Utile City vs. Turner City

Turner City

2013 Turner City, an annual interactive mash up of Turner’s significant projects

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Utile City, updated December 2014

Thanks to a tip from Howard Davis and additional sleuthing by Alex Davis (no relation), I was directed to Turner’s fantastical mash up of their notable projects from across the country. Despite the family resemblance, there are significant differences between Utile City* and Turner City, in addition to the difference in net worth and international reach between the two organizations. The first is that Utile has chosen an axonometric line drawing over Turner’s full color aerial perspective view. In addition, Turner’s version includes ample grassy green spaces and a density that suggests an “Edge City” (like Irvine, CA or Tyson’s Corner, VA) or one of the booming life science campuses that have sprung up near universities and medical centers. Utile City, on the other hand, is a reasonable facsimile of a handful of dense walkable cities, including Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago.

Most of the buildings in Turner City seem to be of the same early-21st Century vintage. Interestingly, all surface parking lots have been eliminated; as a result, we are led to assume that parking is located below the buildings in the scene. Utile City, in contrast, has the earmarks of a city with a messy and unresolved historical past. An elevated highway still makes its way through the urban fabric, parking structures dot the downtown, and early-20th Century residential buildings are cheek-to-jowl with the tough-to-humanize building types that dominated late-20th Century real estate development.

Neither city is perfect, or even a model for an urban future, but they do serve as apt symbols of the preoccupations and priorities of their respective organizations.

* Please note that at least one Turner project – the Boston Harbor Island Pavilion – is depicted in Utile City.


Tehrani on Mies, Saarinen, and Discursive Opportunities

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Eero Saarinen, David S. Ingalls Rink, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1953-58

As an extension of our conversation last week, I would add a few thoughts in response to Tim’s blog below – this, as an opportunity to expand on the discussion, and to overcome some of its oppositions, which may lead to reductive readings.

The connection between past and future projects in any office are sometimes inevitable, but rarely are they necessarily interesting in themselves. For this reason, I would make a case for the so-called design agenda not so much as something that underlines ‘personal’ agendas, but rather the discursive opportunities they provide. In other words, the ability to link projects, arguments, and debates across history, culture and circumstances is something that may link a design project to a broader intellectual project. The intellectual project, for me, is not only a personal commitment, but one that advances a disciplinary commitment, and thus puts the personal agenda in a broader political and ethical sphere.

The Mies-Saarinen comparison is a good one, and it helps to advance both ideas: the intellectual project through iteration (Mies), as well as the alternative, the intellectual project through the speculation of varied materials, configurations, and morphologies. Though Tim’s characterization seems to align me with the former, I would actually suggest an alternative model where Mies and Saarinen are braided together to form a commitment that cuts across the binary composition of the argument. What is fascinating about Saarinen’s work, in fact, is the precise way in which he establishes part-to-whole relationships in his projects despite variations of vocabulary. In a similar way, the Mies of the Tugendhat House, Barcelona Pavilion, and IIT show an architect of vastly different linguistic potential, someone who cuts across material and formal languages with equal ease.

As clarification, while Saarinen’s approach did vary vastly from commission to commission, his approach should probably be differentiated  from eclecticism: his individual works were highly studied material, formal and spatial artifacts that brought synthesis to each realm, even when they varied completely from his other works. In this sense, his strategic choice to speak in different languages across commissions should not be confused for lacking a disciplinary commitment, something that is here being cast as a personal agenda. In Saarinen’s work, what is fascinating is the red thread that crosses the boundary of vocabularies, from project to project, despite what may be visible at first glance.

Of course, it would be important to look at Mies and Saarinen in their own historical context to expand on this idea. Invariably the question of authorship looms behind both cases, with Mies’s later work falling into the trap of the very language he develops, while Saarinen is free to evolve from commission to commission. If Tim aligns Saarinen’s strategy with an acute awareness of his corporate clients’ varied identities, I would simply say that his brilliance came not so much in his dutiful acquiescence to those corporations, but rather his translation of their mandates into architectural terms that transcended their very culture, and with great linguistic range.

My challenge to the Utile-OU team was precisely this: how can they extend their own disciplinary research without apology on the one hand and at the same time develop a speculative spirit that takes bigger risks with form, organization, and materiality in response to their client audiences. These two agendas need not be pitted against each other if Architecture’s agency is to be considered as a central part of what we, as designers, bring to the equation. The middle ground to which Tim refers is not irrelevant, but is neither always here nor there. I am asking them for a both-and, and though their proposal is beautifully developed and conceptualized, I wonder if they are willing to take on the risk of failure, if only to advance the discourse of Architecture.

-Nader Tehrani

Design as On-going Research vs. the One-off

During a recent event at Utile where NADAAA and o,u/Utile teams shared their design submissions for a project in the Middle East, Nader Tehrani challenged the o,u/Utile team to include trans-project design research and preoccupations in future design proposals. Citing the design operations and features of a house in New Hampshire as one impetus for his team’s proposal, Tehrani made the case for disciplinary agendas that carry across multiple projects. Without stating it outright, Tehrani implied that such continuities in design agendas would result in richer and more meaningful proposals. While I favor self-conscious theorizing (while at the same time still meeting, if not exceeding, the client’s expectations), I am not sure that a practice that champions “evolving consistency” is the only model. Certainly, Mies van der Rohe’s post-war obsession with the corner of his glass and metal panel buildings is one exemplar of evolutionary architectonic thinking (Palladio’s villas are another). Mies’ multiple versions of the corner detail, provoked both by a larger conceptual agenda for each building and his growing interest in facades that suppressed the reading of the structural bay, have the same satisfying narrative arc and denouement as the sequence of prehistoric proto-horse fossils at Harvard’s Peabody Natural History Museum.

Diagrams by John Winter, The Architectural Review, February 1972

But if Mies is one kind of practice model, Eero Saarinen is another. In a very unlike-Mies way, Saarinen and his collaborators (which included, importantly, Kevin Roche), invented completely new organizational approaches and architectural languages for each new commission. And while each building partly borrowed from the work of other architects (Gordon Bunschaft and Mies – sort of – for the GM Technical Center, for example), they were each unique and fully-wrought technical, language, and symbol systems.

Eero Saarinen, GM Technical Center, Warren, Michigan, 1949-55

Eero Saarinen, TWA Flight Center, Idlewood Airport (JFK), New York, 1955-62

This eclectic approach, partly necessitated by the demands of corporate clients looking for uniquely imageable buildings, required a way of thinking that was radically opposed to Mies. Rather than play out design preoccupations across multiple commissions, Saarinen and his team must have worked vigorously to come up with novel conceptual frameworks and building systems. Utile, I think, follows a middle ground by self-consciously applying lessons learned from recent projects (both pragmatic and architectonic) while finding new issues to spark fresh design thinking, whether because of the site or program. In the end, I suppose, it’s what all relatively mature architects do, whether they theorize about it or not. The larger lesson from Tehrani is to be more self-conscious about ongoing design preoccupations. William Saunders, the former editor of Harvard Design Magazine, once told me that a “theoretical architect” is nothing more than an architect that is intellectually self-aware about one’s ongoing work. -Tim

(Update: Nader Tehrani responds to Tim’s comments.)

Typological Mash Up

nebraska-capitol post card with lights

Bertrand Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol is a typological tour de force that combines a Beaux Arts four courtyard plan with a dome-topped tower that deploys the most up-to-date compositional and syntactical strategies for skyscraper design. What was unique about the project was the way that it transformed what had been conceived as an urban building type – famously sculpted by Hugh Ferriss to allow sunlight to penetrate to Manhattan’s streets – into a uniquely American civic expression. The resulting free-standing ensemble has both the paradigmatic clarity and sense of ritual of Fischer von Erlach’s reconstructions of the important building complexes of Antiquity, including the walled compound of Diocletian’s Palace in Split and the Porcelain Tower of Nanking (Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture, 1721).


Diocletian’s Palace, Fischer von Erlach

The Porcelain Tower of Nanking, Fischer von Erlach

Like the projects from Antiquity, the Nebraska State Capitol is surrounded by massive walls with ceremonial gates and has a symbolic monument on the interior that is highly visible on the skyline.