Monday, September 5, 2016

Architectural Record’s Top 125 Buildings

I mentioned in my post Worst Buildings of the Past 125 Years that the venerable magazine Architectural Record is marking its 125th year in publication. As part of its commemoration, the editors chose to honor what they considered to be the “125 most important works of architecture built since the magazine’s founding in 1891.” As they note on Record’s website, “radical changes have indelibly shaped not only the built world but also the culture of the discipline and the personality of the magazine.” Accordingly, I presumed their list would include buildings most associated with those changes, choices we would correlate with significant shifts and advancements in architectural design during this period. 

Alas, historic importance does not appear to have been as significant a criterion for the selection process as I would have expected. Indeed, the disproportionate inclusion of twenty-five projects since 2007 alone (versus one hundred projects over the entire course of the 116 years preceding 2007) betrays the editors’ bias toward the most contemporary trends in architecture. As wonderful as they may be, are Studio Gang’s Aqua Tower or Rafael Vinoly’s Novartis Building truly more important works of architecture than many others omitted by the editors? I don’t think so.

In my opinion, the five buildings I list below are more worthy for inclusion on the list than several of the editors’ selections. Record’s editors apparently disagree with me but I find their omission puzzling. Each of my choices were seminal projects in their time: 

Tribune Tower, 1925
Chicago – John Mead Howells & Raymond Hood

Photo by Luke Gordon, [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 

In 1922 the Chicago Tribune conducted an international design competition for its new headquarters, with the express goal being construction of "the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world.” It was the competition itself, perhaps more than the resultant Tribune Tower, that would be most important to architecture. The resulting entries still reveal a unique turning point in American architectural history, heavily influencing the design of skyscrapers for an entire generation. 

Interestingly, the Record editors did select the American Radiator Building in New York, also by Howells & Hood and completed a year earlier, a design inspired by the competition’s second place entry by Eliel Saarinen

Jacobs House, 1937
Madison, WI – Frank Lloyd Wright 

Photo via Wikimedia Commons 

The Jacobs House was the first example of Wright’s “Usonian” home designs, and remains the purest and most famous application of his organic architecture in the service of homeowners of modest means. Aesthetically as well as structurally, Wright intended the Usonian House to be the prototype of a new, modern standard of form following function in home building. In this respect, his designs served all too successfully as a template for the proliferation of post-war suburban housing, the vast majority of which would hardly come close to fulfilling Wright’s Usonian principles or design merit. 

Commonwealth (Equitable) Building, 1948
Portland, OR – Pietro Belluschi 

Photo by Ajbenj at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

The Commonwealth Building is one of the first glass box towers ever built, pioneering many modern features and predating the more famous Lever House (which Record did include on its list). It was also the first large commercial building in the United States to use heat pumps for heating and cooling. The fact that it’s located nearby in Portland is a bonus. 

Sea Ranch Condominiums, 1965
Sonoma County, CA – MLTW 

Photo by John Lambert Pearson [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons 

I found the absence of the Sea Ranch Condominiums on Record’s list of the top 125 buildings the most baffling of them all. Hailed by many at the time as a “paradigm of ecologically sensitive design,” the project was (and remains) a revolutionary, widely imitated icon of 1960s architecture. The design combined a modernist sensibility with an evocatively contextual response to its spectacular setting on the northern California coast. The AIA would bestow an Honor Award on the project in 1967, and conferred upon it the Twenty-Five Year Award in its first year of eligibility in 1991. I cannot overstate the influence of the Sea Ranch Condominiums upon the course of architectural design. 

Smith House, 1967
Darien, CT – Richard Meier 

Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. 

Like the Sea Ranch condominiums, Richard Meier’s Smith House is likewise noteworthy because it was another much heralded example of a developing pluralism in architecture during the 1960s. Meier, along with his New York Five contemporaries (Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, and John Hejduk) represented one end of a spectrum measured metaphorically from white to gray. The Smith House was a landmark example of the “white” architecture, for which pure expression of a complex formal language was paramount (as opposed to the impure “gray” architecture that acknowledged the messiness of its context and alluded to historical styles). 

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I could have selected many more buildings in addition to my five nominations for the “most important works of architecture” since 1891. These include the Sagrada Familia (by Antoni Gaudi), the University of Leicester Engineering Building (by James Stirling and Michael Wilford), the Trenton Bath House (by Louis Kahn), the Lake Shore Drive Apartments (by Mies van der Rohe), and the Eishin Campus (by Christopher Alexander). Arguably, Record’s editors should also have named two of the buildings on my worst buildings list (Boston City Hall and the Portland Building) on its roll of top buildings given their outsized impact upon their respective debuts as winners of notable design competitions. 

Whether the subject is the greatest motion pictures of all time, the funniest Internet memes, or the hippest coffee shops in town, people enjoy arguing about “best of” lists. Choosing a list of the “best architecture” is no different; however, the process is revealing and discloses the prejudices of those who assemble the list. Architectural Record admits its “best of” list is its own, reflecting its editors’ tastes. The fun part is debating their choices, weighing in with our own opinions, and appreciating the varying perspectives everyone brings to the discussion.

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