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By Clair Enlow

March 24, 2004

Design Perspectives: Expectations bloom in Seattle this spring

  • The library opening reminds us that Seattle participates in an international culture of architecture.
    Special to the Journal

    Now that the first visitors have gotten under the celebrated structural skin of the new Seattle Central Library, nothing looks the same.

    Other downtown buildings towering outside look both closer and more distant, as if we had just arrived in a space module. The library will never again be a stuffy and staid place. It's going to get respect. To stand on one of the platforms inside Rem Koolhaas' package of steel and glass is to feel -- as never before -- a part of an important public realm in this city.

    More than just a place for books, Rem Koolhaas' Seattle Central Library will be a cultural destination and an important part of the public realm.

    The opening of the new building in May will put Seattle's library system on an entirely new footing. Not just a center for books and information, it will be a destination -- one that competes with any center of art, culture or commerce.

    There's an emerging consensus that Koolhaas, the Dutch writer-architect and celebrity, has made Seattle the site of his best project, with his firm OMA and the collaboration of Seattle's LMN Architects.

    The library opening reminds us that Seattle participates in an international culture of architecture. One of the inevitable results is that now, more than ever, much is expected of design.

    Koolhaas himself made an appearance this month at Peter Miller Books to sign copies of his new book, "Content," a sequel to "SMLXL" and a catalog of work for the past eight years. Two somewhat less visible international stars also made recent stops, each speaking to several hundred people in packed houses.

    Dietmar Eberle, a celebrated Austrian architect and self-described craftsman, presented his work in a region-to-region talk at the Seattle Art Museum in February. Eberle was followed this month by the appearance of Anthony Vidler, long-time academic and theorist, at University of Washington's Kane Hall.

    Dietmar Eberle

    Austrian architect Dietmar Eberle, who spoke recently in Seattle, pursues rigorously modern design.

    Eberle's visit was sponsored by space.city, "Seattle's art and architecture forum," and organized by one of Eberle's new hires, architect Kai Bergmann, who was most recently with Weinstein A/U of Seattle.

    His practice is rooted in the province of Voralberg, which is in the foothills of the Alps on Lake Constance. Eberle and his partner, Carlo Baumschlager, have developed a portfolio of work that aspires to be both rigorously modern and regional in spirit. Baumschlager & Eberle has been winning international design competitions and appearing in exhibits all over Europe.

    In Eberle's work, the architect's typical obsession with spatial purity is combined with material honesty and intensity: A house of stacked yellow concrete boxes cuts a modern profile in a spectacular natural Alpine setting. An expansive corporate office interior in Munich is aglow with smooth walls and floors of Canadian maple. The wood is stained to different depths and laid in a staggered rhythm.

    Eberle is fond of simple box shapes with complex, operable wall systems. A large apartment building has a sliding glass wall that opens behind an outer grid, which is fitted with a system of shutters. Occupants close off or open their living space to the light, air and elements. All the senses -- including sound, touch and smell -- must be considered in a design that is truly regional, he said.

    He is also obsessed with energy efficiency and sustainability, a champion for natural light and ventilation. But Eberle wished to make it clear to the audience that architecture is an art, rather than a form of "resource management." He comes from a region with 4,000-year-old wooden houses. Because of its permanence and visibility, Eberle called architecture "the most important cultural document."

    "We cannot afford to replace a building every 25 years," he said.

    His attention to the long term explains another interest: movable walls and flexible floor plans for housing. He showed an apartment project designed to be almost free of permanent interior partitions. "I don't want to tell somebody how to live," he said.

    Eberle describes a career that began with a determination to turn architecture on its head, rejecting it and then redefining it in some essential way.

    Tony Vidler

    Anthony Vidler
    Anthony Vidler, dean of the architecture school at The Cooper Union in New York, recently spoke about architecture in the public realm. Vidler has advocated the seeding of the World Trade Center to grass.

    Tony Vidler, on the other hand, has been defining and redefining modernism and architecture for decades. He cut his cultural teeth in 1960s Britain, and has retained a fine sense of anti-authoritarianism to go along with his white beard and his current position as dean of the school of architecture at The Cooper Union in Manhattan.

    Vidler came to Seattle as the guest of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities as a Solomon Katz lecturer, and spoke at Kane Hall to a packed auditorium. He's the author of "Warped Space: Art, Architecture and Anxiety in Modern Culture" (2000), "The Architectural Uncanny" (1992), and other books and articles.

    He is most concerned with the nature of architecture in the public sphere. Public architecture, for a heavily programmed building or for a memorial, "must not be reduced to the symbolic and the emblematic," he said. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat the "mistakes of modernism and the narcissism of post-modernism."

    That is why it is dangerous, he said, to design a memorial too soon. Vidler has gone on record advocating the seeding of the World Trade Center site to grass. As many competing interests rush into the void immediately after the tragedy of 9/11, it is very difficult for the public to win, he said.

    With time, it might be possible to listen to the quieter voices of the neighborhood. Lower Manhattan will have a chance to form its own consensus on the programming of the site. Then -- as with another famous memorial, the Vietnam War memorial -- design will be informed by a necessary historic perspective on events, and memory will be served.

    Rather than an architecture of timelessness, Vidler advocates an architecture of "multiple temporalities." The mixture that results makes history visible and cities -- in Europe, America and elsewhere -- interesting and engaging.

    Flatz Residence
    Photo courtesy Baumschlager & Eberle
    Baumschlager & Eberle's compact Flatz Residence is set like a concrete sculpture against the expanse of the Alps.

    Design should not be a matter of "Las Vegas versus abstraction," or "product versus process," he told the audience in Seattle. Instead, he suggested, architecture in the public realm should be an inspired response to a real, place-based and practical program.

    His book "Warped Space" is based on the premise that modern spaces are not empty, but full of all the dreams, fears and anxieties of the individuals that experience them. Successful modern architecture recognizes the fullness of built space, addressing those dreams and anxieties or even exploiting them.

    About Seattle's new Central Library, he said: "When it opens, it will be one of the finest public buildings in the world."

    In other words, it will raise expectations of design, not only in Seattle, but everywhere.

    Lohbach Residence
    Photo courtesy Baumschlager & Eberle
    The Lohbach Residence, an apartment building in Innsbruck designed by Baumschlager & Eberle, has a projecting balcony "zone" that can be closed off by copper sun-protecting elements.

    And what can we expect?

    Now more than ever, "architecture" is an art. According to Eberle, that doesn't mean it has to break new theoretical or esthetic ground. But it is also a part of an "ecology of resources" that must last a long, long time.

    Simplified and raised to an international standard, here are some definitions for the overused terms "regional," "economical" and "sustainable."

    • Regional: Even if the designer is from somewhere halfway around the globe, the building itself participates in the life of the city or landscape in a way that is respectful and inspired.

    • Economical: It's sustainable.

    • Sustainable: It's of our time, but it's meant to be here for the next century or more.

    Spring is here -- and also in Rotterdam, New York and Voralberg. Welcome to the future.


    Clair Enlow can be reached by e-mail at clair@clairenlow.com.

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