Friday, April 26, 2013

Bush's bunkhouse

When preliminary renderings of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas were first released, I posted one on the Boston Society of Architects' LinkedIn profile page for discussion. One architect said it resembled "a very badly designed mausoleum." 

I couldn't agree more, now that this architectural aggrandizement of Dubya's dominion — encompassing a library, museum, policy institute and repository for more than 70 million pages of papers, 200 million e-mails, 4 million digital images and 43,000 artifacts — was dedicated on April 25 amid fanatical fanfare and rah-rah reexamination of a loathed-in-his-lifetime president.

Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
"The Bush Center's brick-and-limestone design complements the American Georgian character of the SMU campus," claims Superficially, though. Absent are the scholarly symmetry, delicate detail and monumental majesty of SMU's Jeffersonesque Dallas Hall (1915)...

Photo courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star favor of boxy banality, confused composition, and cold comfort on the campus. How pathetic that master architect and architectural historian Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, could cook up something this dead, dreary and dungeonlike.

More than a mausoleum, it has the aura of an urn burial for the casualties of Bush's War on Terror, a detention facility for Guantanamo Bay's torture victims (which Bush denied), or a courthouse where an impeachment trial should have been held for Bush's war crimes — especially the "weapons of mass destruction" lie that triggered his Iraq War (not mentioned at the dedication).

The grounds do reek of a war zone. Their dense groundcover, rugged terrain, broken stones and sparse trees don't lay out an inviting green carpet to the Center. This isolates it on its hill, as if it's entombing unknown soldiers or ignored innocents who died in W's double-whammy war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

How sad (and ironic) that distinguished landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh took on this task, and that he hails from Cambridge, Massachusetts — a major liberal nemesis of Bush's stolen "election" in 2000 and razor-thin return to power in 2004, and a spawner of both of his campaign rivals, Al Gore (Harvard Class of '69) and former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. 

Yet a Cantabrigian's blessing of Bush Country could symbolize the setting aside of differences presidential library dedications tend to force in old Oval Office adversaries, as shown by the praise Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (not to mention George the Elder) heaped on Bush at the ceremony after chastising him in other necks of the woods.
Photo by J.P. Fagerback, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
The building also typifies Stern's mix-and-match approach to architecture: edifices that appear patched and pieced together from kits of parts taken from postmodern pattern books. This gives the Bush Center awkward massing, a nondescript identity, an unfriendly face and an austere enticement to enter. ("Stern" is right!)

What a shame, since Stern showed his stuff with historical style in his Spangler Center (2001) at Harvard Business School in Allston, Mass. He designed this dining, study and lecture hall in perfect compatibility with HBS's 1920s Georgian Revival campus to look like it had been part of it from the start. 

 "The Spangler Center was conceived to give a new heart to the Business School, which had been atomized over time by many buildings and an increasing number of students living off campus," Stern himself said in the HBS Alumni Bulletin. "From the day it opened, students adopted Spangler as their own.” Stern did just the opposite with the distant, heartless Bush Center.

It does bear a slight resemblance to Building One of the Food and Drug Administration's White Oak Campus in Silver Springs, Md., built c.1950 as the Naval Ordnance Laboratory.

The Bush Institute entrance picks up the spirit of Building One's four-column cast-stone temple front (in Texas limestone), three-bay projecting wings, tripartite composition, brick façade and green-centered circular drive

But Building One's balanced symmetry isn't there. The placement of the library and Institute parts at a 9oº angle to each other knocks each of their façades lopsided in a push-and-pull polarity between the building functions — alluding to the ongoing clash of the two wars Bush left unresolved.

This recalls the Pushmi-Pullyu of Doctor Dolittle fame, as described by Hugh Lofting: " matter which way you came towards him, he was always facing you. And besides, only one half of him slept at a time. The other head was always awake and watching. This was why they were never caught and never seen in Zoos." A fitting description of Janus-faced George W. (doesn't the monkey in the picture look kind of like him?), asleep to negative popular opinion about his wars and their mass murder of civilians, yet awake to his war-aims with red-eyed resolve, deceitful denial and pigheaded pride ... and never impeached, removed from office or sent to jail, due in large part to Washington's persistent gridlock over the war, which the irresolute interlock of the Bush Center's two faces suggests as well.

Photo courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star
The flat-top lantern crown gives the façades superficial symmetry and synthesis but denies the building a distinctive signature (like the veto pens of Papa and Junior Bush). Thus the library's Frankenstein front feels dungeonlike. Black iron grills and window grids reminiscent of prison bars and portcullises starkly contrast the light limestone and lantern.
Photo courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star
The crown is a skylight lantern for the 67-foot- high Freedom Hall, an atrial manifestation of the determination "to expand the reach of freedom" Bush boasted about at the ceremony. The cage-like French windows don't exactly express "freedom" despite their view of the south skyline of Dallas (JFK's assassination site, don't forget).
The 360-degree LED high-definition video panorama of constantly changing images of Americana compensates for the hall's cold, cubical rigidity at the aesthetic level of a kiddies' planetarium show. The lantern itself, despite its fine pecan paneling and beacon-like night lighting, is no match for...

...the lantern of H.H. Richardson's Trinity Church in Boston (1877), where fine art frescoes, clerestory windows, gilding and paneling unite in a "Light of God" soar of space as a spiritual uplift to higher ideals. Light and shadow, solid and void, wall and window work together, unlike Freedom Hall's jarring contrasts of dark and light and use of artifice in place of art.
Photo courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star
Speaking of skylights, this lit-from-above steel "sculpture" of remnants of the wreckage from the World Trade Center's Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is a moving moment in the museum. Their mangled, bent state convey the chaotic horror of the mass destruction. As twin steel supports appearing to embrace, they allude to both the Twin Towers' collapse and the human need to reach out to each other for support in such tempestuous times. Their near- rectitude denotes the need to stand tall, firm and united in the wake of a threat to one's liberty and integrity, as Bush's demeanor aptly conveyed despite his reckless reaction.
But much of the museum is self-congratulatory hyperbole calculated to vindicate Bush for his crimes, denials, lies and leaving it up to his successor to mop up the mess he left behind: ongoing Middle East turmoil, the largest national debt in American history, the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Photo courtesy of the Arizona Daily Star
This lionization of a liar is in lockstep with today's reduction of political discourse to simplistic clichés and catchphraseology: "A Charge to Keep," "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," "No Child Left Behind" (here framed with the hackneyed Little Red Schoolhouse to mask the dubiousness of that program's effectiveness).
Speaking of fakery, the Bush Center boasts a full-scale replica of the Oval Office in the White House (with a "Resolute Desk" visitors can sit at to act out Bush's "resolve"). However, this is a standard fixture in most presidential museums, to give guests the next best thing to prattling with the President in person. (And, unfortunately, this tacky traditionalism can mar the modernism of a masterwork like the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Dorchester, Massachusetts, with a dose of Disneyland.)
"Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream."
— George W. Bush
These wings take you into a dreamworld of deception where you forget the carnage and corruption of the Bush administration and focus on the fantasies of family and freedom that rang in his rhetoric. His stalwart stubbornness, die-hard defensiveness, and impersonal indifference to innocent death and detention are articulated in the rigid, cold, stark, drab design of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. 

(Other examples of presidential library and museum design will be discussed in my next post, "Power and pallor in presidential libraries," so stay tuned.)

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Living near the lair of the Boston Bomber

Where were you on the night of April 19, 2013?

I was huddled in my Watertown apartment only two blocks away from the final foxhole of Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev as cop cars, SWAT teams, state troopers and TV news trucks choked up Mt. Auburn and Franklin streets with a maelstrom of mayhem unimaginable in this quiet suburb, smoking the suspect out of the bloody boat he'd holed up in at the house pictured here.

It's curious how an ordinary dwelling takes on an eerie edge when a terrorist invades its territory. Suddenly its windows become watchful, its shutters sharp and shadowy, and it's forever branded as "the scene of the crime," a "haunted house" high above the Halloween horror level. Indeed, this old house's spooky spotlighting for police stakeout and news coverage purposes gave it a ghostly grimness against the dark (and the heat) of the night.

An enclave of elegant Victorian homes became a trooper turf of cars, cones, cordons and cops as they closed in on the boated bomber with the cry, "Come out with your hands up!" ending a massive manhunt that had put greater Boston in a lockdown where no one dared venture outdoors.

I was careful to couch behind the walls of my Victorian home (they built 'em thick back then), lest a gun battle like the one that had finished off Tsarnaev's older brother Tamerlan ten blocks away rock the night air and pop bullet holes in my hideout. But the red and blue lights flashing and sirening all over the street assured me of substantial safety while tightening the tension of the close-in climax.

A rally of cheers and chants suddenly snapped the suspense and sparked the air with the voice of victory — the sign that it was safe for me to go out and join the jig-is-up jubilee.

As celebration cooled into conversation and Fox 25 News Correspondent Molly Line (left) recapped the revelrous reaction to the roust-out, the houses hardened into a new night-piercing identity. Their architectural forms, facades, lines and details became sharper and keener, as if to heighten our awareness of our surroundings lest terror trespass again, or as a result of the increased vigilance of their neighborhood the fear of the situation forced upon us.

Which caused me to notice and appreciate the Victorian beauty we often overlook as we whoosh past it on our way to work, or as we grovel the ground or stare into space while engrossed in elsewhere. Now I eyeballed every nook, cranny, bracket, turret, porch, alcove and alleyway for potential danger, no longer secure in the serenity of stately architecture. Now it evoked the morbid omen of Norman Bates' mansard mansion in Hitchcock's Psycho. 

More ominous architecture in Boston and beyond...

Bulger's bunker, bin Laden's bin
Flagship Wharf at the Charlestown Navy Yard, a World War II radar research and operations center turned luxury condo, takes on a similarly sinister air, on account of the high crime its front penthouse units are associated with, however indirectly. Their eyebrowed sea-stare evoke the piercing-eyed criminality of Frank Costello, Jack Nicholson's mobster character in Martin Scorsese's The Departed, who lived in the left-hand penthouse in the film; and Osama bin Laden, whose distant relatives resided in the right-hand one while attending school in Boston. (The FBI and police escorted them from their enviable student luxury loft on Sept. 12, 2001, and flew them home to Saudi Arabia for their protection, in the only commercial flight then allowed in America on account of the previous day's airplane attacks on New York's World Trade Center.) Costello was modeled on real-life Boston mob boss, mass murderer, money-launderer, drug trafficker and racketeer James "Whitey" Bulger (who in real life didn't live that lifestyle — when arrested in Santa Monica, Calif., on June 22, 2011, he was residing in a rent-controlled apartment with more than $800,000 stuffed into the walls and weapons everywhere). Flagship's wide-eyed, forward-thrusting units appear to be on the lookout for danger in the distance, in anticipation of future crimes of those heights.

The Strangler strikes
Photo by Michael Cascio, courtesy of
As does this towering Beacon Hill apartment house at 44A Charles Street, where the alleged Boston Strangler murdered Mary Sullivan on January 4, 1964, as his 13th (!) and last victim. 

Here is another example of how architectural details seem to become neighborhood-watch elements the moment a crime changes their building's identity forever. This one rises above its neighbors and its bay window bumps outward for a keener, more panoramic bird's-eye view encompassing the area. The stucco skin signifies the safety and shelter the inhabitants seek from perpetrators. 

Apart from the ground-floor restaurant, this building looks almost as it did on the day of the crime, according to On This Very Spot, as if the owner wanted to preserve the memory of the murder and victim for the tourist trade that wants to retrace the Boston Strangler's steps.

Photo by Michael Cascio, courtesy of
Here's another site where the Strangler struck: an early 20th-century Georgian Revival apartment building at 4 University Road near Harvard Square in Cambridge. 

The solid brick facade with rusticated first floor and bold cornice conveys the safety and security that were compromised when the alleged Strangler stabbed 23-year-old Beverly Samans on May 8, 1963 (his 10th victim), in one of the units.  

The brick-pedestaled entryway lampposts were added later, in the classic Cantabrigian style of Harvard's Georgian architectural tradition. This cosmetic gives the complex a "gated community" air, suggesting the solidity and unity of the building association against future crime attempts. The projecting bow of two- window rows articulates the all-eyes vigilance on the street needed to stop stranglers.

Gainsborough Street in Boston's Fenway really does have that vigilance now — a midnight patrol security guard salaried by the street's condominium association — in light of the sexual molestation and bathrobe cord strangulation of 55-year-old Anna E. Slesers, the Strangler's first victim, on June 14, 1962 here at 77 Gainsborough Street (since changed to No. 79, presumably to protect the innocent).

This building has mopped up the blood nicely (notwithstanding its blood-red brick facade), recasting itself with the debonair of a Beacon Hill/Back Bay style townhouse complete with English garden, bracketed pediment, dentil cornice, limestone lintels and stringcourse, and bow window, which has more of the hawkeye circumspection of the bays in the above buildings.

The building below covers up the Strangler's sins more thoroughly: it is a single-family replacement for the apartment house at 73 Newhall Street in Lynn where 65-year-old Helen Blake was sexually molested and strangled with her nylon stockings around June 30, 1962, as the Strangler's fourth prey.

Photo by Michael Cascio, courtesy of
It seems deliberately designed to look older than it is to erase the site's murder memories. This quasi-Victorian Shingle Style farmhouse with 2-over-2 windows, wraparound porch, lawn and picket fence appears to predate the Boston Strangler by 100 years, extolling the pre-crime innocence we all crave after the shakeup of our neighborhood.

I'd certainly feel comfortable living near there.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Pier 54, where are you?

Photo by Roger Rowlett, courtesy of Wikipedia
Pop quiz:

1. Name this city.
2. Name the building in the background.
3. Find Pier 54 in the foreground. 

The first two answers should be obvious, if New York City's Empire State Building pops out at you with the iconic familiarity accorded to it by picture postcards, souvenir statuettes and King Kong kinophiles.

Photo by Edward Sudentas, courtesy of
But the third might have been equally evident had it not been reduced to its bare-bones entry arch when razed in 1991 for an already-scrapped superhighway project. Skeletal scrap-iron doth not a pictorial image of harbor history make as well as a complete ship terminal jutting across the jetty in full form, decked out in decorative detail, evoking the elegance of turn-of-the-20th-century transatlantic travel with a hands-across-the-water gesture of welcome into port and shelter from the stormy seas.
Photo by Dmadeo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Nor does a steel-structured superblock. ArchDaily Architecture News just announced the New York City Council's approval of Young Woo and Associates' plans to revamp Pier 57, 54's 1952 peer down the block, into a public market, auction and art exhibit space, a rooftop garden for the TriBeCa Film Festival, and a string of concept stores and pop-up shops carved out of old metal shipping containers.
Photo by Edward Sudentas, courtesy of
True, Pier 57 is significant for its innovative foundation of floating concrete caissons, for which Popular Mechanics deemed it a "SuperPier" in 1954. It also has its place in history as a detention center for protesters against the 2004 Republican National Convention that sent George W. Bush back to the White House.

But Pier 57's fame for floating can't compare with Pier 54's association with the sinking of the Titanic, whose 101st anniversary we're celebrating this month, concurrently with the centennial of Grand Central Terminal (left), the magnum opus of Pier 54's original architects, Warren & Wetmore.
Pier 54 was built three years before Grand Central as one of the Chelsea Piers, a regal row of ship terminals extending along the Hudson River from West 12th to West 23rd streets. The pink granite façades, Roman-arched entrances and ornamented pediments of these stately piers extolled the first-class world-renown of the shipping companies they served. These included the White Star Line, famous for the Titanic, and the Cunard Line, launcher of the Lusitania.
With that the Chelsea Piers did for ships what Grand Central Terminal was to do for trains: enable passengers to enter the city like Roman gods. With pomp and panache, Pier 59 was set to welcome the Titanic to conclude the British passenger liner's maiden voyage on April 10, 1912, from Southampton, England, to New York Harbor.
The Carpathia arrived instead, at Pier 54 on April 18, with the 705 survivors she'd rescued after the Titanic sank on April 15. Pier 54's grand hall was made to order for passenger relief given by the Women's Relief Committee, the Travelers Aid Society of New York, the Council of Jewish Women and other charitable organizations.
Pier 54 was also a stylish sendoff for the Lusitania on its May 1, 1915 voyage to Liverpool. But the German U-boat torpedoing of the ship off southern Ireland, which claimed 1,198 passenger lives and triggered America's entry into World War I, foreshadowed Pier 54's reduction to the wreckage of its entry arch (right).
Its fate was actually sealed by a fire that totaled the original pier on May 6, 1932, costing Cunard a million dollars to rebuild. So, to cut corners, pink granite gave way to pressed metal for exterior embellishment — more industrial than palatial in character but retaining the essence of its era's elegance, possibly inspired by...
...the erection of the West Side Elevated Highway along the piers starting in 1929. This superstreet of steel lifted cars up, up and away from the Meatpacking District's congested, narrow lanes, densely packed buildings and populous pushcarts as the fast-lane freeway that commuters craved to get home in a hurry.
To give car commuters the classic class that greeted ships and trains, the highway sported opulence of its own — metal eagles, lacy rails, winglike finials — expressing the flying-through-the-air feel of the Man of Steel motorists enjoyed up there. This metallic majesty no doubt inspired Pier 54's steely suit of armor.
Superman's single-bound leap was aptly articulated in the parabolic superstructure of the highway's Canal Street Bridge, which dignified drivers with the grand-arch grandeur of Grand Central and Pier 54 when it opened in 1939. The bridge was built to accommodate the Holland Tunnel down under, which could not support bridge columns.
Nor could the West Side Elevated Highway support trucks. A dump truck carrying 10 short tons of asphalt for the highway's maintenance caused the highway to collapse in 1973, finalizing the fate of Pier 54, which was bulldozed in anticipation of the realization of the aborted underground Westway replacement for the Elevated.
Photo by bobistraveling, courtesy of
Bereft of the body that sank with the ships, Pier 54 looks only slightly more elegant than the Elevated did at its demise. However, a close look at its frieze reveals traces of the merged Cunard White Star Line signage, and Warren & Wetmore's trademark vertical-grilled arch of Chelsea Piers and Grand Central fame does show through. Yet it cries out for something to fill its parking lot of a pier...
Photo by Edward Sudentas, courtesy of
...which it once got, when the Nomadic Museum, a temporary "tent" of 148 polychrome steel shipping containers designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, filled it to the brim from March to June 2005 after arriving overseas from Venice. The pier pavilion housed artist Gregory Colbert's multimedia exhibit "Ashes and Snow" (and arguably was a model for Pier 57's pop-up shop plan). 
Rendering courtesy of
Here's the latest pitch for Pier 54: a sinuous octopus of a park architects Michael Van Valkenburgh and David Rockwell proposed as a feeler-extension of the 550-acre Hudson River Park to make Pier 54 more fit for the free outdoor concerts and movies and annual Gay Pride Dance it haughtily hosted until dilapidation forced its closure to the public last year.

Located within view of the IAC Building of media exec Barry Diller — that '70s showman of Laverne and Shirley, Taxi, Cheers, Saturday Night Fever and Grease fame (need I say more?) — Pier 54 is counting on Diller's dollars ("a $35 million commitment from the Diller Von Furstenberg Family Foundation," quoth the Hudson River Park Trust) to rev up the revamp of Pier 54, which Capital New York estimates will cost $67 million. (Which should be worth it to Diller, if only to prettify his harbor view from his office.)
Photo by Jim Henderson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Yet this webmag also quotes Trust spokesman Stefan Friedman as saying that this is "an extremely out-of-date rendering" that "is not what Pier 54 will look like." Thank heavens. An octopus's garden is a worse tribute to New York Harbor heritage than a piece of a pier that should have been saved, given its titanic place in American history.

Pier 54, where are you?

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!