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Best Of ’85: Breaking Out of the Box

5 minute read
Kurt Andersen

Not long ago it was generally supposed that one kind of building was suitable to almost every modern purpose. Corporate offices? Put up a plain box, a big one. A university? Put up a couple of plain boxes, medium size. A civic building? Another box, and make it bland.

The renewed use of traditional architectural styles is a done deed, praised and damned but now mainly accommodated. A more significant traditionalist trend, however, may be the revival of the belief in appropriately expressive building types. A courthouse should not look like a Pizza Hut; a parking garage and a theater ought to be distinguishable.

Nonetheless, when Architect Frank Gehry was commissioned to design a campus for the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, he had little direct formal precedent. Who knew how a downtown Roman Catholic campus in California was supposed to look? The small site is in a raggedy neighborhood; the budget was not great ($4.8 million); students and faculty yearned for a physical sense of community. Gehry’s solution is a small miracle. Using his customary sorts of raw materials–galvanized steel, plywood and stucco–he has virtually invented a new form of late-20th century urban classicism, simultaneously gritty and dignified.

Government buildings have a special obligation to express their public nature. Taft Architects, a partnership of three Houstonians, has met that obligation with its elegant Water Resources Building for the Houston exurb of The Woodlands, a structure that serves, for now, as the town hall. The columns and pediment are stucco and the “stone” is split-faced concrete block, but classic American civic form is evoked with a convincing freshness.

Some argue that grand classicism must be reserved for public buildings. A refutation of that theory is the absolute beauty of Michael Graves’ headquarters for the Humana corporation in Louisville. A dense collage of lush textures and elements, novel but never freakish, the highly sculptural tower conveys the joy of architectural invention. Not since the late 1950s and the monuments of the International Style has there been a high-rise as satisfying.

About 1.7 million houses were completed in the U.S. this year, and a great many of them were homely–lousy craftsmanship, ill-used sites, confused, graceless. All of which makes a new Omaha development called West Fair-acres Village especially promising. The architects, John Goldman and Daniel Solomon, have designed housing the old-fashioned way, comfortably dense, with a pleasantly irregular street grid and just enough stylistic variation. The basic model is an adapted Craftsman bungalow, circa 1920, but a buyer of a one-story house can mix and match from among four brick porches and four compatible timber gable ends.

In an era when so much manufactured children’s fantasy is anodyne or idiotic, the Philadelphia Zoo’s new Treehouse seems particularly fetching. A team of architects, engineers, sculptors and tinkerers spent four years turning an 1877 antelope shed into a vivid little natural-history funhouse, designing the scores of objects from scratch. A giant honeycomb smells of honey; from dark corners come recorded frog croaks and bird songs. The science is implicit: there is not a sign or label in the place.

Out in the capital of exuberant quirkiness, San Francisco municipal authorities agreed on a set of laws meant to codify the city’s piquant urban character. The Downtown Plan, a radical and ambitious zoning scheme, will protect dozens of fine older buildings from demolition, severely restrict the amount and bulk of new highrise construction and virtually outlaw the modernist office block.

Modernist furniture is another matter entirely: the stripped-down, functional aesthetic is alive and well. Particularly when it comes to chairs, the charms of rococo revivalism and campy cha-cha shapes tend to pall quickly. Enzo Mari’s lithe Tonietta chair is subtle as can be. What could have been another exercise in thoughtless angularity is redeemed by the slight, supple art nouveau curvature of the aluminum legs and the natural give of the leather seat and back.

With a few prominent exceptions, design in the computer industry has tended to be an afterthought, a matter of fashioning inoffensive shells for cathode-ray tubes. Larry Vollum, a recent California State University graduate, won the first Burroughs design competition with an approach of a deeper sort. His MUSE prototype, a small computer grafted onto a versatile high-tech music stand, is the equivalent of a word processor for composers, performers, students and teachers. It enables them to add, change or erase notes and chords at will, add rhythm accompaniment, and play back part or all of a composition.

Personal computers use floppy disks. FACPACs, a line of disk storage boxes devised by Worrell Design of Minneapolis, are handsome, simple and effective. The lever that fans out and displays ten or twelve disks inside is incorporated into the recessed logo.

Artist Eiko Ishioka’s stylized, otherworldly scenery for Paul Schrader’s film Mishima was remarkable, a sort of reductivist baroque that seemed peculiarly Japanese. Despite the dazzling sets, critics generally found the movie a failure. Design, it turns out, cannot do everything. –By Kurt Andersen

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