AIA show report: Designers, owners debate state of architecture

May 14, 2002 |

Part local host and part welcoming committee, retired Bank of America titan Hugh McColl Jr. stressed the power of architecture to create a healthy environment for commerce -- and the community in which its buildings are located in his May 10 keynote address to some 2,000 attendees of the American Institute of Architects 2002 convention in Charlotte, N.C. Under McColl's direction as chairman and CEO, and since his retirement, the bank has underwritten the financing of a number of Charlotte's most notable structures. Today, it is responsible for some six million square feet of downtown office space, so its local influence is unquestioned.

In the late 1980s, however, that was not yet the case. That changed with the design and construction of the bank's new downtown headquarters, a signature project for the 'Queen City.' During the process, McColl said he gained an increased appreciation for architecture while working with architect Cesar Pelli, who designed the bank's 60-story tower. Completed in 1992, it is Charlotte's tallest building. McColl was impressed that Pelli began his assignment by walking the city and asking citizens what qualities they wanted in the building. 'I wanted a skyscraper, but one that compliments, rather than clashes with, its environment,' the former bank executive said. He observed that Pelli mediated between leasing agents' desire for a building with a lot of glass and McColl's preference for an exterior that was 'more stone than glass.' What McColl wanted, he said facetiously, 'was a warm and friendly building that reeks of power and wealth.'  Pelli achieved this goal in part by developing a curved façade, McColl said.

Charlotte is now the country's second largest banking center. Describing the flood of development in the city in recent years, McColl said that in the early 1970s, when he was a junior bank officer, he found Charlotte as 'a big exciting place -- and it was, compared to my hometown of Bennettsville, S.C. But visitors from almost any other city would have found Charlotte small and unremarkable.'

Gold Medal Forum: Concerns over 'dumbing down', CAD

On Saturday morning, three previous AIA Gold Medal recipients -- architects Arthur Erickson, Michael Graves and Richard Meier -- debated the impact on the architectural profession of the public's current interest in architecture. Meier lamented that the number of architectural critics employed by newspapers has decreased. Erickson views the popular coverage of architectural subjects as a 'dumbing down' of the subject matter that covers 'the surface aspect of design.'

Graves observed that the Sept. 11 attacks underscored the message that all citizens have a stake in the quality of their environment. The quality of the Ground Zero redevelopment will convey an important message of the power of design to impact the environment of lower Manhattan. He pointed to the rejuvenating influence that museums can exert on a city, citing Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, as a prime example. This uplifting of the environment was formerly provided by cathedrals, he said.  

Erickson characterized the computer as  'a deceitful, but useful' machine that is improperly being used as a creative tool. He said he is pleased that Australian architect Glenn Murcutt, this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for architecture, does not work with computers. Meier observed that the computer does not provide a clear understanding of scale. Erickson expressed his preference for the Imperial system of measurement with his exhortation to 'Try to walk a meter.' Erickson also poked fun at the headline on the cover of the convention program:  'Expansive, innovative, creative design,' saying that it seems unnecessary for AIA to remind its members of the focus of their work.

The medalists also exchanged views on the role of architectural education. Graves contends that its primary mission is to prepare individuals to learn how to think, while Meier said he believes its main focus should be to communicate design concepts. Graves declared that the gap between academia and practice 'is broader than ever before.'

Meier reminded his fellow practitioners of the long gestation period required for some projects, citing the 12 years it took to complete a small museum in Germany. The reward, however, is the long-lasting impact such buildings will have on their surroundings, he said. And Graves commented that architects must be willing to extend themselves beyond basic design services. For example, in some cases, the owner wants the designer to lend his presence to assist in fundraising activities.

2002 winner Ando balances business and society

Japanese architect Tadao Ando, recipient of this year's AIA Gold Medal, traced his interest in architecture to his teen-age years, when he was inspired by the works of LeCorbusier and his visit to Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Speaking through a translator, he spoke of architects' 'tremendous responsibility' to the environment.

Known for the incorporation of landscaping in his designs, Ando displayed images of an early proposal for adjacent buildings with connected roof gardens. Repeatedly turned down, the 60-year-old architect continued to present design ideas to officials of his native city of Osaka. His first commission was for a house which he subsequently purchased to serve as his office.

In order to build it is necessary to destroy, Ando said, adding that something must be given in return to maintain a balance with nature. He described a site that was stripped to provide fill for the new Kansai Airport. It will be reforested before any buildings are constructed on it. Ando also cited a program to plant 300,000 trees in the city of Kobe, Japan. He is particularly proud of a Buddhist temple he designed that has a lily pond for a roof.

Ando persevered in his desire to become an architect, despite his inability to attend college. He described architecture as a life-long occupation, and exhorted his fellow architects to 'make sure it's worth doing.' In response to a question about how architects reconcile the needs of business and society, Ando said it is important that one is not allowed to dominate the other. Ando's best-known U.S. projects include the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

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