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Sam Hall Kaplan

'Bad Old Days' Gets Pritzker Prize

June 05, 1988|Sam Hall Kaplan

Looking through the portfolio of photographs illustrating the work of this year's Pritzker Architecture Prize winners, Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil and Gordon Bunshaft of the United States, was a time trip back to the bad old days of the 1950s and '60s--of mostly overscaled, sterile structures mocking their sites and the people they were supposed to serve. The trip was not inspiring.

To be sure, a few of the buildings are elegant. Bunshaft's Lever House on New York City's Park Avenue which he did as the chief designer of the firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill is today as it was when constructed in 1952 a landmark of contemporary architecture. Also engaging and functional are his Beinecke Library at Yale University, where I once feigned research, and a museum addition in Buffalo, N.Y.

Perhaps it was those designs, and maybe the solid travertine marble-clad National Commercial Bank building in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which I haven't seen but have been told is stunning, that prompted the Pritzker jury to tap Bunshaft to share the $100,000 prize and the accompanying honors. No doubt sentiment and politics also played a role, for the 79- year old designer was in his time one of architecture's superstars.

But most of Bunshaft's designs that I have experienced are his prismatic, glass and steel Modernistic-styled rectangular office towers adrift in various urban settings, and they leave me with a chill. These include the Chase Manhattan Bank, Union Carbide, 140 Broadway and 9 West 57th Street buildings in New York City.

When criticized in the 1960s for his succession of such buildings, I recall Bunshaft said something to the effect that he was going to keep doing them until he did a good one. It was a cute remark, though offered no relief to the cold, corporate canyons he and other so-called Modernists created. And I really can't forgive him for the concrete pillbox that is the Hirshhorn Museum he deposited on the Washington Mall.

To me Niemeyer was cut from the same arrogant cloth. His early fame, it seems, stemmed in large part from his collaboration in 1937 with Modernist master Le Corbusier on the landmark Ministry of Education building in Rio de Janeiro, and in the late 1940s on the United Nations headquarters in New York. Here was Modernism at its best, expressing well function and materials.

But then came Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil for which Niemeyer was a principal designer in the late 1950s. Though I have never been there, I have read extensive critiques of it and viewed numerous photographs. All add up to a monumental cartoon of apparently free floating concrete shapes on a bland, inhuman landscape, the stuff of a totalitarian urban renewal program.

Said Niemeyer of Brasilia: "My concern was to find a structural solution that would characterize the city's architecture. I was following venerated examples, beauty prevailing over the limitations of constructive logic. I did my best to make the structures different, with their columns so narrow that the palaces would seem to barely touch the ground."

Yes, but it seems in the process he forgot about the people who would have to live and work there, a failing among many architects then as it is today. And for this some of them get awards.

Prestigious and coveted as the Pritzker has become in its first 10 years, it also has displayed a disappointing inconsistency in the selection of annual laureates, flitting between sentiment and professional concerns. Perhaps it is time for some fresh user-perspectives on the jury.

BRIEFLY NOTED: For an illustration of how design at once can be sculptural, evocative, expressive and functional, working not only for those who view it, but also for those who use and maintain it, catch if you can a performance of "Les Miserables" at the refurbished Shubert Theater and marvel at the stage sets.

As originally designed by Jon Napier and ingeniously adapted for the current run at the Shubert in Century City by Keith Gonzales, the sets are a major character in the musical, setting the moods, advancing the story, and establishing the pace. Such scenes as the barricades and the sewers of Paris were stunning, and richly deserved the applause they received.

In addition to being an engaging evening in the theater, "Les Miserables" to me was a vivid architectural exhibit, not to be missed.

ALERT: The battle for the First Street North project in Little Tokyo continues, with the development team of the Barker scheme favored by Councilman Gilbert Lindsay expanding to include a number of politically well-connected minority members.

But whatever color the Barker scheme is wrapped in, black, brown, white, or green, like in money for campaign contributions as other indulgences, the fact remains that the Showa Village scheme is the better scheme, and should be approved by the council and the mayor without further delay. It is the city's procrastination in the matter that has allowed the selection issue to ripen, and begin smelling.

The Showa Village scheme has been endorsed by the community and recommended by the City's Administrative Officer, and, from my perspective, has the promise to create an engaging, mixed-use urban neighborhood that would add some glue and interest to the downtown fabric. At stake also is no less than the credibility of the city's planning and development policies.

Let us hope the city does not bow to the pressure of Lindsay and other special interests, as it did on Bunker Hill when it had the opportunity to create something exciting in the Grand Avenue proposal orchestrated by developer Robert Maguire and instead opted for a well-greased but bland design. And then people wonder why downtown Los Angeles looks the way it does.

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