Doing Their Own Thing

U.S. architects: goodbye to glass boxes and all that

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from the inside to the outside. There are no external decorations or diversionary doodads. The fa├žade equals the living space. At night, with the lights on in the building, you can see the spatial organization—you're reading the building as a negative." Yet this constructivist approach can coexist with vestiges of a low-pitched Spanish mission roof, as in Gwathmey's recent Long Island house.

These inflections of form, historical allusion and context work well in small buildings; so far, their main testing ground has been houses for the rich. Can one see a similar shift in corporate buildings? Not yet. The "new" corporate look, however, is strongly mannered. It was developed by Johnson-Burgee in the IDS Center in Minneapolis (1972) and, more successfully, in their Pennzoil Place in Houston (1976). Johnson calls it "shaped modern"—the glass slab with shears and cuts. Sometimes it is combined with mirror glass. This fashion for veiling the mass in shine, or dissolving it in reflections, can be seen in the polished aluminum skin of Hugh Stubbins' Citicorp Building in Manhattan.

These structures retreating behind glitter are like elephants coyly dissembling themselves. The trouble with such high colloquial slickness is that since the walls do not even have the visible grid of columns, lintels and glass to lend them scale, they take on an even more remote and intimidating look than those done in the International Style. They are "abstract shimmering things," as one critic, Robert Jensen, wrote, "sealed from all memory."

The most confident example of the manner is by the Argentine-born architect Cesar Pelli, now dean of the college of art and architecture at Yale. His Pacific Design Center of 1976 has been assimilated into the local folklore of Los Angeles quicker than any building in recent memory, because it is so violently at odds with its flat suburban context. Known as the Blue Whale, it is an immense exhibition hall, the Crystal Palace of the West Coast, providing more than 750,000 sq. ft. of space. The surface is not mirror, but semitranslucent blue glass, which glitters and disappears and re-forms against the dusty blue sky. In form, it resembles an extruded architectural molding: one single block. Its scale is its success; a vast illusion built for the luxury interior-decoration industry, plunked firmly down in Dreamsville.

The only architect to apply the historicist metaphors of Post-Modernism to a large corporate structure, still unbuilt, is Philip Johnson. And only his age (72) and prestige have enabled him to get away with it. The building in question is the corporate headquarters of the world's largest business, A T & T, to be built in midtown Manhattan. Given its cost of $110 million and the prominence of its site, the building could scarcely fail to provoke argument. But in addition Johnson and Burgee designed it as a summing-up of Post-Modernist building. This prospect fills some architects with skepticism. Says Charles Moore, "Philip's a genius and a gadfly, a delightful tourist. But people's expectations that he would sum up all the currents in architecture today with the A T & T building are simply wishful thinking." Thus the design, long before excavations have started, is already controversial. At one end of the scale there is (as usual)

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