Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Agile Architect

By Aisha Motlani
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No wonder so many architecture students fail to go the distance, or if they do manage to drag themselves through the minimum 7 years it takes to qualify with a few shreds of their ego still intact, eventually decide to surrender themselves to a less painful profession. It's a tough world out there - especially for an architect. Even more so if you're an architect with a conscience. Sure, if you're amongst that despicable species that can throw good taste out of the window without the slightest impunity, you won't lose any sleep over putting your name to hideous parking structures or bland and natureless corporate office blocks. But if, God forbid, you took all those studio crits seriously and believed in pushing the design envelope to it's limits, you're in for a long and arduous journey.

All hope is not lost though. Every now and then you come across an architect who is either lucky enough or gifted enough or has simply stuck it out long enough to get to that point where he can calmly and quietly goes about the business of creating solid and often sumptious design. His oeuvre won't be composed of flamboyant flourishes or emphatic architectural statements. He won't be a pontificating pedant peddling hi-flown ideals. He'll be far more subtle than that and somehow achieve a far more staggering feat that the snazzy stuctures of those signature architects - the design of a well conceived building that's fulfills its set functions, is elegant and well put together both inside and out,and responds to context and climate without letting either dominate to the point that the building's own identity is compromised.

Minnesota architect Vincent James might well be one such architect. He gave a short lecture at the Design Council Luncheon on Friday, showing slides of projects his firm had completed in Louisiana, Minnesota - even one in Beirut. Each slide left you wanting to find out more about his buildings, actually walk through them and see what it's like to stand next to the water wall in the student center of New Orleans' Tulane University, or to feel the transition from the new reception area they designed to the existing chapterhouse designed by Marcel Breuer for the St John's Abbey in Minnesota, or to stand on the cascading steps of the Hostler Center at the American University of Beirut and gaze down at the Mediterranean.

There's something wonderfully nimble about these designs (or so one imagines from the visual material accompanying the lecture. I hope I won't be disappointed when I actually see them in the flesh) . They seem to respond to the site without resorting to architectural pastiche, and take account of enviromental factors affecting the site without resorting to over-expensive and far-flung means. It was particularly ingratiating to see him describe the process of how they arrived at certain decisions in the massing or the ventilation of the building. The pendulum fans in the Tulane University center are inspired by an enduring local tradition; the whole building, from it's outer skin to it's ceilings exude a sense of permeability akin to the balconied appartments in the French Quarter. Before they arrived at the building layout of the Hostler Center they looked to traditional structures native to the Mediterranean climate- even looking at the clustered rectilinear houses in Marrakesh whose monotony is broken by their irregular shapes and the courtyards that punctuate them.

It just goes to show some architects can make it and even manage to make it look easy. Here's to the Agile Architect - may you live to practice in peace and plenitude.

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