Identity in Architecture Chapter 4


by Arthur Barker

In July 2014 I was fortunate to be able to visit two recent buildings by Morphosis architects, one in New York (NY) and the other in Los Angeles (LA). The experiences got me thinking about the relationship between formal, functional and contextual identity in architecture.


Style and Identity

I’ve always been wary about architects that establish a fixed formal identity in their work. Architects like Richard Meier, Daniel Libeskind, Frank Gehry and even Herzog and De Meuron often produce branded and stylistic solutions, no matter where in the world the buildings are located. Architecture becomes a product, as clients try to outdo each other with the latest fashion. I question this way of making architecture as it seems to ignore the influences of place and sometimes even function. I regard the work of Alvaro Siza in Portugal, Gawie Fagan's houses in Cape Town and Mecanoo's 2013 Maritime and Beachcomber's Museum in the Netherlands as examples of thoughtful and critical architectural solutions. They synergise personal, contextual and functional identities to create unique formal solutions. Morphosis architects establish a similar middle ground approach, creating iconic and functionally innovative buildings that are subtly responsive to the influences of place.

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Thom Mayne is the principal of Morphosis Architects, a practice established in Los Angeles in 1972. He has managed to retain a unique formal identity in his work but fortunately not as recognisable as Frank Gehry's. This is because Mayne is far more critical in his approach to creating the urban environment and finding innovative ways of responding to complex functional requirements. His is an architecture that responds equally to the identities of designer, function and place.

41 Cooper Square, NY is the home of the Cooper Union's Albert Nerken School of Engineering. It includes spaces for other allied departments like architecture, which are located across the adjacent Triangle Park. Mayne has established a clear functional identity through a so-called ‘vertical piazza’ - a central staircase and volume that connects all levels (and the city outside), which fosters student interaction and encourages physical activity. It is by no means a new idea. I am reminded of the similarities in Michelangelo's Laurentian library, Le Corbusier’s ramps and even Robert Venturi's staircase in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London.

Internal circulation seems to be gaining traction again as a design generator. This is evident in the work of architects like Steven Holl in his Simmons Hall, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and UN Studio's continuous horizontal surface best expressed in their Mobius house in the Netherlands. Even though the formal nature of 41 Cooper Square is largely iconic (a Cooper Union employee referred to it as looking like Sponge Bob Square Pants!) it is responsive to place through its scale, articulated edges and a public interface at street level where the perforated stainless steel screen 'lifts its skirt', providing protection from the elements and welcoming the public inside. Other breaks in the screen provide natural light for the interior and reconnect the ‘vertical piazza’ with the city.

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The 2014 Los Angeles based Emerson College, a project-based learning academy focussing on careers in the film industry, is an extension of the design ideas established in 41 Cooper Square. Although the iconic form creates a strong civic presence, it is contextually less successful. It dominates its surroundings but possibly Mayne is pre-empting a future urban condition. The functional identity of the ‘vertical piazza’, established in NY, is now located externally in the equitable climate, where street extends to a first floor foyer and, then, terminates as a performance and theatre space. These areas are framed by 'bookends' of rather ordinarily planned student accommodation.

It is a pity that a rigidly consistent aesthetic identity, particularly in materials and colours, is present in 41 Cooper Square, Emerson College and other Morphosis buildings such as the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in LAand the United States Federal Building in San Francisco. Although the limited 'gray' colour palette provides a neutral background, the spaces are cold and rather unappealing. The only relief in Emerson College was the brightly coloured tour guide! But, notwithstanding the criticisms (and there are many to be found on the internet), I think that Mayne achieves a balanced approach to formal identity through a critical understanding of place and function - lessons we can all take to heart.

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Identity and consciousness

I suggest that we, as designers of the built environment, become more conscious of our own design identity and of the influences of program and place and that we concentrate less on formal or stylistic architectural identity. I am not suggesting that we become slavish to context either. In my opinion, the most enduring and successful buildings are those that mediate the polar approaches I've described. So, if we have to be iconic, let's be iconically contextual or contextually iconic!