great deal. I think you'll have a good time, but you'll have to work very hard. It's a very labor-intensive discipline. I think the -- I would go in with an open mind.
LEWISI mean, I think that the architectural style that you talk about, for many architects, style emerges from a process of design as opposed to something that they one day decide, oh, well, I'm going to do Victorian Gothic, or I'm going to be -- I'm going to do Romanesque, or I'm going to do Neo-Greco architecture. Most architects don't do that. I mean, they generally take all of these givens that you start with: the sight, the climate, the context that exists, the nature of the land, the program, the budget.
LEWISI mean, I can go down this long laundry list of factors and forces that are there before you start to design, and they -- and then the design process becomes a very complex and intense but extremely stimulating struggle to react to all of this stuff. I haven't even mentioned building codes and zoning ordinances.
LEWISAnd very often, the style that emerges for many architects when they design a project isn't something that they started out as -- taking as a given, but rather emerges as they go through the act, the process, the many weeks and sometimes months of doing a design. That doesn't mean that you won't have preferences. You know, you'll develop preferences for colors and materials, and you'll probably have geometries that you like. Those preferences will change over time.
LEWISCertainly mine have. And I would say stay open-minded about it. And the nice thing also about studying architecture in school is you study the history of architecture and the history of theories of architecture. So that also further opens up your mind and makes you more perceptive and strengthens your critical analysis capabilities. We talk about that a lot in Maryland, how important it is to be critically minded in that -- in the broader sense of the word critically.
NNAMDIYou mentioned some of the practical constraints, like building codes and the like, that an architect has to deal. In that regard, have architects gotten better at finding elegant solutions, if you will, to the practical problems and the practical function solutions that they have to come up with when they're designing a building?
LEWISWell, I think the level -- the sophistication today of design is much greater than it was when I was started in the '60s as a student not only because the tools that we have to work with have improved but there is so much more available to us in terms of materials and construction technologies. We have a capability of exploring design options and testing them before we actually build them. That didn't exist 40 or 50 years ago.
LEWISNow, at the same time, as I think we've talked about on this program, the same capabilities also enable architects to create things that sometimes were not good ideas or not, you know, you -- the fact that one has used a computer to build -- to design a building doesn't necessarily mean you designed a good building. But I think that there's still a huge amount of judgment, of smart, wise judgment and creative judgment necessary to make a good work of architecture.
NNAMDIGabriel, thank you for your call. We move on to you Jeanie in Silver Spring, Md. Jeanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEANIEHello there. I have a comment about going to public presentations about buildings. When you go there and see the artist's or architect's rendition of the building, it often is very different from what the building actually turns out to be partly because materials may get changed for budgets or other reasons and partly because sometimes it's just not a very good representation.
JEANIEMy prime example for that is the Wheaton Library on Georgia Avenue. In the original presentations, the facade is quite flat, but the windows were visible. And in the finished one, I don't know whether it's because of the color glass they ended up using or what, but the windows just fade into the entire facade, and it looks very featureless.
JEANIEAnother comment about architects is that they often seem to design for the people who are walking through a space rather than people who are actually using it. And that can be a really hard conflict to resolve. People who work there want to have lots of plugs where they want them and smaller spaces to walk through. And architects want it to look really good. I don't know how to resolve it, but it's an ongoing conflict.
NNAMDILet's ask Roger how he resolves it.
LEWISWell, Jeanie, you've mentioned two problems. The skin -- the building skin problem, which is -- you mentioned the public presentation not matching the final result. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it's not so much of a problem. I think you've described -- I don't know the Wheaton Library. I probably should go and take a look at it.
LEWISBut what you've described sounds like a case where in the detailing of the curtain wall, the skin of the building, the definition of the windows, which is usually determined by the frames and -- or the sash or the mullions and elements that hold the glass, it sounds like they got suppressed visually. They became subtle enough that you just now -- I'm assuming -- see essentially a skin of glass, which may have been what the architect wanted to do.
LEWISAnd, of course, you're absolutely right. If you just end up with a kind of monolithic skin, a monochromatic skin of glass, it means you -- you're going to have a featureless facade, a facade without much topography to it. And certainly, I can understand how that happened. I think the -- and as far as space -- making spaces and making sure that they work for people who not only move through them but inhabit them, stay in them, there should be no conflict there.
LEWISI mean, good architects don't create such a situation. And while I think most architects like to have photographs published that show spaces with no one in them -- and if you'll go look at an architectural magazine, you'll see that most of the photographs have no one in them because the architect wants the other architects, really the magazine, to see the geometry, the pure form of the space.
LEWISBut, in fact, most good architects -- people who are really responsible and talented architects -- they worry about everything from the detail of making sure people can plug in their appliances to walking through or sitting around and enjoying the experience of being in the space.
NNAMDINewcomers to Washington are sometimes surprised to learn just how many of its landmark designs were selected by contests. Is that process popular here and elsewhere because it kind of truncates the feedback loop?
LEWISWell, design -- there are many kinds of design competitions. And, yes, some things have been built as a result of a design competition. There's always design competition in that most clients, certainly government clients and institutional clients, tend to select an architect after they have interviewed -- after they've looked at several architects, interviewed several. There is that competition. But there are competition, such as the competition for the Vietnam Memorial, which was open to anybody on the planet.
LEWISAnd so there are open competitions. There are invited competitions where we had such a competition in Silver Spring for the new Civic Building and Plaza. That was an invited competition where the sponsors made a shortlist of people that they wanted to ask to come and submit proposals. Yeah, there is always some amount of competition. There are different types of competition.
LEWISOne hopes that by having competition and having sponsor and maybe some advisers for the sponsor that exercise sound judgment, you'll pick a good architect. I've always said the one way not to get good architecture is to select an architect who's not very good, who's not very talented. So the process -- we could have another show on selecting architects, but we won't go into that now.
NNAMDIWell, the process is not without controversy. Where have we seen it backfire?
LEWISWell, we're having -- we have right now with the Eisenhower Memorial.
LEWISThat's -- that was a competition that was -- or sort of a competition. We don't know exactly how open it was. But Frank Gehry's design for the Eisenhower Memorial, as listeners perhaps know, is quite controversial.
NNAMDIYes. We have discussed it here several times before. I think we might be able to get in Joel in Herndon, Va. Joel, please make your question or comment brief.
JOELYes. Hi, Kojo. I'm just calling in. I currently work -- I have worked at Dulles Airport for about six years now. And I'm just curious of your guest's opinion or perspective if architects are building buildings to be expanded or if they look at that when they're building a building or a project for expansion, as Dulles was expanded and is far larger than it was originally designed as...
NNAMDIRoger has opined on this many times before, but I'll ask him to do so again albeit briefly.
LEWISWell, Dulles Airport was designed by Eero Saarinen, and the main terminal to be expanded, we saw it stretched double in length from the original. In fact, I think the one -- the expanded structure is aesthetically more pleasing than the previous one. Yes, Dulles -- some projects you design in anticipation of expansion. Some projects you don't necessarily anticipate being expanded. I mean, many, many projects are designed on the assumption that they will stay just as they were designed in the original.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid we're out of time, Joel. But next week on the 24th, we're talking to the manager of Dulles Airport, so you may want to join us for that conversation. Roger Lewis is an architect. He writes the "Shaping the City" column for The Washington Post. He's also professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland College Park. Roger, thank you for joining us.
LEWISThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
The new head of D.C. Public Schools inherited a system struggling to overcome a stubborn academic achievement gap at a time when the debate over school choice is raging.
Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Fairfax County Supervisor John Cook.
After blocking 450 users from his public Facebook page, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and his staff have been criticized for limiting free speech.