The War on Curves: From Phoenix to Chicago to London, Curvy Buildings are Under Attack

I am hesitant to write defending round buildings; the last time I did, a commenter demanded that TreeHugger "get a new writer or an editor that can act as a gate keeper to such poorly informed and even more poorly researched writing." I was simply pointing out that everyone from Bucky Fuller to his disciple Norman Foster and a whole lot of yurt builders have claimed that they are aerodynamic; the air flows around it instead of exerting pressure on flat walls, meaning less infiltration. Others note that a circle encloses the maximum area of any shape for a given perimeter.

Prentice Hospital, Chicago

All of which is a circuitous way of getting around to the point that round buildings are under threat, both historic structures and ones not yet built. In Chicago, there is a big heritage battle over the Prentice Hospital, designed by Bertrand Goldberg and at only 37 years old; the concrete in it is probably still curing. It is the kind of building that the phrase "the greenest building is the one already standing" was written for. More than sixty architects have written supporting its preservation, including Frank Gehry and Jeanne Gang, both of who know something about curves.Stephanie Meeks of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says
This outpouring of support for Prentice Hospital is truly inspirational. The list of architects signing this letter represents many leaders in the field of architecture, and testifies to the depth of national and international respect for the work of Bertrand Goldberg.
Northwestern university promises a competition to build an architectural gem in its place, and that "demolishing old Prentice would improve the neighborhood's skyline." More in the Chicago Tribune
David Wright House© Modern Phoenix

David Wright House, Phoenix

Today might be the David Wright House's last, as the current owner of the house threatens to knock it down if he doesn't get the money he wants for it. The unusual house in Phoenix, according to Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times... the Guggenheim’s prodigal son, except that unlike the museum, whose interior creates a vertical streetscape while turning its back on the city, David’s house was configured by Wright to look both inward and out. It twists around a central courtyard, a Pompeian oasis to which he gave a plunge pool and shade garden, but also faces onto the surrounding desert, with sweeping views of the mountain.

How it came to this is an interesting tale of bungling; a demolition permit was issued in error, and the owner can hold the city hostage thanks to property rights legislation:

Underlying the brouhaha is a proposition Arizona voters passed in 2006, Prop 207, which calls for the compensation of owners any time the government adopts some regulation that affects the value of their property. No money has been paid so far, but the law has clearly had its desired effect, making cities like Phoenix fearful of changing their regulations and spooking city lawyers and historic preservationists.

Kimmelman, who is turning into a terrific architectural writer for the Times, concludes:

You don’t have to be a preservationist to believe that a major work by one of the greatest American architects has a value to posterity, as well as to its Arcadia neighbors, that competes with the interests of developers, who are already well placed to make a healthy profit after just a few months’ investment. In retrospect, steps should have been taken long ago, by Wright’s heirs and by city officials, to avoid all this.

Britain Bans Curves In Schools

They won't be building anything like Toronto's wonderful Lord Lansdowne School in the UK, even though Robert Moffatt says it "exemplifies a particularly English strain of Modernism first popularized at the landmark 1951 Festival of Britain. " Now all they care about in the UK is building cheap and certainly not cheerful. New guidelines from the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, prohibit, among other things,

Using orthogonal forms with no curves or ‘faceted’ curves, having minimal indents, ‘dog legs’ and notches in the plan shapes.

As Steve Rose of the Guardian notes,

Gove clearly has issues with architecture. Last year he told a free-schools conference, "We won't be getting Richard Rogers to design your school. We won't be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no one in this room is here to make architects richer." Never mind what works for children or teachers. Or the fact that architects, especially award-winning ones, are generally quite good at designing buildings.

Architects are of course, outraged; they say that the government should just give them a budget and they will work with it. Peter Clegg tells the Guardian:

It is extraordinarily over-prescriptive and it shows an extreme lack of trust in the architectural and construction professions to deliver schools to budget. Why are they not just telling us how much they want to pay per square metre? I can understand them wanting to turn the screw on the budget, but why do they not give architects who understand these things the ability to decide.

Of course frills like green roofs and non-toxic materials that might cost a bit more are off the table, but "a robust natural ventilation strategy, including the provision of thermal mass where necessary" is seen as a virtue. Perhaps some good might come out of this as architects start looking at those simpler, cheaper technologies like natural light and air that made our older schools so wonderful.

The War on Curves: From Phoenix to Chicago to London, Curvy Buildings are Under Attack
Frank Gehry better watch out, Bilbao might be next.

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