Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Architecture Rant

I see in today's paper that the Wyly Theatre won an AIA design award.


The American Institute of Architects' design jury is quoted as saying: [The Wyly] "redefines theater in a way that is unique -- curtains open, light comes in." Exactly the sort of nonsense I'd expect.

Now, you have to understand that the jury selects from photos and a design statement, without visiting nominated buildings.* 2D photography is a poor way to evaluate a 3D artifact. There's no input from a building's users, so no reality-check on how it functions. Buildings are self-nominated by their designers and there are high costs for entry and photography, creating a defacto bias towards successful architectural firms. And the AIA was founded to promote modern design, so naturally prefers that style.

The Wyly, with its jet-set architect, prominent civic/cultural function and site, and strict European modernism is exactly the sort of project these awards love.

So? It could be a great building anyway. Except for that crack about "light comes in"...

The Wyly has walls of glass.

Did the jury understand that light is one of the great tools today in designing a production? That (reality alert!) an evening performance would get streetlight through that glass, but matinees would get daylight? Lighting designers are passionate control-freaks, so the Wyly's glass is shrouded with layers of blinds to block light. To my knowledge, bare glass and natural light has been used only once, in the inaugural production of A Midsummer's Night's Dream, and then only at the end of the show.

I'm sure the design statement read all cool and revolutionary, but glass in a performance space makes no functional sense. (And cost a fortune too.)

This ignorance or indifference or contempt for real fundamental functions of a building make the modernist slogan, "Form follows function," well, a lie. A big fat one too.

The Wyly (which does have virtues and is pretty nifty in some ways) shows many examples of modernist contempt for reality. Elevators, for instance, have such a big unweather-proofed gap between building and cab that they are effectively unheated or cooled. Reality-defying in our climate, besides being un-green. Elevators are also slow and there's only one stair between performance space and lobby. Poor crowd control. Restroom floor plans also ignore real human movement - there is always a traffic jam. The sloping entry "hill" is unkind to older patrons and the tiny storm drain at its bottom shows ignorance of Texas gully-washers (the lobby has flooded) . No covered bad-weather entry either. Ask any patron about the comfort offered ticket-holders (those green seats?) and you'll get an earful. Back to the elevators... they're on the building's exterior to articulate the building's circulation, but you notice they're not glass walled to let passengers enjoy the view?**

So the Wyly looks great in a photo and wins awards...

But is it great architecture?

* Numbers - 700 submissions - and travel distances require this, but it just isn't good enough.
** My theory? Glass elevators would be too fun, too bourgeois. There is a puritan streak to the building. The audience is obviously not supposed to enjoy itself too frivolously: this is High Art dangit!
*** photo from archicentral

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