From the top: Yamasaki; Smith, Hinchman & Grylls; Birkerts; Noguchi; Eliel Saarinen; Eames; Yamasaki; Mies; Kiley; artist unknown in the Dequindre Cut.
Lafayette Park, Detroit, is one of my favorite places in America. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with landscape architect Alfred Caldwell and planner Ludwig Hilberseimer and built by Chicago developer Herbert Greenwald between 1956 and 1963, Lafayette Park consists of 24 single-story courtyard houses (with two to four bedrooms), 162 two-story attached co-ops, and three high-rise rental buildings, the Pavilion and the two Towers. The high-rises are silvery, the courthouses nestle behind buff brick walls, and the co-ops are framed in black steel with windows edged in stainless, providing material variety within the vertical and horizontal grids. The 78-acre site was declared a National Historic Landmark this summer.
But Lafayette Park is more than a design fetishist’s paradise. Its location and its landscape suggest ways of living in a city that are totally current, and its residents (many there for decades) are better linked to the rest of Detroit than the district’s self-containment might suggest. Detroit’s future may lie in building out the spaces between the structures it already has, making connections, not architecture.
We are indisputably having a David Adjaye moment. A retrospective of the work of the 49-year-old Tanzanian-born British architect just opened at the Art Institute of Chicago. The striking, bronzy shell of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is now complete. He’s mentioned in every article about the competition to design President Obama’s presidential library in Chicago. The public spaces of his $84 million Sugar Hill Development in Upper Manhattan, which combines 124 units of affordable housing with an early childhood education center and a children’s museum, are finally open. What sets his work apart, both for private clients and the public realm, is the importance of pattern. His work is a saturated, color-laden zig when so many other architects have zagged toward a faux lightness and ethereality.
Pattern in contemporary architecture becomes a simplistic way of convincing a community that a work is site-specific, that it “fits” despite being a different size, shape, material, or program from everything around it. Projects in African-American neighborhoods get kente cloth, the Southwest gets Navajo blankets, the Middle East gets mashrabiya geometries. All of these patterns can be meaningful, and acknowledging their history pushes architects more comfortable with unadorned surfaces toward ornament. But too often they engage only the surface, a skim-coating of context that justifies shapes the architects use anyway and use elsewhere.
The squat, mirror-glass office buildings by South Coast Plaza, in Costa Mesa, hard by the San Diego Freeway, look like a hundred other squat, mirror-glass office buildings scattered across greater Los Angeles. Most of the time, these buildings serve as a backdrop for nothing special, but Costa Mesa is different. There, the mirrors reflect Isamu Noguchi’s “California Scenario,” a little-known public plaza dotted with carefully placed trees, sculpture, mounds, and a meandering river. Noguchi spent decades trying to make something similar for New York City, but nothing ever happened. That chronicle of frustration provides a backdrop to the installation of fifteen Noguchi sculptures at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (through December 14th), in conjunction with the thirtieth anniversary of the Noguchi Museum in Queens. It was fascinating to see Noguchi first in the epitome of bland office suburbia, and then in the Indian-summer lushness of the Botanic Garden.
Noguchi’s “California Scenario” is an essay on the landscape of California in seven parts. “Water Source” is a thirty-foot-high triangular sluice, with water flowing into a curving stream that is sunken below the sandstone plaza. The stream leads all the way to a flattened granite pyramid symbolizing civilization, called “Water Use.” A circular mound, dotted with desert plants, stands for one part of the state, while a wedge-shaped hill, circled by redwoods, represents another. A knotty stone sculpture called “Spirit of the Lima Bean” refers to the original use of the land under the South Coast development, while the circular “Energy Fountain” creates a rush of whitewater over stacked granite blocks. I’m not really sure what “Land Use,” the ivy-covered hill placed in front of 3200 Park Center Drive is doing. It does screen the door of the building, further separating Noguchi’s space from that of business.
From 1959 architect Philip Johnson would lunch at a corner table in the Grill Room, part of the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building he designed. Contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright and Henry Dreyfuss held court at the Oak Room in New York’s Plaza Hotel. How can Johnson’s decision to make his own Oak Room be interpreted as anything other than a power play? Here everyone had to sit, literally, at his table. Clients, colleagues, supplicants, artists: on his own turf, the architect trumped them all. And the table itself laid bare an unspoken hierarchy, depending on where you sat.
All tables do: choose a seat close to or far away from the seat of power and you reveal your sense of place. Take the seat you’ve been allocated and you find out where others place you. If you don’t like your position you can move, or, if an Arthurian knight, fight. It is more subtle, though, to change the rules of engagement by changing the shape of the board.
To get in to Frank Gehry’s Loyola Law School (1980-90) you have to drive around the block a few times. What most published photos of the campus, near downtown Los Angeles in Westlake, don’t show is that the only entrance to this “academical village” is through the parking garage. The enclave of buildings—cartoon versions of colonnade, grove, tower, and chapel—present their backs as a wall to the street, hiding their postmodern flourishes and denying passers-by even a ceremonial gate through which to peer. If you are looking for late-model luxuriant Gehry, you won’t find it here. What you will see is one of Frank Gehry’s first attempts to create an urban place, with an artful mix of foreground and background buildings, sun and shade, gentle ramps, and aggressive switchback staircases.
The most iconic element of the Loyola campus is Merrifield Hall, a free-standing brick building with a tidy, child’s-drawing gable and four stucco columns on its south side. The columns are unencumbered by capitals and unattached to the hall. They are just there as a three-dimensional symbol of our collective image of what the law looks like, set at the working center of the open space.
So many elements of Loyola seem meaningful in retrospect: the tiered plywood acoustical panels hung from the ceiling of Merrifield read as a low-budget sketch of Disney Concert Hall’s billowing wood waves. The blonde-wood interior of the glassy chapel points to Gehry’s admiration for Alvar Aalto and transports you briefly to a more northern climate. Meanwhile, the openwork bell tower has no bell, and Gehry would repeat those exposed Paul Bunyan-goes-to-Japan timbers for Chiat/Day (↑). You’ve seen Gehry’s three office buildings in three materials in Dusseldorf, and you’ve seen his three condos in three materials on Indiana Avenue in Venice. Here, the parking structure is covered in overlapping silvery sheets, another background building is bright yellow with a grid of tiny square windows, and a third is terra cotta. The metal staircase juts and glints just like the chain-link fence lifted from Gehry’s Santa Monica house (↓) and reaches up to an off-kilter gem-like atrium (ditto). Nothing aligns, so a walk through the block bounces you from one material to another, making the space feel bigger than it is. I realize, after I walk out, that this is Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT turned inside out: His first mistake in that pushy, cacophonous interior was trying to recreate a Los Angeles block indoors in Cambridge, Massachusetts.