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Commodity + Firmness = Delight

There has been considerable comment on-line about Santiago Calatrava’s design for the Port Authority station at Ground Zero. Such a prestigious site may put this project in a category by itself; this ain’t no simple suburban commuter station in Greenwich. Admitting its special status, why is it so far beyond budget and behind schedule? The current price tag: over $4 billion, double its original budget. Yes, you read that right.

santiago-calatrava-WTC-transportation-hub-designboom-01

An article in The Atlantic offers a balanced assessment of the project and asks the very legitimate question “Form and function was an achievable balance 100 years ago, as the lasting grandeur of Grand Central proves. Why can’t we do the same today?”

I’ve been sleuthing images of utilitarian buildings, 19th and early 20th century industrial and agricultural buildings that reflect a twist on the old Vitruvian trilogy “Utilitas, Firmitas, Venustas.” From a modernist perspective, it’s possible to transform its meaning with two arithmetic symbols, imagining beauty (venustas) as the natural sum of the other two. Address function and structural economy and you have, by definition, resolved the third. My education in the 1960s inclines me toward that understanding, and my ongoing involvement with architectural education during the last forty-plus years only reinforces the point. Call me old fashioned—I am—but it seems an eminently defensible perspective.

One of my colleagues shared a position paper with me this week, one that resonates with all of this and causes me to wonder about continuing to teach. My inner child would enjoy a hissy fit; my outer adult tells me to stick it out.

Kendall_Boiler_and_Tank_Company_building

Among the images I’m gathering as inspiration for Agincourt’s vernacular buildings [there’s an ongoing challenge: to design the undesigned], is this one from the Kendall Square neighborhood of Boston. Built for a manufacturer of boilers and tanks, there is an unselfconscious honesty, directness and modesty oozing from these forms that I find instructive—in a positive way. There may be, on the other hand, lessons of a different sort to be gleaned from Mr Calatrava. Never met the man. Unlikely to. I’m sure he’s a fine human being who loves dogs and treats his employees with dignity. But there is a level of hubris in his work that exceeds any cost-benefit analysis.

There is much to be learned from each of these buildings. You can guess where my sympathies lie.


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