Greater Greater Washington

Architecture


National Gallery East Wing crumbling from Pei's inflexibility

The facade of the I.M. Pei-designed National Gallery East Wing is now crumbling.


National Gallery East Wing. Photo by Iainr.

Catesby Leigh reports in the Wall Street Journal that the building, constructed using an experimental curtain wall system that the architect described as "a technological breakthrough for the construction of masonry walls," has become unstable.

While the technological reasons for the failure have become clear, the real question is why the architect consciously ignored established construction methods in favor of a new, unsustainable system. The answer has more to do with ideological constraints than technological ones.

The facade of the East Wing is constructed of a series of 2'-by-5', 438-pound marble panels that are held in place on a structure of steel hangers attached to a concrete frame. With the use of new rubberized gaskets to seal the joints between the stones and allow for movement to occur, the walls were supposed to last for a half-century or more before needing even minor maintenance. Pei described them as "a technological breakthrough for the construction of masonry walls."

This is the system that is now failing. Why did Pei use this new system instead of a tried-and-true method?

The [use of the new experimental] gaskets also would spare the East Building the need for wide, visually disruptive expansion jointsa standard feature of curtain wall veneer, running horizontally and vertically at regular intervals to accommodate thermal movement.
The clean lines and solid geometrical forms of the building's design simply could not be interrupted with unsightly expansion joints. I.M. Pei quite simply was shackled to his own modern design, constrained to have large uninterrupted geometries of stone, a technological solution was an absolute necessity. The earlier Main Building, designed by John Russell Pope, had no such constraints.


Expansion joints are hidden behind the pilasters. (photo by E. Bootsma)

What most people, even architects don't realize is that the Pope building, like the East Wing, is similarly constructed using a marble veneer over a structural core. What is different, however, is the extensive use of a well established conventions construction and the use of expansion joints. These expansion joints on the facade of the Main Building are cleverly hidden behind clusters of classical pilasters on corners of the facade. Pope, not being constrained by the ideology of modern architecture, was able to find a solution that was at once attractive and still working marvelously almost 60 years after completion.

The essential difference between these buildings is clearly the technology used, but that technology is a direct reflection of the architectural philosophies of each architect. In the former case the architect believed that new materials would provide a "technological breakthrough" to allow him to create the clean lines of modern architecture. Ignoring traditional solutions and the nature of the materials he was working with, it ultimately resulted in structural failure. The latter architect however worked using established precedents of construction that took into consideration natural forces such as expansion and contraction and gravity, and combined this with a sleight of hand possible through classical architecture, created a building that has stood over twice as long with no major failures.

The question of modern versus traditional when it comes to building technology has become more than just a question of style, but that of sustainability. The cladding of the entire East Wing will now have to be removed and restored at the cost of $85 million to the taxpayer. This works out to about 17% of the inflation adjusted cost of the original building ($500 million). Add to the financial cost the immense amount of fuel, energy, and building material waste produced by such a project, the justification for such buildings is becoming more and more difficult. Structural and facade failure in an iconic Modernist building is not without a number of precedents, begging the question of why architects insist upon continuing to build such unsustainable architecture in our enlightened times, again the answer is ideology.

On one hand, architects wisely are beginning to embrace sustainability, but with the other hand cast aside traditional detailing and traditional architecture because of a ideological bias against such architecture. We need to use architecture, all of its lessons to create a better and more sustainable future, here at GGW it seems most everyone looks to tradition when it comes to urbanism, so too we should embrace it in architecture. For architecture to truly be sustainable it must not only welcome back into its repertoire the lessons that traditional and classical architecture have to offer when it comes to construction, but also must be willing to embrace them.

Erik Bootsma is a board member of the National Civic Art Society and of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art. 

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the original Pope building was built using the REAL superior technology.
Of course- Pei and company wanted to put their names on the map- and J Carter Brown was all too willing to oblige.

My only regrets concerning the original West building is that the curatorial knowledge declined after WW2 and the niches all around this magnificent building remain empty- which looks very dreadful to visitors from countries other than the USA where great monumental architectural sculptures would take up the spaces alloted to them.
Pope's intenet was to fill these niches with beautiful examples of great & historic sculpture. In the era after WW2 , ignorance and lack of respect for traditional naturalistic sculpture
[ and of fine art in general ]
came into vogue and thus we have an unfinished looking masterpiece.

Just knock down the east wing and start over again. It is ugly, and a tribute to an egocentric and monomaniacal era that we should all be moving away from.

God forbid that the misplaced emotions of some historic preservationist fans of modernism have it declared an "historic landmark".

by w on Dec 11, 2009 12:11 pm • linkreport

Oh good lord. If nobody ever tried anything that diverged from the "tried and true" we'd all still be living in caves and mud huts.

And how about that unsustainable pile at 1600 PA ave that had to be completely gutted and rebuilt. Not very sustainable construction in that one from the beginning. Maybe we should have just levelled it and built a sustainable teepee or yurt instead.

by spookiness on Dec 11, 2009 12:23 pm • linkreport

I interned in the NGA media lab in the basement of the East Wing. Pei came to tour the offices, many of which were also at odd angles, so it was impossible to get square/rectangular equipment to fit properly against the walls. He noticed this and commented something vague like, "Kinda hard fitting that equipment in, huh?" We just sorta smiled and nodded our heads.

All together: Form. Follows. Function.

by monkeyrotica on Dec 11, 2009 12:24 pm • linkreport

I second the suggestion that we replace the FBI Building with a sustainable yurt.

by monkeyrotica on Dec 11, 2009 12:25 pm • linkreport

Replacing the FBI building with just about anything would be an improvement. What a god-awful ugly and unfriendly building.

by Distantantennas on Dec 11, 2009 12:29 pm • linkreport

Nothing wrong w/ trying new technologies. There is something wrong with not learning from your mistakes. This is one of those teaching moments, tear down the broken part, document it for the failure section in a text book and put up something that will last.

If the dc preservation board had it's way, we would be in mud huts.

by ms on Dec 11, 2009 12:31 pm • linkreport

Also, in this season of giving, I urge you to give generously to the Teepees for CHUDs Campaign. Don't forget to mark #5547 on your CFC Contribution Form.

by monkeyrotica on Dec 11, 2009 12:38 pm • linkreport

if Frank Llyod Wright had his way-

all of DC would have been destroyed in 1944 by the Luftwaffe, and he would have been hired by Hitler to rebuild it in his own Broadacres City style..
in other words-

we'd all be living in carports
[ supposedly another great invention of Wright's was the carport]

He actuallty said something like this when his project for a large building in Kalorama was turned down.
And people have the stupidity and blindness to call this creep "America's greatest architect". Of course- he would not have liked this - he called himself "the WORLD'S greatest architect".

IM Pei is from this same demented movement in "architecture" that defaced so many formerly beautiful American cities with freeways
[ built by Wright's cousin Robert Moses and company]
and tract housing, and towers in the park public housing projects.

No real heritage would be left over.

by w on Dec 11, 2009 12:45 pm • linkreport

I think you need to include the installation issues mentioned in the WSJ piece as well (spacers that were left between panels, excess mortar at the bottom hooks that have bound panels together). And along the same line of thinking that back in the "old days" architects knew materials detailing better, craftsmanship is not what it used to be either.

by Lou on Dec 11, 2009 12:53 pm • linkreport

Meh. It's hardly a problem unique to any group of architects.

You know all of those wonderful terracotta decorative panels that make up the entablatures on commercial loft buildings 1880-1930? (Go downtown, perhaps to the Woodies building, and look up.) Based on a technology that has a nasty habit of failing under winter weather and falling off. I believe the problem lies mainly in the supports used to tie them to the wall, though the terracotta itself might be a problem. An article about the issue quoted a New York building inspector, who remarked that "Whenever I see terracotta, I cross the street."

And then there's domes. The entire history of Roman/Italian domes is one of inadequately supported structures reaching for the sky and then falling in on themselves. I think that Il Duomo collapsed something like three times. The ones we see now are the survivors, sometimes held up by wooden beams, iron chains, and steel frames.

by David Ramos on Dec 11, 2009 1:01 pm • linkreport

It seems most profiles of the East Building lavish it with praise - perhaps an easy response given the fame of the architect. But I've always hated that building, not because of the style, but because the flow between galleries is so "user unfriendly." Each gallery is tucked away into its own odd little corner. The focus of the East Building is ... the East Building itself, not, heaven forbid, its collections. Even the art pieces commissioned for the building are in less-than-ideal locations, with the spectacular exception of Calder's giant mobile, the star attraction of the museum. Henry Moore's bronze sculpture at the entrance is also a good fit, though it doesn't really invite much contemplation as folks scurry past.

Compare with the West building, where key paintings hang on baffles, guiding visitors through the galleries, leading them along its impressive collection.

Pei served himself; Pope served the art.

by michael on Dec 11, 2009 1:13 pm • linkreport

The West Building is surely the best venue for paintings and small sculptures. The display of art seems like an afterthought in the East Building, not only in terms of the spaces themselves but in the program. A good chunk of that building is dedicated to research and administrative spaces (quite pleasant ones, actually).

I *do* appreciate the light-bathed interior court in the East Wing, and the contrasting single-story areas off of it. That space shows a rare understanding of circulation and of building-as-stage-set.

by David Ramos on Dec 11, 2009 1:24 pm • linkreport

Why Pei is considered a great architect is beyond me. My dislike for him goes beyond merely disliking modernism: most of his buildings are just plain ugly, most of them are not functional and many of them have had serious problems similar to those afflicting the NGA. Anyone who continues to think Pei was a genius needs merely to be led to L'Enfant Plaza or Boston City Hall, which is so hated that the Mayor refuses to have his office there....

by rg on Dec 11, 2009 1:34 pm • linkreport

There's a book from some years back on the failures of "technological breakthroughs" in architecture: Form Follows Fiasco.

The problems in the East Wing described here should serve as a cautionary note when any "breakthrough technology" is touted as an aesthetic solution in public works... streetcar wires come to mind.

by thm on Dec 11, 2009 1:42 pm • linkreport

It's interesting to juxtapose the East Wing with the Kimbell in Fort Worth. Both done by essentially "modernist" architects working in natural materials. I think Kahn's effort generally gets more praise then the East Wing. I'd even say the Kimbell is better known for its architecture than its collection. The gallery spaces in the Kimbell are fantastic in terms of lighting and flow. Kahn, too, used a bit to technological trickery in construction, piercing the "vaults" with slots to allow light and supporting them with post-tensioning instead. The result is the heavy concrete shells can be perceived as light and floating as you make your way through different parts of the building. In Pei's case, the technological gamble really doesn't have much aesthetic payoff. 1/4" vs 1/8" joints? Probably better safe than sorry.

by Lou on Dec 11, 2009 1:43 pm • linkreport

Pei's greatest contribution is the glass pyramid in the center of the Louvre. It's interesting to note DC has two earlier variations of that, neither quite successful, though neither with the magnificent context provided by the Louvre itself: the L'Enfant Plaza skylight (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mvjantzen/256990997/) and the group of skewed pyramids in the central NGA courtyard (http://www.flickr.com/photos/mvjantzen/3064239809/).

Both of these would be improved if only the owners could light them up at night!

by michael on Dec 11, 2009 1:56 pm • linkreport

Boston City Hall is Pei? That's news to me.

by spookiness on Dec 11, 2009 2:17 pm • linkreport

Go to the East wing or the Air & Space museum on a rainy day--they've got trash buckets littering the entrances to catch all the leaking water.

Putting aside the aesthetics, I always find it interesting that the modernists are incapable of constructing a building that doesn't fall apart after a few decades. I think assholes like Pei should have to demonstrate basic competency building a basic *structure* first. Then you can wow us with your sterile vision of an inhumane future.

by oboe on Dec 11, 2009 2:22 pm • linkreport

You guys are nuts. The East Wing is awesome. A great break up of the faux-greek and kleenex box buildings that line the mall.

by beatbox on Dec 11, 2009 2:35 pm • linkreport

also would spare the East Building the need for wide, visually disruptive expansion joints

Blah blah. Same bullhoney as those terrible street car lines.

by Jasper on Dec 11, 2009 2:36 pm • linkreport

oboe

you are so correct.

FLWright counted on his much smarter assistant Jack Howe to do his drawings and engineering- otherwise Falling Water would have self- destructed a lot earlier- as it is- they are pumping a huge amount of mney into this atrocity as it was so poorly made in the first place.

His crap is no exception-

the universal petro-chemical based flat rooftops [ which Wright first decried- then later embraced] are inherently enery consumptive, and maintenance intensive- and wind up costing- over the life of a building- quite a bit more than if a single, well made metal or tile roof would have cost.

Yes- the initial up front costs are more for quality workmanship- but over the long haul they are far more durable and cheaper.

As for the moronic comments about Italian dome construction- the Pantheon in Rome is one of the best made buildings in all of history- and has none of the problems as described.
As for the dome in Florence- it has not fallen down in it's present state- and it is now over 500 years old.

Making a dome involves far more complex math , technological and engineering problems than any flat roof modernist tower in the park or Johnson's Wax building [ another famous roof leaker ].

Wright also never got his architect's license. He was basically a home builder. He should have stucvk with that. Levitt even modelled his suburban track housing after Wright's designs.

I happen not to like suburban tract housing very much- but Wright was good at it- that's for sure.

by w on Dec 11, 2009 2:41 pm • linkreport

My mistake -- Boston City Hall itself is not Pei. He did, however, do the Master Plan for Boston Government Center. of which Boston City Hall is a part. He also did the Hancock Tower, which started shedding its facade, in this case huge panes of glass, almost immediately. I guess thatr at least the East Building lasted a few decades before it started doing the same.....

by rg on Dec 11, 2009 2:49 pm • linkreport

here at GGW it seems most everyone looks to tradition when it comes to urbanism, so too we should embrace it in architecture.

I'd like Erik to expound upon this point, specifically on the connection he sees between good urbanism and tradition - in the specific context of design.

From my vantage point, there's absolutely nothing incompatible at all between different architectural aesthetics and urban design. For example, I think you could have (and there are examples of) completely modern buildings with modern design occupying a legacy street grid - and it works. Similarly, there are plenty of examples of classic, traditional architecture occupying banal, suburban, cul-de-sac'ed street networks - and that doesn't work.

That kinda disputes the logical connection that Erik is implying - that classical forms are inherently better than others; and that urban design and architectural aesthetics move with one another.

by Alex B. on Dec 11, 2009 2:55 pm • linkreport

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703558004574581890709007568.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

...WSJ article on this with many, many interviews and a detailed description of the construction.

by stevek_fairfax on Dec 11, 2009 3:18 pm • linkreport

here is a rare site that debunks a sacred cow;

http://www.2blowhards.com/archives/000993.html

by w on Dec 11, 2009 3:24 pm • linkreport

Alex B

Vancouver has lousy ugly a$$ed modernist buildings [ I will NOT call it architecture] - however

vancouver has great urbanism

the buildings have ground level shops/retail, and the streets work well.

I could never live in such a place and would feel a constant foreboding and dread.

Living in a box w/ a drop ceiling and floursecent lights is not my idea of a fulfilling and happy life.

But your point is well taken- Vanocuver is both a success and a failure .

by w on Dec 11, 2009 3:40 pm • linkreport

You're one to talk about aesthetic flexibility, Boots.

I agree with Alex and with monkeyrotica - the problem isn't that the architecture isn't Speerian enough. The problem is ignoring the basic rule that design should be functional. There are plenty of classical buildings that are falling apart due to their flaws as well.

by J.D. Hammond on Dec 11, 2009 4:04 pm • linkreport

Before anything else, a great architect must build good buildings. While I like the aesthetic of the East Building, if it falls apart, it's not great architecture.

I find Pope's work somewhat banal and uninspiring, but it has the twin virtues of working as designed and not falling apart prematurely. He's a thoroughly competent architect who delivered what was asked for him.

by TimK on Dec 11, 2009 4:12 pm • linkreport

@w

Where does your abusive tone come from, anyway? Is it a lack of social skills, or are you just a genuinely horrid person?

The Roman/Medieval/Renaissance domes and towers we see are the successes. It's a case of selection bias. My point is that any kind of building is fraught with risk and instructive failures.

Quite often they are mixed successes. St. Peter's, for instance, has seen a series of iron chains added in order to prevent a collapse. Il Duomo incorporates several chains, though they might have been original. (I misspoke about Il Duomo's ill-starred history - I had Lisbon Cathedral's collapses in mind instead, but such failures are hardly unique.)

The Pantheon's an exceptional structure that represents the pinnacle of Roman concrete construction. Its builders benefitted from previous work and previous failures. Over the years, it's had problems with uneven settlement that forced remediation, and yes, the concrete *is* cracking.

by David Ramos on Dec 11, 2009 4:52 pm • linkreport

Berlin is an even better example of the marriage of modernist architecture and great urbanism. Every single school of modernism from the Bauhaus onwards is amply represented, a lot of the buildings are terrible to look at, and yet it's regarded as one of the most livable cities out there.

The feeling of "constant foreboding and dread" is definitely there but people counter it through making creative uses out of all the dreary spaces.

by Phil on Dec 11, 2009 4:54 pm • linkreport

The hyperbole of the article really seems to have brought out the drama queens. Wright did produce a proposal for the hillside that eventually came to filled in with the "Hinckley" Hilton on Connecticut & T. At one point, there was a plan for a freeway interchange around there, which explains the scale and odd location.

Pei has long relied on his staff more than other marquee architects, which may explain the lack of coherenece in his style, which has included really ugly buildings like Cleveland's Erieview Plaza (for years, as a kid, I thought it hadn't yet been finished), along with modernist classics like the Bank of China in Hong Kong and the Bushnell Park tower apartments in Hartford. The pyramid works a little better at the Louvre than here.

The East Wing was designed to be a more "corporate" part of the museum, hosting traveling shows and the large food service operation and shops. Traveling shows grew bigger during the 70s, and this building often has been inadequate to show them. Some people like the space and light, although others like me feel it's inefficient and insufficiently "monumental" for a museum. The National Gallery is basically a second rate museum. It was one of the last of the majors to be established and there are many smaller or less well-known museums of better quality, such as the one in Toledo.

by Rich on Dec 11, 2009 5:05 pm • linkreport

Dutch cities offer more great examples of Modernist architecture + sensitive, thoughtful city planning. So do interwar public housing projects in Prague.

by David Ramos on Dec 11, 2009 5:06 pm • linkreport

Sorry, but this is old news, that's why there have been wood tunnels around the doorways for the past year.

by name on Dec 11, 2009 5:30 pm • linkreport

@David Ramos

As I recall, the shoring up of the dome of St Peter's was necessary because Giacomo della Porta "corrected" the designs of Michaelangelo only to realize too late that Michaelangelo had been right in the first place. To my mind, this case really doesn't support your point.

by Steve on Dec 11, 2009 5:57 pm • linkreport

You're also comparing architects who designed with pen and paper and may have had an abacus to assist with their figuring to architects use computers from start to finish.

by Steve on Dec 11, 2009 6:01 pm • linkreport

Steve: I'm not sure what this means, other than that it's less excusable for contemporary architects to make mathematical errors. Again, how it would follow from the point that ornate architecture is inherently better than any other kind is beyond me.

by J.D. Hammond on Dec 11, 2009 6:14 pm • linkreport

The headline to this posting is quite a stretch. It can scarcely be said that the building is crumbling. Please. And perhaps it is owing to Pei's inflexibility, but I seriously doubt that even the WSJ writer has enough knowledge to make that statement, let alone the author of this post. the problem with the building is serious and very costly to fix but not catastrophic. It's hard to see why it would need to be sensationalized.

by gah on Dec 12, 2009 8:39 am • linkreport

Pei's East Building is great example of "form follows fashion," not form follows function. What he really wanted was a bare concrete Brutalist structure as was fashionable in the day, but that never would have flown with the conservative rubes in DC, hence the marble cladding. The problem is not only the curtain wall hangers, it's that Pei's panels are much bigger than the individual stones on the Pope Building. You can get away 1/8" joints when the pieces are smaller. It's also much too facile to blame poor execution in the field-- sloppy joints and setting buttons left in place a so forth. A good architect, one who has hands-on experience, knows the limitations and properties of materials and those doing the actual work. Of course the statute of limitations ran out long ago, and no one is going to have to walk the plank for this.

by Paul on Dec 12, 2009 9:27 am • linkreport

In response to ". . . most everyone looks to tradition when it comes to urbanism," I have a question. Do Georgian & Victorian townhouses provide sufficient density for the transit oriented development that's frequently a focus of this site?

Good architecture can be both aggressively modern and urban - without inducing dread.

The Piazza in Philly is a great example of this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/04/realestate/commercial/04piazza.html

by Frank on Dec 12, 2009 9:49 am • linkreport

gah: It needs to be sensationalized, obviously, to make an argument that because a building is dysfunctional, contemporary architecture is therefore somehow by nature also dysfunctional, and therefore architecture should have just "stopped" somewhere in the 19th century.

by J.D. Hammond on Dec 12, 2009 6:23 pm • linkreport

One of modernisms sacred cows was to constantly "push" technology to prove some bs point know one really cares about. Consequently you get this value engineered to with in 1/8" crap disguised as advancing man kind's civilized progress. Give me a break. The east wing's a fine building for an open space sculpture gallery if that's your thing, but a building's thing ought to be at least sound construction, what ever statement you're dying to make. BTY, the Pantheon is aproximatley over built by a factor of 16.

by Thayer-D on Dec 12, 2009 8:01 pm • linkreport

This is not the first time that uninformed critics have rushed to judge the work of I.M. Pei. Unfortunately, for Erik Bootsma, the test of time may prove his (hypo)thesis an absurd failure. Without any real access or citing of evidence, you have proven nothing. Why any of us should believe that the failure is entirely the fault of the Architect remains to be revealed.

Don't forget: this is not the first failure of a Pei-designed curtain wall. The previous example, the John Hancock Tower, was shown to have failed due to Contractor incompetence NOT Architectural design flaws.

So, the jury is still out. Maybe you can go back and school yourself a bit more on the facts.

by Eric Bono on Dec 13, 2009 7:51 pm • linkreport

I don't credit the notion that the Pantheon is all that much stronger than it needs to be, given its span and the limits of concrete. Certainly not by a "factor of 16" - that's an order of magnitude out.

Overspecification was necessary and understandable, given past builders' limited knowledge of materials/statics, but hardly anything to celebrate. To marvel at, perhaps, but not a virtue. Someone had to pay for all that additional structure. It's waste, unless the main interest is in trying to subsidize the companies who haul aggregate around.

by David Ramos on Dec 13, 2009 8:28 pm • linkreport

Shouldn't have brought up ancient cases; too left field. I'm of the mind that there's often nothing new under the sun, either in successes or failures.

But failures in cladding systems are a fine and long tradition in American architecture. I mentioned terracotta and its limitations - lovely ornament, but might fall off after too many winters. Cast iron fronts are present maintenance headaches. One might even say that they're designed to fail, given the rigors of the city atmosphere.

by David Ramos on Dec 13, 2009 8:34 pm • linkreport

The root cause is architects' trying to make statements instead of usable buildings and their gullible patrons. To me, the pyramids and the Louvre look incongruous, like large shards of glass. Moreover, they're nearly impossible to clean. Underground, in the Louvre Mall (yes, Virginia, there is a shopping mall at Louvre with free (!) toilets). The pyramids provide plenty of light and drama and are quite decorative. They can also be cleaned using standard equipment.

The glass shards were Mitterand's idea. Among his other bone-headed modernist follies were the Bibliotheque Nationale (national library), built to look like open books. The idea was that, as the collections grew, their growth would be visible to the outside. Just one problem: books and light do not get along. In La Defense, he built a hollowed-out flashcube for the Defense Ministry and to fill out the monumental axis. It looks hideous. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it has structural problems, too.

by Chuck Coleman on Dec 13, 2009 8:58 pm • linkreport

Again, what does this have to do with modernism per se that it doesn't have more to do with making irrelevant, non-functional architectural statements independent of style?

by J.D. Hammond on Dec 13, 2009 10:04 pm • linkreport

The Pantheon and East Wing were built as monuments to represent the institutions which underwrote the expense of their construction. The intention was to express something new, something to inspire wonder and fascination. Neither functions particularly well to their stated function, in fact I would go so far as to say that the form and space of each building subsumes their functions almost entirely. Each one is iconic and as such is a stunning success. To make the point that somehow the construction of such buildings is not justified is to suggest that architecture does not occupy a place of cultural significance in the same family as sculpture or painting. Few buildings should attempt to subvert their programs with such disdain... but some buildings should. And whether they fall or leak that we love or hate them, that we are inspired to some passion by them, that is what makes them worthwhile.

It's this topic of effort that irritates me most. The suggestion that we should not exert effort to improve or widen the freedom with which we express the built form. We have no idea exactly how the Pantheon was built nor how many failures and accidents occurred in its construction. Not to be dismissive of the dome, but a funicular shape hardly holds great potential for the free expression of form. Therein lies what I perceive to be the general disagreement. One camp favors form as defined by preconceived precepts, while the other sees expression as a product of individual (rather than cultural) genesis. I would not hasten to dismiss either. Culture after all is not the product of rules, not a sum of painted canvas or carved marble. Culture is not just memories, not a long narrative stored carefully in libraries. Culture lives as part of the collective masses and evolves out of the interplay of individual expression, war and industry, political expression, scientific endeavor, love, life, and death. A few dollars and a new cladding system is a small price to pay towards furthering that goal of understanding what it is to be human.

by Tim on Dec 13, 2009 11:21 pm • linkreport

I'm with Coleman,
"Overspecification was necessary and understandable, given past builders' limited knowledge of materials/statics, but hardly anything to celebrate. To marvel at, perhaps, but not a virtue. Someone had to pay for all that additional structure."

No offense, but this statement is nuts. If you want to say that today's average builder has better knowledge of materials than Roman builders considering all the other issues today's builders need to be knowledge about, not buying it. I think slavery was probably useful in trimming the bottom line what with all that extra concrete thay had trouble inventing. And overbuilding is a virtue if it allows the building to last generations.

"Again, what does this have to do with modernism per se that it doesn't have more to do with making irrelevant, non-functional architectural statements independent of style? "

It has everyting to do with modernism because modernism made a virtue of building within an inch of it's life.

Again, what does this have to do with modernism per se that it doesn't have more to do with making irrelevant, non-functional architectural statements independent of style?

It's this topic of effort that irritates me most. The suggestion that we should not exert effort to improve or widen the freedom with which we express the built form.

One camp favors form as defined by preconceived precepts, while the other sees expression as a product of individual (rather than cultural) genesis.

"The suggestion that we should not exert effort to improve or widen the freedom with which we express the built form"

Who in the world is trying to supress your freedom to build shoddy and disposable buildings? People are just coming to terms with the waste implicit in built-in obsolescence. Maybe if cladding is the problem, we should go back to load bearing walls? Just kidding, even the Romans clad they're fancy buildings. Imagine the mighty Romans hidding their heroic concrete behind a veneer of marble? Why, they sound down right human!

by Thayer-D on Dec 14, 2009 7:53 am • linkreport

I'm with Coleman,
"Overspecification was necessary and understandable, given past builders' limited knowledge of materials/statics, but hardly anything to celebrate. To marvel at, perhaps, but not a virtue. Someone had to pay for all that additional structure."

No offense, but this statement is nuts. If you want to say that today's average builder has better knowledge of materials than Roman builders considering all the other issues today's builders need to be knowledge about, not buying it. I think slavery was probably useful in trimming the bottom line what with all that extra concrete thay had trouble inventing. And overbuilding is a virtue if it allows the building to last generations.

"Again, what does this have to do with modernism per se that it doesn't have more to do with making irrelevant, non-functional architectural statements independent of style? "

It has everyting to do with modernism because modernism made a virtue of building within an inch of it's life.

Again, what does this have to do with modernism per se that it doesn't have more to do with making irrelevant, non-functional architectural statements independent of style?

It's this topic of effort that irritates me most. The suggestion that we should not exert effort to improve or widen the freedom with which we express the built form.

One camp favors form as defined by preconceived precepts, while the other sees expression as a product of individual (rather than cultural) genesis.

"The suggestion that we should not exert effort to improve or widen the freedom with which we express the built form"

Who in the world is trying to supress your freedom to build shoddy and disposable buildings? People are just coming to terms with the waste implicit in built-in obsolescence. Maybe if cladding is the problem, we should go back to load bearing walls? Just kidding, even the Romans clad they're fancy buildings. Imagine the mighty Romans hidding their heroic concrete behind a veneer of marble? Why, they sound down right human!

by Thayer-D on Dec 14, 2009 7:53 am • linkreport

Who in the world is trying to supress your freedom to build shoddy and disposable buildings?

Do you really not see the vast cognitive dissonance contained in this statement?

by J.D. Hammond on Dec 14, 2009 8:30 am • linkreport

JD,
There you go again, picking fights where there are none. Coming from a guy who throws out such gems as "because a building (East Wing) is dysfunctional...therefore architecture should have just "stopped" somewhere in the 19th century." The East Wing isn't dysfunctional, it was just poorly built, which has nothing to do with modernism (per se) but everything with modernism's infactuation with pushing the limits of technology.

BTW, how do you stop "architecture"??? Oh right, because we invented the glass skyscraper, we should all live in one. If that logic worked, we'd all be living off highways because they're modern and therefore the best. Tell you the truth, that kind of thinking is no more "modern" than the middle ages acceptance of all things clerical.
Always question.

by Thayer-D on Dec 14, 2009 12:01 pm • linkreport

I interned in the NGA media lab in the basement of the East Wing. Pei came to tour the offices, many of which were also at odd angles, so it was impossible to get square/rectangular equipment to fit properly against the walls. He noticed this and commented something vague like, "Kinda hard fitting that equipment in, huh?" We just sorta smiled and nodded our heads.

All together: Form. Follows. Function.

Aye, because buildings should be designed to accommodate equipment rather than the people who inhabit them.

by Pav on Dec 14, 2009 1:22 pm • linkreport

Right on Pav, why the heck should an architect actually consider how a building will function!

by Thayer-D on Dec 14, 2009 2:14 pm • linkreport

Right on Pav, why the heck should an architect actually consider how a building will function!
Inconceivable that a building might be capable of serving multiple functions at once or over its lifetime is it? Or maybe that the stuff used to perform that function might itself change over time?

What's better, design a better copier/scanner/fax to fit rooms that aren't cube-farms or retrofit every building into a cube-farm to better house your copier/scanner/fax, comfort or aesthetic considerations of the people inside be damned?

by Pav on Dec 14, 2009 4:22 pm • linkreport

Thayer,

If you can't see how your language is hostile - or even that constantly making blanket statements opposing modernism constitutes opposition to a vast array of aesthetic forms - I can't help you. But if you're willing to talk about aesthetic agendas, then I'll be completely frank: I'm not a neotraditionalist, and I'm certainly not interested in historic preservation for its own sake.

If the preservation of traditional aesthetics were what mattered - if all design were held to the standards you, Boots, and Richard Layman hold architecture to - what would happen to design? What kind of furniture would we be able to use? How or why would fashion change, other than to incorporate "new technology" into this or that shirtwaist?

Yes, there are problems with the ideological focus of some (hell, even a lot of) modernists. But why is some hyperreal notion of "history" better than that? More importantly, why is it more important than what stakeholders actually need to do with a site?

by J.D. Hammond on Dec 14, 2009 5:15 pm • linkreport

I think slavery was probably useful in trimming the bottom line what with all that extra concrete thay had trouble inventing. And overbuilding is a virtue if it allows the building to last generations. (Thayer)

I'm not entirely sure what you're saying here. I trust that the slavery bit is irony, but are you proposing that building to last generations is a moral imperative?

Why? Why overbuild, other than to ensure that a cultural symbol - and the evidence of an architect's genius - survives for the ages?

American architecture's always been moved by commercial expedience rather than ambitions for the posterity. We're the country that invented the balloon frame and, for that matter, classically-styled buildings made out of what amounts to papermache. You rail about personal expression in design, and yet your romanticized view of history centers on the creation of monuments.

by David Ramos on Dec 14, 2009 10:50 pm • linkreport

modernism's infactuation with pushing the limits of technology (Thayer)

The entire history of architecture (and the design professions, more broadly) is one of pushing the limits of technology. You're approaching the question from a curious foreshortened view of the past, free of conflict and free of change.

by David Ramos on Dec 14, 2009 10:58 pm • linkreport

Pav,
It's that the people who are using the building happen to need a wall on which to project images. So it's not the projector rather the person using the projector you should be desiging for. If that's too pedestrian for you, so be it.

JD, again you seem to find insult where there is none. We clearly have differing ideas on architecture. More fasinating to me is how you seem to make all these discussions intensly personal. It has nothing to do with preserving traditional aesthetics, that's all ready done, it's simply about revising the priorities modernists hold in terms of building. It's about building better buildings what ever your feelings about preservation or neo-traditionalism if you want me to be frank.

David,
On slavery, you where complaining about who would have to pay for the overbuilt Roman structures and I was merely pointing out that costs in the age of imperial Rome with slaves was probably not as important as a tract home builder of today. Your analysis of American architecture is way too simplistic. You stick with this line that we are nothing more than a commercial nation because that's one of the main sources of our greatness, but the same could be said of Rainesance Florence. I think you should read actual architectural periodicals of the late 19th century to get a better view of the things architects where trying to achieve (beyond feeding their families). The modernist narrative of architectural history is completely wrong. Go to the source rather than buying in to some sophmoric manifesto.

"The entire history of architecture (and the design professions, more broadly) is one of pushing the limits of technology."

Again, way too simple. This is the modernists view, which not only reduces architecture to a one trick pony, but currupts the intentions of so many architects of the past and present. You and many others are stuck on this false linear narrative, when architecture and life itself is multi-dimensional and capable of a complexity you don't seem comfortable with.

by Thayer-D on Dec 15, 2009 7:04 am • linkreport

This isn't a question of ideology. It's just pure ego. Pei wanted to be the first to use this "revolutionary" design. And he succeeded. He then took his architectural achievement awards home with him, placed them on his mantlepiece, and added them to his CV. Pei and his ilk have no concern whatsoever for how ugly their buildings are, nor how expensive they prove to be over the short term. The only people he and his type are worried about are a small handful of other architects and the hoped-for adoration from them. Pei and his type are more worried about being innovative and original, not practical and concientious. Never mind the millions upon millions of Americans who have to foot the bill for his crap and also for his mistakes. His precious CV is far more important than the public good. And that small handful of architects continues to offer positive reinforcement to this exact lunacy among their entire profession by not only failing to censure their peers for such incompetence, but by valuing "artistry" more highly than integrity.

by Disgusted on Dec 15, 2009 11:33 am • linkreport

@ Disgusted,
That's how they turn'em out out at most architecture schools. The problem is once these sychophants invest all the energy to get through school, precious few have the nerve to throw out the crap and start all over again. Try talking to a priest about evolution.

PS - @ JD, this comment is not intended to be personal, it's been my observation, for better or for worse.

by Thayer-D on Dec 15, 2009 12:20 pm • linkreport

You and many others are stuck on this false linear narrative, when architecture and life itself is multi-dimensional and capable of a complexity you don't seem comfortable with. (Thayer)

I would levy precisely the same complaint about your position. I think that your view of history ignores essential conflicts. (In the historian’s sense of the word, one might say that you have an essentially “modern” perspective.)

I appreciate the reading suggestions, but...been there, done that, donÂ’t agree. My understanding of the 19th century is that it was a time of enormous variety in acceptable models of building. There was also a great deal of people screaming at each other about how, precisely, to build, and which sort of revival or idiosyncratic variation might be better suited. And then the Beaux-Arts classicists managed to storm the architectural establishment and stomp out anything else as an acceptable form for public buildings, holding that fort until some Bauhaus people became kings of the hill, however briefly.

I may have misspoken. The history of architecture isnÂ’t one of changing technology; itÂ’s one of ideological conflict. I have really serious problems with Classical America, because anyone who lays claim to Gothic churches and Greek Revival temple-fronts is either intellectually lazy or a fabulistic romantic. Some time ago, I posted a key passage from Ruskin, in which he rails against the Classical mode and promotes the Gothic as spiritually correct for England, except I replaced Gothic with Modernist. No one really got it. Too obscure, perhaps.

But still, I do like the role of changing technology and changing building types. IÂ’m saying this as someone whoÂ’s focused on industrial architecture 1850-1920, and whose personal favorite architects were neither classicists nor modernists. The lessons do apply farther up the architectural food chain, though.

Take two commercial buildings in an American downtown - two commercial loft buildings housing some mix of retail, office, and warehouse/light manufacturing, of a sort common to every trading city. One was built in 1800, and one in 1900. They have nothing in common in scale or height, and they share little of the same program. In terms of building technology, they are completely different; different structure, cladding, building systems, circulation and plan; nothing is the same. One has ropes hanging out the windows, and the other has electric freight elevators rising ten stories. The building of 1900 has more in common with todayÂ’s multi-story office building than it does with the one of 1800; the building of 1800 is basically a barn, comprehensible to any medieval builder. How can you claim that changes in technology are not essential to understanding the development of these two buildings? How can you say that managing technological and social change is not essential to an architectÂ’s task? Unless you donÂ’t recognize that social change?

by David Ramos on Dec 16, 2009 10:52 pm • linkreport

First of all, I appreciate your depth of knowledge and general interests we share. I don't consider myself a classicist or modernist either, but the Beaux Arts WAS the architectural establishment when it was finally disceminated through out schools, and it didn't push out all other ideas because the fundamental principles guiding Tudor revival houses of 1920 in Ohio was no different than Edwardian Court Houses of 1900 in Indiana. those principles can best be described as Firmness, Commodity, and Delight. Technological innovation was a servant to architecture, not it's master as modernists generally see it. In reading late 19th century periodicals, or for that matter, all writting up to the modernists you would have clearly seen that technology was never at the center of any debate.

"I have really serious problems with Classical America, because anyone who lays claim to Gothic churches and Greek Revival temple-fronts is either intellectually lazy or a fabulistic romantic"

BTW, the two buildings of 1800 and 1900 are nearly identical compared to today. Both would have had solid load bearing exterior walls, posts in the interior, and reliant on natural light. Adding the elevator only made a difference when the steel frame exterior became standard practice, which would have been sometime in the 1920's. Till then, most buildings up to 5 stories would have esentially been built like they had been for hundreds of years.

"How can you claim that changes in technology are not essential to understanding the development of these two buildings? "

I never said that technology is not essential in understanding the development of building, I said it wasn't conciously the intent of architects to show off the technology for it's own sake. It was always in persuit of another aim like light and beauty, two concepts that modernists have either ignored or dismissed.

"How can you say that managing technological and social change is not essential to an architect’s task? "

That's what I'm saying about reading history yourself instead of believing the high priests of modernism's liturgy. (Too obscure, perhaps.) They never spoke about managing technological and social change. But they did organically and unselfconciously reflect both in their work because one can't help but reflect them. One can recognize social and technological change with out reducing their work into cartoon caricatures of "concepts" no-one can read (except the priesthood).

That's the narrative that's false and seems to produce buildings people generally don't like. People use technology, it dosen't use them, unless we allow it.
Beauty and light...it scares some because they are such subjective qualities, yet so essential to our well being.
I'll bet on people, not machines.

You expect a purism (by product of modernist thinking) that never existed. They where doing neo-gothic buildings through out Rainessance Italy quite consiously, so this black and white (linear narrative) march of human history isn't as clear as modernist architectural historians are naturally fond of.

by Thayer-D on Dec 17, 2009 7:40 am • linkreport

The argument was not about what must or must not be built, but what ought to be. As for being aesthetically inflexible, I doubt I am, though I tend to just call what is ugly, ugly.

My point as it has always been is that modernism can accept no alternative, from the academy to the critics columns, any architect who tries to point out the failings of modernism, or tries to create something beautiful is ridiculed, labeled a reactionary, cast out and shunned.

Occasionally (as I see I have here) been labeled a "Speerian" shorthand for Nazi. Such labels don't serve any purpose other than to paint the opposition with a broad brush, shutting down true expression and debate towards a laudable end, beauty and sustainability.

Creating something beautiful, while embracing traditional technology and style is not opposed to progress and invention

It is a false opposition that says you must choose between progress and tradition, when for centuries architects have been able to embrace both, using tradition as a guide towards creating ever new expressions of beauty, from the Pantheon, to Bramante to Wagner etc.

The best architects make beautiful buildings that last, utilizing good practice to do so. The worst create ugly buildings that are falling apart. All things in the world degrade and crumble, there's no use in making things that do this more quickly when we have the knowledge to create buildings that can endure.

by Boots on Dec 17, 2009 8:39 am • linkreport

Boots, what about us folks who aren't architects or professional critics, and actually like both modern and classical designs? My modernism can accept alternate designs. I like the East Building. etc, etc.

I just keep going back to that quote of yours in the last paragraph: "here at GGW it seems most everyone looks to tradition when it comes to urbanism, so too we should embrace it in architecture."

I don't think that really applies at all, and I guess I'm not seeing the pragmatism of your position.

by Alex B. on Dec 17, 2009 9:00 am • linkreport

Alex,
Maybe I can clarify. Some like modern, some like classical, some don't care either way. Fine, that's not what this debate is about. It's about reorienting the guiding principles of architecture much the same as this blog promotes the reorienting of urban planning principles away from cars (technology) and more towards bettering our human environment. And as with urbanism, it's not reviving the traditional principles because they're cute or preaty, but because they seem to work better. That dosen't mean throwing out the good we have learned since WWII, it means not being intellectually circumscribed by an outdated (modernist) ideology.

If you try to build well, don't shun beauty as a goal, and imagine your building will age (like all of us) then, chances are the building will contrubute significantly to our over all well being. It's a himble goal, unlike modernism's goal, but one I think we can all agree on.

by Thayer-D on Dec 17, 2009 9:26 am • linkreport

Unfortunately, many builders who now try to appeal to classical tastes often do it poorly - and produce bland, post-modern failures that are almost camp in comparison to the classical structures they try to imitate.

As for building methods, affordability drives those choices. And for now, it's settled as steel frames with concrete floor plates. You can choose a modern or a classical facade, but builders are not going to return to the building methods of the 19th century. No one can afford such labor intensive practices anymore.

by Frank on Dec 17, 2009 9:49 am • linkreport

The reason for the cheezy classical buildings is architectural schools don't acknowledge thier students will be asked to produce traditional styles (public's preference) and therefore don't teach tnem. If you don't practice, you'll suck.

Agreed on the building methods. Unless the building codes change though, there won't any incentive to "build for the ages" because developers will always try to slim the budget.
We are changing our zoning codes gradually with future sustainability in mind, maybe we'll se our way to doing the same for buildings, what ever style get's built. But I would ask you to factor in the cost of labor in replacing all these paper thin walls of the East Wing when equating the real costs of building.

by Thayer-D on Dec 17, 2009 10:31 am • linkreport

I think there are only control joints at each of the hyphens.
That is what the original drawings show and that I have seen.
If you have seen others please show me a photo.

Also, I don't think it is correct to say that the NGA original is built similarly to the East. The photos seem to show thick marble and brick wall with an interior steel frame. That is, it is substantially thicker than the East Wing 3 inches.

by D Stroik on Dec 17, 2009 12:40 pm • linkreport

I have always been fond of the East Building, probably since I was in high school nearby and watched it going up, and even somehow snagged a seat near the front at the dedication ceremonies (very close to Pres Carter, in those less secure days.) I am sure it played a part in my later decision to become a planner. I have always liked the attempt to bring a more modern look to the Mall, while trying (with varying success) to be a good neighbor to the West building and the Mall in general. It's an exciting shape; I also like the open spaces in building, and the undergoround passage between East and West Buldings (the fountain wall is always a hit with visitros) All that being said, I am not blind to its shortcomings. The gallery spaces are odd, which can work, but become obvious in a big show as you move from openess to cramped dead-end spaces in the towers. Also, something as utilitarian as the main Men's Room (adjacent to the end of the moving sidewalk) is crammed into a awkard space resulting in a regular traffic jam at the door. As for the cladding system - to have gotten 30 years out of a projected 50 from an new system is certainly not optimal but it's also not cause to condemn the attempt at innovation. Others have mentioned Pei's history with the Hancock glass, so clearly he's not the man to call for that kindof system, but in this case at least the Gallery seems to be on it before things start falling off, as in Boston. SO all in all I am saying I know that it's not the 'great' building that I thought it was when I was a kid, but it is and was a good solid attempt to do something that just wasn't 'allowed' in staid old DC.

by ZinDC on Dec 18, 2009 4:10 pm • linkreport

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