Architectural Criticism

  • The Obama Presidential Library: A Call for Restraint

    There's a circus coming to town.

    And by “to town”, I mean the United States.  And by “circus”, I mean the horrifically overblown pomp and circumstance that’s going to get accorded the Obama Presidential Library.

    You guys, can we just agree in advance to CHILL OUT about it?

    The architects on the popular short list are all giants of their craft.  Its location, on Chicago’s South Side, was sensitively and wisely chosen.  As usual, the project will be paid for by the President, his friends and supporters.

    The maintenance, however, will fall to the National Archives and Records Association (NARA), a department of the federal government.  And for that reason, if for no other, it behooves us to advocate loudly and often for restraint in size, in program, in operations expectations of – let’s face it – the next paragovernmental tourist attraction: let’s let the burden on the American people be modest.

    “Library” is a bit of a misnomer.  The tradition started with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had so many files and artifacts that he consulted with several people on the best way to set up and maintain the collection.  After deep thought and long conversations with historians and fellow public figures, he announced in 1938 that he would be planning an archive, called a “library”, and his model has set the precedent for presidents ever since.

    Architecture critic Ada Louise was biting in her indictment of the “presidential library” type.  In her book, Kicked A Building Lately?, she easily acknowledges the need for these archives, but says:

    "[W]here the moral  quicksand comes in is at the point where scholars and architects capable of giving the stamp of credibility and taste to these increasingly peculiar enterprises lend their names to them, affected, perhaps, by equal dreams of glory.  They package the dubious product with high expertise.  Then it is handed over to tourism and head counts.  A whole false thing has grown up, icon-conscious and publicity-wise, supersold, with a skillful eye cocked at the masses.  At what moment, one wonders, did American presidents get into the competitive pantheon business?"

    There are no characters in this story with something to prove.  For better or for worse (and I’ll leave it to the pundits to decide which), the Obama administration has left indelible marks on our nation’s history with the Affordable Care and Economic Stabilization Acts, the Supreme Court legislating gay marriage into federal existence, and drastically expanded support for veterans, hate crimes protections, and stem cell research.  The social, financial, fiscal, and scientific landscape and trajectory of our country are drastically different from eight years ago; President Obama’s collection of memorabilia and artifacts won’t make these accomplishments any weightier.  Similarly, candidates like David Adjaye, Jeanne Gang, and Renzo Piano have nothing they need to prove, either to their colleagues or to the general public.  Their design skills, sensitivity to urban contexts, and responsiveness to program is beyond reproach.

    So let’s let the design process be sane and considered, the facility modest and efficient, the design extraordinary in its restraint.  Let’s let this be an honorable discharge of President Obama’s final archive and not a constructed farce for the sake of spectacle…shall we?

  • Writing About Architecture: A Book Review

    I sought this book out because (A) as an aspiring architecture critic I thought I should know what others are saying about it, and (B) Dr. Lange is kind of funny on Twitter.  I am enormously glad that I did.Who should read this book: practicing architects and architectural designers; urban...

  • AIA, Architects, and Architecture: The Struggle for Relevance

    In a bucolic rural setting one hot Sunday afternoon this July, a group of Michigan architects gathered to discuss the future of their local AIA chapter.  In some form or another, this conversation is happening all across the United States: a crisis in fate and faith of architects in "their"...

  • Rome had its Forum. Ann Arbor has its Library Lot.

    An alternate title to this article could have been, Let's All Think Like Architecture Critics.Okay, Ann Arbor. I don't want to freak you out or anything, but we have a real opportunity to make a profound impact on the face and function of our city for a long time to come.  The so-called "Library...

  • Thom Mayne: Architecture IS About Human Connection (Despite Himself)

    Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects had an opportunity to give a TED talk in 2005.  Before diving into the content, it's worth noting that at an event characterized by its animated, compelling, unforgettable speakers, Mr. Mayne's talk falls, well, flat.  He mentions once or twice that he's...

  • Hearts of the City: Herbert Muschamp will always be one of them

    Here’s the thing about Herbert Muschamp.He’s kind of like this smooth nightclub you don’t know whether you want to be a part of. If you go, then everyone knows: you’re “in”. You’re “cool”. You look like you know the things everyone wishes they knew. You acquire a sort of...

  • Greg Lynn's TED Talk: Organic Algorithms in Architecture

    Greg Lynn has occupied a prominent yet uneasy role in architecture for two decades now; crucial in developing new production processes and ways of thinking, yet always leaving the user experience as an uninteresting side effect of his designs. This talk is an illuminating long glance at his method...

  • How Buildings Collapse

    In 1989, architectural critic Herbert Muschamp wrote an essay for the New York Times, “How Buildings Remember”, that was in part the first review of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  In it, he discussed Modernism, transparency, the uneasy intimate relationship between art and...

  • The Ecology Center

    She can feel like an all-chef/no-cook kitchen, but Ann Arbor wears her heart on her sleeve: you never have to guess what she’s thinking. She speaks her mind and she takes her passions seriously. As a town founded in the wilderness, named after its hallmark greenery, Ann Arbor has a long...

  • All-Inclusive Bookstore Includes Great Design

    There’s something to be said for a bookstore whose theme of inclusivity extends to other species (I’m looking at you, scratch-hound Duke).  There’s a lot to be said for a bookstore that’s managed to survive the tribulations of Amazon and an economy that has led many...

  • When does "historical" begin? reporter Ryan Stanton sums up my response to this proposal in his droll title: “19 new Old West Side-style homes coming to Ann Arbor’s north side”.  I couldn’t agree with Mr. Stanton more. Read the rest here...

  • "Where the old Wal-Mart used to be"

    In the rural South, where I'm from, the big running joke is that directions are often given in landmarks, and the even bigger joke is that those landmarks don't even have to be there any more for them to be used in wayfinding.  Perhaps the biggest joke of all?  I still do it, knowing...

  • The Old Fourth Ward: For Whom the Bell Tolls

    For anyone who doubts its value, this is why urban planning is so very important.   Ask not for whom the bell tolls, friends: it tolls for the Old Fourth Ward.   The headline for this project’s go-ahead reads: “City Council Approves 14-story-highrise to Avoid Potentially...

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About this Blog

Architectstasy is a resource for the current, past, and projected built environments of Ann Arbor, SE Michigan, the U.S., and occasionally the world. Jessica A.S. Letaw and invited critics present critical readings of the city's trajectories that are situated within architectural discourse as well news that is pertinent to residents and citizens.

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