Who Needs Function?


Despite being retired, I maintain my Massachusetts architect’s license. $125 a year allows me to add RA to my name and seems a small price for the privilege of officially calling myself an architect. There is a catch, familiar to most professionals: I must acquire 12 “Continuing Education Units” or CEU’s to maintain my license.

For many years I was privileged to teach a summer seminar at Harvard with my friend and colleague Bill Rose, in which architects in need of CEU’s paid dearly to spend 3 days listening to us lecture and enjoying the pleasures of Cambridge. Those days are long gone: today all one needs to do is read an article on the Architectural Record website, pass a 10-question quiz and bingo, you get a PDF certificate for 1 CEU. You can refer to the article during the test, and if you don’t pass they show you which questions you missed so you can try again. This year I forgot to renew until the last possible day, so had to speed-read 12 boring articles to log my CEU’s in time. This took about 6 hours.

Architectural Record and Architect (the journal of the American Institute of Architects) are the only American architectural magazines left standing (discounting Architectural Digest, a vanity magazine focused on interiors). When I was in school and apprenticing there were four. The best of them, Architectural Forum, dropped away in 1974, then Progressive Architecture disappeared in 1995 (the AIA magazine picked up its awards program).

I subscribe to Architectural Record mainly to marvel at the preposterous, expensive, impractical, solipsistic, irrelevant and/or environmentally disastrous monstrosities that pass for avant-garde architecture, along with occasional handsome and well-thought-out works. But one article in the August 2017 issue struck me so forcibly I must share it.

It is the Visitor Center for Park Groot Vijversburg in the small town of Tytsjerk, The Netherlands, about 100 miles from Amsterdam. It was designed by Junya Ishigami and Associates with Studio Maks; I know nothing about either architect. Their brief was to design a visitor’s center in association with a locally treasured landmark, a handsome 19th Century villa. The center was to have a tearoom, shop, information desk and toilets.

Instead, it is a Y-shaped glass-enclosed walkway with a flat roof, winding through the park from the villa to, as far as I can discern from the article, nowhere in particular. It was influenced by and somewhat resembles the SANAA structure at Grace Farms in New Canaan Connecticut, which I recently visited. However, unlike the open SANAA structure, it is completely enclosed, the roof supported by glazed walls on both sides, something of a technical feat. Both are curving walkways that purportedly blend into the landscape (a favorite conceit of architects who plant structures in the middle of nice parks). Being fully enclosed, it had to be mechanically heated, ventilated and air conditioned.

The punch line, quoted from the article:

” ‘We asked for a functional building, and the pavilion is not functional,’ admits the park manager Audrey Sielstra in a matter-of-fact way. ‘If you look at it in practical terms, the building is problematic [!]. Yet a practical building requires walls for each separate program, and that would clash with the landscape [Grace Farms has subterranean bathrooms and mechanical spaces and fully glazed above-ground enclosures]. What Kums and Ishigami designed is an artwork. In order to use this artwork as a building, people need to be creative, and that, I think, is very beautiful,'”