'Architecture in pursuit of extremism'

By , Jane Holtz Kay is architecture critic of The Christian Science Monitor.

The architectural prizes that ''bloom in the spring'' are no surprise. Indeed, they come with numbing regularity - awards for the softest use of concrete, the gleamingest glass, for solar-coaxing or brick without peer, matchless masonry or whatever it might be. All of this culminates in the May Day plaudits of the American Institute of Architects for distinguished buildings.

The awards chronicle trends, applaud the built obvious, and endorse supposed excellence. But this is the season for architectural follies as well - for three-dimensional extravaganzas. Never have designers created more brazen forms; in fact, we think they deserve blue ribbons, too.

As each new high-rise gyrates and skids its way to the sky, and each post-modern prankster creates a historic collage with the facade of his building , why not give out a separate set of awards for ''architecture in pursuit of extremism.'' As Peter Schejdahl put it recently in Art and Architecture, ''architecture is modern culture's number one criminal activity.''

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

The following, then, are our choices for 1983:

''The War of the Windows Award,'' by far the toughest to choose, had two claimants. In this era where ''big is beautiful,'' the competition for megascale manifestoes is understandably keen. Thus, the final selections - one designed for Miami, the other for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - were battling to the end.

The first, called the Helmsley Center and designed by Arquitectonica, has a window that measures eight stories high and 240 feet wide.

''We're the biggest!'' insists partner Bernardo Fort-Brescia, likening his firm's window to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Not so, asserts Museum of Modern Art curator Arthur Drexler, who, in a recent speech, assigned that title to the 100-by-125-foot windows in Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's triangular high-rise structure in Saudi Arabia. Since Jeddah's giant windows are closed and those in Miami have an opening, it's an open-and-shut case that Jeddah takes the prize.

The second-place ribbon goes to architectural sculpture of a sort. Although the waves of the Vietnam Memorial tempest have becalmed since their hard boil in a Washington teapot, the flood of military markers may yet overwhelm the United States. Therefore, our ''In Memory We Trust'' engraving goes to an architectural endeavor whose time is about to come in New York City, Cincinnati, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

These are among the places wanting to pay architectural tribute to the controversial war by memorializing it. The sites and structures, one can be sure , will stir trouble, cost money, and result in art only accidentally.

As if this Vietnam inundation of flag-waving forms weren't enough of an architectural excess, a committee for a Korean War memorial introduced legislation in Congress last month for a Washington site of its own. ''There are memorials in Washington to commemorate almost every war,'' says a representative of the group, which also wants to celebrate veterans ''defending freedom and democracy'' in bricks and mortar.

Again two competitors, each boasting equal merit, catch the eye for the ''Oops, There Goes the Neighborhood Button.''

The Manhattan claimant, the so-called ''sliver'' building, is a skinny high-rise that slices into the cityscape. No wider than a row in the townhouse neighborhood it assaults, 22 of these silolike structures will rise like poised missiles, disrupting the civil scale of the environment in which they sit.

The plans to move the house where Golda Meir lived in a Milwaukee neighborhood strikes us as a sign of the same lack of sense of space. Moving the home from the spot where the pioneer Israeli leader spent her childhood to the bucolic environment of a park would deny the surroundings that define our lives as much as the individual architecture in which we live.

While the future building of ''sliver'' structures was recently outlawed by the New York City Planning Commission, this critic still insists on dividing this prize for ''malcomprehension of the built environment'' between the two. A special blue ribbon for heroic hucksterism to the developers of the Viscaya building, who offer a Rolls Royce with every condominium sold.

A politician once said: ''If I don't vote for myself, who will?'' With that in mind, we bestow the ''Enlightened Self-Interest Citation'' to the New York architectural firm of Swanke, Hayden & Connell. Testifying not once, but twice, mind you, on historic buildings it was in line to be paid to replace, the firm performed ably in putting down the past in behalf of its own architecture.

In the first instance, the testimony concerned the 25-year-old Lever Building , a landmark of the international style, which the firm insisted was so much in need of repair that it wasn't even a landmark anymore. (That's rather like saying the White House needs a coat of paint so badly, it isn't worth saving.)

Then last month, with the design contract for the West Front extension of the Capitol, America's most threatened national monument, in its pocket, Swanke, Hayden & Connell argued against retaining the historic front of the structure. With such persistent self-promotion, who needs prizes?

Although we hesitate to overfocus on the window, these ''eyes'' of architecture get our final two prizes in pursuit of overkill.

The ''Roaming Rome'' award goes to Philip Johnson, pater novus of trendy trickery, for his design for Boston's International Place. Palladio, first father of classicism, is the source of the Palladian window - the arched central window with flanking rectangles which marks the building center and symbolizes ancient Rome in countless historic buildings.

Johnson, exaggeration uber alles, drops International Place's six buildings, void of historical context, on a strange site and brings us the past via promotion in a glut of Palladian windows. The 150 Palladian windows on one side alone make a mockery and fashion fetish of the past.

Finally, following the bouncing ball of the architectural chic brings up the circular window. The ''Plaque for Circling About the Same Subject'' goes to the Equitable Life Insurance Company building in New York by Edward Larrabee Barnes.

Topping of his tower with a - you guessed it - circular window, somewhere between a one-eyed cyclops and a Philco radio, Barnes's building shows how even a solemn architect's head can spin in today's bizarre cosmos of the au courant.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...