Saturday, January 31, 2015

Influences: Antoine Predock

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, by Antoine Predock Architect pc
The latest issue of ARCHITECT magazine, the official publication of the American Institute of Architects, features the recently completed Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Described in the museum’s own promotional material as a “symbolic apparition of ice, clouds, and stone set in a field of sweet grass . . . carved into the earth and dissolving into the sky” and as a “mythic stone mountain . . . unifying and timeless,” there’s no doubt it is a landmark; however, what appeals as much to me about the project as its remarkable visuals is the mind of the architect responsible for its design: Antoine Predock, FAIA. 
Antoine Predock is a true original—a maverick who has practiced on the edges of contemporary architecture for nearly half-a-century. He works outside of style, mining concerns more elemental and essential than most architects ever consider. He is one of the few architects who can convincingly extract the spirit of a place and give that spirit its own free, unfettered form. His buildings are typically rooted in and part of the natural landscape. They also echo and evoke the cultural landscape. They’re always thoroughly unconventional, one-of-a-kind blends of art, science, history, and place. 
I consider Antoine Predock the quintessentially American architect: fond of the broad horizon, individualistic, a westerner, and a keen observer of popular culture. It may be these traits that best served him among the many who vied for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It took an American boldness of approach to deliver an architecture eminently attuned to Canadian sensibilities and, more specifically, the culture and landscape of Winnipeg, the Red River Valley, and the tallgrass prairie that surrounds it. Could a Canadian architect or firm have produced an equally stunning result? Perhaps, though the characteristically Canadian proclivities toward pragmatism, indirectness, and cultural conservatism would have been obstacles.(1) 
The Museum of Human Rights at once commands and responds to its surroundings. Its limestone, glass walls, and bermed approaches appear as carefully composed, abstracted natural features. Even so, I sense Predock designed the Museum of Human Rights from the inside-out—driven less by a concern for camera-friendly forms than by a desire to create a cinematically inspired and psychologically immersive experience over time. The museum is certainly photogenic (as evidenced by Alex Fradkin’s excellent images for ARCHITECT) but not so intentionally in the picturesque sense. Predock has sometimes described his working method as akin to that of a choreographer. Though photographs hint at the variety and complexity of the museum’s spaces, they cannot adequately communicate the dynamics of movement through them. I definitely need to visit the building to fully appreciate Predock’s intentions. 
Model of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (photo by Wpg guy via Wikimedia licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).
I’ve taken note of Antoine Predock’s work for decades, from the time I was a student at the University of Oregon during the early 1980s until today. I attended a talk he delivered at the university in 1983, and later saw him speak again in 1989. It was after this second opportunity to hear from him that I wrote a piece for the AIA-Southwestern Oregon newsletter about Predock and his work: 
As the featured speaker at last month’s Northwest and Pacific Region AIA Conference at the Inn at the Seventh Mountain in Bend, Antoine Predock, FAIA, enthralled an envious audience of his peers with a display of his most recent designs. Predock’s rise to prominence has been meteoric since 1985 when he won the commission via competition for the Fine Arts Center at Arizona State University. Consequently, the content of his presentation at the conference was especially fascinating when compared to that of his last address to local architects in 1983 at the University of Oregon.
Speaking in Bend, Predock tried to dispel the widely held perception that he is a “regional” architect. He is fond of saying “You’re a regional architect if you can’t get a job out of state.” His interests include far more than just an appropriate response to climate and site, far more than just the studied use of indigenous techniques and materials. As if to underline the fact that his approach to architecture extends beyond these merely prosaic concerns, Predock has, on occasion, described his need to more fully analyze a design problem by way of a “roadcut.” The roadcut is a metaphor for his design process. It is a cut in a rock formation to allow the construction of a road, leaving the geology of the formation exposed: 
"At the bottom is Precambrian granite. In the higher levels of the roadcut, there is the cultural residue. Further up the roadcut you have beer cans and McDonald’s wrappings and you might have a cow skull. You can think of it in the same stream of consciousness as Georgia O’Keefe or Ray Bradbury. This cultural stratigraphy is rooted in the tangible and the imaginary.” 
The metaphor isn’t meant to be so far-fetched for us that we simply dismiss it as the quirk of a talented and eccentric architect, even if Predock will expand the stratigraphy he mines to include the sky above and UFO’s too. Instead, it is Predock’s self-conscious attempt to call attention to an original design philosophy and to subvert classification as a “regional” architect at the same time. Time magazine took notice of his originality when it tagged him with the honor of being the “first great architect of the New Age,” although one has to wonder if he appreciated being cast in with the likes of Shirley MacLaine. Unhappy with being limited to practice in a trite desert idiom within the borders of a small state, Predock has deliberately packaged himself for the rise to architectural stardom. At the same time, he has evolved a design approach of great popular appeal that might be better characterized as thoroughly American, rather than as just regional, drawing as it does upon such widely recognized American themes as the highway, the myth of the Marlboro Man, the Strip, the West, and the big landscape. 
Back in 1983 Predock was “regional” by default: his Albuquerque practice was only three or four persons strong, and the bulk of its work consisted of single-family custom residences located almost exclusively within New Mexico or Arizona. Today, his office employs over 40 architects involved with the design of such dream projects as hotels for the Disney Corporation, major museums and performing arts centers, pavilions for international exhibitions, and other buildings scattered all over North America and beyond. The contrast between his two addresses to audiences in Oregon, however, was not as pronounced as the changes in his practice would lead one to expect. Predock knew in1983 that he wanted greater recognition for his work. He went on at some length during his lecture at the university about how aggressively he solicited the editors of the “glossy” professional journals and the magazines of the popular press for interest in his projects. The work he displayed at that time also showed evidence of his efforts to respond to design problems in unpredictable ways, drawing upon many of the same sources for inspiration that he still utilizes today. Although his work of 1983 may have been confined to a region, I doubt he considered it only regional or vernacular even then. 
There is no small irony in the fact that Predock found himself at the Inn of the Seventh Mountain with the question posed “Can there be a Regional Architecture?” To his chagrin, Antoine Predock will probably always first be noted as a force in regionalism before his universal contributions are recognized. 
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Antoine Predock belies the widely held belief that large and complex projects are no longer the product of a singular genius. In my opinion there will always be a place in architecture for individuals who follow their own unique paths toward the creation of projects holding universal appeal, significance, and meaning. 
(1)  Being from the Great White North myself, my Canadian brethren may forgive me for wielding a broadly stereotyping brush.   

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