When Good Buildings Go Bad

This is not a piece about how much I despise architect Frank Gehry. (Although I am working on a new one of those, so stay tuned.) Rather, I would like you to think a little bit about the relationship between patron and architect, when it comes to how a public building will be used. If you want to have fuzzy 1970’s wallpaper and a sunken fire pit in your living room at home, that is between you as patron and your architect or designer. Yet when it comes to buildings which serve public purposes, such as hospitals, churches, and hotels, sometimes it seems as though patron and architect are asleep at the wheel.

Case in point: the former National Park Seminary here in Washington D.C., which was featured recently in The Washingtonian.

The complex began life as a hotel in the 1880’s, built in the exuberant, historical mishmash style which the Victorians enjoyed. When the hotel failed, it was purchased in the 1890’s for use as the nucleus of an exclusive Christian girls’ boarding school. Over the ensuing decades the school, known as the National Park Seminary, added dormitories built in a range of international architectural styles, in order to encourage pupils to learn more about the world they lived in.

During the Great Depression, when many families lost the ability to pay for expensive boarding schools, enrollment began to decline sharply. With the outbreak of World War II, the Army requisitioned the property for use as an annex to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. For the next several decades, patients suffering from a variety of maladies were treated at the facility.

At first glance, the repurposing of this assemblage would appear to be a good use of a space which might otherwise have gone to waste. Creating a convalescent hospital with more cheerful, less clinical surroundings seems like a kinder way of addressing the needs of those recovering from the horrors of war. In a landscaped, park-like setting, surrounded by woods and streams, it was thought that the patients could make a better recovery from both their physical and their psychological wounds.

The problem was, many of these patients were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”). They had witnessed their friends being maimed or killed, and experienced things which haunted them day and night. So you can imagine, if you were a patient suffering from PTSD, what it must have been like to wake up from a recurring nightmare about something you experienced during combat in an old village in the French countryside, only to find yourself in a setting that looked remarkably like it. The psychological impact must have been terrible.

The Army did little to keep up the property, so that things began to crumble fairly quickly. A creeping decay, combined with whispered stories about medical experimentation, only heightened the sense of gloom about the place. This, combined with the nature of the buildings themselves, had a hugely negative impact on generations of patients, until the facility was finally closed in the 1970’s. The Army had never picked up on the fact that what was supposed to help soothe their patients had turned into something out of a Goya etching.

Although the blame for this must fall upon those who didn’t stop to think, historically it has often the case that the road to architectural hell is paved with good intentions. Carlo Maderno’s main façade for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome for example, hews to the Counter-Reformation ideals which his patron Pope V espoused, and it was completed relatively swiftly. However the structure is also too squat, its bell towers were never completed thanks to poor surveying of the land which they were supposed to sit on, and the whole thing blocks the view of Michelangelo’s dome. Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, designed to reflect the Mayan love of water-based palaces and bring prestige to a burgeoning industrial city eager to foster greater ties with the West, was able to survive serious earthquakes relatively undamaged, thanks to its floating design. Unfortunately that same, highly evocative design meant that over time, the complex began to sink deeper and deeper into the muck on which it was built, until it had to be demolished.

The National Park Seminary was never a hugely significant piece of architecture, except perhaps for its remarkable main ballroom. Today, its buildings and grounds are in the process of being converted into a mixed use residential community. Yet the example of this strange, little-known corner of the Nation’s Capital does go to a larger point, which any consideration of new or repurposed architecture must take on board. Whatever their vision, sometimes both architects and patrons can get things very wrong, if they do not think of the long-term implications of their decisions.


The Pregnant Oyster, Reborn

Yesterday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced at a press conference that LaGuardia Airport in Queens, long derided as one of the worst airports in America, will be demolished, and a brand-new, unified terminal will be built in its place. Understandably, this rather bold step captured most of the headlines about the story.  However the buried lede was the news that the TWA Flight Center at JFK International Airport, known more familiarly as the old “TWA Terminal”, or more colloquially as “The Pregnant Oyster” because of its curvaceous, mollusk-like design, is about to become an hotel.

Designed by architect Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), probably best known for the St. Louis Arch, the TWA Terminal was but one of the architect’s visions for the future of air travel. His TWA Terminal is almost something out of a space ship, with pod seating and NASA-like terminal monitors. Here in Washington, Saarinen’s far less trendy-looking terminal at Dulles is an elegant, swooping paean to flight, and the hopes of a technologically advanced society. At night its curtain of glass gleams across the open Virginia fields like a secular Chartres, illuminated from within. 

While in real life, neither of these buildings ever worked quite as Saarinen had hoped, they do speak to the visionary ideals of the U.S. in the Post-War period.  Americans saw their influence spreading around the globe, and with the rapidly expanding middle class, air travel became more possible for more people. The reader may be very interested, then, to see a contemporary short film of this era, created for Saarinen by two of the most famous designers in American history, about what air travel was supposed to be like.

In 1958, Charles (1907-1978) and Ray Eames (1912-1988) put together a presentation for Saarinen called “The Expanding Airport”, to help sell the architect’s concept for Dulles.  Saarinen needed something that would explain his rather daring ideas for how a modern airport ought to work, in ways that skeptical officials would be able to understand and embrace. Using illustrations, photographs, and rather charming animation, along with a very relaxed-sounding voiceover worthy of a “Mad Men” advertising campaign, The Eames’ film worked a treat, and Saarinen’s overall concept was adopted.  Even if you have little interest in the history of transportation, the short is worth watching for the design and nostalgia aspects alone.

While some of the terms in the film differ from present use – “hand luggage” instead of “carry-on”, for example – it’s clear that the problems raised by jet aircraft were already starting to cause headaches in the Eisenhower era.  We can see how our grandparents puzzled over many of the same concerns which continue to plague air travel even now, such as the enormous distances passengers must often walk when changing planes or collecting their luggage.  (Incidentally, take note of the rather eyebrow-raising animation of the passenger picking up a copy of Playboy in the concession stand before having to run for his gate.) 

The idea of “detachable fingers” which comes up midway through the film seems rather odd today, even if innovative back then. Modular design was a keynote of the Modernist era, and the ideal of interchangeability was often pursued rather too relentlessly. The idea that a so-called “people mover” – a term which even now makes one wince – will “be best known for its convenience and feeling of luxury” may have been the case when these conveyances were new, but toward the end of their run they felt more like buses crossed with Imperial Walkers from Star Wars, and not in a good way.  They were finally retired from service about 5 years ago, if memory serves.

While the Dulles terminal is still very much in use, and will likely experience explosive growth once the Silver Line of the Metro reaches it in the next couple of years, the Pregnant Oyster has lain mothballed in New York for quite some time now. What Saarinen would make of his TWA building being turned into an hotel, who knows. As an airport terminal it can no longer serve the purpose for which it was intended, perhaps because, unlike Dulles, the design was too self-contained to be able to be effectively extended ad infinitum.

Nevertheless, one can imagine that he would be pleased to see that the New York-area airports are all going to be looked at afresh, and that his signature work will take on new life as a lodging and dining venue for those who continue to appreciate its curvy charms.


When Fonts Fail: DC’s Sad Attempt To Be Hip

City officialdom here in the Nation’s Capital recently decided that there needs to be greater uniformity in the graphic design elements of its public communications. To that end, the Mayor’s office has published a set of guidelines for the various municipal departments and offices, with respect to the look of documents which will be released to the public. These guidelines include such matters as color choice, the placement of official seals, and font selection. While the body of external communications will have the possibility of at least some variety in typeface, when it comes to the titling – such as in posters or cover pages – there is now only one unbreakable commandment: “Thou Shalt Only Use Neutra.” 

The work of Richard Neutra, the midcentury architect of the California “those who live in glass houses” international style, for whom the font is named, is perfectly acceptable in certain settings. A Neutra-designed building is well-suited, for example, as the home of a retired pit boss who used to get plastered with the Rat Pack back in the day, and his third wife, who was once little more than a stripper but still calls herself an “actress”, despite never having picked up a work of Molière or Pirandello in her life. Neutra’s work is similarly appropriate for a church designed for suburban Angelenos who aren’t particularly interested in God, but do want plenty of parking when they get together to socialize and feel better about themselves on Sunday mornings while drinking Starbucks.

Despite his long career designing the kinds of buildings which look like sets for 1970’s sexploitation films in places like Palm Springs or Orange County, Neutra never – thank goodness – built anything in Washington, D.C. Thus it is particularly curious that a font honoring his style would be selected as the official typeface for a city which features absolutely none of his work. It is a bit like Boston deciding that its official communications would feature a typeface evoking the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

As The Washingtonian points out, Neutra is the same font used by Shake Shack, the Nationals, Wendy’s, and the regrettable television series, ‘Girls”. Presumably then, we are to understand that the average Washingtonian is a morbidly obese, frequent fast food consumer, who loves baseball but is lacking in any concept of sexual morality or good taste. Perhaps this is indeed an accurate assessment of the average citizen of #thistown, but that is certainly not something to be proud of.

Now, I am not of the school that says all sans-serif fonts are bad. In fact, as you may note herein, the fonts employed on this site are sans-serif. This was a deliberate decision on my part, the idea being that my occasionally irascible (and often quite pretentious) tone might be somewhat softened by my not employing a typeface more obviously attuned to the subject matter and tone of this blog. Otherwise, you would likely be trying to decipher this post in something like Bernhard Modern or Kunstler Script. Nor, as it happens, do I have a problem with the Neutral font per se, although I find it unremarkable as a design.

Yet I do take exception to government adopting a public face which displays false informality, by attempting to seem “hip”. This is what the use of a sans-serif such as Neutra implies, when rolled out in official communications. I want my government to provide the public services I pay for, such as traffic cops and street cleaning and rat catchers. I do not want it to be my buddy, let alone invite me to a key swap party in the Valley. Sadly, this increasingly tacky city appears to be reflecting an increasingly tacky society all too well.