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Thinking About Architecture by Larry Speck

  • What role for architects in planning future cities?

    A recent article by Aaron Betsky in Architect magazine took issue with a New York Times-sponsored program called the Energy For Tomorrow Conference.  Betsky was specifically concerned that the Times had not included any “urbanists, planners, or even an architect” but did include “leading urban expert Jeremy Irons.” He queried, “What are architects when we’re thinking about the future of the designed environment… chopped liver?”  Betsky suggested several prominent architects would have been an appropriate addition, including OMA and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, among others.  While I agree we should expect some architects and urbanists at such a conference, I question some of Betsky’s suggestions.  Are the starchitects he mentioned really contributing to energy efficient, sustainable cities?

    Early in his career, Rem Koolhaas of OMA advocated for density and intense urban vitality, but then seems to have decided object buildings were the thing.  He has done projects that seem remarkably anti-urban and marked his career with buildings that don’t make great cities.  The gargantuan CCTV tower in Beijing is a prime example.  That building required demolishing an entire neighborhood in order to install a prominent object.  The streetscape and pedestrian quality suffer in order to create a geometric, one-liner statement that has a crushing scale at ground level. Do snazzy object building with poor pedestrian environments around them really make a sustainable city?

    Above: The CCTV complex in Beijing

    I have written before about the problems of the accumulated object buildings by starchitects in the Dallas Arts District that fail to create a good urban environment.  OMA was involved there as well with the Wyly Theatre where both the main entry and lobby (the most lively parts that might enrich an urban neighborhood) are submerged a level below the street, but easily accessed via underground parking.  Creating an auto-centric building in a downtown environment – one that is desperately trying to make real headway toward mass transit and pedestrian-friendly movement – hardly seems the sort of decision one would want to hear about in a conference dedicated to energy savings and sustainable cities.

    Above and below: The Wyly Theatre in Dallas

    Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times recently slammed the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in the same Dallas district, calling it “bullhorn urbanism.”  That’s what we, as architects, have become known for: big, loud, sexy object that are more about themselves than about making a city.

    Above: The Perrot Museum in Dallas

    Look at Dubai and dozens of huge cities across China which have received huge press in architectural circles. They are what we have touted as great successes, but they are not sustainable urban environments.  If that’s the best we can do, then we don’t deserve to be at the tables of forward-thinking conferences.

    Above: The Dubai skyline

    To Betsky’s credit, he observes a little later in his piece, “Perhaps they are right.  The one bit of designed infrastructure going in up in New York right now, the Calatrava station at ground zero, is a farce…” I wonder if this is the reason they’ve left architects out of the discussion.  We have got to start talking about real issues that are important to a larger society and not just about glitzy structures.  We need architects and planners to speak up on this topic – and loudly.  We need our media to be focused on real, relevant issues the larger culture cares about.  Then we will be invited to the table when those important matters are being discussed about the future of our cities.

    Thinking About Building Technology, Contemporary Practices, Sustainability, Texas Architecture, Urbanism
    Posted June 11, 2013


  • A chapel unites a couple

    I recently attended the wedding of two former students that took place at the Anthony Chapel in Hot Springs, Arkansas, designed by Maurice Jennings, a former partner of Fay Jones.  The influence of Jones’ celebrated Thorncrown Chapel is evident, but Jennings definitely takes the idea...


  • A timeless house in Dallas by Edward Larrabee Barnes

    We always seem to be infatuated with newness in Architecture, and I will confess I am susceptible to the quick rush of novelty more than I would like to admit.  But I am also a great admirer of timelessness—that far more potent elixir that lends Architecture an enduring depth that most...


  • Less is so much more: the Parrish Art Museum

    Over the holidays I visited the new Parrish Art Museum, in Water Mill, NY on Long Island.   The museum, which opened a couple months ago, has a mind-boggling history.  In 2006, Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron unveiled their plans for a series of 30 angular, low-slung...


  • “Creative Invention”… Only for those with gobs of money?

    A few lines in Nicholai Ouroussoff’s recent article in The New York Times about the new Parrish Art Museum particularly caught my attention: “The design is a major step down in architectural ambition.  It suggests the possibility of a worrying new development in our time of...


  • High Performing Thermal Mass in New Mexico

      Increasingly, I’m more interested in what architecture does than just what it is.  In a previous blog, I wrote about the new office building we designed for Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE), in Austin, and the use of thermal mass to control temperature.  We’ve...


  • Living Architecture

     I have made several pilgrimages to the de Young Museum in San Francisco by Herzog and de Meuron–always to stare at the building, wander around and take pictures. Last Saturday I was in SF to see a performance art piece by Sarah Wilson, Derrick Jones and Nehara Kalev that just happened...


  • Postmortem on Postmodern

    I I am convinced that style has very little to do with the real success of buildings.  Although we as architects spend a lot of time and energy screaming about “modernism” or “regionalism” or “post-structuralism,” in the end, design genre does not make any...


  • Top Architectural Record award for Guangzhou Opera House? Really?

    Architectural Record recently gave Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House its Best Public Project: Honor Award in the Good Design Is Good Business: China competition and published it on the cover...


  • Building with High Thermal Mass in a Hot, Humid Climate

    It is hot and humid as hell in most of Texas at the moment.  The current conditions call into question whether our normal ways of dealing with summer heat (using primarily insulation and air conditioning for cooling) is the only economical and ecological approach to these climate extremes. I...


  • Monument Valley in Dallas?

    While in Dallas last week, I took a few minutes to walk from my office to the new Arts District where there are buildings by five Pritzker-Prize-winning architects within sight of each other—Nasher Sculpture Center by Renzo Piano, Meyerson Symphony Center by I.M. Pei, Norman Foster’s...


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About this Blog

Although it may sound cliched, I live, eat and breathe architecture. I’m currently a principal in the architectural firm of PageSoutherlandPage and a professor, as well as the former dean, in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. My teaching and my blog are aimed at educating people on the importance of great architecture in contemporary American culture.

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