Monday, Feb. 2, 2009

The BreakWater Debate

By Aisha Motlani
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Some of you may have read the newsletter circulated by the marketing department of the BreakWater condos near N. Prospect in response to a recent article by Milwaukee Magazine architecture critic Tom Bamberger that discusses the new development.

Largely to avoid crediting the below-the-belt accusations the newsletter levels against Bamberger with more attention than they deserve, I was loath to join in the fray. Nor will I bother addressing the newsletter author’s very sketchy understanding of Modern Architecture – or the fact that if anything the BreakWater repeats the very mistakes some of the movement’s less talented adherents were guilty of. Nevertheless, I do feel his article raised some important points that were obscured by the spiteful volley of insults it unsuspectingly invited.

The BreakWater Condos, by Renner Architects, highlights a dilemma common to many architects whereby, in an effort to accommodate an internal agenda the exterior becomes an afterthought – or often represents no thought at all. Tackling the form of the building with the same sensitivity as the interior doesn’t express slavish and unnatural devotion to a particular school of thought. It represents the most basic realities of architecture 101. Every architecture student has to face the reality sooner or later that a building doesn’t exist in a vacuum and in order to move forward one has to very quickly develop a firm attitude towards its overall presence. Whether its through the very deliberate play of volumes slipping and sliding against one another which is expressed by the Kilbourn Tower or the delicately punctured screen that swathes its neighboring University Club Tower, one can find numerous means of tackling the problem of the exterior. Even a building like Cathedral Place, with its chillingly taut exterior, has the good grace to use its glazed sheathing to reflect the buildings around it. 

Renner had a real opportunity to present us with something that’s rare in these parts– an outer skin that can become densely inhabited, turning the social functions of the building inside out in a way that wasn’t simply gimmicky but addressed the today’s shifting relationship between public and private. Had he encased the building in steel scaffolding in which the generous balconies were nested it would have appeared more becoming – and more sure-footed. The latter may even have introduced a more elegant form of incompletion than the façade currently displays. The unequalled depth of those balconies could have prompted a tantalizing search to design a habitable skin that is both inside and outside.

Perhaps Renner’s shouldn’t be lamenting the size of Bamberger’s balconies (size isn’t everything, you know) but instead lamenting the fact he didn’t profit from his buildings delicious possibilities. Maybe next time, eh?

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